Of all the amazing technological achievements that have occurred during my lifetime, the earliest and most profound has to be the invention of broadcast television as we know it today, which didn’t happen until 1948. In 1949, RCA opened a 1.5 million square foot plant to manufacture TVs in Bloomington, IN, the town that I now call home. The first TV came off the line on September 6, 1949, and over the next 50 years over 65 million TVs were built in Bloomington. For a while, the town was known as the “Color TV Capital of the World.”
Our family bought our first TV in 1950 or 1951. I think it was a Philco. TV was still so new and so amazing that people all over the country, including my family, would sit and watch the famous test pattern when no programming was available. We lived on the top two floors of a “shotgun” house on Russell Blvd. The TV was in the middle of three rooms on the main floor, between the living room and kitchen. It also served as our formal dining room. The couch beside the TV was covered in plastic, and for some reason I would sometimes watch TV while standing on my head on that couch. I did this so often I think my family once considered consulting a doctor to determine if this behavior might be a symptom of some kind of mental disorder - it probably was.
As you all know, black and white TVs weren’t very reliable in the early days. The TV repair man came to our house often, usually to replace one or more burned-out vacuum tubes. Some sets had as many as 20 vacuum tubes that had to “warm up” before a picture appeared. We spent a great deal of time fiddling with the horizontal and vertical controls, inconveniently located on the back of the set. Although color TVs were available as early as 1953, they were expensive and there wasn’t much color programming available. The sale of color TVs didn’t really take off until the late 1960s.
The Texaco Star Theater was one of the first programs broadcast nationwide. It featured the NBC orchestra conducted by Arturo Toscanini, and starred comedian Milton Berle. I must admit that I had no use for that show. I found Milton Berle not very funny, and the classical music and opera was way too highbrow for a South St. Louis nine year old boy.
Many of the early shows came straight from radio, such as “The Jack Benny Show,” “George Burns and Gracie Allen,” and “Amos and Andy.” Interestingly, the characters on “Amos and Andy” were portrayed by white performers on the radio, but of course, had to be played by black actors on TV. But the best TV was original or adapted programming, in the earliest years all of it live, such as Sid Caesar’s “Your Show of Shows”( which amazingly was canceled when it sank in the ratings after a rival network put “The Lawrence Welk Show” in the same time slot), “The Ed Sullivan Show” and the many dramatic shows such as “Studio One,” “Goodyear Playhouse,” and “Kraft Television Theater.” That era is now often referred to as the “golden age of television.”
I don’t think I missed many episodes of “Howdy Doody” when I was a boy. I watched a lot of Westerns, including “Hopalong Cassidy” and “Gunsmoke.” Early sitcoms such as “The Life of Riley,” “The Danny Thomas Show,” and “Father Knows Best” were a nighttime staple. The news show I remember best was only 15 minutes long and featured John Cameron Swayze (“hop-scotching the world for headlines.)
I didn’t get to watch Dick Clark’s “American Bandstand” during my high school years because I was always playing sports. But I caught a few episodes during the summer. Enough to have a crush on one of the blonde Philadelphia girls who could really dance. And, of course, like a large percentage of American boys, I had a huge crush on Annette Funicello, star of “The Mickey Mouse Club.”
The only locally produced show I remember was the “Wrangler’s Club.” I was already too old to enjoy that hokey program when it came on the air in 1956. But in 1959, my senior year at McKinley, local TV station KPLR (Channel 11) taped one of our Saturday afternoon football games against Beaumont at the old Public Schools Stadium. They broadcast the game later that night. It was a fun game to watch on TV for Goldbug players and fans because we beat the “Yellowjackets” 27-7. I remember Jim Wilkerson (our wingback) caught three long TD passes in that game. I would give a lot to watch that tape again now.
There were many sports programs on TV. I remember watching one of the last St. Louis Browns baseball games before they moved to Baltimore to become the Orioles. The baseball Cardinals were on TV often, as were the St. Louis Hawks basketball team. The Cardinals football team moved here from Chicago in 1960 and all their games were televised. I often watched the Friday Night Fights and Saturday Night Wrestling with my father in the early ‘50s.
Just the mention of names such as Jackie Gleason, Steve Allen, Edward R. Murrow, Red Skelton, and the fabulously inventive and innovative Ernie Kovacs brings memories flooding back of some of those great old shows. And, we mustn’t forget the daytime soap operas such as “General Hospital,” “Guiding Light” and “Search for Tomorrow,” some of which have had longer runs than any other programming on TV.
During a speech in 1961, FCC Chairman Newton N. Minow referred to American television programming as a “vast wasteland.” While it’s true that the majority of television programming then and now is not very good, some of it is as least wonderful, if not magnificent. Watching the first man step onto the moon in real time, for instance, would not have been possible without the magic box we call TV. It can and has made us think and laugh and cry, and has kept many of us company for over 60 years. That’s good enough for me.
-- Spiro Athanas