May 17, 2011
Regular reader Mitchell Hadley has launched a new blog about classic television, called It’s About TV. Not much content there yet, but elsewhere Hadley has a long piece on the history of “Amahl and the Night Visitors,” the “first made-for-TV opera,” which should serve as a preview of things to come. Hopefully It’s About TV will take the place of the lamented TV Obscurities blog, which has kept its promise of going dark.
Also newly blogging: radio and television historian Martin Grams, Jr. I enjoyed Grams’s most recent piece, on the history of the 1966-1968 Batman TV series, which (like his books) draws on extensive archival research. Indeed, because of the source, it’s more a history of the Batman that wasn’t: actors who almost guest-starred as Batvillains (Greer Garson?!), movie sequels that weren’t (Batman vs. Godzilla?), off-screen shenanigans (Shelley Winters was a bitch). Grams explains why John Astin briefly replaced Frank Gorshin as the Riddler, and reprints a survey of the popularity of the series’ recurring villains, which Catwoman wins by a wide margin (crotch vote!) .
In his Twilight Zone episode guide, Grams deliberately avoided critiquing the series, but he pronounces the sixties Batman “stupid.” He prefers the recent Christopher Nolan films. I wish he’d expand those opinions into a longer editorial. I adored the Adam West/Burt Ward Batman when I was a kid, but I have to admit that I wasn’t as impressed when I stumbled across it again during college. And while I thought Batman Begins was awful, I liked most of The Dark Knight. So I guess I’m ambivalent, or agnostic, on the subject of screen Batmen.
Grams’s essay includes scans of about a half-dozen documents from Batman‘s production files, which are taken from his personal collection of some 3,000 such items. Those are fascinating to look at, and come with a hilarious screed warning “obsessed fan boys” (shouldn’t that be one word?) not to bother asking for copies. Grams doesn’t say where he acquired these documents, but I’d wager that they come from to the archives of the University of Wyoming, which holds the papers of Batman executive producer William Dozier. (If you’re wondering, why Wyoming? I’m told it’s simply because for a while the archives there were actively soliciting the papers of people who worked in movies and television.) I’m somewhat less clear about why an individual would want to amass a roomful of paperwork on a TV show he doesn’t even like.
I just noticed this small but remarkable trove of behind-the-scenes photos from The Andy Griffith Show. It’s been around for a couple of years, but now the people responsible for it are on Facebook, apparently with some new images that are exclusive there. (That link probably won’t work unless you’re a member of Facebook, and already signed in). Andy Griffith Show director (and former character actor) Bob Sweeney is prominent in a number of the photos, and I wonder if perhaps they originated from his personal collection.
Related to that is this wonderful, thorough site devoted to the Desilu (formerly RKO) backlot, where The Andy Griffith Show was filmed. You may tear up when you see downtown in various stages of disrepair, prior to its demolition in 1976, on this page.
I’ve taken the liberty of reproducing a favorite photo below, from the 1963 episode “Mountain Wedding.” Andy looks like I feel most days.
May 10, 2011
James Rosin has a cottage industry of episode guides going. Since 2007, Rosin has published slim companion volumes for seven classic television series: Route 66, Naked City, Adventures in Paradise, Wagon Train, The Invaders, Peyton Place, and Quincy, M.E. (on which Jim worked briefly as an actor and a writer). He has excellent taste – every one of those shows are worth remembering – and a prolificity that I frankly envy.
However, I haven’t written about Jim (who’s also a really nice guy) until now because I have had some reservations about his approach. All of Rosin’s books begin with a brief production history, and draw upon his own interviews with at least a few of the creative people involved in each series. But the bulk of each book is devoted to plot summaries. I’ve never understood why writers of television episode guides do that. Episode recaps may be useful for reference, but they aren’t readable for pleasure. I mean, if you have seen the episode, you don’t need to read a plot summary, and if you haven’t, you won’t want to “spoil” it, right? Like Martin Grams, Jr., about whose massive Twilight Zone book I had mixed feelings, Rosin declines to editorialize at all about the content of the shows.
It’s not that Rosin’s work was subpar, but when I read his books (full disclosure: all of which he generously supplied to me at no charge) I was left wanting more. Most of those shows, especially Naked City and Route 66, deserve – no, require – a much more exhaustive account of their making.
However, when Jim sent me Peyton Place: The Television Series last year, I was relieved that I could recommend one of his books without many misgivings. Peyton Place was a young show – most of the principal cast and many of the writers were in their twenties or early thirties during its production – and therefore there more of the creative staff are still with us than would be the case for a typical sixties series. Rosin has interviewed about twenty-five of those survivors and assembled their collected testimony into a breezy, informative oral history. This introductory chapter comprises fewer than fifty pages, but it covers all the essential rollercoaster events in the making of this smash hit-turned-midseason cancellation. The abrupt shearing of Mia Farrow’s hair in late 1965 was the great Rashomon moment of sixties television – everyone who was there remembers it, but differently – and I knew it would be my test of the book’s value. Rosin quotes four people on the subject: passing grade.
I also like the way Rosin handles the intricate serialized storyline of Peyton Place. Around the time I launched the Classic TV History website, I was thinking of tackling a thorough history of Peyton Place, and I began to interview some of the same people Rosin spoke to for his book. But I could never figure out how to structure an episode guide. It seemed that Peyton Place, with its 514 plot-choked episodes, would require an encyclopedia of story information. Instead, Rosin has assembled a very accessible plot summary for each of the show’s five “seasons” (since Peyton Place aired without summer reruns, those divisions would have been apparent only to the production staff, not to viewers), without worrying about entries for each individual episode. Preceding that is a roughly chronological listing of the hundred or so series regulars and semi-regulars. It works, and probably better than whatever jumble I would have come up with.
Finally, Rosin includes a center section of terrific publicity and behind-the-scenes stills, along with a few key production documents. My favorite is the one reproduced below, which depicts the show’s 1965 writing staff standing around a Peyton Place signpost prop.
In my research on television writers of this era, I made the acquaintance of six of the eleven people in that photo. Being able to see what they looked like at a moment in time that I discussed with each of them means a lot to me. It’s very rare to find a photograph of the assembled writers for a sixties television series (even for a show that used an in-house staff, rather than freelancers). It’s fortunate, and appropriate, that Rosin has found one for Peyton Place, since this underrated melodrama was one of the best – if not the best – written American television show of its day. Peyton Place also celebrated writers and writing within its narrative: Constance owned a bookstore; Allison was an aspiring storyteller; Elliot became a novice newspaperman late in life; and so on. It may be unique in that emphasis, at least among sixties television series, and that’s one of the many reasons I love Peyton Place.
James Rosin’s books are self-published, and so are many of Martin Grams’s. From what I can tell, both of them travel the circuit of film, book, and nostalgia conventions – of which there are a surprising number, in third- as well as first-tier cities – where they can interact with fans as well as sell and sign copies of their books.
I assume that works for them, but it wouldn’t work for me. For one thing, I don’t know how to drive a car, and for another, I suppose I could be called “reclusive.”
When I first started doing research on television and film history in the late nineties, while I was still in college, it dawned on me that if nothing else, I could publish on the then new-fangled internet. That was a huge relief. A decade earlier, if a scholar was doing work too esoteric to find a real publisher, no one would have read it. Having the internet out there as a backup felt empowering, and it appealed to my perfectionism. I decided that I would not work with small presses whose existing catalogs were poorly proofread and edited. I would give my work away for free on the internet before I would sell it to a small press that wouldn’t distribute it properly, that would put an $85 cover price on it and never get it on the shelves in bookstores.
So, here you have it: I’m giving it away for free on the internet.
Of course, when I was in college, there were still major and semi-major presses that published books about old television shows and biographies of pop culture figures who were not household names. There still had bookstores back then, too. So it seemed possible, if not likely, that I could con a “real” publisher into doing a book about some TV show or personality that nobody had ever heard of.
Today, that gravy train is over. I have no idea how Stephen Battaglio managed to get St. Martin’s to publish his David Susskind biography, or how David Bianculli sold his recent Smothers Brothers book to Simon & Schuster, because I see fewer and fewer works of that type coming out these days. That’s a huge loss. Battaglio and Bianculli are experienced journalists, working with pr editors, and it shows. Writers like Rosin and Grams (and myself), who don’t have that kind of professional training, have to fend for ourselves, and that shows, too. Enthusiasm doesn’t always cut it. Even though I can recommend Jim’s Peyton Place book, I can’t pretend that it is a vital piece of scholarship in the way that Battaglio’s and Bianculli’s books are. There was a moment in the eighties and early nineties where a TV episode guide – I’m thinking of Marc Scott Zicree on The Twilight Zone, David J. Schow on The Outer Limits, Vince Waldron on The Dick Van Dyke Show – could be researched, written, and edited with the same professionalism and seriousness as a biography of Roosevelt or Kennedy. That feels like a long time ago.
Of course, when I realized I could give it away for free on the internet, I was thinking in units of “books” and “articles” – because that’s what they had back then. When I launched my website, this blog was an afterthought. Now it’s the engine, not the caboose. And blogging has given me freedoms other than the search engine’s guarantee of like-minded readership. I can publish a short blurb like last week’s Honey West bit, or a thirty-seven hundred word monster, like the Sidney Lumet appreciation that preceded it. I’m not bound in terms of subject matter, either. I can skip around from one show or person to another; I can write in response to current events, or just about whatever pops into ahead. And it’s instantaneous. I don’t have to wait years for a book to come out, or months for a journal article. Feeding content to this blog has delayed progress on my book-length projects, but so far it has been worth it.
But now it’s time to revive one of those half-completed books, or several.
Here’s where I think writers like Martin Grams and Jim Rosin were ahead of the curve. Finally, I’m starting to get excited about the possibilities of self-publishing. Amazon’s print-on-demand application is beginning to leveling the playing field between traditional publishers and one-man bands. The Kindle and iPad offer cheaper and, arguably, more convenient platforms for reaching readers. Pricing structures have been upended. The publishing industry is scared of these changes, and while that has made it more difficult for esoteric writers like myself to get book deals, it has opened new possibilities, too. Now you can self-publish without blowing your life savings on a garage full of unsold books.
Most of the digital self-publishing success stories are fiction writers, but I’m curious about what will happen with non-fiction books. I still like reading novels on paper, but I’d sure love to have my shelf of reference books transferred to searchable files on my laptop. Aren’t works of popular history a natural fit for digital delivery? I’d shell out to repurchase key works as PDFs, or in a similar format. The index would be obsolete!
Of course, there is a danger here. I’ve taken other self-published writers to task when I thought that aspects of their work were not up to a professional standard. If a writer goes DIY, he or she has to know how to conceptualize, write, edit, proofread, index, design, upload, and market the work. I can do some of those things pretty well, but not all of them. Still, I’m excited by the prospect of doing an end-run around miserly publishers, mediocre editors, and the idiocy of peer review. I believe that a new and more efficient path may be taking shape, by which specialists like myself can connect with a core audience that would not have been findable a short while ago – and without giving it all away for free.
I always welcome reader comments, but in this case I am particularly interested in feedback about what I have written here. Have I been too critical of writers like Rosin and Grams? Does the future of popular culture scholarship reside on the internet, in eBooks, or someplace else? How can self-publishing writers compensate for the absence of editors, designers, and publicists – or will none of that matter in the near future?
And. Most important of all. Would you buy a book from this guy?