Legendary producer and promoter Michael Todd had an endearing friendliness and public humility. He also had an ego and ambition that fueled a drive to be above all others. Whatever he did had to be the best and biggest. As one might imagine, that could lead to some tremendous accomplishments. And, to some horrendous flops.
His drive for a project to make his first and only movie reached beyond the excessive. But it ended with spectacular success in the film, "Around the World in 80 Days." Audiences will enjoy that classic undertaking, of epic proportions, for decades to come. The party that he held in Madison Square Garden on Oct. 17, 1957, to celebrate the film's success, was another matter. As is this TV production of that party. I watched a shortened version that came as a bonus with the DVD set of the feature film. It is 47 minutes of the CBS TV live broadcast on its weekly drama series, "Playhouse 90."
Walter Cronkite anchored the show with Jim McKay and others of the CBS news team. The official name for this program was "A Private Little Party for a Few Chums." Todd had coaxed, cajoled and convinced CBS to cover the big bash live as a news event. Todd had rented Madison Square Garden for his private party. The main arena sections seated the 18,000 invited guests, and the upper decks were for show participants, workers and the public.
The so-called party turned out to be a circus parade of bands, elephants and horses, acrobats, a miniature train, bagpipes, dancers, clowns, animal acts, folk dancers, and various costumed groups and skits. These supposedly were from or represented the different cultures of the countries in which parts of "Around the World" were filmed. A huge birthday cake was part of the show. A miniature hot-air balloon hovered over it. Food rolled in on pickups and service vehicles. The sound was terrible some of the guests couldn't be heard over the din. The cameras roamed around the arena as McKay and others with microphones would stop to interview a guest here and there. The photography was poor and the lighting gave the appearance of being under a big circus tent, shadows and all. The event was disorganized and turned into a shambles. The coverage was disorganized and almost as bad.
Walter Cronkite looked back on that "event" and CBS coverage as a low point in television. With all the things going on in the world at the time, Mike Todd's party hardly was a major news event. On a Nov. 29, 2004 National Public Radio report, Cronkite said the 1958 TV broadcast was nothing more than a huge advertising promo for Mike Todd. And, CBS actually paid him $300,000 to cover it.
The even turned out to be an embarrassment before the night was through. The viewing public saw the poor TV production quality of the event. Because it had been so built up, it got more than 50% of the viewing public that night. CBS took a hit that damaged its image and reputation for the Playhouse 90 programming. But the biggest embarrassment turned out to be at the end. When the trucks rolled in with the food, some servers tossed candies up into the crowd. Soon, they were tossing hot dogs up into the bleachers. Then it was pizzas, and the audience began throwing food back. It turned into a huge food fight, but not a funny one. Here were all these people in fancy evening wear with ketchup, mustard, and food splattered on them. People began scrambling to get out of the arena.
This shortened version cuts off just as people are flooding onto the floor as the food fight heats up. Then it skips to the end as Cronkite gives his usual pleasant sign-off as though everything was copacetic. That had to be an embarrassment to him, because the audience had been watching the mayhem in the arena. This shortened version cuts most of that out.
This video of that live broadcast has historical value. In 2004, Cronkite said it marked the beginning of the infomercials. It also showed how decadence was beginning to creep into television, even in those early years. By the way, the press had a field day lampooning CBS for its coverage, and the Todd event itself. That didn't faze Todd who said he would have to limit the size of his future parties to 17,500 because 18,000 was just too unwieldy. He never threw another party though. Just five months later Michael Todd died in a crash of his airplane in New Mexico while on a trip to New York.
Here are some notes and data about the party and parade. Todd said he would have 100 elephants, but instead there were just 12 that paraded in a constant loop. Staff changed their costumes behind the scenes. The world's largest Oscar was a 22-foot statue made of 100,000 copper- colored mums. Todd had gifts for all the guests ranging from bottles of liquor to music albums with many larger exotic items (automobiles, scooters, typewriters, cameras, etc.). But in the mayhem with the throngs leaving the bleachers, many gifts were pilfered or taken by the public, workers and guests. Actor, Sir Cedric Hardwicke nearly fell off the elephant he was riding. Elizabeth Taylor (Mike Todd's wife) cut the huge birthday cake. It was 30 feet square and 14 feet high in the center. The food included 25,000 hot dogs, 40,000 cookies, 4,000 individual pizza pies, 10,000 egg rolls; 36,000 donuts, 1,000 gallons of ice cream, 800 pounds of shrimp and lobster, 800 gallons of coffee, beer, and more.
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