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A Baby Boomer Recalls Television in the 1950s
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Although television has never held the same attraction for me that radio does, it was a part of my life while growing up in Cleveland, Ohio in the 1950s.

The first television set I can remember was the one that my father and my aunt gave to my grandparents for Christmas in 1951, when I was not quite six years old. It was a PHILCO table model with a fairly good size screen. I was on hand when my father and grandfather finished installing the antenna on the roof of my grandparent's house. The first image that appeared was an ice show production number, featuring skaters dressed in elaborate costumes.

We got our first television set -- a DuMont -- in 1952. I don't know its model number, but it was housed in a wooden cabinet about the size of a modest refrigerator, had a rather smallish screen, and could also tune in FM radio stations. I can remember my parents watching live coverage of President Eisenhower's 1953 inauguration on that DuMont set. Being too young to appreciate the historical significance of the occasion, I chose instead to play with my electric train set.

Back in the early 1950s, Cleveland only had 3 commercial television stations to choose from. Occupying the Channel 3 position was WNBK (today's WKYC), which had gone on the air on October 31, 1948 as the fourth of the NBC television network's five original stations. In the Channel 5 position was WEWS, which, when it first began broadcasting on December 17, 1947, was Ohio's first television station. (Owned by the Scripps-Howard media conglomeration, the last three letters of its call sign were the initials of the founder of the Scripps-Howard newspaper chain Edward Willis Scripps.) The third of Cleveland's television stations was WJW on Channel 8. When it had first gone on the air on December 17, 1949 it was known as WXEL and had occupied the Channel 9 position. It changed channel positions and call letters in 1954.

HoppyThe first weekly television program to capture my attention offered Hopalong Cassidy westerns from the 1930s and 1940s, edited down to 54 minutes each so that film and commercials would fit into a one-hour time slot. William Boyd, the actor who played Hopalong Cassidy, had purchased the rights to all of his old films when he took over as producer of the series. Later, after the theaters stopped booking the Cassidy films, he made them available to television, When the Hoppy westerns debuted on the NBC network, they were the first Hollywood-produced feature films of any real quality being shown on the small screen. Early Sunday evening quickly became "Hoppy night," and William Boyd became one of television's first major stars, appearing on the covers of magazines such as Life, Look and TV Guide. Like many young viewers, I was a devoted Hoppy fan, secretly wishing that I could ride the range with him as one of his sidekicks. The following Christmas, I received what was for me at the time, the ultimate gift: an official Hopalong Cassidy twin cap gun set with black holsters made out of real leather. Soon afterwards, the theatrical westerns of Gene Autry, Roy Rogers and other famous screen cowboys were also edited down to 54 minutes each and made available to television.

Another early show that I remember watching was Captain Video and his Video Ranger. This was an early attempt at a science fiction/outer space type of adventure show. Captain Video was played by Al Hodge, who had created the role of The Green Hornet on radio. The one thing I remember most about Captain Video was its opening: a shot of a radio tower, underscored by Wagner's The Flying Dutchman Overture with some Morse code mixed in. Despite a shoestring budget, the show was popular enough to inspire a 15-chapter movie serial that was produced on a budget only slightly higher than that of the TV show.

For most of the 1950s, almost everything on television was broadcast in black & white. Color television sets were extremely expensive and more of a status symbol than a practical investment since their owners ended up watching most programs in black & white like the rest of us. Beginning in 1953, NBC would occasionally broadcast some special program in color. The one color special I remember best was a musical version of Peter Pan starring Mary Martin as Peter and Cyril Ritchard as Captain Hook. We, of course, watched it on our DuMont set in black & white.

Before videotape was available, all programs that were not on film were done live. If a performer flubbed his lines, if a prop malfunctioned, if a trained animal acted up, or if a stagehand blundered into camera range, it would all be seen by the viewing audience. On-air bloopers were particularly embarrassing when they occurred during live commercials. This probably explains why the commercials on network television shows were mostly on film. One on-air mishap that I remember seeing occurred during an episode of The Jackie Gleason Show during a parody of a silent movie slapstick comedy. Gleason, playing a "Peck's Bad Boy" type character, was using bags of flour to create havoc at a posh wedding. While running through a doorway, he unexpectedly slipped and fell. The curtains abruptly closed and, after a brief pause, Art Carney appeared and made a brief comment about all the mess the skit had created. Then, without Gleason appearing to delivery his customary closing remarks, the program abruptly ended without any further explanation. The next day we learned that, when he fell, Gleason had dislocated his right foot, torn ligaments and fractured a leg.

Because network television programming was not all that extensive in the early 1950s, it was left to the local stations to produce most of what aired daily. One of the early local shows that I recall featured a grizzled old prospector called Texas Jim, who hosted low budget western films dating from the early 1930s. A lady named Mary Ellen appeared in a program titled Fun Farm that offered Our Gang comedies under their syndication title of The Little Rascals. Another local show featured Uncle Joe Bova narrating old silent films that were accompanied by a 3-piece ensemble of live musicians. WJW offered Mr. Banjo, who played the banjo and hosted daily screenings of chapters from old cliffhanger serials such as The Master Key, starring Milburn Stone, Scouts to the Rescue, starring Jackie Cooper, and The Phantom Creeps, starring Bela Lugosi. The most popular of Cleveland's local children's programs was The Captain Penny Show, which first went on the air on WEWS in 1954. Captain Penny, who was supposed to be a locomotive engineer, was played by Ron Penfound, one of the station's announcers. (You would sometimes hear him doing off-camera announcements for other programs, using his regular television announcer's voice.) In addition to old black & white cartoons and Little Rascals comedies, Captain Penny would occasionally have live guests on his program. One of the most popular of these was "Jungle Larry" Tetzlaff, who ran exotic animal exhibits at several of Cleveland's amusement parks. During one memorable broadcast, Jungle Larry brought in a large anaconda. When it came time to lift the giant snake out of its box, none of the stagehands or station personnel could be coaxed into coming forward to help hold it while Jungle Larry described it to the audience.

Many of children's programs that had been popular on radio The Lone Ranger, The Adventures of Superman, Sky King, Captain Midnight, etc.-- were eventually reborn on television. Like their radio counter-parts, these programs all offered premiums that could be had by sending in a label or a box top from the sponsor's product. Captain Midnight, for example, offered a decoder badge similar to the ones that had been offered by the radio show. At the end of each episode, the Captain would read off a brief secret message that had been encoded as a series of numbers. Surprisingly, these messages were not pitches for the program's sponsor Ovaltine, but would hint some event that would be occurring in the next week's episode. One secret message that sticks in my mind decoded as WATCH OUT FOR TRAP. Sure enough, in the next episode, Captain Midnight and his sidekicks encountered a native pit trap while on a tropical island.

Yukon Deed

One of the most unique and memorable of these television premiums was offered in 1955 by the Quaker Oats Company, the sponsor of Sergeant Preston on the Yukon. Quaker Oats bought a 19-acre parcel of government land in Sgt. Preston's Yukon Territory, and then subdivided it into square-inch lots. Official-looking deeds were printed up and numbered consecutively according to a master plan that made it possible to locate any one particular square inch in the subdivision. These deeds were then inserted into Quaker Oats cereal boxes. Advertisements promised that, after buying the cereal and retrieving the deed, "You'll actually own one square inch of Yukon land in the famous gold country." Response to this One Inch of the Yukon promotion was phenomenal and boxes of Quaker cereals sold as fast as the deeds could be printed and stuffed into them. Taking advantage of all the accompanying publicity,the television show Truth or Consequences actually paid to send the holder of one of these deeds to the Yukon, where he was filmed panning for gold on his one square inch of property. Hundreds of these deeds still survive today and turn up on eBay all the time. But the holders of these deeds who think that they own a piece of the Yukon are likely to be disappointed since those 19-acres of land were repossessed by the Canadian government years ago for non-payment of $37.20 in taxes.

Two other radio shows that successfully made the transition to television in the 1950s were Dragnet and Gunsmoke.

DragnetAlthough many people today only remember Dragnet as a Dan Aykroyd-Tom Hanks comedy, it was, in fact, the first attempt by a dramatic program to realistically depict police work. An opening announcement promised that, "The story you are about to see is true. Only the names have been changed to protect the innocent." For the next thirty minutes, we traveled step-by-step on the side of the law during an actual investigation taken from the official files of the Los Angeles Police Department. The suspects were only seen at the very end when they were finally tracked down and arrested. In an epilogue, the sentences they received for their crimes would be read aloud. An immediate sensation when it first appeared on television in 1952, Dragnet initially ran for seven years, returning again in the mid-1960s for a run of a few more years. Although it showed police work as plodding, exhausting, dangerous and unglamorous, Dragnet undoubtedly inspired many young people from my generation to seek a career in law enforcement. I know that it inspired me to start listening to the police radio channels to learn what was happening on the streets of Cleveland.

Soon after Gunsmoke made its television debut in 1955, it quickly dominated the Saturday-night ratings and made national folk heroes out of Marshal Matt Dillon (James Arness) and his drawling deputy Chester Goode (Dennis Weaver.) Unlike the children-oriented television westerns of Gene Autry, Roy Rogers, and the Lone Ranger, Gunsmoke was intended primarily for adult audiences. Instead of non-stop action, it offered strong plots, memorable characterizations, and problems that couldn't always be solved with a six-shooter. Its success led to the introduction of other, similar television westerns such as Wyatt Earp, Cheyenne, Bat Masterson, and The Rifleman. Small screen westerns eventually became so popular that, by 1959, there were thirty-two of them on television each week. One of my particular favorites was Maverick, starring James Garner as an easy-going, somewhat less-than-honest gambler who seldom rode a horse and was inept with a gun. The best Maverick episodes were often spoofs of other westerns. One that I remember in particular was Gunshy, a dead-on send-up of Gunsmoke.

Each year, television would help usher in the holiday season with a live broadcast of Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade from New York City. During Christmas week, most of the TV series ran special Christmas-themed episodes. (Dragnet's Christmas episode was even broadcast in color!) The one I remember best appeared on The General Electric Theater and starred James Stewart, reprising the Britt Ponsett character he had played on radio's The Six Shooter, in a special adaptation of Dickens' A Christmas Carol, presented as a western. The local stations also did special holiday shows and features. WEWS would feature a Christmas character named Mr. Jing-a-Ling, who also made live appearances at one of Cleveland's big downtown department stores. Television would close out the holiday season with a live New Year's Day telecast of the Tournament of Roses parade from Pasadena, California.

Anyone who grew up in the early 1950s probably remembers the night when the first episode of Disneyland aired in 1954. It happened to fall on the same night that my Cub Scout den was having its weekly meeting, which had to be ended early so that we could all watch that premier episode. (Our den meetings had to be switched to a different night or else no one would have showed up!) Hosted by Walt Disney himself, the programs featured cartoons, nature films, action and adventure stories, and even some entertaining "infomercials" for upcoming Disney films and the soon-to-be-opened theme park. (There was, of course, extensive live television coverage of the park's opening day in 1955.) Disneyland's first season scored an unqualified success with a three-episode series on the life and career of legendary frontiersman Davy Crockett. Public response to the first episode was so overwhelming that it even caught the Disney people by surprise. Not anticipating how big the Crockett character would go over, they had already filmed the concluding episode showed Davy making his heroic last stand at the Alamo. I can still remember my feelings of shock and disbelief as Davy and his companions were cut down one by one. It was almost as if the Lone Ranger, Tonto and Silver had all been killed off! Even with a dead hero, the Crockett series touched off a nation-wide Davy Crockett craze that lasted for months. The following year, Davy was resurrected by popular demand for a few more episodes. Today, thousands of items from the Davy Crockett craze -- comic books, trading cards, clothing items, toy guns, etc.

Rin Tin TinIf I had to name the two TV shows that I looked forward to the most each week, they would probably be The Adventures of Rin-Tin-Tin and Commando Cody, Sky Marshal of the Universe. The Rin-Tin-Tin series first aired in 1954. "Rinty" and his young master Rusty (played by ten year old Lee Aaker), were the sole survivors of a wagon train massacre. Adopted by the soldiers of the frontier army post Fort Apache, they lived a life of high adventure, accompanying the troopers on patrols and having close encounters with wild animals, outlaws, friendly and unfriendly Indians, and even a crew of displaced pirates. When in danger, Rusty would invariably give the command "Yo, Rinty," whereupon the dog would run off for help or find some solution to their predicament. One episode that I remember in particular involved a white buffalo that mysteriously appeared in time to save Rusty from a buffalo stampede and then disappeared just as mysteriously. Commando Cody, who wore a mask just like the Lone Ranger's, was part of top-secret government agency tasked with countering the activities of agents from another planet who had been sent to earth to pave the way for an invading army from outer space. Chief among Commando's arsenal of advanced gadgets was a rocket backpack that allowed him to fly through the air, and a rocket ship that allowed him and his team of assistants to travel to other planets and engage the space aliens on their own turf. Although scripted and paced like a Saturday matinee serial, each episode was complete in itself. Unfortunately, only 12 episodes were produced and the show was only on for a single season. But it was great fun while it lasted!

Much of what appeared on television in the 1950s, including most of the programs mentioned, is available today on videotape and DVDs. If you grew up in the 1950s like I did, being able to revisit some of these old shows is like returning to a simpler, more innocent time that is now gone forever. For those too young to have lived during those years, these programs will help you to better understand what commercial television was like when the baby boomer generation was growing up.

Suggested Reading

Hi There, Boys and Girls America's Local Children's TV Programs by Tim Hollis offers background information on every known local children's TV show from markets across the United States. If you enjoyed a particular local children's TV show when you were growing up, it is most likely mentioned in this book. B000VMS8D8

How Sweet It Was Television: A Pictorial Commentary with 1435 photographed by Arthur Shulman and Roger Youman. Originally published in 1965, this book is still considered one of the primary reference works on the early years of commercial television. Used copies are readily and inexpensively available.

 


 

Eric BeheimABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Eric Beheim is a life-long radio enthusiast.  A former commanding officer of a Naval Reserve Combat Camera unit based in San Diego.

Eric Beheim leads a multi-faceted career as a free-lance writer, professional musician, and owner of his own music and sound project studio. 

Born in the first wave of "baby boomers" he grew up with radio and remains a life-long radio enthusiast.  His particular interests are collecting news and commentary programs from the late 1930s and early 1940s (including World War II news), and programs that feature performances of operettas and musical theater presentations.

Read more about Eric Behiem...



 
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