Friday, May 3, 2013

Around the World in 90 Minutes

From 1956 to 1961, Playhouse 90 represented the best of live television drama during the "Golden Age of Television." What very few know is that of the 134 telecasts, only one was not a dramatic presentation. It was a special gala affair titled "Around the World in 90 Minutes." For this week only, Playhouse 90 suspended its usual dramatic format to telecast a remote from Madison Square Garden. There, producer Michael Todd threw a big party for some 18,000 guests to celebrate the first anniversary of the New York Rivoli Theater premiere of his film Around the World in 80 Days. Elizabeth Taylor (Mrs. Todd) was the hostess. Many celebrities were invited, and entertainers from all over the country performed. What resulted may have questionably been the worst network telecast of 1957.

Walter Cronkite as the host of Playhouse 90
At the time NBC scheduled “The Green Pastures” for the Hallmark Hall of Fame on Oct. 17, the network didn’t know Mike Todd’s Playhouse 90 party was set for the same night on CBS. Afraid too many newspaper and magazine critics would attend the Todd party and miss its show, NBC invited them all in to review “The Green Pastures” during dress rehearsal in the afternoon. This, of course, was unheard of in the trade. Had NBC had a psychic inclination as to what would become of the Todd broadcast, they would had no worries. Hindsight being clear and effective, no broadcast in the history of Playhouse 90 was so disastrous as “Around the World in 90 Minutes.” It proved a challenge to find a single review that offered any form of praise. One critic remarked: “CBS should not escape censure for denying its viewers the regularly scheduled Playhouse 90 and perpetrating, in its place, the Todd fiasco which in the judgment of some observers was the worst TV show yet.” TV Guide summarized effectively: “It is doubtful that the Columbia Broadcasting System will ever again be prompted to turn its facilities over to as obvious and hoked-up a publicity stunt as Mike Todd’s ‘little party.’ One assumed the network learned its lesson.”

Gary Moore as the host of Playhouse 90
On the first anniversary of the release of his film Around the World in 80 Days, producer Mike Todd and his wife Elizabeth Taylor invited 18,000 of their “close friends” to a Madison Square Garden extravaganza. Boasting a long list of celebrities, an enormous 14-foot tall cake and music from Boston Pops conductor Arthur Fiedler, Todd conned the CBS program Playhouse 90 into covering the live spectacle. There was a very simple explanation of why CBS was so willing to accept the bash as part of the Playhouse 90 time slot (and as an entry for the series). As a private investor, the network owned ten percent of Around the World in 80 Days (1955). But when the crowd got out of control, a bland publicity stunt turned into a giant food fight and Walter Cronkite, host for the evening, recalled the entire night as “disastrous.” Cronkite, while serving as the anchor man during the telecast, gave up early in trying to maintain any order, and at one point remarked, “It’s a madhouse down here.”

To help build up the publicity, over 100 actors picked up extras’ pay for their stints on the program. They were all amateur groups on the running track at the Garden oval that evening. Todd also had to become a signatory of the AFTRA code and post a bond for the program. On October 9, he issued a statement to the press, denying reports that he arranged with the Russians to launch their space satellite so that he could have a publicity tie-in with the special CBS show.

Elizabeth Taylor on Playhouse 90
As for the regular evening sponsors for Playhouse 90, they funded the ninety-minute broadcast. Anyone could figure how they were impressed by the publicity that filled the newspapers for weeks before the broadcast. Even Mike Todd seemed not to know what was going on until they were already on the air. “What came over home screens was neither entertainment nor information,” a critic for TV Guide remarked. “It was a potpourri of vulgar confusion, embarrassing to such performers as Walter Cronkite and Garry Moore, who were drafted (under duress, we hope) for the occasion. Todd wasn’t to blame. He had a good idea and it just snowballed to proportions that no one could have controlled. The 18,000 who were present at Madison Square Garden deserved what they got -- sore bottoms, bruised shins and stained dinner clothes. The blame for cluttering up the airwaves, however, can be placed squarely at the door of CBS.”

The sheer size of the preparations gave promise for an elaborate shindig, living up to Todd’s concept of the “colossal.” It also shaped to be the most elaborate giveaway show ever in the history of television. The “Little Party” (as it was billed from the marquee of the Garden) had been in the making for some months and it was, in fact, Todd’s luck that allowed it to fall on the exact anniversary date. The Garden was booked solid for weeks before and after October 17. Nevertheless, with the rodeo bowing out, Todd’s crews could only enter the premises, at 2 a.m. on the same date, giving them precious little time for their extensive preparations.

Elizabeth Taylor cuts the cake on Playhouse 90
The birthday cake was the largest ever baked, and the laboring folks at Swans Down did the job, putting in $15,000 of contributed cake-mix in return for sponsorship at the Garden during the event. The cake was carted into the Garden in sections. There, it was assembled and the icing applied to the surface. As evident when you watch the footage today, Elizabeth Taylor had to walk up a flight of steps in order to reach the top of the cake and make the first cut. What was not evident from viewing was another huge decoration requiring special preparations: the 24-foot Oscar replica which was created out of copper-colored chrysanthemums. It took 100,000 flowers, each dunking in a water-filled vial, to do the job. In addition, the six-foot base was be made up of flowers being flown in by flower dealers all over the world.

Vincent Korda, scenic designer on Don Quixote, was brought in by Todd from London to design the Garden decor. Pat Valdo, a famous circus veteran of Barnum & Ringling, was brought out of retirement to run the behind-the-scenes part of the show. Sally Pernick, formerly of the stagehands union, worked as Todd’s labor relations man. The job became necessary when it turned out that union jurisdictions on the various jobs overlapped. Working on statistics, 9,000 invites were sent out and assuming each person brought a plus one, there was expected to be an overflow crowd. About 1,000 members of the public were being imported from all over the party. Names were being drawn at movie theatres. Todd picked up the tab. A special man was hired to get the required hotel space.

Madison Square Garden certainly looked festive, with flags of all nations waving from the press box, inscribed netting on the ceiling, reminding not only of 80 Days but also of Todd’s upcoming Don Quixote (which was to begin shooting in Spain in April with his wife, Elizabeth Taylor, which was never completed due to the untimely passing of Mike Todd). A balloon replica from Around the World in 80 Days could be seen above the entire spectacle. The main floor was kept free for a continuous show, starting at 8:30 p.m. (Eastern) and ending around midnight. The 90 minutes televised by CBS over Playhouse 90 was from 9:30 to 11:00 p.m.. There was to be dancing on the floor to the music of a 100-piece band. Duke Ellington was booked for the dancing. Adding to the attractions was the presence of the Dancing Waters, also as a contribution.

Interviewing Hedda Hopper on Playhouse 90.
A staggering array of items, from gifts, food and transportation were contributed by eager merchants angling for the fat plug. Not that Todd couldn’t afford to splurge. Statistics at the time reported that Around the World in 80 Days reaped a gross of over $17,000,000. It was been seen by some 8,000,000 people. Prizes — Todd called them “gifts” — were awarded via a drawing, using ticket numbers. A partial rundown of the gifts includes a Cessna plane (complete with flying lessons), three or four automobiles, motor scooters, record players, 100 cameras, four mink stoles and other furs contributed by Maximilian, 250 bottles of Vodka, 10,000 imported cigars, 100 pairs of ivory chopsticks, ladies’ hats, six ladies revolvers (in pastel colors!), 75 Swedish telephones (dial base and earpiece combined), 50 elephant bells from India, Austrian toy bears, 100 cases of Scotch chocolate biscuits, a rickshaw from Japan, six Olivetti typewriters, 40 Siamese cats (a gift from Todd’s pal, the King of Siam, who wrote music for Peep Show), and 1,000 Decca albums.

When it was discovered that the Garden had no direct passage from the balcony to the main-floor, this posed a problem. Anyone wanting to come downstairs, would have to go out and come in again. Most people had to eat in their seats. There was no hard liquor served at the shindig; only champagne. Todd was offered 15,000 hotdogs, 15,000 buns, 200 gallons of vichyssoise, a ton of baked beans, 10,000 eggrolls from the Chinese Merchant Association, 15,000 doughnuts from the Doughnut Association, ice cream from Borden, and 4,000 pizza pies.

Amusingly, Todd at one time figured he had more press covering than any political convention in history. Wires went out to 87 towns where 80 Days was playing in theaters, or booked for screening, urging theater owners to bring in their local press people. TWA flew in the press from the West Coast and from London as a gift to Todd. Quantas, the Australian line, did the same from Australia. Practically every foreign broadcasting web was assigning men to the affair, as was the Voice of America.

With such arrangements and mass publicity, one would assume this gala extravaganza would have been a landmark in television history. What ultimately happened was confusion everywhere. The cameras wandered endlessly between breaks in the “marching.” Anchor man Walter Cronkite, looking acutely uncomfortable, had trouble keeping contact with his roving colleagues, Jim McKay and Bill Leonard. (The former repeatedly kept looking at the wrong camera.) Commercials and station breaks cut into interviews that had barely gotten started. If there were celebrities in the Garden, they were well hidden from the CBS men, who finally had to content themselves with such “personalities” as Hedda Hopper and Elsa Maxwell. Elizabeth Taylor, looking beautiful as always, was picked up a couple of times, but once she was interviewed outside camera range and the other time she was busy climbing up the stairs to the top of the cake. Tony Curtis started to get on twice, each time was interrupted by a commercial. Ginger Rogers made it for a brief appearance. Cronkite, apparently supplied with a fact sheet, dutifully repeated the same facts over and over again. It was a prime demonstration that television, with all its technical marvels, was not a spontaneous medium.

Ginger Rogers being interviewed on Playhouse 90.
Walter Cronkite’s opening remark about the event being “totally unrehearsed” was an understatement. Garry Moore, the host of the program, could be seen glancing off camera when he first entered the picture. The first time Elizabeth Taylor appears on the screen, the camera cuts to another shot of the Philadelphia mummers. Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh were completely cut out to make room for long series of network and local spots. Todd could be seen wiping the sweat off his face and waving the camera away.

A series of film shorts designed to biograph Mike Todd’s journey as a producer for the motion-picture was highlighted with such celebrities as James Mason, agent Irving Lazar, Elizabeth Taylor and Charles Boyer -- the latter of whom was in costume for his up-coming motion-picture, The Buccaneer (1958), with the Paramount Pictures logo featured prominently in the center of the screen. It was understood that the film with Taylor was shot without permission of Metro, where she was under exclusive contract, but the studio took no action under the circumstance. Garry Moore introduced the filmed portions, which had Todd gagging it up and “dramatizing” the story of how 80 Days came to be. The sequences with Frank Sinatra and Maurice Chevalier were promised, but were never aired (although the two were listed during the closing credits). The show had its humorous moments, such as when Sir Cedric Hardwicke almost sagged off his elephant (after the first minute this looked more dangerous than funny) and when the black-tied attendants tried to catch up with a runaway dog. Apart from that, there were 240 dancers who didn’t dance, a sad-faced Fernandel who did nothing more than lead his horse around the arena (in a plug for Don Quixote), Sen. Hubert Humphrey of Minnesota suddenly calling for international understanding, George Jessel calling Todd “The American Sputnik” (yes, there are laughs there), cowboys and Indians putting on a brief chase act, Broadway Asians presenting themselves as Indians, Burmese, etc., an appearance from the Keystone Kops, plumed knights, strolling players and a couple of jeep loads with food. If one wanted to be critical, watching the telecast today, Art Cohn produced and wrote the show, with little evidence of either activity.

In the October 18, 1957 issue of Variety, a columnist remarked: “The event was disorganized and the disorganization was contagious, spreading to the TV crews. This proved a saving grace, however, due to Todd’s apparent conviction that if much is good, even more is better. As a result, the mishaps caused by disorganization proved a welcome relief from the myriad of dancers, parading extras, bagpipers, horses, elephants, dancers, horses, dancers and horses.”

Variety later criticized in a later issue: “No question that the advance buildup and the promise of a huge star lineup gave the show a big rating. No question, either, that a lot of viewers must have felt badly let down when it was all over, for rarely has Todd produced anything less calculated to keep his public happy. What CBS’ ‘Around the World in 90 Minutes’ added up to was an interminable, frequently clumsy plug for Mike Todd; a show without a show that added up to nothing more than a listless parade around the tanbark. This had been billed as something special, and in the light of Todd’s achievement with Around the World in 80 Days, it seems the more incredible that it turned out something less than ordinary.”

Mike Todd’s Madison Square Garden bash gave CBS its highest rating for Playhouse 90 to date, a 34.5 against NBC’s 12.9 for the Hallmark presentation of “The Green Pastures.” ABC scored a 15.4 Navy Log.

Several of the daily newspapers were viciously rough on Mike Todd. The New York Herald Tribune commented editorially on October 19, comparing Todd’s shindig with the ancient Roman circuses for the masses and Marie Antoinette’s crack to the hungry French, “Let them eat cake.”  Pointing out that the United States “faces enough troubles at the present time, of which the Communist propaganda machine has taken full advantage to advance its course throughout the world, can well imagine how the Soviets will present a picture to the rest of the world of New York fiddling while the country burns.” The New York Tribune, in concluding its observation on Todd’s party, remarked: “In the days of the fabulous banquets which preceded the fall of the Roman Empire, the participants used to gorge themselves, retire to a specially named room and empty their stomachs so that they could return to stuff themselves anew.” The New York Daily News, in a tongue-in-cheek account, said Todd “gave the public bread crumbs and a circus.” George Jessel, who served as emcee, characterized the party most aptly when he said early in the evening: “Such an evening will not happen again. Nobody could stand it.”

One critic expressed his disappointment as “A promotion which was built on the deadheading of nearly everything had about as much dignity as a frat house panty raid on a sorority house at the first stirring of spring. After all the promoting the merchandise and the touted prizes were either baldly hijacked, Chicago style, or broken open and pilfered, waterfront style. This was just one of the many fiascos behind the fa├žade.” Another columnist remarked, “Todd got a $1,000,000 worth of publicity and made 18,000 enemies.”

Todd’s party landed an important and lengthy critique in his home town when the Minneapolis Morning Tribune offered front page coverage. Columnist and staff writer Barbara Flanagan was one of the Twin Cities’ 22 shindig guests chosen to travel in a chartered plane to and from New York at Todd’s expense. Telling about her experience at the party was anything but complimentary. In her opinion, the party was pretty much a bust. “Most of the invited guests went away from the party as bewildered as when they arrived,” according to Flanagan. “Anybody expecting caviar and peacock wings went home hungry from the party. There was beer and hot dogs and pizza and pickles and other good old everyday-type American fare. Todd’s one bow to the chi-chi set was pink champagne, but he served it in paper cups. In fact, pink was the evening’s theme. But whoever made the frosting for the cake slipped. Said one guest on departing, ‘Well, it was big. And it was also dull I’m still trying to figure out what it was all about.’ A New York cab driver pronounced Todd’s party a ‘dud.’ ‘I’ve been hauling people out of that place all night,’ he said. ‘From what I hear ‘em say, you could have a better time watching television.’”

There were no TV monitors available for the in-Garden bunch to know what was being telecast. Celebrities were embarrassingly few, fearing just what happened. One man in the upper perches wished he had “stood in bed.” As the free bonbon wagon rolled by, candies were thrown into the front-row. Then some idiot on the hotdog wagon started throwing the franks-and-buns. Not even a major league pitcher could control a pitch that involved a dog within a roll. Gowns were reportedly stained.

Before the American Federation of Television & Radio Artists would permit Mike Todd to televise his bash at Madison Square Garden, the film producer was compelled to place a $30,000 bond with the union to insure payment to the various actors who appeared on the 90-minute Playhouse 90 version on CBS. He complied, since the union would have pulled all the talent out of the show. This action, while not unheard of, was considered rare. Also part of the deal, enabling him to do the television broadcast, Todd signed the AFTRA code, the same one governing thespian relations with the webs and other television producers. The $30,000 was returned to Todd as he made payments to the actors. One of the reasons AFTRA demanded a bond, in the form of certified checks, was to avoid any squabbles over what constituted a walk-on as differentiated from a regular appearance that demanded union fees. The $30,000 bond was used to cover payments to 160 extras in the parade, 28 horsemen and women, and a group of incidental performers such as clowns. Also included in that bracket was emcee George Jessel and the performers in the film clips used on the show.

Performers, animal act participants, musicians and folk dance groups who were on the main arena, had first grabs at gifts and the free food. People in the balcony and galleries were literally isolated from the VIPs downstairs (the doors lead only to streets) but the latter, even if in Row A, could only lean over for a hotdog or coffee — if lucky. One valiant could be seen throwing hot dogs through the air and members of the crowd standing up to catch the food. The beer wag almost non-existent as the parched performers, musicians, photographers, sundry CBS staff, Madison Square Garden and Todd staffers, who were in the wrestling reach, helped themselves first. There was no entry provided from the ringside and the staff cops, who must have been recruited for the evening, refused exit onto the floor, in case one wanted to get near the free beer, coffee and hot dogs.

Behind the scenes, a number of minor scandals caused brief uproars. Officials at Madison Square Garden defended an accusation, blame-shifting “chiseling waiters” who sold food and drink which had been donated. Another issue was the raffle prizes. There was no raffling of the prizes, as pledged. To settle the issue, lucky stub-holders could read the winning numbers in the daily newspapers, a week after the telecast. Even the 10,000 cigars that were to be handed out were not.

The network’s original intention was to pre-empt Playhouse 90 on that evening, with Bristol-Meyers, the sponsor, shifting its $100,000 budget expenditure to the Mike Todd special. By the end of September, Kimberly-Clark agreed to co-sponsor the entire tab for the October 17 telecast. The scheduled Playhouse 90 for that night was a film, so CBS faced no problems on the production end. But when the American Gas Association and All-State Insurance was approached regarding the program shift, contractual issues rose and the network quickly decided to include the gala affair as part of the Playhouse 90 presentation. Commercial time for Bristol-Myers, Kimberly-Clark, Marlboro Cigarettes, American Gas Association and All-State Insurance made sure that the viewers didn’t lose track of that fact when commentators Walter Cronkite, Bill Leonard and Jim McKay were defeated by the in-studio film cut-ins.

Marlboro Cigarettes performed a slow burn over the way Garry Moore plugged his own Winston brand while helping emcee the telecast, which Marlboro sponsored. The cigarette firm sent a wire of protest to Merle Jones at CBS demanding an explanation. It seems that Moore (whom Winston sponsors on his I’ve Got a Secret) was booked directly by Todd to share the key anchor color commentary duties with Walter Cronkite at Madison Square Garden (with Todd, incidentally, reciprocating by appearing as a guest on Secret the night before). On-camera, Moore pulled out a pack of Winstons, which got a close-up exposure on the show, and several times laced his commentary with plays on the Winston ad slogan, “tastes good, like a cigarette should.” Although Marlboro, had an alternate-week half-hour sponsor of Playhouse 90, and was one of the sponsors on the Todd party telecast, and receive its usual alternate-week cross-plug commercial on the show. Marlboro’s agency, Leo Burnett, fired off a wire of protest immediately to Jones, and while CBS didn’t have a kinescope handy, it set up a screening a couple of days later for a Burnett representative of the West Coast. Marlboro never made any specific demands other than for an explanation, so apparently the matter never went any further than that.

The most incredible part of all this was the fact that the entire bash did not cost Todd more than $13,000 for the rental of Madison Square Garden and of his personal expenses. So many companies donated time, staff and money in return for cross-promotion, product placement and sponsorship (not on Playhouse 90, of course). CBS spent $50,000 on newspaper advertisements to plug the Playhouse 90 telecast.

Initial Telecast: October 17, 1957

Teleplay by Art Cohn.
Directed by Byron Paul.
Animal Supervision: “Buck” Steele
Associate Producer: Leonard Gaines
Director: Byron Paul
Assistant to the Producer: Russell Stoneham
Assistant Directors: Mack Bing and Gray Delmar
Technical Director: Sanford Bell and Charles Grenier
Settings Designed by Robert Rowe Paddock.
Costume Supervisor: Motley
Music Supervisor: Jack Saunders
General Stage Manager: Bernard Gersten
Director of Refreshments: William Forrest
General Production Coordinator: Pat Valdo

Cast: Charles Boyer (as himself); Walter Cronkite (the host); Hedda Hopper (as herself); George Jessel (as himself); Elsa Maxwell (as herself); Garry Moore (the emcee); Ginger Rogers (as herself); Elizabeth Taylor (as herself); and Mike Todd (as himself).