Today we think of Saturday nights as the biggest wasteland on TV. FOX is the only network that puts any new shows on the night, and that's COPS and America's Most Wanted. Some networks put movies on the night; others relegate "encore" performances of episodes of shows – and not always the same show from week to week. And of course when a network has a show that died and they want to burn off the episodes they do it on Saturday night. About the only thing that really draws an audience – besides COPS and America's Most Wanted – are sports events, particularly big college football games. In Canada things are getting to be almost as bad, but to a large degree that's because of our broadcast regulations and the desire of Canadian private networks to get the greatest ad coverage possible. Because the American networks aren't airing new shows on Saturdays, Canadian networks – which normally have the cable companies substitute their shows and commercials over American shows that air at the same time ("Simsub" in Canadian broadcast speak) they don't program "big" shows on Saturdays. Of course the fact that CBC is showing Hockey Night In Canada on Saturday night doesn't encourage putting big shows on that night either.
It wasn't always that way of course (well except for the part about Hockey Night in Canada). I've often cited the CBS Saturday line-up for the 1973-74 season as being the greatest line-up for any American network ever, and I stand by that, but that doesn't mean that there haven't been other great Saturday nights in the history of TV. The 1959-60 season was one of those.
Let's start with ABC, which was the smallest and brokest (most broke?) of the three networks. For them this was pretty much a music and variety night with only one scripted program in the mix. Still, it wasn`t a bad night of TV for them. Starting off the night was Dick Clark`s Saturday Night Beechnut Show, although it was also known as The Dick Clark Show. The half-hour series, produced out of the Little Theater in New York ran for two and a half years, from February 1958 to September 1960. In the show`s 136 episodes (it ran continually for those two and a half years – there were no real "seasons") nearly 100 different acts appeared on the show, which blurred the definitions of genre. Among the performers were Jackie Wilson, Bobby Rydell (the two most frequent guests – 14 shows each) Frankie Avalon, Bobby Darrin, Dion & the Belmonts, Neil Sedaka, Anita Bryant, Conway Twitty, Johnny Cash, Litle Anthony & The Imperials, Frankie Lymon, Sam Cooke, Johnny Horton, and Andy Williams, just to name a few. The clip I have for this show features The Crests, singing Six Nights A Week. Following Dick Clark was John Gunther's High Road, a series of travelogues hosted by John Gunther, an American journalist and writer whose work focused on international politics and leaders. (This is the only one of the ABC shows that I can't find a clip for). Gunther's show was followed by the only scripted series that ABC had on the night, a little offering known as Leave It To Beaver about the misadventures of a young boy and his friends, family, and Eddie Haskell. I mean how else can you describe that show, one of the most fondly remembered of the family comedies of the 1950s. Following "The Beav" was The Lawrence Welk Show sponsored (if you can't tell) by Sinclair Oil. While we tend to think of Lawrence Welk in connection with the accordion, and his show as somewhat corny (certainly we did at the time), I think it might be time to re-evaluate Welk and his orchestra and certainly the pre-syndication version of his show. He certainly seems to have had at least some contemporary music on. This clip, from 1961 features guitarist Neil Levang, who was with Welk from 1959 to the end of the syndicated TV show, playing Ghost Riders In The Sky, with vocal back-up from the Lennon Sisters. Rounding out the night was Jubilee USA which was originally known as Ozark Jubilee. Hosted by Red Foley (who my good friend Ivan Shreve will probably point out was the original host of the radio show Avalon Time which was the big launching pad for Red Skelton), the series was one of the first country music shows on national TV. Broadcast from Springfield Missouri, the show had a regular musical cast that included Porter Waggoner, Sonny James, Webb Pierce, and Leroy van Dyke, while virtually every country music act of the time made an appearance on the show. Carl Perkins debuted Blue Suede Shoes on Ozark Jubilee before the song was recorded by Elvis Presley. Perhaps the greatest discovery the show made was an eleven year-old singer from Georgia named Brenda Lee. In this clip from 1958, guitar god Chet Atkins is introduced by Red Foley.
The NBC line-up has given me a bit of a problem. Two of the five shows on the night have no episodes posted on YouTube... or anywhere else as far as I can tell. Nevertheless it was not a bad night of TV. Leading off the night was the saga of a wealthy ranch family headed by a tough patriarchal figure...in Nevada in the 1860s. The show was Bonanza, and along with Gunsmoke was one of the iconic shows of the late 1950s to the early 1970s, and still has one of the best remembered theme songs. Canadian Lorne Greene (he was known as "The Voice Of Doom" during his time as the news reader for CBC Radio News during World War II), played Ben Cartwright, while his sons were played by Pernell Roberts, Dan Blocker and (then) teen heart-throb Michael Landon (I Was A Teen Aged Werewolf). Bonanza was one of the essential parts of my childhood. It aired here on Sunday night after Ed Sullivan, and my routine as a child was to have my bath then watch Sullivan and Bonanza. One thing that I didn't notice until seeing the show in reruns years later was just how funny many of the episodes were. Not every episode was filled with high drama, and the episode that I have a clip from here is prrof of that. Following Bonanza was something called The Man And The Challenge starring George Nader as a research scientist working for the US government, testing people and equipment in extreme situations. The show was produced by Ivan Tors who is (justly) more famous for series like Flipper, Daktari, and Cowboy In Africa. That was followed by The Deputy which starred Henry Fonda – some of the time – and Allen Case. Fonda played Marshall Simon Fry while Case played his deputy, Clay McCord, a shopkeeper who was reluctant to to use a gun. Fonda's schedule provided a problem for series creator Norman Lear. His scenes for an entire season were shot all at one so that he would be available for films. It was the same routine that Fred McMurray used when he was doing My Three Sons, but in this show it apparently led to some problems as there was a definite difference between episodes where Fonda appeared and those where Case was on his own. Following The Deputy was Five Fingers, another show that I have been unable to find a clip of. The series, which starred David Hedison, Luciana Paluzzi and Paul Burke, was loosely based on the 1952 movie of the same name. In this case "loosely based" translates to "taking the name and the most basic premise." The movie was set during World War II and dramatized the story of the German spy Cicero, who while working as the valet to the British ambassador in Turkey was able to take secret documents from the ambassador's private safe. In the series Hedison was a Cold War American agent who worked as a theatrical booking agent in Europe and posed as a Communist to gain information on party activities. The series ran for sixteen episodes before being cancelled (while they were shooting the seventeenth episode), and several well known names appeared in the show, including Eva Gabor, Edgar Bergen, Jack Warden, Peter Lorre and Alan Young (together in one episode) and Martin Balsam. The final show in NBC's line-up for the night was It Could Be You. This game show ran primarily in the daytime on NBC between 1956 and 1961, but also had a night time version on several occasions, notably in the 1958-59 and 1959-60 seasons. The show usually focussed on the embarrassing moments in the selected contestants' (most of them women, at least in the daytime show) lives. The prizes awarded were often humorous, related to the embarrassing incidents. I have no idea of whether the clip seen here came from the daytime or the night time show.
While CBS's Saturday night during the 1973-74 was probably the best night of television that the broadcast networks every put together, they didn't do too bad a job with the 1959-60 season. CBS had three of the top five shows, for of the top ten shows and five of the top twenty-five shows on that particular Saturday night. From just about any perspective that's pretty impressive. The network led off the night with the tenth highest rated show of the season, Perry Mason. Starring Raymond Burr as the lawyer who never lost a case (well almost never) the show had an outstanding support team that included Barbara Hale as Mason's secretary (and unstated love interest; there was definitely unresolved sexual tension there) Della Street, and William Hopper as Mason's personal investigator Paul Drake. On the other side were William Tallman as Hamilton Burger (and to this day I'm surprised that no one to my knowledge ever called him "Ham Burger") and Ray Collins as crusty and dedicated police Lieutenant Tragg. Burr, an experienced radio and film actor who usually played the villain in movies (notably in Hitchcock's Rear Window) was the perfect pick to play Mason. He had a commanding but cultured voice that convinced viewers that he knew what he was talking about. His size also made him convincing in physical scenes. Burr became Mason in the minds of just about anyone who ever saw the series and it may explain why a later attempt to revive the show failed. Monte Markham was no Raymond Burr. Following Perry Mason was the first season of Wanted: Dead Or Alive which finished ninth in the ratings that year. Starring a young (28 year old) Steve McQueen in his breakout role, the series followed bounty hunter Josh Randall on his adventures. McQueen's Randall was a Confederate veteran who was usually well liked by the peace officers he dealt with. He was well spoken and is described in some references as having a soft heart, sometimes giving his reward money to the needy or helping those that he was tracking down if he was convinced that they were wrongly accused, all done with the aid of his "Mare's Leg," a specially cut down Winchester Model 1892. McQueen would say of the series, "Three hard mother-grabbin' years, but I learned my trade and it gave me discipline." The clip here is from the pilot for the show and includes Michael Landon in the sort of role he had before he found Bonanza – a very angry young man. Following Wanted: Dead Or Alive was Mr. Lucky, a loose adaptation of the Cary Grant movie of the same name. John Vivyan starred as the title character who rwhile Ross Martin played his friend Andamo. "Mr. Lucky" (the only name he was given in the series although in the movie the character was named Joe Adams) and Andamo ran floating casino (the Fortuna II) off the coast of an American city, after being forced to leave Andamo's home country with just the shirts on their backs. The series was directed by Blake Edwards – indeed the character of Andamo was supposedly spun off from his other big series Peter Gunn – and the theme was done by his longtime collaborator Henry Mancini. The show finished tied for 21st in the ratings... and was cancelled. Unfortunately the show was sponsored in its only season by Lever Brothers, which objected to gambling as a main point of the show. The show ceased to be about a gambling ship and instead the Fortuna II became a floating restaurant. At the end of the season Lever Brothers and the show's alternate sponsor, Brown & Williamson Tobacco, pulled their sponsorship of the show and the network was unable to find replacement sponsors and so cancelled the show. Following Mr. Lucky was Have Gun Will Travel starring Richard Boone as the hired gun known as Paladin. Paladin was a study in contrasts. He was erudite and urbane – one might even call him something of a dandy – in the part of his life that he spent at San Francisco's Carlton Hotel. However, when someone contacted him for a job outside of the city he became tough as nails and able to trade blows, or bullets with whatever he came up against. The urbanity wasn't skin-deep, it was simply pushed into the background when he was working. Have Gun Will Travel ran for six years, and had a remarkably small cast, just Boone and Kam Tong, playing the hotel bellhop known to Paladin and the other patrons of the hotel as Hey Boy (though his real name was revealed at one point to be Kim Chan). Each episode was populated by a cast of guest characters – for example this clip features Werner Klemperer. Following Have Gun Will Travel was another Western, although calling Gunsmoke "another Western" is damning it with very faint praise. Probably the greatest show of the genre – certainly the longest lasting at twenty seasons and a total of 635 episodes (233 half-hours and 402 hour long episodes) – Gunsmoke was a series that showed remarkable stability while at the same time changing significantly. And I'm not just talking about the cast here, although there was truly remarkable stability where the cast was concerned. Of the four principal cast members in 1955 when the show debuted, two were gone when the show wrapped its final episode in 1975; Dennis Weaver, who left in 1964 and Amanda Blake who left the year before the show ended. While the streets of Dodge City didn't change much, the sort of stories that were being told did, to accommodate the changes in attitudes towards violence and social conditions over the years, and to deal with star James Arness's health issues (caused by wounds suffered during World War II). The final CBS show on Saturday nights in 1959 was a detective show, Markham, starring Ray Milland. Milland played Roy Markham, a successful attorney who became a private detective. Because he had been a successful lawyer he was able to pick and choose cases at his discretion, and was able to tailor his fees to suit the client, ranging from large sums for wealthy and corporate clients to nothing for those of limited means. When the show began Markham had an assistant, John Riggs (Simon Scott), but the character was quickly written out. The show lasted one season. In fact none of the shows that occupied the last half hour of the schedule in the 1959-60 season returned in the 1960-61 season.
These days Saturday night is regarded as a great wasteland by the broadcast networks; a desert where they dare not tread with any new shows because, of course, people will not watch them there. It is difficult to believe that there was a time when networks actively programmed the night. The last hold-out – besides FOX – pulled out of the night in 2004 when CBS replaced the revived Star Search, Hack and The District with reruns and 48 Hours Mysteries, and in Television six years is regarded as ancient history. That there was a time when the top shows on all of TV were broadcast on Saturday nights must be regarded by programmers today as a combination of heresy and apocrypha. But for most of the medium's existence Saturday nights were a vital and important night of TV when great shows – shows that we remember fifty years after they aired – were staples of the night. Maybe it's because those days were a time when networks weren't fixated with the concept of demographics, or maybe it was that people didn't go out as much then. All I know is that there was a time when great TV on Saturday nights wasn't an oxymoron, it was expected.