Sunday, October 19, 2014

Mike Wallace in the 1950s, Part 1

On April 7, 2012, iconic newsman Mike Wallace passed away at the age of 93. His name was synonymous with the CBS newsmagazine 60 Minutes, which he co-anchored and reported for from its inception in 1968, as a controversial investigative reporter. But in the early years of television, when the video world was black and white and most broadcasts were either live or kinescope, Mike Wallace could be seen all over TV, a jack of all trades not tied to any one show or even network.

Mike Wallace was in front of those early monochrome cameras as an actor, game show host, newsman and commercial spokesman for everything from shortening to cigarettes. With his greased, jet-black hair, youthful good looks and voice of Authority, he commanded attention from 1950s audiences.
Myron (Mike) Wallace was born in 1918 in Brookline, Massachusetts, the youngest son of Russian immigrant Jewish parents. As a child, he was known for both his combativeness and his curiosity. He eventually attended the University of Michigan, where he soon got a job at the campus radio station. After graduation in 1939, he was hired by WXYZ Radio in Detroit, where he was soon heard across the country announcing the Green Hornet radio show, which originated in Detroit and was broadcast over the NBC Blue network. In addition, he worked as an announcer and performer in numerous other radio programs, but found his real passion when he had the opportunity to do the news.
After a two-year stint in the U.S. Navy during World War II, where he served as a communications officer, he moved to Chicago where he got a job with WMAQ-NBC Radio. Still known as Myron Wallace, he became a star in the Windy City, an instantly recognizable voice in numerous radio programs and as a narrator of educational and industrial films. It was here that he made his first appearances on the infant medium of television.
His first network television exposure came in May 1949 in a police drama called Stand By for Crime, one of the earliest programs on the ABC Television Network. Wallace played Lt. Anthony Kidd, who, with assistant Sgt. Kramer, played by George Cisar, sifted through clues after a dramatized murder. The show was performed live, and in a novel twist, viewers were invited to phone in who they thought the culprit was before he was revealed. The show was produced on a shoestring budget and was off the air by August of that year. 
A few months later, Wallace hosted a quiz show for ABC called Majority Rules, which originated from Chicago as did Stand By for Crime. He also portrayed a barker in a Chicago-based kids show called Super Circus. In New York, executives from the fledgling CBS Television Network were taking notice and invited the somewhat reluctant Wallace to come out to the Big Apple.
Before leaving Chicago for New York in 1951, he had changed his name to the snappier-sounding Mike Wallace and the Big Apple opened up many more doors of opportunity.
A quiz show he moderated in New York called Guess Again only lasted for two weeks, but in 1951, national audiences, primarily of the female persuasion, got to know Mike Wallace on a chatty fifteen-minute CBS daytime talk show called Mike & Buff, which he hosted with his wife, Italian-born actress Patrizia “Buff” Cobb. The couple had hosted a radio show together in Chicago and their opposing personalities — he the straight and narrow one, she the dreamy romantic — charmed listeners and the chemistry transferred well to television.
On the show, viewers got to know the lighter side of the future hard-hitting investigative reporter intimately as he and Mrs. Wallace chatted with each other, chatted with guests and even sang a song or two. The show was for the most part spontaneous and fifties-era housewives got to “eavesdrop” on the young couple as they mused about goings on in their lives.

Mike and Buff also hosted a nighttime show for CBS, All Around the Town, where they traveled to hot spots around New York such as restaurants, the ballet and Coney Island and informally interviewed promoters, performers and patrons alike.

But things weren’t always hunky-dorey between the two and occasionally a bit of thinly-masked tension could be sensed on the set of the show. By 1953, Mike and Buff got divorced, and the show went off the air.

Athough he wasn’t proud of it, game shows were the forte of Mike Wallace in the early fifties. He was a panelist on What’s In a Word on CBS, along with Faye Emerson, Jim Moran and Audrey Meadows. He hosted Who’s The Boss? on ABC (not related to the sitcom on the same network in the eighties) for two months in 1954, which featured the secretaries of famous people, with the panel  guessing who they worked for. He also appeared on such popular shows as What’s My Line and To Tell The Truth, and was the announcer for prime time adventure shows such as Sky King.
As an actor, Wallace played in a number of dramatic roles, appearing twice in the acclaimed dramatic anthology Studio One in 1953 and 1955, and once on General Electric Theater, hosted by Ronald Reagan. He even acted on Broadway, playing an art dealer in a comedy called Reclining Figure.

Known primarily as a pleasant daytime personality, actor and quiz show panelist, Mike was tapped to be the spokesman for many different advertisers as well, including a product of interest to post-war housewives everywhere.
“Hi, I’m Mike Wallace, with a sensational shortening discovery for better baking and frying. It’s Procter & Gamble’s Golden Fluffo, the first all-new shortening in forty years. It’s rich. Its color is golden yellow. And, what a pie it makes! Richer-looking, better tasting, more appetizing…”
Wallace took whatever job he could to support his family but what he really wanted to be was a journalist. In 1956 he took over for Jack Berry as host of NBC’s prime time game show The Big Surprise but while he was doing that, he was hired to be the evening news anchor at former DuMont station WABD-TV Channel 5 in New York. It was there that producer Ted Yates approached him about hosting a new, hour-long controversial late-night interview show called Night Beat.
To be continued...


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