Tuesday, 9 July 2013

Classic Shows From The DuMont Network 1946 ~ 1955

Classic TV Shows From The DuMont Network 1946 to 1955;


In the early years of TV there were four networks, CBS, NBC, ABC and the long lost DuMont Network. DuMont was actually one of the first to go on air (along with NBC) but they were chronically underfunded and unlucky, eventually going out of business in 1955. Although the network was short lived and lacking in funds they managed to discover some important talent like Ernie Kovaks, Jackie Gleason, Morey Amsterdam, Mike Douglas, Arthur Murray, Art Carney, Wally Cox, Arnold Stang, Bishop Fulton Sheen and Ted Mack's Amateur Hour, unfortunately they inevitably saw such stars get hired away by the deeper pockets of CBS or NBC as soon as they got famous. DuMont had better luck with some of the ultra-low budget shows they created themselves including the earliest crime and sci-fi shows including the classic Captain Video, along with the first soap opera, sitcoms and game shows. Although remembered today, if at all, as a failure, DuMont managed to create some ground breaking TV programming with bare-bones resources, often by more or less by accident.


Captain Video was the first really major hit of the TV era. Unlike later space operas like Star Trek, which had fairly sophisticated stories and aimed at an audience that included young adults, Captain Video, was purely a kids show inspired by earlier serials like Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon with simple story lines and cartoonish villains. Like most early TV shows Captain Video had a cast of unknowns and extremely low budgets with non-existent special effects and static camera work. Captain Video (the character) was a space ranger who was constantly fighting various criminals in outer space. With DuMont's micro-budgets the action in Captain Video was mostly confined to indoor studios and showed little actual space travel. The command center control boards rivaled such classics as "Plan 9 From Outer Space" and "Robot Monster" for ramshackle jerry-rigged crudity. Consisting of a few random lights and dials, some of which seemed to be painted on, the whole space ship looked like it would fall apart in a stiff breeze let alone the cosmic winds of space. Also due to the low budgets, the villains, alien or not, always looked just like us (assuming you were a white male of course, or possibly an Asian), no elaborate makeup or masks for DuMont! In fact the budgets were so absurdly low that for the first few seasons the already short fifteen minute shows were actually padded out to half hour length by showing footage of old westerns that DuMont had gotten the rights to and which of course had no relationship to the rest of the story.


That story concerned the Captain himself, the self appointed leader of his own inter-stellar private law enforcement agency dedicated to fighting for Truth and Justice in the cosmos. The Captain was played by two different actors during the show's run, Richard Coogan and Al Hodges, neither of whom were well known names. Facing off against various space villains like Mook The Moonman, Kul of Eos, Heng Foo Seeng, Dr. Clysmock and that Dr. Moriatry of Space, the evil Dr. Pauli and his Astrodital Society. The good Captain was a pilot, detective and scientist who had a secret mountain base sometime in the 21st or 22nd century, whichever, it was never clear which. Besides the Captain was his troop of young Video Rangers who were outfitted with the latest in low tech gadgetry from their Atomic Rifles to his Cosmic Ray Vibrator (which sounds kinkier than it was) to his communicators like the Radio Scillometer and the Discotron Video Screen. All these doo-dads were up to the usual Dumont standards, ie they looked like they were slapped together by a high school shop class.


In spite of all these drawbacks Captain Video show was wildly popular spawning a whole collection of merchandise from lunchboxes to ray guns, decoder rings and buttons to bubblegum trading cards and was one of DuMont's few real hits, lasting until the network fell apart in 1955. The success of the show soon led to numerous other similar 1950's sci-fi shows such as "Tom Corbet, Space Cadet", "Space Patrol", Captain Z-Ro" and "Rocky Jones, Space Ranger" as well as a remade "Flash Gordon" series. These shows had better budgets, production values and better scripts and some were quite popular but somehow none rivaled the iconic stature of Captain Video. By 1951 DuMont, already desperate for cash, optioned out the rights to one of it's few money makers and Captain Video was resurrected as one of the last movie serials by Columbia Studios with a completely different cast (starring Judd Holdren as the Capt.) and considerably bigger budget, meaning it went from Z grade to merely B level. Movie serials shown in theaters were going out of style by then however and that was the end of Captain Video's adventures. After DuMont's collapse captain Video did not return to TV or films and sci-fi moved on to more sophisticated fare like Star Trek leaving the Captain behind with his Video Rangers.



DuMont scored another hit with one of the first police procedurals, a genre that would later include the likes of Dragnet, The FBI, Adam 12 and Law & Order. Rocky King was a police detective in a big city who solved cases by patient police work rather than flashy brilliance or repartee. Since like most dramas of the day, especially those on cash strapped DuMont, the filming was all done on studio backdrops there was no room for car chases or elaborate gun battles, although fist fights were common.


What earned Rocky King such a devoted audience was not it's rather pedestrian stories but the down-to-earth style of leading man Roscoe Karns, a veteran film character actor with an easy going manner. The stories took advantage of this by adding in light hearted family drama and banter with King's wife and son which viewers identified with. In addition Rocky was not a larger than life character like Bogart, Philo Vance or Nick and Nora Charles but a regular working guy who took his lunch to work and worried about the bills, just like the viewers. One unique feature of the show was that King's wife and son were never actually seen but only heard as voices chatting with King off screen, occasionally Mrs. King's hand would be seen tossing Rocky his hat and coat, or his lunch. This was not originally planned but was actually one of DuMont's budget savers since it allowed the actress playing Mrs King to double in other roles, however the audiences loved the gimmick and it became a permanent feature with the faceless Mrs King getting actually getting fan mail. Like Captain Video Rocky King stayed on DuMont until the network went off the air.


Other DuMont crime shows were "The Adventures Of Ellery Queen", the first TV version of the popular detective novels, it only lasted one season on DuMont however before it's star Richard Hart died and the show moved to ABC, besides being constantly broke DuMont was also remarkably unlucky. An ill-fated attempt at luring a big name to DuMont led to "The Gallery Of Mme. Lui-Tsong" starring the well known film star Anna May Wong which also only lasted one season as Anna May was unhappy doing live TV, as all shows were in those days. Unfortunately none of these shows seem to have survived. They had better luck with crime and mystery anthologies such as "Chicagoland Mystery Players", "Famous Jury Trials" (another radio carryover), "They Stand Accused" and "Hands Of Mystery". An oddity was "The Plainclothesman" a unique show in which the entire show was shown from the point of view of it's never seen main character, in other words the camera only showed what the character saw as if the audience were seeing through his eyes. "Trial By Jury" featured actual trials staged for the camera in more elaborate version of the later "People's Court". DuMont also carried some popular syndicated detective shows like "Man Against Crime" (with Ralph Bellamy) and "Front Page Detective" which had higher production values and better known stars, but these shows were independently produced and not unique to the network. DuMont did however produce the first network soap opera with "Far Away Hills" an early sitcoms "The Growing Paynes" and "The Goldbergs" (yet another radio show) and game shows "Twenty Questions" and "Dollar A Second".


Luckily one area where DuMont's chronic budgetary constraints did not matter was children's programming. Other noteworthy DuMont kids shows included children's shows like the highly popular "Small Fry Club", which was carried over from a long time radio show, "The Adventures of Oky Doky", a puppet show, and "Johnny Jupiter", a space show with puppets.


Sometimes Dumont's no-frills approach led to some critical successes like The Johns Hopkins Science Review, a show featuring discussions about various scientific topics that Dumont threw on to fill time against the powerhouse shows of other networks such as Dragnet, Arthur Godfrey, and Milton Berle. Since DuMont had no hope of competing with such ratings behemoths they tossed on this academic exercise to kill time. It tanked in the ratings of course but was well regarded by it's small audience of educators, scientists and intellectuals and it won DuMont's only Peabody Award. It would be a prototype for the kind of public affairs shows that would arrive along with PBS a generation later. Similar public affairs shows were "The Georgetown University Forum", which DuMont put up against powerhouse "Red Skelton" and "Gene Autry", and "Washington Exclusive" up against Jack Benny and Mr. Peepers. All with similar results. Still DuMont persisted in airing cheap cultural programming such as operas and symphonies and discussions with authors and artists. DuMont was also the first network to air the Senate Hearings of Joe McCarthy vs. The U.S. Army.


DuMont's one truly popular public affairs type show were religious sermons by Bishop Fulton J Sheen, from whom the young actor Martin Estevez would take his stage name, Martin Sheen. Bishop Sheen, a moderate Catholic priest, became a popular figure for his inspirational sermons, he won DuMont's only Emmy Award.


Not all DuMont's programming was so enlightened of course as they also relied on a lot of wrestling, roller derby, boxing, basketball and football. In the early days of TV when many people didn't have TV's at home but watched in bars, pool-halls and greasy spoons this sort of programming always had an audience in the evening.


Music shows on DuMont included the influential "Old American Barn Dance"; a country music show that gave national coverage to some notable C&W stars like Patsy Montana and Pee Wee King, shows hosted by bandleader Vincent Lopez, pop singer Al Morgan, and "The Arthur Miller Dance Party" which was produced by the Millers themselves as promo for their dance studios and would survive on other networks after DuMont was gone. Another independently produced show which would survive DuMont was the well regarded "Art Ford's Dance Party" which attracted some major Jazz figures like Coleman Hawkins, Buster Bailey and Stuff Smith to make what would be in some cases their only TV appearances. Another notable show was "The Hazel Scott Show"; the first network show hosted by a black person, a title usually given to Nat King Cole who did hosted a show over a decade later.



Unfortunately most of DuMont's programming was lost back in the 1970's when ABC, who by then owned it, melted most of it down for it's silver nitrate content and dumped the rest into the East River.

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