A Sight to Behold !
By Jane-Ann Heitmueller
Only ten children were to be selected and we all desperately wanted to be one of the lucky ones. That morning, each pupil had written his name on a small slip of paper and as Miss Chesser, the third grade teacher, drew ten tiny pieces from the lunch money basket, we each held our breath praying ours would be one of the names chosen to go to Barbara’s house next week. Her father, a local successful business owner, was one of the first residents in town to own a television set. It was 1949 and television was in its infancy. Barbara’s parents had invited Miss Chesser to send a representative group from her class to view a momentous national event, Harry S. Truman’s inauguration. The very first presidential inauguration to be broadcast through an amazing new invention they called television.
This revolutionary media, which some doubted would ever succeed, took fire in the late forties and quickly captured the interest of the American public. It was the dream of every child to have a T.V. in his home, but many adults felt it was a frivolous, costly luxury, simply a passing fancy. There we others who viewed this strange contraption a depravity from Satan. A spirit world that came through the airways and invaded our minds. An unwanted vice that would tarnish the lives of our children and undermine all parental guidance.
The Hill family, our next door neighbors, became the first on our street to own a television. “Hurry up,” said Daddy, “we don’t want to be late.” It was Sunday evening and Mr. Hill had invited us over to watch The Ed Sullivan Show and The Texaco Star Theater, staring comedian Milton Berle. We were so excited and couldn’t wait to see for ourselves what this amazing thing called television was all about!
It was initially thought that watching television with the lights on would damage our eyesight. Only the small glow from a specially designed and strategically placed T.V. lamp would be allowed, so we spent those magical hours in the Hill living room that evening huddled in virtual darkness. We were warned not to get too close to the set, for it was believed that harmful rays were emitted from the screen, sure to cause some terrible illness to anyone exposed.
It’s almost laughable to realize how infantile television was in those formative days. Can you imagine only four channels to choose from and having access to what some called The Boob Tube or Idiot Box only a few hours each day? At the end of each programming period the Star Spangled Banner was played and then a large, geometric test pattern filled the screen until the next morning. There was no such thing as a remote control for channel selection and certainly no rating system. The majority of shows were sponsored by tobacco companies that touted the glamour of smoking, featuring prominently known movie stars of the time in their ads. RCA became a leader in this new industry by producing 170,000 black and white televisions in 1947.
Bennett Auto was the first store downtown to advertise colored T.V. for sale. Inquisitive crowds gathered on the sidewalk in front of the showroom window each Saturday evening, mesmerized by shades of yellow, green and orange flickering before their very eyes on the T.V. sets inside. It turns out that Mr. Bennett had simply created the illusion of colored programming by attaching a large, transparent, multi- colored piece of plastic to his storefront window. Actual colored television shows didn’t hit the market until the sixties.
It was rapidly becoming apparent that the world of television was here to stay. During the mid fifties many of my classmates began to tell about various western shows they watched entitled Gunsmoke, Death Valley Days, Wagon Train and Bonanza. A favorite of many families was The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, which depicted the daily life of a married couple and their two sons, David and Ricky. Kids wouldn’t miss those entertaining Saturday morning cartoons such as Howdy Doody, Sky King and Mighty Mouse. I felt so deprived and behind the times living in a household without one of those wonderful entertainment boxes everybody was raving about. “Daddy, please get us a television,” I begged and pleaded. “Maybe some day,” he’d always respond.
The initial method of television reception was through a bulky device with numerous arms and connections. This antenna was secured on the side of the house and connected to the television inside the residence by a series of wires and fittings. Many households gained additional reception through the use of “rabbit ears” which set on top of the television for easy access to adjustment. One could see numerous antennas begin to pop up on rooftops during the late fifties and early sixties and in my immature mind I thought I was the only child in town who had no antenna to display to the community. A stark, visual announcement that we didn’t own a television. I couldn’t have been more embarrassed if there had been a series of those clever red and white Burma Shave signs planted securely across our front lawn boldly declaring our lack of ownership to the entire world! Feeling sure I was the laughing stock of the neighborhood, I soon devised a plan to take matters into my own hands and remedy the situation.
One Sunday afternoon, when my parents were visiting neighbors, I plundered around Dad’s basement workshop and gathered materials necessary to simulate a T.V. antenna…wires, metal rods, a cane fishing pole and duct tape. With the help of Dad’s sturdy paint ladder I labored fervently to attach my crude contraption to the side of the garage roof, being positive to position it in full view of anyone who might be passing. At this point it really didn’t concern me that there was no actual television set or reception, just as long as there was a prominent symbol that I was now part of the “IN” crowd. For the time being I would have to settle for my homemade antenna instead of the real thing .
My dream finally came true in 1953 when I was in junior high school. Granddad G.O. owned a furniture store and sold new and used furniture. Although I thought so, my wishes for a television had not fallen on deaf ears, for Daddy had asked Granddad to keep his eyes open for a good used television he could buy for us.
I didn’t detect the slightest hint of the secret Mom held as we rode home from school that spring afternoon. We both went about our usual daily routine. She began preparing supper and I headed to my room to put my books away and change clothes. As I passed the living room door I thought I detected strange voices . Mom hadn’t told me we had company. Hmm, I wonder who that could be, I thought to myself. Sticking my head around the corner I was dumbstruck! There, on our very own television set, I saw Roy Rogers and Dale Evans singing “Happy Trails” as they rode their horses off into the sunset! Yippee!!!!