July 24, 1957 – Where are You, Bernardine?

Bernardine_FilmPosterOn July 24, 1957, Fox Twentieth-Century Fox premiered Bernardine, starring one of America’s most popular teen heart-throbs. Concerts and albums already had this twenty-two-year-old in the millionaire club. You’d be forgiven for assuming we’re talking about Elvis – but his star turn premiere had already opened on July 10th to adoring crowds (see Loving You).

No, this “clean-cut,” married man with three daughters wore white bucks, not blue suede shoes. Fox wanted a wholesome alternative to Presley, and after Robert Wagner bowed out, Pat Boone was given a chance. Top talent joined him both in front of and behind the camera. They included:

  • Dick Sargent (future husband of Samantha in Bewitched)
  • Janet Gaynor (playing Dick’s mother, Mrs. Ruth Wilson)
  • Ronnie Burns (son of George Burns and Grace Allen)
  • Natalie Schafer (the delightful future Mrs. Thurston Howell, III)

Based on a play by Mary Chase, the titular Bernardine is a fantasy girl – Bernardine Mudd of Sneaky Falls, Idaho – dreamed up by three teenage boys (Boone, Sargent, and Hooper Dunbar). Basically good kids, they take time out from school, racing cars and boats, and just plain hanging out, to pester telephone operators to connect them with Bernadine Mudd (of Sneaky Falls, etc.). One of those operators sounds so nice that Sanford Wilson (Sargent) asks her out on a date and falls for the girl not from Sneaky Falls. But then his grades fall . . . .

Fox and producer Buddy Adler weren’t sure how Pat Boone would perform in this, his first film. They needn’t have worried. Bernardine was a big hit, ending up one of the top twenty box-office draws for 1957. Three of the Johnny Mercer-penned songs recorded by Boone for the soundtrack were also hits. These included the biggest hit of his career, Love Letters in the Sand, which went gold with four to five million records sold.

To the critics, Bernardine was likeable, lightweight fluff. But the New York Times reviewer – don’t ask him to pick a winner – wrote, “Move over Elvis Presley. And welcome, Pat Boone, his exact antithesis . . . with a real screen future.”

Image Credit: Twentieth-Century Fox

June 28, 1957 – “Date with the Angels”

Date with the Angels

One June 28, 1957, families home on this Friday night could tune in to ABC’s new comedy series, “Date with the Angels.” Bill Williams and Betty White starred as Gus and Vicki Angel, a somewhat clueless insurance salesman and his “wacky” wife (was one of the working titles for this series, “I Love Betty”?). Bill Williams was familiar to audiences from his role in “The Adventures of Kit Karson” and for his real-life role as the husband of Barbara Hale, soon to appear as the sultry-smart Della Street on “The Perry Mason Show.” Betty White’s successful career in radio and television had recently skyrocketed with “Life with Elizabeth.” In popular “Elizabeth,” a comedy sketch series, twenty-eight-year-old White had full control as both star and producer – the first television series ever to be produced by a woman.

“Date with the Angels” owed some of its premise to “Dream Girl,” a play by Elmer Rice. As originally envisioned by White, each episode would include extensive and hilarious daydreaming by Vicki Angel. Show sponsors were not amused. Pressured to remove the sequences, White felt that she was left with only “one more run-of-the-mill domestic comedy.” “I can honestly say,” she revealed, “that was the only time I have ever wanted to get out of a show.”

Not to worry. The future would hold only greater success for White, including award-winning roles on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” and “The Golden Girls.” Current-day reviewers of “Date with the Angels” credit White’s performance as “lovely,” “talented,” “delightful,” “dares you to tune out while she’s onscreen,” “never burlesque or over-the-top,” “always believable,” “gorgeous,” “smart,” and “a class act.” One reviewer points out that White had “a beautiful singing voice” and that Vicki’s songs were “one of the pleasant surprises in this fine series.”

Image Credit: IMDB

October 20, 1957 – NYC Mayor Robert Wagner’s Coney Island Campaign Stop

The Mayoral Debate: Catsup or Mustard? Photo: Eddie Hausner, The New York Times Photo Archives, available at the New York Times store

On October 20, 1957, incumbent New York City mayoral candidate Robert F. Wagner, Jr. stopped for a classic Coney Island treat – a All-American hot dog.  On his way to a second-term landslide victory, Democrat Wagner’s alignment with Carmine DeSapio’s Tammany Hall machine during his first election in 1953 instigated a intra-party feud between DeSapio and Presidential Widow Eleanor Roosevelt, whose husband Franklin had previously stripped the long-standing political society from federal patronage.  Tammany Hall’s 140-year influence over the city had begun to wane in the 1930’s, with the election of Republican Mayor Fiorello La Guardia on a Fusion ticket.  The 1953 DeSapio-Wagner alliance resulted in a brief resurgence of machine politics in the 1950’s.

Mayor Wagner, a Yale graduate and Scroll and Key member, was born in Manhattan in 1910, the son of U. S. Senator Robert Ferdinand Wagner, Sr.  During his tenure in Gotham he was instrumental in building public housing and schools, creating the City University of New York system, establishing the right of collective bargaining for city employees, and barring housing discrimination based on race, creed or color.  He is said to be the first mayor to pro-actively hire a significant number of people of color into city government positions.  The city’s performing arts jewel, the Lincoln Center, was developed while Wagner was in office.  The Public Theater’s New York Shakespeare Festival (now known as Shakespeare in the Park) also took shape during his tenure.  His administration’s inaction led to the out-of-town migration of the Giants and Dodgers baseball teams, although a subsequent commission he formed led to the birth of the New York Mets.

Wagner broke with DeSapio and Tammany Hall during his third-term mayoral campaign in 1961.  His victory set a milestone in New York City, and local machine politics thereafter entered a decline.