Sunday, July 2, 2023

Blast from the Past: Las Vegas Beat

Plenty of television pilots failed to attract network interest, over the years — for which we can be grateful, in many cases — but this probably is the only one that was bumped off. 

With prejudice.


(About which, more in a bit.)


Based on its quite watchable 1961 debut episode, Las Vegas Beat could have become a decent series. Creator Andrew J. Fenady’s script is solid; Bernard L. Kowalski’s directing is crisp and occasionally shows imagination; and the characters are well drawn and competently played by an engaging cast (allowing for the era’s sexism). Kowalski and editor Otho Lovering favor dynamic smash cuts from one scene to the next; the action is violent for its time, although very much in line with the gun-toting thugs then running amok on TV’s M Squadand The Untouchables. This show could have allowed star Peter Graves to put sci-fi stinkers such as Killers from SpaceIt Conquered the World and Beginning of the End in his rear-view mirror; alas, steady TV employment had to wait until his co-starring role in Court Martial, which ran a single 1965-66 season, and — of course — Mission: Impossible, which followed a year later.


He stars here as Bill Ballin, a former police investigator-turned-private casino troubleshooter (a “sometime employee,” in his words). His “Scooby gang” includes veteran journalist R.G. “Joe” Joseph (Bill Bryant), given to quoting poets and waxing eloquent; Gopher (Jamie Farr, a decade away from achieving fame as Cpl. Maxwell Q. Klinger, on TV’s M*A*S*H), who, as his nickname implies, runs errands; and perky, would-be writer Cynthia Raine (Diana Millay). Ballin is on good terms with Lt. McFeety (Richard Bakalyan), which gives him cred with the Las Vegas cops.


The story begins as Ballin is hired by Helen Leopold (Margaret Field) to find her missing husband (Tom Drake, known here solely as “Leopold”). Helen is unaware that her judgment-challenged hubbie has fallen in with bad companions who intend to heist an armored car: Fredericks (Lawrence Dobkin), the planner; Duke (Jay Adler), the menacing muscle; and Linneman (uncredited), whose limited usefulness prompts his, ah, “removal” prior to the second act.


The scoring assignment went to Richard Markowitz, fresh off his work on the single 1959-60 season of the similarly themed Philip Marlowe; he also had worked with Fenady on 1958’s lurid big-screen thriller, Stakeout on Dope Street (both discussed in my first volume). Markowitz’s title theme for Las Vegas Beat is a sassy big-band swinger with a strong 1-3-4 unison brass motif. (Those eight notes are repeated as a fanfare each time the show breaks for a commercial.) It’s also a hoot to see how small Vegas was in 1961, during an aerial pull-away as the title credits conclude.


Ballin’s “office” is in various casino restaurants and bars, which grants Markowitz frequent opportunities for source music; a tasty solo jazz pianist is seen playing in the background, when Ballin agrees to look for Helen Leopold’s husband. This involves her needing to fire Regan (Andrew J. Fenady), the first private investigator on the case; he does not take this dismissal gracefully.


A bit later, as Ballin walks home after a long night, Cynthia rushes to meet him, against a sultry vamp laced with some strings. Her desire to interview him for an article becomes a running gag as the story proceeds; Ballin, although amiably willing, is always too busy to oblige. This “meet cute” moment concludes when he agrees to chat later that morning; Ballin then saves her from injury when she carelessly steps in front of a rapidly approaching car … which turns out to be driven by Fredericks, Duke and Leopold, about to kill and then bury the already badly beaten Linneman somewhere in the desert.


Markowitz supplies a sexy swing cue when Cynthia later visits Ballin’s cabana, as promised, and — at his invitation — rifles through his mail and desk while he takes a quick shower. One drawer is full of women’s earrings, which raises Cynthia’s eyebrows; the next drawer is laden with crisp $100 bills, which raises them again. Elsewhere, a dynamic action cue — sounding very much like what Nelson Riddle would write a few years later, for the Batman TV series — follows Fredericks, in a helicopter, as he shadows and then drops a weighted bag onto a car driven by Duke and Leopold: a dry run for how they’ll drop a bomb onto the top of the targeted armored car.


Still elsewhere, Linneman’s body is discovered by a crusty old geezer (Ralph Moody, in a bit of comic relief), who summons the police; McFeety, in turn, calls Ballin. He arrives with Joe and Cynthia; the latter faints when she sees what was done to the victim’s head before the body was buried (a bit of brutality, courtesy earlier of Duke, which — thankfully — is left off-camera).


Back on the strip, the story pauses briefly to make room for needless cheesecake, when bathing beauties strut poolside in a beauty contest, each one representing a different casino (Miss Sahara, Miss Tropicana, and so forth.) Markowitz obligingly backs this parade with leering brass and bongos. Elsewhere, Regan spots Leopold and tries to shake Helen down for a hefty sum before divulging this information; the conniving rat gets his just desserts when — amid suspenseful brass — he foolishly follows Leopold and gets ambushed by the gang.


A tasty jazz combo plays in the background when Ballin, Joe and Cynthia sit at a table to discuss what seem to be two distinct cases: the buried body and the missing husband. Could they be related?

The armored car heist takes place as planned, with action jazz building suspense up to the moment the bomb is dropped, after which Duke and Leopold — waiting in a nearby car — kill the guards and steal the cash. They quickly rendezvous with Fredericks, who lands his copter long enough to take Duke aboard; Leopold is deemed expendable. Intuition and deductive reasoning place Ballin in a second helicopter; he spots the shattered armored car, sees Fredericks’ copter, and the chase is on (with no music backing, which seems a missed opportunity). The subsequent action-packed climax takes place inside and atop nearby Hoover Dam, with Markowitz ramping up the tension with suspenseful brass stingers. Duke and Leopold meet well-deserved ends.


A final casino gathering finds Cynthia beaming, having finally scored her desired interview with Ballin; the background combo performs a swinging arrangement of “Singin’ in the Rain” (which Ballin had crooned earlier, during his aforementioned shower). The end credits unspool to a reprise of the dynamic title theme.

All things considered, it’s a well-produced hour of entertainment … and a series that NBC, with only four programs in the Top 25 at that time, wanted on its 1961-62 schedule, in part because it would be the first TV show to be set in this rapidly rising destination city.


So … what happened?


The saga is explored in Larry Gragg’s meticulously researched article, “Protecting a City’s Image: The Death of Las Vegas Beat, 1961,” for the Fall 2011 issue of the journal Studies in Popular Culture. In a nutshell, “Civic leaders and hotel owners understood that the federal government could eliminate their vital gambling industry if Americans perceived that it was an industry tainted by violence and controlled by organized crime.”1


It should be noted that these weren’t your average “hotel owners,” because many (all?) of the Las Vegas casinos still were controlled by organized crime in the early 1960s. This link had been the subject of lengthy investigations by Tennessee Senator Estes Kefauver (1950-51); and later by Robert F. Kennedy, working as chief counsel for Arkansas’ John McClellan, who headed the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations. Kennedy published the results of that 1956-59 probe, The Enemy Within, in 1960. He made it quite clear that, in tandem with Kefauver and McClellan, he believed “organized crime figures were using Las Vegas casinos to help bankroll their operations.”2


Vegas civic leaders had worked hard to dilute this relationship, and — for the most part — Hollywood obliged with larkish films that boosted the city’s “Entertainment Capital of the World” imprimatur: Ocean’s 11The Girl Rush and Meet Me in Las Vegas, among others. The crime and violence-hued Las Vegas Beatlikely would further validate impressions left by the investigations cited above; worse yet, it could imperil the city’s essential tourist industry, if potential visitors feared getting gunned down in the street.


The irony is that Fenady — the TV show’s creator — had done due diligence. He shared the pilot script with “the Las Vegas News Bureau, which functioned as the publicity arm of the Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce, and the hotel publicists who served on the Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce Promotion Committee … [and] both endorsed the script, an action which led the hotel owners to approve the project.”3

In other words, Fenady and his executive producers — Mark Goodman and Bill Todman, best known up to that point for popular TV game shows — had a deal. But the aforementioned hotel owners reneged once they learned more about the pilot script. “Pressure” was applied behind the scenes, which spooked potential advertising sponsors Proctor and Gamble, and Liggett & Meyers. In April 1961, NBC President Robert Kintner told Goodman and Todman that their show had been axed from the schedule.4


Bearing that in mind, how had the NBC team been allowed to film their pilot? A similar potential series pitched to the rival ABC network, Las Vegas File, never shot a single scene; it got no further than breathless publicity articles.


If Todman is to be believed — in an anecdote he related to Peter Graves at some point in 1961 (but which Gragg believes Todman embellished) — the producer attended a Vegas meeting of hotel-casino owners in February 1961, where he was told his new show was not wanted. 


A shocked Todman responded, “You guys gave me your markers. Your hotels agreed and the Chamber loved it, the newspapers loved it.” At that point, as Todman recollected, one of the men pounded his fist on the large conference table and said, “Make your f----- pilot and get out of town.”5


It’s far more likely that time was on the Las Vegas Beat team’s side. Kowalski and Fenady started sooner than ABC’s rival project; filming is know to have been in progress as of early February.6 Armed with what they sincerely believed was the blessing of all concerned, Kowalski had a couple of months to complete production before the merde hit the fan.

(That said, Todman’s version of events certainly is sexier.)


As a final footnote, several sources state that the Las Vegas Beat pilot aired “as an NBC movie,” but no evidence supports that claim. There’s no such TV listing in 1961, or during the next several years; it’s also too short to be called a “movie.” That aside, copies can be found via Internet merchants who specialize in the rare and obscure.




1. Larry Gragg, “Protecting a City’s Image: The Death of Las Vegas Beat, 1961,” Page 12.

2. New York Times, July 23, 1961, Page 37, as referenced by Gragg, Page 14.

3. Gragg’s 2008 interview with Fenady, as referenced on Page 4; and the February 2, 1961, Las Vegas Promotion Committee Minutes.

4. Gragg, Page 11.

5. Gragg, Page 1.

6. “Las Vegas Looms as TV Mecca,” Las Vegas Review-Journal, February 4, 1961. 

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