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Monday, December 02, 2019

Movies Are Your Best Background Noise

Multi-Task While You Watch

Imagine cold-calling a random number from the phone book, and on live television. In this era of incessant robo dials, who would answer? Dick Bennick, Jo Nelson, and later Jerry Merritt, did it weekdays for Channel 8 (High Point, NC), the idea to lock in viewers for their otherwise unremarkable afternoon movies. Be home, tuned in, and you could win $100, maybe more! Jo/Jerry would try a residence, try again if the line was busy, wait endless minutes, as did we, for lines to clear, all so dream of windfalls could be met. “Dialing for Dollars” ate ten-fifteen minutes of most two-hour slots, that in addition to sponsor ads, the movie a least priority. Stations needed DFD and devices like it to take onus off films that viewership cared less to see, the calls a sort of bribe for our leisure time. Chances are we wouldn’t be there for whole of the program, as there’d be chores about the house, kids to pick up from Scouts, any of myriad daily duties. At most you had snatches of movie and peeps now and then when hosts tried another phone contact. Televisions ran no matter where you were in the house. Was this any way to enjoy Classic Era movies? No, but it was a near-only way they’d be consumed for many benighted years. You could wonder that any of us care to revisit old Hollywood now.

Dialing for Dollars was quaint, amusing in hindsight, more talk show than film presentation, especially where a guest from the Chamber Of Commerce would show up midway and discuss for eight-at-least minutes a next day’s Blood Drive. That meant more lopped off The Bad and The Beautiful, or whatever, but who kept score? There weren’t books to list running times until a first Maltin Reviews in 1969, and maybe we were better off ignorant for trauma those numbers induced. Average folk didn’t mind … they probably tuned in a half-hour late anyway, and besides, anyone could catch up with a story within a minute or two, being trained at it by formula TV. Drop the needle on any scene and get the whole set-up, same really as soap operas, which could be skipped six months, then caught up easily by a next-seen episode. Broadcasting movies was a same as hanging wallpaper. Anyone with objection was a crank or outlier, not typical of viewing majority. Nascent cable days saw stations at odds over content beamed from one also leased by another. Channel 8 did a burn in 1978  when Superstation 17 out of Atlanta ran Dodge City for our cable delectation, their complaint to the service provider resulting in a block on 17’s signal and a two-hour screen message to effect that 8’s lease of the film made it “unfair” for a remote station to offer Dodge City as well. Difference was that 17’s Dodge City was more-less complete, while 8’s was chopped a couple reels, and in black-and-white. My rage was towering, letters impotent, new-acquired VCR dormant. How could I collect off the air in the face of such corruption, what with favorites abused and no one to defend them? Someone should have put me straight to reality that No One Else Cared.

It Begins: Bringing Housework To The Drive-In

Two-hour slots were a luxury. Most local stations held daytime movies to ninety minutes for knowing that was all of patience watchers had. Consider a study done in 1955 by Editor and Publisher: “Two-thirds of those with a television on during the day (are) doing something else simultaneously, most times housework. During the evening, (6-10 P.M.) half were doing something else as well.” The Surgeon General in 1970 listed collateral activities going on against a TV backdrop: “homework, reading, sorting wash, preparing meals, setting the table, dressing and undressing, exercising, playing cards and board games, and conversing.” That wouldn’t leave a lot of time for The Caine Mutiny, which I recall tuning in on Greensboro’s Channel 2 that year, two-hours, and in color. Toward getting straighter to narrative point, WFMY opened with Bogart’s first scene at the lectern, a couple reels into a 124 minute show, but again, who noticed, let alone worried about it? Inattention was a shroud that hung over televised movies. Anything about the house merited closer engagement. Cary Grant hanging off Mount Rushmore was second to everything from feeding Fido to chasing flies about the den with a swatter. You knew he’d come out OK, and there was no admission paid to North By Northwest as was case when it was new at theatres in 1959. Movies, no matter how fine, were casually, passively, consumed, as was most all television. This was not new, as radio dealt from a same cold deck, listeners even less focused on media they heard, but could not look at. Drive-ins would form a bridge from sit-down cinemas to couch-centered viewing. They would anticipate, then reflect, a coming home entertainment experience, at least from standpoint of letting any-all distractions have their way.

Titles that once topped glittering marquees were now mute accompany to vacuum cleaners pushed round a twenty-two inch box. Charlotte’s Channel 9 bought “Pre-48 Greats” from MGM and gave them a not-great berth on noon weekdays, ninety minutes to get stories told amidst commercial intrusion. A for-instance on January 2, 1962: Cass Timberlane, a highest-profile adapt, back in 1947, of a popular novel by Sinclair Lewis, 119 minutes claiming undivided attention in plush theatres seating thousands, Spencer Tracy and Lana Turner its leads. I got out the Warner Archive DVD and by way of experiment watched … well, sort of watched, as a series of “something elses” got done, as much outside the room as in. Even in front of the screen, I made sure to occupy my hands, or hold a book for looking down at, or up from. The only thing lacking was a pot of beans to snap. Against firewalls I constructed, Cass Timberlane still made narrative sense, ten minutes here, five there, enough to fully know what was happening to the lead characters. My simulation of the 1962 broadcast had an advantage Channel 9’s did not, being a complete version thanks to the DVD, not interrupted except by my wanderings, and clearer by far on a flat screen the size of which ’62 viewers dared not dream. Cass Timberlane being an “average” movie, it mattered less that I saw it truncated while pursuing activities in opposition to it. That was, after all, how a typical watcher-after-a-fashion would have responded over years Cass Timberlane played syndicated TV.

Going out to the movies was no longer an essential. Thanks to network primetime, the movies came to you. Admission to theatres dropped from highs in the mid-40’s to abysmal lows by the early 60’s. 4.1 billion tickets sold in 1946, down to 2.8 by 1951, 1.9 in 1956, 1.1 in 1962 and again in 1963 (“United States Theatrical Film Admissions,” Variety, 6-24-81). Windows between theatrical and TV were thrown open. It seemed no wait at all before you could see a film at home. Tube-premieres commanded greater focus, “events” like The Robe and Bridge On The River Kwai making movie nights on television an appointment you’d keep. Color broadcasts, in strong demand by the mid-60’s because so many more viewers had sets to receive them, increased cache of televised movies. There seemed less reason than ever to attend theatres. I recall this period as one where few people, at least of my acquaintance, bothered going out for movies. A sample incident from 1967: In The Heat of the Night showed up at the Liberty,  three-days that drew seemingly no one for the weekday matinees other than myself (afternoons generally vacant unless it was Disney, or talked-about like Bonnie and Clyde). Who at school or among adults heard of, or bothered about, In The Heat of the Night? Some months later it won the Academy Award for Best Picture, though none expressed regret for missing out at the Liberty. It would be on television within a few months, after all --- untrue, but a notion that would not be disabused (In The Heat Of The Night was 1973 before reaching the tube, via NBC).

Charlotte’s Channel 3 had its “Best of Hollywood” in lieu of Monday evening CBS feed, and such was its following that they took a poll in 1972 for the movie most viewers wanted to see from a ballot made up of titles Channel 3 had on lease. Magnificent Obsession being the winner made it a local must-see, chances greater that a household would suspend other activities to sit down and really watch. Older films got marginally more respect as a 70’s nostalgia wave put more of them on station schedules. Cable and satellite were stair-steps to real deal that was TCM, its precursors first TBS, aforementioned “SuperStation,” then TNT, where precodes were popularized --- both services ad-littered. Truest revolution was the old AMC, American Movie Classics, a first instance of non-interrupted oldies other than Public Broadcasting’s occasional forays. Key to enjoyment of films on TV was getting rid of the breaks, means by which TCM seized advantage, even as AMC turned tail with contemporary titles served in chunks. TCM made history by pioneer gathering respect for movies on television as something other than filler between ads.


Blogger Michael J. Hayde said...

Pretty sure it was WNEW-5 in New York City that had DIALING FOR DOLLARS. The station also held the best of the WB pre-'48s, a rich trove indeed. I'd watch with my mom when we lived in a Bronx apartment, she harboring no illusions that our phone would ever ring whereas I would wait with baited breath every time the host picked up the receiver and start to (literally) dial. We moved to a home in suburban New Jersey the summer of '67, and that was the end of DIALING FOR DOLLARS. My mom needed to work now that there was a mortgage to pay and I had a backyard to call my own for unsupervised playtime. Besides, we were in Jersey, so why endure the now pointless interruptions? From then on we got our vintage cinema fix mainly from the MILLION DOLLAR MOVIE on WOR-9, whose parent company owned the C&C RKO package.

8:47 AM  
Blogger Lionel Braithwaite said...

This article reminds me of the Dialing For Dollars satirical skits that were on SCTV starring Harold Ramis as Moe Green and Dave Thomas (as Walter Cronkite) with them having to host movies in the afternoon or late at night (in Cronkite's case):

It would be nice to see TV stations in the USA and Canada have these shows again.

1:04 PM  
Blogger DBenson said...

"Lord, won't you buy me a color TV. Dialing for Dollars is looking for me ..."

The late-night monster kids would be a bit more focused, although those long commercial breaks did encourage forays to the kitchen and/or flipping through non-educational reading matter. With friends there was a lot of commentary along the lines of "That's like really fake" and mutual reassurances we weren't scared. Then we'd stay up another hour to watch a talky drama rather than go straight to bed.

On weekday afternoons, there was one station that would move the opening credits to the end of the movie, lest you get impatient. This is where I first met the Claude Rains "Phantom of the Opera" and forgave a lot. But most afternoon movies, including the local Dialing for Dollars (a franchise or an up-for-grabs format?) tended to be emphatically non-classics to my juvenile eyes. Melodramas and crime stories, zero spectacle, all just old enough to feel stale instead of vintage.

Something I remember about the local D4D show. When the host dialed, the camera would zoom in to hide the Count and the Amount. So if a party answered the phone and hastily clicked on the set, he/she would only see the host smiling at them.

Good stuff -- prewar Paramount comedies, period swashbucklers, stars even kids knew about -- tended to get more favorable weekend and evening slots on local stations. And all the networks had prime time slots. Judith Crist did a weekly column about their movies in TV Guide and Sunday newspaper entertainment sections would list most of the local station offerings with capsule reviews ("MARS NEEDS WOMEN -- Well, things are tough all over.").

In that semi-golden age before informercials took over the odd hours, there were late-night network movies. I remember sitting up to catch a week of big 50s musicals that hadn't crossed the threshold to local stations, including "Damn Yankees". The most brutal editing I remember was "The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes" -- CBS deleted the entire ballet sequence, so the movie essentially started with the lady in the horse blanket.

4:51 PM  
Blogger coolcatdaddy said...

As I kid, I read every book about movies I could get my hands on at the public library. I'd scour newspapers and the odd issue of "TV Guide" looking for films that might show up on my local channels.

And, after a few years, there was "Citizen Kane", showing one summer morning on channel 8's "Dialing for Dollars".

I didn't get to see a complete print of the thing until the 80s in a film class.

5:33 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Richard M. Roberts remembers "Dialing For Dollars" in Phoenix, Arizona:


Ahhh, you strike a nostalgic chord, DIALING FOR DOLLARS was indeed a broadcast franchise much like the kid show ROMPER ROOM in which the local station bought the rights to the set-up, then produced the show locally with local hosts, veteran Phoenix broadcaster and my old friend Sandy Gibbons hosted it on KPHO Channel 5 here in Phoenix in the mid-1960's. When I first met Sandy Gibbons in the 1980's, I walked up behind him and, in my best impression of Channel 5's staff announcer Red McIlvane said "Time for another phone call Sandy", and Sandy was absolutely shocked that anyone remembered him doing that show, but it was an afternoon ratings buster at the time.

I have to disagree with you slightly that radio was the same passive medium as television, you actually had to pay attention and work harder with your imagination listening to radio, when you see pictures of the average American Family listening to radio, they are frequently staring at the big wood box doing nothing else in particular. My older relatives remembered looking at the radio, or sitting back and closing their eyes while listening. Perhaps Mom could do her knitting or other household chores giving her hands something to do, but that also allowed her to focus harder on what she was listening to. Radio made you smarter, television made you dumber and it was much more easy to ignore.


John replies: As to radio, I was thinking primarily of daytime radio when housewives kept it on as background while cooking, cleaning, etc.

3:29 PM  
Blogger William Ferry said...

How well I remember D4D on Channel 5 in NYC! I think Ed Ladd (a staff V/O announcer) was the host. One day, I believe, they showed DANTE'S INFERNO, and my mom practically chased me from the tv, as that was too "adult" for me to see. I think I was around five at the time.

6:55 PM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

Nothing about that version of DANTE'S INFERNO is too "adult" fora five year old. More's the pity.

9:33 AM  
Blogger Scott MacGillivray said...

Boston had TWO Dialing for Dollars programs, aired back-to-back on weekday afternoons. Dialing for Dollars (2 p.m.) was aimed at the ladies-matinée audience, favoring Universal-International and Warner Bros. romances of the 1950s. Usually, host Ed Miller would sadly inform the caller that she didn't have the right count and amount, but she would win a small gift certificate from the local supermarket chain (redeemable for maybe a brisket).

The station later added the Money Movie (4 p.m.) aimed at occupying the kids while mothers were getting dinner ready. These were almost exclusively Universal-International comedies of the 1950s with Abbott & Costello, Ma and Pa Kettle, Francis, and various teams that didn't take (WIllie & Joe, Marjorie Main & Chill Wills, Buddy Hackett & Hugh O'Brian), plus oddballs like FINDERS KEEPERS and IT GROWS ON TREES. Rhode Island broadcaster Hank Bouchard shipped up to Boston to man the telephone on the air.

The national Dialing for Dollars franchise was exactly like Romper Room because it was owned by the same producer, Bert Claster. Claster later came up with a "sports jackpot" franchise, Bowling for Dollars (or Duckpins for Dollars, or Candlepins for Cash, depending on where it was broadcast).

1:07 PM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

This is how the movies lost their magic. That happens when something special becomes something available everywhere. I got paid well by a man who had me run movies as wallpaper in his bar. After three weeks of watching people not the least interested in what I was sharing with them I said,"Thanks but no thanks."

No amount of money was worth watching what I knew is great being devalued.

7:31 AM  
Blogger Neely OHara said...

Can’t remember which Dialing For Dollars host on Boston’s Chanel 5 was the last man standing, but I did see him get testy on the last broadcast. We only heard his half of the conversation as he asked the person he called if he/she was watching DFD, followed by, “You’re not. Well, I guess that why we’re going off the air, because NOBODY is.”

That was literally The End for those kind of shows in that market.

1:56 PM  
Blogger Beowulf said...

There is a tendency to forget or downplay the obvious about radio and television: they are not entertainment media, they are advertising media. The product they are selling is not the programming, it is the audience. And, as some here have pointed out, something you get for "nothing" is not often taken seriously (of course, you paid a half cent more for your pepsodent tooth paste to cover the advertising expense).

3:32 PM  
Blogger Kevin K. said...

What surprised me when the original AMC started, followed by TCM, is how short many of the 1930s movies really are without commercials.

7:14 PM  
Blogger Scott MacGillivray said...

Most features from the early 1930s are indeed shorter than later ones, usually seven reels each (65 to 70 minutes). This was the standard length for a "program picture," the main event on a theater program before double features came in. An assortment of short subjects filled out the program.

Double features resulted in the creation of B pictures, specifically made for the lower berth and almost always running no more than an hour and a quarter.

8:34 AM  
Blogger Randy said...

One of the local stations where I grew up had a morning movie for years. Always a ninety-minute time slot, which meant that whatever lengthier movies they ran had to be edited down to 70-75 minutes. The movie was always followed by some ancient sitcom rerun. It always frustrated me knowing the movie's running time had been hacked down when the station could have run most of those movies uncut in a two-hour time slot. Was it really that important to get that rerun of "My Little Margie" in there?

Another station had an afternoon movie, but they always ran their films uncut. Whatever time was left after the feature was filled by a cartoon or one of the live-action shorts (Laurel and Hardy, Leon Erroll, Edgar Kennedy, The Little Rascals/Our Gang) the station had under contract.

A retired TV program director I used to know told me that a lot of stations hated that Maltin book when it first came out because it put proof of edited running times into the hands of people who were more than willing to call and complain. I remember an aunt of mine once writing a TV station and complaining that one of her favorite movies, "Meet Me in St. Louis," had been edited to remove the Judy Garland-Margaret O'Brien "Under the Bamboo Tree" number and the entire Margaret O'Brien Halloween sequence. Oh, she was NOT happy.

Sometimes stations did listen to complaints. One station where I lived revived Universal's classic horror movies in the late 1970s, but aired them in a one-hour time slot. The outcry was enough that the station quickly expanded the timeslot to ninety minutes, which meant there still may have been a little editing going on here and there, but much less than when the movies were only allowed one hour. A local newspaper columnist complained that the one-reel Castle Films abridgements of Universal horror classics were edited more skillfully than what that station was doing.

"Dialing for Dollars," incidentally, is still around. A local station includes it on their noontime news and features program. The station says they've been doing "Dialing" for more than fifty years. Only difference now is that you have to send the station your telephone number to have a chance of winning, since so few people have a land-line these days.

2:40 PM  

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