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Chris Hicks: 'Omnibus' honors the arts

Conductor Leonard Bernstein in rehearsal, circa 1958.
Conductor Leonard Bernstein in rehearsal, circa 1958.
Deseret News Archives

Back in the day — as in, more than 50 years ago — fledgling TV networks would dabble in the arts with no apologies. And the program that received the highest acclaim for doing so was "Omnibus," which leads off this look at TV shows newly released on DVD.

"Leonard Bernstein: Omnibus" (E1, 1954-57, four discs, b/w, $49.98). Like many anthology shows in the early days of television, "Omnibus" was often broadcast live, and it was a staple of the early Sunday evening lineup, hosted by Alistair Cook.

But this show wasn't merely rotating dramas, although there were some. "Omnibus" shifted from complete performances to collections of excerpts, from musical comedy to classic literature, from documentaries to treatises on ballet, opera and music in general. (Jacques Cousteau got his start with his underwater documentaries on this program.)

This first of a series of "Omnibus" DVDs collects seven of the most popular episodes, all presented and performed by Leonard Bernstein — programs that haven't been seen in their entirety since they aired live in the mid-1950s. The affable musician offers master classes on Beethoven, Bach, jazz, musical comedy, opera and the art of conducting. And as a bonus, there's a 1955 live performance of Handel's "Messiah."

Bernstein, who was comfortable with all of these musical forms, had already dabbled in stage musicals and would go on to compose what is arguably his most popular and populist work, "West Side Story." Some aspects of these kinescopes are dated, of course, but it doesn't really detract from the love of music that comes through.

And an unexpected gift is the presence of a very young Carol Burnett in the "Musical Comedy" program. She gets two upbeat solos, "Heat Wave" (from "As Thousands Cheer") and "Give Him the Ooh-La-La" (from "DuBarry Was a Lady"), which also demonstrate her comedy prowess.

Extras: full frame, seven programs, bonus "Messiah" program, trailers; 24-page booklet

"Country's Greatest Stars Live: Volume One" (Shout! 1978, two discs, $29.99)."Country's Greatest Stars Live: Volume Two" (Shout! 1978, two discs, $29.99). These two sets collect seven hourlong country-music programs that were performed live at the Grand Ole Opry House in Nashville over five months in 1978.

"Volume One" has Glen Campbell hosting two shows and Dolly Parton hosting another, with guest performers including Crystal Gayle, the Statler Brothers, Tammy Wynette, Johnny Rodriguez, Ray Charles, Earl Scruggs, Larry Gatlin, Kitty Wells, Mel Tillis and more (with comedy from Roy Clark and Minnie Pearl).

"Volume Two" has four shows hosted, respectively, by Charley Pride, Tennessee Ernie Ford, Crystal Gayle and Eddy Arnold, with Patti Page, Pee Wee King, Charlie Daniels, Ray Price, Roger Miller, Ronnie Milsap, Anne Murray, Barbara Mandell and many others.

Extras: full frame, three episodes/four episodes, 35 performances/51 performances

"The Waltons: Movie Collection" (Warner, 1982-1997, three discs, $39.98). These six TV movies were shown over 15 years following the nine-season series, offering updates of Walton family members and moving the story from the post-World War II 1940s through the upheaval of the turbulent 1960s.

The first three films aired in 1982, shortly after the show ended, and they feature — and suffer from — significant cast changes. The absence of Richard Thomas is particularly felt. But Thomas returns for the final three films, shown from 1993-97, with John-Boy thriving as a New York author, marrying the editor of a fashion magazine and landing a TV news anchor job, though he still yearns for his home on Walton's Mountain.

Extras: full frame, six movies, trailers

"Touched By an Angel: Faith" (CBS/Paramount, 1999-2003, $14.99)."Touched By an Angel: Love" (CBS/Paramount, 1994-2003, $14.99). Each of these discs has four episodes built around the themes of the subtitles, with guests including Patti LuPone, Maya Angelou, Natalie Cole, Wynonna Judd, Muhammad Ali and Valerie Bertinelli.

Extras: full frame, four episodes each, new introductions, trailers

"Bonekickers" (Acorn, 2008, three discs, $39.99). The creators of "Life on Mars" and "Ashes to Ashes" came up with this British tale of archaeologists who dig into historical mysteries, ranging from the Crusades to World War I.

Extras: widescreen, six episodes, featurettes, trailers

"Callan: Set 2" (Acorn, 1972, four discs, $59.99). This is actually the fourth and final season of this crackerjack thriller series about a Cold War assassin with a conscience (the late Edward Woodward in his first starring role). Here, his friends become enemies as he tries to extricate himself from the game. (The first two black-and-white seasons of this show have not been released, nor has the 1974 follow-up theatrical film).

Extras: full frame, 13 episodes, audio commentaries, text biography

"Pie in the Sky: Series 2" (Acorn, 1995, three discs, $49.99). The title reflects the name of a restaurant run by retired police detective Henry Crabbe (Richard Griffiths), who simply wants to cook, but his old colleagues keep pulling him into murder investigations. Amusing mix of food and mysteries.

Extras: full frame, 10 episodes, text biography/filmographies, trailers

"The Red Green Show: The Early (Infantile) Years" (Acorn, 1991-93, nine discs, $99.99). These are the first three seasons of the PBS comedy from Canada about a handyman (Steve Smith) whose wacky wisdom is matched only by his preposterous inventions. Funny stuff.

Extras: full frame, 72 episodes, new introduction by Smith, text biographies/character profiles, trailers

"I (Heart) Jonas" (Disney, 2009, $19.99). The box says these seven episodes of "Jonas" have been "specially selected" from the Disney Channel series. Fans will likely agree.

Extras: widescreen, seven episodes, featurette, trailers

"21 Jump Street: The Complete First Season" (Mill Creek, 1987, two discs, $14.98). This was Johnny Depp's first starring effort, as he plays part of a team of undercover cops posing as high school students. Guests include Josh Brolin and Jason Priestley.

Extras: full frame, 13 episodes (including two-part pilot)

"Hunter: The Complete First Season" (Mill Creek, 1984-85, four discs, $14.98). Former football star Fred Dryer stars as TV's answer to "Dirty Harry," with partner Stepfanie Kramer. Guests include Dennis Franz, Brian Dennehy, Dennis Farina.

Extras: full frame, 19 episodes

"Renegade: The Complete First Season" (Mill Creek, 1992-93, four discs, $14.98). Lorenzo Lamas is the title character in this variation on "The Fugitive," a former cop on the run after being framed for murder, helping the disenfranchised along the way.

"The Whitest Kids U' Know: The Complete Second Season: Uncut & Uncensored" (E1, 2007, two discs, $24.98). Crass, sick and intermittently funny sketch comedy from the New York comedy troupe.

Extras: full frame, 10 episodes, audio commentaries, clips from Season 1, trailers