Growing Up Television: My Nineteen Fifties Childhood

Mickey_Mouse_Club
I was born in 1948. I am the first wave of the television generation. People just a little older grew up with radio. By which I mean two or three years. And, depending on where they lived, a few years younger than me. But for me, it was that, in those days, tiny screen.

What does it mean? Oh, who knows? People will be speculating about how mass media has become a part of our culture and how it has shaped us for as long as there are people. I suspect.

I shared a rumination on this era and television a few months ago. I’m revisiting it, slightly expanded here. I suspect I will return again as I try to make some sense of the era, and what it meant for me personally, and for our larger cultures.

All that said, I don’t really know when we should count the beginnings of the modern media driven age. Probably it starts with radio. But, at the same time I think with the beginnings of TV can make an awful good argument.

What I am sure of is how in some genuine ways a product of the dawn of television.

And this is generally considered a bad thing. There is no doubt it brought with it a bucketful of difficulties. It was also something magical. I believe television was critical in knitting the country together. Although in some ways today it can justly be charged with contributing to it falling apart. However, at that time I believe it was critical for me, helping my forming consciousness to unravel any false sense of ours being any kind of mono-cultural nation.

We were poor people so we weren’t the first to get television sets. But, also as poor people we didn’t budget particularly well and so TVs entered our lives earlier than perhaps they should have. I remember them as large boxes with small screens. More items that clearly be called furniture than what we have today. My childhood spanned the nineteen fifties, and television loomed large in my memories of that time. I’m sure my mother thought of it as a godsend for babysitting when there was no money to hire someone. Not even something to think about.

I don’t recall with certainty, but as we lived on the coasts mostly, I’m pretty sure we always had a bit larger selection than the three national broadcast networks. Maybe up to ten channels.

I recall my brother and I turning the television on Saturday morning and watching static turn to a station identification card, and then the programming. I recall seeing a series of shorts from World War II, although in later years looking I’ve been unable to find any reference to them.

My earliest memories of television were Saturday morning cartoons. At first a great deal of the programming was simply replaying broadcasts of theatrical cartoons – so a lot were actually pretty high quality. But they were quickly mixed up with made for television shows. I recall in no particular order the Adventures of Rin-Tin-Tin, Superman, Andy’s Gang, Captain Kangaroo, Sergeant Preston of the Yukon, Circus Boy, the Gene Autry Show, Howdy Doody, the Lone Ranger, the Mickey Mouse Club, and Mr Wizard.

My favorite of all of the earliest shows was Crusader Rabbit and his sidekick Ragland T. Tiger. It was developed by Jay Ward would later produce Rocky and Bulwinkle. My memory was of fully developed cartoons. So it was surprising when I found episodes on Youtube and discovered not only were they five minute shorts, but that as often as not the action was simply dancing a story board in front of the camera. With the advent of Rocky and Bulwinkle I think I found the culmination of my delight in Saturday morning cartoons before growing out of them.

In an era before one could own a movie and play it as much as one liked, I recall some of those films that played seasonally. The Wizard of Oz, Miracle on 34th Street, a Christmas Carol, A Wonderful Life, and Yankee Doodle Dandy stick out in my mind. Many of these are joined in my mind with prepared TV dinners.

Evening programming included I Love Lucy, the Honeymooners, which I didn’t really like because the sparse set felt too much like home, but which we watched because my parents liked it, the Phil Silvers Show, I think his Sergeant Bilko was my father’s favorite sit com character, Our Miss Brooks, Gunsmoke, Father Knows Best, Leave it to Beaver, and the most haunting show in my memory, the Twilight Zone. The variety shows featured prominently in the family television calendar, including Your Show of Shows and the Ed Sullivan Show.

The nightly news was a feature in our house. I don’t recall the personalities of the 1950s. Walter Cronkite joined CBS in 1962. And he became a familiar face to me. In 1960 we watched the televised debates between John Kennedy and Richard Nixon. That’s when national politics began to seep into my consciousness, and it was very much because of television.

Facts on the ground. This is a big part of the world of any American child of the nineteen fifties who had electricity and any kind of access to a television.

My world.

 

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