Bookshelf: The Lucky Strike Papers

The Lucky Strike Papers: Journeys Through My Mother’s Television Past
By Andrew Lee Fielding
First Published 2007
Published by Bear Manor Media
257 Pages

If the name Sue Bennett doesn’t sound familiar to you don’t despair, you’re not alone. Like countless other stars of television’s early days, Bennett — a talented singer, television hostess and occasional actress — has slipped into oblivion in the decades following her time on the small screen. Thanks to Andrew Lee Fielding, her son, and his 2007 book The Lucky Strike Papers: Journeys Through My Mother’s Television Past, Bennett’s television career need no longer be forgotten. Fielding was kind enough to send me a review copy of the book (in actuality, it is a regular copy with one minor flaw: two or three of the black and white photographs bleed through from the text on the opposite page).

I had no expectations prior to starting it, and no real idea of who Sue Bennett was, but after finishing it in late March I can say without hyperbole it was one of the best works on early television I have ever had the pleasure of reading. Fielding has done a remarkable job capturing a time period when television was new, broadcasts were live and those working in the medium were learning on their feet.

Sue Bennett was born Suzanne Benjamin in 1928. During her earliest television appearances in late 1948 and early 1949 she went by the name Sue Benjamin. In 1949 she married and took the name Suzanne Fielding. When she joined Kay Kyser’s Kollege of Musical Knowledge she became Sue Bennett. Many of the programs she appeared on during her career — Places, Please (CBS), The Stan Shaw Show (DuMont), Teen Time Tunes (DuMont), Inside U.S.A. with Chevrolet (CBS), John Conte’s Little Show (NBC) — are truly obscure. Even Kay Kyser’s Kollege of Musical Knowledge and Your Hit Parade, arguably the most well-known of the programs she sang on, are hardly remembered today. Fielding touches upon all of them, focusing heavily first on Kay Kyser and later Your Hit Parade, which Sue Bennett appeared on from 1951 to 1952.

The Lucky Strike Papers follows a rough chronology of Sue Bennet’s career, with the occasional jump forward in time for interview excerpts with those who worked alongside her. The number of people Fielding was able to interview — from Merv Griffin to Snooky Lanson, Russell Arms to John Conte, Kay Kyser to Dorothy Collins — is astounding. He weaves these interviews together with detailed information on the programs his mother sang on, in the process providing readers the context necessary to understand the how and why of live television in the late 1940s/early 1950s. Fielding’s writing style can take some getting used to. He has a tendency to shift topics with brusque sentences, often introduced through an object, a kinescope, a television magazine, something connected to his mother’s past.

The Lucky Strike Papers is not a biography of Sue Bennett. At times, her name may not be mentioned for dozens of pages as Fielding delves into the production of Your Hit Parade. While this might seem somewhat curious, recall that the subtitle to Fielding’s work is not “Journeys Through My Mother’s Past” but “Journeys Through My Mother’s Television Past.” What he has accomplished with The Lucky Strike Papers is something more than a biography. Fielding has crafted a narrative unlike any other I have read, one that uses his mother’s television career as a focal point for a fascinating examination of the medium that relies on first-hand accounts, reviews, photographs and viewings of kinescopes.

Here‘s the BearManor Media page for The Lucky Strike Papers. And here‘s Andrew Lee Fielding’s official site for the book. I would urge anyone with an interest in early television to read it.

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9 Replies to “Bookshelf: The Lucky Strike Papers”

  1. “YOUR HIT PARADE”, the long time broadcasting biillboard” for American Tobacco’s “Lucky Strike” cigarettes [who could forget the tobacco auctioneer’s chant on radio, ending with “Sold to American!”; the phrase “L.S.M.F.T.” and the ad copy that followed {“Lucky Strike Means FINE Tobacco! So round, so firm, so fully packed…so free and easy on the draw..”}], began on radio in April 1935, and added a live TV version in July 1950. Sue Bennett performed on both the radio and TV editions from 1951 through ’53 (ending with the radio show, which was dropped in favor of TV exclusively).

    Sue Bennett, however, escaped the fate of the TV cast [Dorothy Collins, Roy “Snooky” Lanson, Gisele MacKenzie and Russell Arms]: when rock and roll began dominating the charts after 1955, most younger viewers wanted to hear the ORIGINAL recordings, not the TV cast trying to “interpret” them in a way to please both them and “adult contemporary” viewers {ever hear Snooky Lanson’s rendition of Elvis Presley’s “Hound Dog”?}. The ratings started to slide as well, and American Tobacco (and new co-sponsor Toni) decided to “revamp” the program in the fall of 1957, dropping Collins and company and replacing them with Jill Corey, Tommy Leonetti, Alan Copeland and Virginia Gibson [WHO??], and colorcasting the program on a regular basis (never mind the fact that very few viewers owned color sets at that tme to enable them to actually SEE the program, or the bright red “Hit Parade” cigarette packs in the commercials, in “Living Color”), as well as a running a $25,000 “Mystery Tune” contest for home viewers. No matter how much younger the new cast was, the songs were “younger”, and their attempt to sing them- and the mediocre ratings- was such that American Tobacco AGAIN “reworked” the show for the fall of 1958, moving it from NBC to CBS, bringing back Dorothy Collins (with Johnny Desmond as her co-star) and converting it into more of a traditional musical variety show featuring several “current hits” of the week. Finally, in April 1959, after more disappointing ratings, American Tobacco gave up, and ended the series. They also dropped Jack Benny at the end of the season after 15 years of sponsoring his radio/TV series as well….

    I’d love to read that book!

  2. So when did the whole “sponsor” control of television programs end? The late 60’s early 70s?

    Were the sponsors responsible for help keeping a program like Gunsmoke on the air for 20 years?

  3. Actually, ‘pBob”, the last weekly network TV program that had a sponsor’s name as part of its title was “THE KRAFT MUSIC HALL”, which ended in 1971 on NBC. Kraft Foods had “owned” Wednesdays from 9-10pm(et)- with occasional jumps to Thursdays and Mondays during the ’60s- since 1947, scheduling various dramatic and musical variety programs during that hour (as ‘RGJ’ would tell you). By 1970, the cost of sustaining a weekly half-hour or hour TV show had increased to a point that, since the late ’50s, most major advertisers began to cede “alternate weeks” to other advertisers, as American Tobacco finally did on “YOUR HIT PARADE” {Crosley Manufacturing, Warner-Hudnut’s Richard Hudnut division and The Toni Company were among their “alternate sponsors” during the ’50s}.

    Another example: even though Carnation Evaporated Milk was the primary sponsor of “THE GEORGE BURNS AND GRACIE ALLEN SHOW” from the beginning of the program in 1950, they preferred not to sustain the series every week when it made the transition from a live bi-weekly show to a weekly filmed version in the fall of 1952. So, B.F. Goodrich [tires, floor covering, et. al.] became the “alternate sponsor”, and continued until 1957, when General Mills (on behalf of their “Betty Crocker” line of baking products) succeeded them in the final season.

    Here’s another good example- Philip Morris was the sole sponsor of “I LOVE LUCY” during its first four seasons (1951-’54). But their cigarette sales began to slide, and they cut back to alternate week status, with Procter & Gamble {Cheer} becoming the “alternate sponsor” in the fall of 1954. Then, Philip Morris dropped their sponsorship after the 1954-’55 season. General Foods [Sanka] {who sponsored Lucille Ball’s “MY FAVORITE HUSBAND” radio series in the late ’40s} became the new “primary sponsor” in the fall of ’55. And when “I LOVE LUCY” ended its original prime-time run in 1957, General Foods “bought” that time period as a “full” sponsor, and began sustaining “THE DANNY THOMAS SHOW” (on behalf of Post cereals, and later, Maxwell House coffee) in its place [through 1964]. General Foods retained that Monday night at 9 time slot until 1971, later sponsoring “THE ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW” [fully sponsored by them during its original prime-time run] and “MAYBERRY R.F.D.” in “their” time slot. However, General Foods preferred to sponsor “THE LUCY SHOW” on alternate Mondays, with Lever Brothers as “alternate sponsor”. And when General Foods departed in 1967, Lever Brothers became Lucy’s “primary” sponsor, continuing through “HERE’S LUCY” until it ended in 1974.

    Procter & Gamble “bought” Sundays at 8:30pm(et) on NBC in the fall of 1961, because they wanted to sponsor whatever followed “WALT DISNEY’S WONDERFUL WORLD OF COLOR” [RCA and Eastman Kodak were the co-sponsors of Disney’s weekly show throughout most of the ’60s, later joined by Gulf Oil and the makers of “Miracle White”]. This is what P&G sponsored in “their” time period:

    “CAR 54, WHERE ARE YOU?” (1961-’63)
    “GRINDL” (1963-’64)
    “THE BILL DANA SHOW” (1964-’65) {carried over from the previous season; cancelled in January ’65}}
    “BRANDED” (1965-’66)
    “BUCKSKIN” (1958-’59 repeats; summer ’65)
    “HEY, LANDLORD!” (1966-’67)
    “LET’S MAKE A DEAL” (summer ’67)
    ‘THE MOTHERS-IN-LAW” (1967-’69)
    ‘THE BILL COSBY SHOW” (1969-’71)
    “THE RED SKELTON SHOW” (repeats of 1970-’71 season; summer ’71)
    “THE JIMMY STEWART SHOW” (1971-’72)

    Procter & Gamble “gave up” their time period after the summer of 1972 so that NBC could schedule their “SUNDAY MYSTERY MOVIE” at 8:30 that fall.
    Actually, P&G just couldn’t sustain a full half-hour anymore because of the costs involved. [including air time].

    “GUNSMOKE” was lucky- they had “primary” and “alternate” sponsors during its earlier seasons; Liggett & Myers [L&M cigarettes] was the “primary” sponsor during the original half-hour series, right into the early ’60s, after the show expanded to an hour. Remington-Rand was an early “alternate”. After the hour series began, it became more of a “participating sponsor” deal. An advertiser could buy “half” of the episode, or bought one or two minutes during the program. By the mid-’60s, it became three to six sponsors, each buying a minute or so of ad time. By the ’70s, individual advertisers bought minutes, or split the 60 seconds into two 30 second spots for the same advertiser, or two different ones. And that’s how it was until “GUNSMOKE” ended in 1975.

    Today, advertisers purchase 15 and 30 second spots during commercial breaks, ‘pBOB’, with a lot of “clutter” as a result. And more ad time: what WAS the network standard- three one minute spots during a half-hour- is now FIVE minutes (or more).

  4. pBOB Says:
    April 8th, 2010 at 5:43PM
    So when did the whole “sponsor” control of television programs end? The late 60’s early 70s?

    We can credit the old DuMont network for changing the business model of television advertising by being the first network to offer multiple sponsorships within a program which is the model that predominates today.

    Of course, part of the motivation for DuMont in doing so the inability to find single sponsors for many of their programs and financial constraints that did not allow for very many programs to be carried on a “sustaining” basis…in the 40s/’50s, some new ABC, CBS and NBC programs that didn’t have sponsors were broadcast (without paid ads) on a sustaining basis (network promos were still included).

    There are still occasional examples today of commercial broadcast network programs that are carried on a “sustaining” basis…Presidential addresses, the ABC miniseries ‘The Path to 9/11’ (sponsors backed out due to controversy), the first half-hour of NBC’s ‘Football Night in America’ (by making the first part of this lower-rated sports magazine sustaining, it is excluded from the nightly network averages by Nielsen).

  5. Actually, it was Sylvester “Pat” Weaver of NBC who pioneered the use of “magazine-style advertising” on some of his network’s radio and TV programs, beginning in 1950. It was because of the 90 minute length of “YOUR SHOW OF SHOWS” that he sold each half-hour segment to different sponsors {i.e. R.J. Reynolds’ Camel cigarettes}, Same arrangment with “THE TODAY SHOW” in 1952…individual sponsors bought “blocks” of time during the daily two-hour program. On NBC Radio’s “THE BIG SHOW” {Tallulah Bankhead as your hostess}, however, the network could ONLY sell the second half-hour segment [6:30-7pm(et)]- that was 90 minutes as well- during its first season in 1950-’51 to three different sponsors: Radio Corporation of America’s RCA Victor division; American Home Products’ Whitehall Pharmacal subsidiary {Anacin}; and Liggett & Myers {Chesterfield cigarettes} (lack of sponsorship eventually drove “THE BIG SHOW” off the air after two seasons, in 1952- in fact, most advertisers didn’t want to sponsor anything opposite CBS’ “THE LUCKY STRIKE PROGRAM STARRING JACK BENNY” because it was TOO popular, and “THE BIG SHOW” was directly opposite Benny)…under the same arrangement, RCA/Whitehall/Liggett also co-sponsored several other prime-time NBC radio series during the 1950-’51 season {“DUFFY’S TAVERN”, “THE MAGNIFICENT MONTAGUE”, “SCREEN DIRECTOR’S PLAYHOUSE”}. And CBS’ daily “ARTHUR GODFREY TIME” [simulcast on radio AND TV] had MANY different quarter-hour sponsors during its 90 minute time period.

    The only other “sustaining” programs on network TV today, outside of news and sports, are religious documentaries on CBS [although they have two “commercial breaks” in their half-hours that local stations can sell, or carry the PSA’s the network fills them with] and ABC, which their affiliates often schedule EARLY Sunday mornings…

  6. The decline of the “full broadcast season”- traditionally 39 original episodes and 13 “repeats” or a “summer replacement”- began with “I LOVE LUCY”, which became SO successful, Lucy and Desi could afford to cut back on their production schedule and produce, at their peak, about 26-30 episodes a season. Walt Disney’s “DISNEYLAND” premiered on ABC in October 1954 with the smallest amount of episodes scheduled during a regular season at that time: 20 episodes. All 20 were immediately repeated, with 12 “selected” episodes repeated again. Yet, each time one of them was repeated, the ratings were higher than the original telecast.

    By the late ’50s, most filmed TV series began to cut back on their yearly allotment of episodes- on average, most had seasons of anywhere from 26 to 39 fresh episodes, depending on the series and who was producing it. “THE ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW”, for example, filmed 30 episodes a season in its earlier seasons. By the mid-’60s, 26 episodes had become the “standard”, although series like “THE MUNSTERS” and “BEWITCHED” produced first seasons of 36 episodes each. By 1970, series like “THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW” and “HERE’S LUCY” were filming 24 episodes each season.

    22 episodes per season has been the “standard” since the late ’70s, although some series film less than that…

  7. Before Charlie Sheen went to rehab Two and half Men where scheduled to film 24 eps which were eventually cut down to 22.

    It seems the more popular a show is the more eps are produced even today.

  8. If a weekly network TV show is extremely popular (AND valuable to the network airing it), ‘pBOB’, they will often extended a “standard” 22 episode season to 24…or more. “TWO AND A HALF MEN” is one instance- “LOST” and “24” are other examples.

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