Monday, December 16, 2013

Retro TV Monday - This week in TV Guide: December 16, 1961

It's a week until Christmas, and this issue of TV Guide is full of programs we’d never see on network television today.

Take, for example, NBC’s Project 20 documentary series, which on Wednesday night presents “The Coming of Christ.”  “The life and ministry of Christ and prophecies of His Coming were constant themes for painters of the 15th to 17th Centuries.  This taped, half-hour show, first seen last December, uses photographs of the works of many of these painters – to depict ‘The Coming of Christ.’”

A few thoughts on this: first, if a program like this were on today, it would be on PBS or one of the shrinking number of “arts” shows on cable, and the emphasis would be on the art, rather than the religion.* The sidebar ad underscores the idea that art is being used as a vehicle for the greater religious event: “’Project 20’ brings art treasures to life to tell their deeply moving story.”  This is reinforced by narrator Alexander Scourby’s reading of passages from the Old and New Testaments as the pictures are shown (in a “’still-pictures-to-action’ technique [used] to create the illusion of movement”; similar, I suppose, to what Ken Burns uses today).  It’s also interesting to note the capitalization of the pronoun “His” as well as “Coming,” and later capitalizations of “Virgin” and “Child.”  Again, this denotes a respect for religion that isn’t seen as often today, but was taken for granted back then even in secular publications.

*I say this because TVG clearly labels this as “religion” and not, say, “art.”  I think programs such as Sister Wendy’s undoubtedly had religious overtones, but were still packaged as art documentaries. 

Alexander Scourby had a fantastic voice; I wish I could track down a copy of this show, though an audio version is available, as well as a book tie-in.

Immediately following Project 20 is Perry Como’s Christmas show, which includes a scene in which “Perry reads the story of the first Christmas” to children from the production staff.  That’s very similar to Friday’s Bell Telephone Hour, where hostess Jane Wyatt “recites the story of the Nativity from the Gospel of St. Luke.”  Now, I’m not going to get into the larger question of a “War on Christmas” or anything like that; it’s simply to point out, as this blog is want to do, of how we can see the culture’s evolution through the programs on TV.  Undeniably, we’re at a point now where there seems to be a reluctance to even use the word “Christmas,” let alone discuss the religious ramifications it contains.  And while there are a lot of Hallmark- and Lifetime-style “Christmas” movies out there, they almost always deal with it as a secular event, perhaps with some quasi-touchy-feely “spirituality” wrapped up in its message.

Not so in 1961, where religion was seen as an integral part of Christmas.  Sure, there were variety shows such as Garry Moore’s and Red Skelton’s (both this week) that focus more on the secular, celebratory aspects of Christmas, but the larger point is that even within that context, it would not have been uncommon for the host or one of the guests to say or sing or otherwise do something that contained an explicitly religious message.

Perhaps it’s the fact that New Year’s isn’t far away, but I’m reminded of a song by Louden Wainwright III shortly after The New York Times building in Times Square (hence the name of the square) was renamed Allied Chemical Building.  “Have you been to Allied Chemical Square?/It used to be called Times, but times have changed.”

Indeed the times have changed.

Read the rest here.

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