"Archive Television Treasures" certainly lives up to its name. The new screening series, part of UCLA Film & Television Archive's 50th-anniversary celebration, is a clear-eyed excursion to the early days of the small screen and a reminder of how the medium changed and developed.
These live musicals, sitcoms, reality series, musical-variety shows and socially conscious dramas pushed the envelope and alienated some viewers.
The festival isn't a greatest hits of the era, though. Don't look for "I Love Lucy," "The Honeymooners" or the Beatles on "The Ed Sullivan Show."
"The idea was to show the diversity of the television collection," TV archivist Dan Einstein said.
Mark Quigley, manager of the archive's research and study center, said the festival is a "mini time capsule across genres."
"Thematically it's illustrating an emerging medium that's trying to find itself," Quigley said. "You can track the development of the medium through these early years and genres."
"Archive Television Treasures" opens May 29 at the Billy Wilder Theater at the Hammer Museum with a rare screening of NBC's 1955 "Producers' Showcase" presentation of the live musical version of Thornton Wilder's "Our Town."
Early television was a showcase for up-and-coming actors, and "Our Town" starred a young Paul Newman, recent Oscar winner Eva Marie Saint ("On the Waterfront") as well as Frank Sinatra, who introduced the Jimmy Van Heusen and Sammy Cahn standard "Love and Marriage" in the production.
Saint will be at the screening as will Gena Rowlands, who stars in the evening's first presentation, "Time for Love," which aired live on NBC's "Armstrong Circle Theatre" in 1955. Rowlands starred in the charming romance with her husband, John Cassavetes, before they went on to collaborate on films such "A Woman Under the Influence."
"It was kind of the start of their careers," Einstein said. "'Time for Love' is the kind of thing that live television did so well, the kind of intimate drama. It's a delightful show."
The archive, which has more than 100,000 holdings spanning American television during the last 70 years, is highlighting on June 7 two comedies it has restored: NBC's Peabody Award-winning 1952-55 sitcom "Mr. Peepers," starring Wally Cox as a gentle science teacher, and the wholesome 1949-55 family comedy "The Goldbergs," which aired on three networks during its run and was created by, written by and starred Gertrude Berg as Molly Goldberg. Like many series that aired during television's infancy, "The Goldbergs" previously had a long run on radio.
The festival also has oddities, including the May 30 screening of the pilot episode of "End of the Rainbow," a 1957-58 NBC live series that honored citizens around the country for their good deeds. A 1959 CBS variety series called "The Big Party" had Rock Hudson as the guest host in a 90-minute episode that features Tallulah Bankhead, Esther Williams and Sammy Davis Jr. That screens June 13.
Also on June 13 are a 1959 installment of NBC's Emmy Award-winning "The Dinah Shore Chevy Show," with Louis Prima and Keely Smith, as well as a 1957 episode of NBC's "The Nat King Cole Show." The latter, though short-lived, made Cole one of the first African Americans to host a network variety show.
Two powerful, groundbreaking dramas screening June 19 reflect the civil rights struggles of more than 50 years ago.
"Black Monday," a 1961 syndicated "Play of the Week" starring a young Robert Redford, Ruby Dee, Ossie Davis and Ivan Dixon, revolves around an African American child who attends a white school in the Deep South. "Who Do You Kill?" is a 1963 installment of CBS' hard-hitting hourlong drama "East Side/West Side"; it starred George C. Scott and Cicely Tyson in a story centered on a struggling African American couple (James Earl Jones and Diana Sands) whose infant daughter is bitten by a rat in their Harlem tenement.
"I think with the arrival of the Kennedy administration in the early 1960s, there was a lot of liberal television — 'The Defenders,' 'East Side/West Side' — that were dealing with real problems, societal problems and doing it in a very kind of humanistic way," Einstein said.
A lot of Americans, however, turned away from these socially conscious programs.
"Who Do you Kill?" earned director Tom Gries an Emmy but ran into problems when several affiliates in the South refused to air it.
The episode, Quigley said, "might be one of the most significant socially themed dramatic programs to air in the 1960s. It dared to confront white viewers with this troubling, honest look at urban poverty and the human cost of racism from the point of view of African Americans."
The episode is cited as one the first TV dramas to incorporate the civil rights struggle into a story, he said. "What James Earl Jones and Diana Sands bring to that episode can't be overstated. They both give really powerful performances."
'Archive Television Treasures'
Where: UCLA Film & Television Archive, Billy Wilder Theater, Hammer Museum, 10899 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles
When: May 29 through June 24