Friday, November 28, 2014

FDR and the Thanksgiving Holiday

FDR preparing for one of his fireside chats.
U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt had a lot to think about in 1939. The world had been suffering from the Great Depression for a decade and the Second World War had just erupted in Europe. On top of that, the U.S. economy continued to look bleak. So when U.S. retailers begged him to move Thanksgiving up a week to increase the shopping days before Christmas, he agreed. He probably considered it a small change; however, when FDR issued his Thanksgiving Proclamation with the new date, there was an uproar throughout the country.

As most schoolchildren know, the history of Thanksgiving began when Pilgrims and Native Americans gathered together to celebrate a successful harvest. The first Thanksgiving was held in the fall of 1621, sometime between September 21 and November 11, and was a three-day feast. The Pilgrims were joined by approximately 90 of the local Wampanoag tribe, including Chief Massasoit, in celebration. They ate fowl and deer for certain and most likely also ate berries, fish, clams, plums, and boiled pumpkin.

On October 3, 1863, Lincoln issued a Thanksgiving Proclamation that declared the last Thursday in November to be a day of "thanksgiving and praise." For the first time, Thanksgiving became a national, annual holiday with a specific date.

FDR Changes It
For 75 years after Lincoln issued his Thanksgiving Proclamation, succeeding presidents honored the tradition and annually issued their own Thanksgiving Proclamation, declaring the last Thursday in November as the day of Thanksgiving. However, in 1939, President Franklin D. Roosevelt did not. In 1939, the last Thursday of November was going to be November 30. There were five Thursdays in the month of November. Retailers complained to FDR that this only left 24 shopping days to Christmas and begged him to push Thanksgiving just one week earlier. In August 1939, Lew Hahn, general manager of the Retail Dry Goods Association, warned Secretary of Commerce Harry Hopkins that the late calendar date of Thanksgiving that year (November 30) could possibly have an adverse effect on retail sales. At the time, it was considered bad form for retailers to display Christmas decorations or have "Christmas" sales before the celebration of Thanksgiving. It was determined that most people do their Christmas shopping after Thanksgiving and retailers hoped that with an extra week of shopping, people would buy more. So when FDR announced his Thanksgiving Proclamation in 1939, he declared the date of Thanksgiving to be Thursday, November 23, the second-to-last Thursday of the month. In short, this is why Thanksgiving falls on the fourth Thursday of every month -- not the last Thursday.

The new date for Thanksgiving caused a lot of confusion. Calendars were now incorrect. Schools who had planned vacations and tests now had to reschedule. Thanksgiving had been a big day for football games, as it is today, so the game schedule had to be examined. Political opponents of FDR and many others questioned the President's right to change the holiday and stressed the breaking of precedent and disregard for tradition. Many believed that changing a cherished holiday just to appease businesses was not a sufficient reason for change. Atlantic City's mayor derogatorily called November 23 as "Franksgiving."

The plan encountered immediate opposition. Alf Landon, Roosevelt's Republican challenger in the preceding election, called the declaration "another illustration of the confusion which [Roosevelt's] impulsiveness has caused so frequently during his administration. If the change has any merit at all, more time should have been taken working it out... instead of springing it upon an unprepared country with the omnipotence of a Hitler." While not all critics were political opponents of the president, most parts of New England (then a Republican stronghold relative to the rest of the nation) were among the most vocal areas. James Frasier, the chairman of the selectmen of Plymouth, Massachusetts (the commonly alleged location of the first Thanksgiving holiday) "heartily disapproved".

Before 1939, the president annually announced his Thanksgiving Proclamation and then governors followed the president in officially proclaiming the same day as Thanksgiving for their state. In 1939, many governors did not agree with FDR's decision to change the date and refused to follow him. The country became split on which Thanksgiving they should observe. Twenty-three states followed FDR's change and declared Thanksgiving to be November 23. Twenty-three other states disagreed with FDR and kept the traditional date for Thanksgiving as November 30. Two states, Colorado and Texas, decided to honor both dates.
This idea of two Thanksgiving days split some families, because not everyone had the same day off work.

Did It Work?
Though the confusion caused many frustrations across the country, the question remained as to whether the extended holiday shopping season caused people to spend more, thus helping the economy in a state of depression. The answer was no. Businesses reported that the spending was approximately the same, but the distribution of the shopping was changed. For those states who celebrated the earlier Thanksgiving date, shopping was evenly distributed throughout the season. For those states that kept the traditional date, businesses experienced a bulk of shopping in the last week before Christmas.

In 1940, FDR again announced Thanksgiving to be the fourth Thursday of the month. This time, 31 states followed him with the earlier date and 17 kept the traditional date. Confusion over two Thanksgivings continued. 
Lincoln had established the Thanksgiving holiday to bring the country together, but the confusion over the date change was tearing it apart. On December 26, 1941, Congress passed a law declaring that Thanksgiving would occur every year on the fourth Thursday of November. Problem solved.

In the 1940 Warner Bros. Merrie Melodies cartoon Holiday Highlights, directed by Tex Avery, the introduction to a segment about Thanksgiving shows the holiday falling on two different dates, one "for Democrats" and one a week later "for Republicans."

The competing dates for Thanksgiving are parodied in the 1942 film Holiday Inn (and the inspiration for this blog post when I questioned what the joke was in reference to). Many segments of the film are preceded by shots of a calendar with a visual symbol of the given holiday. For November, an animated turkey is shown running back and forth between the third and fourth Thursdays, finally shrugging its shoulders in confusion.

In the 1940 Three Stooges comedy No Census, No Feeling, Curly makes mention of the Fourth of July being in October. When Moe questions him, Curly replies, "You never can tell. Look what they did to Thanksgiving!"

Friday, November 21, 2014

The Merv Griffin Show, 1962-1986

Thanks to David Peck and Tom Gulotta at Reelin' in the Years Productions, and MPI Home Video, a new 12 disc DVD set has been released to the commercial market. If you are looking for something to buy and treat yourself -- or for if your spouse who asks you what you want for the holiday -- you can look no further than The Merv Griffin Show, 1962-1986 DVD set. Over the course of those years, the show garnered 10 Emmy Awards and welcomed more than 5,000 guests -- including many of the most important names in the fields of entertainment, politics, music, art, sports, fashion and literature. If you love interviews with actors, Jayne Mansfield, Jane Fonda, Ingrid Bergman, Sir Laurence Olivier, Gene Wilder, Orson Welles and Sylvester Stallone are a small fraction of those included in this disc. If television is your meat, Jack Benny, Lucille Ball, Bob Hope, Bob Crane, Betty White, Loretta Swit and Lindsay Wagner are included. History makers such as Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, Richard Nixon, Rosa Parks, Dr. Timothy Leary, Alex Haley, Pres. Gerald Ford, Pres. Ronald Reagan, Col. John Glenn and Martin Luther King, Jr. are among the notables. Comedians George Carlin, Steve Martin, Moms Mabley, Andy Kaufman, Henny Youngman, Bill Cosby, Carol Burnett, Redd Foxx, Mel Brooks, Woody Allen... well, you get the idea.

When someone mentions a talk show, we generally think of today's hosts: Jimmy Fallon, Jimmy Kimmel, David Letterman, Jay Leno... but few can deny that today's programs are nothing more than an hour-long infomercial. Celebrities pitching their latest motion-pictures and with a strong network connection (ABC is owned by the Walt Disney Company, NBC is owned by Universal, you get the idea). Sadly, the evening news does the same if you dig deep enough into the motives for the news briefs...

Looking back at a time when television talk show hosts interviewed celebrities for the sake of engagement between the studio guests and the television audience, "legends" come to mind. Johnny Carson, Mike Douglas, Dick Cavett and Merv Griffin are among the notables. And while some celebrities were pitching their autobiographies, the talk show hosts also displayed a warm and casual style, with mannerisms, that are no longer the meat and potatoes of today's variety-talk shows. Every time someone replaces another late-night talk show host, viewers often comment, "They are not as good as Johnny Carson..." And that is probably the sincerest compliment a talk show host could receive.

Merv Griffin interviews Martin Luther King, Jr.
My little nephew sat with me as we watched Adam West and Burt Ward promoting the 1966 Batman motion-picture. Both he and I were disappointed that the Caped Crusader and Boy Wonder revealed little -- if anything -- and made me suspect they were tossed onto the program to help kill a few minutes on the program. My nephew Josh found Martin Luther King, Jr.'s talk about the Civil Rights Act and progress that would eventually be made in the country, fascinating. Many of King's predictions, however, fell short of what he envisioned as a perfect society in the United States. A bigger surprise to me than his discussions about his accomplishments. Talulah Bankhead, the great stage actress, told stories of the New York Stage and you could tell Griffin wanted to talk about subjects other than the Stage.

Farrah Fawcett-Majors on the Merv Griffin Show
John Wayne's hour-long guest shot was filmed in the Mid-West where he was spending the week selling cattle -- high-protein beef -- a financial investment that involved 30,000 head of cattle and enough feed stretching a quarter-mile long, piled 25 feet high... and there were four of these mammoth strips of feed! Wayne said he rarely tried to play a character -- he just played himself. He raved about Michael Curtiz, Harry Carey and John Ford and I quickly discovered "The Duke" was as human and down-to-earth as you and I... he never tried to be something he wasn't.

The April 27, 1973 telecast with Jack Benny was hilarious. It is a must-see.

Ray Bradbury dismissed the notion that he predicted future societies and the advancement of technology in his writings -- he merely dictated moral obligations of society in a world that didn't exist, but could be associated with today. He talked about his work with the Walt Disney Company (remember he created the story in the Spaceship Earth ride at Epcot), and predicted how people would communicate via satellite with holograms and projections. 

Olivia Newton-John and John Travolta discuss the making of Grease, William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy and DeForest Kelly reminiscence about Star Trek for a full hour, the entire cast of Golden Girls devote an hour discussing their screen careers prior to the success of the sitcom (and sparks flew when their love lives were explored), Jim Henson and Frank Oz reveal the origins of The Muppets, and there are numerous musical performances such as Sammy Davis, Jr. performing "The Candy Man" in 1972, Merle Haggard's "Amazing Grace" in 1971, Liberace performs "Chopsticks" in 1976, Hank Williams, Jr. performs "Family Tradition" in 1981, Smokey Robinson offers a great rendition of "The Tracks of My Tears" in 1981, John Denver sings "Take Me Home, Country Roads" in 1976, Andy Williams performs "Moon River" in 1978, Isaac Hayes performs the theme from Shaft in 1972, The Everly Brother performs "Bye, Bye Love" in 1966, and Frankie Laine, Dionne Warwick, Loretta Lynn, Weird Al Yankovic, Aretha Franklin, Nina Simone, Stevie Wonder, Whitney Houston (two years before her first album was released), Screaming' Jay Hawkins, Freddie and the Dreamers, and many others provide great performances. Merv Griffin singing a rendition of "New York, New York" with The Muppets is also a highlight. 

Orson Welles less than a a few hours before his death.
Don Rickles and Mr. T play off each other beautifully. Sylvester Stallone and Burgess Meredith talk about Rocky III. Muhammad Ali proves he is the greatest. Orson Welles is a guest host with comedian Andy Kaufman. Bill Cosby and Jerry Seinfeld share couches. Dick Cavett switches roles to interview Merv Griffin on Griffin's own program. Eva Gabor is making a pass at Chuck Norris in 1971. Willie Mays makes an appearance on two separate interviews in this set. James Brolin is extremely young in 1971. Ingrid Berman, Shelley Winters, Bette Davis, Olivia DeHavilland, William Wyler, Hedy Lamar, Jerry Lewis, Danny Kaye and Roddy McDowall are among the Hollywood legends.

Unlike today's talk programs that serve either for political reasons or as publicity devices, The Merv Griffin Show is a refreshing example of a time when people on talk shows actually "talked." They provided stories, jokes, moments we can only laugh at, and trivia we could only relish with each chapter on the DVDs.  

David Peck and Phil Galloway
inspect the shelves in the
warehouse holding the thousands
 of tapes comprising
the Merv Griffin Show archive.
In March 2012, Reelin' In The Years Productions signed a deal with The Griffin Group to represent the rights to The Merv Griffin Show. Because the archives were rarely explored, no one seemed to know how many of the television broadcasts existed. Talk shows rarely received preservation over the years -- the medium was split between business decisions (the reuse of tape and storage fees) and preservation of the arts. Up to 1981, all of the shows were shot live onto 2-inch video tape (switched to 1-inch tape after that). Keeping in mind that the average cost of a 90-minute reel of tape was roughly $300 in the sixties and seventies, the reuse of tape was practical from a business standpoint. Additionally, hundreds of tapes of "lost" Merv Griffin's program were sitting at Sony Pictures Entertainment, when Griffin sold the rights to Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy! in 1986. Some of these were better quality than the 1960s archive that were poor transfers from the master tapes does in the early 1980s on 3/4-inch Umatic tapes. The DVD box set contains 14 of these newly-transferred programs on the first three DVDs in this set. The quality on these DVDs far surpasses the quality of the original broadcast, as well as the copies of the same shows that had been released on a prior box set of Merv Griffin shows.

CBS Television had some of the missing shows from 1969 to 192. The shows featuring Dennis Hopper and Willie Mays on disc five existed only on kinescope.

An unaired version of Isaac Hayes and the great Stax artists of the day performing "Reach Out and Touch Somebody's Hand" is included on disc five, along with the December 6, 1972 telecast that existed only on 1/2-inch open reel, filmed at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas, formerly considered a "lost" program. Two segments from the December 20, 1967, telecast with Richard M. Nixon and David Susskind is included on disc four, courtesy of the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum, which turned up a number of missing shows. If you know your American history well, you will enjoy Gore Vidal on the May 14, 1970 telecast, also on the same disc, calling for Nixon's impeachment on national television, ten days after the tragedy at Kent State. 

Even with all these surprises, close to 1,800 of the more than 4,500 shows have been found. Reeling' In The Years Productions are still very much on the hunt for episodes (and/or segments) that are missing from the Merv Griffin archive. If anyone has any of the "lost" episodes, regardless of format, they are asking the general public to contact them at info (at) and you can find the entire library catalogued on a searchable database located on the website,

Photo of the 12-disc set so you make sure you get the correct one.

There are bonus extras on every DVD, highlights from Griffin's final show on September 5, 1986, CBS trailers and promos, and more. Mer Griffin teaches Jay Leno how to host a talk show in February of 1986 and then a few days later, Leno is a guest host with comedian Jerry Seinfeld. Leno makes a touching remembrance of Merv Griffin on July 9, 2014, also included in this set. The set also includes a 52 page book documenting the history of the television program, a brief biography of Merv Griffin, and a wonderful section titled "Producers' Notes."

Convinced yet? Treat yourself and buy your copy today.

Side Note:
With the DVD retail market being what it is today, as a result of the huge trend in "illegal downloading," and the movie studios being short-sighted in shutting down websites that provide file swapping services, the producers of this set have publicly asked for three favors. One, help spread the word about this DVD set. Two, sign up for their mailing list at to stay informed of future DVD releases. Three, quoting the producers: "To those who wish to share this wonderful footage with your friends by posting it on YouTube or any other online site -- please don't. Not only is it illegal, but we as a company police YouTube frequently and will have it removed. A lot of time and money went into this and we'd like to do more, so please respect our rights." This means the sales figures for this DVD set will determine future releases. This is a cause similar to donating money for preservation, and you get something to enjoy at the same time.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Wonder Woman: The Complete Newspaper Strips, 1944-1945

Wonder Woman is making a comeback through multiple forms of media and entertainment in the coming year. 

Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman
Gal Gadot is presently being filmed as the Amazon Princess for the next motion-picture installment of Superman vs. Batman (exact title has not yet been decided by Warner Brothers). The studio even released a publicity photo of Gadot in the bronze-colored costume, which sparked controversy through social discussion on Facebook and other social media... but  we shouldn't judge before watching the movie. Gadot is a beautiful Israeli actress who spawned a legion of fans from her appearance in multiple Fast and the Furious movies and honestly... she'll be a fan boy's wet dream as Wonder Woman, regardless of the costume.

Just a few weeks ago, DC Comics announced a new digital series, Wonder Woman '77, a new comic series taking place where the Lynda Carter TV series left off. The digital format is the predicted craze for the new digital format of comic books, which DC launches in December 2014. This series follows in the footsteps of DC’s popular Batman '66 series, which is based on the classic television series that starred Adam West and Burt Ward. Similar to that, the Wonder Woman ’77 series will feature a storyline based on the television show, with the Amazonian princess’ likeness based on Lynda Carter. Six consecutive weekly chapters will kick off the new series, which will then be collected into two print issues and released in early 2015. The series will be then periodically published following that.

Wonder Woman digital comic books.
Smithsonian magazine (October 2014) recently documented the history of Wonder Woman, and her creator, William Moulton Marston, which is an excellent crash course in the history of the superhero. (Much of the article was adapted from The Secret History of Wonder Woman by Jill Lepore.) And just last week the Library of American Comics published a 175 page hardcover reprinting the entire newspaper strip of Wonder Woman, published from 1944 to 1945. Like most fans of the comics, I read all of the comic books and have the first 60 years of comic books on CD-Rom (digital scans) in my personal collection. So you can imagine my excitement when I learned that the newspaper strip was going to be published. Just when I thought I read all of the Wonder Woman stories, LAC published something new.

During the 1940s, comic books were considered "childish" and a bad influence for juvenile delinquents. Newspaper strips, both dailies (Mon - Sat) and the Sunday strips were considered sanctimonious. Wonder Woman premiered in comic books in 1942 so for her to cross over into the newspaper dailies was a very big deal, emphasizing how America's Girl of Tomorrow showed strong promise of acceptance.

Wonder Woman: The Complete Newspaper Strip, 1943-44
Marston was known for having a romantic relationship with two women. His wife, Elizabeth Holloway, was a lawyer by profession. In 1925, Marston met Olive Byrne, a senior at Tufts; he was her psychology professor. When the two fell in love, he gave Holloway a choice: either Byrne could live with them, or he would leave her. Byrne moved in. Ultimately they formed a sort of informal threesome of a family unit, and Marston fathered two children by each of them. After his death, the two women continued as a household and raised their family together."
When the book arrived, I spent the weekend reading many of the stories to one of my young nephews. To him, Wonder Woman was willing to fight for justice and cause. To me, they were stories I read before. The Mole Men and The Cheetah, among other characters and plots, were recycled from comic books published prior to the newspaper renditions. True, there were a few differences, and a number of book characters were renamed for the strips. Lila Brown was now Erna Dollar; and Etta Candy was certainly the type of character you would expect to read in the daily funnies. 

This, of course, is no fault of LAC, who did a spectacular job reprinting the strips in book form. LAC also disclosed the fact that the quality would vary from page to page. While the newspaper strips in the book were from the files of DC Comics, some from pristine syndicate proofs, others were clipped from actual newspapers. By the time the series was winding down in November 1945, it was most likely running in only one newspaper -- the Chicago Herald-American. There will no doubt be a number of people criticizing the print quality of the strips reprinted from newspaper clippings, but the worst of them (about two pages) are better than any newspaper strip I read on microfilm or multi-generation photocopies and can certainly be read without any complications. Normally I would say, "something is better than nothing." But in this case, one would have to have caviar and champagne taste to lodge a complaint about the quality. 

Some might question whether the Wonder Woman strips were tamed down from the comic book versions. I don't think so, but this leaves subject to debate... and I for one do not want to debate the subject. Marston's bondage themes were deliberate through the comic books. In every issue, a villain got the upper-hand and she found herself chained, bound, gagged, lassoed, tied, fettered and manacled. When letters of complaint began coming in to DC Comics, Marston, a psychologist, defended his creation citing: "The secret of women's allure is that women enjoy submission -- being bound." Marston was sure he knew what lines not to cross. As he explained, the Wonder Woman comics were harmless erotic fantasies and were not harmful, destructive or morbid erotic fixations as long as sadism, killing, blood-letting and torture for pleasure, where pain was involved, was avoided. 

Reading the newspaper strips, one has to question the December 1944 strips when Wonder Woman, like a stage magician, allows herself to be chained up and dropped into a water tank in an effort to demonstrate her feat of strength and escape artist capabilities. Wonder Woman is shackled with chains designed for rebellious Turkish prisoners, a famous "brank" worn by women prisoners at St. Lazare Prison in Paris (which covers the entire face), an ancient Greek manacle from a Spartan dungeon clamped at the ankles, and a Tibetan collar choking Wonder Woman if she turns her head. I might not be into the bondage craze (to each his own) but I have to admit that I was mesmerized and glued to the pages as I witnessed Wonder Woman's plight into a watery grave... and how she cleverly made her escape.

If I had any complaint about this book is the Library of American Comics' decision to set a retail price of $49.99. I paid less for LAC's Dick Tracy and Terry and the Pirates books and the page count was larger. Also, there was only one historical write-up about the newspaper strip by Bruce Canwell. A great introduction to the history of the strip but I would have expected a couple extra essays and photographic bonus material to get my money's worth. If you are a completist, or a fan of Wonder Woman, this book is a must-have. Maybe DC asked for too much in royalties, causing the retail price to be as high as it is. Maybe it is's insistence on setting retail prices for books (many publishing companies have been forced to raise the retail price of their books, in an effort to make something of a profit, to offset the steep discounts Amazon "demands"). Regardless, if you are casually interested in grabbing a copy for Christmas, try to grab it when the price is about $25 or $30 and you'll get your money's worth.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Playhouse 90: The Death of Manolete

Playhouse 90 was, by general agreement, the last great live anthology drama on American network television. It was also the best. As the name suggested, each episode ran 90 minutes, already a step beyond the typical 60- or 30-minute drama. Although Playhouse 90 featured the same wide range of subject matter as other anthologies, many episodes aspired to grand spectacle. Battlefields, sinking ships, and tropical jungles were all recreated for episodes of Playhouse 90, which was produced in both New York and Los Angeles studios. With a very large budget, the network succeeded in providing the best television could offer. Even the worst dramas had high caliber and warrants viewing.... even today.

The first episode of the second season was "The Death of Manolete" and following a critically-acclaimed first season, producer Martin Manulis insisted on a top-notch drama to launch the second year. But even with superb direction by John Frankenheimer and the return of Jack Palance from last year's Emmy-winning "Requiem for a Heavyweight," it failed to succeed. The main reason was because the network rushed the production into the broadcast schedule to compete with a rival program, The General Electric Theater.

"The Death of Manolete" was the dramatic biography of Manuel Rodriguez Manolete, known as one of the great matadors of modern times, who died in the bullring on August 28, 1947. Manolete longed to battle the mythical Minotaur and neither his manager, his true love or his mother could convince him to stay out of the ring. Manolette succeeds in his attempt to maintain his position as the idol of Spain... and pays the price.

Bullfighting became the subject of a network television show for the first time in the history of the industry when CBS expressed an interest in The Day Manolete Was Killed, which originated as a special disk album written and narrated by author and bullfight expert Barnaby Conrad. The commercial record was produced by Josh Moss for Audio-Fidelity, but neither of the two would participate in the television adaptation. That chore was assigned to Barnaby Conrad personally, after the story was earmarked for consideration by producer Martin Manulis. By early July, the first draft was in the works and plans to make use of actual films of Manolete fighting would be integrated into the drama. Bullfight subjects had become fairly commonplace as film fare since 1950 or 1951, but television stayed away from the subject because of the graphic nature of the sport and the fatal demise of the bull. Real bullfights were, of course, banned in the United States. But CBS wanted to use Playhouse 90 as the launching pad for taboo subjects in the hopes that subject material such as this one would become accepted by the general public. For Playhouse 90, the gruesome depiction of the bulls being finished off was provided courtesy of stock footage and a fake bull head for the live footage.

When Manulis returned from his vacation in early August (he was not set to return until mid-August), he discovered CBS was in a race to transcend the property of bullfighting to network television. G.E. Theatre already completed a dramatic bullfight story, “Cornada,” starring Tony Curtis, and was scheduled for airing in November. The television drama was filmed at Revue Studios months prior and used clips from actual bullfights taken at the Plaza De Toros in Seville, Spain. Under the direction of Herschel Daugherty, and a script by Jameson Brewer, the half-hour production would have been the first bullfight story dramatized on network television had it not been for Playhouse 90. It was because of the G.E. Theatre production that CBS immediately assigned the un-produced feature the title of “The Death of Manolete” and the life of one of the greatest bullfighters Manolete (1917-1947) was announced in a press release as the season opener. With the network rushing to get this drama on the air, it was perhaps too hurried and ultimately production suffered.

Jack Palance as Manolete
Due to the success of “Requiem for a Heavyweight,” CBS approached Jack Palance in mid-August. The actor recently returned from Mexico where he co-starred with Maria Felix in The Flower of May, a theatrical film, has not yet decided if he would take the role. After reviewing the Barnaby Conrad script, Manulis discovered the script was not good enough to submit to Palance and replaced Conrad as writer of the teleplay, assigning Paul Monash to handle a re-write. Smooth talking over the phone between Manulis and Palance cinched the deal and on August 15, Palance signed to star in the lead. On August 16, the actor flew with director John Frankenheimer for three days in Mexico, during which they watched real bullfights to prepare for authenticity in the play. Casting was completed before the end of August, with Ray Danton signed for the second male lead to Jack Palance.

Before Manolete met his death in he bull ring on Playhouse 90, director John Frankenheimer and his crew passed through one of television’s most complicated patterns of production. He threw the cues for 110 film inserts, lined up 1,000 different camera shots, called the turns on seven cameras (four were customary) and kept his technical crew of 45 alerted to all the changes. Four separate scenes partially depicted the drama through the reflection of a mirror. It took three men to operate the mechanical bull. All the hard work paid off. The Trendex rated 24.9 for Playhouse 90. The stiffest competition, The Lux Video Theater, averaged off at 10.5 for a swan song -- the final telecast of the long-running Lux program.

The G.E. Theatre production with Tony Curtis making his television dramatic debut as a bullfighter, was not without controversy. A few days after the Playhouse 90 production aired on CBS, Revue Productions and B.B.D.&O. had a full-scale hassle with the CBS censors over their up-coming production, and accused the network of selling a double-standard in its continuity & acceptance practices. Every teleplay for every dramatic program that aired over the network was subjected to review by the network’s legal eagles, who dictated brief reports of unacceptable language and scenes. This was to protect the network from potential lawsuits. Dialogue and scenes that were deemed questionable were usually ruled out. When the producer Martin Manulis received a report from the network that was not in their favor, they questioned why Playhouse 90 received favorable treatment. At the root of the hassle was the fact that the network ordered cuts in bullfight sequences in the G.E. film, “Coronada,” with which Revue complied, on the basis that they were too violent and bloody.
Jack Palance and Suzy Parker during rehearsals.
Richard Lewis, the producer of G.E., accused CBS of allowing similar scenes to be used on its own Playhouse 90 series, and accused the network of favoring its own programs in its censorship practices. Revue reportedly insisted that the cuts be restored, on the basis that what’s good enough for a CBS house show was good enough for an outside package. CBS eventually bowed to pressure from legals representing General Electric, allowing the cuts to be restored.

Critics stabbed the entire production in the manner of a real-life bullfighter. Compared to all the first season productions, “The Death of Manolete” was among the worst productions of Playhouse 90 to date. Billboard reviewed: “The great Manolete suffered a posthumous goring on the opening telecast of the new season, chief culprits including the writers, directors and casting director. A stilted, muddled script which cried ‘art’ and delivered fragmentary vignettes and 73 poor quality film clips laid the rocky foundation. What made the millions who ‘adored him’ before and after his death shun him cruelly during his final performances was not explained. What made his eyesight suddenly shaky and just as suddenly improve was unclear. What made Jack Palance affect a high tenor monotone in the role proved sabotage. The ‘courage and glory that was his’ were absent in what sounded like a literal translation from the Spanish. ‘This of the bulls is a serious,’ Palance was called upon to intone to a would-be torero. Suzy Parker was so inadequate as his mistress as to be comical. Only Nehemiah Persoff, as his manager, and H.M. Wynant, who vanished too soon as a rival hero, made something genuine out of the massive sham. Producer Martin Manulis bit off more than his staff could chew, not technically (it went smoothly) but artistically. Barnaby Conrad’s forthcoming book has to be more moving and illuminating than this adaptation or it’ll be outsold by the life of Sidney Franklin. Healthy plugs for the next three Playhouse 90 shows looked more promising, and the various commercials were brisk and effective.”

Jack Palance later blamed himself for the poorly-received telecast, meant to be a promising start for the second season of Playhouse 90. “I watched the show [via kinescope] and was a little bored by it,” he admitted. “I thought ‘Manolete’ was messed up all the way around. We tried to make the hero too human, and when there’s too much fear and too much love, it makes him inept. It was my fault mostly. I wanted him to be human rather than heroic I went along with the writing, but I share as much of the blame as the script. I like to take compliments when they’re mine, and the opposite when they fall that way. When you show a man’s life for the first time, you shouldn’t go overboard on the human side. You should show him as he looks in the ring, too. A jarring note was the way the guy was so brave in the ring, but outside of it he was so full of fear. I went overboard. I can’t help myself as an actor by blinding myself to this. But I think when you have a real miss like this, it makes the next one more appealing… No matter what the direction, if an actor’s interpretation is wrong, it throws the show. We all shared in the blame, but for the most part it was mine.” John Frankenheimer took issue, insisting he deserved the blame, too.

Actor Gilbert Roland, like most actors, got a little fed up on the scripts submitted him but he did something about it. In December of 1957, he wrote an original story, “The Bernal Sierra Story,” and sold it to Revue for an episode of Wagon Train. Roland played the title role. About the same he also penned a bullfight story, “Blood On the Horns,” a biography of his father who was a real-life bullfighter. After watching “The Death of Manolete,” however, Roland was inspired to sell the story for theatrical filming. “I knew Manolete very well,” Roland later remarked. “After seeing the Playhouse 90 on television, there was nothing you could do except take a couple of drinks of tequila and hope they will do his life story some day. His characterization was done badly. Manolete was never in agony in real life. He had dignity and courage. He never went around weeping like in the television play on Playhouse 90. He was quite an hombre. He died at 29, leaving $4,000,000. In Mexico and Spain they were incensed about it, after reading about the TV version, because he was a national institution there… I didn’t like the way the character was portrayed. It wasn’t sincere. It wasn’t the way I would play the character.”

Peter Kortner, the associate producer, once identified with Hallmark Hall of Fame and Studio One, felt drama, not comedy, was in high favor with the home viewers and substantially corroborated by the mail reaction, sponsor satisfaction and the consistent rating level. According to an interoffice memo, his estimates claim the best of last season’s Playhouse 90 was “The Last Clear Chance” and “Nightmare: Ground Zero.” When it was brought to his attention that “Manolete” was roundly panned by the critics, Kortner excused, “I guess we are all wrong.” It was the original intention of producer Martin Manulis to lead off the season with Rod Serling’s “A Town Has Turned To Dust.” But when Manulis ran into client objection over the script and General Electric announced they were going to air their own bullfight story, Manulis made the decision to rush “The Death of Manolete” into production as the curtain raiser of the second season.

The production suffered from a number of technical errors. Van Heflin, the host, was obviously reading from a teleprompter -- he even suffers unexpected pauses during delivery. The shadow of the boom mike is projected on the floor when the camera points down at Carras and Manolete. The shadow of the mike is also seen on Manolete’s forehead during his dance with Tani Morena. The shadow of the mike is also seen on the youngster’s forehead as Manolete approaches the youth to teach him the craft of bullfighting. When Manolete escorts Doña Augustias to the balcony of his ranch to describe the arena, the sound of the heavy camera on the floorboards overtakes the sound of Manolete’s voice. The extras hired for various scenes in Spain and South America do not change costumes and an observant viewer would notice the colorful ones that stand out. Stock footage of crowds during the latter part of the episode are shown forward, backward and forward again.
Suzy Parker

One significant casting to make note. Ethel Winant, handling casting for Playhouse 90, took a dare when she cast Suzy Parker, a professional model who at the height of her popularity was known as the most photographed woman in the world, decided to forsake her cover girl profession to become an actress and was all smiles to play the role of Tani Morena in this broadcast. Prior to Playhouse 90, Parker appeared on camera twice and both times with a speaking role consisting of only one sentence. (It was rumored she was paid $1,000 a word for her line, “Drunk? He’s mad!” on Producer’s Showcase.) Without any acting background, and just before the release of her first film, Kiss Them for Me, but in the wake of a conscientious buildup for a new “star,” Parker appeared in “The Death of Manolete” and was mercilessly panned by critics. There was a feeling that this helped prejudice some critics against her. Obviously her appearance was by arrangement of 20th Century-Fox, which released the movie weeks after this telecast, and mentioned verbally during the closing credits. Some movie studios reasoned against television appearances by new film faces in fear they lose their “special” flavor, appearing on the free medium in competition to the theatres. Those who know their television trivia know this has happened many times including Bernadine (1957), Pat Boone’s motion-picture that once opened on a saturation basis in an area the same night that Boone appeared on television. It was clearly a case of competing with himself.

“If we can develop attractive personalities, who can be seen only in the theatres, we’re one ahead,” runs the argument. In this connection, Warner Bros. stopped Gwen Verdon from making a guest appearance on the Dinah Shore show where she was scheduled to do a dance routine from Damn Yankee. Warners owned the property and planed to make a film of it starring Verdon. The studio didn’t like the idea of showcasing the routine on television prior to the start of the picture.

When Tony Curtis was once asked about the bullfight story for G.E. Theater and the Playhouse 90 version, the actor remarked: “What about ‘The Death of Manolete’? Is that spontaneity? I did a bullfight story for G.E. last season. It was liked. It was not a great story, but at least it was consistent, and we took our time. We shouldn’t make the mistake of under-estimating our audiences.”

Initial Telecast: September 12, 1957
Teleplay by Barnaby Conrad and Paul Monash, based on Conrad’s forthcoming novel of the same name.
Cast: Carlos Allen (the singer); Margarita Allen (the dancer); Edward Colmans (the eye specialist); Barnaby Conrad (the narrator); Ray Danton (Antonio); Fernando Elizondo (the first Torero); Paul Lambert (the radio announcer); Caren Lenay (Elvira); Robert Middleton (Perea); Esther Minciotti (Doña Augustias);  Silvio Minciotti (Cayango); Jack Palance (Manuel Rodriguez Manolete); Suzy Parker (Tani Morena); Nehemiah Persoff (Carras); Felipe Turich (Mateo); Ricky Vera (Perico); and H.M. Wynant (Marquez).

Production Credits
Director: John Frankenheimer
Producer: Martin Manulis
Associate Producer: Peter Kortner
Story Editor: Del Reisman
Assistants to the Producer: Dominick Dunne and Russell Stoneham
Art Director: Walter Scott Herndon
Music Supervisor: Fred Steiner
Associate Director: James Clark
Set Decorator: Robert Nelson
Lighting Director: Edwin S. Hill
Technical Director: Brooks Graham
Suzy Parker’s clothes were custom designed by Don Loper of Beverly Hills.