On Your Mark, Get Set…
I can remember when the first TV set arrived in our home. It was before Sputnik because I remember watching that story on the evening news. This would place it around fall of 1957, which sounds right as my brother Rikk was born that year and dad probably acquired the TV to keep mom (who was still struggling to master English) from going nuts with an infant and a pre-kindergartener in the house.
How do I remember these details for vividly? TV was still the marvel of the age in the late 1950s, so much so that on occasion we’d go to an upscale restaurant in Raleigh that featured a darkened dining room where people could eat and watch a 21-inch black and white TV and this was considered A Real Big Deal back in the day.
I’d obviously gone to movies before we had the set; when it was in the shop for a few days I remember trying to convince my dad to take us to the movies so he could watch the newsreel in lieu of the evening news show.
Even though I made my bones in the sci-fi / fantasy / superhero genres, thanks to local TV my first love was old B-Westerns and TV shows: Gene Autry, Roy Rogers and Dale Evans, The Lone Ranger, Bat Masterson, Annie Oakley, Sky King (hey, it’s a Western even if he did fly a Beechcraft twin-engine), and most of all, my personal fave Hopalong Cassidy.
In the 1950s and 60s local TV station frequently ran hosted afternoon movies typically called The Early Show. Usually filling an hour and a half slot from 4:30 to 6 in the afternoon, they provided a distraction for kids while their parents prepared dinner or, it the ‘rents were ahead of the game, a diversion for the adults while waiting for everyone to arrive at the table.
At 90 minutes minus time for commercials and host segments, movies were either highly edited full length features or, more typically, B-movies and short features.
Another staple of TV in the 1950s and 60s that continued through well into the 1980s was the local hosted kid show. Often these shows featured a host who interacted with kids in the studio audience but many of them just had the hosts interacting with other characters, usually actors in costumes or puppets.
Between comedy skits and games they would run old classic cartoons, comedy shorts, serial chapters, and even short educational films -- in short, whatever they could get their hands on quickly and cheaply.
These shows could be surprisingly quite well done: Smart, sophisticated, and still intensely silly, all at the same time. Some local hosts managed to break out and become syndicated nationally: Bob Keeshan and Lump Brannum as Captain Kangaroo and Mr. Greenjeans, former burlesque third banana Pinky Lee who (literally!) cleaned up his act for kids, Soupy Sales, Chuck McCann, and others.
While the nationally syndicated hosts could typically do all fresh new material, local hosts frequently found themselves limited to a small group of film libraries and, depending on the budget of a particular station, their cartoons and short subjects could range from top notch Warner Brothers down to virtually unwatchable Terrytoons crap.
© Buzz Dixon