TV Courtroom Shows Proliferate in the Late 1950s
is the fourth in a series of 55-Plus columns on courtroom reality
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In the aftermath of the unexpected commercial success of Traffic Court which started out June 7, 1957 as a local public affairs program in Los Angeles starring then-Judge (later Attorney General) Evelle J. Younger other shows featuring simulated courtroom proceedings were added one by one to television schedules.
Newsweek reported on Jan. 12, 1959:
In the past year and a half, since Station KABC-TVs pioneering Traffic Court first appeared, more than half a dozen new, documentary-type courtroom shows have gone on the air in California and several, via the networks and syndication, around the nation. In the next two weeks two more will have their debuts.
Edgar Allan Jones Jr., who succeeded Younger as the judge on Traffic Court, was quoted in a Nov. 11, 1958 UPI story as remarking:
Were involved in a court cycle, and Im confident it will last as long as the westerns, maybe longer. Theyll go on because theyre realistic and dont ham it up.
From the late 1950s through the early 1960s, courtroom dramatizations did enjoy popularity. A resurgence of courtroom shows later featured a twist: actual cases were decided in simulated courtroom settings in the form of binding arbitration. That started in 1981 with former Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Joseph Wapner, presiding over Peoples Court.
Confining attention to shows inspired by Traffic Court .
Traffic Court, itself, is the logical place to start. It went onto ABCs network roster, as a weekly show, June 18, 1958. Day in Court, a five-day-a-week production with Jones presiding Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays over both civil and criminal cases (alternating with actor William Gwinn, who handled domestic relations cases), started Oct. 13, 1958 on ABC. A weekly nighttime version, Accused, starring Jones, was launched Dec. 10, 1958 on the same network. The popularity of Day in Court was such that a spinoff, Morning Court was launched Oct. 10, 1960 on ABC, seen Mondays through Fridays, featuring Gwinn, with Los Angeles school board member Georgianna Hardy as the alternating jurist.
The Verdict Is Yours was a daytime courtroom show aired by CBS. It began Sept. 2, 1957, well ahead of Day in Court. Unscripted, it featured actual lawyers playing the lawyers and judges. Unlike the ABC shows, real cases were not used. Sportscaster Jim McCay was the original reporter providing commentary on the trials. He was succeeded in 1960 by newsman Bill Stout. The program aired weekly on CBS nighttime schedule in the summer of 1958. As on They Stand Accused which CBS broadcast weekly from Jan. 18, 1949 through May of that year (with the program then bouncing to Du Mont) members of the audience served as the jury, rendering verdicts.
Divorce Court was hatched in Los Angeles in 1958, syndicated nationally on the new medium of videotape. The show outlasted other courtroom programs that began in that era, remaining on the air until 1969. Actual members of the State Bar performed as lawyers. This show was distinctive; to some, it was bold, others saw it as raunchy. It dealt frequently with adultery, a subject that had been strictly taboo in earlier days of television and which, on rare occasions when alluded to on the networks in the late 1950s, was treated gingerly if not obliquely. By contrast, heres the May 7, 1958 TV Radio-Life listing for Divorce Court: A wealthy widow brings divorce action against her handsome young husband charging infidelity. Jones commented in an interview that Divorce Court contained an awful lot of salacious stuff. He blamed that show for the effort by the Los Angeles County Bar Association (which failed) to persuade the State Bar to prohibit lawyers from appearing on TV courtroom dramatizations. One proclamation from that association blasted Divorce Court because of the nature of this program, with its particular stress upon dramatic situations involving sex and crime. It said that any connection with the program in which an attorney plays a dramatic role, markedly lowers the dignity of the profession and positively debases the administration of justice.
Peoples Court of Small Claims was on the air in 1959, syndicated nationally. Portraying the judge was USC Law Professor Orrin B. Evans (who became dean in 1963). Evans presided over simulated small claims proceedings three cases in each half-hour session in a subdued manner. Son David R. Evans, an attorney, said his father would be appalled at the current unrestrained conduct of judges on courtroom TV shows. Asked to compare his fathers show to Judge Judy, he responded, simply: Different planets. This show was commonly referred to as Peoples Court; indeed, ads had the words PEOPLES COURT in large type and the balance of the title in small type. However, Peoples Court starring Wapner was not a reprisal of the 1959 show. In fact, Stu Billett, executive producer of the 1981-93 Peoples Court (and the two later versions of it) recently told me he had not known of that series before I asked him whether he had drawn any inspiration from it.
After Divorce Court left the air in 1969, there were no simulated court proceedings on television. Then, after Wapners show hit the airwaves in 1981, there was, quick on the heels, a parade of imitations.
It is inevitable that when the current series dwindle to a mere few or to none, there will, at some point, be another resurgence. Actual court proceedings have been a form of entertainment from the earliest times in America, going back to colonial times, when spectators filled the seats in courtrooms; so was it before that in England, and doubtlessly across the globe.
During periods when TV courtroom shows are out of vogue, their comeback will always be just ahead.
"55-Plus" column is written especially for those over the age of
55, by a veteran California journalist who is himself eligible for the club.
Roger M. Grace has written and edited newspapers for more than four decades,
and has been a lawyer for more than three.