A Note to My Readers: Last night I accessed Comcast’s XFinity and watched a History Channel program on my laptop….while I had another live broadcast of the pop juggernaut, American Idol, on my flat screen TV…I was flipping around my iPhone reading FaceBook and checking my email. In a startling moment of recall, the image of the first television set in my childhood home of the early 1950’s flashed in my mind and memory of the reverent and rapt attention to that single wonder in our home.
On our trips to downtown Auburn, NY in the early 1950’s…there were no malls…we would stand mesmerized on the sidewalk in front of the appliance store and watch the flickering black and white images. It wasn’t uncommon for a crowd to gather when there was an important broadcast…store owners and clerks stood shoulder to shoulder with shoppers…hushed and polite as if they were guests in a neighbor’s living room.
My father surprised us one day when not one but THREE television sets arrived at our home. He hadn’t paid for anything. This was the 1950’s and honor was a given. And so we had THREE sets in our living room on consideration before purchase.
The furniture was rearranged and the sets were placed side by side on the makeshift “entertainment” center. Our dining table’s function had been re-purposed. After the obligatory rabbit ear fiddling…up, down…north, south…left…right. There! There! Oop…no..Wait…OK, the images settled down with the occasional and accepted roll or flip.
I was almost five years old and everything in life was new so this was on the same thrill level as the introduction of Frosted Flakes to our breakfast table after years of Nabisco Shredded Wheat and Quaker Oatmeal. A bank of televisions in my living room was fascinating, but in my short experience…it was a thing for adults. My parents and brothers sat in the dark…not speaking…the television was on! The televisionS were on. Multiple images of a nice man my dad said was Mr. Jack Benny danced like gray ghosts.
The Channel Changer
Eventually my father arrived at a decision as to which of the three wonders would take front and center in the Martin household. It seemed to me that the discussion was not about its aesthetic appearance, but on reception. Though I pride myself on my photographic “Wayback Machine” memory, I shudder when I think I am accurate about our first television. It was an Admiral brand table model with a Bakelite cabinet. By today’s standards…an unlovely squat box…but it was a thing of magic in my childhood and its “technical” operation was solely under my father’s management.
On. Off. Volume. Vertical. Horizontal. The Channel Changer. The CONTROL knobs.
” There is nothing wrong with your television set. Do not attempt to adjust the picture. We are controlling transmission. If we wish to make it louder, we will bring up the volume. If we wish to make it softer, we will tune it to a whisper. We will control the horizontal. We will control the vertical. We can roll the image, make it flutter. We can change the focus to a soft blur or sharpen it to crystal clarity. For the next hour, sit quietly and we will control all that you see and hear. We repeat: there is nothing wrong with your television set. You are about to participate in a great adventure. You are about to experience the awe and mystery which reaches from the inner mind to — The Outer Limits.
— Opening narration, The Control Voice, 1960
Like our weekly menu…Spanish Rice on Sundays with a green salad…oil and vinegar dressing and a slice of bread…and my mother’s lemon meringue pie for dessert…or Wednesday’s spaghetti with one meatball….more green salad with oil and vinegar and a slice of bread…desserts were for Sundays…the television viewing choices were unchanging. Dave Garroway and Jack Lescoulie, of the new NBC “Today” show were breakfast guests.
Grabbing his car keys and with a flick of the knob, my father would be out of the door and the squat box sat mute and still on its throne until he came home. My mother dusted it careful not to meddle with the position of the rabbit ears lest the evening’s entertainment would be delayed with unnecessary tuning. But tuning happened anyway. No matter what my father did, the mysterious air waves wandered and the evening ritual continued unchanged.
The humorous offerings of Mr. Benny’s variety show along with Milton Berle’s “The Texaco Hour”, “I Love Lucy” and My Little Margy” balanced the evening’s entertainment with Edgar R. Murrow’s “See It Now” and Ralph Edwards’ “This is Your Life”. Ed Sullivan’s “Toast of the Town” variety “shew” was a Sunday night staple. I remember my father’s uncharacteristic outbursts of laughter at the frantic performances of Johnny Puleo and the Harmonica Gang. Johnny ran between the performers, grabbing the microphone…playing a few bars…each one fighting for a spot and still creating a perfect tune. It sometimes ended with Johnny getting a swift kick in the pants. Mr. Sullivan and his live audience loved it…laughing and applauding. I didn’t get it…grown up stuff. I liked it more than the lady with a big bosom who sang with her mouth open so far that I could see the back of her throat. But I was a kid and opera was never going to win over a bunch of guys running around switching harmonicas. Besides the harmonica guys made my serious dad laugh.
With just three channels and a broadcast day from 7 A.M. to 11 P.M. the selection of programming was mostly a melange of news, variety shows, sitcoms, teleplays from Fireside Theater and a smattering of kid’s shows. My earliest memory of what I would call “my” show was Kukla, Fran and Ollie…a Sesame Street ancestor. Historians of the show have stated that more adults than children watched the show and that makes perfect sense from my childhood experience. The clever skits were satirical on multiple levels and were sponsored by adult marketplace entities like RCA, Life magazine and Ford Motor Company. Commercials were performed by the Kuklapolitan players. As a kid, the irony was lost on me, but Ollie’s snaggle-toothed endearing repartee with pretty Fran Allison was gentle and fun. Who wouldn’t love a dragon with a name like Ollie?
Which brings me to changing the channel.
It was a knob…that clicked…3, 5 and 9…Syracuse channels…and if you wanted to waste precious time and tune in to a Utica channel…the rabbit ears would get a nasty workout. After a few “Oh, Al”s from my mother, Dad would quit his need to find a clear reception from faraway Utica and settle down to a Syracuse offering. Changing the channel was another thing. Up from your favorite chair and across the room…the wise man knew that you didn’t sit closely to the television. “It will ruin your eyesight.” Click, click up and down the knob to the desired channel and that meant more rabbit ear tweaking…more swearing….and more “Oh, Al”s. On occasion an open handed smack on the Bakelite drove away the snow or steadied the flipping images. And no guarantees that you could get the picture back clearly if you strayed to another channel. Television viewing could very well have been the first aerobic sport in America if you didn’t just choose a channel and stick with it.
Today I have three television sets in my home with REMOTE controls. I watch television programming and videos on my iPhone and laptop…work, write and communicate….while munching on a BLT sandwich and sipping a Pelligrino and talking on the phone. I guess it’s a bit like Johnny Puleo and the Harmonica Gang…running between the multiple harmonica players, executing a bit of slapstick while trying to keep a tune. I am waiting for the kick in the pants.
Authors Note: If you have a moment, please visit the Kuklapolitan Website for more wonderful history of Burr Tillstrom’s legacy and check out the DVD’s available. Thanks to the Burr Tillstrom Copyright Trust!
Author, Historian and Genealogical Researcher
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