Saturday, June 28, 2014

A Life In Four Colors Sidebar--1964: Teevee & Me

 Anyone who knows me is aware that I'm an enthusiastic television viewer. I still consider the sitcom to be television's finest contribution to entertainment; I enjoy watching syndicated reruns (commercials and all) of programs that I already own on DVD or blu-ray; and I frequently work with a television providing background noise and interludes of entertainment, just as my parents did when I was young.

For the past few years, I've done a weekly column about everyday life in the community of West Rome fifty years ago. In prepping the columns each week, I would sometimes look at the television listing in each day's newspapers, remembering some shows and drawing blanks on others because my family never watched them. But that got me thinking about television and me fifty years ago, when the medium was much newer and less regimented, when local programming was more diverse, and when we had far fewer viewing choices.

One of the things that I remember most fondly about my childhood summers was television. I am old enough to remember when there was no television in our home, and I also recall the excitement we all felt when Dad brought him that first black and white TV in 1959. By 1964, we had a large (by 1964 standards, at least--it was a 21" screen) black and white set that we watched as a family every evening. I also remember getting up early on weekends to watch television, and I remember watching television on summer mornings when school was out. But what was I watching in 1964?

As it turns out, not very much! The syndicated programming and children's shows that I remember most fondly from my childhood actually date from a few years later; The Dick Van Dyke Show, for instance, had just wrapped its third-season run and was not yet syndicated. Likewise My Favorite Martian, The Andy Griffith Show, Petticoat Junction, The Beverly Hillbillies, My Three Sons, The Twilight Zone... none of these shows were airing in syndication at that time. It would be several more years before most of those shows became a part of weekday morning television.

Furthermore, our television viewing options were limited. There was no cable system in Rome in 1964, so we were reliant on an external pole-mounted antenna to bring in signals from Atlanta (3 channels ) or Chattanooga (3 more channels, one of which had briefly been a Rome television station). That's six channels showing programming from 3 networks: WSB Channel 2 (Atlanta) and WRCB Channel 3 (Chattanooga), both of which were NBC affiliates; WAGA Channel 5 (Atlanta) and WDEF Channel 12 (Chattanooga), both CBS affiliates; and WTVC Channel 9 (Chattanooga) and WAII Channel 11 (Atlanta), both ABC affiliates. And that was it--no specialty channels, no UHF channels, nothing else. (Our TV Guide listed programming for a Macon channel, but we never had an antenna powerful enough to pick it up.)

And as you might realize if you know geography, Rome is more or less equidistant between Chattanooga (which was 60 to 70 miles north of us) and Atlanta (which was 60 or 70 miles south of us). This meant that anyone who wanted to watch programming from both cities had to either turn their antenna 90 degrees, yelling to someone indoors "How does it look now?" or they had to invest in a motorized antenna rotor. In 1964, I was our antenna rotor; I learned very early more or less where the arrow of the antenna had to point for Chattanooga or Atlanta, and was quite skilled at changing antenna directions quickly. Nevertheless, I was quite happy when we finally bought a motorized antenna rotor in 1965.

We had no means of timeshifting our television choices back then--no VCRs, no DVRs, no video on demand. If you wanted to watch a show, you had to be there at the TV set when it came on. If you didn't want to miss a minute, you needed to plan your snack breaks and restroom runs accordingly. In 1964, television brought my family together; some of my fondest memories involve me lying in the floor of the living room, watch comedies that elicited loud laughter from my father and a lighter, lilting laugh from my mother--and my sister and I would laugh, too, even if we didn't get all the jokes, because it had to be funny since my parents were laughing.

But what was I watching in 1964 when I had control of the television dial (no remote back then)? On Saturday mornings, the choices were largely syndicated cartoons or adventure shows, with a few network cartoons thrown in for good measure. Jungle Jim, Ramar, The Lone Ranger, B'wana Don, Fury, Sky King, Rin Tin Tin, Roy Rogers--I would watch any and all of them because even a child could follow the premise right away, and the stories made sense within minutes even if you switched over half-way through the episode. And I did that a lot--if one series wasn't holding my interest, I was perfectly willing to switch over to something else in mid-episode. (That carries over today, in fact--I have no problem tuning into a movie midway through, or starting a television episode well into its storyline, just as I did when I was a child.)

The cartoons were a mix of classic Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies along with new stuff like Hector Heathcoat, Tennesee Tuxedo, Mr. Magoo, Alvin, and Mighty Mouse (apparently children's programmers were quite fond of alliteration), all of which I loved as a child. The toughest part was that networks would sometimes counter-program, putting their most popular cartoon on at the same time as another network's most popular cartoon, which forced me to pick and choose.  So as it turns out, television helped me to develop critical thinking skills necessary to determine which show was most likely to appeal to me!

Saturday afternoons were filled with programs that did nothing for me. Country and gospel thrived in the South in the 1960s, with such shows as Flatt & Scruggs, Porter Wagoner, The Mull's Singing Convention, and The Wilburn Brothers filling the air, along with sports programming. I didn't enjoy either, so I rarely watched any television on Saturday afternoons; the only exception would be the occasional syndicated film, usually a Western, a war story, or occasionally a horror movie.

Sunday morning programming was primarily religious in nature, and for the most part it bored me. The highlight of the morning programming for me was the animated Hercules, which ran at 10am on Channel 2. "Hercules, hero of song and story"--I can still sing (badly) the lyrics to that theme song, a half-century later.

Weekday mornings offered a few more syndicated choices, along with some original children's programming. Captain Kangaroo was a weekday regular, and even thought I thought of myself as too old for the show in 1964, I wasn't averse to watching it with my sister Kim, who was just the right age for the good Captain and Mister Green Jeans and the gang. There were plenty of syndicated half-hour cartoon segments, as well as some Three Stooges and Little Rascals shorts. The Lone Ranger, Dennis the Menace, Deputy Dawg, Make Room for Daddy, I Love Lucy, The Real McCoys, Pete & Gladys—I watched any and all of them eagerly if I was in front of the television when they were on, but I never arranged my morning plans around any of those shows. Good thing—many of them were on up against such game shows as Concentration or The Price Is Right or the relatively new Jeopardy, and my Mom was quite the game show devotee.

Weekday afternoons were dominated by soap operas and games shows. Mom never watched soap operas, so I grew up with such shows as Password, You Don't Say, and The Match Game. Dad sometimes got home by 3:30 or 4 on weekday afternoons (working for an afternoon newspaper, he went in very early and was often able to come home once the paper had gone to press), so we would often watch some game shows as a family, competing with the players on screen and with one another in our living room.

But for me, the real television fun began at 4:30, when Channel 2 ran The Officer Don Show. Don Kennedy hosted the show as Officer Don, bringing kids into the studio to serve as a live audience--and as participants in a  variety of contests, including the always-popular Oooey Gooey (blindfolded children picked from three bags on a rotating base, two of which contained goodies and one of which contained the mix of eggs, chocolate syrup, and other substances that elicited the appropriate "Oooey Gooey" response when the unwitting child contestant stuck his hand into the morass. And of course, there were the cartoons--lots of Popeye cartoons, which led to the Officer Don show being renamed The Popeye Club after a while.

And at 5, Channel 9 gave us Bob Brandy, the cowboy host who shared screen time with his horse Rebel and his lovely wife Ingrid, bringing children in his studio and introducing cartoons between in-studio bits that often involved a prize of an RC Cola and a Moon Pie. The Bob Brandy Show was more refined and less manic than the Officer Don Show, but it was nevertheless quite entertaining.

From 6pm on, I relinquished any marginal control of the television to my parents. The news ran from 6 to 7 on almost every channel (30 minutes local news followed by 30 minutes national news), followed by 30 minutes of local or syndicated programming after which network programming began (networks started their shows at 7:30). I watched whatever my parents chose to watch then, although with enough wheedling I could sometimes convince them to let us tune into ABC's The Outer Limits instead of CBS's game-show double header of To Tell The Truth and I've Got a Secret.

Television began to change in the 1964-1965 season as networks realized there was money to be made in series with more youth appeal. But in the summer of 1964, television was an enjoyable but nonessential diversion for a ten-year-old, which is probably why I spent so much time playing outside rather than sitting in front of the TV.

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