Last week we talked about how television changed home entertainment. It happened quickly — in just nine years the number of television sets leapt from 6,000 to 12 million and the race to be the first to transition from radio to TV was on.
For some programs the transition was easy. Programs like “Father Knows Best” and “The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet” were really just talk and talking is not difficult to reproduce on camera.
The soaps, however, were a different matter. Soaps could be listened to while working; in fact they were a reward of sorts for not stopping work. Housewives could continue working while they listened to meaningful, and sometimes very emotional, episodes. Emotion, after all, is best displayed by our voices, not by physical displays. So at first the TV screen offered little temptation to successful soaps.
Besides, it often came as a shock when people tried to connect a familiar voice to a face that didn’t fit that voice. Later soaps came to the TV screen, but there was no massive early transition from radio to television.
Image — That’s television. Which is something that could not always be transplanted directly from radio to television.
A prime example: Highly successful comedian Fanny Brice played a mischievous little girl named Baby Snooks on radio for many years. Lots of people loved it. However, I suspect that if she had come on television as Baby Snooks in 1948 at age 57 her audience could have been counted on the fingers of a one-armed amputee.
A far more seriously debated example was “Gunsmoke.” It was a good program, well written, well acted, and very popular. On the other hand, I have since learned whose voice it was that kept us listening to the radio version of “Gunsmoke,” and I’ll let you decide whether or not CBS was wise when it passed over its very successful radio actor despite arguments that it should keep him, and gave us James Arness instead.
So who played Matt Dillon on the radio? To refresh your memory as to who he was and what he looked like, think back to the CBS detective program titled “Cannon,” which some of you may remember, it was on television as late as 1976, and because some “Cannon” episodes are now on DVD. Remember Frank Cannon? He was a pudgy, five-foot-nine-inch tall detective with the small dark mustache? Well, that was William Conrad, whose deep voice was that of Matt Dillon on radio.
Can you understand why CBS chose six-foot-seven-inch James Arness when it starting filming “Gunsmoke”?
Image was why live TV soon fell to filmed episodes. Live TV had BIG image problems! Here’s one that may brighten your day.
Program: Martin Kane, Private Eye. Year: 1950.
Live TV. A tense night scene; gun in hand, Kane slips quietly into a dimly lit apartment. Out of nowhere an armed man appears right in front of him! Kane fires. BLAM!
(At home, the TV audience is asking, “Clink?” What the hell is “clink?”)
And then the wall mirror, which Kane “shot” at last surrenders to the ball peen hammer of whoever is hitting it. It shatters.
My brother Charlie and I are now rolling around on the floor, laughing so hard we’re afraid Mom won’t be able to follow the action.
Doesn’t matter though, Mom is laughing too.
Yes, live TV had its drawbacks.