It's been 40 years since CBS first took a minute out of its broadcasting schedule to give viewers a minute-long history lesson. Bicentennial Minutes were short, nightly primetime TV spots created to commemorate the bicentennial of the American Revolution. But the 60-second shorts quickly became a cultural phenomenon.
The segments, sponsored by Shell Oil, aired nightly beginning on July 4, 1974, and were originally slated to end two years later. But another sponsor stepped in, and the series ran through Dec. 31, 1976 — more than 900 segments in all!
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Narrated by CBS stars of the era like Alan Alda (M*A*S*H), Lucille Ball (Here's Lucy), Jean Stapleton (All in the Family), and Ed Asner (The Mary Tyler Moore Show), as well as hundreds of other celebs and political figures, the landmark series provided nightly factoids on events that happened exactly 200 years ago on that date.
Charlton Heston appeared in the first Bicentennial Minute (the topic: George Washington's concern over the closing of Boston Harbor by the British following the Boston Tea Party), and the final segment was narrated by outgoing President Gerald Ford on Dec. 31, 1976, at 10:59 p.m. It was truly historical.
Watch the final Bicentennial Minute by President Ford:
In an interview with the Archive of American Television, executive producer Bob Markell revealed that in the beginning it was "very hard to get" important actors to come on the shows, but that quickly changed. "We made it so successful, and I'm so proud of that show, that people were begging to be on the show," he dished. "I mean, you name it, we had anybody and everybody, and I didn't limit it to showbiz personalities. We had Tennessee Williams on, and I had wonderful painters, I had Leonard Bernstein, I had Ron Reagan. ... We had [puppets] Kukla, Fran, and Ollie. I did a two-part Bicentennial Minute with Kukla, Fran, and Ollie and we won an Emmy."
Check out Val Avery's Bicentennial Minute from 1976:
Each segment of the series took about 45 minutes to film and an entire day to create. And while producers tried to minimize war violence in the segments, in a 1976 UPI interview Markell said, "We tried not to romanticize it. It wasn't fellows in red uniforms looking pretty, and it wasn't everyone playing the fife and drums. … In the sum of the Minutes, we weren't trying to make a straight directive statement. It was a total statement about humanity and suffering."
See Jessica Tandy's Bicentennial Minute from Aug. 31, 1975:
Bicentennial Minutes created a lot of buzz, and the segments were referenced on other TV shows over the years. On All in the Family, one of Archie Bunker's rants about what made America great was described as a Bicentennial Minute by his son-in-law, Mike/Meathead (Rob Reiner), and decades later, in the opening scene of a King of Queens episode, Jerry Stiller's character declared, "I swore off glasses in 1976! I know the year, because the last time I threw a pair at the television was during a particularly offensive Bicentennial Minute!" (You gotta love Arthur Spooner.)
Of course, the best tribute to these milestone minutes came in the form of parodies on sketch comedy shows. The "About 200 Years Ago" skits on Hee Haw offered distorted historical "facts" with an iffy timeline, courtesy of Grandpa Jones. And in 1975, comedy veterans Tim Conway and Harvey Korman gave us a twisted history lesson with a live-action re-enactment of a Bicentennial 'Moment' on The Carol Burnett Show.
Watch the Carol Burnett Show parody:
As for the 15 hours of cumulative footage from the original Bicentennial Minutes, well, let's just say the series was definitely ahead of its time. Decades before reality TV dominated the small screen, Markell said of his retro reality capsules: "We selected material we thought contained the most interesting pieces of information to make the period clear to contemporary Americans, to take it out of the storybook and make a reality out of 200 years ago."
And that's the way it was.