Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Class leaves the airwaves: GSN drops b&w programs

I often lament on the program how it is IMPOSSIBLE to find black and white television and movies anywhere on cable these days, aside from the very visible and extremely welcome Turner Classic Movies. True, there is the one trio of vintage shows that is always allowed to remain on in reruns, even as George Lopez, that godawful Tim Allen show, and other substandard Eighties/Nineties/2000s sitcoms fill the schedules of the “classic TV” networks. The three that are allowed to stay on? (Yes, I think of it that way) I Love Lucy, The Honeymooners, and The Twilight Zone. Aside from those three, the one shining example of a tie with Television Past was the Game Show Network’s “Black and White All Night” block of programs. It began as two hours when the network signed on, then was reduced to one a few years ago and, as of tonight, is off the air.

Game Show Network is, of course, a pretty poor excuse for a channel: their originals are threadbare and mundane, and their recent reruns (the ones they’re staking the bank on) are as stale as yesterday’s news (yeah sure, Slumdog was based on the Millionaire concept — but has that gotten anyone at all to endure those rancid reruns of the Regis Philbin shows? If there’s anything certain about a craze, it’s that it ages very, very quicky and quite badly). The nightly airing on GSN of What’s My Line from the show’s very beginning in 1950 until its signoff on a sad night in 1967, has been the one way in which the banner of 1950s TV has been held aloft on cable, albeit in a very tiny little late-night niche. Nostalgia is very much out of fashion, but it was nice that one network had chosen to stick with real classic TV, and to acknowledge that, yes, there WAS indeed television before The Brady Bunch, Three’s Company, and the absolutely execrable sitcoms that make up the Nick/TV Land rerun schedule (those two channels have had about as much connection to classic television in the last decade as American Movie Classics has had to respect for classic moviemaking).

And so the opportunity to regularly follow a classic program like What’s My Line? is now snatched away, in the manner that all other good Fifties and Sixites (and now Seventies) shows have been eradicated from cable. Cable and satellite TV are touted to offer limitless possibilities: if you like sports, Christian broadcasting, mediocre TV series, insipid TV movies, and painfully bad multiplex flicks, you’ve got a helluva selection. If you like foreign movies, tough luck (Sundance Channel and a handful of movies each month on TCM should do ya); if you like vintage television, really good shows from the past, forget it and just try to find them on DVD (boxed or bootlegged), or visit the Paley Centers in NYC and LA, the only place where this programming will ultimately be available.

For those that weren’t watching it, the joy of catching WML on GSN was the immediate connection to a lost world — one where urbane and really intelligent people played a silly parlor game, but with such sincerity you couldn’t help but be charmed. The cycle begins with an early, early 1950 kinescope of the first show — with a poet who was later blacklisted on the panel, Phil Rizzuto as the “mystery guest,” and the stalwart Arlene Francis wearing so much makeup for the cameras she looks like a Kuklapolitan player. (I hope that made three fans of Fifties TV smile.)

As the cycle moved on, I was mesmerized not only by the amazing A-list caliber of the mystery guests, but also the amazing intelligence of the panel (sure, sure, there is still Jeopardy on TV for armchair eggheads, but WML showed that yesterday’s celebs were a damned savvy bunch compared to today’s reality show camera-hogs). Also a gift to behold: the fourth chair, from which they pushed out a guy named Hal Block (comedy writer) for a young “humorist” new to NYC, Funhouse deity Steve Allen (who coined the oddball query "Is it bigger than a breadbox?" on the program). After Steve hit it big with The Tonight Show in 1953, radio legend (and TV failure) Fred Allen took over the seat. When he died, the array of AMAZING men that sat in that chair was a laundry list dear to my heart: in addition to the many Random House authors Bennett Cerf called upon when someone couldn’t show up, there were class-acts like David Niven and James Mason, raconteurs like Peter Ustinov and Victor Borge, sui generis comic gods like Groucho and Ernie Kovacs, and young comics like Mort Sahl, Dick Cavett, Peter Cook, and Woody Allen (who spoofed the show brilliantly as "What's My Perversion?" in Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex...) — so yes, you had a seat in which three generations of fucking genius comics with the name Allen (natal or chosen) sat: Fred, Steve, and Woody.

A number of newspaper articles were written about the fact that GSN was still running this “relic” of TV past on a nightly basis. In fact, I have the feeling the reason it stayed on for so long — I had the unmistakable impression it was too good to last — was because some writers from The New York Times and elsewhere were addicted to it, and wrote generous pieces that kept the public aware of its existence. On the GSN.com message board, posters indicate that the network’s licensing deal with Goodson-Todman had expired, but I could find no official acknowledgement of that. That would seem to not be the case because, as I write this, a color 1960s rerun of Password is airing in what used to be the second b&w show’s timeslot — yes, that b&w show, To Tell the Truth, was a creaky rerun, but the other G-Ts, most especially I’ve Got a Secret when they were at their best, were like spun gold to nostalgia buffs. Password was a G-T production, as was Match Game, which is an “acceptable” piece of Seventies nostalgia (for the moment).

The loss of What’s My Line? specifically, and the “black and white hour” on GSN more generally, is extremely sad for those of us who feel that, out of a cable dial containing a thousand choices, it would be only fitting to devote one network to real classic TV. Couldn't one channel contain the programming created in the thirty-five-year span before the truly awful sitcoms of the mid-Eighties took hold?

Farewell, Arlene, Bennett, Dorothy, urbane fourth panelist, and John Charles Daly — you remain class acts, although you are now truly reduced to museum pieces.

And for the clips...
As you might have guessed, the hardcore nostalgia-buff audience has posted some beautiful clips from the show on YouTube, about 700 thus far. Among them are a breadbox maker coming on (to see if Steve is savvy), the appearance of the other Goodson-Todman hosts (including Gene Rayburn, from the then-fledgling Match Game), and some nice double entendres from the show.

One of the rarer early mystery guests, the only one I know of who used a translator on the show, Anna Magnani:

The immortal Dali:

Ernie Kovacs on the panel, talkin’ some Hungarian to Zsa Zsa:

The one, the only, Groucho as the MG. He did it more than once, but this is one of the best:

Sammy, rockin’ that eyepatch:

Jerry Lewis, on the panel, bein’ rude to a large lady:

Since this is the Fifties, there must be Liz Taylor:

Nichols and May:

The inimitable Peter Ustinov:

A comic god who’s still with us, Jonathan Winters:

Brian Epstein gets figured out pretty quickly:

The cast of Broadway’s Luv: Alan Arkin, Eli Wallach, and Anne Jackson:

And one of the great latter-day guests, Judy Garland, who seems like she’s a little hyper (she’s readying herself for the role in Valley of the Dolls):

And the single best find on YouTube, some wonderful gent’s posting of a 1975 ABC special on which John Charles Patrick Croghan Daly, Arlene Francis, and Mark Goodson present their favorite clips. The show starts off with three killers: Groucho, Fred Allen, and Woody, and then moves onward to other great things. The fourth part starts out with a clip we never saw on GSN: the Martin and Lewis appearance (my assumption as to why that kine was listed as "missing" by the GSN folks: Jer purchased it from G-T or Viacom?).

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