Omnibus


The Academy of Television Arts & Sciences Foundation Presents

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About

Omnibus was the most successful cultural magazine series in the history of U.S. commercial television and a prototype for the development of programming on educational television. Developed by the Television-Radio Workshop of the Ford Foundation, Omnibus generated both corporate sponsorship and a loyal, but limited, network audience for intellectual programming over nine years (1952 to 1961) on all three networks.

Omnibus was the vision of Robert Saudek, a former ABC vice-president of public affairs who became director of the Workshop in 1951. Commissioned to devise an innovative series for network television, Saudek created a variety show for the intellect, a compendium of the arts, literature, science, history, and even some pure entertainment. Saudek hired journalist Alistair Cooke to serve as master of ceremonies. Cooke was known for his literate commentary on Letter from America, a BBC radio series heard throughout Great Britain. With initial underwriting from the Ford Foundation, which TV Guide called "risk capital" for the untried, Saudek also secured financing from advertisers to produce a weekly, ninety-minute series, first airing 4:30-6:00 P.M. on Sunday afternoons. Omnibus premiered on 9 November 1952 over CBS. The first installment featured Rex Harrison and Lilli Palmer as Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn; William Saroyan narrating an adaptation of his short story "The Bad Men"; and the first images of X-ray movies, an inside look at the working human digestive system .

Saudek and his producers, among them Fred Rickey, William Spier, and Mary V. Ahern, deftly interwove the high and popular arts into a cultural smorgasbord. Their definition of "culture" was flexible enough to encompass Orson Welles's triumphant return form Europe to star in Peter Brook's adaptation of King Lear; a production of William Inge's "Glory in the Flower" with Jessica Tandy, Hume Croyn, and a still very green James Dean; S. J. Perelman's paean to burlesque with Bert Lahr; several appearances by Agnes DeMille, including the performance of her ballet "Three Virgins and the Devil ("Virgins" becoming "Maidens" because of network censors); Jack Benny recreating his notorious role as an avenging angel in "The Horn Blows at Midnight"; and Peter Ustinov in his American television debut as Dr. Samuel Johnson. Omnibus also gave air time to artists new to the mass media: William Faulkner gave a tour of Oxford, Mississippi; James Agee contributed a five-part docudrama on the life of Abraham Lincoln, now considered one of the first miniseries; Frank Lloyd Wright discussed architectural forms with Cooke; and painter Thomas Hart Benton gave a tour of his studio. In addition, individuals who would later become fixtures in prime time received a career boost on Omnibus, including Mike Nichols and Elaine May, who brought their sardonic humor to an edition entitled "Suburban Revue"; Les Ford and Mary Ford, who demonstrated multi-track recording with a madrigal-singing Cooke; and Jacques Cousteau, who screened his first undersea adventure on American television.

Beginning with Leopold Stokowski and Benjamin Britten's "Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra," Saudek linked pedagogy with showmanship to produce a series of visual lectures that became a model for educational television. The most stimulating and original of the electronic teachers was Leonard Bernstein, who single-handedly enlarged the possibilities of musical analysis and performance on television. Commencing with his dissection of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony in 1954, Bernstein brought an intellectual passion of excitement and discovery to his subject and later explored musical comedy, jazz, grand opera, and modern music with the same vigor. Gene Kelly in his video lecture compared the art and choreography of ballet dancers to the movements of professional athletes, exemplified by his tap dance with boxer Sugar Ray Robinson.

For most of its run, Omnibus, nearly always broadcast live, graced the "ghetto" of weekend programming, Sunday afternoon. As that daypart became more valuable, beginning on CBS with the success of professional football, Omnibus shifted to other networks. The series was seen on CBS from 1952 to 1956; on ABC 1956 to 1957; and NBC 1957 to 1961. During the final season Omnibus appeared as a series of irregular specials, concluding with a look at the future of the western hemisphere. In all, Saudek and his team assembled 166 volumes totaling more than 230 hours of entertaining enlightenment. The series was revived by producer Martin Starger as a series of special on ABC in 1981.

The artistic concerns and approaches to production of Omnibus provided a road map for public television. The Ford Foundation, citing Omnibus's struggle for ratings, questioned whether commercial broadcasters were dedicated to "the development of mature, wise and responsible citizens," and began to fund educational television projects. Without the Foundation's support, Saudek in 1955 formed his own production company to create and gain network sponsorship for the series. The Omnibus sensibility has been felt throughout the history of public television. During the National Educational Television years, NET Playhouse (1966-72) and NET Festival (1967-70) were direct descendants. Since the formation of the Public Broadcasting Service, Great Performances (1974-present) partakes of the Omnibus ethos to share a cultural melange with a discriminating audience. And, of course, the ringmaster of Omnibus, Alistair Cooke became a PBS icon for over twenty years as host of Masterpiece Theater.

-Ron Simon

HOST

Alistair Cooke

PRODUCERS

Robert Saudek, Fred Rickey, William Spier, Mary V. Ahern

PROGRAMMING HISTORY

CBS

October 1953-April 1956   Sunday 5:00-6:00 ABC

October 1956-March 1957   Sunday 9:00-10:30 NBC

April 1957-April 1961   Sunday Irregular Schedule

FURTHER READING

Beck, Kirstin. Cultivating the Wasteland. New York: American Council for the Arts, 1983.

Bernstein, Leonard. The Joy of Music. New York: Fireside, 1963.

Henderson, Amy. On the Air Pioneers of American Broadcasting. Washington, D. C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1988.

Leonard Bernstein: The Television Work. New York: Museum of Broadcasting, 1985.

Rose, Brian. Televising the Performing Arts. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1992.

_______________. Television and the Performing Arts. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1986.

Highlights
Eartha Kitt on appearing on the anthology series Omnibus
Delbert Mann on directing productions of Omnibus
Kirk Browning on directing the Samuel Beckett play "Krapp's Last Tape" for Omnibus
Ellen M. Violett on working with Alistair Cooke on Omnibus
Imero Fiorentino on lighting Agnes DeMille in a ballet production on Omnibus - one of his favorite moments
Mary V. Ahern on producing Omnibus with Robert Saudek
Who talked about this show

Mary V. Ahern

View Interview
Mary V. Ahern on producing Omnibus with Robert Saudek
Mary V. Ahern on how Omnibus was funded
Mary V. Ahern on the process of producing an episode of Omnibus
Mary V. Ahern on her role in the production of Omnibus
Mary V. Ahern on working with associate producer Paul Feigay on Omnibus
Mary V. Ahern on working with composer Leonard Bernstein on several episode of Omnibus
Mary V. Ahern on working with Omnibus director Andrew McCullough
Mary V. Ahern on the time slot and on the orchestras of Omnibus
Mary V. Ahern on host Alistair Cooke's other contributions to Omnibus, and on drama critic Walter Kerr's involvement with the show
Mary V. Ahern on various historical plays produced for Omnibus
Mary V. Ahern on various creative pairings on Omnibus
Mary V. Ahern on various personalities who appeared on Omnibus, including Orson Welles, Mike Nichols and Elaine May, and Carol Burnett
Mary V. Ahern on Joseph N. Welch (who stood up to Senator Joseph McCarthy at the Army-McCarthy hearings) being involved with the Omnibus series on the Constitution
Mary V. Ahern on Omnibus producer Robert Saudek
Mary V. Ahern on the reasons for the cancellation of Omnibus
Mary V. Ahern on the legacy of Omnibus

Edward Asner

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Ed Asner on acting in the Omnibus episode "Capital Punishment"

Bob Banner

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Bob Banner on directing various Omnibus programs including "La Boheme"
Bob Banner on working with Omnibus host Alistair Cooke

Kirk Browning

View Interview
Kirk Browning on directing the Samuel Beckett play "Krapp's Last Tape" for Omnibus

Carol Burnett

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Carol Burnett on one of her earliest television appearances on Omnibus, hosted by Leonard Bernstein

Hume Cronyn

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Hume Cronyn on appearing as John Quincy Adams on Ominbus

Charles Dubin

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Charles S. Dubin on the legacy of Omnibus
Charles S. Dubin on Omnibus executive producer Robert Saudek
Charles S. Dubin on directing the Omnibus episodes "Jack Be Normal" and "The Azuma Kabuki Dancers"
Charles S. Dubin on directing the Omnibus episodes "The Better Half" and "Plays of the Irish Renaissance"
Charles S. Dubin on the technical aspects of Omnibus
Charles S. Dubin on directing several Omnibus episodes, including "Comedy and Song," "The Spirit of Freedom," "The Bigger Wheel," "The Ballad of Baby Doe," "Baptiste," "Children of Paradise," "And Joy is My Company," and "My Hearts in the Highlands"
Charles S. Dubin on Omnibus host Alistair Cooke, and choreographer Agnes De Mille
Charles S. Dubin on working with Leonard Bernstein on several Omnibus episodes

Nanette Fabray

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Nanette Fabray on appearing on Omnibus

Imero Fiorentino

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Imero Fiorentino on lighting Omnibus
Imero Fiorentino on lighting Agnes DeMille in a ballet production on Omnibus - one of his favorite moments

Jonathan Harris

View Interview
Jonathan Harris on appearing on Omnibus, in the episode "Dear Brutus"

Eartha Kitt

View Interview
Eartha Kitt on acting on the anthology series Omnibus
Eartha Kitt on appearing on the anthology series Omnibus

Susan Lacy

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Susan Lacy on the impact watching Omnibus as a young girl had upon her

Norman Lloyd

View Interview
Norman Lloyd on Stanley Kubrick's work as a second unit director on "Mr. Lincoln" for Omnibus
Norman Lloyd on directing several episodes of Omnibus on the life of Abraham Lincoln
Norman Lloyd on Stanley Kubrick being his second unit director for Omnibus

Delbert Mann

View Interview
Delbert Mann on directing productions of Omnibus

Tad Mosel

View Interview
Tad Mosel on adapting a James Thurber short story for Omnibus
Tad Mosel on writing for Ominbus
Tad Mosel on a typical episode of Omnibus and adapting a James Thurber short story for the show

Daniel Petrie, Sr.

View Interview
Daniel Petrie, Sr. on directing "Excursion," a segment of an Omnibus episode featuring Kim Stanley

Ellen M. Violett

View Interview
Ellen M. Violett on writing "The Duchess and the Smuggs"  for Omnibus
Ellen M. Violett on the format of Omnibus
Ellen M. Violett on writing "Brewsie and Willie" for Omnibus
Ellen M. Violett on working with Alistair Cooke on Omnibus
Ellen M. Violett on adapting "Uncle Tom's Cabin" for Omnibus
Ellen M. Violett on adapting "Salome" for Omnibus
Ellen M. Violett on writing "Dear Brutus" for Omnibus

Jonathan Winters

View Interview
Jonathan Winters on how he got offered a part on Omnibus after Alistair Cooke discovered him performing his Custer's Last Stand routine at the Ruban Blue nightclub

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