The three youngest granddaughters were sitting at the kitchen table, creating artistic pictures, suitable for hanging on the refrigerator. The TV was on, largely ignored by them until it was time to shout out the correct word in Spanish to Dora. This they accomplished without bothering to look up from their drawings.
“You know,” I said, “I didn’t have TV when I was your age.”
I must have been repeating myself from another time, because the oldest said, “We know. You had to listen to the radio.”
“And you didn’t get to watch TV until you were old, old, old,” the middle one added.
“Then you watched Dora the Explorer,” the youngest chimed in.
“Scooby Doo!” argued the middle one.
“No, Dora!” said the youngest, raising her voice and looking up from her drawing to argue with her sister, about the merits of Dora versus those of Scooby Doo. The oldest continued with her art work. She couldn’t be bothered with that childish argument. After all she is in kindergarten.
And while that debate was going on and on, I thought that maybe a similar debate had been conducted by my sister and younger brothers over Kuckla, Fran, and Ollie, versus Howdy Doody. When we first got TV, these programs were for little kids, not a 5th grader like me.
I don’t know if I dream in color, but I found myself day- dreaming in black and white.
When TV was young – And so was I
When TV’s first hit the market, small rounded screens in enormous cabinets. There was no box involved in purchasing one. The TV’s were on shelves and all of them were turned on. You picked out the one with the best picture. Dealers allowed potential customers to actually take a set home for two weeks for a trial run.
There was one family down the road that used these trial runs to the nth degree. I bet they went over a year getting TVs on trial runs before the various dealers finally caught on to the fact that as long as this family could watch TV without actually buying one, it would always be a no-sale. I went their house every Tuesday and Thursday at 6:30 to watch the Lone Ranger. And sometimes on Fridays at 8:00 to watch All Star Wrestling with stars like Gorgeous George and King Kong Kashey. And later on, Da Crusher.
And TV repair shops opened up all over. Some time taking over a vacated store. Some time being incorporated with an existing business like shoe repairing. Occasionally a person could actually find an honest repairman that actually knew what he was doing. Most of them, though, had taken the correspondent course that was advertised in comic books on the same page that sold sea monkeys. There was also ads in comic books that sold a kit to bring color to a black and white screen. A kit consisted of a tin frame that held a sheet of photographic filter. Depending on which sheet you used, the black would have either a red or blue tint.
The first accessory, after the rabbit-eared antenna, that you had to purchase, when you got a TV, was a roll of aluminum foil. You made two flags and attached them to the rods of the rabbit-eared antenna. You still had to turn the antenna when you switched to a different channel, but the picture came in a lot clearer, for a while.
Today’s TV’s usually has one person in charge of the remote. Old TV’s had one person that sat close to the set and was in charge of rotating the antenna and playing with the horizontal and vertical dials to keep the picture steady. To get it settle down required the light touch of a safe cracker. For some reason, the TV’s almost never acted up during the commercials, but always during the most exciting part of the show, like the gun showdown on the main street or when the rassler wearing the long black trunks had the chair taken away from him by the crowd favorite in the short white trunks.
The old TV’s never liked thunderstorms and Ford cars. We could always tell when there was storm approaching well before we saw any lighting or heard any thunder. The picture was next to impossible to get to settle down. And we could always tell when a Ford drove down the road past the house. Not only did a Ford cause the picture to act up, it also caused the sound to turn into a static machine. It never happened when a Chevy or DeSoto or any other make went past, just a Ford.
But while the old TV’s caused problems in getting a good picture, there was no problems in finding something worthwhile to watch. The Golden Age of Television was shown in black and white, even though it was broadcasted live and you had to accept the fact that maybe a set door wouldn’t open, an actor forgot his lines, or a stagehand was seen in the picture.
And, unlike TV shows today, the actual context of the show itself was greater than the sum minutes of the commercials. Or when you fell asleep watching TV, you were never rudely awaken by the blaring of a commercial. The picture might jump and roll, but the sound was the same level, shows and commercials.
Sometimes the commercials were as funny as the shows. They were always live and anything could happen. The most popular newscaster in the Twin Cities had to do the commercials for the show’s sponsor, Ford. One night, when he came on, it was apparent he had had a liquid supper. He was slurring his words and having a hard time reading from the script he has in his hands, no cue cards or teleprompters in those days. The commercial required him to walk around the car that was in the studio. He opened the doors and talked about the features. He opened the trunk to show how roomy it was. He closed the trunk. It bounced open again. He closed the trunk. It bounced open again. He kept try to close the truck slamming it harder and harder. He tried using words that were not suppose to be used on TV. This whole fiasco went on and on. Finally, there was a blackout and when the lights came back on, somebody else was reading the rest of the news. We never did see the most popular newscaster in the towns anymore. A few years later there was a short item in the paper that he was reading the news in a small town in Montana.
The queen of the national commercials was Betty Furness speaking for GE products. The audience liked her because she seemed real, like she actually used the appliances she touted. And the sponsor like her because she never lost her cool or chain of thought when a refrigerator door wouldn’t close.
The broadcasting schedule was much shorter than the 24 hours of today. Very early TV started as late as 6 PM, went off the air at 10 PM. Gradually it started sooner and was on later. Prior to the station’s start, there was a test pattern that ran for several hours. The test picture was the same for all the stations, graphs and lines that meant nothing to anybody except the studio techs, and on the top was an Indian in full war bonnet.(Of course, there wasn’t many stations to choose from, one for a while, than another and another.) They always signed off by playing the national anthem with a video of the flag blowing in the breeze. This was followed the bug races, a screen of dots flicking on the screen.
In a way it changed the way people lived. With radio, listeners could pursue other things at the same time, do house work, homework, and of course, milk cows. TV changed that. People had to be in the same room as the TV, and pay attention with the eyes as well as the ears.
Of course, if , like my granddaughters, you’ve already seen that particular episode, maybe several times, you can still,do more important things like pursuing your art projects, while following what’s on the humongous set in HDTV.