Thursday, July 9, 2009


In the 1952 film "Francis (the Talking Mule) Goes to West Point," there is a scene where Francis is watching a horse race on TV late at night. I was initially confused, not over how the mule could talk or how he got a TV in his stall, but by how a horse race could run on TV in the middle of the night. Francis explains by saying, "Cheesy kinescope. Turn it off." When was the last time you heard anyone refer to kinescopes? This drove home the message to me that in 1952 everyone knew what kinescopes were, although the word today is as archaic as spats, limburger cheese or mustard plasters.

From Wikipedia: Kinescope (pronounced /ˈkɪnɨskoʊp/) – kine /ˈkɪni/ for short, also known as telerecording, a recording of a television program made by filming the picture from a video monitor. Typically, the term can refer to the process itself, the equipment used for the procedure (a 16mm or 35mm movie camera mounted in front of a video monitor, and synchronized to the monitor’s scanning rate), or a film made using the process.

In the 1950s TV viewers could only see programs live, from 16mm films that were sent to individual stations around the country or from kinescopes. Again, kinescopes were filmed by a 16mm or 35mm camera that was focused on a studio TV monitor while the live show was being broadcast to one portion of the country.

An example I have recently become aware of is the "George Burns and Gracie Allen Show." The first 52 episodes were filmed live in a New York theater stage. The single set was the interior of George and Gracie's house in Beverly Hills. George told jokes direct to the audience from in front of the proscenium arch, and freely acknowledged that this was supposed to be a set of their home in Hollywood. The commercials for Carnation Milk were cleverly worked into the show in long sequences where Gracie would serve milk and cookies, for example, as an opportunity for lauding the flavor of Carnation. The first show was on October 12, 1950 and the last live show aired Sep. 25, 1952.

Here are questions I could use help with. If the shows were broadcast live on the East coast, when and how were they aired on the West coast? Videotape and coast to coast instant transmission did not exist. It seems like the shows would be kinescoped live, turned into 16mm negatives ASAP and 16mm positive prints would be struck that night and airmailed West. Could they even get them out west the next day? This was the very early days of television from 1950 to 1952. When did a coast to coast relay chain exist so that a film airing live in the east at 9pm would play at the same time (6pm) out west?

These Burns and Allen kinescopes were run in syndication for years to come. Numerous 16mm prints were struck and leased to stations around the country. Some were returned to central warehouses after showings, while many TV stations archived kinescopes/16mm prints for repeat showings. All of those libraries are long gone into the scrap pile or a few private collections. The first 52 Burns and Allen shows are in the public domain, but not all episodes are out on DVD. Could some be lost forever?

The quality ranges from mediocre to not bad, but the focus on the ones I have seen is soft or not sharp. This is a shortcoming of most kinescopes. Of course, 1950s TVs were far, far, far from High Def! If one could make out who the actors were, one could follow the story like filmed radio. Did the painted pool outside Gracie's kitchen window fool anyone in 1950? Possibly yes, on an average TV miles away from the broadcast antenna.

At least some of the first 52 Burns and Allen Shows are available for viewing and remain fascinating relics of early, live TV. Where are all the other episodes that were filmed on 35mm and shown from 1953 thru 1958? The IMDB researchers could not even find out how many were made or episode titles. Someone owns the shows, presumably CBS, but do they have them? Will they ever release them? If these later shows were in the public domain, then many more would be out there for the public to enjoy once again.

Gracie Allen: Well, you see one Christmas my father caught a wild turkey and he fed him corn and chestnuts. But then we didn't have the heart to kill him so we let him get away.
George Burns: Oh, I see.
Gracie Allen: But the turkey liked the food so well that he came back each year. And that way we always had...
George Burns: A turkey for Christmas dinner?
Gracie Allen: Yes.


  1. The Broadcast Information Bureau book, SERIES SERIALS AND PACKAGES, list 239 episodes of THE GEORGE BURNS AND GRACIE ALLEN SHOW.

  2. Ancient post, but in regards to a few of your questions/comments... The first 6 episodes were broadcast live from New York, but the Burns had become Beverly Hills residents and preferred to shoot there, so the next 46 were transmitted from CBS studio in L.A., and the other 239 were shot on film in Hollywood. Somewhere around 20 kinescope episodes are circulating on the Internet -- I can't say precisely how many have survived (I landed here trying to figure that out), but the 1989 book "Say Goodnight, Gracie! The Story of Burns and Allen" included a full episode guide which leaves one with the impression that the authors were able to view every episode.

    Kinescopes were made during the broadcast, then duped and shipped across the country. Viewers on the opposite coast had a two-week delay for the newest episode (the show aired bi-weekly). The 28th episode (October 11, 1951) was the first to be broadcast live coast-to-coast, thanks to the advent of coaxial cable.

    When the show switched over to film, many of the live shows were redone, some (like "Gracie Goes to a Psychiatrist") were practically verbatim with the original live broadcasts. The show went into syndication after Gracie bowed out in 1958, but the kinescopes were never part of the syndication package, just the filmed episodes. The filmed shows are now owned by Sony and have been airing on the digital channel Antenna TV for the past few years. Three filmed episodes are noticeably missing from Antenna TV's syndication package, and most episodes have been edited down to 22 minutes - though a few run 25 mins.

    Unlike, say, "I Love Lucy," the scripts for this series were untitled until the final three seasons, though there's a bit of confusion since a few earlier episodes (like "The Old Grads") have titles which appear on-screen. Distributors of the kinescopes came up with thier own titles, and presumably someone at Sony assigned episode titles (many of them poor) when the show began running on Antenna TV.

    Online information was sparse when I got Antenna TV and fell in love with the show last fall, so I've been busting my balls to try to make the imdb pages more comprehensive. The episode guide is nearly complete, there's tons of quotes, trivia and other info... though I've had difficulty pinpointing the names of a lot of songs that George sings (since he rarely got more than a line or two out before his performance was cut short).

    Burns' books "I Love Her, That's Why" and "Gracie: A Love Story" both give some insight into the show (the former includes a complete episode script) and the aforementioned, "Say Goodnight, Gracie!" by Cheryl Blythe and Susan Sackett offers an invaluable treasure-trove of info about the TV series.