Party! Television's Untold Tales
Chicago: Bonus Books, 2002.
$19.95, 304 pages, ISBN 1-56625-184-2 (CD-ROM included).
Université Paris 8 - Vincennes Saint Denis
Everyone remembers at least one television programme from childhood.
However there are many programmes that have been forgotten, and the
actors who played the main characters or who were hosts of variety
shows have met the same fate. Billy Ingram's book thus opens a door
onto television's past and lets out a parade of such memories. The
first impression is one of excitement and amusement as the reader
rediscovers the existence of television personalities who disappeared
so long ago. It is because the book promises to tell the untold tales
of Hollywood that the reader expects the author to reveal the facts
behind certain mysterious violent deaths, like that of George Reeves,
the hero of the first televised Superman series of the 1950s. However,
the mystery mostly remains a mystery and readers quickly discover
that the untold tales will remain untold because the facts are still
essentially unknown. Some of the tales are not tales either but rather
gossip or reminders about regularly appearing guest stars like Talullah
Bankhead or advertising cartoon characters like the Cheerios Kid.
Other tales should have remained untold as they are of little interest
or value to scholars of television history. Consequently the first
impression soon gives way to a more tepid curiosity which nevertheless
propels the reader to get through even the more tedious anecdotes
to see where the author wants to go.
What Ingram attempted to do was not an easy task. It is certainly
difficult to try to put together a record of past television programmes
which in this case could have resulted in an archaeology of 1950s-1970s
television. The choices of what programmes are to be included in such
a study are problematic as either they represent the author's personal
tastes or constitute a full inventory of the productions of the period.
This of course would have resulted in a full anthology as those which,
despite their length, offer very little information on the programmes
included. What Ingram did was to create a website and have people
participate in his project by offering anecdotes about stars they
met and memories about shows they watched. This online TV party is
the reason for the presence of an unfortunately high number of personal
memories about being in studio audiences or the influence a programme
character had on a contributor's life. As a result there is much repetition
and annoyingly long passages.
The book is not divided into sections, except for one dealing with
children's programmes of the 1950s and 1960s and another on variety
shows of the 1970s. All the other entries are sundries and do not
seem to follow any particular order. There are however pages, for
one would not call them articles, dealing with quiz shows, advertising,
the careers of stars as well as information on their health and marriages,
crimes and violent deaths, and so on. No book on American television
of the period covered could neglect Lucille Ball and Ingram includes
four uninteresting pages of interview with a personal friend of hers
whom the readers discover learned the game of Backgammon from her,
which he continues to play to this day. Passages on the goings on
of the television industry are a little more useful although the information
is not quite earthshattering. Readers can find out about producer
decisions on programme cancellations, laugh-overs for comedy series
or the construction of house fronts which serve for exterior shots
in series like Leave it to Beaver or Happy Days.
Ingram's book does however make two major contributions to the study
of television history. First, to his credit, it was important to unearth
some of the shows and characters which, although considered minor,
had loyal audiences and lasted several seasons. Second, the book comes
with a CD-ROM which has the merit of being a primary source of some
lost television moments. Unknown or vaguely familiar faces can be
seen promoting upcoming series. There are also some incredible commercials
like one for toy guns showing a boy imagining himself a great white
hunter shooting at elephants. Another advertisement for face cream
explains how the product gets off the dirt that comes form "a
lady-of-leisure's constantly going in and out of (shop) doors".
The commercial convinces the leisurely housewives of televisionland
by means of a Geiger counter test which incontestably demonstrates
the presence of radioactive dust on their faces. Another part on 1950s
programme zapping is the best one although it gets competition from
a segment of the 1960s Batman series in which Batman reminds
Robin that he should not "watch television until [he has] done
[his] homework and caught [his] criminals." Memorabilia is one
thing and it is pleasurable in this addition to the book at least,
however what is more important is the awareness of the need of such
projects to render television history more accessible.