TV TIME (Part 1)
When my kids were young, we enjoyed watching all the Nickelodeon
shows and the Nick, Jr. series. Of course, I introduced them to shows I had
enjoyed when I was young, but I never really showed them what television
was like when I was still in single digits. So, long before Dora the Explorer
and kids "sliming" adults, there was a very, very primitive TV world for kids.
First of all, television was in its infancy, and tv sets were largely wooden or
plastic boxes with two dials and a set of "rabbit ears"--antennae located on
the top of the set that had to be manipulated to pick up the signal from the
Empire State Building. Often, my brother or I had to stand next to the set,
adjusting the antennas, until the other of us said, "The picture is good!"
Then you would move away to watch, and the picture would get all blurry.
One of the reasons parents had kids was to have someone adjust the
antenna while the old man was watching a game or mom needed someone
to run over and change the channel!
I wish we had a cool, futuristic Jetson's-type set like the one depicted up top,
but our sets usually looked like this:
In fact, that picture is not too far removed from how I looked as a kid!
As I said, there were usually two dials, one with the numbers from 2-13
for VHF channels and another, with higher numbers, for UHF or Ultra-
High Frequency stations. Most of these channels in most areas consisted
of "snow"--channels with no stations and therefore blank. There were also
knobs to control the contrast or to align the vertical or horizontal. Here's a
video of a refurbished 1959 television. As you can see, it took a long time
for the image to appear because the picture tube was "warming up". In
fact, you hear the sound quite a bit before you see anything. The image looks
about as it did back then (except for the fact that Phil Collins wasn't going
to be making videos for another quarter century)!
Parents back in the day had no problems with "screen time" for their kids, assuming
they were allowed to stay in the house at all. Most kids got sent outside except in the most
inclement weather. But if you were compelled to stay indoors, parents thought the television
was an ideal babysitter. Moms told kids to go watch TV, largely to keep them out of the
way of the dads, who wanted very little to do with children at all.
So, networks tried to come up with programming for children--ten or fifteen years before
Sesame Street changed things forever. Let's look at some of the options I had when I was
a little kid in Mid-Century America.
Of course, in the late Fifties, one of every three shows on prime-time TV was a western or set
in the west. No, that is not hyperbole. I could watch Annie Oakley, Death Valley Days, Tales of Wells Fargo, Bat Masterson, The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin, Maverick, Broken Arrow, Casey Jones, Circus Boy, Gunsmoke, Have Gun-Will Travel, Rawhide, The Rifleman, Tombstone Territory, Yancy Derringer, and my favorites--The Lone Ranger and Sky King. There were literally dozens more. I also watched
Hopalong Cassidy films religiously on Saturday afternoons. I loved Topper, his horse.
But in the mornings or late afternoons and early evening (after school), there were all sorts of kids shows. Here are a couple.
This was the show I watched before bedtime. My parents always made me go to bed very
early. The show's host, Claude Kirchner, had emceed a circus-oriented show early in the
50s and then made an adjustment in 1957 to this iteration which included lots of
puppets (including "Clownie") and cartoons and skits on Channel 9 WOR-TV in NYC.
I guess I should mention that people living in the tri-state area were quite fortunate.
For the rest of the country, television viewing was largely limited to the three
networks-CBS, NBC, and ABC (Channels 2, 4, 7), but in New York, we also had two
independent stations WOR and WPIX (Channels 9, 11) and a fledgling public station-
WNET (Channel 13). Occasionally, if the weather was good, and there was no
sunspot activity (I kid you not), you might even pick up a station in Connecticut
After each guest act, Kirchner or another performer would turn to the camera and
tell all the viewers how great Snickers bars were or how strong you would be growing
up if you ate more Kellogg's Frosted Flakes. Then it was time for a cartoon from the
stable of Paul Terry, whose studio had been turning out cartoons since the late '20s.
I remember well watching Farmer Al Falfa (who also went by Farmer Gray) cartoons,
which were Paul Terry creations from as far back as the silent period of filmmaking.
Here is a sample:
There were also the madcap misadventures of the talking magpies--Heckle and Jeckle. They
eventually earned their own show.
But the most famous character on Terrytoon Circus had to be Mighty Mouse. The Mighty Mouse
theme song actually entered the culture in a fairly prominent way. Whenever child or adult
accomplished some feat of derring-do, it was not uncommon to hear him or her warble "Here I
Come to Save the Day" a la the intrepid rodent that starred in a zillion lame cartoons. Here is
the theme song from a later TV series featuring Mighty Mouse.
At the end of the show, there would be another product promotion--usually for a concoction
called Cocoa Marsh, and then Clownie would say "It's time for bed!" And off would go the TV, and
I'd head for a good (and very long) night's sleep. TV would go on until shortly after midnight, and
then most stations had a sign off video of patriotic images accompanying a rousing rendition
of the national anthem--followed by the beloved test pattern, which remained on until TV shows
began again, usually at about 5:30 or 6:00 in the morning. I was often up by then--just waiting for
the test pattern to morph into one of my sunrise shows. I'll discuss more shows next time.