Yesterday's Magazette

15 – TV In The 50s

Television and Fame In The 50s 

By Marilyn Holt

We were the cross-over generation – from radio to television. Many Saturday mornings, I leaned against the kitchen sink and listened to Hopalong Cassidy, but when television came into our house, those radio days were fewer. It was late fall of 1956. I was in the first grade, impressed that I knew the alphabet and thrilled with the school bus that carted us country kids back and forth.

Coming home that one day in 1956 was like most others, but it was not the usual day at home. A stranger’s truck stood in the driveway, and in the living room, a man struggled with a large box. Finally, out of that box came a Magnavox TV set.

YM:Television1

Mother wanted it, and didn’t. She loved to sit and chat when we visited friends in our rural neighborhood, but that happened less and less as each family bought a television.

Conversation stopped when the contraption came on. Social evenings became television events. People watched television the way they watched a film in the theater. Adults sat around on sofas and chairs. The kids were down front on the floor.

You were quiet or spoke softly, and the room was usually darkened – just like in a movie theatre. The darkened room, in fact, led to a new gadget – the television lamp.

This sat on top of the TV and emitted a small amount of light from around the popular designs of a Chinese pagoda, a black panther, or a sailing ship. The light was important since, as rumor had it, watching TV in blackness caused blindness.

My two sisters (Cathy and Teresa), my brother (David), and I had a special brush with television early on. It brought us instant fame at school and a certain celebrity among our friends. It all began with the local television station at Harrisburg, Illinois, and its early evening kid’s program, “The Cactus Pete Show.”

A thin copy of “Cactus Pete” featured cartoons and reruns of the “Our Gang” comedies. The host dressed like an old-time CaIifornia gold miner (remember that was an Illinois station) talked in a crackled voice that made him sound one hundred years old, and hawked the sponsors’ products (Sunbeam Bread and Dairy Brand milk). He also interviewed “buckaroos” sitting in the Peanut Gallery.

On a November evening, the day Cathy turned seven, our parents gave us all a special birthday surprise. We were part of the Peanut Gallery. With about ten other kids, we sat in the television studio, watched with complete awe the television cameras and studio monitor, and responded to signs that flashed “quiet” or “applause.” The highlight came at the end of the program when Cactus Pete talked to us on camera. “What’s your name? Where are you from?” I was first, then my sisters, with Cathy getting special attention because it was her birthday. It was, however, three-year-old David who stole the show. He spoke right into the microphone and looked straight into the camera. No prompting, no coaching, he was a natural.

“What’s your name?”

“David Irvin.” He flashed a smile and fingered the Hopalong gun and holster set he insisted on wearing everywhere (later attachments were a Zorro hat and cape).

“Where are you from?” said Cactus Pete with a big smile.

“Timbuktu,” answered David without hesitation.

My sisters and I, our parts said, were watching the monitor, but now David had our interest. We turned and listened for what he would say next.

Cactus Pete frowned. “Whoa, buckaroo,” he said, “aren’t these your sisters and aren’t they from Broughton?”

David shook his head, and answered louder than before, “Timbuktu.”

Through the glare of studio lights, I could see our parents beyond the cameras. Their faces wore those looks that parents get when they are both surprised and amused. Mother stuffed a handkerchief in her mouth, fearful, I suppose, that some microphone might pick up the sound of offstage laughter. Cactus Pete seemed a little less tickled. End of interview. End of show. End of our showbiz career. (I can imagine now that after the show, old Cactus headed for the dressing room cussing the little buckaroos of the world and looking for something stronger than a glass of Dairy Brand milk.)

If it’s true that everybody gets a few minutes of fame in their lifetime, the Irvin kids had theirs early in life. We were the first in our neighborhood and in our school to appear before the bright lights of television. We have not been invited back.

Vol. 39 – Copyright © Yesterday’s Magazette – 2012

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