Wednesday, April 10, 2024

My Journey Through 1970s TV: Saturday Nights, 1973


My journey arrives at last to Saturday nights in 1973, and the unveiling of perhaps the decade’s most celebrated prime time schedule. When crotchety old geezers like me reflect on how television was so much better back in my day, it’s the CBS lineup from this season that will always figure prominently in those recollections. 



How we got from this era of television to where we’re at now, with people dancing and singing about their diseases in commercials, I’ll never know. But that’s why so many of us prefer looking back to a time when television brought us together.


Saturday, 1973



All in the Family


The Mary Tyler Moore Show

The Bob Newhart Show

The Carol Burnett Show


As you might expect, this powerhouse lineup dominated in the Nielsen ratings, and in the pre-VCR days likely kept many folks home on Saturday nights. Sure you could go out to a movie or a concert, or you could change into comfort clothes, order a pizza, and settle in for hours of entertainment from five now-classic shows. I know which choice sounds more enticing to me.


All in the Family was the year’s top-rated series, as it was last year and the year before, and as it would remain for another two seasons. M*A*S*H finished the season at #4, followed by Mary at #9, Bob at #12, and Carol Burnett at #27. 



Surprisingly, given how many people fondly remember CBS as the place to be on every Saturday night in the 1970s, this was the only year that this lineup remained intact. The network would repeatedly try to introduce a new series amidst established hits, but that strategy did not boost interest in shows like Doc and Paul Sand in Friends & Lovers



What could the other networks possibly do to steal a few viewers away from these iconic shows? Let’s find out.




NBC Saturday Night Movie


In its second season Emergency! pulled in enough viewers to stay on the schedule, and would remain the network’s best counter-programming option on Saturday nights through the end of the decade. 




The Partridge Family

ABC Suspense Movie



Ratings had already started to fall for The Partridge Family, and the move to Saturday night in its fourth and final season would seal its fate. The addition of Ricky Segall only made viewers change channels faster before he could start singing. 



Instead of standard movie-of-the-week fare, ABC tried a new concept with a focus on thrillers and horror stories. Two of the offerings this season are still fondly remembered by classic TV fans, and were popular enough to earn DVD releases decades after being first broadcast.


Satan’s School for Girls was an Aaron Spelling-Leonard Goldberg production, starring two actresses who would work together later in the decade on Spelling/Goldberg’s Charlie’s Angels – Kate Jackson and Cheryl Ladd. After a young woman dies in mysterious circumstances, her sister suspects a connection with the private school she attended, and enrolls to get some answers.  



It’s never that scary but it’s fun, and I confess I fell for its one character twist the first time I watched it.


The Girl Most Likely To… was co-written by Joan Rivers, and starred Stockard Channing as a plain college girl who is repeatedly ridiculed by her fellow students.


Fleeing from one especially embarrassing experience, she gets in a car accident, undergoes extensive plastic surgery, and when the bandages come off she is suddenly beautiful. How does she celebrate her good fortune? By plotting murderous revenge against everyone who humiliated her. 



It didn’t do much for her career at the time but Channing is wonderful here, and Ed Asner plays the police detective who wants to arrest her, while also admiring her spunk. Definitely worth a look on YouTube if you’ve never seen it.


As for Griff, it was a standard 1970s detective show starring Lorne Greene as a former cop turned private eye. Now, me, I’d rather watch a ‘70s detective show than anything on Netflix, but there was nothing special about this one that made it stand out from a crowded field of similar series. 


Ben Murphy costarred as Griff’s partner, and that was probably a bad omen because few actors appeared in more short-lived shows. As for Lorne Greene, after 14 seasons on the Ponderosa he was probably just happy to be off a horse.


Shows Missed:

The Don Knotts Show (1970)

San Francisco International Airport (1970)

Nancy (1970)

The Headmaster (1970)

The Man and the City (1971)

The Chicago Teddy Bears (1971)

Search (1972)

Assignment: Vienna (1972)

The Delphi Bureau (1972)

Jigsaw (1972)

The Little People (1972)

The Sixth Sense (1972)

Tenafly (1973)

Faraday & Company (1973)

Love Story (1973)

Needles & Pins (1973)

Calucci’s Department (1973)

Wednesday, April 3, 2024

My 50 Favorite Classic TV Characters: Ricky Nelson as…Ricky Nelson


Was Ricky Nelson an actor, a television character, or a person? The answer is yes. And maybe no, too. 


As every reader of this blog should know, The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet was a family situation comedy featuring a real family – parents Ozzie and Harriet Nelson, and their two sons David and Ricky. It was scripted but several stories were based on real family events, elevated into clever and often brilliant situational comedy.


The series originated on radio in 1944. At first the two boys were played by child actors. That had to be an odd experience for David and Ricky, to hear their parents calling other kids by their names. Both then joined this dramatized version of their family in the show’s fifth season, which began in 1949. Ricky was just eight years old, and thus already a seasoned veteran at playing himself when the show began its television run in 1952. 



In its early seasons the skinny kid with the classic 1950s buzzcut was billed as “the irrepressible Ricky,” acknowledging his propensity for straight talk.


Ozzie: “Do most of the girls in school like you?”

Ricky: “Oh, sure, they all do. They think I'm cute.”

David: “Oh, Ricky, stop bragging. You're not cute at all.”

Ricky: “I don't know. I was lookin' in the mirror today, and I'm not bad.”


The writers fed him the lines but he had to be convincing in saying them, and he was. He even had a catchphrase for a while: “I don’t mess around, boy.”


Ricky would play Ricky for the next 14 years, long enough for him to finish high school, become more gracious and less irrepressible, go to college, date guest stars that were all among the most beautiful young ladies of the decade (Roberta Shore, Cheryl Holdridge, Yvonne Lime, Linda Evans, Lori Saunders, Tuesday Weld, Nina Shipman),  get a job at the law firm where his brother works, and get married (to Kris Harmon, who would join the show in its final seasons, also playing a pseudo version of herself).  



Actors are often asked how they are alike or different from the characters they play on TV – but here that question takes on another dimension. If your name is the same as your character’s name, and you’re playing yourself but with someone else’s script, where does the person stop and the character start? Or to borrow a line from another 1950s series, “Will the real Ricky Nelson please stand up?”


The media back then were not as mercenary as they are now, so there was no concerted effort to expose any uncomfortable truths to shatter the image of “American’s favorite family,” as they were described in the show’s opening credits. Magazine features offered glowing tributes to a supportive, loving family, one portrayed as more authentic than the Andersons and the Cleavers because they were actually related.


Thankfully (and perhaps surprisingly) subsequent years have not tarnished that image too severely, though neither David nor Ricky stayed married to the wives featured on the show. Ozzie, who served as producer, director, and cowriter on hundreds of episodes, has occasionally been described as a stern taskmaster, and not the laid-back, affable guy on the show. And one can only speculate about whether David and Ricky wanted to be part of the family business for so many seasons. But when they were old enough to leave, they didn’t, which I think says something. 



The Adventures of Ozzie & Harriet is one of my three favorite classic shows, so I admit I’m more inclined to buy into the presumption that the Nelsons at home aren’t much different than the Nelsons playing parts on sets built to resemble the rooms in their actual residence. But who can say for certain?


One thing I do know for sure about Ricky – he was good at everything. Over the course of 14 seasons viewers saw him landing axle jumps on ice skates, riding horses with a natural ease, excelling at golf and tennis, breaking boards with judo, and even flying through the air on a trapeze (and being caught by his brother).  


Given the show’s shooting schedule, you wonder where he found the time to acquire all those skills before the age of 20, while working on a series that churned out as many as 39 episodes in a single season.


And when Ricky the person wanted to start a singing career, TV’s Ricky did the same. On television, he formed a band with his high school and college friends and played fraternity dances. But the real Ricky rivaled Elvis in popularity and record sales – 53 songs on the Billboard Hot 100, 19 in the top ten.  He was inducted (by John Fogerty) posthumously into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987.  



All that talent plus teen idol looks (seriously, if they ever begin cloning gene pools, they could do a lot worse than starting with the Nelsons) could form a character that girls loved but left male viewers envious, especially after their girlfriends flocked to the performing stage at the first notes of “It’s Late” or “Believe What You Say.” “What’s he got that I haven’t got?” these disgruntled dates might grumble, while hoping that no one would actually answer that question honestly. 




Twenty years later, producers of The Partridge Family recognized that potential dilemma. David Cassidy was the Ricky Nelson of the 1970s – a talented singer who rose to fame on a hit TV series. But here they didn’t want Keith Partridge to seem too faultless, which is why he was so often the butt of jokes from Laurie and Danny, and why he often pursued girls that couldn’t care less about his music.


It’s interesting how that was never a concern with Ricky, or maybe as he was playing himself he didn’t want the Ricky on TV to be that different from the actual person. He had the basic decency that was more commonly found in the shows of that era, and he seemed to personify all of the qualities that parents hoped to see made manifest in their children at that time. 



Teenagers in the 1950s had the same hormones and temptations felt by subsequent generations, and certainly television didn’t portray those moments that were not suitable for family viewing. I’m sure Ricky and David both sowed some oats and occasionally drank more than milkshakes. And so what? This series is about my favorite classic television characters. I’ll never know where or how often Ricky Nelson the character departed from Rick Nelson, as he preferred to be called as he grew older. But for a time that character was the emblematic American teenager of the 1950s, as well as a pioneering figure in rock and roll. 


It’s a remarkable legacy, one I think should be better remembered. Hopefully the recent DVD release of all 435 episodes of The Adventures of Ozzie & Harriet will introduce America’s favorite family to new generations raised on harsher fare. If they like what they see, there may be hope for us yet. 





Monday, March 25, 2024

Top TV Moments: Barbara Rush


I regret kicking off this piece on a downbeat note, but I feel a need to acknowledge that it was inspired by a sobering thought that occurred while watching a 1974 episode of Police Story – it was the realization that so many of the talented artists who continue to fill my evenings with hours of viewing enjoyment are no longer with us.


Obviously I was already aware of that on some level, but there are moments when thoughts like this that sometimes lightly float through in passing suddenly settle in for a longer stay, making one aware of one’s own advancing years. And maybe that’s why I felt some relief to find that Barbara Rush, turning in one of her always reliably charismatic turns in that Police Story episode, is still with us. And also why I then went on a mini-binge of her best TV work, some of which is listed here. 



Lux Video Theater (1954)

In 1954, Barbara Rush won the Golden Globe Award as most promising female newcomer for her role in It Came from Outer Space.

That same year, she landed her first television role in an episode of this anthology drama entitled “Gavin’s Darling.”


Interesting footnote: Rush tied in her Globes category that year with co-winner Pat Crowley, who would go on to an equally long and busy television career.


Suspicion (1958)

Two sailors keep a lonely watch on a fogbound vessel, where there should not be “isle or ship within a thousand miles.” So imagine their surprise when they hear a man crying “Ahoy” and asking for help – but why won’t he come aboard? And why won’t he let them shine a flashlight in his direction? 


Working from a story by William Hope Hodgson, “Voice in the Night” features writer Stirling Silliphant and director Arthur Hiller creating an eerie, slow-burn tale of a couple who survive a shipwreck, only to land into a situation far more perilous. James Donald and Barbara Rush play the unfortunate pair in this, one of the best-remembered episodes of a series that often rivaled The Twilight Zone for macabre suspense. 



The Eleventh Hour (1962)

After two years in a mental hospital, Linda Kincaid (Rush) seems to have her life back together – but her ex-husband (David Janssen) is concerned she might try to kill herself again. “Make Me a Place” goes into some pretty dark places (the whole series did, admittedly) and Rush does powerful work here as a woman who can’t trust her own mind. And she’d work with Janssen again soon – see next entry.


The Fugitive (1965)

Ed Robertson’s excellent book on The Fugitive singled out the two-part “Landscape With Running Figures” as the series’ finest moment. It’s certainly in the running, if only for its ingenious premise.


Lt. Gerard’s obsession with Richard Kimble has put a strain on his marriage to Marie (Rush). When he cuts their vacation short to pursue another lead, she’s had enough. She buys a bus ticket under her maiden name and leaves him to his investigation – and guess who else just happens to be on that same bus? There’s an accident, she suffers temporary blindness, and Kimble takes care of her until help arrives. Neither knows who the other is, and when those discoveries are made it’s a wonderfully played moment. 



I also learned from Ed’s book that Rush and David Janssen were good friends, and he lobbied for her to play Marie Gerard. Is it the show's best episode? The scenes with the juvenile delinquents who harass the pair didn’t play as well for me (according to Ed they were added when it was decided to make this a two-parter). I’d rank “The Girl From Little Egypt,” “Nightmare at Northoak,” and “Brass Ring” ahead of this one, but not by much.


Peyton Place (1968)

Ryan O’Neal and Mia Farrow were the breakout stars from this groundbreaking prime time soap, but it was also Barbara Rush’s longest steady TV work. She appeared in 75 episodes as Marsha Russell, and honestly all I know about her is that she hooked up with Ed Nelson’s character for a while. 



Batman (1968)

As this once hugely popular series limped toward cancelation in its final season, it churned out losers like “Nora Clavicle and Her Ladies Crime Club,” featuring Barbara Rush as “Guest Villianess of the Week.” The story has Women’s Lib crusader Nora (Barbara Rush) plotting to destroy Gotham City with an army of exploding mechanical mice, though it is best remembered for scene in which Batman, Robin, and Batgirl are tied into a  Siamese human knot, an image that launched countless memes. 



There isn’t a moment of this episode that isn’t absolutely ridiculous, and once again Batgirl is restrained in an embarrassingly simple fashion (with a sharpened knitting needle!), but it’s fun to see Rush, whose resume is primarily comprised of serious roles, camping it up and stretching the limits of over-acting to keep up with the silliness of the situation.  

Night Gallery (1971)

I’ve said before in this blog that the stories on Night Gallery always missed a lot more than hit for me, but “Cool Air” is certainly one of the better ones. Rod Serling’s teleplay, based on a story by H.P. Lovecraft, changes the narrator from a man to a woman (Rush) who encounters the mysterious Dr. Munoz and his quest to cheat death.


Police Story (1974)

John Forsythe plays the Chief of Police in a large city (we assume Los Angeles thought it’s never specified) in the midst of an especially challenging day. First an old friend on the force is caught in a compromising position, and then there’s a chance someone will try to take a shot at him when he visits a crime-ridden neighborhood, following the exoneration of officers who killed two teenagers in a confrontation. How Barbara Rush appears here as the chief’s supportive wife is how I best remember her TV career appearances - blonde, captivating brown eyes, perfectly coiffed, effortless class.



The Bionic Woman (1976)

Jaime has a disturbing dream about her mother, who had died years earlier. And then she shows up – or does she? “Jaime’s Mother” is one of the better first season episodes, as Jaime discovers that both her parents were government agents just like she became. This is one of my favorite Barbara Rush guest spots – she keeps you guessing about who she really is until the episode’s final act. 



Death Car on the Freeway (1979)

As one online commentator astutely admitted – “I like this film but it is a bit crap.” Roger Ebert could not have summed it up any better. After helming Smokey and the Bandit, which became a huge box office hit, director and former stuntman Hal Needham brought his car-crashing skills back to television, in this lurid tale of a mysterious driver who slips on gloves, pops in an 8-track tape of dissonant music, and then runs pretty girls off the road in his Dodge van.


Crusading local Los Angeles news reporter Shelley Hack is on the case of the man dubbed the Freeway Fiddler, and Barbara Rush plays the seasoned female news gal who serves as a mentor while trying to mask her jealousy. Honestly, it’s not one of Rush’s more memorable performances, but I can’t miss an opportunity to promote this exploitation classic. What a cast – Morgan Brittany, Frank Gorshin, George Hamilton, Dinah Shore, Harriet Nelson, Peter Graves – everywhere you look there’s another Love Boat passenger.


The freeway pursuit scenes are as expertly shot as anything you’d see in a bigger budget movie. But if you spend a lot of time driving L.A. freeways as I have, perhaps the most unbelievable aspect in the film is that anyone could get a car up to 70 mph in the afternoon on the 405.

Wednesday, March 13, 2024

My Journey Through 1970s TV; Friday Nights, 1973


Anyone else have happy memories of Friday nights in the 1970s? Television certainly played a role in those fond recollections, as evidenced by a closer look at the 1973 prime time schedule.


Some old favorites were back for one final season, along with a couple of promising newcomers that may have disappeared before they found their groove. As always, the goal is to find out if I can watch at least one episode from every show – but – spoiler alert – for this night it’s not looking good.


Friday, 1973



The Brady Bunch

The Odd Couple

Room 222

Adam’s Rib

Love American Style


Four of these five shows would be gone the following year, beginning with The Brady Bunch, arguably the decade’s most iconic family situation comedy. Its last batch of episodes were a mixed bag, with the unnecessary addition of Cousin Oliver offset by such memorable efforts as “Adios, Johnny Bravo,” “Mail Order Hero” (with Joe Namath), “The Cincinnati Kids” (shot at King’s Island Amusement Park) and “Getting Greg’s Goat.”


The show’s last episode, “The Hair-brained Scheme,” was so famously despised by Robert Reed that he refused to appear in it. Thus, when the family returns home after celebrating Greg’s high school graduation, Carol laments how Mike was out of town and had to miss an important milestone in his oldest son’s life. All these years later that’s still a bit sad, and I wonder if Reed had to do it over again, given how much this fictional family has come to mean to generations of viewers, he would reconsider. 



No one ever graduated from Walt Whitman High on Room 222, which also now wrapped up a five-season run, all with the same students in the same classroom. Stuff like that wasn’t as important back then – viewers had come to know and like Bernie and Helen and Jason, and would have missed them if they were not around. That’s a lesson later shows like Fame and Glee failed to learn. 


Love American Style, another Friday night staple on ABC, would also be gone at the end of this season. As would Adam’s Rib, an adaptation of the classic film about lawyers in love starring Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn. Tough act to follow, obviously, but Ken Howard and Blythe Danner made a better go of it than you might expect. 



So what new shows would join The Odd Couple on Fridays next year? Stay tuned…



Sanford and Son

The Girl With Something Extra

Needles & Pins

The Brian Keith Show

The Dean Martin Show


Sanford and Son was the night’s top-rated series at #3, but its strong lead-in audience couldn’t save The Girl With Something Extra, about a young married couple (John Davidson and Sally Field) whose relationship is complicated by a wife with ESP. Field’s subsequent stardom would revive this short-lived series in syndication for decades. I enjoyed it for what it was, a half-hour spent with effortlessly likable leads, ably supported by a quirky supporting cast: Jack (“Conjunction Junction”) Sheldon, Zohra Lampert and Teri Garr. 



Set in a clothing manufacturer warehouse in New York’s Garment District, Needles & Pins was gone after just ten episodes. Having never watched it I can’t presume to know why it failed, but perhaps it was  because the cast was comprised of veteran second bananas – Norman Fell, Louis Nye, and Bernie Kopell, who I am now convinced must have appeared in every television show ever made. There’s an extended clip on YouTube that suggests there may have been something there with a few modest tweaks. 



I covered The Brian Keith Show in a previous piece under its original title of The Little People. And this would be the final year for The Dean Martin Show after nine successful seasons. Martin would remain prominent on NBC as the host of a series of now-legendary roasts, in which comics like Foster Brooks, Don Rickles and Red Buttons would skewer the guest of honor with material that would now get them canceled in a heartbeat. 




Calucci’s Department

Roll Out

CBS Friday Night Movie


Any television show that gets “worst series ever” notices is one I’m automatically curious to see. It’s hard to tell if Calucci’s Department earned that status from the few clips available online, but it certainly doesn’t look like something anyone would miss.


From what I’ve read and the footage I’ve watched, it’s set at a New York City unemployment office, where the beleaguered staff deal with a different set of out-of-work visitors every week.


Top-billed as the office supervisor was James Coco, one of those actors who never found the kind of signature role that, when viewers saw him in other projects, they could say “Oh, that’s the guy from…”  What I saw of the show reminded me of Lotsa Luck, another failed 1973 series where the comedy emerged mainly from how miserable everyone felt about their lives. 



It was followed by an equally short-lived series in Roll Out, a military sitcom created by MASH producers Larry Gelbart and Gene Reynolds. Set in France during World War II, the stories revolved around the lives and adventures of an Army transportation unit.  The mostly African-American cast was led by Stu Gilliam, Hilly Hicks and Mel Stewart. The comedy was much broader than what viewers enjoyed in MASH, even in its early seasons, but was rarely actually funny despite the amped-up laugh track responses. It was canceled midseason, and replaced by another sitcom with an African-American cast – Good Times. That one was a keeper.


Shows Missed:

The Don Knotts Show (1970)

San Francisco International Airport (1970)

Nancy (1970)

The Headmaster (1970)

The Man and the City (1971)

The Chicago Teddy Bears (1971)

Search (1972)

Assignment: Vienna (1972)

The Delphi Bureau (1972)

Jigsaw (1972)

The Little People (1972)

The Sixth Sense (1972)

Tenafly (1973)

Faraday & Company (1973)

Love Story (1973)

Needles & Pins (1973)

Calucci’s Department (1973)

Tuesday, February 27, 2024

How Classic Television Still Inspires People – Every Day


As I’ve acknowledged before, outside of news and sports I pay very little attention to the current TV landscape. But every so often a current series references the classic TV era in a way that merits notice.


Such a moment happened last week when there was a Facts of Life cast reunion on The Drew Barrymore Show. That alone would not be worth mentioning here, were it not for how Drew paid homage to guests Lisa Whelchel, Nancy McKeon and Mindy Cohn. She didn’t just share fond memories of watching the show – she described how much Blair, Jo and Natalie meant to her, and how they helped to shape her own character. 



Jo, she said, “showed that girls could be strong and tough, and (she) helped take a lot of intimidation away for females." Blair taught her about empathy: "Because you know how popular, beautiful people can scare you sometimes? Blair was like, 'It's not about the outside, it's about the human inside.'” Natalie became a “moral compass” and “a voice of reason.”


She also commented on the impact the series had on young people who didn’t come from a traditional two-parent household, as it depicted four young women growing up with a beloved teacher in a de facto parent role: “You gave me a blueprint that made my life feel better to me in every sense of the word."


They were nice sentiments, and if she felt that way you can be sure other young viewers did as well. We don’t know who they are because they don’t have their own talk shows. But this was a disclosure that summarizes why the shows of the past still maintain such an affectionate hold over us. I think it’s something that can’t be celebrated often enough, so let’s talk about it again.


“If you want to send a message, call Western Union.”


That quote has been attributed in various forms to Humphrey Bogart, Bob Hope and movie producer Sam Goldwyn, all titans of American pop culture from a bygone era. It refers to material that overtly attempts to sway public opinion (or impose that of the writer) on an audience – and why that approach never prospered back then. They didn’t care about sending messages – they wanted stories and characters that would interest the largest possible audience, and put some profits in the studio’s account.


There were certainly “message” episodes in the classic TV era as well. The Facts of Life had several of them, often affectionately mocked by fans as another “very special episode.” Perhaps they did some good, but I’ve always thought that the most blatant messages are rarely the most persuasive. 



That is some comfort in this current and very different era of pop culture, one that engages in what essayist Robert Royal described as “wholesale dismissals of the past as irretrievably evil.” When the message is the fulcrum from which every aspect of the project derives, and is wielded like a blunt force instrument, it risks preaching only to the already converted.


Goldwyn, Hope and Bogie knew that was not a recipe for success. For proof one need only observe how one entertainment brand, once revered and synonymous with the best in family entertainment, switched from fantasy to advocacy, and hasn’t had a hit in years.  


But Drew Barrymore's reflections on The Facts of Life illustrates how messages are still being sent by every movie and every episode of every television show. They’re not the colorful tasty frosting on top of the cake, the first thing everyone notices. Instead they’re baked deep inside, awakening our senses to their profundity only after several bites.


It was these kinds of messages that inspired countless young men and women to go to law school because of Perry Mason. In Star Trek that set youngsters on paths to become doctors and scientists, and allowed Mae Jemison to believe she could one day reach the stars herself. 



It’s the wholesome family shows, so often ridiculed now, that nudged stressed fathers and mothers into being better parents, and that helped sensitive teenagers realize that if the boy or girl you loved didn’t love you back, it wasn’t the end of the world.


Such implications were so intrinsic in who the characters of these shows were and how they lived, that they didn’t have to be acknowledged to be effective. They were just…there. And that is not something that should be cavalierly dismissed. What if these shows never existed? Would these people still have entered new professions or listened to their better angels without that inspiration, or would they have gone in another direction that may not have resulted in a happier life?


Shows from the Comfort TV era no longer air in prime time on networks that count their viewership in the tens of millions, but mercifully they haven’t disappeared from the pop culture landscape. They play daily on retro channels like MeTV and on demand from streaming services. Full episodes can be watched on YouTube and other online sources, which may result in a DVD purchase.


The world has changed, but their messages have not, and they are still going out. They’re not as loud or prominent as they used to be, and they may sometimes get lost amidst a larger wave of dubious counter-signals. But like that still, small voice that Elijah heard in the Book of Kings, they can still reach those with ears to listen. Through all the noise and the nonsense. And thank heaven for that.

Thursday, February 15, 2024

Can Professional Wrestling Be Comfort TV?


If TV Land were a real place, professional wrestling would be located in one of the sketchier parts of town.


It’s a violent place full of tough men and women striving for gold and prepared to beat up anyone who gets in their way. It’s a neighborhood populated by masked men from parts unknown, who at any moment might hit you from behind with a steel chair. It’s home to some heroes as well, but don’t get too attached to them, as they can turn on you when you least expect it. 



If you’re wondering why wrestling even claims any real estate in this otherwise wholesome place, then you don’t know much about the history of television. In the 1950s, the first decade when TV evolved into a major entertainment medium, the wrestling shows that aired on all four networks (the fourth was Dumont back then) were as popular as Lucy and Howdy Doody and Milton Berle. Guys like Dick the Bruiser, Gorgeous George and Killer Kowalski were household names, and fans of all ages would gather around the set to watch the action from Chicago’s Marigold Arena, the Grand Olympic Auditorium in Los Angeles, and the Chase Park Plaza Hotel in St. Louis. 



Professional wrestling is at the moment getting renewed mainstream media attention, but for all the wrong reasons. A 60-page civil lawsuit was filed against World Wrestling Entertainment CEO Vince McMahon, arguably the most significant figure in the business over the last 50 years, and the allegations against him levied by one young woman are as unsavory as one can imagine. 



So this is probably not the best time to devote a blog to this subject, but even its more ardent fans surely recognize that there has always been a seedy underside to the whole enterprise. Its entire existence is based on a lie – that you are watching a real match between two opponents, and not a choreographed performance with a pre-determined outcome. Its roots lay in the carny circuit, where conning the suckers out of their cash is the name of the game. Championship belts are not awarded to the best wrestlers, but to those who could pack the biggest houses and sell the most merchandise. At the end of the day, it’s all about money.


But when it worked, they made you believe it.  By the time I was in my 20s and still a weekly viewer of the Monday night wars between the World Wrestling Federation and World Championship Wrestling, I was no longer the mark (slang for a gullible fan) I was when Hulk Hogan had finally met his match in The Undertaker. I knew it was just a show, and the wrestlers were “calling” their matches with whispered words and hand signals that were imperceptible to all but the smartest fans.


Still, when a feud was built property over weeks or months, culminating in a pay-per-view match in front of 60,000 fans, we suspended our disbelief, just as we did when George Reeves flew as Superman, and Samantha Stevens redecorated her living room with a twitch of her nose.


One reason it once seemed so convincing is the lack of distinction between actor and role that is obvious on any other scripted series. Many wrestlers incorporated details from their own lives into their characters; others created entirely different altar-egos. No one did it better than Ric Flair, who came from humble beginnings but fashioned the persona of an arrogant self-aggrandizer who flaunted his success and the lifestyle that came with it. Flair had the perfect combination of skill in the ring and skill on the microphone – the promos he cut are legendary among fans. 



Did most of those fans realize they were just watching a show, or did they really buy into it? Ask the heels – the bad guys who did everything they could to get people angry enough to buy a ticket to watch them lose. Some were stabbed on the way to the ring; others found their tires slashed when they left the arena.


“Kayfabe” is the term and the objective that defined professional wrestling from its first TV heyday up until about the turn of this last century. It means to preserve the illusion that the fights and feuds were real. It’s pretty much disappeared now – the artifice was impossible to maintain in the Internet era. Those of us who were once drawn to the characters and the stories miss that time when we were as excited about Hulk Hogan pinning Sergeant Slaughter as we were when our favorite baseball team won the pennant.


I have so many happy memories of those times, just as I do of the other classic TV shows celebrated in this blog. I cheered for Hogan like any mark, but my first favorite wrestler was Rowdy Roddy Piper, Hogan’s nemesis in the first Wrestlemania event in 1985. The intensity in his promos could make you seriously doubt his sanity. 



Beneath the spectacle and the fantasy, just as with any other successful series, wrestling is a business, one that demands much of its stars.  The travel, the nightly wear and tear of 300 matches a year, the schedule that demands you perform despite ruptured tendons and fractured bones – no wonder far too many wrestlers die young, and those that reach retirement age do so with broken bodies and substance abuse issues.


But they did it willingly because, for reasons most of us will never understand, they loved what they did. It won out over family and relationships and personal safety. And still after all of the tragedies and scandals, there is no shortage of young men and women who are paying their dues right now hoping to become the next superstar.


That is why every time you think wrestling has run its course, someone new emerges to revive the entire business. In the 1990s, just as I began to lose interest, along came the Rock and Stone Cold Steve Austin, and just like that I reverted to the mark I was at age 14, and couldn’t wait to see what they were going to do next. 



But even that is a long time ago now. I don’t watch the current stuff anymore, but I will still spend an evening watching old matches on YouTube. And as much as I can still be impressed by the spectacle of the huge main events, I appreciate just as much the clips from the old territory days, where there were maybe 500 people in attendance, and some of the hopefuls on the lower part of the card probably earned $20 for getting tossed around by one of that territory’s stars.


Is there something almost, I don’t know, noble in that? Something admirable about that dedication to this odd mix of sports and theater, and how much it meant to the fans that went on that ride with them? I think so – but don’t ask me to get more analytical than that.


Instead, let me list three of the best matches I’ve ever seen. If you’re among the uninitiated, maybe they’ll make you a fan as well.


1. Macho Man Randy Savage vs. Ricky “the Dragon” Steamboat

Wrestlemania III (1987)


The main event was Hulk Hogan vs. Andre the Giant, in front of 90,000 fans at Detroit’s Pontiac Silverdome. This was the match that happened right before the much-publicized headliner, and it stole the show. 


Every spot in the match – every hold, every reversal, every fall, had been laid out and choreographed beforehand. The action was non-stop, with 19 two-counts in under 15 minutes, each one generating a huge crowd response. When Steamboat finally covered Savage for the pin, he heard Randy whisper, ‘We got ‘em, Dragon.” Yes, they did.


2. Shawn Michaels vs. Razor Ramon

Wrestlemania X (1994)


New York’s Madison Square Garden had been home to countless famous matches over the decades, but none perhaps as exciting as this one. It was a ladder match, meaning that the title belt was suspended above the ring, and an eight-foot ladder was placed outside. The first man to climb the ladder and retrieve the belt would win. For nearly 20 minutes, Shawn and Razor used that ladder in ways that Bob Vila could never have imagined. 



3. The Undertaker vs. Mankind

King of the Ring (1998)


Outside of the insane hardcore matches from Japan, which incorporated barbed wire and C-4 explosives into the clashes, this “Hell in the Cell” match from The Igloo in Pittsburgh is likely the most brutal contest ever staged. The ring was covered by a 15-foot steel cage, but much of the action took place on the top of the structure, culminating in…well, see for yourself. 



Perhaps the most amazing thing about that spot was not that it was even attempted, but that the match continued after it happened, with more carnage to follow.