CBS stars, past and present, to gather for a 75th-year TV gala

Thursday, October 30th 2003, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

NEW YORK (AP) _ CBS is pitching its 75th anniversary bash as "your favorite stars all in one room for one night only!"

And here is that room, where scores of CBS stars ranging from Alan Alda and Loni Anderson to Betty White and Tom Wopat (and even Lassie IX) will convene: the Hammerstein Ballroom on Manhattan's West 34th Street, site of "CBS at 75," a three-hour live special airing 8 p.m. EST Sunday.

Tuesday afternoon, there was still lots to do to get ready for these guests of honor.

"You see how far along things are," said executive producer Gil Cates, a TV veteran with several Oscarcasts to his credit, as the stage setting rose before him. "The show is gonna be on and over Sunday night, and the set is only being assembled now. We still have never seen it work.

"It represents the CBS Eye," he said, pointing to a rotating domed platform that resembles the top half of the "Eye's" iris. Viewed from the right perspective, its reflection in the stage's shiny black surface will complete a 3-D image of this world-famous trademark.

In the bare hall where Cates stood with Dennis Doty, his longtime producing partner, dozens of TV-equipped tables would soon blossom. There the stars will sit during the broadcast, and, before airtime, be served a lavish dinner following their red-carpet arrival and cocktail reception.

"It's going to be a party," promised Doty, explaining that some 200 guests will be flown from California on CBS-chartered jets and put up in CBS-booked suites. "We want this to be a wonderful event for the people who attend."

Give CBS credit for the hospitality surrounding this special _ and for a certain restraint.

Pitched as a glorious reunion, "CBS at 75" may actually be more than a self-aggrandizing sweeps stunt like the multiprogram diamond jubilee that glutted NBC's schedule in May 2001, or ABC's dreary gala marking a half-century last spring.

Of course, any single-network retrospective sees TV history in an oddly selective way _ as if paying tribute to blue while ignoring red and green. Meanwhile, as a prominent media analyst is fond of saying, viewers watch TV shows, not networks. So probably the only people who draw a clear distinction between CBS and any other television outlet are the people who will be in Hammerstein Ballroom Sunday night (plus Viacom stockholders).

Still, CBS, of all the networks, is probably the source of most memories for the TV audience. One reason: CBS, especially at the beginning, boasted the greatest roster of stars.

Early on, rival NBC had marquee names like Milton Berle, Sid Caesar, Bob Hope and Groucho Marx. But more than NBC's founding father, David Sarnoff, whose main focus was the engineering side of television, CBS Chairman William S. Paley had a feel for programming and talent.

"Bill Paley really brought radio into television," Cates said, "because he took the radio shows, whether it was `Jack Benny' or `Red Skelton' or `Burns and Allen,' and in the 1950s made them television shows. `Studio One' was a drama on the radio and then, in 1948, it was the first of the anthology dramas on television.

"So these shows crossed over to the new medium and gave it a foundation to take off from."

Despite his absence, Paley will surely loom large Sunday night.

For good reason. It was in 1928 _ just three years after he had heard his first radio transmission _ that this 27-year-old cigarmaker's son bought controlling interest in a struggling network of 16 radio stations called the Columbia Broadcasting System (named for the record label, which by then had bowed out of the venture).

Much has happened between then and today's era of the Internet and webcasts and dozens of niche TV networks _ a world of media conglomerates (one of which, Viacom, swallowed CBS in 2000); a world from which Paley, at 89, signed off 13 years ago this week.

But on hand Sunday night to remember the past _ or at least CBS' version of it _ are expected such favorites as Carol Burnett, Chad Everett, Bonnie Franklin, Andy Griffith, Larry Hagman, Sherman Hemsley, Martin Landau, Angela Lansbury, Linda Lavin, Art Linkletter, Marjorie Lord, Tina Louise, Mary Tyler Moore, Rob Reiner, Tom Selleck, the Smothers Brothers, Richard Thomas and Dennis Weaver, among many others including luminaries from CBS News and Sports.

"It should be an emotional show," Cates said. "We'll see people that we haven't seen together in a long time. People who are emotionally connected to those 75 years. And to each other."