Q & A: Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner; Menasha the Magnificent

I get a lot of e-mails from people asking me about television shows, made-for-TV movies or miniseries they remember from years or decades past. I try to answer each question as best I can. Every now and then I like to dig through my inbox and pull out a few choice e-mails to answer here at Television Obscurities for everyone to read. Keep reading for today’s questions and answers.

Do you have any information about the unsold pilot, GUESS WHO’S COMING TO DINNER? It aired only once July 5th 1975 and starred Eleanor Parker and William Daniels in the Hepburn and Tracy roles. Apparently, it was so awful it did not get picked up as a series for the 1974-1975 season. Any information on where I might be able to pick up a copy or if a copy actually still exists (I’m guessing it was shot on video) would be helpful.

Like most unsold pilots, “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” hasn’t seen the light of day since its one and only airing in July 1975. It wasn’t included as a bonus feature in the 40th Anniversary Edition of the film Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner in 2008, which would have been the perfect opportunity. Stanley Kramer, who directed and produced the Academy Award winning 1967 movie, also directed and produced the half-hour pilot for a proposed sitcom version.

The film starred Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn in their final on-screen pairing as Matt and Christina Drayton. Their daughter Joey (played by Hepburn’s niece Katharine Houghton) meets and falls in love with an African-American doctor named John Prentice (played by Sidney Poitier). She brings him home to meet her parents and invites his parents along. Only six months prior to the film’s release, interracial marriage was still illegal in some states, and the plot focused on attitudes and prejudices held by the parents and the young couple themselves.

Nominated for ten Academy Awards, the film won two: Katherine Hepburn for Best Actress and William Rose for Best Screenplay. Eight years later, ABC ordered a pilot for a sitcom based on the movie. Stanley Kramer was approached to produce and direct. He agreed. The now-married Joey and John Prentice were played by Leslie Charleson and Bill Overton, while Richard Dysart and Eleanor Parker take over the roles originated by Tracy and Hepburn.

ABC decided against picking up the pilot for the 1975-1976 season and instead burned it off during the summer of 1975. Weekly listings published on Sunday, May 25th, 1975 in The New York Times and The Los Angeles Times both show the pilot scheduled for Wednesday, May 28th from 9:30-10PM [1]. Instead, ABC aired “MacLeish and the Rented Kid,” a comedy pilot starring Dick Van Dyke and Shelley Berman [2]. “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” was eventually broadcast on Friday, July 4th, 1975 from 9:30-10PM as an ABC Special.

The plot of the pilot was typical sitcom fare: John is concerned when Joanna is offered a job by an ex-boyfriend. On July 13th, Les Brown revealed in The New York Times that the main reason ABC passed on the pilot had to do with a kissing scene in a bedroom [2]. According to Brown, ABC executives at a screening of the pilot “experienced shock” despite knowing full well that the scene was in the pilot [3].

According to one executive, “Kramer did it as tastefully as you could ask for. But the physical contact was clearly going to cause hell out in the boondocks” [4]. The executive explained that although CBS had broadcast an episode of The Jeffersons with a black-and-white kissing scene the previous season, there was a difference: “In ‘The Jeffersons,’ a white woman kissed a black woman and, terrible as it is to say that’s somehow not as objectionable in this society as when the sexes are reversed” [5].

Why ABC ever thought a sitcom version of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner would work is unknown. Just how many jokes can there be about interracial marriage and the many and varied reactions it receives? Brown quotes another executive as saying “the problem with [the pilot] was not just the kissing scene but the fact that the whole story is told in the first episode, and there’s nowhere to go from there except to belabor it” [6]. Obviously, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner was one movie that didn’t need a television spin-off.

Minosha the Magnificent….started out with a Jewish woman calling from the street, Minosha..Minosha. Spelling might be wrong as I was young and I think the series lasted less that one season. Of course in black and white film.

Menasha Skulnik, best known for his work in Yiddish theater, starred in a short-lived sitcom called Menasha the Magnificent as the manager of a restaurant owned by the tyrannical Mrs. Davis. It was given a try-out on Monday, February 20th, 1950 from 9:30-10PM as The Magnificent Menasha (also referred to as The Menasha Skulnik Show). A weekly series premiered on Monday, July 3rd, airing from 8-8:30PM.

According to The Complete Directory to Prime Time Network and Cable TV Shows, Mrs. Davis was played by Jean Cleveland in the first episode and by Zamah Cunningham for the rest of the series [7]. Eleven episodes were broadcast during the summer of 1950 with the final episode airing on September 11th. The following week, Menasha the Magnificent was replaced by The Paul Winchell and Jerry Mahoney Show.

Critic Jack Gould, writing in The New York Times, stated that in the premiere Skulnik “had moments of delightful pantomimic clowning, but by and large the script […] was much too trite” [8]. He continued:

The story followed a well worn norm: First, trouble; two, a bet on a horse; three, a visit to a loan shark, and four, the pay-off on the horse after the original winner is disqualified. What saved the day was Mr. Skulnik’s wonderful, sad-faced rendition of “I’m an Old Cowhand,” which was a gem of artistic nonsense. Give Mr. Skulnik a script with a stronger basic situation and better supporting characterizations and he’ll know what to do. Last night he did not have much of an opportunity. [9]

Skulnik played the part of Uncle David on the radio version of The Goldberg’s for many years. Some sources indicate that he joined the cast of the television series in 1953 as a brief replacement for Eli Mintz. Other sources, however, state that Eli Mintz was the only actor to play Uncle David on television.

Works Cited:

1 “TV Times.” Los Angeles Times. 25 May 1975: 21.
2 “Television.” New York Times. 28 May 1975: 83.
3 Brown, Les. “TV Notes: Why Cops-and-Robbers Shows Are on the Way Out.” New York Times. 13 Jul. 1975: 103.
4 Ibid.
5 Ibid.
6 Ibid.
7 Brooks, Tim and Earle Marsh.” The Complete Directory to Prime Time Network and Cable TV Shows, 1946-Present. 8th ed. New York: Ballantine Books, 2003: 770-771.
8 Gould, Jack. “Radio and TV in Review.” New York Times. 4 Jul. 1950: 28.
9 Ibid.

2 Replies to “Q & A: Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner; Menasha the Magnificent”

  1. Not on film, “George”- “MENASHA THE MAGNIFICENT” was a LIVE series, and I doubt if any kinescopes of it have survived. It was a summer series, and I doubt if any sponsors supported it- most likely NBC “sustained” it- and when the summer ended, so did any chances of it continuing into the fall.

  2. I have long wondered what tv program had a character called Mr. Menasha. It was just a vague childhood memory and it seemed that I was the only person that had ever heard of it. Thank you for solving my little mystery.

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