Though his name is not bandied about much these days, David Susskind is one of the most important names in the history of American broadcasting.
A member of the Academy Television Hall of Fame (inducted: 1988), David Susskind and his company, Talent Associates (TA, for short), were responsible for some of the most glistening jewels in the “golden age” of television. Along with anthology series like “Armstrong Circle Theater” and many of the early installments of the “Hallmark Hall of Fame,” Susskind’s company also brought to the air respected productions like “Blind Ambition” and “Eleanor & Franklin.” And TA was the production company behind such classic TV series as “He & She” and “Get Smart,” among other programs. Susskind was even behind TV’s first incarnation of the crowd-pleasing game show “Supermarket Sweep.” (And all this does not even include the theatrical films he helped bring to the screen including “A Raisin in the Sun,” “Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore,” and “Fort Apache, the Bronx,” among others.)
But David Susskind is perhaps best known for his eponymous talk show, “The David Susskind Show,” which aired, throughout the nation, for a remarkable 28 years.
Beginning in 1958, “The David Susskind Show” was a weekly, hour-long (sometimes two-hours long) talkfest, shot on a largely bare TV soundstage and shot largely without fanfare. But the show didn’t need anything “extra”—it was devoted to lively guests and the art of lively conversation. And that was always more than enough. After all, some of the guests Susskind played host to over the years were: Truman Capote, Norman Mailer, Gore Vidal, Muhammad Ali, Clare Booth Luce, and others. Throughout its run, neither Susskind nor his show ever steered clear of controversy. Over the years, he took on just about every social and political issue imaginable: the mob, homosexuality, interracial adoption, climate change (yes, he discussed that all the way back in 1976), Vietnam veterans, the AIDS crisis, and even an episode, from 1979, on what life might be like in the year 2000.
The Susskind talk show was such a cultural touchstone that it even found itself parodied on late-night TV, in skits on both “SCTV” and “Saturday Night Live.”
“The David Susskind Show” taped and aired its last program in 1986.
Susskind’s show was so enduring that when Susskind died, in February 1987, he left behind a staggeringly large collection of product and programming most of it stored at WNEW-NY, Susskind’s one-time flagship TV station. So large were the holdings that it was impossible for any then-existing media archive to take all of it. Hence, it was sectioned out to various vaults around the country. The Paley Center (then known as the Museum of Television & Radio) in New York took some; the now-closed Museum of Broadcast Communications in Chicago took some and some went to the Wisconsin Center for Film and Theatre Research. In time, many of these collections migrated to other facilities. The items once stored in Chicago are now at the University of Southern California; the items in New York were eventually sent to the Library of Congress.
The Susskind Collection(s) has proved daunting to various archives for a number of reasons. One, the programs exist, almost exclusively, on 2” videotape. Two-inch is the true dinosaur of the videotape world. Big and bulky, literally only a handful of two-inch videotape machines for playback still exist in the US. Thankfully, two of them are at the Library of Congress.
Additionally, the Susskind Collection exists, almost, like a puzzle. Each two-inch videotape holds about one hour. Hence, if a discussion went long, it got split between different tapes. Then, sometimes, Susskind’s producers would mix and match the “second half” of various shows before shipping them out for broadcast across the country. It was something they’d also do during the summer months when the show went into seasonal reruns. So, then, in the late 1980s, when the Susskind Collection was first sent to different archives, sometimes Part #1 went one place and Part #2 went someplace else.
Then, to add to the confusion, as the Library was exhuming the Collection, it yielded shows that were mislabeled as well as shows that were previously unknown of and even shows that weren’t Susskind’s at all! (The latter contingent included a still-to-ID-ed Russian ballet performance and a color installment of the “Bishop Sheen Show,” both of which, no doubt, probably, originally, had some link to WNEW and which, somehow, got mixed in.)
The two-inch videotapes that made up The David Susskind Show Collection that arrived to the Library of Congress from MTR/Paley began being dubbed in 2016. As the Library has a wealth of other two-inch material and, as noted, limited equipment, the transfer and digitization of the Collection took time. Additionally, as with everything else, the COVID pandemic delayed the process further.
But, earlier this week, with the transfer of the May 1976 episode of “Is Social Security Going Broke?” the Library has finished its Susskind stack.
In all, around 288 tapes were dubbed. Most of the programs are from the latter years of Susskind’s program. And though, as we were going in, we always had an idea of what each tape held, it was still exciting to see them come to life and interesting to see what we didn’t know existed within them.
Along with some of the still-timely topics—like the ones just mentioned—the Library’s newly transferred Susskind holdings include:
–a 1977 show on “The Runaway Costs of Medical Care”;
–a 1982 program on the “Video Game Craze”;
–a 1979 show on the paparazzi;
–a 1971 show, “Women Who Love Women: 7 Lesbians”
–a 1975 report on “Being Black in South Africa”;
–a 1981 show titled “Survivalists: Preparing for Doomsday”;
–a 1971 installment: “Men Who Became Women: 3 Transsexuals”;
–a 1980 program about the new phenomenon of male strippers;
–a 1979 look at the “new” problem of anorexia;
–a 1977 show on ghosts and hauntings that featured Edward and Lorraine Warren (of “The Conjuring” film series fame);
–a 1981 show on cats that featured David’s own then-teenage daughter Samantha Susskind;
–a mid-1980s chat with political comic Mort Sahl;
–a 1984 episode on fashion models over age 50; it was here that Susskind met the legendary supermodel Carmen to whom he was engaged to be married at the time of his passing; and
–an early ’80s chat with a group of “Campus Conservatives”
As this Collection, and its off-shoots around the country, have been rescued from the purgatory of 2” videotape, it’s been a boon to documentary filmmakers, often providing them with the perfect clip to truly illustrate a point to tell their story. Recently, the Netflix’s three-part “Time Square Killer” docuseries utilized a clip from a 1972 Susskind program on New York City’s top purveyors of pornography. Meanwhile, HBO’s recent documentary on fellow TV legend Mary Tyler Moore also made successful use of Susskind’s 1966 interview with her.
But beyond the professional sphere, these Susskind programs hold importance for the rest of us–from the scholar to the casual viewer. They grant us a vital window into an exact era, the times, its people and its opinions. History unfolding, via the flicker of the television screen.
Though the processing of this collection was the hard work of many Library of Congress staffers, particular thanks goes to: Mike Mashon, Jami Judge Almeida, and Dave Pontarelli.
For more information related to this blog or any Library of Congress holdings, please see Ask a Librarian, and if you plan to come in to view or listen to any collection items, please reach out to our reference staff in the Moving Image Research Center and the Recorded Sound Research Center.