Remember the first TV you saw? I do. A small, boxy TV that had a pink, metal cabinet. It just caught two stations ’cause that’s all there were back then. For a long time, we caught the two stations through a rickety antenna strapped to the chimney: Augusta’s WRDW 12 and WJBF 6. TV was pretty simple back then. No color to adjust and just three knob functions: on, off, and channel changer—a clunky, clicking knob as big as your hand.

We’ve come a long ways since then what with color, UHF, cable, satellite, digital TV, high definition, and now Blu-Ray. No more test patterns on all night but no more “Star Spangled Banner” either as stations signed off. Maybe that’s when patriotism began to wane.

Yes we’ve come a long ways but it’s a downright shame the quality of programs hasn’t progressed as much. It seems to me the programming geniuses went for volume instead of quality. The Time Warner programming guide for my area lists an astounding 1,234 channels. Not programs but channels! Thousands and thousands of shows are out there but few worth my time. I feel like the parched Ancient Mariner on Coleridge’s ship.

“Water, water, everywhere, And all the boards did shrink; Water, water, everywhere, Nor any drop to drink.”

I see shows and shows everywhere and most make my brain shrink. Thousands and thousands of shows but few make me think. For solid programming, I watch “National Geographic,” the “Discovery Channel,” and “The History Channel.” That’s about it.

I am no fan of reality shows. My life is reality show enough for me. And those marathon infomercials hyping diets, real estate, and get-rich-schemes disgust me. It makes me long for the good old days.

I can’t speak for you but it’s hard to beat the TV shows I grew up with. They seemed genuine in ways today’s shows do not. They resurrect memories today’s shows will not.

Here are but a few I loved to watch growing up, shows whose characters seemed real. Remember “Lost in Space?” That stowaway, Dr. Zachary Smith, was quite the cad wasn’t he. And even now I can see Chuck Connors, “The Rifleman,” spinning his Winchester Model 1892 rifle.

“Leave It To Beaver” brought the naive Theodore “Beaver” Cleaver and his idealized suburban family into our homes. Eddie Haskel and his fawning ways were always good entertainment. “You certainly look nice today, Mrs. Cleaver.”

“Captain Kangaroo” brought the mischievous Bunny Rabbit into our lives. That rabbit always managed to trick the Captain into giving him carrots. Mr. Moose would pose riddles to the Captain and a wrong answer brought hundreds of ping-pong balls cascading down on his head. I never could figure out that Green Jeans guy, though. He probably deserved a lot of space. I mean what kind of guy would call himself Mr. Green Jeans?

Bob Keeshan who played the Captain was the first Clarabelle the Clown on “Howdy Doody,” yet another memorable show. Our childhood stars were human. Keeshan left Howdy Doody over a salary dispute and later became Captain Kangaroo.

Any of you remember how Buffalo Bob would ask, “Say, kids, what time is it?” And the kids in the Peanut Gallery would resound, “It’s Howdy Doody time!” Howdy, a marionette, had 48 freckles, one for each state. If he ever comes out of retirement, he’ll need two more freckles.

“The Patty Duke Show” aired from 1963 to 1966, the heart of my high school years. The show featured two identical cousins. One was from Scotland and worldly; the other was a New York City innocent, if that’s possible. The two cousins clashed, setting a tone and forging many a plot. Patty Duke became a star but suffered a troubled adulthood. I met her in December 2006 and was immediately struck by her short stature, five feet even. I told her I watched her show as a kid. She thanked me and told me she found Southerners “warm, accommodating people.”

My family and I vacationed in Florida once and one of our destinations was Silver Springs, a shooting locale for “Sea Hunt.” This program followed the adventures of scuba diver, Mike Nelson, played by Lloyd Bridges. An ex-Navy frogman, Nelson rescued people from drowning and salvaged things such as a missile from beneath the sea.

What great shows we had in the days of grainy black and white TVs, rickety antennae, and no remote controls. (If you wanted to change the channel, you could make junior do it or get up off the sofa.) We had “The Ed Sullivan Show,” “I Love Lucy,” “The Twilight Zone,” and later on “The Flintstones,” a cartoon version of Jackie Gleason’s “The Honeymooners.” “The Flintstones” made history as the first prime-time show with two people of the opposite sex in bed together. Fred and Wilma, hang your heads in shame!

The Western thrived back then. We had “The Cisco Kid,” “Gunsmoke,” and “Zorro,” starring Guy Williams who later starred in “Lost In Space.” And “Rawhide” gave us the consummate cowboy, Clint Eastwood, who parlayed his role as Rowdy Yates, a hotheaded ramrod, into the “Dollars Trilogy/Spaghetti Westerns” and superstardom. Frankie Laine, you’ll recall, sung the theme song, later made infamous by the Blues Brothers (John Belushi and Dan Ackroyd).

“Cheyenne,” starred Clint Walker, a twin by the way. His good looks caught the eye of Cecil B. DeMille who cast a part for him in The Ten Commandments. Soon, he had a show of his own.

The list goes on … “Andy Griffith,” “Flipper,” “The Dick Van Dyke Show,” “The Twilight Zone,” “Dr. Kildare,” “The Outer Limits,” and others. I suppose the young people of today could argue their shows are just as good but I don’t think so. The difference is simple but huge. We, the babyboomers, not only grew up with TV but more to the point, TV grew up with us. We were part of TV’s Golden Era. The fact that it was black and white is part of the glory to me.

Progress marches on and sometime it’s ruthless. All across this country landfills hold the remnants of bent and broken TV antennae that once sprouted from every rooftop. Someone said the TV antennae of yesteryear looked like the product of a wild night between a towel rack and a steam radiator. They ruined the looks of neighborhoods but no one cared, for those skeletal-like contraptions snatched the signals from WRDW 12 and WJBF 6 right out of the air. They brought us laughter, entertainment, and legends. They brought us a lifetime of memories and there’s not a landfill on Earth that will ever hold those.

###

Tom Poland

Tom Poland, A Southern Writer – Tom Poland is the author of fourteen books, 550 columns, and more than 1,200 magazine features. A Southern writer, his work has appeared in magazines throughout the South. Among his recent books are Classic Carolina Road Trips From Columbia, Georgialina, A Southland, As We Knew It, Reflections of South Carolina, Vol. II, and South Carolina Country Roads. Swamp Gravy, Georgia’s Official Folk Life Drama, staged his play, Solid Ground.

He writes a weekly column for newspapers and journals in Georgia and South Carolina about the South, its people, traditions, lifestyle, and changing culture and speaks to groups across South Carolina and Georgia. He’s the editor of Shrimp, Collards & Grits, a Lowcountry lifestyle magazine.
Governor McMaster conferred the Order of the Palmetto upon him October 26, 2018 for his impact upon South Carolina through his books and writing because “his work is exceptional to the state.”

Tom earned a BA in Journalism and a Masters in Media at the University of Georgia. He grew up in Lincolnton, Georgia. He lives in Columbia, South Carolina where he writes about Georgialina—his name for eastern Georgia and South Carolina.

Visit Tom's website at www.tompoland.net. Email him at [email protected].

21 Comments
  1. Frank Povah

    Western Australia didn’t get Tv in any shape or form until 1957, the Eastern States the year before. The excitement when it arrived was immense and the destruction of the brain’s Islets of Discrimination instantaneous. It’s been all downhill since then.

  2. “I Love Lucy” taught me a valuable lesson — no good comes from lying, ever. She always lied. She was always busted. If she’d just been honest from the beginning…ah well.

    What goes around comes around. We’ve enjoyed all the fun and expense of expanded television (you had two stations in 1957, we were overwhelmed with four!), and find that with all the channel options, we mostly just watch CBS, NBC, ABC, all available over the airwaves. We’re currently researching the roof antennas that would work best in our area.

    My husband insists it not be the 1950s style (your photo, above).

  3. Tom you mentioned the remote control but that sucker was the beginning of the “couch potato”. Me included. I also can’t believe we would have as many stations without it to flip through all the channels available. Sorry ladies, it’s a guy thing.
    If a man threw out his remote he would get more exercise than being on a treadmill.
    I remember having to visit a neighbor to watch TV. Not every one had one then and now it would be hard to find a home with just one.

  4. I can remember our first TV it was a huge black metal box with a small screen. It sat on a metal frame stand. I wonder how many people got electricuted by their TV’s in the 50’s? I like you find very few programs of interest on TV today. I am however an avid sports fan, so all 6 ESPN channels , are on my remote surfing plan, along with Discovery, History, Tennis, and Animal. I like the advances in technology, I like color, surrond sound, and the big old flat screen HD TV’s.

  5. Terri Evans

    What I recall most from my early television days was the very quick bath I took during commercials so as not to miss anything. I had earned this TV time for doing my homework, and by golly, I was going to get every bit of it! The other memory is painful — my older brother serendipitously learned that the antenna would perform better if his little sister laid on the floor with one leg directly up in the air and kept it there for hours. I was, however, allowed to lower it during commercials.

  6. The first one appeared in 1951 or ’52 when Montgomery suddenly had a station (Ch 20). 21 incher.

    But, I just red Leavitt and Dubner’s latest… we may have done ourselves a disservice with The Tube in the long run. Perhaps in light of their research we ought to take a step back and decide how much time our kids spend tied to The Tube. r the X-box, or Wii or whatever. We may be doing them a disservice in the long run.

    But, was Ernie Kovacs great or what???

  7. I have a theory that there’s a connection between channel changers and widespread Attention Deficit Disorder! You’re absolutely right that there has been a great falling off in the quality of shows since the Golden Age of early television. Even Newton Minnow couldn’t have foreseen what a vast wasteland television would become. Contemporary American life, as it’s portrayed in current TV shows, makes me want to move to Walton’s Mountain or to Mayberry and stay put.

  8. Nice trip down memory lane for those of us who are old enough to remember not having a television and going to a neighbor’s house to watch. You forgot Bonanza as a great western show, evolving on the cusp of the color revolution. Who could forget the first time they saw the peacock spreading its tail feathers in color as that show came on. What a magical display. Color television. Imagine.

  9. Tom, as usual your stories are so relevant to my life, it’s eerie! Just last night, (during commercials while watching the game, GO DAWGS!) my friend and I were having a long converstation about our first TV and about those antennaes. My poor working class parents won a TV at a work sponsered Christmas party. They were so proud of that TV. We used that huge rooftop antannaes for many years. My dad would go up on the roof every now and then to adjust it. There were no local channels in Savannah. We got the station from Jacksonville.
    We were also talking about the show 77 Sunset Strip. Do you remember that show? My friend just recently was in LA and saw the marker in front of the building where it was filmed.
    Like you I don’t like most of the shows we have today. I usually just watch movies.

  10. Don O'Briant

    Excellent piece, Tom. We watched the two Augusta channels back in the ’50s and, if my father felt like climbing on the roof and turning the TV antenna, we could get Greenville, Spartanburg and Asheville (with a snowy picture). When we moved to Atlanta we had trouble keeping babysitters because we still had a black and white TV.

  11. …and then a story in today’s newspaper offers that over-the-air networks are considering a business model based on cable operations, meaning that in addition to the commercials (which apparently aren’t generating enough income to cover costs, especially if you factor in Katie Couric’s salary), we would all have the privilege of paying for the opportunity to watch “Dancing With The Has-Been Stars” and accompanying commercials.

    Ergo. Roof antennas soon may be forever done, so Tom and I might not invest too much in such a limited-use contraption after all. We’ll see.

    On the other hand, “House” and “Glee” aside, I wonder how many people would PAY to watch FOX network.

  12. Frank Povah

    I’m seriously thinking of asking the FCC to do something about satellite TV – endless repeats that are rebadged and endlessly repeated once more. Frequent interruptions to service – even a heavy fall of rain is enough to break it – despite TV commercials telling us that you can get their service during hurricanes. (Really? We’d have nothing better to do?)

    Oh yes, in Australia the free-to-airs are already showing some of the cable/satellite programs.

  13. Cliff Green

    Great memories, guys!
    Don, I grew up in norteast Alabama a zillion miles from a TV station, but if we could turn the antenna in just the right direction, we could watch stations from Chattanooga, Birmingham and Atlanta. Our antenna was on an extremely tall metal pole just outside the dining room window. If we were watching Chattanooga and wanted to change to Atlanta, somebody had to open the window (if in winter) then go outside and listen to hollered directions from inside the house:
    OK, turn it!
    No! Too far.
    Turn it back!
    Stop! Go the other way!
    OK, that’s it!
    Finally, we would zero in on Atlanta, and all would be well.
    PS: I’m surprised none of you have mentioned Chattanooga ‘rassling. It was the best.

  14. Cliff -Wouldn’t Gorgeous George have been spectacular in color? My Dad was a fan during the 50s.

  15. Melinda Ennis

    While there is an unbelieveable amount of pointless, moronic programming today, remember that the airwaves are now filled 24/7 with literally hundreds of channels. During my youth there were three channels and PBS + everyone signed off at 1 or 2 am.
    There are some wonderful, epic programs produced today, mostly on HBO, etc. but the amount of airtime that must be filled would challenge the greatest writers of history. Great writing is still there, “Friday Night Lights,” “Mad Men,” and yes, I am a devotee of “30 Rock.” But with the endless amounts of time to be filled, there is, exponentially more crap. While I love Lucy, (which I watched in reruns) let’s not forget junk like “My Mother the Car,” “My Favorite Martian,” and “Land of the Giants.” These were big shows during my growing up years proving that bad taste is not necessarily a product of this generation.

  16. Cliff Green

    C Smilt: Georgeous George had a competitor for the gay market, a guy from Texas named Ricky Starr.
    Starr, who always wore pink, claimed to have been a ballet dancer before turning to the ring. The highlight to his matches consisted of tippying over to his macho opponent, slapping his ugly face silly, then quickly pirouetting out of harm’s way. The act never failed to bring down the house.

  17. Cliff do you remember the matches out of Chicago? I remember the camara work looked like it was from the cheap seats. Man that was a long time ago!
    I remember George because of his fur coats and jewelry and dyed blond hair. Outragous as Starr was. A different type of showmanship than todays loudmouths.

  18. Cliff Green

    Heck, yeah! I remember the matches out of Chicago in the 1950s. The Big War was not that far in the past, so the promoters up there created evil “Germans” who tired to choke the life out of the good guys while the referees were distracted. The most famous villan was named “Hans Schmidt.” The guy was probably Irish, or something, but he always tried to gouge out the eyes of American boys with a beer opener, which he was always able to hide in his shorts before the referee caught him. For many years, “Hans” was booed all the way to the bank.

  19. Man Cliff thats funny and the weird part it’s true. The introduction of the masked villian made them all want to be the bad guys. Mo money.

  20. My dad was really hi-tech. He used a sheet of aluminum foil wrapped around the antenna wire to fine tune the picture. My siblings and I never noticed a difference, but we didn’t have the fine eye for detail he did.

  21. Cowabunga! I remember all that stuff, even though we were the last people we knew who got our own TV… my dad was waiting for color.

    My grandpa didn’t need a remote. He stationed his TV watching chair 3 feet in front of the set so that he could reach over and turn down the volume when the commercials came on. Never mind that the rest of us had to watch from oblique angles, it was his television set and he would sit where he darned well pleased.

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