January 15, 1996 12:00 PM

by Jeff Kisseloff

J. Fred Muggs, Dave Garroway’s lovable chimpanzee sidekick on the original Today show, was actually a nasty ol’ critter who once knocked a March of Dimes poster girl off her crutches. The garrulous Garroway, meanwhile, would psych himself for each show by consulting what he called the Doctor—liquid codeine, which he would swig daily before airtime. Sid Caesar, the temperamental emperor of Your Show of Shows, would rip phones off walls and hurl couches out of windows. As a mortified Jack Benny, who also pops up in The Box, might have said: Well! And they called this the Golden Age of Television?

In fact, it was. While this book brims with anecdotes about the hidden foibles of the small screen’s best-loved stars—and the not-so-invisible goofs and gaffes that permeated live TV (like the corpse that walked away on The Big Story, a ’50s anthology series)—most of the 500-odd actors, writers, producers, directors and newspeople interviewed would rather burnish than tarnish the history of TV’s wondrous if wobbly infancy.

Okay, so Superman (George Reeves) wore rubber-padded tights, but Roy Rogers really was a superb equestrian. Leave It to Beaver’s, June Cleaver wore pearls while doing housework—but only to cover up the unflattering hollow in actress Barbara Billingsley’s neck. (Jeepers, Mom!) Other anecdotes are the stuff of legend: A handsome bit player named Jim Bumgarner impressed Warner Bros, mogul Jack Warner, who said: “Take the bum out and give him a seven-year contract”—which is supposedly how James Garner got cast as Maverick.

Kisseloff seamlessly weaves his interviews into a quilt of overlapping and (usually) corroborating perspectives. Perhaps the highest compliment one can pay this popcorn page-turner is that it would make a terrific TV documentary. (Viking, $37.95)

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