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Sunday, 30 December 2012

Confessions Of A 1950's Child TV Addict

1950s TV test pattern.
There have been times in my 65 years on this planet that I didn’t have access to a television and somehow I managed to survive. I never suffered from withdrawal. I never let my fondness for TV stand in the way of other activities but none the less I was hooked by the box at a very young age. More than anything my attraction to TV years ago and still today is the interest in being exposed to something I wasn’t aware of and the delight in finding something new.

Earlier today I was watching PBS and found out that Jack Kerouac spent 63 days by himself in the 1950s on a mountain top in the Cascade Mountains in Washington State trying to find himself. The mountain was called Desolation Mountain. TV can be fascinating.
On the other hand, years ago I was living in North Vancouver and watched every weekly episode of Rich Man, Poor Man. Unfortunately the power went out in the last program and I never really found out how the whole thing ended.
Growing up in Montreal, TV came along when I was about 6 or 7 years of age, around 1954. For those that grew up in the same era as I did, we had a lot on our plates at that tender age. School, hearing stories about WW2 and The Great Depression, the coronation of Queen Elizabeth, finding out about the atomic bomb, a new music called rock and roll, and this box with a window that sat in the corner of our living rooms that we talked about every following day out in the school yard. “Did you see……?”
You know you are getting old if you have any memories of what life was like before television. In the early 1950s there was a family tradition in our house for a number of years of having sandwiches on Sunday night and listening to several radio programs. Programs like Our Miss Brooks (Gosh Mr. Boynton!”),  Amos And Andy. (“Holy mackerel there Andy!”), and Burns And Allen (Say goodnight Gracie.”).
Here are some of my memories of television in the 1950s as a kid growing up in Montreal.
In 1953 I was six years old and hadn’t a clue what television set was. A guy down the block had one with a very small screen. It was maybe 14 inches across. We spent a few minutes watching kind of jerky and feint images of a spaceship. A year later in 1954 almost every family in the neighbourhood had a console model television. Some of TV makes back then were Philco, RCA, Admiral, Zenith, Marconi, Motorola, and Fleetwood.

Time well wasted.
One of the interesting things about early TV is that adults were just about as naïve as children were about this new medium that we were being exposed to. There was an overall excitement about having moving pictures come directly into your living room. In the beginning TV was a finicky devise. Tin foil and steel wool were sometimes attached to the antennas that sat on top of the TV to get better reception. What we called “rabbit ears”. There didn’t seem to be a lot of science about getting good reception. It was like banging the side of a pinball game or rubbing the top of a one armed bandit slot machine.
Canadian TV
The first TV station in Montreal was CBMT which was English and part of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC). A few months later it was followed by CBFT, a French language TV station also part of the CBC.
In the beginning there was nothing on the tube until about 5 p.m. If you turned on the TV during the day all you got was a test pattern with an Indian head on it.
There were at least two programs that were shown on both English and French TV in Montreal at the time. One was about a large French Canadian family called The Plouffe Family and the other was a puppet show called Papineau and Capucine. The two puppet characters that I remember were a bear that didn’t talk but made sounds like….”menamanuh, menamanuh”  and Pow Pow who was a convict with a striped rimless hat and striped clothes. I once had a Pow Pow puppet as a toy but it fell apart when I started chewing on its rubber head. The bear on Papineau and Capucine was probably the first impression I ever heard around grade school of a character we had seen on TV. Over the coming years there would be many more.
At 7:00 p.m. during the week there was a news program that came from the CBC in Toronto. It was called Tabloid. Dick MacDougal and Elaine Grand did the interviews, Gil Christie read the news and Percy Saltzman did the weather and when he was finished he would toss his stick of chalk in the air and say….”and that’s the weather.”
Percy Saltzman
I think it was 1954 when we got our first TV. It was only a year or so later when people started putting antennas on their roofs to get some American TV stations, WPTZ in Plattsburg, New York (NBC), WCAX in Burlington, Vermont (CBS), and WMTW in Poland Springs, Maine (ABC) which at one time was owned by late night talk show host Jack Paar.

Comparatively, Canadian TV, which really meant the CBC because there was no competing Canadian TV network, seemed rather sedate and American TV was much brasher. Watching hockey or the news was OK but programs like the intellectual Fighting Words with Nathan Cohen could put kids and some adults to sleep. Kids and adults wanted American pizzazz. If it meant having some contraption up on the roof, so be it.
Hockey Night In Canada was the glue that attached Canadians to the CBC more than anything else. On snowy winter Saturday nights we would hear Foster Hewitt in Toronto welcome us with “Hello Canada!” from high atop the gondola at Maple Leaf Gardens. In Montreal it was Danny Gallivan doing the play by play. In between periods was called the Hot Stove Club or something close to that. These segments often involved old timers with their many facial scars offering opinions. Esso was the sponsor of HNIC and Murray Westgate, a genial type, wished us “Happy Motoring” after pitching the Esso products.

Your Pet, Juliette, a songstress from Vancouver, followed the hockey game and for many of us the sight of her on the tube meant bedtime. We went to sleep with names in our heads like Rocket Richard, Ken Mosdell, Floyd Curry, Butch Bouchard, Gerry McNeil, Dickie Moore, Dick Duff, Frank Mahovolich, Jean Beliveau, Tim Horton, George Armstrong, Lou Fontinato, Andy Bathgate, and the great Gordie Howe.

Another Canadian TV institution started back then was Front Page Challenge with Fred Davis as host. Pierre Berton and the blustering Gordon Sinclair were regular panelists. Years later Sinclair would ask Canadian Olympic swimmer, Elaine Tanner, how she managed to swim on days that she was having her period. Mr. Sinclair could be a tacky old codger.

Front Page Challenge
The CBC made a number of attempts at emulating American television in the 1950s. With the success of Davy Crockett in the US we were offered a TV series about the Canadian explorer and fur trader, Pierre Radisson. He was a “coureur des bois” or “runner of the woods.” The same guy they named those hotels after.
Three other series that ran on CBC in the 50s were produced in cooperation with American or British television concerns. One was reworked version of the classic Wallace Beery, Marie Dressler 1933 movie Tugboat Annie. Another was a program about two long distance truckers called Cannonball. The younger of the two drivers, an actor named William Campbell, was married to a gal named Judith (Exner) in real life at the time. She later became one of John Kennedy’s mistresses. The Last Of The Mohicans was another series that was made in Canada with cooperation from the CBC but with American financing and distribution. Lon Chaney Jr. played Chingachgook. It wasn’t half bad for its time.
The CBC had its own version of Howdy Doody. The host in Canada was Timber Tom and in the US it was Buffalo Bob. Both versions had Clarabell The Clown and the Peanut Gallery but we alone had Captain Scuttlebutt. Robert Goulet and William Shatner played characters on the Canadian version at one time or other.
Other after school Canadian kid’s TV programs were Maggie Muggins (most boys wouldn’t be caught dead watching it), Chez Helene, Papinot and Capucine, Uncle Chichimus, and of course The Friendly Giant and his pals Rusty and Jerome. People of my age all remember the draw bridge and the little chairs we were offered to sit in by Mr. Friendly.

The Friendly Giant
Some other CBC TV show back then were Fighting Words with Nathan Cohen, Mr. Fix-it with Peter Woodhall, Folio, Profile, and Close-Up. There were also some country shows like Country Calender, Holiday Ranch and Country Hoe Down. The latter had a mustachioed fiddler named King Ganom who would turn around in a circle while he played.
Rock and roll started to take shape in the mid-1950s but seeing it on the CBC throughout the decade was a very rare sight. Instead we were offered Cross Canada Hit Parade with singers like Wally Coster, Joyce Hahn, Robert Goulet, and Shirley Harmer who almost always sung the tamer tunes of the times. “How much is that doggy in the window?”
Notable other Canadian TV personalities who appeared on the CBC in the 50s include Alex Barris, Jack Crelely, J. Frank Willis, Austin Willis, Denny Vaughan, Jack Duffy, Vanda King, Bill Walker, Frank Heron, Frank Selke Jr., George Murray, Toby Tarnow, Toby Robbins, Joan Fairfax, Sylvia Murphy, Loaraine McAllister, Billy O’Connor, Vic Obeck, Joyce Davidson (didn’t like the queen), John O’Leary, Rex Loring, and Larry Henderson, Jimmy Tapp.
A couple of army vets, comedians Johnny Wayne and Frank Shuster, were a staple at the CBC for decades starting in the 1950s. They held the record for the most guest appearances on the Ed Sullivan Show in the US at 58. They were kind of funny I guess for the times.
Wayne & Shuster
If we are honest about it, as soon as Canadians managed to get access to American TV, other than for a few programs like the news and weather (farmers liked to know) and hockey, the CBC was kind of a back-up plan for many in homes across Canada. I think that there was a bit of the anti-Toronto stuff going on even back then because the CBC kind of gave the impression that Toronto was where most really intelligent Canadians lived.

American TV
The choice between watching Canadian TV and American TV was a bit like choosing between a piano recital and a rock concert. Most Canadians preferred the hoopla and the more in your face approach of TV from the US. The personalities on American television seemed warmer and more exciting.
Oddly enough, one of the more droll American television personalities, Ed Sullivan, became an institution in Canadian homes every Sunday night at 8 p.m. with his variety show that was initially called The Toast Of The Town. Ed trotted out an eclectic mix of performers including jugglers, acrobats, animal acts, opera singers, Broadway belters, ballet dancers, animal acts, comedians, and rock and rollers. He would often ask someone famous in the audience to stand up and take a bow.
A lot of people around my age can remember the first time we saw so and so on Ed Sullivan. Here are 2 acts that I remember…..The first was a guy named Mr. Pastry. He had white hair and a white bushy mustache and wore a cutaway tuxedo. He gulped glasses of champagne while playing musical chairs by himself. He appeared to become drunker and drunker and the music got faster and faster. If you don’t know the act…google it on Youtube. The second was a Yiddish comedian named Myron Cohen…..A man is out walking with his son when his son spots two dogs having sex. “Daddy what are those dogs doing?” “Pay no attention my son.” “But daddy what are they doing?” This goes on for a bit and finally the father tells the son….”It seems like one of the dogs is very sick and the other one is pushing him to the hospital.” Ba-boom! Rim shot.

Mr. Pastry
One of the neat things about early TV in the 50s is that we got to see a lot of ex Vaudevillians who were nearing the ends of their careers. People like Ed Wynn, Eddy Cantor, and Jimmy Durante. TV was a heck of an opportunity for some to restart their careers. People like Jack Benny, Jackie Gleason, Burns and Allen, Red Skelton, Dinah Shore, Phil Silvers, Jane Wyman, Loretta Young, Eve Arden, just to name a few who had had previous careers in the movies or on radio.

Sarcasm was almost nonexistent in comedy on TV back then. Risque jokes simply were not allowed. Telling a dirty joke on live TV could very well end a career. Instead what was delivered to us was zaniness which included comedians like Sid Caesar, Milton Berle, Ernie Kovacs, or the cast of characters on The Steve Allen Show (which ran in the same time slot as Ed Sullivan) that included Bill Dana, Don Knotts, Louis Nye, and Tom Poston. We always felt comfortable with the laid back George Gobel.
Lonesome George Gobel
Here is a brief list of some of the more notable things that happened on American TV in the 1950s, in no particular order.

#1 The first time we saw Elvis on the tube on The Steve Allen Show, on Ed Sullivan, on The Dorsey Brothers Show. Steve Allen had no use for rock and roll and kind of mocked Elvis with a hound dog on the set.
#2 The fixed quiz shows. Charles Van Doren was caught cheating with the prepared answers on The $64,000.00 Question.
#3 Peter Pan with Mary Martin (Larry Hagman’s mother). Many parents insisted we watch it and we liked seeing her fly about the stage suspended by skinny wires. We kind of forgot that Peter Pan wasn’t a woman.
Mary Martin as Peter Pan
#4 Watching the stiff Jack Webb on Dragnet and “just the facts ma’am” and the hammer hitting the plaque that said Mark VII at the end of the show.
Jack Webb as Joe Friday on Dragnet
#5 Jackie Gleason threatening his wife Alice in their dingy apartment…”One of these days Alice…pow right in the kisser!” That wouldn’t fly today.
Jackie Gleason on The Honeymooners
#6 Lucille Ball stomping grapes or things getting out of control on the conveyor belt with chocolates or cakes or whatever it was that was on it. 
#7 Trying to figure out how Davey Crockett was still alive for two more programs after he was killed at the Alamo. The Indian chief who said “Ongothcha!” and Mike Fink, king of the river. I have to confess that I wore my Davey Crockett pants with the plastic fringes to grade school a few times.
Fess Parker as Davy Crockett
#8 Feeling very uncomfortable when Ralph Edwards surprised some star on This Is Your Life when the unsuspecting victim had their whole family dragged out onto the set and there wasn’t always warm hugs.
#9 Falling in love with Dinah Shore. Could anyone not like her?

Dinah Shore
#10 Realizing many years later just how bright a man Edward R. Murrow was.
Here is a brief listing of some of the stuff we watched on American TV back in the day. But first….a pause for station identification.
US Kids Programs
Captain Kangaroo with Mr. Greenjeans and Tom Terrific and his dog Mighty Manfred. Sky King. My Friend Flicka. Fury. The Cisco Kid. Dennis The Menace. Lassie. Rin Tin Tin…”Yo Rinnie!” Robin Hood. Jungle Jim. The Mickey Mouse Club…”Annette!” “Bobby!”. Superman. The Lone Ranger…”Kemosabe”. Wild Bill Hickcok…”Wait for me Wild Bill!”. Leave It To Beaver…with creepy eddy Haskell Hoppalong Cassidy…that was one old cowboy. Mighty Mouse Playhouse…”Here I come to save the day!”. Heckle And Jeckle. Pinky Lee. Soupy Sales. Rocky Jones. Roy Rogers…with Pat Brady and his Jeep Nelleybelle. Casey Jones. Kukla, Fran, and Ollie.

The Lone Ranger & Tonto
Rip Masters, Rusty & Rin Tin Tin
US Westerns
Gunsmoke. Maverick. Cheyenne. Wyatt Earp. Have Gun Will Travel…Wire Paladin San Francisco. Rawhide. The Man From Blackhawk. Bat Masterson…he wore a cane and derby hat. The Rebel. The Rifleman…played 1st base for The Montreal Royals in the early 50s. Wanted Dead Or Alive. Death Valley Days…with Ronald Reagan. Wagon Train. Yancy Derringer.
US Daytime Quiz Shows
The Price Is Right. Queen For A Day… poor women telling their stories of misery for a year’s supply of laundry soap. Treasure Hunt. Concentration. Beat The Clock. Who Do You Trust…with Johnny Carson. Truth Or Consequences. Kids Say The Darndest Things.
US Nighttime Quiz Shows
The $64,000.00 Question. Twenty-One, You Bet Your Life with Groucho Marx…”Say the magic word and win a hundred dollars.” What’s My Line? I’ve Got A Secret. To tell The Truth. Name That Tune.Tic-Tac-Dough.
Groucho Marx on You Bet Your Life
US Variety Shows
Perry Como. Dinah Shore…”See the USA in your Chevrolet!” Steve Allen. Gary Moore. George Gobel. Tennesee Ernie Ford. Mitch Miller. Arthur Godfrey. Your Show Of Shows with Sid Caesar.
1950’s TV Forgotten Names?
Arnold Stang, Gabby Hayes, Dorothy Kilgallen, Bennett Cerf, Hal March, Buster Crabbe, Zazu Pitts, Oscar Levant, Arlene Francis, John Daley, Jack Lescoulie, Duncan Renaldo, Frank Lovejoy, Spring Byington, Howard Duff, Gale Storm, Ann Sothern, Rod Cameron, Bud Collyer, Gardner MacKay, Jimmy Dean, Molly Bee, Dennis Day, Clint Walker, Hal March, Nick Adams, Walter Winchell, Jan Murray, Hal March, John Cameron Swayze, Jock Mahoney, Bill Cullen, Jack Bailey, Dave Garroway.
US Religious Programs
Lamp Unto My Feet…a moment of this day for devotion. Oral Roberts. Billy Graham. Life Is Worth Living with Bishop Fulton J. Sheen. This Is The Life. (I watched all of these programs but none of it had any effect.)

Bishop Fulton J. Sheen
US Sports
All-Star Bowling. Gillette Cavalcade of Sports (Boxing…Gene Fulmer, Carmen Bassilio, Sugar Ray Robinson). Wrestling. (Little Beaver, Haystack Calhoun, Sky High Lee). NFL Football. (I used to go over to a  friend’s house to watch NFL football on Sundays sometimes. His dad was a big fan. Back then muddy players and butt crack were not uncommon.) The World Series.
US Highbrow And Political Shows
GE College Bowl….Ohio State…The political theory of possessive individualism for 10 points. Person To Person. See It Now. Hallmark Hall Of Fame. Studio One. The Ed Sullivan Show. US Steel Hour. Playhouse 90. Face The Nation. Meet The Press.
US Situation Comedies
Father Knows Best. Our Miss Brooks. Colonel Humphrey J. Flack. December Bride. Burns And Allen. Life With Riley. Duffy’s Tavern. I Love Lucy. Bachelor Father. Dear Phoebe. Dobie Gillis. Life With Elizabeth…with Betty White. Strike It Rich…with Phil Silvers. Ozzie and Harriet. Amos And Andy…”holy mackerel there…” The Donna Reed Show. Mr. Peepers. Oh! Suzanna. Love That Bob. Make Room For Daddy. My Favorite Secretary.

Phil Silvers in Strike It Rich
US Cop Shows
M Squad…with Lee Marvin. Highway Patrol… 10-4…with Broderick Crawford. Dragnet…”We were working bunko out of….” The Line-up. Manhunt. Naked City…there are 8 million stories... Manhunt. The Untouchables.
US Private Eye Shows
Richard Diamond. Peter Gunn. 77 Sunset Strip...Kookie lend me your comb. The Thin Man. Meet McGraw. Hawaian Eye. Johnny Staccato. Mr. Lucky.
US Misc.
The Medic. The Vise. Cannonball. Liberace…and his brother George. The Millionaire….my name is Michael Anthony. Soldiers Of Fortune. Adventures In Paradise. Whirlybirds. Tales Of The Bengal Lancers. Sea Hunt. The Twilight Zone. American Bandstand. (Rate the record between 35 and 98%.) Perry Mason. Alfred Hitchcock Presents. Liberace.Riverboat.This Is Your Life.

Rod Serling...The Twilight Zone
In the early stages of broadcast TV stations were desperate for content. An obvious source, at the time, was to dig up old movies including shorts. As kids, we discovered The Little Rascals, The Bowery Boys, and Laurel and Hardy. In some summers Kraft Theatre showed a number of the classics of black and white movies. Things like Key Largo, The Petrified Forest, Treasure Island, Goodbye Mr. Chips, and Great Expectations. I used to watch them with my mother who seemed to know all the character actors. I was hooked for life on old black and white. I remember the beginning of Kraft Theatre when a wooden camera with a wooden guy sitting on it would slowly rotate at the beginning of the program and of course all the wonderful things you could do with Velveeta cheese in the commercials.
10 1950’s US TV Commercials
#1 Ajax…the foaming cleanser.

#2 Brylcreem…a little dab will do you!
#3 I want my Maypo!
Maypo Cereal.
#4 Shaefer is the one beer to have…when you’re having more than one. (Before MADD.)
#5 Prudential Insurance. The rock of Gibtralter.
#6 Brusha. Brusha. Brusha. I use new Ipana. Its dandy for your teeth.
#7 Timex. It takes a licking and keeps on ticking.
#8 See the USA in your Chevrolet.
#9 Halo everybody Halo!
#10 N-E-S-T-L-E-S…Nestles make the very best choc…
And who can forget all the doctors who told us that one brand of cigarettes was smoother on the throat than others.
It was a great time for television. It wasn’t always seamless. Sometimes you would see the camera boom or something would crash somewhere off camera or programs would get cut off because they had run too long. Everything was fresh. There was so much to see. We were taking a journey.
“You’re travelling through another dimension, a dimension not only of sight but of mind. A journey into a wonderous land whose boundaries are that of imagination. There is a signpost up ahead-your next stop, the Twilight Zone!”


  1. LIke a trip down memory lane Colin. I like it. Keep up the good work!