When Alistair Cooke died last week at 95, the media very properly saluted him as the long-time host of "Masterpiece Theater" on PBS.
What wasnt mentioned, however, was his service to American culture on "Omnibus."
It premiered on November 9, 1952 as a late Sunday afternoon 90-minute show on CBS. In those pre-NFL days, Sunday afternoon TV was something of a void so the networks used it for offbeat offerings which led it to be called a "cultural ghetto."
Because the financing for "Omnibus" came from the Ford Foundation TV-Radio Workshop, there were no commercials. Just an incredible far-reaching range of subject matter. Opera, symphony, ballet, drama, science, true-life adventure films "Omnibus" had them all.
Tim Brooks and Earle Marsh, authors of "The Complete Directory to Prime Time Network and Cable TV Shows," state: "Omnibus was the most outstanding and longest-running cultural series in the history of commercial network television." Alistair Cooke was its host the man who pulled it all together for us. British-born but a U.S. citizen since 1941, his quiet, unassuming style made the show work.
And what a show it was! Orson Welles played King Lear. Victor Borge did his comedy piano routines. Les Paul and Mary Ford demonstrated their multiple-recording technique (which inspired Buddy Holly to try it with rock and roll.) Jack Benny recreated his movie "A Horn Blows at Midnight." Royal Dano starred in James Agees "Mr. Lincoln."
Leonard Bernstein made his television debut with a detailed study of Beethovens Fifth Symphony. Jacques Cousteau also debuted with "Undersea Archeology."
One presentation I particularly remember was Gene Kellys defense of dancing. Male dancers even those as famous as Kelly and Fred Astaire were considered somewhat effeminate in the 1950s. The hint of homosexuality hung over male dancers then and still does. To be a "chorus boy" was akin to being called a queer or faggot.
To dispute this on "Omnibus," Kelly used the moves of various masculine sports to show their similarity to dance moves. At the end of his demonstration, he tied all the sports moves into a dance number. He used pro athletes as his prototypes; and as I remember, the baseball player was a Pacific Coast League first baseman who later had a pretty good TV and film career Chuck Connors.
Our whole family watched the show, so this particular episode made it a lot easier when I took a dance class at Knox College and had to buy some dancing shoes! (It also helped my footwork when I later became a first baseman.)
"Omnibus" won many Emmys and Peabody Awards for excellence before it ended in April of 1961; and the Ford Foundation cited it as a good example of what Public Television should be as the Foundation set out to underwrite the early PBS. In fact, because of its wide range of cultural contributions, you could call "Omnibus" the real parent of PBS not to mention the cable channels on history, science and animals now available.
And Alistair Cooke urbane, enthusiastic, well-spoken was there for both "Omnibus" and "Masterpiece Theater" the two shows that offered the best.
British Prime Minister Tony Blair said of Cooke, who received four Emmys and three Peabody Awards for his work: "He was really one of the greatest broadcasters of all time, and we shall feel his loss very, very keenly indeed." I know Ill remember him fondly.