John Delach

On The Outside Looking In

Month: April, 2022

Live From New York, It’s Saturday Night

Early TV: Part Four – Late Night / Early Morning TV

Today, TV is on the air twenty-four hours a day. Morning news programming on ABC, CBS and NBC begins at 4 AM. Fox starts at 4:30 AM. Between one am and four, they play re-runs of their popular shows.

Twenty-two years ago, when I was active, I would leave my house at 5:25 to catch the 5:36 Long Island Railroad train from Port Washington that deposited me into Penn Station at 6:20. Back then, WNBC’s local morning show hosted by Matt Lauer and Jane Hansen didn’t air until six am, followed at seven by The Today Show, one of NBC’s biggest money-makers.

Since 2000, Today has expanded from a two-hour broadcast into a four-hour monster. Understandably, NBC pushed this expansion after nine am so that their new entertainment segments didn’t interfere with early morning news, traffic and weather. ABC, CBS and FOX followed the same format. They all understood not to interfere with early morning commuter’s needs. Simon and Garfinkle explained these needs in, The Only Living Boy in New York:

“I get the news I need from the weather report,

I can gather all the news I need on the weather report.” 

On the back end, actual broadcasts once ended at 11 pm. We would realize that the broadcast was at an end when the stars and stripes flying in the wind appeared on the screen and a non-vocal recording of our National Anthem filled the speaker. Once the Anthem ended, the screen would revert to a test pattern, an image of a circle within a square with lots of curious information as an annoying tone filled the television’s speakers. This is the NBC test pattern:

(NOTE: For reasons beyond my control, I cannot include the test pattern in the body of this piece, If you are interested you can either look it up or let me know and I will send it to you separately.)       

The NBC Pattern was developed in variations of it became the staple of all television stations when they went off the air and before they resumed broadcasting the following morning. The lines and circles were designed to give electrical engineers the means to calibrate the stations visible image. NBC’s test pattern included an image of an “Indian Head,” positioned at twelve o’clock on their test pattern. The reason for using this image is lost to history, but my research found that it was used to set brightness and contrast. The test pattern was used by commercial TV from 1947 until 1977.

In their early days, most TV stations didn’t broadcast between midnight and Six AM on weekdays. Weekends, especially, Sundays, was anybody’s guess as “Blue Laws” prevailed in most of America. NBC was a leader in expanding these boundaries. First up was The Today Show that revolutionized morning news, information and entertainment beginning in 1954.

A late-night show followed that same year, Tonight Across America After Dark that originally aired from 11:20 to Midnight on Weekdays. The inaugural host was Steve Allen, but in 1957, NBC picked Allen to host NBC’s new Sunday night variety show. A gaggle of minor league talent filled in as hosts including Jack Lescoulie and Al “Jazzbo” Collins until Jack Parr took the reins of the newly formatted Tonight Show Starring Jack Parr.

NBC had gone two for two in re-defining weekday morning and late-night TV. Then, on October 11, 1975, they unveiled their latest venture, the show that revolutionized late-night weekend TV, Saturday Night Live. Produced by Lorne Michaels, SNL remains on the ai, r and has run for 47 seasons with over 925 episodes.

When you look-up the original cast, it is hard to believe that it included so many stars, all still household names: Loraine Newman, John Belushi, Jane Curtin, Gilda Radner, Dan Aykroyd, Garrett Morris and Chevy Chase.

Sunday afternoon was the dead zone. The 1950s church going Christian America’s ritual included the Three PM dinner centered around a Sunday Roast, beef, chicken or ham, mashed potatoes, beans and / or other vitals depending on geography, religion, family and origin.    

The oddest late-night show was Open End hosted by David Susskind. It was truly open ended with no set time to leave the airways. The show began at 11 pm on Sunday nights with suggested end time of one am, But it could continue into the wee hours of Monday morning. His guests included the likes of James Baldwin, William F. Buckley and Norman Mailer who would discuss, debate and at times shout at each other about current and controversial events, thoughts and beliefs.

Most guests were male smokers and a veil of smoke descended as the show continued. Alcohol also seemed to be available to guests at least surreptitiously as the FCC banned all alcohol on TV

I watched it several times especially if Buckley was a guest who could hold his own with anyone. I remember one memorable evening when Buckley went at it with Mailer. Mailer was pissed off from the start over the preface in Buckley’s new book. One of Buckley’s friend and associate wrote the preface and he made the comment that Mailer was a freak.

Mailer went on and on about the comment as Buckley posed in an armchair slumped down, head leaning on the back of the chair and with his legs dangling to one side. Finally, Mailer stopped for air. Buckley tilted his head toward Mailer so their eyes met then spoke in his peculiar Connecticut / Yale accent: “Ah, but, ah, well, ah, but, ah, Mr. Mailer, you are a freak.”

Now, that’s entertainment.

“And Away We Go”

Part Two: Early Network Variety Shows

When Drew called me to ask about early television, he asked one question that brought forth a tidal wave of memories: “Grandpa, who was the one person that stands out from all others on early television?”

My instinctive reply was, “Milton Berle! Drew, he was television’s first superstar and the first to have his own TV variety show. Uncle Milty was a veteran stage comedian who gained fame entertaining mostly Jewish people on vacation in summer resorts in the Catskill Mountains that became known as the Borsch Belt.”

“Berle depended mainly on sight-gags that mostly took advantage of him. Slapstick, overdressed in drag costumes, one mimicking Britain’s Queen Victoria, insulting the audience and being the victim of pranks by the crew and fellow actors were all part of his routine. Being hit in the face with pies was common. Uncle Milty took it to a new level. If someone used the expression ‘make-up’ in a skit, within seconds, a man would appear from back-stage holding an enormous bowl of powder. He’d come right up to ‘Uncle Milty,’ take out an enormous powder puff and smash it into Milty’s face while repeating: ‘Makeup.”

“We didn’t even have a TV when I first saw the show. The hour-long show was carried on NBC each Tuesday night from 8 to 9 pm and, one night, my mother and I were invited by our next-door neighbor, Mrs. (Florence) Meyer (who also didn’t have a television set) to join her in visiting a relative who lived two blocks from our house to watch the show.”

“I remember a crowded living room, a sea of adults, a very small screen in the distance where I could make out vague black and white images. I understood that this was unique even if only because my normal bedtime was 7 pm and my mom must have thought this was important enough that I was allowed to watch it.”

  “The actual name was The Texaco Star Theatre starring Milton Berle. Texaco was the only sponsor and the show began and ended with four male chorus line actors dressed like Texaco mechanics. They began the show by walking onstage in front of a curtain. One carried a gas pump, the second, a wrench, the third, something that looked like a metal soup plate to collect oil, and the fourth, a portable jack. They broke into song. The opening lines were:

Oh, we’re the men of Texaco,

We work from Maine to Mexico,

There’s nothing like the Texaco of ours…

Uncle Milty ran from 1948 until 1956 and his show was but the first nugget from a gold mine of variety shows that owned TV in the 1950s.

Ed Sullivan’s Toast of the Town soon followed on CBS. His 60-minute variety show aired from 8pm to 9 pm on Sunday nights. Sullivan was a former gossip columnist for the Daily News who had been writing a popular column entitled: Little Ole New York, since 1932. He seemed to know everybody who was anybody in New York.

One of the features of his show was Sullivan calling out members of his studio audience who had recently accomplished something extraordinary.  Pre-planned, he would seem to be searching for that individual. Once he spotted them, he’d announce, “Ladies and Gentlemen, we are honored to have (for example) John Glenn in the house tonight. Commander Glenn has just broken the speed record flying his US Navy fighter jet from Los Angeles to New York in 3 hours, 23 minutes and 8.4 seconds at a speed of 725.55 mph. Stand up Commander Glenn and give him a hand”

Comedian Alan King, a frequent guest summed up Sullivan’s talents: “Ed Sullivan can’t sing, can’t dance and can’t tell a joke, but he does it better than anyone else.”

Other shows joined Berle and Sullivan. Croner, Perry Como starred in the Perry Como Chesterfield Show, a 15-minute presentation that ran three nights a week beginning in 1950.

Arthur Godfrey switched from radio to TV in 1949. His most memorable incident was when he fired his singing sensation, Julius LaRosa, an act of anger that hurt both of their careers.

Sid Caesar’s Show of Shows had a relatively short life (1950 to 1954) and is best remembered for its brilliant writers that included Mel Brooks, Neil Simon, Mel Tolkin, Selma Diamond and Carl Reiner.

Jackie Gleason’s Cavalcade of Stars debuted in 1949 on the DuMont network before jumping to NBC the following year. Gleason would begin each show with an opening monologue and then transition to one of his set pieces with the line:

  • And away we go!

These pieces included, Joe the Bartender, The Poor Soul, Crazy Guggenheim, Reggie Van Gleason and the Honeymooners. By 1955, Gleason wanted to move on so he ended his variety show and spun off The Honeymooners as a half-hour situation comedy.

Gleason played Ralph Kramden, a city bus driver who lived with his wife, Alice in a walk-up Brooklyn pre-WW II apartment. Audrey Meadows played Alice on the big show and the comedy series. Art Carney, played their neighbor, Ed Norton, and, Joyce Randolph, played his wife, Thelma, “Trixie” Norton. Ed worked for the NYC Department of Sewers. The show’s staging was set in the Kramden’s kitchen.

Ralph Kramden had a line that was nothing less than a threat of wife-beating that was acceptable in those days: “One of these days, Alice, pow to the moon.”

Considered a classic situation comedy, the actual show that premiered in 1956 didn’t receive good ratings and only lasted 39 episodes.

The era of variety shows continued for several decades and included ones like The Steve Allen Show, The Carol Burnett Show, Laurence Welk, The Smother Brothers Show, In Living Color, Hee-Haw and Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In.

Today, reality shows like Survivor, various versions of Real Housewives, America’s Got Talent, Dancing with the Stars, The Bachelor and American Idol fill the airwaves. Thanks anyway, I’ll take a pie in the face or “Make-up” instead any day of the week.

Good Evening Mr. and Mrs. America and All the Ships at Sea

Part One: Early National News Programs

Recently, I received a semi-desperate call from by oldest grandson seeking help with an assignment about early television.

“Grandpa, the teacher is a jerk. I just took this course to complete the few credits I need to graduate. Turns out it’s mostly freshmen and the jerk is full of his own self-importance. He wants me to interview someone about the early days of TV before cable: Help!”

“Drew, I bet he’s only a couple of years older than you. Do you want to blow his socks off and take TV back to the late 1940s?”

“Sure thing, Gramps. How many TV stations did you get back in the day? Now that I think about it, how did you actually receive the stations?”

“Drew, let me explain by describing the television sets back then. If you had a 12-inch screen, you considered yourself to be lucky. Most were 10-inch and there were even some eight-inch screens. The early sets were built into fancy cabinets, pieces of furniture. In the New York area, we had the choice of seven channels. New York was the media capital of America and all of the national networks were anchored here.

CBS had Channel 2, NBC; 4, ABC; 7 and a fourth network, DuMont, that went out of business in 1956, broadcasted on Channel 5. Three independents; WOR, occupied Channel 9, WPIX, Channel 11 and WNET, a station based in Newark, NJ. on Channel 13 filled out our choices.

Each signal was sent out over the airways by way of Very High Frequency (VHF) communication channels that like radio frequencies were owned by the Federal Government who licensed them out to private broadcasters. I thought about explaining to Drew that VHF signals were similar to radio transmissions, but I also realized he’s never had a radio.

To receive these signals, we had to purchase individual antennas. Metal antennas mounted on the roofs of houses worked best, but for those living in apartment buildings, the only alternative were individual internal antennas that sat on the top of the TV. These devices had two telescoping metal rods that we would raise above the base. Called, “rabbit ears,” we would turn the device and adjust the length of the rods to receive the clearest signal available for that channel.

I explained to Drew just how primitive early television newscasts could be. “One of the early TV newscasters was Walter Winchell, a famous gossip columnist, mud raker and political power broker. Winchell began his broadcasts sitting behind and oversized desk wearing a stylish striped suit, a vest and tie. He wore his trademark fedora tilted to one side in a jaunty fashion.

“In his hands, he held a sheaf of papers and on cue, he looked up at the camera and began his broadcast with: ‘Good evening, Mr. and Mrs. America and all the ships at sea. Let’s go to press.’

A telegraph key was affixed to the right-hand corner his desk and he would announce each new topic by striking the key to make a clicking sound.”

The Networks all seemed to get their act together almost simultaneously in 1948 that saw an explosion of programming that included their first forays into legitimate news reporting.  First up was NBC with its Camel News Caravan starring John Cameron Swayze that presented a 15-minute news show every week day evening.

First launched on Februaray16, 1948, the studio featured Mr. Swayze dressed in a suit sitting behind a large desk, a pencil in his right hand and a sheaf of papers in front of him. Behind him, a cut-out map of the world hung on a wall and at the front end of his desk, his name was set out on raised in blocks flanked on either side by two reproductions of the Camel Cigarette camels.

The sponsor’s name was used repeatedly during the broadcast. Swayze would read the preface for each story, then introduce a local correspondent and send it off to that person who made their report while the film about this story rolled.

A single commercial in the middle of the broadcast featured screen and sport’s celebrities shilling for Camel cigarettes.

NBC was soon followed by CBS who inaugurated CBS Television News featuring Douglas Edwards on May 3, 1948 that also adopted a 15-minute format, five nights a week at 7:30 p.m.

ABC was late to the dance and didn’t become an alternative until late in the 1950s.

NBC re-established their preeminence in 1956 when they completely revamped their evening news format, abandoned a sponsor named broadcast, expanding the format to 30 minutes and replacing Swayze with The Huntley-Brinkley Report -starring Chet Huntley, broadcasting from NBC’s New York H.Q. and David Brinkley in Washington, D.C.

Premiering on October 26, 1956, it blew the socks off of Douglas Edwards. CBS wouldn’t begin to regain ground until 1961 when they replaced Edwards with Walter Cronkite.

I began this piece with the opening to Walter Winchell’s primitive TV news show. I end it with the now famous closing line to The Huntley-Brinkley Report:

 “Good night, Chet. Good night, David. And good night, for NBC News.”                        

Putin’s Debacle

Putin is a stone-cold killer. He is a sociopath and a thug. He is Russian to the core and his fears and paranoia reflect those of his people. He and they fear NATO. They fear any and all perceived threats from the West. The horrific toll from that the Patriotic War (World War II) has become part of their DNA. Pick a number anywhere from 24 million to 32 million Russians killed during that war and you can begin to understand their paranoia. Never mind that Stalin killed at least a third of those lost because Uncle Joe defeated the Nazis and that’s what Russians choose to remember.

Add to this how the misfits that constitute the Russian Army fight a war; with all the finesse of a bear in a China shop (pun intended.) Armor, artillery, missiles and overwhelming numbers are their Gods. Hit the enemy hard. Hit them relentlessly. Make them succumb to fear, hunger and deprivation. Attack without regard for any sense of honor or the rules of war, let alone basic human compassion.

When Putin began his invasion of the Ukraine on February 24, he fully expected his forces to produce a shock wave that would force President Zelensky, his government, his ill-prepared army and the Ukrainian people to fold like a cheap suit.

I admit, I too thought this would happen. Thankfully, I was wrong. As for Putin, f**k him and the horse he rode in on. I imagined that even if the Ukrainians put up a fight, their meager forces would be quickly overwhelmed. Videos shown on American news stations showing local citizens filling wine bottles with jellied gasoline to make Molotov cocktails didn’t give me any encouragement. Molotov cocktails are final acts of desperation.

Little did I know how the NATO block would overwhelmingly choose to come to the aid of Ukraine with state-of-the-art tank killing weapons: Unprecedented!

Of course, neither the USA or NATO were prepared to take the fight back to Putin to the degree needed. The Western world was not about to start World War III, nuclear war and all that shit.

But we did arm and re-arm and continue to re-arm the Ukrainian army with tank killing  equalizers that include one from the UK and one from the USA. Different in design, sophistication and range, curiously, when used together, they presented the Ukrainians with death to Russian tanks and armored personnel carriers, (APCs.)

On March 19, The New York Times published a story by John Ismay about how these weapons were destroying Russia’s tanks by the dozens. The British version has the un-sexy acronym for a name: NLAW or: Next Generation Light Anti-Tank Weapon. “The NLAW weighs just under 28 pounds and has no camera.” It takes about 15 seconds to setup and fire. Accurate up to a half-mile, the NLAW projectile destroys its target in less than 15 seconds.

Originally developed by the Swedish company, Saab, Great Britain manufactures these close-in attack weapons at a plant in Belfast under license.

The American Javelin, is an older, heavier but more sophisticated guided weapon with a substantially greater range. “The Javelin, which was designed at the end of the Cold War consist of two parts, a 15-pound reusable launcher that soldiers often use for reconnaissance and surveillance, given its suite of thermal cameras that can zoom in and out for finding targets, and a 33-pound disposable tube that contains the missile.”

The Javelin has a kill range of up to two and one-half miles.

Both weapons can be programmed to fly above the target and detonate downward in order to penetrate the lighter armor on the top or rear of the tank or APC rather than hitting the face which has the heaviest armor. Crew and passengers are annihilated.

“The capabilities of the two weapons make the Javelin more like a sniper rifle for taking out armored vehicles at extreme distances while the NLAW is better for close-quarter battles and ambush scenarios.”

So far, Russian tanks and APCs have not been able to develop a defense against these weapons and make-shift attempts have proven to be futile.

In a recent interview with an anonymous British diplomat, he told  told Mr. Ismay:

“Given that the Ukrainians are unable to fight Russian armor with tanks of their own, they must use different tactics. The Ukrainians have shown the will and the extraordinary nerve to get close to the tanks and destroy them in these missile attacks.

“They’re fighting an existential threat and they’re not giving up. So, we’ve given them, at their request as a sovereign nation, the tools to go and do this.”

God bless these brave patriots.

Unfortunately, Putin, like Stalin can’t back down. Stalin couldn’t because his was in a war of national survival. Putin has put himself into a war of personal survival.

Modern history has taught us that Russian strategy, when faced with unexpected resistance on the field of battle, has been to withdraw, regroup, and re-attack in mass at their convenience.

So far, Putin is sending out mixed signals. His agents have entered into primitive peace negotiations while missiles and artillery continue to target Ukraine. As far as I can see Putin remains married to the same gameplan, annex ”The Ukraine.”               ‘ 

Ultimately. it may take considerable sacrifice by NATO, which means the USA, to save Ukraine. Are we up for such a war? Given the alternative, I sincerely hope that is who we are, a nation of True Grit, Only time will tell.