11 Great Television Shows That Are Lost Forever

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Much early television was broadcast live and never recorded. This included news and variety shows, of course, but also early dramas and comedy series. Even recorded shows have not been safe. Film recordings were disposed of, to clear storage space or make way for new equipment. Video—useful, but expensive—was frequently erased and re-used. Nobody back in the 1960s was thinking of DVD sales. While many of the TV greats are still safe for an eternity of reruns, these 11 are either partly or completely missing.

1. Mary Kay and Johnny (1947-1950)

Image credit: CBS/Landov

America’s first television sitcom starred a real-life married couple as a zany wife and her relatively normal husband, trying to stop her from causing too much mayhem.  It wasn’t I Love Lucy, or even the slightly earlier George Burns and Gracie Allen Show. Nope. Mary Kay and Johnny was the first series to show the lead married couple sharing a bed (not The Brady Bunch, as you might have heard) and the first to incorporate the leading lady’s pregnancy into the storyline (once again, not I Love Lucy).

So why is it so obscure? Like most television in the 1940s, this DuMont production was broadcast live (from New York) and not recorded, so we don’t know for sure whether it would still make us laugh. Kinescopes were made of later episodes, to be broadcast on the west coast, but even most of these were destroyed. The Paley Center for Media owns one full episode from 1949, but only a few fragments of later episodes remain. John Stearns went on to produce comedy variety shows. His wife, Mary Kay Stearns, did very little else on television – though to the best of our knowledge she is still alive, aged 86. Here’s an interview with the couple from 1999.

2. Jerome I. Rodale’s death on The Dick Cavett Show (1971)

This episode is part of television folklore, but unless you were in the live audience that night, you probably haven’t seen it.

Rodale, head of a multimillion-dollar publishing empire and one of the very first promoters of organic food, appeared on the popular late-night show at the height of his fame, having just appeared on the cover of The New York Times Magazine. According to Cavett, Rodale was “extremely funny” for half an hour, boasting about his good health. However, during Cavett’s interview with New York Post columnist Pete Hamill, the host and guest noticed that something was wrong with Rodale. He'd suffered a fatal heart attack during Hamill's segment. “I’ve decided to live to be a hundred,” Rodale had announced during his interview just a few minutes earlier. He was 72.

The episode was never aired, and the only way you could have seen the recording, Cavett believes, is “if you knew a couple of ABC engineers who ran off a copy that night to take home to spook their wives and girlfriends.” Nonetheless, he wrote in 2007 that he still meets people who swear that they saw the broadcast. Such is its reputation that they believe that they were there to witness history.

3. The Avengers (1961)

The first season of this classic British spy series now seems like an oddity. There was no sign of action women Emma Peel (Diana Rigg) or Cathy Gale (Honore Blackman). Even the dashing John Steed (Patrick Macnee), who would be the star through most of the series’ nine-year tenure, was relegated to second-billing. The original star was Ian Hendry (formerly of the short-lived series Police Surgeon) as Dr. David Keel, who teamed up with Steed to solve crimes. So it was different from the “classic” Avengers of judo and sexy leather costumes, but was it any good? Sadly, it’s hard to say. Of the 26 episodes produced that first season, only two still exist – including one that only features Keel, with no sign of Steed. Some of the other episodes were broadcast live in the UK but never committed to film.

4. A for Andromeda (1961)

The British Broadcasting Corporation produced countless hours of television in the 1950s and 1960s – and wiped over most of it to save space. Recently, thanks to a public appeal, they have been filling gaps in their archives. One show that is still largely missing is the science-fiction serial A for Andromeda, which made a star of Julie Christie. Only one episode is known to survive, returned to BBC by a private collector in 2005.

5. The first episode of The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson* (1962)

Johnny Carson was king of the late-night talk shows for three decades – and he had a great start. In the first episode, the wisecracking host was introduced not by Ed McMahon’s famous call of “Heeeeeeere’s Johnny!”, but by a monologue from Groucho Marx. The guest list was no less impressive: Rudy Vallee, Tony Bennett, Joan Crawford, and a young comedian named Mel Brooks. It sounds like a terrific 105 minutes of television, but – like most Carson shows in the 1960s – it’s probably gone for good.

6. Walter Cronkite reads the CBS News (1962-1967)

You have probably seen the footage of Walter Cronkite momentarily unable to hide his sadness at the news that President Kennedy had been killed. (A clip was featured in the film JFK.) You might have even seen the footage of Cronkite the previous year, informing the nation of the Cuban Missile Crisis (especially if you saw X-Men: First Class). If you remember any of Cronkite’s other broadcasts from the era, however, you must have an excellent memory. Though he was “the most trusted man in America” for decades, most of his bulletins from the 1960s no longer survive. Until 1968, those two stories were the only clips deemed worthy of saving.

7. The Madhouse on Castle Street (1963)

Another victim of the BBC’s wiping policy was this TV play by Evan Jones, about a man who has decided to “retire from the world,” much to the concern of his family and friends. The play is notable for featuring the first acting performance by a young American folk singer named Bob Dylan, who sang his new song "Blowin’ in the Wind" over the opening and closing credits. No video footage survives.

8. Doctor Who (1964-1969)

Probably the most sought-after missing episodes of any TV show. Again, the BBC destroyed many episodes from the 1960s, when it was a popular but low-budget kids’ show. Although several have been retrieved, 108 episodes are still missing. Fortunately, audio recordings exist of every episode, thanks to some fans. They didn’t have video recorders back in the sixties, but they still recorded the episodes on reel-to-reel tapes. (Media piracy is no new concept.)

Using these recordings, many audio adventures have been released by BBC Audio, with digitally enhanced soundtracks, and some of the original actors filling in the gaps with their narration. In 2006, the BBC released a digitally restored DVD of the 1968 story “The Invasion" in which the Doctor (Patrick Troughton) fights some of his greatest foes, the Cybermen. Two of the eight episodes of “The Invasion” are missing, so animation house Cosgrove Hall produced black-and-white animated versions of the two episodes using the vintage audio recordings.

9. Search for Tomorrow (1951-1968)

This daytime soap lasted for an amazing 35 years, finally giving everyone a happy ending in 1986. Yet little survives of the most fondly remembered (and highest-rated) first 16 years, when it aired as a 15-minute serial alongside its sister series, Guiding Light, before becoming a half-hour show. At the time, it was broadcast live, but from 1968, it was pre-recorded. Live episodes were a thing of the past… until 1983, when all copies of an episode were lost, and the cast were forced to perform it live for the first time in 16 years.

NBC was accused of making up the whole “lost episode” story as a publicity stunt – perhaps devised by someone who had seen this happen in the movie Tootsie. Fortunately, unlike Tootsie, nobody veered too far from the script, but the episode was still something of a disaster. Other classic soap operas fared better on kinescope: the entire series of Days of Our Lives and The Young and the Restless are still available, should you find yourself with a few years’ worth of free time.

10. At Last the 1948 Show (1967)

It wasn’t only the BBC that discarded great British television shows. This show, produced commercially, introduced the influential Cambridge Footlights comedy stars to television. The cast included two future Monty Python stars—John Cleese and Graham Chapman—as well as up-and-coming comedy legends Marty Feldman and Tim Brooke-Taylor. Despite its significance and popularity, it lasted only 13 episodes, a mere five of which still exist in full.

11. The Magnificent Marble Machine (1975-1976)

Only two complete episodes now exist of this celebrity game show. Marble Machine was hosted by Art James, and a shining example of 70s kitsch. (In the 70s, this was all right.) Game shows didn’t survive well, in general. A significant number of Jeopardy! and Wheel of Fortune episodes have also been destroyed.

Do you remember any of these shows? How about some others that didn't make the list?

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June 20, 2012 - 6:44am
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