‘Pioneers of Primetime’ Visits with the Golden Era of Television’s Greats

According to Pioneers of Primetime, the golden ages of vaudeville, radio, and television are long since over, but in a nostalgic documentary, they can live on.

Directed by Steve Boettcher, this one-hour program looks at popular entertainment’s transitions from the stage to radio and from radio to television. The documentary interviews those who made these transitions successfully, including Red Skelton, Milton Berle, Bob Hope, Buddy Ebsen, Sammy Davis Jr., Sid Caesar, Rose Marie, and Donald O’Connor. It weaves together their comments with archival footage and sound, and one expert per era offers commentary. Narration by Harlan Saperstein links it all together.

This documentary possesses two strengths: the interviews and the archival materials. The interviews are with those who were there, who went through these amazing periods in media history and came out successful on the other side. They offer small insights into what happened both on stage and off stage, and both on screen and off screen.

Red Skelton, for example, talks about calling all the local hotels and having himself paged. Donald O’Connor waxes nostalgic: “It was hard work, but we never thought of it that way. It was our life.”

The other strength comes from the wealth of archival materials. The amount and variety from both radio and television are impressive. Radio footage features George Burns and Gracie Allen, and television footage gracefully demonstrates their smooth transition to television. Archival photographs and pictures of old microphones and other equipment help illustrate the radio footage.

Other television footage includes Ed Sullivan, Red Skelton, Ed Wynn, and Jack Benny. Specific show names demonstrate the corporate sponsorship of the time, such as The Colgate Comedy Hour and Milton Berle’s Texaco Star Theater. In one bit Bob Hope arrives on stage and begins with a joke about Frigidaire, whose logo hangs on the curtain behind him. Aside from the joke, the voiceover narration fails to comment on a major feature of early television history.

In addition to overlooking the role of sponsorship, the documentary overly simplifies the downfall of this type of programming. It mentions several shows that “succumbed to the creative demands on television,” but what about the other factors influencing their development and demise? This simplification contributes to the nostalgia, but it fails to provide a complete picture.

The voiceover narration also gets a little exalting at times. For example, it calls Berle the “master of monologues, the sultan of slapstick.” A better comment comes from the television expert, Bruce DuMont, who calls Berle the early version of “must-see TV.”

The interviewees also need more time to talk about their experiences beyond sound-bite lengths. Running just under an hour, this documentary barely has enough time to cover three periods, allow voices to air their views, and show the archival materials. The DVD features extended interviews with several of them, though these interviews deal more with their vaudeville careers than their television careers.

Overall, Pioneers of Primetime attempts too much in too short of time. It fails to provide enough historical context for its archival footage in favor of looking back wistfully at the good old days.

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