The Omnibus television program of the 1950s and ‘60s has been called “the most successful cultural magazine series in the history of U.S. commercial television.” One of its most popular and innovative undertakings was a seven-part series—plus a bonus eighth performance—Leonard Bernstein made for the program between 1954 and 1958.
Now the Arizona Senior Academy is presenting those eight episodes on separate dates this summer in the Academy’s Great Room. The third, to be shown at 3:30 p.m. Thursday (June 30), is entitled “The Art of Conducting.”
Originally broadcast on Dec. 4, 1954, the program demonstrated Bernstein’s skill at explaining the technicalities of music to a lay audience. Critic John Rockwell noted: “Bernstein’s excellence as a musical communicator began with his consummate knowledge of music coupled with his ability to know just what to say and what to avoid in sharing that knowledge with those less knowledgeable than himself. He treats his listeners as friendly equals.”
Rockwell added: “His insights into the craft and art of music conducting are always telling in their specificity, as in his comments in the conducting program about tempo, rubato and the intangibles of a conductor’s mere presence in his discussion of Brahms’s First Symphony.
Later programs from the “Leonard Bernstein: Omnibus” collection will cover American musical comedy, modern music, J.S. Bach, grand opera, and selections from Handel’s Messiah.
Omnibus was created by the Ford Foundation, which sought to increase the education level of the American public. The show’s producer, Robert Saudek, pledged to “raise the level of American taste” with educational entertainment.
The show, hosted by Alistair Cooke in his American television debut, featured diverse programming about science, the arts, and the humanities. It was broadcast live, primarily on Sunday afternoons at 4:00 p.m. EST, from November 9, 1952 until 1961. The show was never commercially viable on its own, and sources of funding dwindled after the Ford Foundation ended its sponsorship in 1957. The series won more than 65 awards, including seven Emmy Awards and two Peabody Awards.
Written by Mike Maharry, Academy Village Volunteer