By Anthony Strand
Right On Schedule is a series looking at a network’s primetime schedule for one night during one TV season. It aims to examine the shows in relation to one another, TV as a whole, and sometimes even the culture as a whole.
CBS Saturdays (1955–1956)
7:00 The Gene Autry Show
7:30 Beat the Clock
8:00 Stage Show
8:30 The Honeymooners
9:00 Two for the Money
9:30 It’s Always Jan
10:30 Damon Runyon Theatre
When people talk about TV-viewing habits of the 1950s, it’s often in the context of family togetherness. Legend holds that in those days, families would gather around the set to enjoy programming together. This view was crystallized in my mind by one of my favorite episodes of TV: “Saturday,” from Gary David Goldberg’s short-lived Brooklyn Bridge, which was kind of a Jewish Wonder Years set in the 1950s (Okay, it was that exactly). At the end of that episode, the Silver family ends the day by watching CBS’s evening of shows. So when I started writing this column, I decided that that block would be a natural to examine the wide-net quality of the era’s network scheduling.
This lineup certainly gives the impression that the legends are true. Among these eight half-hour shows, we find something designed to appeal to every member of the ideal 1950s family: two sitcoms, two game shows, two westerns, a variety show, and a dramatic anthology. That’s a whole lot of genres to pack into one night of TV—it would be unthinkable now—and there’s even more variety than there seems to be at first glance.
The only actual variety program on the schedule, Stage Show was a music revue that tried to appeal to fans of all musical genres. The show was hosted by big band leaders Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey, who were two decades into their run as popular musicians. It also featured regular appearances by the June Taylor Dancers, one of the most reliable chorus-line acts on TV at the time. But many of its guests were young, fresh acts such as Bobby Darin. Most notable among this season’s guest stars was Elvis Presley, who made his first-ever national TV appearance on Stage Show‘s Jan. 28th, 1956 episode. He appeared five more times before the season ended, even performing with Dorsey brothers, who were old enough to be his father.
While Stage Show brought the generations together, the rest of the schedule took a divide-and-conquer approach. The pairs of sitcoms, game shows, and especially westerns were diametrically opposed, claiming different sections of the potential audience.
Technically Gunsmoke and The Gene Autry Show were part of the same genre, but they don’t have anything in common apart from a cowboy hat prop. Gunsmoke had a very clear setting (Dodge City in 1874 for its entire 20-year run), while Gene Autry took place in a generic Old West. Gunsmoke‘s lead Matt Dillon (James Arness) was a dedicated sheriff, but Gene was whatever the plot needed him to be. Matt was stoic, while Gene sang jaunty cowboy tunes as often as possible. Gunsmoke had a stable of well-rounded, fully-realized supporting characters. Gene Autry had future Green Acres star Pat Buttram doing his squeaky-voiced yokel routine.
All of which is to say that Gunsmoke was made for adults and The Gene Autry Show was made for children. That’s why CBS scheduled them three hours apart. Right after supper, kids could thrill to the adventures and sway to the music of their favorite white-hat. Later, once the kids were in bed, Mom, Dad, Grandpa, and Uncle Herbert could enjoy mature tales of the Old West.
Similarly, the night’s two sitcoms were split along gender lines, at least in their general appeal. While I’m sure that plenty of women enjoyed The Honeymooners and that men likely sampled It’s Always Jan, each was clearly designed with one sex in mind. The Honeymooners, as you probably know, starred Jackie Gleason as grumpy, good-hearted bus driver Ralph Kramden, Audrey Meadows as his sharp-tongued wife Alice, and Art Carney as his dim-witted pal Ed Norton (the second character in this lineup to share a full name with a future Oscar nominee). While Alice was nearly always right about everything she and Ralph disagreed on, the show’s point of view was undoubtedly Ralph’s. It was a show about a man trying his best to provide for his family, which many post-war husbands could undoubtedly relate to.
It’s Always Jan was unavoidably female in its outlook. Broadway star Janis Paige starred as Jan Stewart, a nightclub singer whose husband had died in World War II. She and her kids lived with her two roommates, a secretary named Pat and a model named Val. Proving that TV has aped hit movies since its infancy, the three women were suspiciously similar to the characters from How to Marry a Millionaire. Just like that movie, romance was a major focus, as all three women dated a succession of suitors. And proving that TV can also ape itself, the series borrowed a lot from I Love Lucy (which creator Bob Schiller spent two seasons writing for), particularly in its frequent use of musical numbers at the nightclub.
(Paige and Schiller are both still alive, by the way. She just turned 90, and he’s set to turn 94 next month. That has nothing to do with the schedule. I just think it’s impressive.)
In between the two sitcoms was Two For the Money, a quiz show that couples could laugh at together. The game play was simple—pairs of players were given a category, and they had to come up with as many matches for that category as they could within a set time limit—but the real focus was on host Herb Shriner. Shriner, a folksy comedian whose specialty was telling stories about his Indiana upbringing, was marketed as the next Groucho Marx (by which I mean that he was a game show host who told jokes), and the show was as much a comedy as it was a quiz show. But the verbal gags appealed to a different, more literate sense of humor than either of the night’s sitcoms.
Beat the Clock, which aired ninety minutes earlier, was the opposite of literate—its challenges were entirely physical. A giant clock on the wall counted down from 60, and contestants won money for completing a variety of “stunts” within the time limit. The game required a certain level of agility, and families could root for the contestants to succeed or fail as they saw fit. It was a visceral, exciting show that needed to be aired early in the schedule. Things naturally settled down as the night went on, from the exciting Gene Autry and Beat the Clock to the mellow Two for the Money and the more mature Damon Runyon Theatre.
Damon Runyon Theatre, which closed out the night, was an anthology series presenting adaptations of Runyon’s short stories. Each week, the author’s small-time gangsters, hustlers, and assorted vagabonds took center stage. Characters like those Runyon favored would have been a hard sell in a continuing series at the time (or for several decades thereafter), during the time when common logic dictated that TV leads should be upstanding and likable and noble. Runyon’s characters were charismatic, but they were hardly role models. But in a single half-hour, they could tidily meet their fates. This allowed the series to focus on all manner of unsavory characters, as far from Gene Autry as you could ask for.
Something for everyone indeed.
Previously on Right On Schedule: ABC Fridays (1970-1971)
Anthony Strand is a middle-school librarian who often baffles his students by talking about old things that they’ve never heard of. He lives in Fulton, Missouri with his wife and their extensive collection of Muppet stuff. He sometimes blogs here, and you can follow him on Twitter here.