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Radio: The Wide, Wide World

5 minute read

A good teacher is likely to be a born ham, according to the University of Southern California’s Shakespearian expert, Dr. Frank Baxter. Dr. Baxter’s diagnosis explains why more and more professors are drifting from their cloistered halls to the glaring arena of television. After his Now and Then show ran for 39 weeks on the CBS network, Professor Baxter became a real celebrity and admits that he has enjoyed every minute of it. He turns up at movie premiéres and Hollywood cocktail parties, gets invited to the Library of Congress to give poetry readings, has built a swimming pool at his South Pasadena home, and relishes reading about himself in the gossip columns. Best of all, he is now financially able to relax during his vacations, instead of teaching at night school or summer school to make ends meet.

Bathing Beauties, Too. In Baltimore, Lynn Poole, for seven years moderator of the Johns Hopkins Science Review (which recently switched to a new name and a new network: Tomorrow, on ABC), has seen scores of teachers take to show business like ducks to water. Five professors, after mumbling their way through TV scripts, headed straight for courses in speech. Dr. Maurice Sullivan, Johns Hopkins dermatologist, soon caught on to the fact that the best way to talk about sunburn was to surround himself with a bevy of bathing beauties. Dr. Heinz Haber, an expert in space medicine at U.C.L.A., is another case in point: three years ago, when Haber appeared on a Hopkins series, he had only watched TV twice, had never stood before a camera. He did an adequate job on the air but, dissatisfied, spent weeks on end watching TV, figuring out new methods for using the medium for education and science. Last month, on the Disneyland show dealing with outer space, Dr. Haber discoursed entertainingly and well for almost ten minutes.

In Chicago, British-educated Herman Finer, a pixy-like professor of social science, had an instantaneous love affair with TV. A veteran of the University of Chicago Round Table radio show, Finer, 57, a onetime welterweight at the University of London, has just done a series of twelve solo TV shows devoted to “Government and Human Nature.” As high-strung as any star, Finer goes on the air fortified by repeated cups of coffee and doses of cough syrup, gives a vibrant performance (a fan describes him as “a real ancient George Gobel type”). After the show he needs a few hours to cool off and settle his nerves.

Competing with Dagmar. Finer loves everything about TV except the time required to prepare a 30-minute talk: “I can understand how these fellows like Milton Berle feel. The tension is awful. If you’ve got any conscience at all about doing a decent job, you’re undergoing an ordeal.” Finer warns teachers about to enter TV not to think of the relatively few minutes they will be in front of the camera, but of the hours and days necessary to get ready: “And there’s something else they must learn. Instead of working to your main point step by step and giving it at the end of the lecture, you should do the exact opposite on TV. You don’t have a captive audience as in the classroom; you’ve got to hold your viewers against competition like Dagmar.”

In Philadelphia, Dr. Froelich G. Rainey of CBS’s What in the World, an archaeological quiz game, is both stunned and pleased by his public notice: “You get recognition from anybody and everybody. The other day a train conductor punched my ticket and then said, ‘I know you— you’re that fellow on TV.’ It’s always a surprise for a college professor to get any recognition.”

Some of the professors invading TV have gone nearly the entire way to pure entertainment. Rutgers’ handsomely mustached Dr. Mason Gross plays straight man for Comic Herb Shriner on CBS’s Two for the Money, and Northwestern’s Bergen Evans stars as moderator on Du Mont’s Down You Go. When the show moved this season from Chicago to Manhattan, Evans was fortunately on leave from Northwestern to work on a new book on slang. He will therefore not have to make his choice between teaching and TV until this fall, when his leave expires. Now that he is on “my first expense account,” Evans is more enamored of TV than ever: “Instead of nursing their dough and getting nothing done, TV people decide what they want to do, then spend the money. It’s a different attitude altogether compared with the campus. A professor who gets into it has the feeling of being out in the wide, wide world. I also find a lot less malice in TV than I do at the universities. Professors get to be so secure and suspicious.”

But the professorial success stories are not without cost. Campus TV celebrities run into a good deal of envious carping criticism from their colleagues. And there is the equal danger that the celebrities will grow too big for their professorial britches. Dr. Baxter, 59, recognizes that he has to be periodically cut down to size by his wife and daughter, who now greet him with “Here comes that pudgy, tweedy, twinkling, pink, bald bunch of enthusiasm.” One of his wife’s comments may be even more pertinent: “Thank God this didn’t happen to you 30 years ago.”

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