Tuesday, May 8, 2007

The TV Show Destroyed by UFOs - Part 1

UFO sightings in the mid-sixties represented far more than lights in the sky. Reports of close encounters with strange objects, electrical interference seemingly precipitated by UFOs and even documentation of physical traces caused by apparent UFO landings became common. By the end of 1964, UFO investigators working on a number of credible cases still felt preoccupied with the blockbuster incident of the year, police officer Lonnie Zamora’s dramatic observation of a daylight UFO on the ground, complete with small beings nearby, that quickly roared off into the skies over Socorro, NM, barely missing a dynamite storage shed and leaving behind landing marks and burning desert vegetation that still smoldered 24 hours later, as government and civilian investigators at the scene scratched their heads in wonder. The scratching and wonder continue today.

By January, 1965, public and media interest in UFOs positively crackled with curiosity. With major UFO encounters yet to come, January had already produced a major and disturbing UFO article by Major Donald Keyhoe in True Magazine. Keyhoe was then director of the Washington, D.C. UFO lobbying organization, the National Investigations Committee on Aerial Phenomena (NICAP). As the month progressed, NICAP mailed out an announcement to its vast membership (see postcard), vowing to take advantage of the publicity to gain a serious investigation of the UFO phenomenon. A series of incredible sightings near the nation’s Capitol added considerable fuel to the media fire, as NICAP was then looking into cases such as a December 21 landing report near Roanoke, VA, where electromagnetic effects on an auto were noted. On December 29, the Patuxent Naval Air Station in Maryland allegedly tracked two UFOs on radar at an amazing 4,800 m.p.h. velocity. An engineer in Wallops Island, VA, reported a round, glowing UFO on January 5.

With obvious enthusiasm, the NICAP announcement mentioned one more thing near the end. NICAP representatives were scheduled to appear on ABC TV’s “Les Crane Show” of January 27 at 11:30 p.m. EST. Launched by ABC in November, 1964, to compete with NBC’s popular “Tonight Show With Johnny Carson,” Crane’s attempt at national entertainment lasted only four months, though the network would bring him back briefly much later to try -- and fail again -- to usurp the immovable Carson show’s audience.

NICAP held high hopes for the Crane show appearance. Under Richard Hall’s superb editorial supervision, NICAP’s document, The UFO Evidence had collided with Washington and the rest of the nation in July, 1964, and pressure was building for Congress to investigate UFOs. NICAP assumed the Crane show would encourage a “major breakthrough.” As it turned out, a breakthrough did happen, but initially not exactly the sort NICAP had intended.

Les Crane possessed an enviable radio broadcast background and, according to his own assertions during the program, was a former Air Force pilot. During his brief TV tenure, his best interviews often involved rock stars, and he would later enjoy moderate national success with his own recording, a somewhat new age-type music and narrative mix entitled Desiderata. I remember this well, as I purchased the LP out of curiosity when it first hit the stores. Unfortunately, the disc I selected was a defective pressing, and all of the songs were distorted, the sounds often akin to fingernails scraping on a blackboard. I later found a better copy, but I cherish the first recording because its flaws just seem so appropriate when I think back on the infamous Crane/Keyhoe interview.

When the program aired on January 27, 1965, Les Crane often made light of the UFO subject, and thus suffered his guests, NICAP director Keyhoe and NICAP board member Col. J. Bryan III (USAF, ret.). Also invited to participate in an evening of derision and obfuscation was noted and extremely skeptical astronomer I. M. Levitt, Ph.D.

Keyhoe brought along copies of official documents concerning the government UFO investigation, but Crane expressed little interest in televising them. Discussions about censored UFO information were impossible, as either Crane or the astronomer seemed to change the subject during what might have been sober moments. Topping off the hapless session, during the show’s final moments Crane produced a statement from Air Force spokesman Maj. Maston Jacks, which offered up the tired old official negative “party line” statement about UFOs. This was a knee-slapper for me because, earlier in this very same month of January, Major Jacks had sent me a letter referring to the still-unexplained Socorro UFO as a “vehicle!” (Note: I'll post that Air Force letter here at another time.)

Mercifully, the Crane session ended and Keyhoe and Bryan departed, each disgusted and concerned about the show’s effect on NICAP’s integrity and the status of UFO research. But surprisingly, there resulted very swift and decisively negative reaction against, not NICAP, but against Crane’s show and perceived mistreatment of his guests.

On April 20, 1965, with Les Crane having lost his show just weeks previously (reportedly in significant measure because of “that UFO show”), Major Keyhoe again appeared to talk about UFOs before a national TV audience. This time, however, in the same 11:30 evening time slot, there was a revamped show, now called “The ABC Nightlife Show” and hosted by the eminently beloved and respected veteran broadcaster, Dave Garroway. Joined by co-host and famed broadcaster William B. Williams, Garroway conducted a warmly professional session with Keyhoe. Even comedian Morey Amsterdam took part in this informative discussion. Astronomer Levitt also made a return appearance, but this time his skepticism seemed more reserved and the comments he did make pretty much spoke for themselves.

It is of some interest that Garroway, like Crane, had to read the apparently obligatory Air Force UFO comments, again from Major Jacks. However, this time the statement was read at the beginning of the program, thus giving Keyhoe a little more clout, since his facts wouldn’t be squelched with the finality of a last-minute Air Force blanket denial.

Make no mistake, this return visit can only be viewed as ABC TV’s apology to Major Keyhoe and millions of viewers, and the network did exactly the right thing (a survey I once did for Argosy UFO Magazine on the three major TV networks, regarding their UFO programming in the fifties, sixties and seventies, easily suggested that ABC provided the most balanced UFO reporting). ABC had apparently been as stunned by Crane’s sophomoric treatment of Keyhoe as the viewers.

The Crane show audio was originally taped by me on a reel-to-reel recorder, and I made a transcript decades ago. To my regret, some of the words on the tape were inaudible, but thanks to a restoration copy via Faded Discs (see link at top of page) I was able to retrieve most of what I didn't have on my own recording. I have excluded words here and there in transcription, but they should be of no consequence. It must be emphasized that the printed words hardly match the ridicule and attempts to play the UFO topic for cheap laughs which were so prevalent on the television screen. Nevertheless, some of this atmosphere should become apparent in this transcript of The Les Crane Show of January 27, 1965, which begins in my next blog entry. Also. . .

I wish to offer my profound thanks to Mark at Old TV Tickets for permission to use a surviving Crane show audience ticket here. Mark's unique website, spanning decades of TV shows and the tickets required to gain studio entry, is certain to bring back memories for veteran TV viewers. Please be sure to visit www.oldtvtickets.com