The Father of Television

The new TV season is finally here. Once again, it’s time to welcome new episodes of returning favorites, and mercilessly judge the worthiness of new programs scrambling for our attention. In my mind, it’s also a good time to honor the Father of Television, Scotsman John Logie Baird.

While several key individuals can be credited for contributing their genius to help make TV a reality, Baird was the first to successfully send live, recognizable images through the air from a transmitter to a receiver. He gave the first of his public demonstrations in March and April of 1925, in London’s Selfridges department store. The images were merely moving silhouettes (generated mechanically by what was known as a Nipkow disk, the technical details of which we won’t get into here), but they captivated the public and made headlines around the world.

A few months later, as Baird continued his experiments, using ventriloquist dummies (his favorite was named Stooky Bill) to act as his subjects in front of his “televisor,” he decided that he wanted to see a live person’s image on the receiver. Working in an upstairs loft on Frith Street in the Soho section of London, he stopped downstairs to ask a young office clerk, William Taynton, to take part in the experiment. Taynton readily agreed, and, sitting at the televisor, became the first person ever to appear on a TV screen–even though his image only traveled the length of Baird’s laboratory.

Baird’s business partner, Oliver Hutchinson, in the first-known photo of a televised moving image.

By early 1926, word of Baird’s successful experiments spread around the world. In January of that year, the New York Times announced, “John L. Baird, who has perfected television after years of research, has been giving practical demonstrations here [in London].” A few days later, he demonstrated his apparatus for members of the Royal Institution, and for the press.

Baird continued with his work, even as others, mostly in the U.S. and Germany, did the same to improve on the basic workings of the Nipkow disk. For every advancement achieved by others, Baird raised the stakes still higher.

Secretary of Commerce (and future President) Herbert Hoover takes part in the famous experiment.

A landmark television transmission via telephone lines between Washington, D.C. and New York on April 27, 1927, covered a 230-mile distance. Only a month later, Baird successfully sent a television signal (also via phone lines) from London to Glasgow, Scotland, a distance of 438 miles.  In February of 1928, Baird even set up and successfully achieved the world’s first overseas television transmission, from the London area to Hartsdale, New York, with several witnesses and reporters present on both sides of the Atlantic. The images were fuzzy, of course, but the experiment was nonetheless a success, thirty-four years before the launch of the Telstar communications satellite.

Baird’s achievements continued. In July of 1928, he unveiled perhaps the most astounding of his many innovations of the time, when he demonstrated what we would today refer to as a video disc. His creation involved creating a double groove in a phonograph record; one to reproduce sound, and another to carry moving images in synchronization with that sound. He dubbed the invention “phonovision,” but didn’t pursue it to any great degree at the time. Some fifty years later, video discs became commercially available and actually played in a manner similar to phonograph records, before laser technology made compact discs and digital video discs possible.

Meanwhile, American inventor Philo Farnsworth demonstrated his own apparatus for the public in 1928, which incorporated an electronic means of transmitting TV images. He continued refining it and eliminating the  motor generator, thus creating the first all-electronic TV camera. This would eventually render the Nipkow disc, even with ongoing modifications, obsolete.

In 1936, the BBC, after several rounds of comparison between an electronic system developed by EMI, and Baird’s mechanical system, chose the advanced EMI system. The same year, Germany debuted its own electronic TV system in time for the notorious Berlin Olympic Games.

There’s more to Baird’s story, of course, and it’s worth exploring further. You can read more details about Baird’s “firsts” in my book For the First Time on Television, available on Amazon.com.

Enjoy the new TV season!

 

America’s First Sitcom

With the new TV season almost here, offering fresh episodes of new sitcoms and returning favorites, it behooves us (well, it behooves me, anyway) to take a look at the first original sitcom to appear on prime time TV, Mary Kay and Johnny.

The series premiered on the Dumont network in November of 1949, starring real-life married couple Mary Kay and Johnny Stearns, two young New York stage actors. Mary Kay heard of a job opening at DuMont studios (located in the basement of Wanamaker’s department store in Herald Square in Manhattan), in search of a hostess/model for a 15-minute fashion program, sponsored by dress manufacturer Jay Jossel. After displaying the fine points of each outfit, Mary Kay would make a quick change as a short film was shown. But Jossel eventually realized that most TVs at the time were situated in bars, whose clientele were not very receptive to watching fashion shows on the tube. Jossel was about to give up his sponsorship of the time slot when Johnny asked if he could take it over to try a radio-style situation comedy show, starring himself and Mary Kay. Jossel agreed.

On November 18, 1947, Mary Kay and Johnny premiered. Johnny wrote each episode, but he was the first to admit that he was not a professional writer. However, by adapting the couple’s real-life experiences living in a small apartment in Greenwich Village into comic plotlines, he brought a realistic, natural feel to the show. The fictional version of Mary Kay was a perky, enthusiastic screwball, with Johnny as a strait-laced bank teller having to get her out of various minor crises from week to week.

Johnny became the de facto producer/director as well as sole writer, literally calling the shots from the control room on the air. When he was on camera, a technical director sat at the control board to switch shots between the two studio cameras. And, due to the shoestring budget, the furniture for the set consisted of pieces borrowed from Wanamaker’s window displays.

After the show had been on for half a year, Mary Kay became pregnant with the couple’s first child, so Johnny simply wrote it into their scripts, making her the first pregnant female character in TV history. And, while it is often mentioned how Lucy and Ricky Ricardo on I Love Lucy had to sleep in separate beds, Mary Kay and Johnny shared a bed on the show–three years before I Love Lucy debuted–and yet our civilization managed to keep from crumbling to the ground.

A new sponsor and a switch to NBC brought a bigger budget to the show, which found a new home at the Rockefeller Center studios. It also expanded to a half-hour, and while Johnny was aided by a small writing staff, he found that only he could capture the couple’s real-life stories just right for the show. The writing chores became strenuous for him, but he was also able to call upon many of his actor friends to take supporting roles on the show, including Jack Gilford, James Whitmore, and Howard Morris, soon to become one of Sid Caesar’s comic foils.

The Stearns’ son, Christopher, was born on December 19, 1949, only a half-hour before airtime, for which Johnny crafted an episode of himself pacing nervously in the hospital waiting room. Mary Kay missed only two episodes due to Christopher’s birth, and even the baby appeared in his first episode when he was less than two weeks old.

The program continued to make changes in time slots, networks, and running time, until it finally ended its run in March of 1950, mostly due to Johnny’s exhaustion. He and Mary Kay remained married a total of fifty-five years, until his death in 2001.

Mary Kay and Johnny interviewed in 1999.

The first several months of Mary Kay and Johnny were recorded on kinescopes, but in 1975, the vast majority of all DuMont programs were destroyed–dumped into the East River–to make room in the storage warehouse of DuMont’s corporate successor, Metromedia. A single complete episode of the program still exists today, at the Paley Center for Media in Los Angeles–a most unfortunate fate for a program of such historic significance.

You can learn still more about the show and the DuMont network in my book For the First Time on Television, available at its publisher’s web site, www.BearManorMedia.com, and Amazon.com (if prodded, I might be convinced to do a future post about the DuMont network and its brief but fascinating history).

Until next week…

 

A Thumbnail History of “The Odd Couple”

In my previous post, we took a look at sitcoms that were given new life after their original runs ended. I deliberately left out one series that has been given several lives, The Odd Couple. This is because the full life of The Odd Couple reaches back over fifty years, and has seen so many incarnations on stage, screen, and TV, it deserves its own blog at the very least–if not a full-length book (don’t think I haven’t considered it). So, here’s a much-abbreviated history of what is arguably the most successful American comic creation of the past half-century. It’s a play close to my heart, and one that I memorized back in high school, just for my love and reverence for Neil Simon’s brilliantly hilarious dialogue (I know a few of his other plays by heart as well. He’s my comedy hero).

Danny and Neil.

The original play was based on  Simon’s older brother Danny–a top comedy writer and teacher for decades–and agent Roy Gerber. In the early 1960s, both had been divorced, with alimony and child support to consider. They decided to move in together to help cut down on expenses. They also ventured on double dates, some of which Danny insisted on hosting and cooking for, again to save money. But their differing personalities–Danny being partial to keeping the apartment neat and clean, and Gerber indifferent about arriving home on time for dinner–caused more than a few heated squabbles. Encouraged by Neil to turn their clashing habits into a play, Danny tried, but couldn’t get past page fifteen or so, and offered Neil to take over. Neil gave Danny a small percentage of the royalties (totaling hundreds of thousands of dollars over the years), but no story credit, which perturbed Danny to a considerable degree.

The play, starring Walter Matthau as Oscar and Art Carney as Felix, opened at the Plymouth Theatre in New York on March 10, 1965. During the casting process, Matthau expressed his desire to play Felix, considering the role would be more of a stretch for him than playing Oscar, but Simon and director Mike Nichols refused his request. He held out hope that at some point later in the run the two lead actors might get to switch roles, but that never happened.

Carney as Felix, with the Pigeon Sisters (Monica Evans and Carole Shelley).

The play received rave reviews, following Simon’s previous smash hit, Barefoot in the Park (also directed by Nichols, and starring Robert Redford and Elizabeth Ashley). Ticket sales for The Odd Couple allowed the show to recoup the initial investment after only 29 performances. Paramount Pictures, eager to film Barefoot in the Park, plus whatever play Simon would write next, bought the film rights to both plays after Simon gave the studio only a one-sentence description of The Odd Couple. He would later regret agreeing to the deal.

In October, seven months after opening night, Art Carney left the production due to depression and nervous exhaustion, and/or a worsening drinking problem stemming form his failing marriage. He was let out of his contract, replaced by Eddie Bracken. Matthau left the play in November to film The Fortune Cookie, directed by Billy Wilder and co-starring none other than the future film version of Felix, Jack Lemmon. Who replaced Matthau as Oscar on Broadway?  None other than the future TV version of Oscar, Jack Klugman. Matthau intended to return to the play, but suffered a heart attack during the filming of The Fortune Cookie. Klugman was asked to stay on for another year, but quit three months later in a salary dispute. Pat Hingle then took over as Oscar. The original Broadway run ran a total of 964 performances.

The film version of the show retained the original stage dialogue nearly word for word. One of the few outdoor scenes was shot at Shea Stadium, just before a Mets-Pirates game. The production crew was given a half-hour to film the scene. The script called for the Mets to make a triple-play, just as Oscar gets called to the phone to answer a question from Felix about that night’s dinner. Oscar misses the play, and is not pleased. Pirates star Roberto Clemente was asked to hit into the triple-play, but he refused. Bill Mazeroski agreed. The scene required two takes for the last-place Mets to execute a perfect triple-play for the camera.

It’s no small feat that the span of time between The Odd Couple opening on Broadway, the release of the film, and the premiere episode of the TV series was only 5 1/2 years. Unfortunately for Simon, by agreeing to sell the film and TV rights to Paramount years earlier (after listening to bad advice from his business manager), he didn’t earn a penny from the profits of the TV series.

The program, starring Klugman and Tony Randall, debuted on September 25, 1970 on ABC (coincidentally on the same night the network premiered an all-black sitcom version of Barefoot in the Park). Originally filmed with a laugh track added to each episode, the stars hated the results, and demanded that the series be filmed before a live audience, which it was beginning in the second season. In addition, they were also among the first sitcom stars to participate in the writing sessions. With an ever-constant demand for stories, some of the more far-fetched plots stemmed from Randall’s interest in opera and ballet, and Klugman’s fondness for horse racing. The series ran for five seasons before its cancellation in 1975.

A second TV version, with an all-black cast, premiered in 1982. Demond Wilson (Sanford and Son) starred as Oscar, and Ron Glass (Barney Miller) as Felix. The series lasted only thirteen episodes.

In the early 1980s, Joan Rivers and Nancy Walker pleaded with Simon to write a female version of The Odd Couple, imagining themselves playing the leads. After some reluctance, he agreed to listen to the two actresses read the original play out loud, after which he agreed to adapt it for female versions of the characters. Ultimately, Rita Moreno and Sally Struthers became Olive and Florence, starring in the show on Broadway in 1985. It received mostly disappointing reviews, but ran for 295 performances.

Thirty years after the film version delighted audiences, Simon wrote the film sequel, The Odd Couple II, in 1998 (beware any film that includes a Roman numeral in the title). The project reunited Lemmon and Matthau, with the story of Felix’s daughter marrying Oscar’s son, and the two leads making a disastrous effort to get to the wedding. It was panned by critics, and was a failure at the box office.

A more successful revival of the original play came to Broadway in October of 2005 for a limited run, starring Nathan Lane as Oscar and Matthew Broderick as Felix, with Brad Garrett (Everybody Loves Raymond) as Murray the cop. Lane and Broderick were hot on the heels of their run in Mel Brooks’ Tony Award-laden The Producers, so their reunion in The Odd Couple resulted in the new production breaking Broadway advance ticket sales records at the time. It ran for 249 performances.

In 2015, yet another TV version appeared, starring Matthew Perry as Oscar and Thomas Lennon (Reno 911) as Felix.

The updated version was enjoyable in its own way, but it didn’t bear much resemblance to the play, film, or the Klugman-Randall version, but it did run for three seasons of 13 episodes each.

Have we seen the last revival of The Odd Couple? Odds are, not yet!

Sitcoms Redux

One of the new TV series already receiving a good deal of hype this fall isn’t a new series at all. Will & Grace, which ran for eight seasons and won multiple Emmys before leaving the air in 2006, will return for a 16-episode run on September 28, starring the original cast. Beyond this season, NBC has ordered a tenth season, to consist of thirteen more episodes.

This is certainly not the first time a popular program has been resurrected after its initial run. Throughout TV history, a great many series have returned to the airwaves with new episodes after their original runs had ended (we’re not counting spin-offs or one-shot reunion movies). But the vast majority of these have been dramas; very few sitcoms have fared well in their attempts at a second life. Will & Grace has a good chance, thanks to having its core cast returning, plus the fact that it was still riding high in popularity when it left the air over a decade ago (has it really been that long?)

So let’s take a look at the sitcoms that returned to the air years–and even decades–after their original runs. We begin way back in the early years of network TV.

Gleason as Riley, before “The Great One” found his footing as a sketch comedy genius.

 

The first network program to re-appear on TV screens after the conclusion of its initial run was The Life of Riley. This early sitcom was first a popular radio series starring William Bendix as bumbling family man Chester Riley. When it was decided to move the series to TV in 1949, Bendix found himself too busy with movie commitments to continue as the star. Up & coming comedian Jackie Gleason replaced Bendix, but the show didn’t have much life to it, and was canceled in March of 1950.

It was then revived in January of 1953, with Bendix back in the lead, along with an entirely new cast. The show enjoyed five more years on the air, ending in 1958 (I wonder whatever happened to Jackie Gleason during that time).

 

The Munsters, a genuinely well-written and wonderfully acted sitcom (yes, you read that right), lasted for two seasons, from 1964-66.

It reappeared twenty-two years later in syndication as The Musters Today, with a new cast, including John Schuck (McMillan & Wife) as Herman, and Lee Meriwether (Barnaby Jones) as Lily.

The New Munsters, in and out of make-up.

It was doomed for comparison with the far more clever, and even charming, original version, but the revival still produced a total of 72 episodes, which was two more than the original series.

A year after The Munsters premiered, another quality sitcom, Gidget, following the life of California surfer teen Frances “Gidget” Lawrence (Sally Field), lasted only a single season in 1965-’66.

 

It reappeared as a syndicated show in 1986, and renamed The New Gidget. This revamp, like The Munsters Today, starred an entirely new cast, with Gidget as an adult mom, running her own travel agency. Here, though, it’s her teenage niece who caused most of the problems, but any similarity between this bland remake and the original series lies solely in the title. It did, however, manage to run forty-four episodes.

More recently, the daffy sitcom Arrested Development, following the trials and tribulations of the wealthy but dysfunctional Bluth family, enjoyed three seasons on Fox between 2003-’06. It gained a strong cult following, as well as several Emmy awards, but low overall ratings caused its cancellation. Seven years later, a groundbreaking deal between the producers and the online streaming service Netflix led to a new, 15-episode season, for which all of the episodes debuted on May 23, 2013. It has also been confirmed that a fifth season, comprising seventeen episodes, is coming in 2018.

You may be wondering, “What about The Odd Couple? Wasn’t that revived, too?” Yes, it was–several times. But I’ll be giving the history of The Odd Couple it’s own posting very soon.

And, I’ll have more interesting TV history to come, as the new season looms on the horizon.

Until next week…