By Thomas Connors
1958. Beatniks were popping up everywhere. The Blob was on the big screen. And in suburban backyards, hips were getting a workout with the latest sensation, the Hula Hoop.
Television, which began giving radio a run for its money in the late 1940s, had become a staple in more than half of America’s homes. By day, housewives put down their Mr. Clean to catch The Guiding Light before the kids returned from school and commandeered the set to watch The Mickey Mouse Club. Come evening, the whole family might grab a Swanson TV Dinner (introduced in 1953) and gather around to enjoy the latest episode of Gunsmoke.
Basking in the glow of a cathode ray tube was America’s newest pastime, but not everyone was having it. On October 15, 1958, journalist Edward R. Murrow (whose Emmy-winning news magazine, See It Now, aired on CBS) delivered a speech before the Radio and Television News Directors Association in Chicago, urging the industry to “teach,” “illuminate” and “inspire” rather than “distract, delude, amuse.” The following year, UPI TV critic Willam Ewald went after viewers, declaring, “If you prefer to squander your free time on Lawrence Welk, The Texan, The Price is Right and other drivel, it may be time to question your values.”
While it’s easy to look back at the shows of the day and see that era as a simple and simple-minded time, there was more to television programming than Leave it to Beaver. Then as now, viewers keen on current events could tune in to both Meet the Press and Face the Nation. Those with a taste for something other than westerns and sitcoms might check out the generally more elevated fare of The Hallmark Hall of Fame. And although talk shows—pioneered by Steve Allen as host of The Tonight Show—were showbiz-driven entertainments light years from the likes of David Susskind and Dick Cavett, some weren’t above welcoming guests who didn’t have a film to plug.
Oscar Levant, the high school dropout who studied with Arnold Schoenberg and was no slouch himself in the serious music department, found fame in Hollywood, most notably as Adam Cook, pal to Gene Kelly’s Jerry Mulligan in An American in Paris. In the ‘50s, he hosted an eponymous local talk show in Los Angeles, chatting up in his witty and sometimes-off-the-rail way such less-than-usual suspects as U.S. Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas and writers Aldous Huxley and Christopher Isherwood.
Jack Paar, who succeeded Steve Allen on The Tonight Show, didn’t steer clear of stars and celebrities. But as a man who liked serious conversation (and some might say, the sound of his own voice), he also sat down with Billy Graham, Richard Nixon and William F. Buckley—and went on the road to interview Fidel Castro in Cuba and Albert Schweitzer in Africa. Like Levant, Paar wore his heart on his sleeve and wasn’t always comfortable on camera. He even walked off his own show when he learned the censors had cut some of his material. “I’m complicated, sentimental, lovable, honest, loyal, decent, generous, likable and lonely,” he once admitted. “My personality is not split, it’s shredded.” Levant—who was quite open about his psychic struggles—was Paar’s guest on more than one occasion. Both men were quick wits and great storytellers and their encounters—especially when the self-deprecating Levant recounted his mental breakdowns and shock treatment—offered television audiences something they weren’t expecting. “There is a fine line between genius and insanity,” Levant said. “I have erased that line.”
Thomas Connors is a Chicago-based freelance writer and the Chicago Editor of Playbill.