Live from (or Taped in) New York: Televison, Eastern Style, in the 50's and 60's
We often think of television as being a Hollywood phenomenon, and it's true. Much of what is broacast today has been filmed or recorded in and around Los Angeles. In television's early days, however -- from the late 1940's through the 1960's -- it was still very much a bicoastal phenomenon. California, of course, had motion picture studios and cameras, but New York had its legacies, too. The big radio broadcasters -- NBC, ABC, and CBS -- were all headquartered there and owned a number of studios. Often these would be in a theater, of which New York had plenty.
Here's a brief look at some of the things that were going on.
Toast of the Town
First, of course, there was Ed Sullivan. The sportswriter-turned-theater-colunnist began broadcasting his weekly CBS variety series in 1948 from the theater on Broadway that bears his name (now home of The Late Show with David Letterman ).
But CBS produced game shows, too. Three of the biggest were To Tell the Truth , What's My Line? and I've Got a Secret . They originated from CBS's Studio 52 (later sold and transformed into fabled discoteque Studio 54) and each in its own way was the picture of elegance. The casts always seemed fashionably-dressed -- female panelists wore evening gowns; hosts Bud Collyer, John Charles Daly, and Garry Moore often wore bow ties -- as if they were headed to a dinner party after the show, which they probably were.
People were civil to each other. Arlene Francis was always "Miss Francis;" Dorothy Kilgallen "Miss Kilgallen." Though the panelists on these three shows rarely set foot on one another's turf, they did sometimes, and one couldn't help but get the sense that they all belonged to a chic and sophisticated club. These people were New York. They were in the know. It was rare, for example, that a mystery guest on What's My Line? fooled the panel completely. Someone -- probably Bennett Cerf, but it could just as easily have been Miss Francis or Miss Kilgallen -- would figure out who they were based on knowing who was in town to open a show or sing at a club or promote a movie. Either that or they would detect an identifying quirk in the voice that only an intimate would know.
And smoking -- oh, boy did they smoke. That was fashionable, too, especially in the early part of the Sixties when there were no warning labels on cigarette packages and there was no movement to get tobacco advertising banned from the airwaves. Garry Moore frequently appeared on I've Got a Secret with a burning cigarette in his hand. Heck, he even promoted cigarettes. (His sponsor was R.J. Reynolds.) Once when Ronald Reagan appeared as a guest, Moore gave him a carton of cigarettes as a parting gift (as seen in the clip below).
And that was just on CBS.
Rock Around the Rock
Over at NBC they were busy, too, broadcasting then as now a lot of shows from their headquarters at Rockefeller Center -- 30 Rock. There was The Today Show, of course, which started airing in 1952, but there was also The Tonight Show, which -- still 90 minutes long at that point -- aired from New York until Johnny Carson took everyone to beautiful downtown Burbank in 1972. It was on the Carson show on December 17, 1969, that singer Tiny Tim married Victoria Mae Budinger before an audience of 21 million -- the most-watched televised event of the decade except for the Apollo moon landing five months earlier.
The long-running daytime soap opera The Doctors also originated from Rockefeller Center, as did the popular weekly musical program Sing Along with Mitch.
Thirty Rock had its share of game shows as well. Concentration , Jeopardy!, The Match Game, and Sale of the Century all were produced there, as well as some long-forgotten ones, like Fractured Phrases . Many of these shows originated from Studio 8H (the current home of Saturday Night Live) and quite a few were announced by veteran voice Don Pardo.
A few blocks to the south, the NBC-owned Hudson Theater on 44th Street played host to another classic game show: the original Price Is Right starring Bill Cullen.
I'll Take Manhattan for $100, Art
I got to taste the New York television experience personally a couple of times as a boy, when my parents and I visited the New York World's Fair. The Fair itself was the main event, of course, but each year that we went -- in 1964 and 1965 -- we took a day off to see what Manhattan had to offer. One of those years (I forget which) we took a tour of 30 Rock and saw the Carson set (in Studio 6B where Jimmy Fallon is now) and the Doctors sets.
In 1964 we saw a taping of Password starring Allen Ludden. I was quite surprised to discover that it didn't work quite the way it did on TV. For some reason I thought I would see them shooting the commercials, too, and was quite taken aback when the passwords didn't magically appear in front of the desk. It was all television trickery, I discovered. Nonetheless it was fun being in the studio and seeing a celeb like comedian Tom Poston, who told a silly joke about LBJ.
The following year we went to see a taping of Jeopardy! which in 1965 operated quite a bit differentl from the version we know today. For one thing, the game board was a lot simpler. To hide the categories of the rounds from the contestants, two curtains were drawn, to be opened only when host Art Fleming said "Let's play Jeopardy!" (or Double Jeopardy!) The cash payouts were paltry by today's standards. Answers on the bottom row of the Double Jeopardy! board only paid $100. And instead of appearing on individual television monitors the answers were written in yellow on blue cards which were revealed and then removed by stagehands working behind the game board.
The pull-reveal-remove technique could get quite amusing at times. The cards got stuck on occasion, and for one question involving Pablo Picasso, they had to use two cards (legally, the man had about fifteen names). But the cards had one advantage over the video version: they could be given to members of the audience as souvenirs. I remember seeing one boy carting one away from the studio in 1965 and thinking how much I would have liked one, too.
A lot of shows still emanate from New York -- everything from SNL and The View to Law and Order and Dr. Oz. Yet there's not quite the same clubby atmosphere that there was in the 1950's and 60's. Perhaps it's because those were simpler times. Or perhaps -- just perhaps -- people back then were a little more sophisticated.