About a month ago I started posting video clips from the top rated TV shows of the year. My first postings were for the period from the 1950-51 season to the 1954-55 season. This post will feature the period between the 1955-56 season to the 1959-60 season. Here are the rules or at least the guidelines. I will list the top three shows for each season along with the percentage of the nation’s televisions that were tuned to that show during the season. These figures are drawn from the Complete Directory To Prime Time Network And Cable TV Shows 1946-Present. If the season’s top rated show has already been featured either in this post or in the previous post in this series I’ll find a clip from the second highest rated show, provided that it also hasn’t been featured before. The same procedure holds true if there are no clips of the show available online. Finally I’ll also try to make a few comments on the three top rated shows of the season.
The $64,000 Question 47.5%, I Love Lucy 46.1%, The Ed Sullivan Show 39.5%
The $64,000 Question was a phenomenon in its day, and the basic concept of the show – a ladder system in which players win more money as they answer tougher questions – is a major part of many modern game shows like Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? The thing that was both the big gimmick and the cause of The $64,000 Question’s eventual downfall was that the players were asked questions in areas where they claimed expertise. The producers were able to select contestants, often based on the incongruity of their areas of expertise. Thus you had a shoemaker who was an expert on opera, a jockey who knew a tremendous amount about art, or an attractive young woman psychologist who knew all about boxing. However this meant that the producers could tailor the questions they asked to whether they and the audience like the contestant. While The $64,000 Question was never “rigged” in the way that other game shows of this period were by giving contestants the answers to the questions, the producers did vary the difficulty of the questions at the higher levels in an attempt to let popular contestants win more money and make less popular contestants lose. Debuting in June 1955 the show was off the air by November 1958, a victim of the game show fixing scandals, although it should be noted that the show’s ratings had begun to slip even before the scandals. The sound track on this clip is slightly out of sync with the visuals.
I Love Lucy 43.7%, The Ed Sullivan Show 38.4%, General Electric Theater 36.9%
We’ve already seen I Love Lucy in a previous instalment of this so we have to turn to the second place series for this season, The Ed Sullivan Show. The show started in 1948 as Toast Of The Town and was renamed The Ed Sullivan Show after its host in 1956. Sullivan soon became a television institution (and a favourite of anyone who even thought of doing impressions during his lifetime – including on his own show) in spite of the fact that all he did was introduce the acts at the beginning of the show and shook hands with them at the end. What exactly did Old Stone-Face do on his “really big shoo?” Well the fact is that Sullivan, who had started as a boxer and a sports writer and became and entertainment writer (really a gossip columnist) in the competitive New York newspaper market, had an incredible eye for talent and for knowing what the public wanted. Moreover he was presiding over what was really a vaudeville show. He was able to put together a mix of established acts and newcomers, acts for kids and for adults that would attract a diverse audience. Sullivan knew the established acts and as I’ve said had a great eye for what would work as combinations. But it all needed something to hold it together. That was what Sullivan did on his really big shoo – he held the diverse acts together. This clip from 1964 features the great Frank Gorshin.
Gunsmoke 43.1%, The Danny Thomas Show 35.3%, Tales of Wells Fargo 35.2%
Gunsmoke had debuted on TV in the 1955-56 season, although the property would have been familiar from radio where it had debuted in 1952. It failed to crack the top 30 in its first season but had finished seventh in the 1956-57 season. The arrival of Gunsmoke on the scene is responsible for the rise of the “adult” western as a genre on TV. In the 1957-58 there were five westerns in the top ten (Gunsmoke, Tales of Wells Fargo, Have Gun Will Travel, The Life And Legend Of Wyatt Earp, The Restless Gun). Gunsmoke offered viewers strong likeable characters and a definite “Good vs. Evil” motif. As the series developed – and it did run for 20 years so there was plenty of time for development and shifts in focus, which helps to explain why it lasted for 20 years – more characters and greater depth were added to the show. This episode is the first episode of the series from 1955.
Gunsmoke 39.6%, Wagon Train 36.1%, Have Gun Will Travel 34.3%
The 1958-59 season may have been the high point of the Western’s popularity. Of the year’s top ten shows only three weren’t Westerns: The Danny Thomas Show, The Real McCoys and I’ve Got A Secret. Wagon Train was one of the great westerns. Inspired by the John Ford movie Wagon Master it starred one of Ford’s stock company, Ward Bond from 1957-1961 when Bond died. In fact Ford directed one episode with Bond that aired eighteen days after the actor’s death of a heart attack in 1961. The show had fairly small regular cast – Bond’s trail master Major Adams, (replaced by John McIntire after Bond’s death) the scout played for five seasons by Robert Horton and for three more by Robert Fuller, the assistant trail master played by Terry Wilson, and the cook played by Frank McGrath. or the most part the episodes weren’t about them, they were about the people in the wagon train and the people that the train encountered as they travelled from St. Joseph Missouri to California, making it more of an anthology series than most westerns. This clip, from 1960, features Peter Lorre and Robert Horton.
Gunsmoke 40.3%, Wagon Train 38.4%, Have Gun Will Travel 34.7%
Have Gun Will Travel was another of the classic Westerns. Richard Boone played the man called Paladin (real name unknown), a cultured and erudite former army officer, who is also a professional gun for hire. Dressed entirely in black, Paladin would usually leave his residence at the Carlton Hotel in San Francisco to fulfill a contract – or not, since sometimes he felt more sympathy with the people that he was hired to deal with than with the people who hired him. The only other recurring character in the series was the hotel Chinese bell hop known as Hey Boy played by Kam Tong, although in the fourth season he was replaced by a new character, Hey Girl (played by Lisa Lu) because Kam Tong had taken a somewhat larger part in a different series. Because of this the series had numerous guest stars, some of whom appeared numerous times, many of whom would be instantly recognizable. One unique aspect of Have Gun Will Travel is the fact that there are themes, and that the closing theme is the one that is better known. The music that is most associated with the show, Johnny Western’s Ballad of Paladin made its first appearance after the first season, and was never the introduction to the show. The show’s actual theme was composed by Bernard Hermann. This clip features frequent guest star Charles Bronson, and Harry Carey Jr. I’m also including a clip of the closing theme done by Johnny Western.