"Omnibus" went omnibust in 1961, but not before enlightening and engaging millions of viewers through more than 200 broadcasts over an eight-year run. The stimulating, daredevil weekly arts magazine of the air was hailed in its happy day for its unpredictability and a knack for flattering viewers by challenging them.
The program was a landmark and a legend, and so it is natural to be skeptical about a new version from a new producer, arriving tonight on ABC. The new "Omnibus" is not a bad show at all, in fact it's quite a good one, but it seems a bit too neatly sliced and packaged, a little too tidy and pat.
And that brings us to a terribly fascinating question. You know what's wrong with television today? I'll tell you what's wrong with television today. Not enough is left to chance.
It was one of the secrets that made "Omnibus" more than a television classic. It made it an event every week.
On the new "Omnibus," tonight at 8 on Channel 7, capable host Hal Holbrook refers to the old "Omnibus" as a "vaudeviole show of the imagination." Indeed, it belongs to an era of television respectability and ambitiousness that has long since vanished -- and with it, most of the appeals to the imagination that TV ever managed to make.
However, the new-if-not-improved "Omnibus" is hardly bereft of delights.
There's Sandy Duncan fluing over the heads of justifiably ecstatic children during a Broadway performance of "Peter Pan." There's Gene Kelly and Twyla Tharp escorting football's Lynn Swann and ballet's Peter Martins through a demonstration, unconvincing but attractive, of the similarities between dance and sports.
And on the warmer side, opera star Luciano Pavarotti and Grand Ole Opry star Loretta Lynn swap reminiscences of their small-town childhoods and exchange a few tunes -- Loretta's "You Ain't Woman Enough to Take My Man" to Pavarotti's "La donna e mobile."
Loretta: "You know, I love your name -- but I'm not sure I know how to pronounce it right."
Luciano: "Well, call me Luke."
Very nice, very nice -- and a goody-goody finale in which Meryl Streep joins the National Theater of the Deaf for "America the Beautiful" isn't quite as schmaltzy as it sounds.
Some of the ideas on the original "Omnibus" left the air with egg on their faces, too, but at least there was a shared sense of taking dares, of using television as a vehicle for exploration and not just a boon to indolence. "Omnibus" was television that offered inducement to thought, not a replacement for it.
The philosophy was hard-core ecticism and a fanatical insistence on being of interest. One week Leonard Bernstein might be leading an illuminating hike through Beethoven's Fifth -- "Omnibus" made him a TV star for the first time -- or serving as tour guide through the elegant alleyways of American jazz. And the next week, Agnes De Mille could be holding forth on the history of the dance. Or Bert Lahr serving as top banana for a very illustrated history of burlesque.
S.J. Perelman wrote original material for the program, and the cast might include Ernie Kovacs or Frank Lloyd Wright. There was an accessible attitude, a lack of highbrow snootiness, and none of that this-is-good-for-you stuffiness or masterpiecey pretentiousness of latterday public TV.
In a way, though, "Omnibus" was the forerunner of today's public TV. The host was none other than Alistair Cooke, now public TV'sd resident, too-ubiquitous interlocutor. The program was set up by grants from the Form Foundation, which eventually poured more than $5 million into it but which later turned its attention and millions to public TV. No public TV series produced in this country, however, has ever achieved the prestige and popularity of "Omnibus."
Robert Saudek, the original producer of "Omnibus," was asked if he would have any interest in reminiscing about the program. "None," he said. "I would reminisce on almost any other partof my life but one."
Saudek, now director of the Wiliam S. Paley-funded Museum of Broadcasting in New York, says he wants to give the new "Omnibus" a chance to flourish on its own. He sold the rights to the title to Marble Arch Productions of Los Angeles and has nothing to do with the new show, which was handsomely produced by Bob Shanks, directed by Don Mischer, and executive-produced by Amrtin Starger, whose idea it was to revive the program using the high-gloss tape technology of the '80s.
With some coaxing, through, Saudek is able to recall a few of the highlights of the much-honored series. Like the time Orson Welles roared through a radically abbreviated, 90-minute version of "King Lear," directed by the later-to-be-famous Peter Brook. Saudek says this experiment in jet-propelled Shakespeare drew both 'hurrahs and denunciations from scholars all over the country.
He also remembers with particular fondness a production of George Bernard Shaw's "Androcles and the Lion," starring Bert Lahr. James Lee wrote a television adaptation of Boswell's "Life of Samuel Johnson" for "Omninbus," and William Saroyan contributed an original, two-character, one- act play called "Vive!"
"Omnibus" spent time on each of the htree networks and had sponsors in addition to the Ford support. But the sponsors were called "subscribers" and they not only had no say in the content of the program, they couldn't even dictate at which intervals their comercials would appear. The best-remembered subscriber, because of the strange pronunciation of its name, was probably Canada's "Aluminium Ltd." A lot of us wondered at the time what the heck kind of a metal "al-yew-min-ee-um" was.
The new "Omnibus" is in prome time, unlike the original, which except for one or two seasons, stayed out of prime time and within the boundaries of what was then considered the Sunday afternoon culture ghetto -- although, says Saudek, "we hated to hear it called that." Sunday afternoons used to be paradise for thoughtful viewers, because the networks put all their good-deed programs in what was cnsidered a patently unprofitable neighborhood.
And so there were programs like "Wisdom," "Adventure," "The Seven Lively Arts," "Wide, Wide World" with Dave Garroway and "The Twentieth Century" with Walter Cronkite.
But the networks found a way to make a profit center out of even Sunday afternoons. "Suddenly, Sunday afternoons became pro football time," recalls Saudek, and other sports proliferated. Television, in effect, was disenfranchising a constituency that has never really returned to it in great numbers. And though the new "Omnibus" is encouraging and greatly to be encouraged, one must remember that there was a time when such programs were not nearly so rare, and when such programs were commissioned on the theory that television could help improve the quality of life in this country.
They may have been naive, but they were sweet dreams while they lasted.