Wednesday, December 3, 1997
Remembering the early days of television
Among the many reasons why I've not been keeping up this webpage (such as work, family, other webpages, etc.) is that I carry on a lot of email conversations. In addition to individual correspondents, I'm involved with an email mailing list group. (We all met via on-line postings and comments at a now-defunct on-line journalist's website.) The other day one of the members of this mailing list said that she was writing a paper about what her parent's generation remembers about the early days of television and she asked for memories from baby boomers on the mailing list. After writing up my reply, I decided to post it here as well. Maybe, just maybe, I will get back to maintaining this site on a regular basis.
I am a war baby, actually, not a baby boomer, but...here's what I remember about them there olden times...
In a sense, I am part of the last radio generation. Oh, yes, it is true that as soon as my kids get in a car they are insisting that the radio be set to a particular station, but I mean radio as a full entertainment medium, radio with live music and variety and quiz and news programs, above all radio with drama -- comedies, thrillers, soaps -- not just an endless series of disk jockeys and phone-in talk shows with news headlines on the hour. I grew up listening to The Lone Ranger; Superman; Tom Corbett, Space Cadet; Big Jon and Sparky.... I would sit with my family, listening to Truth or Consequences; Amos 'n Andy; Fibber McGee and Molly; Jack Benny; Henry Aldredge, Duffy's Tavern ("Duffy's Tavern, where the elite meet to eat, Archie the manager speaking").... And, as a pre-schooler, I would sit with my great-aunt, a sweet, tiny, gray-haired lady who was addicted to shows like Gang Busters; X Minus One; Inner Sanctum; The Shadow....
But yes, I also participated in those golden (black and white) years when television burst forth and transformed the world. Time stretches much longer for a child than for an adult; a year or two, even a few months, represents a significant percentage of your life-to-date when you are a child. So television at first was something I'd heard of (on the radio and from adults talking) and then something that a couple of my friends' families had, and then, only after what seemed like an eternity, did it become something that my own family had. Radio was something we had had my entire life and then, one day a television appeared in our living room and our lives were changed. (Go to your video store and rent the movie Avalon and you will get a glimpse of the era.)
The first televisions to appear in my neighborhood were huge wooden cabinets with tiny screens (ten inch? screen in a yard wide cabinet). I remember the first time I saw a television program at my friend Mike's house. The picture quality was poor (we were ninety miles from New York City, fringe reception). It was a soap opera. Mike's mother was complaining about the snowy picture and Mike pointed out the snow. I was confused. The people were in what appeared to be a living room. Why would it be snowing inside their house? And then the Howdy Doody program came on. This must have been early in its first season, when the set was supposed to represent something like a circus wagon, before they moved to Doodyville.
We got our first television sometime late in 1951. I was eight and a half years old and in the third grade. (I can't ask my brother to help me pin down the date more closely as he was only in kindergarten then.) The first actual program that we watched (if I am remembering acurately) was The Kate Smith Show in the late afternoon.
Kate Smith was a big popular singer. Big in every sense. If you are a lot younger than me you may have no idea who she is. If you are just a few years younger you may vaguely recall her as someone noted for singin "God Bless America" (which, indeed, she could really belt out). She opened her daily program singing "When the Moon Comes Over the Mountain."
The Howdy Doody Show was the number one kids' program. Like the "killer app" that computer people speak of, it was one of the programs that sold televisions. In this case, it made mothers want televisions because Howdy Doody kept kids quiet and out of the way while they were trying to get dinner on the table. I remember the whole cast -- people, like Buffalo Bob, Clarabell the Clown, Princess Summerfall Winterspring -- and puppets like Howdy Doody, and Flub-a-dub and Mr. Bluster (Phineas T. Bluster, that is) -- and, of course, the kids in the Peanut Gallery. My friends and I were quickly getting to be Big Kids and it wasn't too long before we began to feel that we were too sophisticated for Howdy Doody (although, for a long time, that did not keep us from watching along with our younger siblings). Thus, when Howdy really needed us to use the ballots we could find on our Wonder Bread wrappers (back when Wonder Bread only built strong bodies eight ways) to elect him as mayor of Doodyville, we were the wiseguys who voted for his opponent, Mr. Bluster. (And we all know that the original Clarabelle was Bob Keeshem who went on to become Captain Kangaroo!)
Howdy Doody wasn't the only show we watched, of course. There was Rootie-Kazootie and His Magic Kazoo and Pinky Lee (an oldtime vaudeville comedian who found a whole new audience) and Sense and Nonsense (a game program where, for example, contestants would wear blindfolds and noseplugs and then try to taste the difference between a piece of apple and a piece of onion).
On Saturdays, well... an endless recycling of old theatrical cartoons. I mean old and primitive. The Buster Brown Show. Andy's Gang. The Big Top Circus. And old favorites from the radio, like Superman and the Lone Ranger turned into television programs. And some low budget filmed original series such as Ramar of the Jungle.
We got New York City stations. Channel 2, the CBS outlet. Channel 4, was NBC. Channel 5 was the Dumont Network. Channel 7 was ABC, but the signal was so snowy that we rarely watched it. Channels 9, 11 and 13 were just ghost signals, mostly noise and static. They were non network stations. (13 was actually a New Jersey station until it became the PBS outlet in New York City.) Sometimes we could also get channel 6 out of Albany. For a brief while, two or three years, there was a UHF outlet in Kingston, WKNY, channel 66, but this was before televisions had to receive UHF signals, and if they did, it required careful dialing in, so that station disappeared. (Some twenty or twenty-five years later, UHF local tv returned to the mid-Hudson Valley and appears to be doing well.)
Channel 5 had my absolute favorite program: Captain Video and His Video Rangers! This was a science fiction program. Although it was a kids' program and the sets, especially in the earlier years, were quite primitive, the storylines were great. I do not know who the writers were, whether they were real science fiction writers picking up a few bucks or if they were just tv writers who happened to actually like and understand science fiction and who borrowed ideas freely from written s.f. This program used concepts such as space stations, artificial intelligence, generation ships, etc. Wonderful stuff!
Early mornings: One of the stations (can't remember which) broadcast some very limited motion cartoons, including some science fiction and (I swear I can remember this) a very early version of Beany and Cecil. I can remember the Today Show, with Dave Garroway. I can even remember once (this had to have been '54 or '55 -- it was a very mid-fifties thing to do) they broadcast an atom bomb test live. I can also remember Dave Garroway hosting something (on a Sunday afternoon?) that featured the very first live coast-to-coast broadcast, showing a live shot of the Atlantic Ocean and then switching to a live shot of the Pacific Ocean.
Primetime: Tons of comedy/variety shows. Milton Berle (brought to you by Texaco... with uniformed service station attendants dancing and singing "You can trust your car to the man who wears the star -- the big red Texaco star!"). Ed Sullivan. The Colgate Comedy Hour. Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis. Jack Benny. Live theatre (Playhouse 90, etc.). Sitcoms like Life of Riley, Ozzie and Harriet, The Great Guildersleeve, I Remember Mama, Mrs. Goldberg. Game shows like Truth or Consequences, What's My Line, Dollar a Second. (That was one that fascinated my brother and me: contestants competed in silly and sloppy stunts while a clock ticked away... if they completed their task before time expired, they earned money at the incredible rate of a dollar every second!)
You Are There -- a program that recreated historical events as if television reporters were able to cover them as news... (sort of a precursor to the ubiquitous CNN type coverage of events today?)... Hosted by Walter Cronkite... and I can still hear him say something like: "What kind of day has it been? A day like all days, filled with those events which alter and illuminate our times, except... You Are There!"
The Friday Night Fights... every Friday my father had to watch boxing, sponsored by Gillette ("To look sharp!")
Late night tv... At eleven pm came John Cameron Swazye with The Camel Caravan of News. Fifteen minutes of news. Then, as far back as I can remember, old movies on the Late Show on channel 2 with The Syncopated Clock as a theme song. Even in those first years that we had television, I would tip-toe down the stairs, find a spot in the dark just about halfway down, where I could see into the living room, could see the television without being seen by my parents. I would then get to watch tv far past my bedtime. The first latenight tv show I recall was called Broadway Open House... starring Dick Lester, Morrey Amsterdam (remember him from the Dick VanDyke show a few years later?), and Dagmar (a fairly busty blonde). It was a musical variety program. Then, sometime in the mid-fifties, Steve Allen invented late night television. His show, I believe, replaced Broadway Open House and then he paved the way for his successor in that time slot, Jack Paar. As a kid I was something of a political junkie. I watched both political conventions in 1952, basically gavel-to-gavel, and kept score with pencil and paper as the delegates voted... and then stated up late watching the election returns. This was exciting. I felt as if I had a ringside seat to watch the grown-up world.