From 1952 to 1961, the series “Omnibus” added some much-needed class and sophistication to American television. Hosted by the urbane Alistair Cooke, “Omnibus” focused on the arts and humanities, and it offered a number of rare television appearances by some of the great minds of the 20th century.
“Omnibus” has returned in a DVD that collects 14 memorable episodes. Included here are extraordinary interviews with Frank Lloyd Wright (who discusses his plans for an Oklahoma-based skyscraper), Leonard Bernstein (who discusses music, of course) and Pearl Buck (who talks about herself).
There are also a number of travelogue-style segments that visit New York’s Grand Central Station, as well as nocturnal spin around the celebrated city that never sleeps.
By contemporary standards, the “Omnibus” style is a bit stiff and formal. Indeed, its desire to approach subjects very seriously often creates a dry and brittle effect: an episode with Sugar Ray Robinson talking about boxing is extremely awkward (the champ is charming, but the series lethally intellectualizes the sport), while a segment with Dr. Seuss (in a very rare on-camera appearance) is laborious and stale.
Nonetheless, the arrival of this DVD is a significant achievement. “Omnibus” is mostly recalled today through its reputation – the series was never syndicated and the episodes presented here have not been seen since their original broadcast. Its long overdue return is cause for celebrating, even if the presentation is somewhat rickety around the edges.