Reaching for the golden days of 'Omnibus'

When television nostalgiacs gather to bemoan the passing of the golden age of television, "Omnibus" is one of the most frequently mentioned programs, outside of "Playhouse 90." Now, ABC is giving viewers a chance to recapture a bit of those glorious days with a revival of the show which many of us recall as the most literate mass-audience entertainment ever aired: "Omnibus" (ABC, Sunday, 8- 9 p.m., check local listings).

It is, indeed, a vaudeville show of creativity, deserving of an hour of your time on Sunday and, one hopes, many Sundays to come.

"Omnibus," in its resuscitated form, has many of the elements of the old show. What it lacks most is the sense of intellectual curiosity which Alistair Cooke brought to the show. Everything touched upon in the new version seems, somehow, to be trivialized. Host Hal Holbrook tries hard but he simply lacks the reassuring cultural presence of the ubiquitous Mr. Cooke.

If you missed last week's Tony Award show, there is still another opportunity to see Sandy Duncan teach the children to fly in "Peter Pan." And there is a rather tedious tribute to Groucho Marx, somehow more poignant than funny, since it catches Groucho at the end of his career. Then, too, there's the tribute to costumers Edith Head and Bob Mackie, with such Hollywood stars as Valerie Perrine dressed in Mae West's old costume, Jill St. John as Ginger Rogers, Victoria Principal as Elizabeth Taylor. That should give you an idea of what has happened to glamour.

The best segment of the show is the Gene Kelly portion, inspired by an original Kelly program. This time around Kelly brings together Lynn Swann, Peter Martins, and Twyla Tharp to illustrate the relationship of athletics to dance. The pas de trois, with athletic shots interspersed, is alone worth the price of admission.

But it is not until the pairing of Loretta Lynn and Luciano (she calls him Luke) Pavarotti that the program hits its most amazingly outrageous moments as it attempts to tie grand opera to Grand Ole Opry. For a touching finale, Meryl Streep mouths "America The Beautiful" as the words are signed by the National Theater of the Deaf.

The new "Omnibus" is unfortunate in that it is doomed to constant comparison with the old. And whereas the old show dared delve deep into our society's cultural heritage and inspect it through a kaleidoscope, this new version has its bespectacled eye on the ratings . . . and that means timidity, triviality, pure entertainment. And, honestly, I'm not sure it's fair for me to complain about that.

The original "Omnibus" premiered on Sunday, Nov. 9, 1952, with Alistair Cooke as host on CBS and continued for nine years, appearing on all three commercial networks at various times. It ended its run nine years later. The clearly indicated concept was to produce a weekly variety show of the arts, sciences, and entertainment. The initial program featured an interview and play by William Saroyan, excerpts from Martyn Green's "The Mikado," and Maxwell Anderson's "The Trial of Anne Boleyn," with Rex Harrison and Lili Palmer.

In succeeding weeks, the show improved noticeably in its technical skills as it featured such people as Michael Redgrave, Leopold Stokowski, James Agee, Joanne Woodward, James Faulkner, Dylan Thomas, Benny Goodman. One week it even featured a 90-minute production of "King Lear," starring Orson Welles, directed by Peter Brook.

Executive producer was Robert Saudek, now the president of the indispensible William Paley-funded Museum of Broadcasting in New York City which, incidentally , possesses practically a complete set of tapes of the nine-year run of the show , and which I used in researching this article). I chatted with Mr. Saudek, who was reluctant to discuss the new version or compare it with the old, but instead arranged for me to see for myself what he and his staff had wrought 28 years ago.

Then, I talked with Bob Shanks, the producer of the new show, who revealed that, although he has done preliminary work on a followup show, there is no plan at present to continue with "Omnibus" as a weekly series.

"'Omnibus' was very important to me as a young man in the Midwest," he explained. "It was one of my major motivations for getting into TV. And I'm not sure TV has ever been the same since."

Like me, Mr. Shanks admitted that he originally had trepidations about looking at the originals for fear of the effects of the rose-colored glasses of human memory. "But, especially after the technically shaky premiere, the material proved to be as phenomenally good as I had recalled."

I suggested that even in that good old "golden era" it would have been impossible to get the show on the air without foundation funding, and that perhaps what commercial TV needs today is foundation funding to convince the money-oriented networks to include cultural shows in their schedules. He exclaimed "That's an extraordinary concept, but I doubt that it's likely. Commercial TV needs some sort of impetus, though. 'Live from Studio 8H' on NBC is not enough. There are sponsors ready to invest, but the problem is the ratings which the networks don't want to sacrifice to what they think of as culture with a capital C and supposedly inevitable low numbers."

Is that need to think of ratings the reason Mr. Shanks included in his premiere program a long segment on Hollywood's influence on fashion, featuring an impressive array of modern movie stars dressed in old-time costumes? Mr. Shanks, sensing some criticism, admitted that was part of the reason."But the influence of Hollywood on the dress codes of the world is a valid topic for either the new or the old 'Omnibus,'" he insisted. Mr. Shanks is proud rather than defensive about the fact that one of the most effective segments of the new show is based directly on an early program which featured Gene Kelly explaining the interrelationship of dancing and athletics. "It was good then and it is good now," he says.

The second show, which may or may not ever air, depending upon the ratings of No. 1, features more ideas inspired by early shows. "I remember a regular segment called 'My Childhood' featuring such people as James Thurber and Joseph Welch. Well, we do it with Willie Stargel of the Pittsburgh Pirates. Also, in the second show we have a wonderful Faye Dunaway segment in which she reads the letters and diaries of Zelda Fitzgerald. And then there's a true 'Omnibus' segment in which three artists -- Andy Warhol, Marisol, and Larry Rivers -- interpret the same subject, which happens to be Carly Simon singing 'Take Me As I Am.' It really shows how individual a world of art can be."

Does Mr. Shanks believe there will ever be another "golden age" of television?

"Well, maybe with pay TV; perhaps even with the cultural channel urged by the recent Carnegie Commission report (PACE), we may have a second golden age. But it probably wouldn't last more than five years before financial interests would interfere."

So this new "Omnibus" may be culture's last stand on the commercial networks . . . especially ABC?

"Let's hope it does well in the ratings -- that would encourage all of the networks."

Well, there's always the Museum of Broadcasting at 1 East 53 Street. . . .

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