“Pawn Stars.” ‘Hardcore Pawn.” “Hardcore Pawn: Chicago.” “Beverly Hills Pawn.” “Cajun Pawn Stars.” “Swamp Pawn.” “Pawn 90210.” “Combat Pawn.” A fruitless trip through the channel guide of any cable service will inevitably lead to the conclusion that television must have always been a wasteland free from any sort of imagination or creativity or daring to be different. I have really bad news for you: this wasn’t always the case. There was a magical time in the history of TV when networks and producers, at the mercy of a number of various influences, thought success lay not in copying what already existed, but in trying something new. Not just something new but that something that dared to fail spectacularly precisely because it had never been tried before. So what if it was never tried again? Better to be a king for a day than schmuck for a lifetime. Right, History Channel?
They Stand Accused
You know what they offered TV viewers in the early 1950s instead of an increasingly ridiculous number of series about increasingly repulsive pawn shop employees? Try “They Stand Accused” on for size as a lesson in the history of imaginative TV ideas. Actual judges and lawyers. Fictional court cases inspired by real life court cases. Actors cast in the roles of defendants and witnesses. And no script. Yeah, that’s right. Everything was ad-libbed . I mean, think about that. We think it’s really creative to give some comedians a few ideas and watch them ad-lib a scene for two minutes. This show created and entire courtroom drama on the spot!
Your Prize Story
Now here’s an imaginative idea for a TV show is definitely due for a 21st century comeback. In this age of YouTube stars and Reality TV and the current national zeitgeist in which lack of talent is most definitely no longer an obstacle to pop culture, “Your Prize Story” is a 1952 show that seems out of time. Cosmetics queen Hazel Bishop sponsored “Your Prize Story” which featured the quite unusual and creative concept of having members of the viewing audience at home send in ideas for stories to be turned into teleplays by the show’s professional writers. The only rule was that the story had to be true. Winning entrants received $1,000 and saw their story performed more like a bare bones stage play than a regular TV show. Still had to be pretty cool, though.
What too many studio executives, producers and directors unfortunately never seem to get is that one of the most effective and time-honored stimulants of creativity is having little money to do whatever you want. The Dumont Network was always lagging behind the other three networks in terms of money and so had to resort to being imaginative on a number of occasions. One of the most imaginative–if you want to use that word–ways they used what they had to provide something worth watching was with the 1954 show “Night Editor.” This fifteen minute long show featured the night editor of a newspaper detailing the events of a curious human interest story or a fascinating tale of true crime. So far, so boring, right? Well, here’s where “Night Editor” is a bit of economically-stimulated imagination you are very unlikely to ever see on TV again. The night editor of the title was played by Hal Burdick. And so was every other character. Burdick just basically walked around his newspaper office narrating the story and providing voices for the characters involved.
Dark Of Night
What do you do when you can’t afford to hire big name stars or the most talented writers and you still have a half-hour to fill on your weekly schedule? Well, of course, today you open up a copy of the Yellow Pages at random and build a show around which business your thumb falls upon. For the struggling Dumont network, you get a little bit more inspired. What could you possibly give audiences that they’d never seen before if you couldn’t provide big stars or stories written by the top talent in the business? Well, in 1952, most people in America had never seen live footage of a beer-bottling factory or a hospital operating room or Manhattan bookstore. “Dark of Night’ was one of the glut of anthology TV series of the 1950s and it stood out as a little more creative than some of the others by filming its stories live from locations around New York that, if they had ever been seen by viewers before, had been seen in movies on film shot months before. Of course, today the attraction of a live show simply would not be creative enough to overcome any other lack of interest.
Lack of money can inspire creativity and imagination. Personal vision can overcome the stultifying effects of groupthink to bring an imaginative idea to life. And every once in awhile a group of like-minded people get together to try do something different. Just because they can. Such was the case of “That’s Life” which aired for one season in the late 1960s and utilized talents ranging from Rodney Dangerfield to Shelley Winters to the Muppets as guests behind stars Robert Morse and E.J. Peaker. The town was Ridgeville. The story was basically a situation comedy about a young married couple, but a broad genre description is the point at which “That’s Life” stops looking like any other romantic comedy before or since . The story of Robert and Gloria Dickson was told in the form of musical fantasy numbers, guest comedy monologues, variety show sketches and songs. “That’s Life” was creative and imagination in a way that would rarely be seen again.