Arlene Francis And Home

Arlene Francis was one of the most prominent women talk-show hosts of the 1950s. She set a standard for "intelligent" programming, focusing on public issues as well as issues of domestic life in America. Her career illustrates the importance of power and control in the role of a 1950s talk-show host, and the uphill battle faced by a woman host during this time.

For three and a half years Francis was the nationally acclaimed host of the Home show, one of the most successful public-service information shows of the 1950s. She was thus a founder of one of television talk's major subgenres.

Many women played significant behind-the-scenes roles in fifties television—women like Mili Lerner Bonsignori, Edward R. Murrow and Fred Friendly's film editor, who shaped many of Murrow's most important See It Now shows and television documentaries from her editing bench.15 But one way women could shine in front of the camera was as talk-show hosts. Faye Emerson, Wendy Barrie, and Ilka Chase, for example, hosted widely viewed shows out of New York.16 Faye Emerson was a particularly important early host. An actress who became active in politics after marrying Elliott Roosevelt, the son of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, she was one of the five Emmy nominees for outstanding television personality of 1950.17 Other prominent hosts were Dinah Shore, who hosted an evening variety hour sponsored by Chevrolet, and Eleanor Roosevelt, whose first guest was Albert Einstein and who fought, unsuccessfully, within the climate of virulent anti-

Communism in the early 1950s, to have Paul Robeson appear as a guest on her television show in New York.

Network officials and advertisers were well aware that women constituted a large part of the audience, especially during the day. Ar-lene Francis' Home show, however, was the first major effort by a national network to capture the daytime audience of women with a woman host and a serious informational format. Pat Weaver's ''communicator'' would now be a woman who relayed to other women the world's latest information using the world's most advanced television technology.

Arlene Francis' career as an actress began in the thirties on stage and in film,18 and among early television talk-show hosts, only Edward R. Murrow is now represented by more programs in the Museum of Television and Radio in New York. At the Museum one can listen to Francis reading a poem by Keats on the Columbia Radio Workshop in I937,19 or tune into Blind Date, a panel show she hosted during World War II featuring service personnel. Blind Date was a forerunner of The Dating Game.20 Arlene Francis was also one of the first panelists of What's My Line?, joining the Goodson-Todman production on its third show and remaining with it throughout its twenty-five-year run on television. Each week Francis would trade witty repartee in her distinctive, theatrical Broadway voice with such figures as columnist Dorothy Kil-gallen, publisher Bennett Cerf, and poet Louis Untermeyer.21 In September 1950, shortly after she joined the panel of What's My Line?, Arlene Francis also became the first ''mistress'' of ceremonies for Saturday Night Revue: Your Show of Shows. She appeared throughout the 1950s as guest or guest host on numerous shows, including Mike Wallace's Night Beat, Edward R. Murrow's Person to Person (with husband Martin Gabel, a producer, and son Peter), and in a Hallmark Hall of Fame production of Harvey with Jimmy Stewart. Later in life Francis was a frequent commentator, narrator, and guest on broadcasting tributes and retrospectives.22

Arlene Francis' role as host and managing editor of the Home show, the second of Pat Weaver's trilogy, made her, according to a mid-1950s poll, the third most recognized woman of her time. The first Home show on March 1, 1954, reveals the structure of the show and its ambitions. Announcer Hugh Downs opens the show:

Good morning everyone, and it is a good morning. You're looking at NBC's newest television studio in New York—a studio especially designed for Home. And from this television laboratory—which is what it really is—each week day at this hour [11:00 a.m.], a staff of electronic editors is going to bring you news and information that applies to your home and your family. Now I'd like to let you meet the editor-in-chief of our electronic magazine, Arlene Francis.23

As Downs speaks, a circular platform revolves revealing staff members—over 120 people worked on the show—one or two at a time in tableau-like settings shaped like wedges in a pie. Each section of the revolving platform represented a segment of the show—health, cooking, fashion, education, and current events. The revolving set cost NBC approximately $200,000—an astounding figure for a television stage at that time.

As managing editor, Arlene Francis always had a firm hand on this ''electronic magazine of the air.'' Home covered a wide range of topics, including such controversial fifties social issues as divorce, the ''menace of tranquilizers," the ''blackboard jungle," and ''crisis in the schools." It featured newsmakers like Senator John Kennedy, Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, Attorney General Herbert Brow-nell, Vice President Richard Nixon, and Maine Senator Margaret Chase Smith. When Senator Smith appeared, she spoke about what the term home meant to her (''the place where we store far more important things than furniture . . . where we store our hopes and our fondest memories''),24 but she also talked about hard policy decisions she had to make in office.

Like Today and Tonight, Home traveled. Francis took it to Japan (where she appeared in a kimono on New Year's Day), to Monaco and Holland (where she visited a houseboat), to Paris (where she visited the Eiffel Tower with actress Jean Seberg), to Nassau in the Bahamas (where she went diving with her son Peter and water skiing on one of the world's fastest speedboats).

The decision to take Home off the air in 1957 was a shock to the staff and many of its viewers, and the decision is still somewhat shrouded. Though Francis was told the program was a victim of ratings decline, it may just as well have been a victim of NBC founder David Sarnoff's desire to ''clean house'' and purge the slate of programs promoted by Pat Weaver, whom Sarnoff had replaced with his son Robert Sarnoff a year before Home was taken from the air.

The last Home show, broadcast August 9, 1957, was like Johnny

Carson's last Tonight show in 1992, an emotional experience. It reveals quite a bit about the show and its appeal to viewers.

CLOSE-UP: ARLENE FRANCIS' LAST HOME SHOW, AUGUST 9,1957

After opening with a clip from the first Home show, Arlene Francis appears before the camera.

Three and a half years later, we are starting the final edition. [She gestures to Downs.] My left hand, right hand, my all around man about Home, Mr. Hugh Downs After all this time he still continues to amaze me about how much information he carries in that little head. [She looks toward Downs.] And you certainly do. And maybe that is why some of your hair is falling out. [Downs replies good naturedly off-mike, ''Could be.''] But it is a good, solid level head, and if I've embarrassed you — I'm glad!

It is rather startling even today to see a woman talk-show host ribbing a male second banana. Now Downs steps in. ''It is the names of television programs that are mortal,'' he says. ''The programs and the ideas are immortal — like people are.'' The final Home show featured highlight clips from many of its past shows, and at the end invited a long-time viewer and contributor to the show to appear: the editor of the Cleveland Free Press. He is known to his followers and fans as ''Mr. Cleveland,'' Francis says, a ''citizen philosopher" who had done many guest editorials for Home over the years.The editor from Cleveland comes on stage and says that in times of stress and the breakdowns that accompany change—changes between management and labor, parent and child, husband and wife, government and people—the most important thing is that relationships remain solid. He speaks of his relationship to the Home show. It has been ''truly magnificent," he says, and he regrets, ''as do millions of others'' that it is going off the air. Arlene Francis fights back the tears:

Yes,. .. Home is going off the air. After 893 hours, editions, adventures, hellos, and good-byes and see-you-tomorrows, Home is going off the air in 113 cities and four time zones, plus Alaska and Hawaii. When I said, what are we going to do the last day, they just said, Arlene, the most important thing is don't weep. Well, I don't want to weep, certainly. I know that I'm just supposed to feel wonderful and gay, and everything will go on — but this is a big family of 120 people and we have all gotten very attached.. ..

She closes the program with inspirational music and the prayer of St. Francis of Assisi: "Where there is hatred, make me sow love / Where there is injury, pardon / Where there is doubt, faith / Where there is despair, hope ...''

NBC eased the transition by giving her a thirty-minute daytime show for a while, a blend of "chitchat" and features called The Arlene Francis Show.25 It lasted only six months. Afterward Francis went back to her usual busy schedule of theatrical work, guest appearances, and her regular panel duties on What's My Line?

What happened to Arlene Francis' Home? Was there any way the show could have remained on the air, as Today and Tonight did? Francis' autobiography intimates that unresolved power issues were involved, and gives us an idea of just how hard it was to be a woman talk-show host in the 1950s with no real power, authority, or leverage within the network system. Her description of the end of the Home show also indicates how important the business side was—how the talk-show hosts who remained on the air had to speak the language of television business, as Weaver did, to maintain their positions on the air.

An interview Arlene Francis did with Mike Wallace on The Mike Wallace Interview in 1957 is particularly revealing. Wallace begins the interview by saying that a lot had been written recently about what happened to career women in America, ''not you particularly, but others.'' He asked her if she could explain what ''happens to so many career women that makes them so brittle? That makes them almost a kind of third sex?'' Do you ''never find yourself losing your identity then as a woman in the—let's face it—male-dominated world of television?" he asks.26

Francis thinks before replying and then answers: ''What happens to some of [the women] who have these qualities you've just spoken of, is that I suppose they feel a very competitive thing with men and they take on a masculine viewpoint.'' They ''forget primarily that they are women. . . . Instead they become aggressive and opinionated." She goes on to deliver her own theory on the different genders. ''While men do it, it is part of the makeup of a man, and a man has always done it all his life. Therefore he has other qualities that soften the edges. Whereas women are maybe doing it for the first time and they go farther ahead, and they are so determined and they are so sure that they know everything, so that they can win the race . . .'' Her own position, she says, is that it is not ''a woman's position to dominate. I have no desire to do some great world's work, except through my own family and my own peace, and to connect that back with the world.''

Francis' position seems quite clear here, but her memoir reveals that the pull between private and public life for Francis was filled with tension and ambiguity. In the early 1960s, David Tebet and a group of executives from NBC came to Francis and made her an offer to succeed Garroway as cohost of the Today show, working with her old ''right-hand man,'' Hugh Downs. ''I heard them out,'' Francis says, ''and said flatly no, n-o, no. (And of course, thank you.)''

It was bad enough getting up at four in the morning when we did remotes on Home. ... I felt (rightly or wrongly) that it would have caused too great an upheaval in my relationships with family and friends. ... I thought about Martin being on his own most evenings—what sort of life would that be for him? (Maybe marvelous, which would make it even worse!) Thus, although I had always been accustomed to talking such career decisions over with Martin, this was the time I decided to make my decision independent of his advice. I was afraid that in his desire not to stand in the way, he might try to be ''gallant'' and persuade me to do something he didn't want me to do.27

Furthermore, Francis adds, ''It was a time during which I was riding the crest of a wave—guest appearances, Woman of the Year, award shows, and What's My Line? ... I saw no reason why I should be a 'co-host'!''28 That decision became, however, one of what Francis calls the great ''If Idas'' of her life (''if Ida done this or Ida done that''29). Barbara Walters got the job, and though most of the time Francis felt happy for her, she had severe twinges afterward when, for example, Walters accompanied President Richard and Pat Nixon on their groundbreaking trip to China.

Lacking a firm grip on the business side of her show (she relied on her husband for that), Arlene Francis was not able to manage her career as Barbara Walters managed hers in the 1960s and 1970s. In the Mike Wallace interview Francis recounts a dream she had repeatedly, and she ends her memoirs with the same dream. ''I pick up a phone to make a call, and discover it has no mouthpiece. I seek another phone, and it is the same—there is no mouthpiece. In panic, I go from phone booth to phone booth, in and out of rooms, unable to find a telephone with a mouthpiece, frantic in my drive to communicate with someone—any one.'' She felt earlier in her life, she says, that the dream represented her anxiety about her career as an actress, but by the time she wrote her memoirs, she felt it meant more than that. ''I realized how deeply my inability to express myself without becoming apprehensive about what 'they' might think had affected me. In short, my 'don't make waves' philosophy had inhibited my life to an incalculable extent I had forgotten that a few waves are necessary to keep the water from becoming stagnant. . . .''

Was this article helpful?

0 0

Post a comment