It’s that time when we look back and remember the people who’ve pass on during 2010. (If you haven’t seen Turner Classic Movies’ always-incredible memorial segment, you should: www.tcm.com) One of those who left our midst was producer David L. Wolper. When I read his obituary in August, I knew it would focus on his early success with television documentaries like The Making of the President, his epic miniseries Roots, his well-loved feature Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, and his spectacular opening ceremonies for the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles.
But I didn’t see any mention of a show that held great meaning for me as I was growing up: Hollywood and the Stars.
It aired on NBC in prime time on Monday nights, and I lapped up every episode, then watched them over and over again in reruns.
The show had its origins in an hour-long documentary Wolper produced called—
—Hollywood: The Golden Years (1961), about the silent-film era, and two followups, Hollywood: The Fabulous Era (1962) and Hollywood: The Great Stars (1963). These were meticulously crafted shows that chronicled film history for the masses, yet didn’t talk down to its audience in any way. The people who worked on these shows included Jack Haley, Jr., Mel Stuart, Nicholas Noxon, and others whose names would be associated with top-flight documentaries for years to come. (In fact, you can hear Noxon talk about the laborious physical production of the shows in that pre-video era in his oral history for the Archive of American Television, available in chunks on YouTube and also at the Archive’s own site.
It was the success of those hour-long shows that led to a year-long commitment from NBC for thirty-one episodes of Hollywood and the Stars, hosted and narrated by Joseph Cotten. Because they were distributed by United Artists Television, which had inherited the pre-1949 Warner Bros. library, there was a heavy reliance on Warners movies in such episodes as The Immortal Jolson, The Man Called Bogart, and the amusing How to Succeed as a Gangster. But they also pulled off some pretty neat tricks, none more ingenious than creating an entire show called Monsters We’ve Known and Loved without having a single frame from a Universal horror movie!
Perhaps my favorite aspect of these shows was the music, composed by Elmer Bernstein. He wrote most of the cues, including the majestic title theme, for Hollywood: The Golden Years, and a music editor reused them throughout the series…but they never grew tired to my ears. I’d give anything to have a soundtrack CD, and since both Wolper’s papers and Bernstein’s are housed at USC I hope someday that may come about.
But because the underlying rights to clips used in the show are a tangled web, the series has not been rerun in recent times or released on video. There is only one lone episode available on YouTube, and while it’s an unusual one, The Angry Screen, you can see how well-written and produced it is.
I will forever be indebted to David Wolper and the talented team he gathered around him for those specials and that unforgettable series. And I’m sure I’m not alone.