Early TV

On a recent visit to the Wilmington Library, I photocopied the local newspaper TV listings for Wednesday, November 12, 1952.  That day is a random pick, but I specifically chose one in the middle of our high school years and one not during the modified summer schedule.

I need to do more research.  Much of the schedule does not mesh with what I remember.  For example, I was sure there was no daytime programming.  As I remember, I would be home from school for a while and then tune in the TV test pattern for a few minutes before 4:30 when the day’s programming began with Sally Starr and a Hopalong Casidy movie, but the schedule shows programming starting at seven in the morning and no sign of Our Gal Sal.

I suspect the medium was changing so fast that a year or two either way made a big difference.

There are only the three channels of the networks listed—3 (WPTZ, NBC), 6 (WFIL, ABC), and 10 (WCAU, CBS).  There was no PBS Channel 12 which did not begin until September, 1963.  It did sort-of start in 1957 on the UHF Channel 35, but not many sets could receive UHF back then.  You had to get a converter until later sets had it built-in, and you needed a tiny antenna above your regular roof antenna.

Looking over the schedule, I can pretty well guess what I watched that day, assuming I had the choice.  Watching TV was a family activity and what to watch was decided by committee, and not necessarily a democratic one.  The thought of having multiple TVs in one house was unheard of, and I suspect did not begin until the first generation of TV sets were replaced with ones having larger screens.  (Our first was a massive 12-inch Dumont console.  They were so big, there was concern about how to hide their considerable depth.  One manufacturer even mounted the tube vertically and you watched it through a 45-degree mirror.)

Coming home from school in 1952, I may have tuned in WFIL’s Bandstand sometime between 3:30 and 4:45 that had just started the month before.  Or maybe not.  Run by a local radio disk-jockey, the slightly creepy Bob Horn, it started out just showing video clips of music performances.  The teen-age dancers were added later, a great idea by some unsung hero.  At that time, the after-school WPEN pop music radio program of Grady and Hurst was far more popular and I remember them hosting a TV Bandstand clone for short time.  In 1956, Bob Horn was convicted of DUI, throwing away the chance of a lifetime.  It gave the producers an excuse to replace him with the much better Dick Clark. The program went national the following year.

At 5:00 I would have switched to Willie the Worm’s “Junior Hi-Jinx”  of cartoons and silent comedies.  By 5:30, I would have secretly watched Howdy Doody, mainly for the Mickey McGuire silent comedies, a 6-year-old Mickey Rooney playing a cigar-smoking kid.  Who could not like that?  Buffalo Bob was then plain Bob Smith, a circus lion tamer (without the lions) in jodhpurs, or maybe he had already made the character change.

This was followed at 6:00 by the hour-long Frontier Playhouse which, I think, was a locally produced cowboy drama on a City Line back lot.

Missing from the schedule is Kukla, Fran, and Ollie, and Chief Traynor Ora Halftown who reportedly started in 1951.  (Bet you never knew his first name.)

Sally Starr and her Popeye Theater didn’t start until 1956.

At 7:45 we would have watched 15 minutes of national news with John Cameron Swazye’s Camel News Caravan (The camel being Camel cigarettes.)  Fifteen minutes was enough.  There was no video—he only read from newswires, but in a breezy, enthusiastic style, less dramatic than Walter Winchell or serious like Edward R. Murrow.

But where was John Facenda?  Where was the local news?  Perhaps he isn’t indicated on the rather abbreviated newspaper schedule.  My family, as many others, relied on a weekly magazine, “The Local Televiser” for the schedule.  Later, the name changed to “TV Digest”  and in 1953 merged to form the national “TV Guide,” published in regional editions.

Eight-to-nine on Wednesday definitely belonged to Arthur Godfrey   You don’t hear much about him today, but then he was big, really big, on both radio and TV.  He was the first with the relaxed, casual, joking manner.  Everybody loved him for a long time, then turned on him when he showed signs of arrogance.

At nine, there wasn’t much on and I may have listened to Groucho Marx’s radio show “You Bet Your Life” that later transferred to TV in exactly the same format.

At ten, the choice was either boxing or wrestling.  If someone like Gorgeous George was wrestling, I may have watched, but generally it was just two big, but soft-looking, guys in wrestling trunks performing standard holds like the inside, step-over toe hold that caused the victim to pound the mat in simulated pain.  The age of the real steroid-pumped drama kings had not yet begun.

Boxing came from the St. Nicholas Arena, wherever that was, and always looked appropriately seedy with bored, gum-chewing girls in bathing suits holding the number of the next round over their heads while the combatants were spitting into buckets and getting their eyebrows Vaselined.  I always felt sorry for the poor guy who had to take out the boxer’s mouthpiece between each round.  It was a good reminder to do well at school.

Both boxing and wrestling were sponsored by beer commercials done live, often showing a shaking hand pouring the beer into a glass.  We always hoped the beer would overflow, come out flat, or even knock over the glass.

Programming ended about midnight, but that Wednesday was a school night so I would not have seen the waving American flag nor heard the Star Spangled Banner, let alone wake with a jolt to the snowy screen and the hiss of white noise when it was all off the air.


About Roger Walck

My reasons for writing this blog are spelled out in the posting of 10/1/2012, Montaigne's Essays. They are probably not what you think.
This entry was posted in History, Popular culture and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Early TV

  1. Unknown says:

    Kukla, Fran and Ollie was not broadcast on Wednesdays in 1952. NBC had moved them to Sunday only at that point.

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