Picture this: it’s 1962, a Saturday morning. The three Holton boys (Johnny, 6; Jimmy, 4; and Kippy, 3) wake up at 6:30 and run out to the kitchen wearing nothing but undershorts. Each of them gets a bowl of Rice Krispies, filled to the rim with cereal, milk and sugar, and carefully carries it through the dining room and hall (not spilling any, amazingly enough) into the living room. They sit down in front of the TV, turn it on, and wait for it to warm up. They then spend the next forty-five minutes eating Rice Krispies and watching this, waiting for the cartoons to appear…
I wonder sometimes if people can really appreciate what a magical thing television was in the early days. The idea of a box sitting in your living room that, when turned on and warmed up, could entertain you with sound AND pictures. Radio had been around for years, and had shows and entertainment, but TV was a quantum leap from that.
Take Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy. Edgar Bergen was a ventriloquist and Charlie McCarthy (and Mortimer Snerd, can’t forget him) was his dummy, and they were huge radio stars. But what fun is it to hear a ventriloquist over the radio? You hear the different voices and all, but the joy of a ventriloquist act was seeing a man have a conversation with a dummy (or two) sitting on his lap. Through the magic of television, we could see Edgar and Charlie have that conversation. And we could see Paul Winchell have his conversations with Jerry Mahoney and Knucklehead Smith, Jimmy Nelson chat with Danny O’Day and Farfel the Dog, Willie Tyler talk to Lester, Wayland Flowers talk to Madam, and Jeff Dunham talk to his bunch of crazies.
Here’s the beginning of The Muppet Show with Edgar and Charlie. Their segment starts at 4:00. You’ll note that Edgar didn’t particularly care that people could see him moving his lips.
TV brought entertainment into our home that heretofore you’d have to go to the movies to see. Like cartoons. Cartoons weren’t originally aimed at kids, believe it or not, but when TV came along the stations bought packages and would show them in the afternoon after school. I wonder sometimes if they knew what they were showing. Here’s an example: this was finally taken off the air, but not until after I saw it.
William Hanna and Joseph Barbera, two MGM producers who had created Tom and Jerry, created a whole slew of cartoons for television that were appropriate for kids, like Yogi Bear, Huckleberry Hound, Quick Draw McGraw and others. They also created The Flintstones, based on the TV show The Honeymooners with Jackie Gleason and Art Carney, for prime time, aimed at an older audience. The RJ Reynolds Tobacco Company, makers of Winston and Salem cigarettes, were the original sponsors of the show, and the show’s characters actually advertised the sponsor’s products.
If parents thought cartoons were bad, they really hated The Three Stooges. That was another after-school treat, until parents got together and had Moe, Larry, and Curly/Shemp/Joe/Curly Joe temporarily banned from the airwaves.
I could go on about programming for children, but TV brought so much more into our homes. No longer were we limited to just hearing the news read by an announcer. Television brought film of the news. Instead of hearing that Premier Nikita Krushchev of the Soviet Union appeared before the UN General Assembly and banged his shoe on the podium, we saw him do it, and heard him threaten the world that he would crush us. We spent three days mourning the assassination of President Kennedy and the murder of his assassin. We saw what kind of hell Vietnam was. We could watch Mayor Daley of Chicago massacre the English language. Television brought us the Olympics, the World Series, the Super Bowl, and the Stanley Cup. It brought us weather forecasts that were more than just “Tomorrow, partly cloudy with a chance of rain, high 65. Right now, 48 degrees at the airports, 45 degrees near the lake.”
And it brought us entertainment. Somewhere in the world, reruns of The Honeymooners and I Love Lucy have aired since the original shows were first aired in the 1950′s. Those shows are older than I am. And they’re still funny. And the game shows, so many hosted by the affable Bill Cullen. The dramas, like Dragnet, Run For Your Life, and The Fugitive.
TV was more than all of these things. It was magic. I’ve already gone on way too long, and I could go on from here.
I think I know what my theme is for next year, though.