Saturday, February 7, 2009

Golden Age

Since the second World War, TV and America have grown together, and the changes in television m ake many of us long for the good old days. In the early years, television was more of a learning tool, with educational programming and newsreel footage. One of the things that helped popularize the medium was sports, and the first sport to be broadcast to the masses was professional wrestling. Soon, the first big stars were wrestlers like Gorgeous George and my own father, world heavyweight champion Chief Don Eagle. Eventually baseball and football became the darlings of the audiences when fields added better lighting and played more games at night, games that wound up on TV. The early news programs used upwardly well-endowed women as "Weather Girls". Men, in their dreamy-eyed stupor over the wealth of weather knowledge these ladies had, were unaware of the trick used by broadcasters. Most of these lady "meteorologists" didn't know a cold front from a rainstorm. They merely read their information off cue cards. When they drew the temperatures on the black board behind them, the numbers were pre-written in blue or red chalk, which couldn't be picked up on the black-and-white broadcast. The weather girl merely traced over the numbers in white chalk, which DID show up.
In the late 40's, someone got the bright idea that TV could become an electronic baby sitter, and animation studios flourished. The first network cartoon show was "Crusader Rabbit", a white knight on a white horse, but he was soon joined by a host of others such as "Winky Dink And You" and "Beany And Cecil", a show about a young boy and his sea serpent friend. Winky Dink started a minor uproar as the first interactive show on the air. Kids watching the show were urged to order the "magic TV screen", basically a piece of clear plastic that went over the actual screen. Young fans were then able to use a crayon to draw something on the plastic film that Winky Dink could use to help him out, with that object becoming part of the show. The problem arose when kids who didn't have the "magic film" used their crayons on the screen anyway and left a mess to clean up before the rest of the family could watch their shows. A number of live action kids' shows came shortly after that, spearheaded by "Howdy Doody", Soupy Sales, and "Captain Kangaroo". Soupy got into trouble himself when he asked kids to send him money during his show. It was supposed to be a gag, but quite a few children raided their parents' wallets and purses to send cash.

The late 50's and early 60's brought along shows for children that were actually engaging and required an attention span, unlike much of today's garbage. Kids were treated to a veritable cornucopia of programs that used live hosts playing games or telling stories. Some of the best of that era include Shari Lewis, Paul Winchell, and for those of us who lived in the Northeast, an engaging Sunday morning show named Wonderama. A number of these new programs were puppet shows geared at the young male audience and actually had plots, shows like "Fireball XL-5", "Supercar", "Stingray", "Thunderbirds" and "Captain Scarlett", and some of them, most notably Thunderbirds and Captain Scarlett, featured special effects by a young man named Derek Meddings who eventually worked on such big screen movies as "Superman".The term "situation comedy", when compared to the history of television, is relatively new, but actual sitcoms have been around since the so-called "Golden Age" of commercial TV, led by "The Life Of Riley", "The Honeymooners", and "I Love Lucy". For the most part, those shows were really funny, and the laughter heard during them was actually people reacting to what they saw. Anyone who's been to a TV taping recently then saw the show later on the home screen knows that today the producers add "canned laughter" and applause because their live audiences just can't give them enough reaction to lackluster, unfunny scripts.
Quite simply, today's shows just aren't as funny as the classics because in our modern society there is little that the writers can't touch, so there are few boundaries to breach for writers and actors. In the Golden Age you would never even have heard a word like "hell" and "damn" because they were forbidden. The great "Uncle Miltie", Milton Berle, who was so popular he was known as "Mr. Television", once played up those forbidden words by stating he was almost late for the show because the "darn" busted and he had to be flown in by "heckacopter". It's very likely that Berle could have gotten away with anything he wanted to because at the time he was America's most powerful media figure. On the night his show, "Texaco Star Theater", was on, many theaters closed because their audience was practically a no-show. Uncle Miltie, however, relished in the ability to take the restrictions handed to him and push them to the limit without breaking the rules.

Other stars of the period also became experts at juggling the restrictions. One of the most brilliant crews on TV back then was the team of writers who worked on "Your Show Of Shows", starring Sid Ceasar and Imogene Coca. The writing talent included Neil Simon and Mel Brooks, who both went on to great careers in film and stage, and developed phony foreign vocabulary for some of the skits. The fake language was so well done that many people who only spoke English were convinced the words were genuine.

Small screen language and morals are evolving rapidly, and recently the FCC approved use of the "F" word as long as it isn't used merely "to shock the audience" and happens after prime time. In the days of Lucy and Donna Reed, scenes shot in the parents' bedroom always showed two beds, implying that for a married couple to share a bed was morally wrong. Today we can see mixed couples and even threesomes in bed together and no one raises an eyebrow any more. When we first heard Archie Bunker flush his toilet on "All In The Family", some viewers were outraged. Who knew so many people considered a toilet flushing to be obscene? Makes you wonder what
their homes smell like.

Pundits are blaming a lot of today's violence on television. That may be a bit of a stretch. Back in the 50's and 60's there were violent shows too, although most of our modern youth won't remember them. Let's refresh your memory by dropping a few names: "Have Gun, Will Travel", "Wanted: Dead Or Alive", "Racket Squad", and "The Untouchables". Even the cartoons were openly violent. For sheer action and violence, it's hard to beat Tom And Jerry, Heckle And Jeckle, or Mighty Mouse, characters who often beat each other senseless or dropped anvils on each other's heads. Looking back on the news of that time, you will find very few reports about kids imitating what they saw on TV and getting hurt or killed.