Video Dimmed Radio’s Star
Most family pictures were taken in front of our TV set, it was something to be proud of in the day.
Just as the telegraph and telephone laid the groundwork for the invention of radio, the family radio paved the way for the development of television.
In 1947, commercial television debuted with 16 stations. By the end of the decade, the number had soared to 107. The tall, attractive radio cabinets that once stood stately in our living rooms had lost America’s favor and were replaced by 15-inch glass screens. TV had arrived and audio fell victim to video. Sometimes called “Radiovision” or “Sight radio,” television had won the hearts of American families.
But not everybody was anxious to jump on the television bandwagon. TVs were expensive and some old-timers were leery of those strange-looking antennas popping up on neighborhood rooftops. In addition, television contained a maze of complicated tubes and wiring that required professional maintenance from someone called a “TV repairman.”
Many of the older generation were dead set against it. They were convinced this “glowing box of light” was somehow going to destroy their family’s eyesight. Others were content to do their TV viewing through the shop windows at local appliance stores or while sipping a brew at the corner cafe.
The day television came into our household was a family milestone. From that moment on, our lives would never be quite the same again. It marked the end of after-dinner conversations and playing board games with the family. Tinker Toys, erector sets and Lincoln Logs were sealed in their boxes while the TV was on. Even Dad’s evening newspaper remained folded in his chair while he fiddled with the television knobs and dials. Texaco Star Theater, Toast of the Town, Your Show of Shows and Cavalcade of Stars took the place of our nightly games.
In 1950, the media’s top superstars were a red-headed, freckle-faced puppet named Howdy Doody and the zany vaudeville team of Burns and Allen. By 1952, Monday nights belonged to a wacky redhead named Lucille Ball. Seventeen million American homes had TV sets, and movie theaters were showing a loss of 40 percent in audience attendance.
Television so captivated its young viewers that they began refusing to leave their programs even to come to the dinner table. Supper-time adventure serials, like Flash Gordon, Rin Tin Tin, Superman and Sky King, had kids glued to the tube. Soon the dining table was brought to the television; the sale of TV trays began to boom and the frozen TV dinner fueled America’s fast-food craze.
By 1955, The Honeymooners premiered and we had found a new home to visit each week. Jackie Gleason portrayed lovable bus driver Ralph Kramden, who shared a bare, two-room, walk-up apartment with wife Alice (Audrey Meadows). Who could forget Kramden’s signature line from the show: “One of these days, Alice – POW! – right to the moon!” Or good pal Ed Norton’s gregarious “Hi ya, Ralphy-boy!” Norton lived upstairs from the Kramdens and worked in the sewers of New York, but he constantly annoyed his friend Ralph by referring to himself as “an underground engineer.”
By the late ’50s, television saw some innovations. The Nielsen ratings had come along and advertisers were checking with poll takers before investing their money in new programming. Also, “canned laughter” (the recorded voices of human laughter, chuckles, gasps and giggles) was introduced and used to dub over filmed sitcoms.
Later, musical variety shows ruled the networks and the granddaddy of them all was Ed Sullivan’s Toast of the Town. With his usual deadpan expression, Sullivan introduced a weekly array of well-known athletes, entertainers and movie stars, including Elvis and the Beatles.
By the 1960s, TV programming had been ambushed by the western. Dad, like most men across the nation, viewed a steady stream of the cowboy western: Bonanza on Sunday, The Rifleman on Monday, Gun smoke on Tuesday, Wagon Train on Wednesday, etc.
Mom and I waited patiently until Dad dozed off every Friday night, during the westerns, then quickly changed the channel to Ozzie and Harriet. Somehow, even in his sleep, Dad could hear that “click” of the tuner. Raising a sleepy eyelid, Dad routinely mumbled, “Hey, I’m watching that show.”
It always amazed us how Dad could watch a program with both eyes shut and hear the audio over his snoring. We wouldn’t have that problem with today’s silent remote controls, but most households now enjoy the luxury of a TV in more than one room.
During the 1950s and ’60s, we were fascinated and influenced by TV shows and personalities. “Is it bigger than a bread box?” we guessed along with the What’s My Line? panel. We believed Walter Cronkite when he said, “And that’s the way it is,” at the end of every broadcast. We anticipated a life as perfect as The Donna Reed Show, and kids all over the country were wearing Davy Crockett coonskin caps. Jimmy Durante kept us wondering about his mysterious Mrs. Calabash, and the whole family was singing along with Mitch.
Today, cable programming features TV sitcoms from those early days – some now more than five decades old – assuring me that America will always love Lucy, dream of Jeannie and wistfully recall when Father knew best.
People still debate the coming of television. Was it a curse or a blessing? Good or bad, I’d hate to think of life without it. It’s a part of my daily life. I click it on first thing in the morning and last thing every night. I’ve watched sitcoms from Amos ‘N’ Andy to Mork and Mindy, been taken to foreign countries without leaving my living room, and I’ve even gone to that far-off moon to which Ralph Kramden was always threatening to send Alice.
But few good things come without sacrifice, and sometimes there are days when I long for those nights spent in quiet after-dinner conversation with the family, playing old-fashioned games of cards, checkers and Monopoly, while our family radio played softly in the background.
Great grandma and grandpa wanted no part of that box of flickering light. They were very suspicious of it and felt it was some how going to hurt their family … they may have been right, but there was no going back.