My memories of early television are scant because my dad refused to buy a television set until the reception was good enough to suit him, which means the only times I saw television prior to the early 1950s was when we visited my grandparents on Sundays and watched, through the grainy snow of the tiny screen, some of the early programs that were mostly just the same old radio shows with milky pictures attached. Chairs were lined up as at the theater, the set was turned on, adjusted, and the lamps were turned off. No one talked or snacked while watching television then. The TV tray had yet to be born and the TV lamp was thought to save your eyesight..
I had already been in college a year or two when Dad finally gave in and bought the best, enormous, console television available, housed in a beautiful walnut cabinet with doors. They had TV in the lounge at the dorm at the time, but I was always too busy to watch it and, not having been accustomed to it, certainly didn’t miss it. My television watching was limited to holidays when I was home from college and rainy days in summer when I wasn’t working at the miniature golf course. My 12-year-old sister and my 70-year-old grandmother were the only ones in our house who became avid television watchers. Dad watched the news and an occasional movie, Westinghouse Playhouse or The Ed Sullivan Show. When he was done watching, he turned off the set and closed the doors just as he had always turned off the radio when he was done listening to the news, never mind who else might still be interested in the next program.
My grandmother watched Queen For A Day, where some unfortunate, usually single, poverty-line, young mother would be encouraged to relate her tear-stained story of hardship and given a new refrigerator and a basket of school supplies for her children. Then, there was The Big Pay-off, the premise of which I fail to recall, only that Bess Meyerson always modeled a full-length mink coat which was given to one of the contestants by the end of the show. There were lots of homemaking programs, mostly consisting of cooking hints and recipes, and fairly entertaining programs like Art Linkletter’s House Party, where the audience provided most of the entertainment. Grandma never missed that one. She wore jewelry and makeup and took off her apron for the Houseparty, convinced that, since she could see them, they could see her and she wouldn’t want Art Linkletter to think she didn’t appreciate his efforts.
There were few programs especially for children in those days. My little sister watched Captain Video, a sort of space fantasy where the actors usually performed around a papier mache boulder which represented landscaping on some far-off planet. Later came such children’s programs as Dr. Max out of Cedar Rapids. There was Romper Room for the toddlers, and Saturday morning cartoons with Roadrunner and Wiley Coyote for those of us who wanted to relive our childhoods. Some very early animated cartoons skittered across the screen, almost Mickey Mouse in stick figures, and everyone crossed their fingers for the contestants on The Sixty-Four Thousand Dollar Question. Most dramatic shows such as Westinghouse Playhouse with Betty Furness demonstrating the latest innovation in refrigerators, were performed live. A few serial programs, such as The Millionaire garnered large audiences– mostly because they were a novelty. The Millionaire bestowed a fortune on some unsuspecting fictitious person each week, and we watched the unfolding of the effects this sudden wealth wrought on the recipients. Grandma thoroughly believed these stories were real, and wondered how to go about contacting this philanthropist. I can still hear John Camerion Swayze’s voice as he tortured a Timex watch by tumbling it in a washing machine.
Today, we have Oprah and Ellen giving away houses, cars and computers to deserving people struggling against poverty. (Sound familiar?) What Would You Do? and Funniest Home Videos make use of the audience much in the same way as Houseparty had. Quiz shows have gone to college and become challenges for geniuses. Cooking and homemaking shows survive in more modern format, most of the good dramas come from England, situation comedies have replaced the old variety shows which, in turn had taken over the role of Vaudeville, and the news has grown from 15 minutes to an hour and a half. Most of the children’s programs come out of public television and I suppose they are educational but I find them less than entertaining and can’t imagine why youngsters watch them– it’s no wonder kids always want to watch things intended for older children and adults. What’s the matter with just plain fun, anyway? Does it always have to be “educational”?