Tales of Lost TV: Folksay (1944)

I’m introducing a new column this month called Tales of Lost TV. Each month I’ll examine a particular TV program either known or believed to be lost forever. The amount of lost TV is truly staggering–aside from a handful of exceptions everything broadcast prior to 1948 no longer exists. That doesn’t mean it all has to be forgotten, though.

My plan is to publish a new column every month. Considering just how much lost TV there is, perhaps I’ll eventually start writing two columns each month. But I have to see how popular they are with readers before I make that decision.

The topic for this inaugural column is a half-hour program called “Folksay,” which aired on WCBW in New York City in 1944. Actually, it aired twice. It was so well-received the station decided to rebroadcast it again in 1945. No audio or visual recordings exist of either broadcast, so it’s doubly lost. Nevertheless, remarkable amount of material survives for “Folksay,” including the complete script and more than a dozen behind-the-scenes photographs.

(I’m italicizing Folksay when referring to the ballet but using quotation marks when referring to either of the WCBW broadcasts.)

A Modern Dance Ballet

Choreographer Sophie Maslow developed Folksay as an elaborate mix of modern dance and ballet. It combined folk songs by Woody Guthrie with text from Carl Sandberg’s 1936 book-length poem The People, Yes. The premiere took place in March 1942 at the Humphrey-Weidman Studio Theatre in New York City. Guthrie provided live music for the performance, which featured Maslow and her New Dance Group.

Two-and-a-half years later, Maslow brought Folksay to TV under the direction of Leo Hurwitz. The same group performed the ballet live in front of CBS TV cameras. The 30-minute broadcast aired on WCBW, the CBS station in New York City, from 8:15-8:45PM ET on November 24th, 1944. Featured were Maslow and the New Dance Group, which included among others Jane Dudley, Pearl Pelmus, and William Bales. Woody Guthrie and fellow folksinger Tony Kraber played guitar, sang songs, and read text from The People, Yes.

An Ecstatic Review of “Folksay”

Wanda Marvin praised the telecast in the December 2nd issue of The Billboard. “Tele cut its eyeteeth tonight on a half hour of splendid entertainment called Folksay,” she declared. “Critics who thought the infant too delicate to survive will cease their head-shaking and plan to deal with a lusty adolescent.”

The review claimed every aspect of the broadcast was perfect, from the realistic painted backdrop and camerawork to the choreography and use of silence. “Guthrie’s drawl, as natural and friendly as sunshine,” wrote Marvin, “became a song as it told of the American way of life.” She continued:

Every dancer turned in a letter-perfect performance. Choregraphy [sic] was magnificent, blending perfectly with the spirit of the Sandburg verse. Over-all production was by far the best this reviewer has ever seen on a tele screen. Lighting and camera work was on an especially high order. The complete absence of shadow, the clarity of every pic, the camera’s agility in catching every movement and holding and then relinquishing the action in split-second rightness added up to terrific tele.

The other programs broadcast by WCBW that night “limped in comparison,” said Marvin.

TV’s First Repeat?

The Billboard reported on December 9th that WCBW planned to repeat “Folksay” on Friday, December 22nd due to “enthusiastic audience reaction.” The second performance would feature the same cast, with Leo Hurwitz returning as director. TV listings in The New York Times don’t show “Folksay” airing on December 22nd. However, it does show up in the listings for Friday, January 12th, 1945. It again aired from 8:15-8:45PM.

Does that mean “Folksay” is the first repeat in TV history? I don’t know. Maybe.

At least 16 behind-the-scenes photographs from the January 1945 rebroadcast exist and can be found at the Getty Images website. Unfortunately, they can’t be embedded and I can’t afford to license any. I’ve collected them here using the Getty Images Boards feature.

Two of these photographs appeared in the June 1945 issue of Tune In magazine. Doug Allan included another in his 1946 book How to Write from Television.

Excerpts from the Script

Doug Allan also included a shooting script for “Folksay” in How to Write for Television. It’s not dated but presumably both broadcasts used the same script. It is broken into 12 sections, several of which are further broken down (Section 7, Section 7A, Section 7B, etc.)

Here’s the opening announcement:

CBS presents Folksay, a modern ballet by Sophia Maslow, based on Carl Sandburg’s, The People, Yes, featuring Jane Dudley, William Bales, Pearl Primus and the New Dance Group — with the folksingers–Woody Guthrie and Tony Kraber.

And here’s the closing announcement:

You have just seen “Folksay,” a modern ballet choreographed by Sophie Maslow, with folksongs, folksayings and excerpts from Carl Sandburg’s “The People, Yes.” “Folksay” was performed by Jane Dudley, William Bales, Pearl Primus, and the New Dance Group. Folksingers were Woody Guthrie and Tony Kraber. This program was produced and directed by Leo Hurwitz.

This is CBS, the Columbia Broadcasting System.

The script includes eight songs: “Soul of Man,” “This Land Is Your Land” (called “This Land Is Made For You and Me” in the script), “Dodgers Song,” “On Top of Old Smoky,” “Swing Your Lady,” “Another Man Done Gone,” “Sweet Betsy from Pike,” and “I Ride an Old Paint.”

Surviving Production Material

In addition to the photographs, a significant amount of production material relating to “Folksay” can be found in the Leo Hurwitz Collection at the George Eastman Museum. The collection includes reviews, audience reaction, lyrics, scripts, notes, letters, and more.

Sources:

Allan, Doug. How to Write for Television. E. P. Dutton & Company, 1946.
“CBS Repeats ‘Folksay’.” Billboard. 9 Dec. 1944: 12.
“Radio Today.” New York Times. 12 Jan. 1945: 21.
Marvin, Wanda. “Reviews: CBS.” Billboard. 2 Dec. 1944: 12-13.


Hit the comments with your thoughts. Both the original November 1944 “Folksay” broadcast and the January 1945 rebroadcast took place prior to the September 1947 introduction of the kinescope process for recording live TV. That means there’s no hope we’ll ever see Woody Guthrie singing “This Land Is Your Land” in front of a realistic painted backdrop.


6 Comments

  • Karen Martin says:

    I would be interested in reading more Tales of Lost TV.

    Back before the early 1950s television was a surefire way to lose money, but businesses kept investing in it in the hopes of someday turning a profit, and sometimes they got famous performers to take part in broadcasts that few people would have a chance to see and hear.

    For years I’ve thought it would be neat to have a TV show or movie about employees at a 1946 television network, trying to think up low-cost shows that could be broadcast using bulky low-tech cameras, in the event that anyone actually decided to turn on their expensive television receivers to watch their efforts.

    During the television industry’s early years most people thought it would never go beyond the experiment stage, yet people kept using their time, talent and energy to “put on a show.”

    • David says:

      Karen, that is a really interesting idea for a TV show or movie. Yes, I have often thought about how strange it must have felt for the actors and writers and directors and executives, and everyone else involved in those very early shows when TV set owners numbered in the hundreds or low thousands at the most. I guess they looked upon it as a job they were being paid for, even though they knew they were being viewed by less people than would fill a large theater (and that is probably being generous), and that this invention might not ever evolve beyond being an experiment.

  • Patrick McNamara says:

    If they planned to run a rerun, then there must have been some method of recording the show. Whether that recording still exists would be in doubt.

  • Paul Duca says:

    Maslow would become Guthrie’s second wife and mother of Arlo

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