Tuesday, July 22, 2014

It's Howdy Doody Time

We got our first black and white TV, a 17-inch RCA console, probably in the mid-fifties. In our viewing area we received just seven channels, 2, 4, 5, 7, 9, 11 and 13. There was an antenna on the roof and/or a pair of "rabbit ears" on top of the television to help improve reception. I can honestly say there were more shows worth watching on those lousy seven channels than on the one thousand channels I get today. TV Guide magazine these days is about the size of the Manhattan phone book; in the fifties, TV Guide was like a pamphlet. The weekly schedule didn't change all that much and we didn't want it to...every family had its favorite shows, and they came on the same time every week.

Comedy was king in the fifties, with Milton Berle leading the pack. Other great comedy shows featured Sid Caesar in Your Show of Shows, The Jack Benny Show, The Red Skelton Show, and You Bet Your Life with Groucho Marx. Although Milton was king, my two "personal best" awards would go to Jackie Gleason's Honeymooners and I Love Lucy with the brilliant Lucille Ball. These two shows, unlike some of the others, are timeless and just as funny today as back then.

Westerns too had a strong run. Shows like Wagon Train, The Lone Ranger, Hopalong Cassidy, Gunsmoke, Rawhide, Gene Autry and Death Valley Days. Every kid wanted to be a cowboy.
My Aunt Anna, a wonderful seamstress, made me a "horse" consisting of an old table, long and narrow, that she upholstered so I wouldn't hurt myself when I leaped into the saddle (my children thank you for that Aunt Anna) and a horse's head that she fashioned to attach to the top of the table/horse. I played cowboy in my basement where I kept the horse. One game I liked was to tear a long, thin strip of newspaper, stick it into the limestone cellar walls, and light it with a wooden match, pretending it was a dynamite fuse. I would then jump onto my horse and make my getaway before the explosion. I enjoyed this game until one day when the lit "fuse" fell out of the wall and started a small fire. My mother smelled the smoke and rushed down to help me put it out. My dynamiting days were over.

TV quiz shows like The $64,000 Question (remember the isolation booth), Twenty One and Tic Tac Dough were a sensation until the roof came crashing down. The gravy train derailed in September of 1958 when disgruntled former show contestants went public with accusations that the results were rigged and the contestants coached. The smoking gun was provided by an artist named James Snodgrass, who had taken the precaution of mailing registered letters to himself with the results of his appearances on Twenty One predicted in advance of the show's air dates.

Ed Sullivan, Perro Como, Dinah Shore, Martin and Lewis...all these personalities and more hosted TV Variety shows. The format was a popular one with guest stars of the day making appearances with the host. The longest running variety show in history was Ed Sullivan's Toast of the Town which ran from 1948 to 1971. Ed looked like he had just been embalmed, but the man knew talent. Headliners like Elvis, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Sonny and Cher, The Smothers Brothers, and many more, made their careers on Sunday nights at 8 o'clock. And Ed gave you variety...everything from opera stars, circus acts, magicians, nightclub and movie stars, acrobats, and of course, the silly Senor Wences and Topo Gigio, the Italian mouse.

For the young, we had kiddy shows from the primitive Junior Frolics with Uncle Fred on Channel 13 to the sublime Wonderful World of Disney. This series spawned the Davy Crockett craze of 1955 with the miniseries about the historical American frontiersman, starring Fess Parker in the title role. Millions of dollars in merchandise were sold relating to the title character, and every boy wanted a coonskin cap for Christmas. Disney also gave us the Mickey Mouse Club, which brainwashed millions of "Mouseketeers" to pester their parents for a trip to Disney's theme parks, which were just getting off the ground. Other popular shows were Howdy Doody, Captain Video, Lassie and Captain Kangaroo.

Last but not least came the family sitcoms....big ratings getters in the fifties with shows like Make Room for Daddy (Danny Thomas), Father Knows Best (Robert Young), Burns and Allen, Amos and Andy, Ozzie and Harriet, My Little Margie, Our Miss Brooks and literally dozens more. The fifties were the golden age for TV sitcoms. They had a quality of innocence about them...controversy was avoided at all costs with the object being to simply entertain. Some of my fondest family memories are of sitting together with the whole family and laughing at these great shows.

Understand that television was a big deal for us. There were no computers, video games, cell phones or I-pods. For children of the radio generation, TV was a wondrous gift from on high.

Who cared that it wasn't color, high definition, plasma or surround-sound; we sat around that flickering black and white screen like cavemen around the first fire.


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1 comment:

kyleigh king said...

I don't think I have ever appreciated such a post before. This is such a beautiful painted picture in my head.