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Simply Lou: The Golden Age of Television

By Melanie Moffett
In Center Block
May 8th, 2017
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article and illustration by Lou Davenport

Going through a box of old photographs, I found one of myself standing in front of a television set, dated 1955. I wondered when my parents bought that particular TV.  That photograph brought back a lot of memories of the great shows I watched growing up in Bastrop. For as long as I can remember, there’s been a television set in my life.

The years between 1949 – 1960 have been called “The Golden Age of Television.” Shows were live! Pre-recording would come several years later. In those early days, the plots of shows were thin, and the sets were flimsy, but it didn’t matter! Nobody had any idea how television would impact our lives.

Black and white televisions were all that existed then. There were two channels, KNOE and KTVE, and they weren’t on 24 hours a day either. At midnight, the “Star Spangled Banner” played, and then they “signed off,” saying “this concludes today’s broadcast.” The “test pattern” came on and stayed on til early morning.  The news, weather and sports came on at 6 p.m. daily. My family gathered around to listen. I didn’t really listen, but I knew who Jack Hill, “Big Dave” Woodman and Harry Arthur were! And, of course, Mildred Swift!

I read that “Captain Kangaroo” first aired in 1955. That was probably the first television show I really remember watching on that old television set. How I loved that show! My grandmother would plop me down in front of it, when my mom left for work. The Captain was my baby sitter. I loved Bunny Rabbit, Mister Moose, Grandfather Clock, Dancing Bear and Mr. Green Jeans. A friend from Bastrop remarked that since we only had black and white, we never knew if Mr. Green Jeans really wore “green jeans!” I most remember the Captain making “crafts” using shoe boxes. He’d glue things on and say “Like So!” My little artistic soul would get so frustrated, I’d throw my box and have a “hissy fit,” because I couldn’t get mine “like so!” I guess Captain “invented” interactive television!’

On KNOE, Jack Hill hosted a Saturday morning kid’s show called, “Happiness Exchange.” Local talent would perform. Kids having birthdays could come on and be interviewed briefly by Jack Hill himself! Oh, how I wanted to be on there even though it would have meant getting all dressed up! I never did, get that wish though. I knew kids who did of course, and I was jealous! However, it was exciting to see someone you knew right there on TV!

It was rare that I missed my Saturday morning cartoons. That was one of the few times that the TV was “my domain!”  Of course, I think those cartoons are still the “only good ones.” We had “Mighty Mouse,” “Heckle and Jekyll,” “Woody Woodpecker” and “Tom Terrific.” After the cartoons ended, “Fury,” “Sky King” and “The Lone Ranger” entertained us Bastrop kids for hours!

During the day, my grandmother had her own TV schedule. She didn’t miss “Mildred Swift.” Ever. (And, Ms. Mildred could “run circles around” Martha Stewart!) Next, came her “stories,” that is, her soap operas. I endured “As the World Turns” and “The Guiding Light.” At some point was her nap time and I, too, was supposed to take one. I would usually sneak outside to dig in the dirt or “slip off” to go play at the neighbors. nine times out of ten, I got caught, and well, she was a “no-nonsense” kind of woman and sent me to “get her a switch.” She had no sense of adventure.

Since my dad and grandmother were in “charge of programming” at my house, here were the choices. If it was a western, it was on! “Gunsmoke,” “Wagon Train,” “Have Gun Will Travel,” “Bonanza” and “Rawhide!” I remember Mr. Dillion, Miss Kitty, Doc and Chester. There was Palladin, Mr. Favor and Rowdy Yates! Rowdy Yates, a young Clint Eastwood, had a “certain something” even back then! I sensed that if I had been a pioneer, I would not have survived two days.  I could have cared less about watching “westerns,” but I really didn’t have much choice.  I won’t watch the old re-reruns for once was enough! I forced myself to watch the HBO series, “Deadwood” not long ago. Well, truthfully, I wanted to see Timothy Olyphant. It was worth watching but didn’t make me a fan of westerns.

There were a few shows that I remember my whole family would watch. “I Love Lucy,” “Honeymooners” and “Father Knows Best.” I adored Lucy and Ethel no matter what they got themselves into. I thought “Norton” (Art Carney) was a lot funnier than Jackie Gleason. I really wanted Alice to ”send Ralph straight to the moon!” I vividly remember being scared too death by Broderick Crawford in “Highway Patrol.” I’d hide my eyes when the sirens started.

The first time I ever saw “The Wizard of Oz” was on TV. It came on each year around my birthday. I loved the “Wicked Witch” and the flying monkeys! But I was “scarred for life” by that tornado! When Dorothy had to say goodbye to the Scarecrow, Tin Man and the Lion, I cried and cried! Even though “the Wizard” was “emotional torture,” I would not have missed it! Why, it was a major event in my little world!

Some of my favorite memories with my Mom were when we would get to watch “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” and “The Twilight Zone!” They came on after my dad and grandmother went to bed. Mama would have me all “scared silly” and then, laugh! We’d both get the “loud giggles” and wake my dad. He’d appear at the door in his boxer shorts and undershirt, hair all messed up, scowling! Then, he’d ask us “did we know what time it was?” I like to think Mama did that to aggravate him. She could be a bit of a trickster!

After I started to school, I couldn’t wait to get back home. There was “Popeye” and “The Three Stooges” to watch! I still love the “Stooges,” especially Curly. My mom and the teachers at Westside Elementary didn’t think too highly of them though. The boys knew all the “stooge moves!” Some of us girls did, too, but, we were sneakier! “Nyuk, nyuk, nyuk!”

The one show that I had a “love-hate relationship” with was “Lassie.” I wasn’t about to miss it, but I would always get upset and cry. The plot of every show had Lassie lost, maybe dead or Timmy lost and maybe dead. It was torture! I watched a “Lassie” movie many years ago with my own kids and what did I do? I started crying. “Same story, different year!” My kids laughed at me.

As I got older, the shows changed. I saw my first “beatnik” on “Dobie Gillis” and “Maynard G. Krebbs” stole the whole show! Maynard would go on to change his name to “Gilligan” and take off on a “three hour tour!” “Mr. Ed” came along and made me want a “talking horse, of course!” I loved Ed. He was a horse with a personality, and he gave his owner, Wilbur, a hard time! Lloyd Bridges had an entire dramatic show about diving! His sons, Jeff and Beau appeared a few times. Who knew we’d see those two again?

Along came more dramas, all starring attractive men! “Dr. Kildare” with a frizzy haired Dr. Gillespie, a smoldering “Ben Casey” saving the day every week. “Buzz” and “Todd” took us down Route 66 in a 1961 Corvette. Cousin Margaret and I would argue who was the “cutest” guy. I liked “Todd,” and she liked “Buzz.” Most of all, I loved that car! I would later find out that they didn’t even film on Route 66! For shame!

Most every TV show had a theme song. Many are still embedded in my brain like “Route 66!” There was “Peter Gunn,” “Dragnet,” “Alfred Hitchcock,” “Mr. Ed,” and my all time favorite, “Twilight Zone.”

The first show I ever got to go watch in color was “Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color” at my cousin, Brenda’s.  Later on, we would get a color TV in a big wooden console. There were only 3 networks, ABC, NBC and CBS, and there were no remotes! We had to get up and change a channel!

Times sure have changed. I now have a flat screen TV with a remote. I can choose from “umpteen” channels or go watch Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu or Acorn TV, all playing 24 hours a day. If I miss a show, I can watch it the next day “on demand.” Which reminds me, what am I going to watch tonight?

Many thanks to my “Bastrop Buddies” for sharing the shows they remember best. According to my “informal” poll, “I Love Lucy” was our all time favorite.
I only “covered” shows from 1950 – 1960, so there’s more to come!