The more things change
...the more they stay the same. Even though I was in junior high when people in Iowa first got television in their homes, I didn’t see much of it until I was in my early 20s. We lived in Knoxville. The closest broadcasting station was in Ames. Reception in Knoxville was poor and some people put up tall, expensive towers for their antennas and still had to often settle for shadowy pictures wavering through the snow and static-punctuated sound that faded in and out. Dad decreed that he would wait until reception was good enough that it would be a pleasure to watch rather than a frustration.
My grandparents and two bachelor uncles lived on a farm closer to the broadcasting station and, because times were good after WWII and the uncles were always interested in whatever was new and different, they had a television set– one of the early ones with what must have been about an 11-inch screen. In those days, it was the habit to line up the chairs in a row as if they were in the movie theater, turn out the lights, and watch their programs each evening. This was just before the introduction of the TV lamp, which was recommended to avoid eye strain. This was a small lamp with a low-watt bulb and a dark shade, which didn’t put out much more light than a Christmas tree bulb, and it was supposed to sit on top of the television. Still, you kept the other lights turned off.
On weekends when we went to visit, we would sit in the row of chairs and watch “Ed Sullivan’s Show of Shows” or “Your Hit Parade.” Squinting through the snow and the ghosts to catch a glimpse of Snooky Lansing singing the latest romantic hit. Long before we even had a television set, my uncles had a plastic overlay on their television screen that was tinted blue, rose and green, top to bottom, and gave the illusion that you were viewing Technicolor. Well, that was the idea, anyway.
When Des Moines finally acquired a television studio, and when much larger TV screens were available and encased in luxurious carved cherry-wood cabinets (with doors, even) Dad kept his word and brought home the biggest and best available. Fortunately for me, I was away at college then and, even though the dorm had two TV lounges, I was much too busy to develop the television habit. My youngest sister who was eight years younger than I, and my dad’s mother who lived with them, became great television fans– during the daytime. Ruthie watched “Captain Video,” a series about outer space whose characters performed mostly in a landscape consisting of enormous paper mâché rocks, and “The Big Payoff,” where former Miss America Bess Meyerson modeled luxurious mink coats that contestants hoped to win. Grandma took off her apron, fixed her hair, put on jewelry and make-up every afternoon before she settled down to watch Art Linkletter’s “House Party,” which she believed was an interactive broadcast. She talked to Art, laughed at his jokes, maybe even flirted a little, believing that if she could see and hear him, he could see and hear her.
After suppertime, the television set belonged to Dad. He watched the six o’clock news, an occasional sports event, some comedian, maybe the early Fred Allen shows, but little else. When he was done watching, the television was turned off, the console doors closed, the TV lamp turned off. Nobody dared to turn the set back on again. If Dad had lived longer, he would undoubtedly have been the first man to take possession of the remote.
A month or so ago, I watched an old Lawrence Welk show from the days when the show was being broadcast in black and white, and this one was a country and western music show. So many of the songs performed on that show were from many years before then, and all were familiar songs from my childhood and teen years. Included, was the song, “You Are My Sunshine” which in my memory was the theme song for Zelda Scott and Jerry Smith, billed as The Sweethearts of the Golden West, who performed on weekdays for a Des Moines radio station right after the noon news. They were a popular entertainment at the Iowa State Fair for many years. Welk’s champagne music makers also offered up “The Wayward Wind” (remember the haunting voice of Gogi Grant?) “Don’t Fence Me In” took me right back to those Saturday afternoon westerns and Roy Rogers and the Sons of the Pioneers. The dancers carried on a lively square dance, which reminded me that, even though I’ve never been much of a dancer, I did get fairly good at square dancing during those younger years. And finally, a song that always annoyed my dad so much that he’d reach over and turn off the radio. If you remember, “Goodnight, Irene, goodnight, Irene” make up about 90 percent of the lyrics. After hearing them half a dozen times, he’d mutter, “Just kiss her and get on home, for G__ sake.”