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TV of 50 years ago is stiff competition for today's shows

'Honeymooners' might never be topped

Time and changes in televised entertainment are eating away at the long-standing concept of the television season that traditionally begins in the early fall, though it still is observed to some extent by the networks and some of the cable channels. Whether anything good and long-lasting will come out of the new season that is upon us no one can know at this point.

One thing is certain, however: It will have to go a long way to beat or even match the fall season of 50 years ago, when television was entering its "Golden Age."

The fall of 1955 saw the premiere of eight programs whose renown will last probably as long as the history of television continues to be written. Some are periodically seen in re-runs to this day, and one could make a good claim to being the best sitcom ever produced.

Add to them a number of memorable programs that were already on the air before 1955, and then recollect that they all emerged from only three channels and not scores, and you have quite an achievement indeed. (That

fall the airwaves were dominated by the three national networks that for three succeeding decades were virtually synonymous with American television — ABC, CBS and NBC — the DuMont network having ceased operations in May.)

The eight great premieres were "Gunsmoke," "The Lawrence Welk Show," "The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp," "The Millionaire," "The $64,000 Question," "Alfred Hitchcock Presents," "The Phil Silvers Show" and "The Honeymooners."

"The Honeymooners" might take the prize for all-time best sitcom if it were not for "I Love Lucy," which had been on CBS since Oct. 15, 1951, and which four years later was still in the top 10 programs, according to Nielsen ratings. Lucille Ball, who won the Emmy for best actress in a series that season, will never die, not as long as there are enterprises like TV Land and Nick at Nite.

"The Honeymooners" never dies, either, though strictly speaking its birth did not take place on Oct. 1, 1955. That was its inauguration as a weekly series, the one that we see in reruns.

"The Honeymooners" had always been a pet project of Jackie Gleason. It was first seen as a sketch on DuMont's "Cavalcade of Stars" in 1951, and when Gleason moved to CBS, he took it with him. As a weekly series it lasted only one season (39 episodes), but Gleason revived it again and again as part of future programs.

Of those eight premieres, only two did not belong to CBS: "Lawrence Welk" and "Wyatt Earp," which were ABC's. This was the year that CBS for the first time passed NBC to become the leading network, a position it held for two decades.

ABC was barely in the running. It began life as a radio network spun off from NBC, and for years struggled to cobble together a TV schedule. When it finally found its legs, they belonged to a horse.

ABC was the oater network at a time when all three networks had practically every third actor in the saddle. "Wyatt Earp," starring Hugh O'Brian, was its first Western entry, and once it found its niche, it busted it wide open. If it weren't for the prominence of CBS's "Gunsmoke," "Wyatt Earp" and other ABC Westerns might be better remembered, shows like "Maverick," "Tombstone Territory" and "Cheyenne."

But "Gunsmoke," starring James Arness, which originated as a radio program, was and is the benchmark Western. Like most of these 1955 premieres and other top shows of the time, it had considerable staying power. In fact, it had the most staying power. It ran for 20 years, longer than any other series with continuing characters, and when it left the air in 1975, it was the last Western on network television.

Others were no slouches. "Alfred Hitchcock Presents" (retitled "The Alfred Hitchcock Hour" in 1962 when it was expanded to an hour) ran for 10 years, jumping from CBS to NBC and then back to CBS and then to NBC again. "The Lawrence Welk Show" ran on ABC until 1971, when it left the network to produce new programs for syndication for 11 more years. It apparently will dance forever on PBS.

Some of the programs that were already established in 1955 also had impressive runs. Most impressive is "The Ed Sullivan Show" (original title, "Toast of the Town"), which lasted from 1948 to 1971 on CBS. "The Adventures of Ozzie & Harriet" began on ABC in 1952 and stayed there until its ending in 1966. And this at a time when the TV season commonly was more than 30 episodes, sometimes as many as 39.

"Wyatt Earp" and "Gunsmoke" brought the adult Western to TV. "The $64,000 Question" (which began in June rather than the fall) introduced another new concept in 1955 — that of the big-time quiz show. It spawned several imitators, including "Twenty-One," "The Big Surprise," and its own spin-off, "The $64,000 Challenge." The national scandal surrounding revelations of show-rigging in 1958 killed them off.

The stature of the 1955 season cannot be measured solely by these new programs. Wonderful programs continued from earlier years. This was the time of great live television drama, programs such as NBC's "Kraft Television Theatre" and "Robert Montgomery Presents," and CBS's "Climax" and "Studio One" (on which Mike Wallace appeared in two plays). The greatest of them all, CBS's "Playhouse 90," did not arrive until the next year.

Some of the great names of show business, former stars of vaudeville and movies, were at the peak of their fame at this time and enjoyed long runs on TV. George Burns and Gracie Allen started their show on CBS in 1950 and ended it in 1958 only because Gracie decided to retire. Groucho Marx's NBC comedy/quiz show, "You Bet Your Life," began on NBC the same year and lasted even longer, until 1961. It had originated on radio in 1947, and for a time it was broadcast over both media.

Another movie notable, Bob Cummings, also got his television start in 1955, though in his case it was in January rather than October. "The Bob Cummings Show" (the first of two under that name) premiered on NBC, jumped to CBS in the fall, and then in 1957 moved back to NBC where it stayed until 1959. This show, by the way, was a training ground for a young actor, Dwayne Hickman, who played Cummings' nephew and who went on to star in one of the most clever and innovative sitcoms of the 1960s, "The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis." At least a baker's dozen of other programs, veterans of the airwaves that had not yet lost their luster, added to the distinction of this remarkable television season, among them "Dragnet," "The Perry Como Show," "Father Knows Best" and "The Danny Thomas Show" (originally called "Make Room for Daddy").

And lest we make the mistake of thinking that the daily TV schedule ran only from 7 to 11 at night: On the same day that year — Oct. 3 — two programs debuted, one in the morning and one in the afternoon, that probably have had as profound an effect on our popular culture as any prime-time show ever. The first was "Captain Kangaroo" and the second was "The Mickey Mouse Club."

E-mail: Roger K. Miller, a journalist for many years, is a free-lance writer and reviewer for several publications, and a frequent contributor to the Deseret Morning News.