Monday, July 16, 2012

Remembrance Of TV Critics Tours Past

I remember, I remember.
I was but a shallow, young, impressionable TV critic for the Hamilton Spectator when I went on my first TV critics' tour in Los Angeles in June 1971.
The first year, 1970, I had to do everything on my own because Canadians were not allowed on the tour.
And then I realized that by pleading with the three Buffalo affiliates I actually get invited--in those glorious years before simulcasting ruined TV for all of us the Buffalo stations regarded Hamilton as part of their turf.
And what a tour it was!
The tour started in 1954 as a one-day event to the studio where I Married Joan was filmed --critics bunked two to a room at the Hollywood Roosevelt, then the essence of 1950s chic.
By 1970 it had ballooned into a nine-day event with over 100 daily TV critics in attendance--three days per network with PBS scheduling lunch events. There was no cable and it wasn't until 1977 that syndication added another day to the schedule.
In those glory days Chicago had five dailies --hence five competing critics. My pal was Mary Anne Lauricella from Buffalo and she had to compete with the portly chap from the Courier Express for scoops.
My first shock was to discover most of the papers were on the network tit. That's right, papers as big as the Boston Globe and Philadelphia Inquirer had all expenses paid by the network.
Not me! Not lowly Hamilton! Mornings were reserved for mass press conferences by the executives. One morning Virginias Holden, NBC PR extraordinaire, phoned my room to say I was missing an awfully great press conference. "After all we're paying for it!"
And I simply told her, no, I was paying my own way.
Things certainly had gotten out of hand --one of the guys from Pittsburgh allegedly brought his living room drapes to be dry cleaned by the hotel and had NBC cover the bill.
Others staged lavish wine and cheese parties in their suits --all covered by the network tab. This was the pre-computer age so every three days another network would take over and begin replacing the typewriters in every room with their particular brand.
And we had to FAX columns back to our papers --up in the press room the PR types would read every column and with a black magic marker take out uncomplimentary comments. And why not? To quote Virginia: "We're paying for it!"
The upside was we did interviews in tiny groups compared to today's mob meetings.
One day with the New York Daily News' Kay Gardella I got to chat up Mae West.
Another time three of us were in Doris Day's "dressing room" --a huge complex as big as a penthouse suit.
I was warned not to look directly at Doris --"or she'll think you are counting her freckles".
One night in 1974 I went to Lucy Ball's for dinner --I was the only one who had signed on. Lucy was about to retire from CBS and her big movie comeback, Mame, had just bombed.
We had dinner in her huge backyard in a gazebo bigger than my Hamilton apartment.
I remember surprising her by saying "I don't want you to be  Lucy. I want you to be Lucille, the first female head of a major studio." And for the next few hours she gave me her take on the TV industry. And she was brilliant.
I must have been on the set of M*A*S*H 10 times in the Seventies --always to lunch with my pals Harry Morgan and Loretta Swit.
I started one day on the set of Mission: Impossible with Peter Graves, then visited with Mannix at the L.A. Aquarium and had dinner with Glenn Ford at his home. Just me!
Bob Young was very kind to me on the Marcus Welby set. So was Ann Sothern at her home --she was promoting a TV movie opposite her daughter Tish Sterling. After interviewing Jimmy Stewart on the set of Hawkins he invited me home --the rest of the family was away and he needed somebody to talk to.
Everybody wanted to get on the Charlie's Angels set --I waited until Barbara Stanwyck was the guest star and got her. She liked what I wrote and let me visit her on the otherwise closed set of The Thorn Birds in 1979.
In 1973 CBS decided to abolish the tour and bring down seven critics every week throughout the summer.
It didn't work because many cities still had two papers --one critic would get all the dirt the first week and the other one be left in the lurch for months.
And the stars got tired of having to "perform" all summer especially when their series had returned from hiatus.
For CBS that year I interviewed Nancy Marchand (Beacon Hill), Eric Sevareid, Elizabeth Wilson (Doc) all in New York, then we flew on a CBS plane to L.A. and had dinner that night with Bob Wagner and Natalie Wood.
I know I'm name dropping. I  just can't help it.
Also in 1973 I got the first interview with the new star of Welcome Back Kotter, John Travolta. And after interfacing with John Ritter on Three's Company we hit it off and a decade later when he was making a TV movie in Toronto he phoned me up and we met again.
The set up started to crumble when Buffalo critic Gary Deeb wrote a scathing critique of the tour titled "The Hack Pack" forVariety in 1972. It listed all the bizarre incidents and then some.
In 1977 on an ABC junket to San Diego the critics got a bit rowdy. After one session a critic accused  veteran producer Jimmy Komack of giving the late star of Chico And The Man Freddie Prinze drugs and he lept from the stage right onto her and they rolled out of the interview room.
Later several critics went missing after a night of carousing in Tijuana.
The days of the network controlled tour was over. The Television Critics Association was formed, freebie trips abolished and nothing seemed the same anymore.
By the time I jumped to the Toronto Star in 1980 it was all so nicely controlled, staid and rather dull. There was one mass interview per new series.
And these days? There are few TV critics. Not a hundred more like a handful, the rest weblet  reporters. But the networks keep it going for now because of the publicity value.
I'm so lucky I got to experience the Golden Age of the TV Critics Tour.

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