Wednesday, 6 February 2013

A Mother of a TV Show

The poor DuMont network didn’t have a chance. Four TV channels were at least one too many.

That sounds strange in this endless channel universe of today. But things were quite different in late ‘40s. NBC and CBS had sewn up almost all the big stars for radio, ready to push them into television, and ABC got the leftovers. But there had been experimental television dating back to the late ‘20s and somewhat regular programming on several stations in New York during World War Two. One of the stations (W2XWV, later WABD) was owned by DuMont. From all this, TV networks evolved. When they started beefing up their programming as more and more sets went on the market around 1948, DuMont didn’t have any big names, nor could it afford any if they had been available. So it built its first big hit on schmaltz.

You can’t go wrong appealing to the blue-rinse set. Tom Breneman learned that on radio. Liberace learned that on TV. And so did DuMont. Its first big hit was a daytime show called “Okay Mother,” which began appearing on the network in 1949 after a year on WABD. By then it was the highest-rated afternoon show in New York—on radio or TV. It was the kind of show that only a mother would love. Critics hated it.

Here’s what noted Herald Tribune syndicate John Crosby had to say after an astonished viewing of it. His review appeared in newspapers starting May 25, 1950.

Mater Earns Affection On TV Show

Day-time television has been strenuously avoided in this space as a matter of simple sportsmanship. You shouldn't shoot sitting ducks. However, this duck has been sitting in one position so long I’m beginning to suspect he’s already dead.
I have neither the space nor the inclination to go into all of day-time television. I submit only one specimen. Not a typical specimen, either. I’ve picked out the most terrible day-time program I’ve yet run across, the deadest duck on the air.
It’s called “Okay, Mother,” and it’s on the Dumont network Mondays through Fridays. The bright, particular star of this hideous firmament is Dennis James, a man of many faces, none of them especially edifying. “Okay, Mother,” as its title implies, is a salute to motherhood, and if anything will kill motherhood in this country, this is the one that will do it. Down in Washington, we have the Communists undermining the country, and here in New York we have Dennis James undermining motherhood. Nothing is safe any more.
James or his henchmen—who, I suspect, are trolls—round up two or three hundred mothers every day. I don’t know how they do this. I imagine it's something like an elephant hunt. The beaters fan out in the New Jersey veldt, setting fire to the bush and shouting their weird cries, and gradually they drive the poor, hunted mothers into the krall. Then each day, the mothers are shipped to New York for exhibition.
I must confess they don't seem to mind being exhibited. They take to it like a dead duck to television, to coin a phrase. Almost every single one tries to get her face into the camera and, by George, almost every single one succeeds. Most easily domesticated mothers I ever saw.
“Who’s the girl with brush and broom?” shouts James.
“Mother!” cry the captives dutifully.
“Who’s the girl who chases gloom?” says James.
“Mother!” is the riposte to this one. (No, they don't have to push any teak logs around, junior. They just have to yell mother at appropriate intervals.)
“Lotsa fun, laughs and lotsa loving,” James declares heartily.
The novitiate is likely to get the impression his ears are playing him tricks from that last work.
But, no. Loving is what James said and loving is what he does. Anyway, it’s a reasonably accurate euphemism for what he does. What he does is to kiss the mamas, fondle them, hug them and, in general, muss ‘em up. They appear to like it.
James—I throw this in as limply as possible—is tall, dark, husky and handsome, and I expect he appeals not only to the girls on the set but to the ones at home.
Thousands of them probably swoon over their ironing boards causing—I devoutly hope—endless casualties. James may easily have set fire to more mothers than any man since Nero.
There isn’t much else to tell you about this program. James, from time to time, recites what he calls Mothergrams, a form of verse I shan’t inflect on you. Occasionally, he vaults two or three rows of mothers to land squarely on the lap of a mother in the upper tiers, busses her roundly and vaults back—easily the most specialized form of exercise I ever saw. For all I know he’s the only athlete in the world who can do this.
Incidentally, this is the same Dennis James who kids the bejabbers out of wrestling on TV by simulating the sound of breaking bones, torn limbs and other tortures on a series of mechanical contraptions. He's pretty funny at it, too. Just why he should get mixed up in this mother thing, I don’t know. Maybe he needs the money. Maybe he never had a mother. Or maybe — this is my theory — the whole thing is a freak of transmission, a collision between a cumulus cloud and a low pressure area which produces picture that never took place at all.
If that last theory is true, I apologize to James and to mothers everywhere. I now propose to adjourn to my favorite saloon. There I shall sing “Mother’s Day Falls Once a Year But Every Day is Mother’s Day to Me" until closing time. Or until they throw me out.

As funny as Crosby’s column is, funnier still is how the show got on the air in the first place. Dave Weinstein’s The Forgotten Network: DuMont and the Birth of American Television relates how during DuMont wrestling telecasts, James would pause during the hold-by-hold and say “Okay, Mother?” as kind of a question to female viewers to see if they understood flying mares and step-over toe-holds and other terminology restricted to the squared circle. The fact the mothers couldn’t answer back was irrelevant—he was talking to them, he was paying attention to them. And that’s just what he did when DuMont bosses took his catchphrase and made a daytime TV show out of it.

James was DuMont’s first big star and like all of DuMont’s stars (Jackie Gleason being the most noteable), he bolted for a bigger network. People will probably know James today as a host of “The New Price is Right” because of YouTube. In the ‘60s, he seemed to be everyone’s back-up game show host, and I remember he hosted a show called “PDQ.” As for DuMont, it passed away quiet and unnoticed in 1956. But “Okay Mother” lives on the internet. This broadcast is from June 1950.

1 comment:

  1. Not having a radio division was probably the big killer for DuMont, since they had no natural place to harvest talent from, as NBC, CBS and even ABC did in the late 40s and early 50s. When the FCC froze the licensing of new stations due to concerns about overlapping signals and which color television system would be approved, it further limited DuMont to only the cities large enough to already have at least four VHF stations.

    From a New York viewpoint, the legacy of the DuMont connection was that it's flagship station was the most polished of the independents in the city, from the late 1950s when it became the property of John Kludge's Metromedia all the way to it's purchase by Rupert Murdoch in the 1980s (and even some news people would eventually be poached from WABD to the main networks).