Over*Flow: New Year’s Eve in front of the TV, 1959: What was on, why does it matter, and where can I see it?
Kit MacFarlane / University of South Australia

New York's Time's Square, New Year's Eve, 1959
New York’s Times Square, New Year’s Eve, 1959.

For the last couple of years, I’ve been trying to make some kind of dent in one small part of TV history: 1959 [https://twitter.com/RetroRemote]. Even trying to recreate just a single day of 1959 brings problems, but examining broadcast context — i.e., what else was on that day — is one way to help understand TV series and episodes within a larger cultural narrative.

So what would New Year’s Eve have looked like on prime-time TV sixty years ago in the US? And how much is a general viewer actually able to recreate without having to rely on access to archives?

Broadcast dates can be difficult to pin down, tend to be unsourced when presented online, vary in different regions, and may also differ from contemporary listings. To create some sense of a representative evening, I’m using UCLA’s Film and Television Archive catalogue, The Classic TV Archive which often indicates sources, and other contemporary sources whenever possible.

Thursday, 31 December 1959:

8pm: The Donna Reed Show, “Lucky Girl”; Bat Masterson, “The Inner Circle”

Donna Reed could be seen as domestic fantasy or as offering a more complex image of women within a limited genre. In “Lucky Girl,” Donna is sick of her friends and acquaintances making a fuss about how fortunate she is to have such a wonderful man by her side. Donna’s irritation at the attention paid to her husband is largely a straightforward narrative of a minor resentment followed by a restorative reminder that things aren’t really so bad — ie. she really is a “lucky girl” — but the scene in the interval of a play that sees Donna’s husband peppered with questions about the meaning of Beckett’s Waiting for Godot (1953) and Ionesco’s The Chairs (1952) while Donna is largely ignored captures this kind of cultural and social sidelining (in an entirely middle-class societal context) succinctly.

The Donna Reed Show
Screenshot from The Donna Reed Show, “Lucky Girl.”

At the same time on NBC in “The Inner Circle,” Bat Masterson was fighting for women’s rights more overtly (if somewhat unconvincingly), taking on a bunch of wealthy men and one woman to fight for women’s suffrage in Wyoming, a state that the opening narration proudly informs us was “the first in the history of the world to give the right to vote to women” (in 1870). Like most statements along those lines, the word “some” or “white” should be added before “women” — only citizens or those seeking citizenship could vote, which ruled out “Native Americans and Chinese immigrants” — but Ziv-produced Bat Masterson wasn’t ready for intersectional feminism just yet. Despite briefly mentioning the potential for suffrage leading to “blue laws” (i.e., no drinking and gambling), Bat ultimately lauds the head suffragette as “a woman thinking of other women” and her petition as “the declaration of independence.” The episode is far from a fiery feminist statement: the pleasant suffragettes are generally happy with societal norms. Nevertheless, any popular 1950s series engaging directly with gender equality on any level is essential viewing.

Bat Masterson
Screenshot from Bat Masterson, “The Inner Circle.”

That week’s episode of The Betty Hutton Show (1959-1960) does not appear to be available.

8:30pm: Johnny Ringo, “Bound Boy”; Johnny Staccato, “Collector’s Item”; The Real McCoys, “Marriage Broker”

Aaron Spelling’s Johnny Ringo (1959-1960) on CBS was one of the more perfunctory westerns on TV, its overall insipidness matched by star Don Durant’s performance as Ringo (and his singing on the terrible theme song). “Bound Boy” does broadly deal with indentured servitude, but a mess of kidnapped girlfriends and good boys “on the wrong path” make it simply another variation of tired story (already seen on Law of the Plainsman episode “Calculated Risk” on NBC at 7:30pm the same night).

Johnny Ringo, “Bound Boy.”

Another Johnny, Johnny Staccato (1959-1960) on NBC, starred John Cassavetes. While it generally fails to please Cassavetes aficionados — and didn’t please Cassavetes either — it’s still an intriguing series, not least of all for the occasional directorial appearances by Cassavetes. “Collector’s Item” stands out specifically for having a rare black supporting cast, including the memorable Juano Hernandez and Ann Henry who open the episode with a song. While having black musicians on screen wasn’t exactly challenging the racial norms of the medium, the key roles are substantial enough to make the episode of interest to those interested in representations of race on screen as well as those looking at Johnny Staccato in relation to Cassavetes’ broader filmography.

Johnny Staccato
Screenshot from Johnny Staccato, “Collector’s Item.”

Over on ABC, the popular The Real McCoys
(1957-1963) offered rural diversions, here tiptoeing around a question of
illegal immigration: the tension between sympathy for the immigrant and
unbending respect for the law is conveniently sidestepped with a
citizen-creating marriage that, fortuitously, also reveals true love.

The Real McCoys, “The Marriage Broker.”

9pm: Bachelor Father, “Kelly the Politician”

In NBC’s Bachelor Father (1957-1962), rich and attractive John Forsythe is looking after his orphaned niece Kelly, played by Noreen Corcoran who captures the insufferable sulky peevishness of a conservative privileged teen uncomfortably well. The result is minor clashes between privileged cavalierness and adolescent prudishness. The civic reaffirmations of ABC’s The Real McCoys continue in “Kelly the Politician.” An election voting booth is set up inside the house and everyone is impressed by an immigrant’s recitation of the Preamble to the Constitution: uncomfortably prompted by the requirement that she demonstrate her ability to speak English.

Bachelor Father, “Kelly the Politician.”

Zane Grey Theatre season 4 episode “The Ghost,” which aired at the same time on CBS, isn’t readily available: DVD releases of this interesting anthology series stopped at season 3. The Pat Boone Chevy Showroom for that night also appears to be unavailable, although it exists within UCLA’s archives.

9:30pm: The Untouchables, “The Underground Railway”

While ABC’s The Untouchables touted law and order, the best episodes just involved watching inevitably doomed gangsters at work. In “The Underground Railway,” Cliff Robertson plays escaped robber Frank Halloway negotiating his escape through the mob’s “underground railway,” which promises an end-point of safety while also fleecing him of all available cash at each stopping-point. As well as being a cold-blooded murder, Frank is also hideous; the plastic surgery required for his escape comes with the bonus of turning him into a (sociopathic) dreamboat.

The real star of the episode is Virginia Vincent as Frank’s mob-assigned “wife” Mona Valentine. When we meet her, she’s trying to win a dance marathon (in its 257th hour) to make something of her life. It’s impossible not to sympathise as she’s dragged into Frank’s death spiral. There’s plenty to say about class and power in relation to Mona’s descent, Frank’s upgraded social status thanks to plastic surgery, and predatory networks promising “safety.”

The Untouchables
Screenshot from The Untouchables, “Underground Railway.”

On CBS was The Big Party (1959), a variety show with celebrities, comedy, and music. It would be particularly interesting to see the New Year’s Eve episode — also the last episode produced — but it doesn’t seem to be available.

On NBC, The Tennessee Ernie Ford Show (1955-1965) aired at 9:30. The episode listed as December 31 currently online may actually be from 11 December 1958 — both feature Charles Laughton. The 31 December 1959 episode is listed in UCLA’s catalogue.

10pm: You Bet Your Life

The full December 31 episode of Groucho Marx’s You Bet Your Life exists in UCLA’s archives but doesn’t seem to be circulating online. The Reading Eagle indicates that it featured “beatnik poet-sculptor Stuart Perkoff,” and some of Perkoff’s appearance can be seen in Philomene Long’s 1980 documentary, The Beats: An Existential Comedy.

10:30pm: Take a Good Look

At 10:30pm on CBS is Ernie Kovacs’ endearingly anarchic Take a Good Look (1959-1961), which makes few attempts at sense, its primary joy watching Hans Conried despair over the obliqueness of the clues. Cesar Romero did better by keeping up with recent news stories, which simply disrupted the nonsensical flow. If you can make it through a racist skit with an appalling (even for 1959) representation of Native Americans, guests include a man selected as “Family Doctor of the Year” and the “Sole Woman Reporter Among 81 Newsmen on President’s Global Tour.”

Take a Good Look
Screenshot from Take a Good Luck, episode 11.

11pm onwards…

And what of the late night shows taking us into the new year? Viewers had a choice of Dick Clark, Jack Paar, and Guy Lombardo to bring them into 1960. None appear to be readily available.

From 1959 to 2020

Of the shows mentioned above, only Bat Masterson, Johnny Staccato, The Real McCoys, and The Untouchables are available in full on DVD. Take a Good Look has all (except one) surviving episodes available on DVD. The Donna Reed Show has had a partial release. The rest mostly need to be dug up unofficially in places like YouTube and The Internet Archive. While some remain, many — too many — of the TV moments that brought the 1950s to a close are unlikely to be seen again.

Image Credits:

  1. New York’s Times Square, New Year’s Eve, 1959.
  2. Screenshot from The Donna Reed Show, “Lucky Girl.” (author’s screen grab)
  3. Screenshot from Bat Masterson, “The Inner Circle.” (author’s screen grab)
  4. Screenshot from Johnny Staccato, “Collector’s Item.” (author’s screen grab)
  5. Screenshot from The Untouchables, “Underground Railway.” (author’s screen grab)
  6. Screenshot from Take a Good Luck, episode 11. (author’s screen grab)

On Feminism, Racism, and Bewitched‘s Not-So-Magical Politics of Fun
Phoebe Bronstein / University of California San Diego

A still from the Bewitched episode Be It Ever So Mortgaged.

A still from the Bewitched episode “Be It Ever So Mortgaged.”

The history of American feminism is also a history of white women centering their own experiences. From Seneca Falls to The Feminine Mystique and through hashtags like #NotAllWhiteWomen, white feminists have often ignored or actively excluded women whose backgrounds differ from their own. The months leading up to the Women’s March on Jan. 21, as Jia Tolentino outlines in The New Yorker, reflected this historical positioning: many white women were angered by the suggestion that contemporary feminism and The Women’s March itself should engage, express, and embrace differences. [ ((Jia Tolentino, “The Somehow Controversial Women’s March on Washington,” New Yorker, January 18, 2017.)) ]

This narrow and racist brand of white feminism has proven extremely marketable. However, packaging feminism in this way is by no means new. In this column, I look at how a potentially progressive 1960s sitcom like Bewitched imagines and reinforces an exclusionary white feminism. Premiering while the Civil Right Movement waged a televised war against white supremacy and in the same year as the publication of The Feminine Mystique, Bewitched’s centering of whiteness and white women especially was not unique. However, the sitcom’s magical gender politics coupled with its investment in whiteness provide a historical example of how mainstream television embraced a consumer-driven white feminism that operated at the expense of people of color.

In the pilot of Bewitched, Samantha’s (Elizabeth Montgomery) mom jokes that when Darrin (Dick York)—Sam’s newly minted husband—finds out that she is a witch, he will certainly discriminate against her. He is sure to be “prejudiced” against Samantha, her mom argues. And indeed, Darrin does struggle with accepting his new wife’s bewitching talents. The pilot and other episodes are peppered with similar jokes about prejudice and discrimination against Samantha—ironic and comic, the show seemingly suggests, because she is white (and blonde, no less), middle class, and quite pretty. Here, the humor relies on the premise that she is in fact not discriminated against and thereby mocks people who face real discrimination.

This racist and sexist structure, entirely absent of bodies of color, relies on an inferential racism, which depends on “premises and propositions” that have inscribed in them, as Stuart Hall argues, “a set of unquestioned assumptions” that “enable racist sentiments to be formulated without ever bringing into awareness the racist predicates on which the statements are grounded.” [ (( Stuart Hall, “’Whites of Their Eyes’: Racist Ideologies and the Media,” in Gender, Race, and Class in Media: A Text-Reader, 2nd Edition, eds. Gail Dines and Jean M. Humez (Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications, 2003), 91.)) ] This brand of racism, Hall argues, is far more insidious than its overt counterparts. Following Hall, in Bewitched, white supremacy masquerades as both a troubling feminist appeal and harmless fun—after all, it’s just a joke. This is the danger and insidiousness, as Hall warns, of inferential racism, wherein the humor treats race and racialized violence with irreverence. Discrimination, after all, doesn’t actually happen to Samantha. The misunderstandings she has with Darrin become a source of humor, erasing real fears of violence. Undergirding the jokes about discrimination in Bewitched, remains an inability to engage the very real discrimination of people of color as serious.

At the same time, the sitcom pokes fun at the expectations placed on white housewives to perform perfection. The second episode, “Be It Ever So Mortgaged” begins with a cheeky focus on normalcy as the introductory voiceover describes Samantha’s morning: “Here you see the average normal suburban housewife, preparing breakfast for her husband.” Meanwhile, Samantha squeezes oranges into a juicer, while wearing a white apron over a pink floral print dress. As the shot pulls out, we realize that Samantha is squeezing the oranges onto the kitchen floor, not into a glass. The camera, then, follows her to the stove where her pan is on fire. The male voiceover continues with anthropological-like observations, “The capable suburban housewife moves efficiently through her tasks” (Season 1, Episode 2). Here, the juxtaposition of the voiceover with Sam’s breakfast-making difficulties–and her ultimate need to use magic–pokes fun at and critiques the rigid expectations of the perfect contemporary homemaker.

Samantha struggles to cook

Samantha struggles to fulfill “the rigid expectations of the perfect contemporary homemaker.”

As Lynn Spigel writes about Bewitched — and the similar fantastic sitcom, I Dream of Jeannie — “the elements called into question are not the supernatural elements of the story […]. Rather, we are “made to question the ‘naturalness’ of middle-class suburban ideals,” like the role of and expectations placed on the housewife and the gendered division of labor. [ ((Lynn Spigel, “White Flight,” in The Revolution Wasn’t Televised: Sixties Television and Social Conflict, eds. Michael Curtin and Lynn Spigel (New York: Routledge, 1997), 58-59.)) ] In this sense, Bewitched is in fact progressive, pointing to the ways in which the perfect housewife is a troubling and controlling fiction that requires women to quite literally give up their personal magical powers, subsuming their lives and dreams into the desires of their husbands. Not only does Bewitched play with this notion, it also suggests the impossibility of being the perfect housewife and the need for magic to keep everything in order. Like Spigel points out, the sitcom seems to celebrate the constraints of white suburban life even as it points to its limitations. [ ((Spigel writes, “We are, in other worlds, made to question the ‘naturalness’ of middle-class suburban ideals, especially as those ideas had previously been communicated through the genre conventions of classic suburban sitcoms such as The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet or The Donna Reed Show.” Spigel, “White Flight,” 59.)) ]

Samantha struggles to make toast

Samantha forgoes her magical powers in order to make toast like a “normal” housewife

The sitcom, following David Marc’s observation in Comic Visions: Television Comedy and American Culture, is a genre of “comic mitigation.” [ (( David Marc, Comic Visions: Television Comedy and American Culture, Second Edition (New York: Blackwell Publishers, Inc., 1997), 203.)) ] Sitcoms, Marc suggest, desperately seek a middle ground, that is neither progressive nor regressive. In this way, we can see the jokes on Bewitched as simultaneously interested in white women’s liberation at the expense of embracing a repressive racial politics. The discussions of what will happen if Samantha is discovered — which mobilizes discourses of passing — and the problems she might face if she is in fact found out, underscore the limits of the Bewitched’s seemingly-progressive politics. Here, the sitcom reflects a racist politics of fun, reliant on the underlying assumption that white viewers will think it funny to mock the very real discrimination experienced by people of color.

Making women’s liberation palatable and comic in Bewitched, then, foregoes and dismisses any intersection with race, sexuality, or class. Here, like elsewhere in pop culture, nothing is ever just a joke. It’s both troubling and telling that Bewitched’s politics of fun remains relevant today: white feminist complaints surrounding The Women’s March reveal an ongoing inability to de-center white women’s experience and value intersectionality. We’ve seen this brand of feminism embraced by white feminists and marketers with best-selling books like Lean In and through the marketing of Pantsuit Nation and “Nasty Woman” mugs, t-shirts, and totes. In many ways, there is nothing wrong with buying feminist swag or raising money for organizations like Planned Parenthood through such promotions. However, we must remain wary of this strain of marketable feminism. Like Bewitched, consumerist white feminism troublingly masquerades as progressive or even worse revolutionary, even as it often ignores and relies on the erasure, labor of, and violence against those who do not fit the white heteronormative model.

Image Credits

All images are author’s screen grabs from the Bewitched episode “Be It Ever So Mortgaged.”

Please feel free to comment.

Mary Tyler Moore: The Exemplary Disruption of the Single City Girl Archetype
Charisse L’Pree / Syracuse University

L'Pree Image 1

Mindy Kaling in The Mindy Project, expressing herself as a Single City Girl

Television has drastically changed our perceptions of the world and ourselves by mediating the shifts in culture for a national audience. In today’s media environment, archetypes created decades earlier still retain value and significance, and young people who identify with a broad range of demographic categories use media to help them navigate independence, intimacy, and adulthood. Mary Tyler Moore embodied the evolution of women’s options and simultaneously established and disrupted the Single City Girl archetype.

The media archetype of the Single City Girl developed during the twentieth century in response to first and second wave feminism. Television negotiated pre and post feminist ideologies and introduced the new American woman. Defined as a newly independent character who is exploring life options including career and love, the Single City Girl emerges repeatedly in literature (e.g., Sister Carrie, 1900), film (e.g., Breakfast at Tiffany’s, 1960), and television (e.g., That Girl, 1966-1971); in recent years, this archetype has manifested in cable (e.g., Sex and the City, 1998-2004), streaming services (e.g., Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, 2015-), and user-generated content (e.g., The Mis-Adventures of Awkward Black Girl, 2013-2015).

The Single City Girl is framed as an emerging adult learning to be independent and intimate. She simultaneously enjoys being single, but is also looking for her other half. She valorizes romance, but is aware of how it can derail her personal aspirations. She deliberates these issues with friends, but also finds joy in spending time alone; the city is her partner and her support system. [ (( Traister, R. (2016). All the Single Ladies: Unmarried Women and the Rise of an Independent Nation. New York: Simon & Schuster. ))] She faces the future with humor and self-deprecating awareness. Although she is defined by her gender, age, race, and class, she demands to be recognized for her intelligence, career, and creativity.

The Single City Girl is perpetually torn, aware of social injustices, but also excited to embrace the hegemonic feminine ideals that define womanhood, especially being attractive. She is in control of her own life, and at the same time a victim of capitalism and consumerism. The Single City Girl is aware of and defined by the cognitive dissonance between femininity and feminism; she is simultaneously independent and infantilized interpersonally and systematically, hence the term “girl,” not “woman.”

In the 1960s, different paths for womanhood emerged publicly with Sex and the Single Girl (Brown, 1962) and The Feminine Mystique (1963), as well as a wave of female television characters. Programs like The Dick Van Dyke Show (1961-1966) and Peyton Place (1964-1969) juxtaposed the housewife and the Single City Girl, often with a bias towards the former. Other shows like Hazel (1961-1966), Bewitched (1964-1972), and I Dream of Jeanie (1965-1970) embodied the subversive housewife who smashed the “cult of domesticity,” thereby humorously containing and subjugating female power while mocking the patriarchy. [ (( Spigel, L. (1991). From Domestic Space to Outer Space: The 1960s Fantastic Family Sit-Com. In Penley, C. (Ed.). Close Encounters: Film, Feminism and Science Fiction. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1991. pp.205-235. ))]

That Girl debuted in 1966 and featured Ann Marie, a young ingénue who left her parents home for a life in the big city. In theory, Ann Marie’s priorities resided in her career and marriage was secondary, but the program catered to pre-feminist ideologies in order to maintain a likeable character and avoid offending the audience: her paychecks were sporadic, but she had a large and fashionable wardrobe; she had a regular boyfriend, but he never spent the night; she was independent, but depended on her father to maintain her lifestyle. In all of her contradictions, Ann Marie was the woman that women wanted to be, and the show received thousands of letters every week asking for advice. [ (( Spangler, L.C. (2003). Television Women from Lucy to “Friends”. Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers. ))]

Opening credits to The Mary Tyler Moore Show

In 1970, The Mary Tyler Moore Show (1970-1977) took this narrative further, resolving the inherent conflicts present in That Girl by featuring a character that was focused on her career and, although romance and relationships were of interest, prioritized independent advancement. It was the first sitcom to assert that work was not just a prelude to or a substitute for marriage; rather, a career could be the center of a satisfying life. Mary Richards challenged the existing stereotypes of women on television: single by choice, over thirty without being a widow or a nurse, self-sufficient, and career focused. Her decisions were personal, not political, and she met every misogynistic comment with a smile and a witty remark.

Although Mary Tyler Moore offers an alternative to traditional womanhood, it does so without an explicit critique of the problems of traditional womanhood. Feminism becomes a matter of lifestyle choice, not systemic oppression or social transformation. [ (( Ibid., 111. ))]

For eight years, Mary Richards helped resolve a decade rife with cultural and political turmoil. By softening the firm ideals of the Women’s Movement, she popularized the cause. During the show’s run, the nation grappled with the Civil Rights, Equal Rights, reproductive rights, and the burgeoning gay rights movement. Feminism was a household term and Mary Richards embodied it.

In 1970, Nielsen replaced radio homes with a younger, more urban audience, thereby initiating a series of youthful protagonists dealing with modern problems in urban settings. The consciousness of the television industry was raised because of the high ratings of “primetime feminism.” [ (( Ibid. ))] However, in this process, producers stumbled upon an identity schema that resonated with audiences.

In the four decades since The Mary Tyler Moore Show ended, a proliferation of Single City Girls have embraced a wide variety of identities: One Day at a Time (1975-1984) featured a divorced mother raising two teenage daughters; Laverne and Shirley (1976-1983) were working-class Single City Girls in 1960s’ Milwaukee; Golden Girls (1985-1992) followed four senior women as they navigated single womanhood later in life; All American Girl (1994) and Living Single (1993-1998) introduced the nuanced experience of single womanhood for women of color; Desperate Housewives (2004-2012) demonstrated that the plights of the Single City Girl was not restricted to single women living in the city.

Opening credits to The Golden Girls

Opening credits to Living Single

Opening credits to Desperate Housewives

Towards the end of the twentieth century, cable provided even more platforms for intersectional Single City Girls. MTV’s The Real World (1992) brought non-scripted co-habitation to the screen, and The L-Word (2004-2009) addressed the lives of lesbians living in Los Angeles. The Single City Girl archetype has also been marketed towards men with shows like Entourage (2004-2011) and Men of a Certain Age (2009-2011).

In each of these examples, the characters tackle the complexity of adulthood while negotiating hegemonic norms pertaining to gender, sexuality, class, and race. They are eager to fulfill the gendered adult role that they have been taught, but are navigating their own experiences and desires. Despite these progressive narratives that seek to disrupt discourse around these norms, the implicit goal in these programs is “have it all”: to find happiness via financial and romantic success, and to look good doing it. In series like Sex and the City and 30 Rock (2006-2013), the journeys of Carrie Bradshaw and Liz Lemon end with a wedding.

L'Pree Image 2

Carrie Bradshaw laments how difficult it is to “have it all”

Despite the evolution of the Single City Girl, Mary Richards still stands as a truly independent character. Smart, witty and career driven, Mary Richards resolved representational contradictions to create the perfect embodiment of new feminist values. At 30-years-old, she ends a two-year relationship with her boyfriend because of his commitment issues, and, when he attempts to reconcile at the end of the first episode, Mary refuses him, choosing the single city life and defining the direction of the program for the next seven years.

Mary Richards may have only had seven seasons of stories, but she continues to inspire those seeking to go against the grain. She was framed as a desirable and normal archetype, and one with whom the audience could empathize. In recent years, it is clear that the Single City Girl does not need to be single, living in a city, or a girl, and the internal contradictions of this character appears even more relevant as new producers and audiences emerge via social media. Twitter gives users the opportunity to create and broadcast their own Single City Girl personas, further engendering the expectation of personal and professional success as normal and expected for young American adults.

Image Credits:
1. Mindy Kaling in The Mindy Project, expressing herself as a Single City Girl
2. Carrie Bradshaw laments how difficult it is to “have it all”

Please feel free to comment.