Vintage Television

Vintage TV: Bill Cullen

(First posted 11 September 2008; updated 12 July 2013.) 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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Essay

Why local news is no longer appointment TV for me

(originally posted 3/16/15) The drunk police officer plowed his squad car into two motorcycles stopped at a red light. One rider was killed; two others were injured. A bungled and compromised investigation, continued bad behavior by the officer, and the slow wheels of justice kept this story at the top of the news for three years. At last, the officer was convicted of drunk driving, criminal recklessness, and reckless homicide.

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WRTV photo

On the day of the verdict, I turned to local television news for the story. I hoped for reporting and analysis that would help me understand the conviction in the context of the investigation and the trial. Instead, the station I chose led with — and heavily promoted — the emotional reaction of one dead rider’s mother as the verdict was read.

Then the newscast cut to an early weather report, and made no more mention of a top local story of this decade.

It’s not like most viewers didn’t know of this story, which was heavily reported over the three years between accident and conviction. But there was so much more to tell that evening: to recount the story’s timeline, to summarize the trial, to connect the dots that led to the guilty verdict, and to share the day’s courtroom drama. The mother’s tears were rightly part of that story. But they were not the story.

To be fair: a good television news program shows the news as much as it tells it. Without action video, all that’s left is talking heads. When I was a boy 40 years ago, local TV news was balding men in gray suits, sitting at a desk, droning on about city-council meetings. Yecch; who wants to watch that? Unless those council members were throwing punches at each other, there was nothing to see.

Also, many stories would benefit from explanation and analysis that television doesn’t have time for. Even if it did, television news is by its nature a short-attention-span theater. People watch the news while living their lives: getting ready for work, sending kids off to school, making dinner.

But even within these realities, an average TV newscast was once a good enough summary of a day’s events. I don’t find that to be true anymore. Instead, I find TV news trying to keep me on the hook by driving strong emotions.

I’m no industry insider, but here’s what I think is going on. Thanks to hundred-channel cable and the Internet, viewers have more choices and any single news outlet has to compete harder than ever for viewers. Younger viewers favor these other choices so overwhelmingly that the TV newscast viewer’s average age has risen sharply away from the younger viewers advertisers want. And the large corporations that own most television stations today have shareholders to please and/or enormous debt loads to shoulder, so they cut costs to the bone.

It’s driven TV news to rely increasingly on young, pretty, and presumably inexpensive talent, and to focus on dramatic stories they can tell easily and quickly. Bus crashes, police standoffs, drive-by shootings, train derailments, shackled felons shuffling into jail — these stories create compelling video and generate a dramatic, fast-paced news program.

I live in the 27th largest television market in the United States, which I would think would have a glut of experienced reporters to choose from. But in the last ten years or so, I’ve watched many middle-aged, experienced reporters disappear to be replaced by good-looking youngsters. They can’t possibly have their predecessors’ experience or contacts.

I don’t know whether it’s their thin experience or corporate edict, but their reporting often shuns depth and context in favor of immediacy and drama. A reporter stands live at the scene, even when the story happened eight hours ago and the place is empty and quiet now. She reports what she sees and perhaps what a police spokesman told her. She asks a man on the street for his opinion or gets a teary-eyed victim to emote for the camera, and then tosses back to the anchor. I come away knowing only that the thing happened and someone was upset about it.

And then there are the fear-inducing health and safety stories and the ambush-style “tough questions” that masquerade as investigative journalism. It’s all wrapped in a shiny package of needless, endless swoosh sounds and “Breaking News” banners.

Well, I’m repelled by it all. The 6:00 news used to be appointment television for me. But over the past ten years or so I’ve watched less and less of it. I catch it when I happen to, and when the weather is bad.

I’m not suggesting that local TV news return to 40 years ago with the middle-aged men and the droning. The things I mentioned above are not all inherently a problem. The over-reliance on them is.

So TV news: To win me back, dig deeper into your stories and tell them straight up, without only playing on my emotions. And when a mother cries as her son’s killer is convicted, go ahead and show her tears. Just wrap them in the bigger story that shows those tears’ context.

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Photography, Vintage Television

Ozzie and Harriet for Kodak

The post about Ansco film and gear got such a good response that I dusted off this old post about Kodak, as advertised by Ozzie and Harriet Nelson, for you today. Enjoy!

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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OzzieTitle

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.

The Nelsons appeared in many of the commercials. Kodak was pushing 35mm color slides hard via the Nelson family. The Signet 50 was a reasonably capable, if awkwardly styled, camera with a built-in light meter. I once owned the Signet 50’s little brother, the Signet 40, and it was a fine performer. Read my review here.

Ozzie and his family didn’t always appear in the Kodak commercials on their show. Here’s a commercial for two more cameras capable of handling slide film, the Retina Reflex and the Pony II. The Retina was at the top of Kodak’s line, and the Pony slotted between the lowly Brownie and the Signet series mentioned above. I’ve owned a Retina Reflex IV (review here) and several Ponies (reviews here, here, and here).

Ozzie and Harriet shilled lesser Kodaks, of course; all the way down to the least-expensive Brownies. They also held forth on the wonders of Kodak films and processing and printing services! But commercials for those things aren’t available on YouTube, so this is all you get.

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Film Photography, Vintage Television

1950s TV commercials for Ansco cameras and films

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Pacific Rim Camera photo

Do you remember Ansco cameras and films?

For many decades, Ansco was second only to Kodak in the United States. Headquartered in Binghamton, New York, the company’s history stretched back to 1841. But its peak years were probably the 1950s, when it routinely manufactured two million cameras a year.

Ansco manufactured simple cameras that anyone could operate, and also rebadged as Anscos more fully featured cameras from other makers around the world, including Agfa, Ricoh, and Minolta.

During the 1950s, Ansco advertised its cameras and films on television. Many of its commercials were shot on film, and survive.

Here’s a short spot for Ansco films with a simple jingle. Don’t those harmonies just scream 1950s?

Here’s a spot for three Ansco cameras that took 127 film. Ansco manufactured the two Cadet cameras, but imported the Lancer from a German maker. I had a Lancer in my childhood collection. I never put film into it because its weak latch kept popping open, which would have spoiled the film. I hear that this was a common problem with Lancers.

This spot for Anscochrome color slide film mentions its “big extra margin of sensitivity” that makes up for challenging lighting. It also mentions making prints from slides using the Printon process. You can see a Printon print here, which shows that Anscochrome was a capable film.

If you have boxes full of Anscochrome slides, you’re going to want to project them. So you’ll need an Anscomatic projector!

It cracks me up how formally everybody dressed in these commercials. In the 1950s, did friends really gather casually in each others’ homes wearing suits?

In 1967, Ansco began to favor using the name of its parent, General Aniline and Film, or GAF. It stopped making cameras, instead selling GAF-branded cameras that other companies made. By the late 1970s, the Ansco brand name was sold to a Chinese camera maker.

Readers with keen memories will remember that I originally posted this in 2015. A challenge of a blog that’s about photographically documenting what I’m up to is that a long winter tends to run the well dry. So it has gone this year!

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Vintage Television

Vintage TV: Garfield Goose and Frazier Thomas

Even in the 1970s, children’s television could be frenetic. Frazier Thomas and his friend, puppet Garfield Goose, were the gentle antidote.

GarfieldGoose

A pleasant morning breeze upon the children’s TV landscape, Garfield Goose and Friends aired each weekday at 8 AM on WGN-TV in Chicago. The premise was that Garfield Goose thought he was the king of the United States, and he appointed Frazier Thomas as Admiral of the King’s Navy.

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Friends Beauregard Burnside III, Chris Goose, Romberg Rabbit, and Macintosh Mouse often joined Frazier and Garfield in the fun. Once in a while, even Garfield’s mom appeared! Garfield was non-verbal; his only noise was his flapping bill, yet Frazier somehow always understood him. Here’s how the show began one morning in 1971. The show was in color, but someone recorded this on an early black-and-white home video recorder.

The theme song is “Monkey on a String” by organist Ethel Smith. As it ends, you see pure Frazier Thomas, interacting both with the puppets and his young viewers. As a small boy, I was drawn in by this adult — a man my grandfather’s age — who talked to me like a friend. That happened nowhere else on children’s TV. It was typical for Frazier to read letters that young viewers wrote, and to share crafts the youngsters sent in. Once in a while, Frazier would invite a young viewer to appear on the program to show off their hobby. You can see one such clip, in color, at this link. It shows Frazier’s genuine interest in his viewers’ hobbies.

Between bits, Frazier and Garfield showed cartoons. I have a dim memory of seeing Augie Doggie cartoons on the show, and something called The Funny Company. But more than anything else, I remember watching Clutch Cargo, an adventure cartoon of sorts. Calling it a cartoon was a stretch, actually, as it was mostly a series of drawn stills. But it was just weird, because when the characters spoke, moving human mouths were superimposed on the drawings. I never liked Clutch Cargo very much. This video shows a full, color open to the show, and then a few Clutch Cargo cartoons.

Chicago was just far enough away from my South Bend childhood home that we couldn’t pick it up over the air. Cable television was in its infancy.  In South Bend, it was nothing more than an antenna on the tallest hill in town, connected to subscribing homes via coaxial cable, providing television stations from Chicago. It cost about $3 per month then, and Dad paid it so he could watch his beloved White Sox. And so I watched Garfield Goose late in its run, from 1972 to 1976. I wasn’t able to see it every day, as I had to be off to school just after it started. But I watched it during the summers and when I was home sick or on break.

But it turns out that Garfield Goose and Friends was the longest-running children’s puppet TV show in history. It went on the air in 1952, first on WBKB (now WLS) and then on WBBM before finding a permanent home on WGN.

But Frazier created Garfield even earlier, while working for a television station in Cincinnati. He started there in radio in about 1940, and moved to television during its infancy in 1948. After he moved to Chicago, he hosted all manner of programs before settling into his role entertaining children and families. Not only did he host Garfield Goose and Friends, but he also hosted a Sunday-afternoon program called Family Classics, on which he showed family-friendly films he selected and edited for broadcast himself.

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By 1976, the children’s television landscape had shifted away from the 1950s style of Garfield Goose and Friends. WGN cancelled the show in September and appointed Frazier to replace retiring Ringmaster Ned on Bozo’s Circus, another WGN kid’s show. Garfield Goose came along; the premise was that Garfield had bought the circus. I never thought the fast-paced, buffoonish Bozo show suited Frazier’s calm, warm personality. But by then, my family had given up cable, and I never saw Frazier Thomas on TV again.

Frazier Thomas died in 1985, aged 66.

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Stories Told, Vintage Television

Vintage TV: Card Sharks

It was a simple high-low card game, played out on TV for everyone at home. But it was good fun, and it always reminds me of my grandmother. It was Card Sharks, and it aired on NBC from 1978 to 1981.

CardSharks

My grandma used to tell me stories of her grandfather, a sign painter by trade and, according to her, a brilliant poker player. While her dad and his buddies played, she’d serve the drinks and empty the ashtrays — and watch her daddy carefully, trying to figure out his secrets.

Maybe it was her close study, maybe it was genetics, but Grandma had an almost supernatural ability to know which card was next in any deck. When I’d visit my grandma, we often watched game shows together. When Card Sharks came on, she watched especially closely. And frequently, when a contestant would be sitting on a four of hearts and holler “Higher!” — Grandma would holler right back, “No! It’s a black two!” You would have done well to lay bets on those exclamations, because she was almost always right.

Here’s the first ever episode of Card Sharks, from 1978.

From my collection, here’s the Card Sharks theme “in the clear,” as they say, meaning you’ll hear the whole theme start to finish without any voiceovers.

By the way, if you ever encounter me in a poker game, I warn you: my grandma taught me how to play!

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