Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Pioneers of Television: Breaking Barriers (PBS, 2014)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2014 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Charles and I watched an episode of the PBS Pioneers of Television series called “Breaking Barriers,” which basically talked about the people of color who cracked through the all-white TV mainstream in the 1950’s and 1960’s — starting with Desi Arnaz, who not only played Lucille Ball’s husband in I Love Lucy as the authentic Cuban-American he was but also produced the show, pioneered the three-camera technique for shooting on film in front of a live audience (even though Arnaz was only the first person to do this in a scripted show; Ralph Edwards had shot the quiz show Truth or Consequences live with three cameras as early as 1950, a year before I Love Lucy began) and built Desilu Studios into a major production company responsible for such TV hits as The Untouchables, Mannix and Star Trek (the latter two of which were also important steps up for people of color on television). A number of the pioneers were interviewed — Bill Cosby, Leslie Uggams, Diahann Carroll (who recalled that when she first showed up to work on Julia she could not be made up because the studio makeup department literally did not stock cosmetics suitable for Black women!), George Takei (who told the story of how as a child he had been removed, with his parents and siblings, from the two-story home they had bought with the earnings from their business and taken to a converted stable where they were interned during World War II — he said that the official term for the internees was “resident non-aliens,” stripping from them the constitutionally guaranteed designation of all U.S.-born people as U.S. citizens), Jimmie Walker, Margaret Cho (who when I did a brief phone interview with her for Zenger’s had a lot of nasty things to say about her sitcom, All-American Girl, and on this show recalled that the crash diet ABC insisted she go on before the show started shooting caused her kidney problems) — and Walker and some of the others noted that after the brief flowering in the late 1960’s and 1970’s there are now fewer people of color on TV than there were then, and virtually no shows built around non-white leads.