`Omnibus' returns, packed with talent. Beverly Sills fills Alistair Cooke role

Omnibus ABC, tomorrow, 10-11 p.m. Host: Beverly Sills. Guests: Michael Feinstein, Rosemary Clooney, Bernardo Bertolucci, David Hockney, Jonathan Miller, Dudley Moore, and Sam Donaldson. Executive producer: Av Westin. Producer/director: Susan Lester. From 1953 through '57 - long before the emergence of cultural programming on PBS, Arts & Entertainment, Bravo, or the Discovery Channel - one of commercial television's most revered and creative series, ``Omnibus,'' was a cultural oasis.

Now, courtesy of ABC - the network that gave us ``Laverne & Shirley'' and ``Moonlighting'' - ``Omnibus'' is returning.

The original ``Omnibus,'' created and underwritten by the Ford Foundation's Radio-Television Workshop, produced by Robert Saudek, and featuring the ubiquitous (yes, even then) Alistair Cooke as host, presented a glorious combination of innovative performances and forays into the arts and sciences. It was stimulating intellectual entertainment, and most of it was live.

On all three networks

Among its varied ``acts'' were William Saroyan narrating one of his own short stories, Orson Welles in ``King Lear,'' Leonard Bernstein explaining Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, Kim Stanley as Joan of Arc. There were opera, dance, theater, and science. The only requirement was that the content stimulate viewers to think, to learn, to enjoy. The show appeared first on CBS, then ABC, and finally NBC. And too soon the days of ``Omnibus'' ended, as the Ford Foundation turned its support to educational TV.

But tomorrow evening there is cause for joy: ``Omnibus'' is back for a visit. And one hopes it will mark the first of many return appearances.

Alistair Cooke has, of course, moved on to ``Masterpiece Theatre,'' but Beverly Sills slips charmingly and effortlessly into his spot as host. Since today's costs and technical problems make a live show impractical, the new ``Omnibus'' is taped. But the excitement and stimulation are still there. And the thrill of experiencing innovation on commercial television once again is inspiring.

Most of the premi`ere show was shot in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. In it, artist David Hockney uses a video paintbox to create a work of art. Director Bernardo Bertolucci explains the use of light and color to create the mood of ``The Last Emperor.''

Dudley Moore performs `Mikado'

Singers Michael Feinstein and Rosemary Clooney interpret the poetry of Ira Gershwin. Director Jonathan Miller discusses his avant-garde production of ``The Mikado,'' as Dudley Moore performs it. And there's Sam Donaldson explaining the staging of the superpower summit meetings and a scene from the play ``A Walk in the Woods,'' which depicts its own version of summitry. Paintings from the Hermitage Museum in Leningrad and a finale in the Metropolitan's Temple of Dendur round out the stimulating program.

Produced by ABC News

Surprisingly, the new ``Omnibus'' is produced under the aegis of ABC News rather than ABC Entertainment - further evidence, according to executive producer Av Westin, that our society is beginning to recognize culture as an integral part of our daily lives rather than as a special event.

``Some people still say that `Omnibus' doesn't belong in prime time or even on commercial TV, either as news or entertainment. I believe otherwise,'' Mr. Westin told me.

The new ``Omnibus'' has earned the right to call itself by the same name of its glorious predecessor. It's a cultural variety show of the very highest caliber.

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