You don’t need Mr. Peabody’s Wayback Machine to travel back to television’s first decade. 50s TV Classics will do that for you, a collection of three discs of the once popular variety programs of the era along with examples of Horse Operas, game shows, and children’s programming. It’s a grab-bag of entertainment with no pretense of being anything but what it is—a sampling of ’50s TV that can’t be considered representative, a “Best Of,” or necessarily educational. But 50s TV Classics are a heck of a lot of fun.
Without question, it’s the comedy and music shows that offer the biggest names anyone could ask for. On disc one, you don’t get much bigger than The Bob Hope Show recorded at an Air Force base in Morocco in 1957. On that occasion, Hope swapped wisecracks with guest stars like Eddie Fischer and Gary Crosby, Bing’s son. Likewise, The Chevy Show With Dinah Shore has the singer mixing pop songs with comedy sketches with Betty Hutton, Art Carney, and Boris Karloff. Silliness is the order of the day for a 1950 The Ed Wynn Show featuring the Three Stooges. But it’s hard to get much sillier than another 1950 half-hour broadcast, in this case a Saturday kid’s program called The Paul Winchell & Jerry Mahoney Show. This one starred ventriloquist Winchell and his puppets entertaining a studio audience of children playing contests and hearing all about the wonders of Tootsie Rolls. Sigh. I couldn’t help thinking all those screaming youngsters are all now in their 60s.
Disc two opens with three episodes of the very long-running Death Valley Days (1952–1975), an anthology series famously sponsored by 20 Mule Team Borax. The most successful syndicated Western in history was narrated by a series of hosts, in the ‘50s being the “Old Ranger” (Stanley Andrews). Like the hosts to follow–Ronald Reagan, Robert Taylor, and Dale Robertson—the Ranger introduced purportedly true stories set in the Old West. Here, we get three stories based around women leads: a Mormon wife unhappy about the hardships in a new Utah settlement in 1862, a snooty Washington D.C. debutante unhappy about moving to Nevada, and a young school teacher who tames a wild batch of students with unusual methods. The disc is rounded off with the “Champagne Music” of The Lawrence Welk Show and the comedy of “Mr. Color Television” clowning with Mickey Rooney on The Milton Berle Show in 1956. (I didn’t know Rooney was such a spot on impressionist.)
The third disc is primarily game shows including the original Beat the Clock, a Goodson-Todman production hosted by Bud Collyer, then best known for portraying Superman on radio, TV, and film. This episode is a bit different as the prop guys keep unintentionally popping balloons before a contest began; apparently there was something wrong with the tape as we don’t see how the contestant solved the problem. This package also offers a rather choice edition of Name That Tune as it consisted of highlights from past contests. It’s amazing how funny a rodeo cowboy of very, very few words can be and how popular he became throughout the weeks he appeared on the show.
Then we get two especially delightful games of Do You Trust Your Wife? hosted by popular ventriloquist Edgar Bergen. Half of each show consists of Bergen and one of his two famous dummies, Charlie McCarthy and Mortimer Snerd, tossing out adlibs and comic bits with the guests. Did you know many people in 1956, including some Hollywood stars, preferred to rent rather than purchase television sets?
The ride concludes with a 1954 outing of The Red Skelton Show. After an extended appearance from Ole Stoneface himself, Ed Sullivan, Red stars in a long saloon-set sketch called “Deadeye and the Indians.” This show seems a tad out of place on this disc—I’d have switched it with the Paul Winchell show for a bit of consistency. The ventriloquists and the puppets would have been together, and Ed Wynn and Skelton would make for a perfectly matched combination.
Describing this set as a “Collector’s Edition” is overselling the package as none of the selections are historically special on their own and there is no booklet letting viewers learn anything about the context of the series. For example, after Edgar Bergen left Do You Trust Your Wife?, the show’s title was changed to Who Do You Trust? with new host Johnny Carson joined by a new announcer, Ed McMahon. Their partnership, of course, would last for decades. The box lists the shows, the year of the broadcast—when known—and the episode titles, and that’s it. Fans of the guest stars like Ed Sullivan, Mickey Rooney, Art Carney, Boris Karloff, The Three Stooges etc. won’t know anything about their appearances from the box. Nor are there any notes about why these programs were chosen. This seems an important omission as few viewers are likely to know much, if anything, about these shows even if they saw them when they were originally broadcast. Does anyone under 60 know who Ed Wynn was?
Still, this is a very enjoyable if uneven set giving us classic entertainment with real staying power. Whether videotaped or live, these are hours of good family watching all these years after these programs initially aired. This is the case even if puppet shows overtly hyping Tootsie Rolls would offend politically correct parents who’d damn silly characters praising unhealthy chocolate treats. Or if we see ads hyping the joys of Camel and L&M cigarettes. Yes, those were more innocent times with much to laugh about. For many, this package could be an introduction into an era they missed first time around. There are other such anthologies out there—we can always use more.