Thursday, May 29, 2003
‘Day in Court’, ‘Winchell-Mahoney Time,’ Du Mont Shows: Not to Be Seen Again
By ROGER M. GRACE
It is possible to “return to yesteryear” by viewing, in the wee hours of the morning, installments of “What’s My Line?,” “I’ve Got a Secret,” and other Goodson-Todman panel quiz shows, broadcast on the Game Show network. Is there a prospect of “Traffic Court,” “Day in Court,” and “Accused” similarly resurfacing, perhaps on Court TV or TVLand?
No chance at all, the shows’ star, retired UCLA law professor Edgar Allan Jones Jr., told me. He said of the videotaped episodes of four decades past:
“There aren’t any.”
Thirty days after a tape was aired, he explained, “they wiped it.” This was at the direction of the show’s producer, Selig J. Seligman, Jones said.
“I had a running argument with Seligman, which I lost,” he related.
Jones recounted offering to buy the tapes, but to no avail.
He speculated that Seligman wanted to preclude ABC from saving money by re-running episodes, rather than paying full price for new ones.
“I had a nice rerun commitment,” the educator noted. His contract specified that if an episode were rebroadcast, he’d get three-quarters of the original stipend.
By recording over each show, the producer frustrated the enjoyment of that contracted-for benefit.
Jones reported that a UCLA Law School colleague, Melville Nimmer (the expert on copyrights, who died in 1985) advised him years later that “it could be you had a cause of action to prevent” the erasures.
But, he said, he just never had any thought of suing.
This is reminiscent of what Metromedia did to Paul Winchell (oh, and to Jerry Mahoney, too). That company owned KTTV, Channel 11. The ventriloquist taped his “Winchell-Mahoney Time” at KTTV’s studio at Metromedia Square, at Sunset and Van Ness, in 1965. Under a contract, Winchell was to receive 50 percent of the proceeds from syndication. As it happened, however, at some point that was never determined, Metromedia erased all of the videotapes of Winchell’s shows.
Winchell’s production company sued in 1976. Then-Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Alfred Margolis granted judgment on the pleadings to Metromedia, and Winchell’s company appealed. The Court of Appeal in Los Angeles, in an opinion by Justice Earl Johnson Jr., reversed. Johnson wrote that Metromedia’s “erasure of the videotapes deprived appellant of the benefit of the bargain under the agreements with Metromedia/KTTV, that is, rights to initiate future syndication of the show and receive compensation therefor. This supplies facts necessary for a breach of the implied covenant of fair dealing cause of action.”
In July, 1986, a jury awarded Winchell’s company $17.8 million in compensatory and punitive damages.
There are virtually no Du Mont kinescopes in existence. The same mentality that led to erasure of the Winchell-Mahoney tapes caused destruction of early TV gems aired live, but preserved on film for viewing in areas not hooked up by cable.
Actress Edie Adams, speaking at a 1996 hearing conducted by a panel of the Library of Congress, told what she discovered in trying to track down kinescopes of shows starring her late husband, Ernie Kovacs:
“I don’t know what happened to the CBS shows, but have recently learned what happened to the Du Mont shows. That’s the early Jackie Gleason Shows, including the original Honeymooners, Captain Midnight, and the Kovacs Specials. Well, they were taken care of in a most unique and swift fashion.
“In the earlier ’70s, the Du Mont network was being bought by another company, and the lawyers were in heavy negotiation as to who would be responsible for the library of the Du Mont shows currently being stored at the facility, who would bear the expense of storing them in a temperature controlled facility, take care of the copyright renewal, et cetera.
“One of the lawyers doing the bargaining said that he could ‘take care of it’ in a ‘fair manner,’ and he did take care of it. At 2 a.m., the next morning, he had three huge semis back up to the loading dock at ABC, filled them all with stored kinescopes and 2-inch videotapes, drove them to a waiting barge in New Jersey, took them out on the water, made a right at the Statue of Liberty and dumped them in the Upper New York Bay.
“Very neat. No problem.”
Also, in about 1958, the company that had been the Du Mont network intentionally destroyed many kinescopes in the process of salvaging silver from them.
On the other hand, black-and-white episodes of “Night Court” with Jay Jostyn are extant, and available, for a fee, over the Internet. More about that show next week.
Copyright 2003, Metropolitan News Company
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