Tuesday, July 29, 2014

TV Flashback: Frat Boy Fracas

Remember this one? We've talked before about network executives' fondness for shows based on hit movies. One of the most extreme examples of this phenomenon came in 1979, following the unexpected box office success of National Lampoon's Animal House. ABC's Delta House, pictured above, was the authorized TV adaptation. But, lo and behold, NBC and CBS, too, greenlighted sitcoms centered on college hijinks. Brothers and Sisters (not to be confused with the later show starring Sally Field) was NBC's entry in the race, centering on the Greek life at Crandall College. It premiered in January 1979, and was a dead duck by April. CBS' Co-Ed Fever fared even worse. Its first "preview" showing, on Sunday, February 4, 1979, drew such low ratings that the network pulled the plug immediately, not even airing the other five episodes that were shot.

As for Delta House, it suffered from at least two disadvantages in its quest for TV success. As seen in this ad, the ensemble cast mostly lacked the name performers from the film, including Saturday Night Live's John Belushi. Aired in an early evening time slot, it didn't enjoy the freedom to include the type of raunchy humor that fueled the movie. Thirteen episodes aired between January and April 1979, but after that, the boys of Faber College once again flunked out.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Spaceman's Birthday

Happy birthday to Mark Goddard, born July 24, 1936 in Lowell, Massachusetts. Baby Boomer TV fans know him best as Major Don West from Lost in Space, but he also played recurring roles in Robert Taylor's ABC series The Detectives, and in the short-lived sitcom Many Happy Returns (CBS, 1964-65). As an actor, Mark didn't necessarily benefit from the changes that happened on Lost in Space in its second and third seasons, as the writers increasingly focused on Will Robinson, Dr. Zachary Smith, and the Robot. However, he continued to remain a fan favorite. After the show was canceled in 1968, he found it difficult to get acting jobs. Not until the 1980s did he enjoy a resurgence, when he landed contract roles on two popular daytime soap operas, One Life to Live and General Hospital, before going on to a new career as a teacher. 

Interviewed by syndicated columnist Dick Kleiner in 1985, Mark admitted he had once been ashamed of his association with Lost in Space: "But that was wrong of me. It was very popular with kids, and they loved it. [They] grew up with that show for three very important years in their lives. They all know me as Maj. Don West. That's a good feeling." Today, he meets those fans at nostalgia conventions, and through his website. He's also the author of a memoir, To Space and Back. 

Many happy returns, Mark!  

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Lunchtime Vittles with the Clampetts

Many Baby Boomers will remember the classic lunchboxes of the 1960s, with artwork representing some of TV's most popular shows. Here we have the cast of The Beverly Hillbillies, but you could probably find a box for almost any show you liked. Many of these items, in good condition, go for big bucks on eBay or other online stores. But you might also pick one up at a flea market or garage sale.

Mine from elementary school showed Charles Schulz's Snoopy. Did you have one?

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Dr. Horwich's Video Nursery School

Happy birthday to Frances Horwich (July 16, 1907 - July 22, 2001), the professor of education who unexpectedly became an early TV star hosting the popular kids' show Ding Dong School. Seen five days a week on NBC-TV from 1952 to 1956, Dr. Horwich's "nursery school of the air" was one of the first shows to demonstrate television's capacity for teaching the young. After leaving the network, Ding Dong School continued in syndication until the mid-1960s, and was widely viewed by the Baby Boomer generation.

Committed to her beliefs as an educator, Dr. Horwich didn't abandon her principles when she went on television -- she vetoed sponsors whose products she thought shouldn't be peddled to her audience, and resisted efforts to make her gentle, low-key show splashier or more frivolous. When NBC executives wanted to expand her show to an hour, she balked; she thought 30 minutes was enough time in front of the set. Asked in 1954 how television impacted children, she said, "I am torn between my background as an educator and my current status as a network performer. But I do feel that television should not interfere with outdoor play, nor should it function as a baby sitter." 

If you've never seen Ding Dong School, you can visit Dr. Horwich's video classroom here.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Authors on the Loose

We're ba-ack! My fellow author Peggy Vonsherie Allen and I will reprise our program, "So You Want to Write a Book," next Tuesday, July 15 at 7 p.m., at the DeKalb County Public Library's Toco Hill branch.
We'll be talking about the many steps, stumbles, and dilemmas of getting a book published in the 21st century. You might also hear a little bit about Joan Davis, and about Peggy's experiences growing up in Alabama as the daughter of a sharecropper. The program is sponsored by the Friends of the Toco Hill Library; Ms. Allen's books and mine will be available for purchase and signing after the talk.

Come by and see us!

Sunday, July 6, 2014

It's Poppo's Birthday

Happy birthday to one of classic TV's most familiar faces: actor William Schallert. Born July 6, 1922, Schallert has a list of film and television credits that could fill this entire entry. Suffice it to say that, whether you remember him as high school teacher Leander Pomfritt on The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis, Carson Drew on The Nancy Drew Mysteries, or his beloved role as "Poppo" on The Patty Duke Show, he's left his mark as an actor. Star Trek fans know him for his role in the classic "Trouble with Tribbles" episode, just one of his countless guest appearances. Behind the scenes, he worked extensively with the Screen Actors' Guild, serving as president from 1979 to 1981.

Many of his career memories were captured in a wide-ranging interview he gave to the Archive of American Television in 2012. He also has an official website containing a wonderful array of photos and memorabilia. Happy birthday, Mr. Schallert, and thanks for the memories.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Teen Sleuths Investigate Prime Time TV

When ABC debuted The Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew Mysteries in January 1977, I was at the upper end of the 10-to-14 age bracket at which the books were supposedly aimed. But having followed the adventures of the Hardys for much of my childhood, I was curious to see how this new series would portray them.

The format called for a "Hardy Boys" segment, starring Shaun Cassidy as Joe and Parker Stevenson as Frank, to alternate with a "Nancy Drew" segment, in which Pamela Sue Martin took the lead. (Every fifth week would be devoted to that classic bit of TV kitsch, The Brady Bunch Hour.) Arlene Sidaris, who produced the show with Joyce Brotman, explained to journalist Joan Hanauer on the eve of its debut, "We grew up on Nancy Drew. It was probably my first reading. Nancy Drew just brought back memories of this terrific girl who got into all of these wonderfully exciting situations and fought herself out of them."

From the outset, the series' 7 p.m. Sunday time slot meant formidable competition for family viewership from NBC's long-running The Wonderful World of Disney. According to Sidaris, producers and executives hoped to attract a broad audience to the Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew shows. "We think the kids who are reading the books now will watch, that the format is fun and exciting for younger children and that the older members of the family will be attracted by nostalgia. Certainly they'll view the first shows to see what we've done, and we hope they'll be entertained by them."

The show performed well enough at the outset to be renewed for a second season, but didn't achieve lasting popularity. Ratings for the Hardy Boys segments benefited from Shaun Cassidy's following as a pop singer, but by late 1977 the separate Nancy Drew segments were dropped (with Nancy folded into the boys' adventures), and the show was ultimately canceled in 1979. The books, however, are still being read by kids today, though in modified form from what we Baby Boomers loved. To see how some longtime fans of these classic series keep the memories alive, go here.