Vintage television programming
|The fall season for 1949-1950 saw the continued success of The Milton Berle Show, as well as Philco Television Playhouse and other dramatic anthology programs.|
1949 also saw the introduction of one of ABC television’s more successful Westerns, “The Lone Ranger.” Composer Rossini never imagined that 120 years after he composed his last opera, the strains of the William Tell Overture would flood television screens across America, an announcer shouting “A fiery horse with the speed of light…” as masked Texas Ranger John Reid rode his horse Silver across the range, fighting for justice, faithful Indian companion Tonto by his side. The show produced 221 episodes, LRs fight for Old West justice lasting until 1957.
A different battle was going on later in the evening with "Life of Riley," on NBC. Jackie Gleason starred as Chester A. Riley, a blue-collar workingman whose travails in life often caused him to either despair or blow his top. Gleason seemed perfect for the part, that Type A short-fuse behavior put to such good use in The Honeymooners, less than two years later. But Jackie ended up not being the best fit as Riley, and the series was canceled six months after its premiere.
Fast-forward to January 1953, when William Bendix was cast as the long-suffering father, the result being a much funnier show that lasted five raucous years.
Bendix was no stranger to comedy, so playing Riley must have been an easy gig. Though a hard-working, devoted husband and father, miscommunications with family and friends caused Riley to do stupid things that got him into one mess after another. And just when things looked hopeless, along would come the wheedling Digby “Digger” O-Dell, the local undertaker, trying to give Chester that last little push toward his doom. With a voice reminiscent of Mr. Mooney from the “I Love Lucy” series, the interactions between O’Dell and Riley were hilarious. For some reason, Chester was oblivious to the fact that O’Dell’s advice was not in the man’s best interest- until later, when all hell would usually break loose, before the crisis was resolved.
And though Mr. Riley had more than his share of troubles, he was someone who viewers could relate to- an imperfect person just trying to survive in a bewildering world. A great supporting cast helped push this show over the top, Chester’s wife Peg, daughter Babs, son Chester Jr., and coworker Jim Gillis adding to the chaos and the fun.
Perry Como, whose career as a pop singer would explode within five years, had his own variety show on NBC, while ABC catered to a less dignified crowd with Roller Derby, later in the evening, Ed Sullivan continuing to build his entertainment dynasty, Ted Mack and Arthur Godfrey crafting their own versions of the now-popular variety show format.