One of my first jobs was baby-sitting for a few hours every weekday morning. I was, I think, 13 years old. My charge was two. I was paid fifty cents an hour, which meant I earned enough money to buy a couple of new record albums every week. At the time, an album cost about three dollars. Getting paid to play on the swings was my idea of fun.
This is a long and roundabout way for me to explain how I met one of the world’s most fascinating people. The mother of my charge, the woman who was fantastic enough to give me money so I could buy Monkees albums, recently married Michael Dann.
I confess I had never heard of him before. As it turns out, he’s been one of the most influential people in my life. Starting in 1948, he worked in television – as a press agent, an executive and a programmer. He started at NBC when radio was making all the money, he worked with David “General” Sarnoff and Sylvester “Pat” Weaver. He made decisions about putting programs on the air when I was a kid and thought they came from heaven. When he was at CBS, he put Judy Garland and Danny Kaye in variety shows. He okayed “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour.”
He passed on Lassie (which, happily, went to another network so child-me could fantasize about having a dog). He green-lit the live performance of Mary Martin’s Peter Pan. He put on Sid Caesar on television, creating one of the legendary writers’ rooms of all time (which included, at various times, Mel Brooks, Woody Allen, Larry Gelbart, Mel Tolin, Carl Reiner and Neil Simon).
Mike was a programmer, which means it was his job to create the schedule. He was in charge of making deals for new shows and canceling old programs. It was his decision, for example, to move the fledgling Dick Van Dyke Show to a different time-slot, with a better lead-in, so that it would not be canceled but, instead, stay on the air for years and win a bunch of awards.
You can find out about this job, how it works, and what a headache it could be in Mike’s new book, As I Saw It: The Inside Story of the Early Years of Television (available from Levine Mesa Press). It’s a fun book, and it reads as if you’re talking to Mike in person. (Which, if you’re interested, you can see in great detail here:http://www.youtube.com/view_play_list?p=CC0264A94D5BE3D4).
I can’t claim that I share a lot of his views. Although he was programmer when the Paul Henning shows, The Beverly Hillbillies, Green Acres, and Petticoat Junction, were on CBS, he never watched them and seems to think they were stupid. I, on the other hand, think they are brilliant examples of hilarious, surreal comedy at its best. He thinks it’s great to put symphony orchestras on television so the masses can get a taste of culture, and I think it’s so boring to watch (and the sound quality can be so bad) that it probably turns off more people than it turns on.
These are just quibbles, however. They in no way interfere with my enjoyment of the book. I mean, there are great stories about what it feels like to have Danny Kaye cook for you? Lucille Ball to make him dinner at her house, after she checks her kids’ homework. He was reprimanded by Sol Hurok on the way he spooned caviar.
It a funny, gossipy book.
Meanwhile, at the same time I was taking care of Spencer, Mike was shaping my consciousness (along with the rest of the country’s) one day and one rating point at a time.
Media Goddess Martha Thomases wishes there was a way to bring back Kukla, Fran and Ollie.