Vintage Television

Vintage TV: Ozzie and Harriet for Kodak

If you’re of a certain age, you remember when a television show had one sponsor, or maybe two; all of an episode’s commercials were for those companies. The show’s open usually incorporated the sponsor, too. When these shows were later syndicated, new “generic” opens had to be prepared that referenced no sponsor, as local stations sold all the commercial time.

One such show I watched in syndication as a boy was The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, a 1950s and 1960s family sitcom starring the family of Ozzie and Harriet Nelson. A few years ago, someone gave me a big DVD set of episodes as a gift. All of those episodes used the original opens, with the sponsor mentions intact. I learned that for a few years, Kodak was a frequent sponsor.

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Some of those episodes included commercials, and it was very cool to see advertisements for some of the Kodaks I have in my camera collection. Here’s Ozzie pitching the Kodak Brownie Starmatic. You can read about my Starmatic here and here.

I used to own a Kodak Automatic 35F, a 35mm viewfinder camera with a coupled light meter and a four-speed shutter. I used that camera on a trip to the Tennessee hills about 15 years ago and really enjoyed it. Here’s Ozzie again, introducing that camera’s forebear, the Automatic 35.

Ozzie and his family didn’t always appear in the Kodak commercials on their show. Here’s a commercial for the Kodak Signet 40, another 35mm rangefinder camera with a coupled light meter. I own a Signet 40; it’s remarkably capable. Read about it here. The spot also briefly shows members of the Pony line (read about my Pony here) and the Retina line (read about my Retinas here, here, and here).

Ozzie and Harriet shilled lesser Kodaks, of course; all the way down to the least-expensive Brownies. But I don’t have any of those in my collection!

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Vintage Television

Vintage TV: Bill Cullen

This is an updated version of something I first posted in 2008. I’m running it again because a biography of Bill Cullen was recently published; you can buy it here.

The show was a yawnfest, just boring as all get out, but I watched it every weekday afternoon anyway.

Bill Cullen at the helm of Three on a Match

It was Three on a Match, a game show that aired on NBC from 1971 to 1974. Part of what made it boring, given that I was four years old, was that its rules were complicated. I could never figure out what was going on! I started watching this confusing program because it was on against Let’s Make a Deal on ABC, which my mother could not abide, and As the World Turns on CBS, which I could not abide. But I kept watching because its congenial host always made me think of my grandfather, and I rather liked imagining seeing my grandfather on TV every weekday afternoon. The grandfatherly host was Bill Cullen, the most versatile and prolific game-show host ever, who worked almost non-stop doing them on radio and television for 40 years. If you were breathing at any time between the 1950s and the 1980s you almost certainly saw Bill Cullen on TV. Here’s a complete episode of Three on a Match from February of 1974 that shows how the game was played.

Bill’s first TV game show was Winner Take All in 1952, and his last was The Joker’s Wild in 1986. In between, he did more than twenty others.

I outgrew my grandfather projection issues and for years changed the channel when I saw fuddy-duddy old Bill Cullen. But when I got (and became addicted to) Game Show Network on cable in the 1990s, I saw that not only did Bill Cullen handle every show as if he was born to host it, but he was also funny. This is one of my favorite Bill Cullen moments, from To Tell the Truth.

So lasting was Bill’s game-show legacy that it is said that when the US version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire was being developed, producers wanted to tap Cullen to host it – until they learned that he had been dead for eight years.

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Vintage Television

Vintage TV: A WGN Christmas

This Christmas memory was originally posted in 2009.

It may be hard to believe, but there was once a time when you couldn’t watch any TV show pretty much anytime you want. There were no videocassettes, no DVDs, no YouTube, no Netflix. After a program ended, that was it, at least until it was rerun in the spring. You could argue that the networks thus forced us to watch things on their schedule, or you could argue that television’s temporal nature made it more special. Never did television take better advantage of this than at the holidays. Those of us beyond a certain age remember how big of an event it was when CBS aired A Charlie Brown Christmas each year! Now, you can watch it anytime. It doesn’t make the show any less special, but audiences today lack the anticipation of it.

Anyone who grew up in range of Chicago television probably remembers watching three animated shorts every year at Christmastime: Hardrock, Coco, and Joe – The Three Little Dwarfs; Suzy Snowflake; and Frosty the Snowman. They were part of Frazier Thomas’s Garfield Goose and Friends, a daily kid’s show. The show, and this tradition, began on WBKB (which became WBBM) but soon moved to WGN, where they aired every holiday through the 1980s. Talk to someone who grew up in Chicagoland in that era and they are likely to gush over the good memories these shorts bring back.

Of course, in the new millenium these shorts are easy to find and you can watch them anytime.

The oldest of the shorts is Suzy Snowflake, a stop-motion animation made in 1951.

The same animators also made Hardrock, Coco, and Joe in 1951.

Frosty the Snowman came in 1954 from the famous UPA studios.

Several years ago WGN begain airing these shorts again every Christmas as part of a special called Bozo, Gar, and Ray: WGN TV Classics, a fond remembrance of WGN’s kids’ programming from that age. While these shorts are obviously available on the Internet, the rest of this program is not.

That makes it special. May your holiday be special, too!

Next: The real value of Christmas.

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Vintage Television

Vintage TV: Beyond Our Control

It was a TV show about TV, and there wasn’t a thing about the medium it didn’t lampoon and skewer. It was a sketch comedy before sketch comedies were cool – running an incredible 19 seasons starting in 1967, it beat Monty Python’s Flying Circus and Saturday Night Live to the air. It won awards; it got national press; it launched careers. But unless you lived in or near South Bend, Indiana, you never saw Beyond Our Control.

That’s because it aired only on South Bend’s WNDU-TV, where it was written, directed, filmed, produced, and acted by a company of high-school students. It was a partnership with Junior Achievement which taught high-schoolers about business. This JA company taught a select group of teens about the business of television.

It seems incredible to me that the show ever existed. It couldn’t possibly make it to the air today. Yet it was appointment television for my family and many others across northern Indiana and southern Michigan. It had its good years and its off years – and some of its off years were waaaaaaay off. But we watched every show because you just never knew when it would be brilliant. And when I became a teenager and some of my friends and classmates appeared in it, you never knew when you’d see one of them on the screen.

Each show went pretty much like this: someone unseen surfed the channels (complete with 1970s-style channel-change noises), sometimes stopping to watch one of the stations. That’s when the Beyond Our Control troupe came in to parody local newscheesy commercialsTV station holiday greeting promosnetwork morning news showsprime-time dramatic showsAmerican BandstandSunday afternoon family moviesthe late moviegame showsquasi-intellectual talk showsB movies at the drive-in, and even nature shows. Click any of those links to see an actual Beyond Our Control sketch. Or just watch this video, which gives you the program’s flavor in a nutshell.

I watched in wonder and sometimes awe every week, especially when the show really worked and I spent the entire half hour laughing. Especially as I grew up and people I knew began to work on the show, I wondered how these kids became so smart and savvy and, of course, funny. It certainly was nothing inherent to South Bend that produced this creativity. I knew some of these kids and they were just like anybody else I knew; to pass them by in the hallway at school, they seemed as average as you and me.

The kids had some help; WNDU provided some of their staff as advisers. And probably more importantly, within a few years the show’s format and premise were well developed and provided a solid framework for these teens’ creativity. But truly, creativity and talent lie all around us, and perhaps all it takes to realize it is an opportunity like Beyond Our Control.

Many alumni built careers in films and television on their Beyond Our Control experience. Some of them hit it big, including:

  • Daniel Waters, writer, whose credits include the films Heathers and Batman Returns
  • David Simkins, writer and producer, whose TV credits include Charmed and Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman
  • Dean Norris, actor, whom you probably know best as Hank Schrader on Breaking Bad
  • Larry Karaszewski, writer, producer, and director, who wrote Ed Wood and The People vs. Larry Flynt
  • Traci Paige Johnson, co-creator and producer of the children’s show Blue’s Clues, and the voice of Blue to boot

It’s funny how time has faded my memories of the sketches themselves, yet I remember the close. I always watched to the end, especially in the later years when I hoped to see a friend’s name scroll by in the credits. It was set to Harry Nilsson’s Remember and used almost all of the song, as plenty of people worked on the show and the credits listed them all. The close showed bits and pieces artfully arranged from faded color prints of old sitcoms and dramas, with the old NBC Peacock unfolding its feathers somewhere in there for good measure. It created a wistful feeling for days that weren’t that far in the past, at least not then.

After the last name scrolled by, the Beyond Our Control logo scrolled in and stopped. Beneath it were the words, “A very nice TV show.”

It was.

For more about Beyond Our Control, see their Web site or their YouTube channel.

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Vintage Television

Vintage TV: Hummable television news themes

Did you know that all over the country, local TV news viewership is down?

It’s way down in every demographic except people older than 60. The older crowd remains stalwart: they watch local TV news. Trouble is, advertisers don’t care about you after you turn 40. If you’re a senior citizen, you’re not making your local TV station any money. And making money is what it’s all about.

I think I know what TV news’s trouble is.

It’s not that the stories they cover are long on drama and short on substance.

It’s not that stations got rid of all the older, experienced reporters and replaced them with fresh college grads (at a third the salary). Beauty pageant winners especially welcome!

It’s not that stations cover Dancing With the Stars and American Idol as if these shows were actual news.

It’s not that if a single snowflake is sighted anywhere in the metropolitan area, the station goes wall-to-wall weather, pre-empting your favorite prime-time shows.

It’s not that they go live to the scene even when whatever happened there happened six hours ago (and they probably slap a Breaking News banner across the screen, too).

It’s not that it’s so much easier to just get your news on the Internet.

No, I think the real problem with local television news today – the real reason viewership is in the toilet – is the theme music. Seriously. If you still actually watch TV news, quick: can you hum your favorite news program’s current theme? Of course you can’t. Not only have news themes been squeezed out in favor of more commercials, the tiny bits of music that remain are throbbing, stabbing sturm und drang designed to make you think something Really, Really Important Is Happening Right Now So Whatever You Do Don’t Change the Channel!!!!!!!!!!! It’s exhausting! Nobody likes it!

So. TV stations everywhere, I’m taking you to school. You want your ratings to improve? Take a lesson from these stations and their melodious, catchy, hummable news themes from the 1970s and 1980s. People heard this music and they immediately thought of your station. They were drawn in, like the rats following the Pied Piper. With the right theme music, it doesn’t matter what you cover!

(Did you notice how many of these shows were called Eyewitness News? It was probably the most popular name for local news shows in the 1970s and 1980s.)

Seriously now: TV news themes have been serious business since about the early 1970s. All but two of the themes in that video were composed and orchestrated by companies whose business is to make themes for television. (The WJW theme was cribbed from a recording of MacArthur Park by Hugo Montenegro, and the KABC theme is from the famous tar sequence in the film Cool Hand Luke.) Several of those companies are still at it today.

If news music interests you, go right away to the SouthernMedia News Music Search Archive, which is cataloging the news music used on every station everywhere for all time, complete with audio clips.

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Vintage Television

Vintage TV: 1950s animated commercials

My mom’s parents always had the latest gadgets and electronics, so it was typical of them that they bought their first television in 1949. South Bend, where Mom grew up, didn’t have its own TV stations yet, so Grandpa put up a big antenna and they watched Chicago stations. They had the only television in their neighborhood for quite some time, and all the neighborhood kids wanted to visit to watch whatever shows were on. TV was so new that every show seemed like an event.

1949 television was very primitive. Most stations were on the air only a few hours a day, and most shows and commercials were live. But television grew up fast during the 1950s and by the end of the decade it had fully taken shape. My mom, as a little girl, had a front row seat to it all.

Mom especially enjoyed animated commercials. So many commercials in TV’s early days consisted of a man in a suit holding up the product and talking about it. It made animated commercials all the more compelling to my mom as a young girl.

Sometimes the advertised products were things Mom might use, such as toothpaste.

Sometimes the advertised products were things Mom couldn’t care less about, such as bank loans. No matter, she still watched.

This commercial for Winston cigarettes caused quite hubbub in its day. The prevailing wisdom then was that television should use English properly, and this commercial’s slogan committed a grammatical error. Only the strictest grammarian would arch an eyebrow today, and he or she would tell you that the slogan should be “Winston tastes good as a cigarette should.”

The simple line-art style of the previous two commercials was common among animated commercials in the ’50s. I figure the simpler they were, the less expensive they were to produce. This spot for Maypo maple-flavored oatmeal was very popular.

Another way to keep costs down was to create short commercials, such as this one for Hellman’s Mayonnaise.

There was a time when most people could sing the Black Label Beer jingle – hey, Mabel! I haven’t seen this beer on store shelves since the 1970s.

Plenty of beer commercials were animated in the 1950s, including this one for Hamm’s Beer. This log-rolling bear and hapless duck shilled Hamm’s beer on TV into the 1970s. I remember watching a shorter, colorized version of it when I was a child.

In this age of recording shows on DVRs or watching them on the Internet, advertisers struggle to get their ads noticed. Maybe they should take a lesson from the 1950s and animate more of them.

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