Television in 1968: Boomers Watched Great Stuff

Despite talk of our current environment ushering in a new Golden Age of Television, you still hear people saying, “all those channels and nothing good is on.” Well, boomers recall when there were only three networks — ABC, CBS and NBC — and they were in fierce competition with each other for the eyeballs of America. By the time TV hit the late sixties, audiences demanded more if they were expected to tune in on any given night, then wait a week for the next episode.

Fifty years ago, in 1968, TV was showing signs of hitting its stride. Its early days behind it, TV needed to become more entertaining and more socially relevant. A look at the top shows of that year illustrate the point. The top-rated shows were a mixed bag encompassing all that had become staples of TV, and on — to modern experiments in comedy, satire and story-telling. There were Westerns and folksy shows, family viewing options, cop and crime shows, musical variety shows that carried on the tradition from the 1940s and ’50s, to be sure — but there were also groundbreaking shows that have gone on to become classics. Take a look at the Top 10 shows of 1968 according to Nielsen Media Research:

Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In (1968-73)
Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C. (1964-69)
Bonanza (1959-73)
Mayberry R.F.D. (1968-71)
Family Affair (1966-71)
Gunsmoke (1955-75)
Julia (1968-71)
The Dean Martin Show (1965-74)
Here’s Lucy (1968-74)
The Beverly Hillbillies (1962-71)

While reflecting the divided nature of its audience, the Top 10 was just the tip of the iceberg when it came to a medium that was coming to grips with a changing society and drifting generations. To bridge the gap, look what TV producers added into the group of the next ten top-rated shows:

Mission: Impossible (1966-73)
The Ed Sullivan Show (1948-71)
The Mod Squad (1968-73)
The Carol Burnett Show (1967-78)
Bewitched (1964-72)
The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour (1967-69)
My Three Sons (1960- 72)
I Dream of Jeannie (1965-70)
Green Acres (1965-71)
Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color (1961-69)

Four years after the passage of the Civil Rights Act, TV portrayed black actors in starring roles, a barrier that had been broken with the introduction of I Spy in 1965 and Star Trek in 1966. Julia, a Top 10-rated drama, starred Diahann Carroll as a working single mother; she was a widow since her husband was killed in Vietnam, raising her son alone while maintaining a career as a nurse.

The Mod Squad attempted to bring hip to the small screen while addressing themes relevant to a new generation in the form of a reluctant police unit that the show described as, “one white (Michael Cole), one black (Clarence Williams III), one blonde (Peggy Lipton).” The show was the first to display an onscreen interracial kiss.

Shows Like Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C., Green Acres, The Beverly Hillbillies and Mayberry R.F.D. were described as “rural TV.” They portrayed a friendly, folksy wholesomeness that many would have preferred rather than the backdrop of the evening news. A case in point is that despite it main character being a marine, in Gomer Pyle, Vietnam is never mentioned. Granted, it was a comedy, but one that takes place in an army camp.

1968 brought us groundbreaking satire and politically-charged comedy from Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In and The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour. Some contend it was Richard Nixon’s cameo appearance on Laugh-In that helped him win the presidential election of 1968. The Smothers Brothers delved into such controversial territory that they were ultimately cancelled mid-season because they would not submit finished shows to the CBS network for editing and censoring in the allotted time. The irreverent attitude and eye-poking of The Man and Authority by both shows made them popular with boomers.

On the surface, I Dream of Jeannie and Bewitched seemed like innocuous comedies. Yet both dealt with learning to live with people who were different than the “norm.” I Dream of Jeannie featured an astronaut in his time on Earth after being in space. His daily routine was not unlike any other American heading off to work each day — except that he had a female genie in a bottle to see him out the door. The supernatural superceded a sci-fi space world that was coming true; space travel was brought home to the everyday.

Bewitched can be seen as a mixed marriage where the human husband’s mother-in-law never fully accepts him while he struggles with his role as family provider with a wife who has far more capabilities than the average housewife. Thus she is forced to “help” her husband by doing little magical, witchy things behind the scenes — a very old-fashioned thought in 1968 disguised as a feminist choice.

Mister Boomer’s parents leaned toward the conservative side, but he watched most of the top shows on the family TV. In fact, Laugh-In and The Smothers Brothers became favorites in the household. About the only shows that weren’t watched regularly by the family were Gunsmoke, Here’s Lucy and Mayberry R.F.D.

Mister B’s mom enjoyed down-home comedies and Carol Burnett, Ed Sullivan, Gomer Pyle, The Beverly Hillbillies and Green Acres brought that to her. Yet she also really enjoyed Bewitched and Mission: Impossible.

Mister B’s father liked all kinds of TV, but never could resist one that featured a pretty woman, including Diahann Carroll (Julia), Elizabeth Montgomery (Bewitched), Barbara Eden (I Dream of Jeannie) and Peggy Lipton (The Mod Squad). His favorite shows, though, leaned to Dean Martin and Mission: Impossible. He also really enjoyed My Three Sons. Mister B also has nice memories of being able to laugh at the same things as his father when they watched Laugh-In.

What TV shows did your family watch in 1968, boomers?

Boomers Watched LBJ’s TV Speech

Fifty years ago this week — on March 31, 1968 — President Lyndon Johnson addressed the nation on TV, and boomers of all ages were watching. The President began his speech with specific proposals about the war in Vietnam that he hoped would further the chance for peace talks. The President announced a halt to all air and naval bombing missions in North Vietnam (north of the Demilitarized Zone [DMZ]), as long as doing so did not endanger American troops. Secondly, he decided to send an additional 13,500 troops and third, he said he would request additional funding from Congress to bolster American efforts to assist the South Vietnamese army. He went on to talk about the divisive nature of politics and the war in the nation, and that he felt a responsibility to devote his time to the Office of the Presidency. At the end of his speech, he shocked the country by announcing, “I shall not seek, and I will not accept, the nomination of my party for another term as your president.”

The Tet Offensive at the end of January, 1968 brought the bloody struggles happening a world away into the homes of Americans as pictures of fighting in the streets of Saigon countered the Administration’s optimistic pronouncements of a winnable war. Then the New Hampshire Primary, held on March 12, showed the President to be vulnerable in his own party. Senator Eugene McCarthy of Minnesota had mounted a challenge based on his end-the-war stance. Though Johnson won the New Hampshire Primary, McCarthy picked up 42 percent of the vote and the majority of electoral votes for the state.

Despite his de-escalation announcement, Johnson remained dedicated to a military victory in Vietnam. The U.S. dropped more bombs into the DMZ in the three months after his speech than had been dropped in the previous years of the war.

Lady Bird Johnson recalled that she and the President discussed him not running for reelection as early as 1964. She was concerned about his health — particularly his heart condition. She was completely against him running for another term. Johnson himself said in his memoir, The Vantage Point, that he did not want to announce his decision not to run ahead of the speech. The line was not included on the teleprompter and he did not read it while practicing the speech the day before, but on the morning of March 31 he did inform Vice President Hubert Humphrey that he would include it if conditions were right — that is, no major attacks occurred in Vietnam or there was other world news leading up to the broadcast. He wrote that he did not make the decision to include the now-famous line about not seeking reelection until it was time for the televised broadcast.

A newly-minted teenage Mister Boomer sat with his family watching the speech as it aired. He was still forming his understanding of politics, though he was already certain that he wanted no part of any war. His elementary school days humanized war for him and his boomer classmates when bandaged, wounded soldiers returning from Vietnam — brothers and cousins of his classmates — came to thank the kids for sending them care packages from home.

In retrospect, Mister Boomer can point to this speech as a political awakening of sorts. He began paying much closer attention to the news and the campaigns of the 1968 Presidential Election. Though Mister B was still years away from voting age, the voices of the earliest boomers were about to be heard in one of the most tumultuous years in the country’s history.

Do you remember watching President Johnson’s speech on March 31, 1968, boomers?

Hey, Hey, Boomers Loved “The Monkees”

Next week marks the fiftieth anniversary of a boomer-era TV anomaly: the final episode of The Monkees TV series was aired on March 25, 1968. Many boomers have forgotten or perhaps did not know that the group was actually made for the TV show, and not the other way around. The concept for the show was to be about a rock ‘n roll band looking for their big break. An ad was published in trade publications and hundreds of musicians and actors auditioned for the parts.

The four selected to play the band members were Micky Dolenz, Davy Jones, Peter Tork and Michael Nesmith — two actors and two musicians. Micky had previously appeared in the TV show, Circus Boy (1956-58), but he also sang and played guitar with several bands in the early ’60s. Davy gained his acting chops by playing The Artful Dodger in Oliver! (1964) on the London stage, and later, on Broadway. Peter was a musician who was recommended for the role by Stephen Stills. Stills was offered the job, but didn’t have any interest in doing a TV series. Instead, he took Peter Tork to the audition, telling the producers that Tork was often mistaken for him. Michael was a musician who rode to his audition on a motorcycle. He wore a wool hat to keep his hair out of his eyes on the ride, and kept it on for his screen test. The casting directors thought it was a nice quirky addition and nicknamed him “Wool Hat.” The first episode of the show refers to Michael with that nickname, and Michael’s hat became part of his persona.

NBC bought the concept in an effort to appeal to young viewers — boomers. The concept was developed and the pilot episode was written by Paul Mazursky and Larry Tucker. It aired September 12, 1966. After the initial episode, NBC took control of the writing and Mazursky and Tucker were left out. Mazursky and Tucker went on to write the film, Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice (1969) for which they were nominated for the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay. The duo also was responsible for I Love You, Alice B. Toklas! (1968) and had many other writing, acting and directing credits.

The Monkees was conceived as absurdist, surreal humor — sort of like The Marx Brothers on acid. It emulated avante garde films of the day with quick cuts, ample improvisation and breaking the fourth wall. Critics quickly compared The Monkees to The Beatles characters in A Hard Day’s Night (1964). Many saw Mickey as John, Davy as Paul, Michael as George and Peter as Ringo. The writers agreed they had been influenced by the Richard Lester film.

The boys were coached on comedy improvisation, but since it was increasingly improvised, early episodes placed sections of the four actors’ screen tests or short Q & A formats to fill remaining time. As the show progressed, time was filled with the band singing. It was those song “videos” that Mister Boomer and his sister would wait for.

Davy Jones is quoted as saying, “Ours was the kind of show you could look at or look away from — it had no deep plot. If you missed five minutes while you ate your dinner you didn’t exactly lose the whole thread, you know what I mean? It was all harmless, happy fun. No hidden meanings.”*

Mister Boomer watched the show through its entire run, like other boomers. It reminded him of The Three Stooges, but with less violence. He hadn’t seen many Marx Brothers movies at that juncture. The all-around absurdity reminded him of the Adam West Batman series that aired during the same seasons as The Monkees.

There was a lot to like about the show for boomers; girls thought Davy was cute and hung up posters of him on their bedroom walls, while boomer boys bought models of the Monkeemobile. Then there was the music. Fifty years later, boomers can still sing more of The Monkees theme song than they can of Auld Lang Syne! Mister Boomer’s sister was partial to Daydream Believer and I Want to be Free, while Mister B liked (I’m not Your) Stepping Stone, A Little Bit Me A Little Bit You and Valleri. His mother was a fan of Last Train to Clarksville.

It was only years later that Mister Boomer could fully appreciate the artistry — if one can call it that — of their performances and that of their fellow actors on that show. It wasn’t until the 1990s that Mister B saw an episode in color!

Did you watch The Monkees on TV during its original run, boomers?

*Quote appears in Mutant Monkees Meet the Masters of the Multimedia Manipulation Machine! by Davy Jones and Alan Green; Click! Publishing, 1992

Boomers Watched Scary Weekend Late-Night TV Programs

At the beginning of the Baby Boom, television broadcasting expanded to make boomers the first TV generation. By 1955, half of all U.S. homes owned a TV, so the next issue for broadcasters was to fill the programming day. From the early days of four-hour prime time broadcasting (8 p.m. to 11 p.m.), the burgeoning networks had grown the broadcast day to twenty hours, signing off the air at 2 a.m.

The dilemma broadcasters faced was what to put on the air after 11 p.m. on weekends, when most people (and all good Baby Boom children!) were already in bed. While the networks experimented with late-night programming during the week (i.e., Broadway Open House in 1950, The Tonight Show in 1952), it wasn’t as lucrative to them in terms of advertiser sponsorship. For the most part, late-night broadcasting was left up to locally-owned stations. The cheapest way for them to fill the time was by airing old movies.

As the 1950s became the 1960s, many stations were airing syndicated segments of movies from the horror genre on weekends in the time between midnight and 2 a.m. Some had a voiceover actor to introduce the film, then disappear until there was a commercial break or the film ended — whichever came first since it was difficult to sell late-night ad space. Most had a local host or hostess who was often dressed as a ghoul, vampire or monster themselves to introduce the movie of the night. While the hosts may have been adept at slapstick and schlock with a distinct feeling of improvised scripting, the movies were from Hollywood — often B movies but also top-rated films like Dracula, Frankenstein and The Mummy. Various regional favorite hosts emerged (such as Vampira on the West Coast).

Their success drew copy cats from other regions, to the point that several used the same titles for their programs even though each region generated their own content on either end of the movie being aired. Some of these program titles included Nightmare Theater, Creature Features, Chiller Theater and the most famous of them all, Shock Theater. Shock Theater became synonymous with the genre, so much so that the title is now considered a generic name for programs airing late-night movies from classic horror films of the 1930s and ’40s to the sci-fi and Japanese monster movies of the ’50s and ’60s.

Shock Theater began as a syndicated package of Universal/Screen Gems classics. The originally syndicated package ran from 1957 to ’59. There was a version of the movie package under the umbrella title of Shock! airing until the 1980s. Mister Boomer and his siblings were in bed long before the shows came on, though his father was a late-night TV watcher/sleeper. Mister B, a light sleeper, would wake up when the TV broadcast ended and white noise filtered into his bedroom down the hall. He’d turn off the TV and shut the light, then head back to bed.

Mister Boomer saw his classic horror films mostly at Saturday matinees at the movies, but later enjoyed them on TV during daytime or nighttime broadcasts. He was well-versed in everything from Abbott and Costello Meets the Mummy to creepy Vincent Price movies like House of Wax. There is one time, however, that Mister B recalls seeing Shock Theater. He believes he was in the third grade when a classmate held a sleepover with Mister B and a couple of his friends. After the boy’s parents went to bed and the house was dark, the group made their way to the TV to watch Shock Theater. Mister Boomer was frightened that the boy’s parents would get up and be angry with them, but that did not happen. Mister Boomer would view a Shock Theater program.

Mister B remembers that the movie that night was Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956). It didn’t matter that the film was in black & white (as was the capability of the TV set); the movie scared the bejeebus out of him. There was no other movie that gave him more nightmares than that one episode of Shock Theater, watched in the dark in a strange home in the middle of the night.

Did you watch Shock Theater or weekend late-night scary movies in the 1950s and ’60s, boomers?

Boomer TV Variety Shows: the 1970s (Part 3)

As the 1960s carried on, popularity in TV variety shows began to wane. The last of the very popular variety shows that began in the 1960s was The Carol Burnett Show (1967-78). Some don’t even count this program as a variety show since the format relied heavily on the resident comedy troupe of Carol Burnett, Harvey Korman, Vicki Lawrence and Lyle Waggoner (replaced by Tim Conway when Waggoner left in ’75). Guest stars were included in the skits, but seemed secondary to the comedy.

Several of the immensely popular TV variety shows of the previous two decades ended their run as the 1960s became the ’70s. Among them, Hollywood Palace folded up the tent in 1970 and the king of the variety hill, The Ed Sullivan Show, ended in 1971. Nonetheless, there were a few practitioners attempting to keep the format alive. Among those that achieved some measure of success were:

The Flip Wilson Show (1970-74)
Though Nat King Cole had become the first African-American to host a TV variety show more than a decade earlier, comedian Flip Wilson, unlike Cole, was able to garner advertising sponsors. Was it because of the Civil Rights Act of 1968 or was the society actually changing? In any case, most people Mister Boomer knew watched because Wilson was funny. His recurring character, Geraldine Jones, was a hit in Mister B’s home, as well as boomer homes across the country.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TBmAQ2B1Tew

The Sonny & Cher Comedy Hour (1971-74, The Sonny & Cher Show ’76-77)
Husband and wife duo Sonny Bono and Cher opened each show, in its earliest incarnation, by singing their hit, The Beat Goes On, and ended each episode with I Got You Babe. In between, the mostly musical variety included guest stars and comedy skits.

Aside from the hit songs, the show was known for the Bob Mackie fashion gowns that Cher wore each week. The show was canceled when the couple announced their divorce in 1974, and their time slot was given to The Tony Orlando & Dawn Rainbow Hour. Cher was given her own show for a year (Cher, 1975-76). The couple reunited for The Sonny & Cher Show in the 1976-77 season.

Donny & Marie (1976-79)
Standouts from The Osmond Brothers and veterans of dozens of TV variety shows, singing siblings Donny and Marie were given a show of their own in 1976 when Fred Silverman, then president of ABC, saw them co-host on The Mike Douglas Show. They became, for the time, the youngest TV variety show hosts, at 18 and 16, respectively.

Another favorite of Mister Boomer’s mother, the show featured an ongoing musical skit of “I’m a little bit country; I’m a little bit rock ‘n roll,” where Marie would sing a country song, while Donny tried something in the pop-rock milieu.

Captain and Tennille Show (1976-77)
The Captain, Daryl Dragon, and his wife, Toni Tennille, spent years as backup singers for Elton John and Neil Sedaka. In the 1970s, they toured with the Beach Boys, where it is said Mike Love gave Dragon his nickname. This husband and wife duo had their first hit on their own in 1974 with Love will Keep Us Together. It was awarded a Grammy as Record of the Year in 1975. One year later, the couple was given a TV variety show. After the first season, they asked to be released from their contract in order to concentrate on their music and touring career.

As far as Mister Boomer is concerned, Captain and Tennille hold the record for one of the most insipid recordings ever made: Muskrat Love (1976), which they performed on the show. It was a cover first put out by America (1973), and one has to ask, why? Other than that, the show is remembered for its performance regulars, Shields and Yarnell, a husband and wife mime duo. Shields and Yarnell were spun off from the show and given their own short-lived variety program in 1977.

As the1970s progressed, TV audiences had grown tired of the variety show format. Even The Carol Burnett Show experienced a downward viewership. The heyday of TV variety shows had come to an end.

Did you have a favorite ’70s TV variety show, boomers?

Boomer-Era Variety Shows: the 1960s (Part 2)

The old saying goes that if you want to succeed at something, copy someone who was already successful at it. The immense popularity of TV variety shows in the 1950s spawned a whole new crop in the 1960s, with the formula for variety left relatively intact. One sea change was that rock ‘n roll acts, which had started to appear in ’50s variety shows, became a larger part of the mix of traditional acts such as jugglers, comedians, pop singers and opera singers.

Here are some of the popular TV variety shows of the 1960s:

The Andy Williams Show (1962-67, then 1969-71)
Starting off as a summer replacement show from 1959-62, Williams was finally given his own fall-season slot. For the most part, the program stuck to the variety format, though it did weigh heavily on musical acts. Andy Williams would open each show with his signature song, Moon River, and would often have another number. Williams was a pretty conservative guy and wasn’t interested in booking rock acts. Instead, he favored pop crooners with wholesome images like himself: Johnny Mathis, Engelbert Humperdinck, Dionne Warwick and Petula Clark, for instance. His namesake program is best remembered for introducing the world to The Osmond Brothers.

When his show was brought back in 1969, the world had radically changed. The program was rebranded with a hipper image for Andy Williams (check out his neckerchiefs!) and along with it, popular rock ‘n roll acts were booked.

The Hollywood Palace (1964-70)
This show took its name from the theater where it was filmed in Los Angeles. Like so many other variety programs, Palace had a rotating series of guest hosts. However, chief among them — the host with the most appearances — was Bing Crosby. This was a testament to its attempt to appeal to an older demographic. Mister Boomer remembers the show as tremendously popular with his parents. It was on every Saturday night, in glorious black & white on the Boomer household’s TV. To Mister Boomer, it was on par with watching Lawrence Welk at his grandmother’s house. Watching a guy keep plates spinning on sticks was pretty much squaresville as far as Mister B was concerned. At least Ed Sullivan was a weird character a kid could imitate at school. Despite old-people leanings, the show featured the first U.S. TV appearance of The Rolling Stones in 1964.

The Dean Martin Show (1965-74)
Dean Martin had been a host of TV variety shows with his comedian stage partner, Jerry Lewis, since the 1940s. In the 1960s, Martin hosted various variety shows alone many times until he was given a show of his own. There were different incarnations of names and a couple of different TV networks involved, but his Rat Pack, drink-in-hand, cigarette-smoking, tuxedo-wearing persona was always front and center.

In 1968, he introduced a female group of singers and dancers called The Golddiggers. They quickly became TV audience favorites and Martin made them the official dancers for the show. The group opened each episode, dressed in sparkly Folies-style leotards, introducing Dean Martin. The troupe was made up entirely of young women. They could sing and dance, but were also used as actors in sketches, often interacting with celebrity guests. While Mister Boomer’s mother enjoyed Dean Martin’s singing, his father especially liked The Golddiggers. That meant the show was always going to be viewed on the Boomer family TV.

The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour (1967-69)
While one variety show leaned toward music, others leaned toward comedy. Seeming to be, on the surface, a folk-singing comedy duo, the Smothers Brothers — Tom and Dick — used their show as a platform for topical, biting satire. They fearlessly bashed the Vietnam war, politics, sexuality and religion — all the taboo subjects that TV had for the most part avoided during the tumultuous decade up to that point.

Though the program was big on satirical comedy, and introduced the world to comedian Pat Paulsen, top musical acts of the decade were also featured. Included in the list of luminaries were The Who, Buffalo Springfield, The Doors, Simon and Garfunkel, the Hollies, the Temptations, Glen Campbell and many more. Where Hollywood Palace and The Andy Williams Show catered to boomers’ parents, The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour became a TV variety show voice of a new generation.

It is commonly thought that the brothers’ show was cancelled because of their political leanings, but that is not entirely the case. In fact, The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour had been renewed for the 1970 season. The brothers fought constant battles with CBS over censoring acts, sketches or parts of sketches, but it wasn’t until Tommy Smothers began lobbying against censorship to the FCC that CBS executives fired them. The brothers filed a breach of contract lawsuit and won compensation for the year of programs that never were.

The changing cultural scene that exploded in the late 1960s made its presence known on TV in several ways, including comedy and music. Perhaps chief among them was the rising influence and importance of rock ‘n roll in the culture. When acts appeared on TV variety shows, slowly but surely, the previous generation was put on notice that the Boomer Generation was shaking their windows and rattling their walls.

What variety shows did your family watch on TV in the 1960s, boomers?