Monday, March 07, 2011

This week in Television History: March 2011 Part II

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March 7, 1955

The first Broadway play to be televised in color, featuring the original cast, airs. The play was Peter Pan, starring Mary Martin.

Mach 8, 1993

The first episode of the animated series Beavis and Butthead airs.

Beavis and Butthead offered audiences rude and crude buddy humor in the tradition of The Three Stooges, Cheech and Chong, and Wayne and Garth of Saturday Night Live and the Wayne’s World movies. The titular main characters were two teenage boys living in the fictional town of Highland; they attended Highland High (based on a real school in creator Mike Judge’s hometown of Albuquerque, New Mexico) but spent most of their time eating junk food, talking about girls and--most importantly--watching music videos. Beavis and Butthead alternated between animated storylines and clips of actual music videos, which Beavis and Butthead commented on in their signature bone-headed style, punctuated by sarcastic comments and grunt-like laughter.

Judge first drew his two main characters for an animation festival, where an MTV producer spotted them and picked up an episode for its animated showcase Liquid Television. After signing Judge on for 65 episodes, the network began airing the show on weeknights at 7 p.m. and 11 p.m. Critics were divided in their response: Some praised Judge and MTV for effectively skewering a big part of the network’s own core demographic--young men who watch music videos--while others cited Beavis and Butthead’s lowest-common-denominator humor as evidence of an overall decline in the quality of television.

Despite the mixed critical response, the show earned MTV’s highest ratings. It also sparked a heated controversy over the influence of TV programs on impressionable young children, especially after an incident in 1993, when a mother blamed Beavis and Butthead’s well-documented pyromaniac tendencies for inspiring her five-year-old son to set a fire that killed his two-year-old sister. In response to the uproar over this tragedy, MTV pulled four episodes off the air, cut all references to fire and moved Beavis and Butthead to the 10:30 p.m.-11:30 p.m. time slot, claiming they were simply targeting an older audience.

Regardless of its dubious influence on young audiences, the success of Beavis and Butthead prompted MTV to launch a spin-off program featuring the boys’ nerdy female classmate, Daria Morgendorffer. Daria first aired in March 1997, eight months before Beavis and Butthead ended its run. Judge later created the Emmy-winning animated series King of the Hill for Fox and directed films for the big screen, including a feature-film version of Beavis and Butthead, Beavis and Butthead Do America (1996) and the cult hits Office Space (1999) and Idiocracy (2006).

March 9, 1976

ABC premiered Family, a weekly prime-time drama about a Pasadena California suburban family. The show was created by novelist and screenwriter Jay Presson Allen, directed by film director Mark Rydell, and produced by film director Mike Nichols, as well as television moguls Aaron Spelling and Leonard Goldberg.

The show featured James Broderick and Sada Thompson as Doug and Kate Lawrence. Doug was an independent lawyer, and Kate was a housewife. They had three children: Nancy (portrayed by Elayne Heilveil in the original mini-series and later by Meredith Baxter Birney), Willie (Gary Frank), Letitia, nicknamed "Buddy" (Kristy McNichol) and the family later adopted a girl named Annie Cooper (Quinn Cummings). The show attempted to depict the "average" family, warts and all. Storylines were very topical, and the show was one of the first to feature shows to be termed as "very special episodes." In the first episode, Nancy, who was pregnant with her second child, walked in on her husband Jeff (John Rubinstein) making love to one of her friends. Other topical storylines included Kate having to deal with the possibility that she had breast cancer. In the later seasons, there were instances in which Buddy had to decide whether or not to have sex (She always chose to wait, most notably in an episode with guest star/teen idol Leif Garrett). One episode featured guest-star Henry Fonda as a visiting elderly relative who was beginning to experience senility.

During its five seasons Family received fourteen Emmy Award nominations, three of them for Outstanding Drama Series. The show won four awards all in acting categories: Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series (Sada Thompson in 1977), Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Drama Series (Kristy McNichol in 1976 and 1978) and Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Drama Series (Gary Frank in 1976).

March 9, 1996

Comedian George Burns dies at age 100.

Born Nathan Birnbaum in New York City, Burns was one of 12 children. As a young child, he sang for pennies on street corners and in saloons, and at age 13, he started a dance academy with a friend. In 1922, Burns was performing the latest in a string of song-and-dance acts in Newark, New Jersey, when he teamed up with a fellow performer, Gracie Allen. Though Allen began as the straight one in their partnership, her natural comedic ability prompted Burns to rewrite their material to give her most of the punch lines. From then on, Burns played the straight man to Allen’s ditz, with hilarious results.

By the time Burns and Allen married in 1926 (his brief first marriage, to the dancer Hannah Siegel, ended in divorce), they had already become known on the vaudeville circuit. The 1920s were a golden era for vaudeville performers, and Burns and Allen were only two of a number of greats--their peers included Milton Berle, Al Jolson, Fanny Brice, Bert Lahr and Jack Benny (Burns’ close friend)--who successfully made the transition to other forms of entertainment. After making their radio debut in 1929, the pair landed a regular show, The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show, which aired from 1932 to 1950 on the NBC network. In the late 1930s, the program’s audience numbered more than 40 million people and NBC paid Burns and Allen $10,000 per week, an enormous sum for the time. The couple also played themselves on the big screen in a number of films, including International House (1933), Many Happy Returns (1934), A Damsel in Distress (1937) and College Swing (1938).

In 1950, The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show made a seamless transition to television, airing on CBS and becoming one of the top-ranked programs for the duration of the decade. The Burns-Allen team remained in the public eye until Allen’s retirement in 1959. She died of a heart attack in 1964, at the age of 58. Though Allen was a Roman Catholic, Burns buried her with Episcopal rites, explaining that as a Jewish man he couldn’t be buried in Catholic-consecrated ground, and he wanted to be buried beside her.

After Burns underwent major heart surgery in 1975 at the age of 79, his career got a second wind. That year, he played a retired vaudevillian in the film adaptation of Neil Simon’s play The Sunshine Boys, co-starring Walter Matthau and Richard Benjamin. Burns won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for the role. After that, there was no shortage of movie parts for the octogenarian actor, who played God in Oh God! (1977) and its sequels, Oh God! Book II (1980) and Oh God! You Devil (1984), in which Burns was featured as both God and the Devil. He also starred in Just You and Me, Kid (1979), Going in Style (1979) and Eighteen Again (1988).

In 1988, Burns won an award for lifetime achievement from the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. He wrote two best-selling autobiographical works, including Gracie: A Love Story (1988) and All My Best Friends (1989), along with eight other books that earned him his well-deserved reputation as an invaluable first-hand observer of the history of 20th century entertainment.

As always, the further we go back in Hollywood history, the more that fact and legend become intertwined. It's hard to say where the truth really lies.

To quote the Bicentennial Minute, "And that's the way it was".

Stay Tuned

Tony Figueroa

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