Looking Back at the 'Pioneers of Primetime'

Television critic Andrew Wallenstein reviews the new documentary Pioneers of Primetime, a film that looks back at the early days of television and the icons who invented a new genre of entertainment.

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Madeleine Brand.

Milton Berle, Bob Hope and Sid Caesar are just a few of the names that made television what it is today. A new documentary called "Pioneers of Primetime" airs tonight on PBS, and here's TV critic Andrew Wallenstein with a review.

ANDREW WALLENSTEIN reporting:

There's something very apt about referring to the first men and women who made it big on TV as pioneers. They're called that for a reason. They settled a territory completely unknown both to viewers and entertainers. "Pioneers of Primetime" makes you appreciate what it's like to create a whole new realm of entertainment out of nothing. As documentaries go, "Pioneers of Primetime" is a rather breezy overview. It doesn't dig too deep and can be a bit breathless in its compliments. And yet it feels very important, simply because many of the people interviewed have since died, including Bob Hope, Sammy Davis Jr. and Buddy Ebsen.

It was the worlds of vaudeville and radio in the 1930s and '40s that became the training ground for the entertainers that would come decades later. Television's very first star, Milton Berle, understood that the stage and the studio were the places where he honed his craft. Here, he recalls his approach to the new medium.

(Soundbite of "Pioneers of Primetime")

Mr. MILTON BERLE: I went on television in 1948, made my debut on television with the "Texaco Star Theater." I recall very well that it was a form and a format of my vaudeville days and we had what we called a revue...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BERLE: ...where there was no sit-com, there was no story line. It was just great acts performing their best, and I meant great acts.

WALLENSTEIN: The documentary hails Berle and his cohorts as no mere stars. They occupy a whole other stratosphere that doesn't seem to exist today. What we call talent in 2005 simply doesn't cover the kind of versatility these guys needed to succeed in multiple mediums back them. And after a few minutes of footage, you understand what "Pioneers of Primetime" is getting at. These men and women could sing, dance, tell jokes, do pratfalls. The medium asked for a lot, and there were only a few who were really up to the challenge.

Another interesting realization of the documentary is how television shortened the life span of a good joke or routine. Vaudeville's performers were accustomed to taking the same material to stage after stage across the country, but when TV took root, an act that once could be performed countless times could now be exhausted after only one showing in front of tens of millions. After a few glimpses of series like "Texaco Star Theater" and "Your Show of Shows," you realize the television of yesteryear bears so little resemblance to what it is now, it might as well come from a different planet. And yet one of the greats of the golden age, Sid Caesar, says there's one thing that will never change.

(Soundbite of "Pioneers of Television")

Mr. SID CAESAR: It starts with the writing. You know, you just don't step on the stage and go, `Well, I think I'll be funny.' That ain't it. You have to sit down. You have to work with the writers. You know, I was very fortunate. I had the best writers there are, and each one started a school of his own.

WALLENSTEIN: It's sad enough to see these incredible entertainers diminished by age, but juxtaposed against some really great footage of these folks in their prime, well, be warned. It's almost too much to bear for the nostalgics among us.

BRAND: Andrew Wallenstein is an editor at the Hollywood Reporter. The documentary "Pioneers of Primetime" airs tonight on PBS.

This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Madeleine Brand.

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