September 2, 2010
Last month television history gained, and lost, another of its few centenarians. Werner Michel, an executive at CBS and Du Mont during the networks’ earliest days, died on August 27, a few weeks after his 100th birthday. Michel was involved with the creation of Captain Video at DuMont, and Studio One and The Edge of Night at CBS. I’ve come across a few interviews with Michel – he’s quoted in Jeff Kisseloff’s indispensible book The Box, and here – and they all focus on the pioneer days. But Michel had a long career as an executive, first at the ad agencies that dominated television through the fifties, and later at ABC and MGM.
Another breaking obit: Vance Bourjaily died on August 31 at 87. Bourjaily was one of those promising post-war novelists who, rather like Norman Katkov, acquired a certain cult following but never achieved mainstream recognition. The obits will focus on his novels and his long stint as an instructor at the legendary Iowa Writers Workshop. They may omit Bourjaily’s brief run in the mid-fifties as a live television dramatist. (Update: Called it. No TV mention in the New York Times.) In and out in four yeats: Bourjaily seems to have debuted on Philco Television Playhouse in 1955, then crafted a number of docudramas for Armstrong Circle Theatre between 1956 and 1959. In between he adapted a Henry Kane story as one of the last Kraft Theatres and an A.J. Cronin novel for the DuPont Show of the Month.
The latter show, directed by Sidney Lumet, would have been Bourjaily’s one big credit. The closest analogy is probably to Gore Vidal, who had published a number of well-reviewed novels before turning to television as a more lucrative venue. Like Vidal, Bourjaily got out of television fast once the live anthologies collapsed in the late fifties. I don’t know why Bourjaily chose to make his exit when he did, but in 1959 he published a piece in Harper’s called “The Lost Art of Writing For Television.” If that was a promise, it was kept.
I mentioned a couple of posts back that while the rest of the world is watching Season 4 of Mad Men, I’m still on Season 3. Mad Men has a coy way of dating each episode by planting topical references in the background, in newspaper headlines or radio broadcasts or conversational asides. That’s unusually important because Mad Men sometimes skips days or weeks in between episodes, and doesn’t call attention to those ellipses in any obvious way.
I’m sure Matthew Weiner and company fully expect the show’s die-hard fans to Google those clues, and indeed they do. One radio snippet in the episode “Wee Small Hours” mentions the Upper East Side murder of two young women, with no other details, but it has been correctly identified by various Mad Men bloggers and fansites. The reference is to the Wylie-Hoffert murders that occurred on August 28, 1963, the same day on which Martin Luther King. Jr., delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech.
The Wylie-Hoffert murders keep coming up in my research. They reverberate through the history of television in at least three ways: (1) One of the victims, Janice Wylie, was the daughter of Max Wylie, a minor radio writer and TV story editor (for CBS and then Omnibus) who developed The Flying Nun for television. Wylie also wrote a good book about the craft of television writing, called Writing For Television (Chicago: Contemporary Books, 1970), and shot himself in 1975 following the deaths of his wife and another daughter. (2) The television movie The Marcus Nelson Murders, which served as the pilot for Kojak, was based on the Wylie-Hoffert case. (3) Ellen M. Violett, a talented live television writer, based part of her only novel, Double Take (New York: Doubleday, 1977), on the case. The book is also a sort of Network-like peek at the venality of TV production, with some characters based on actual people of Violett’s acquaintance. I wonder if any of those connections triggered the Mad Men reference.
I have a long piece ready to go – I mean, long – but I don’t want to bury it two days before a holiday weekend. In the meantime, if anyone is out there and looking for something to read, you should head over to the TV Obscurities blog and rummage through the archives. The author, who chooses to remain anonymous, has been reporting on things like vintage TV ratings, old TV promo spots, which rare shows are in what archives, and other classic-TV ephemera since 2008. The enigmatic “RGJ” also reports on the inevitable DVD news and obituaries, and when he (or she?) runs the occasional longer piece on a show like Coronet Blue or My World and Welcome to It, it’s always impeccably well-researched and footnoted.
That reminds me that one thing I’ve been meaning to do for a long time is to create a blogroll. It’s the custom for blog writers, but when I launched this space I was resistant to rounding up the popular movie critics’ blogs and forums. I read them regularly, and many of you probably do too, but they didn’t seem to connect with what I’m trying to do here. And when I went looking for other good sites that focused mainly on early television, or just offered some really good writing about television of any era, the cupboard was a little bare. I’m glad that I have more company now than I did three years ago. And if you know of other TV critics and historians I should be reading, let me know about it in the comments.