Remembering Early Television

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In 1948 only one American in 10 had seen a TV set. I remember first watching TV lingering outside the windows of stores that sold the new wonder. As you drove down the streets you could see who owned the new sets with the high antennas up on roofs. My father purchased the first TV on our block. It was an RCA 10-inch set that was placed on a stand for all to view in the living room. We even invited neighbors and relatives to watch the test pattern in the early afternoon since there was no programming until 4 or 5 p.m.

Probably the one person to sell TV to the nation was a comedian from vaudeville, Milton Berle. As I remember, his NBC-TV show aired at 8 p.m. on Tuesday nights and was the first really big national show liked by those who saw him. His funny, outlandish vignettes caused the country to laugh and laugh some more. He had a set cast of nuts, straight men, guest stars, but Uncle Miltie was always the star. His sponsor for years was Texaco Gas & Oil products.

I grew up in Los Angeles and during the 1940s we had test TV stations. I remember Channel 2’s call letters were W6XAO. It is now the CBS station.

Early on was Channel 5, KTLA, which brought us afternoon old movies hosted often by movie has-beens, usually western actors of the past. In fact, the station was owned for many years by Gene Autry. We had Channel 4, the NBC station, Channel 7 owned by ABC along with a Channel 11 and 13. That was it!

Look at what has happened to TV in the last 60-plus years. Today, on cable TV, you can find literally hundreds of channels featuring programming of almost any variety — sports, drama, news, action, quiz shows, live action, movies by the zillions, pay TV offerings and more. And, let’s not forget those ever-popular re-runs that populate the airwaves.

So, let’s go back to the earlier days and remember with me some of the shows of yesteryear. How many of these you remember depends on your age.

Not the first big show, but probably one of the more remembered was “I Love Lucy” with Lucille Ball and Desi Arnez. This show set new production standards for 1952 when it hit the airwaves. It was the first half-hour series that was filmed in front of a live studio audience using three film cameras at the same time. Fastened on to the film cameras were TV cameras so it could be directed as a live show, but could be edited using the film. It was Desi’s idea by the way.

The “Lucy” show had two of the best comedy writers in the business, Madeline Pugh and Bob Davis. They were kept on by Lucy herself when she moved to different series.

And, you might be interested to know that Lucy had problems in rehearsals with all the high jinks she had to perform. She tried these silly gags many times before performing them on film with a live audience. She was a perfectionist. Lucille Ball set new standards for TV comedians that continue today.

Who can forget “Your Show of Shows” with Sid Caesar and Imogene Coca? This live show out of New York, airing, I believe, on Saturday nights was a fantastic winner not to be missed if you were home. It featured comedy skits, songs, guest stars and nutty comedy that is hard to forget. The show had a team of writers that went on to become famous in their own right. Mel Brooks and Neil Simon are but two of the group.

The skits used outlandish costumes and plots that made fun of practically everything that society offered in the earlier 1950s.

The supporting cast was wonderful and after the program went off the air they found jobs on other popular shows and some even became stars in there own right.

Another great comedian was Jackie Gleason. He did a stand-up act at the program’s beginning, then shifted into skits that featured Gleason in crazy costumes and nutty plots.

His sidekick for many years was Art Carney in the Honeymooners skits. Again, the cast was very talented and they too went into different popular shows after Gleason went off the air.

There were big “specials” in the earlier days of TV. Thanksgiving and Christmas shows, Elvis Presley, Bob Hope, Bing Crosby and other big-time stars doing their one-time programs. We gathered around the TV with popcorn and watched. And it didn’t cost us a thing! We’d also watch the commercials.

Some of the most popular stars of radio ventured into TV. We remember Jack Benny, Red Skelton and Art Linkletter to name a few.

The early quiz shows were inexpensive to produce and quite entertaining. Remember What’s My Line; I’ve Got a Secret and others of this nature? What fun they were to watch.

I remember the Hit Parade performing the popular songs of the ’50s and each week the songs produced were from the top of that week’s music charts. The singers, dancers and large orchestra were always enjoyed. I think a guy named Snooky Lansen was one of the singers.

There were the great variety shows like “The Ed Sullivan Show” on Sunday evenings. There were Martin & Lewis, Jimmy Durante and many more.

By 1962 color sets were being sold, and by 1965, 5 million had been sold and the networks had gone to color, by 1970 there were 37 million color sets in the U.S.

Some of the earlier color shows were westerns such as Bonanza, The Virginian and Wagon Train. Also, in this lineup was Gunsmoke.

By 1965 we were also watching the spy shows: I Spy, The Man from UNCLE, Mission Impossible, The Avengers and these later led into such programming as The Mod Squad and The Monkees.

Some of the important drama shows were the Lux Video Theatre, Hallmark Hall of Fame, and Playhouse 90 — and let’s not forget Dragnet.

I often watched Groucho Marx in You Bet Your Life — contestants, announcer George Fenamen and Groucho’s funny lines. I understand his best quips were ad-libbed.

I remember the George Burns and Gracie Allen Show and The Danny Thomas Show or Flipper, Liberace, McHale’s Navy, Dark Shadows, Bat Masterson, Password, The Arthur Godfrey Show, Bewitched, I Dream of Jeannie, Sea Hunt, Our Miss Brooks, The Fugitive, My Little Margie, The Rifleman, Hollywood Squares, Hogan’s Heroes, MASH and so many more I can’t remember here.

The early news interview shows with Mike Wallace and Edward R. Murrow come to mind and these formats continue today in Sunday morning programming along with cable news shows.

Oh yes, there were the soaps we watched — or some watched — like As the World Turns and others. They were terribly stretched out and often dreadful. But, they hooked millions of viewers over the years.

I enjoyed the Tonight Show on NBC-TV, which began with Steve Allen, then Jack Parr, and for over 30 years, Johnny Carson. It continues today with big ratings from nighttime viewers.

The Gary Moore Show was big and then who can forget The Carol Burnett Show, which lasted 11 years. She is 77 now and still vibrant.

Early on, the kids’ shows were popular. There were Kukla Fran and Olle, Howdy Doody and the wonderful characters developed by Bob Keeshan. Cartoons did the babysitting and I guess still do.

A good friend of mine, Marvin Miller, hosted The Millionaire. I had acted with him in old-time radio. He was called the man of a thousand voices.

It has been my personal pleasure to have been a part of the earlier portions of TV and it’s always fun to remember. After reading this you are going to remember shows not listed here. Forgive me. My mind may be slipping!

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