Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Boomer Tube Babies

I’ll start this post with a poem I wrote circa 1973, a homage to the role that early TV played in my life. Within it, I’ve included links to many wonderful “blast from the past” programs. Enjoy exploring them after reading this ditty:

Test Tube Baby
Tom Terrific
Mighty Manfred Wonderdog
everfaithful companion
Crabby Appleton
Ding Dong School bells
Pinky Lee and Mean Old Mister Tooth Decay

Eyeball to eyeball
small screen tube
Uncle Bucky, Uncle Ned
and me.

Rootie Kazootie was full of zip and joy.
I was full of wit
An early TV whiz kid
Ah, Kid,
you haven’t changed a bit.

Head Trip
Few people today consider TV to be a place where a kid could sharpen her wits. The baby years of television did that for me—and more!

My mother loved to tell this story about my turn-on and turning point when it came to television. I was only a year old, and my parents—perennial gadget junkies—were flipping through the four channels Chicago had to offer in 1949 on their 10-inch black-and-white television. Leave it to them to be the first couple on the block to buy one of those new-fangled boxes. Howdy Doody caught my eye (or “How Do Ya Doody,” as my mom used to call him). I got so excited; I stood on my head!

Television has been standing me on my head ever since.

TV was my teacher, my artistic muse, my playmate, my babysitter, and my Joy in a Box. I learned to color with Miss Frances and on another show, I used one of those nifty pieces of film plastic you put on the screen, turning your B&W into a rainbow gallery thanks to a kid with crayons. In those days before color and sophisticated special effects, dragons like Ollie, of Kukla and Fran, piqued my curiosity about the real thing. While my mom was perennially busy being Mrs. Cunningham from Happy Days—baking, coffee klatching, cleaning, and home-making as a true profession—I was off getting my little brain in gear and my creativity tested when I wasn’t doing it running around our double lot property, raising Cain and clouds of dirt. I was the oldest kid in the neighborhood. I got bored quickly with kids considerably younger than me. TV offered cool adults—much more interesting than my parents!—and kids of all ages.

Radio Kids and Boob Tube Babies
It wasn’t until I married my first husband in the ‘70s that I realized how baby boomers might be unique as the first boob tube babies. My ex, born six years before me, came from the era of radio. He regaled me with stories of his favorite shows, and I bought him cassette reproductions of many of the classics as gifts: George Burns & Gracie Allen, The Shadow, Fibber McGee and Molly.

Laramie claimed that being raised on radio gave him a fertile imagination, unlike the TV generation behind him. He had to imagine it all with no visual cues. We boomers were handed our images on a silver platter. TV was my pabulum. His theory sounded good, but if it were true, why did I grow up so creative?

I went through a long period in my thirties where I thought I was too good for TV or TV wasn’t good enough for me—something like that. It was all crap, as far as I was concerned, a time when the expression “boob tube” hit home for me. There was nothing good on TV, and I preferred to read books, go to lectures, and chase after all the wrong men.

What has TV meant to you over the course of your life? What is your relationship with your TV shows and characters?

My husband Tim is constantly amused by how emotional and involved I get with the characters in the shows I love. They are my family. I mourn when they die or otherwise move on, and I swear at the writers who send them to questionable fates—or worse, yet, leave me between seasons on a cliffhanger.

While I suspect there are differences worth exploring between Radio Kids and Boob Tube Babies, I’m most fascinated by the theory of Steven D. Stark in his book, “Glued to the Set: The 60 Television Shows That Made Us Who We Are Today.” Stark believes that in a country as diverse as the United States, TV has created common reference points and a shared culture. His book covers the TV events he feels most shaped us into the nation we are today. This idea captivates me, because communication and connection are near the top of my personal needs hierarchy, as well as a sense of belonging. TV covers them all.

Stark also admonishes us not to throw the boob tube baby out with the bath water. In its diversity, television has it all—the good, the bad, the ugly, and everything in-between. Boomers are the test tube babies, because we were the first to splash in this TV pool of shared culture. Obviously, since Stark and others have written whole books on the topic, I am only scratching the surface of what it means to be have been on the forefront of this cultural melting pot. For example, Stark believes the real import of my beloved Howdy Doody was the opportunity to expand children’s marketing. Older boomers (born in the late 1940s) have been bombarded with advertising images, some of us nearly from Day 1 of our little lives.

You, Me and Mr. T.
Nope, I don’t mean the guy with the Mohawk and gold chains, but our relationship with Mr. Television Himself. If you’ve got 10 minutes, let’s do a self-discovery exercise. Give yourself a 5-minute limit for the first two bullets. Open up a computer file or grab some paper (or print this out and do it later). Don’t think too hard. Write from the top of your head:

* Name your top 5 favorite TV shows of all time.
* Name your top 5 most memorable commercials.

Now take another 5 minutes and make a header for each show or commercial. Write:

* Why did you love this show or commercial?
* Why do you think you remember it or it speaks to you from the past?
* What might each show’s prominence in memory say about you?

I hope this post sparks some dialogue in the Comments, because I truly believe that being the first wave of boob tube babies left a deep imprint on our generation. If nothing else, we were cued in early to the possibility of nationwide and ultimately global community. We have had the influence of others outside our family and tribe through television characters from an early age. Plus, we were treated to some of the most awesome shows ever written: Sid Caesar, Your Show of Shows, Hit Parade, I Love Lucy, Father Knows Best, I Remember Mama and a host of others. (Here’s more nostalgia if you want to listen later to some of your favorite boomer TV show theme songs.) If enough of you do the exercise, I’d love to share excerpts in a follow-up post if you’ll e-mail me your results.

Boomer Tube Babies are still a part of a great experiment that melds culture, marketing, and turning life into entertainment. The latter is such a hallmark of cool later living; it might just explain why cutting our teeth on the Golden Years of Television is giving our golden years more glitter.


PopArtDiva said...

Joyce - head over to my PopArtDiva Blog and listen to some of those old TV themes.

I posted some of my favorites and people want me to do some on a regular basis so I'm planning on it - I have a collection of hundreds of them from the 40s to the 80s - but my favs are the 50s and 60s ones.

Joyce Mason said...

Thanks, PopArt Terri! I know both our readers will be delighted to know that old TV theme songs will be a continuous feature on your blog. I know I am!

Pam Archer said...

TV certainly isn't what it used to be. In our day it was entertaining, wholesome, and fun. Today it is sleazy, soft porn, and not much else. I miss the old days! Days of I Love Lucy, The Carol Burnette show, Sing Along with Mitch, all the westerns, many, many more.

Happy Trails to You!

Eileen Williams said...

I was an avid TV viewer--so much so that my bottom wore a hole in the carpet right in front of the set! As we only had one (imagine!) this was in the middle of the living room. My poor mother tried to rearrange the furniture to no avail.
That worn and frayed area was my nesting spot from where I viewed countless shows that undoubtedly had a huge impact on my psyche. The kids programs in the early to mid fifties always had a life lesson and moral involved. I do think these began to shape us as a generation and maybe they even contributed to our "change the world for the better" mentality.

Joyce Mason said...

Pam, thanks for your input! I find network TV to be quite limited, myself, at least in terms of my own taste. I still don’t understand our country’s obsession with reality shows. (I get enough reality!) That’s why my husband and I are willing to spend considerable money every month on Direct TV. We love the expanded programming. There are many old TV shows and classic movies and some wonderful networks: History Channel, History International, Ovation, WE (Women’s Entertainment), and the Food Channel, to name a few. We also watch a lot of PBS. It takes more effort to sort through to find the gold, but we have found plenty to make the investment worth it. Both of us are movie aficionados, and there are tons of them. TV is also our main form of entertainment, as we’re more stay-at-home nesting types. Television is important to me as a shared activity with my husband and an antidote to my workaholic tendencies. I’m much more mellow since I began setting aside 1-2 hours most nights for R&R in front of the screen. (We have a 52-incher which is like the movies compared to that small screen of my childhood.) Still, those classics are my touchstones!

Joyce Mason said...

Eileen, I laughed out loud at the image of little Mary Eileen boring a hole in the living room rug in front of the TV! Good point about early TV always having a moral of the story. We could sure use more of that nowadays! Also, as I reread your post, the old theme song for Mighty Mouse came to mind, if I remember it right: “Here I come to save the day! That means that Mighty Mouse is on his way!” There were a lot of those hero characters, especially in cartoons. No wonder I grew up wanting to save the world. It's good to realize that there were some pretty positive contributions that early TV made to our boomer worldview.

Beverly Mahone said...

When I became an adult, I realized television from the old days gave me a distorted view of the world. My mother certainly didn't wear pearls and a nice dress to cook dinner and my dad didn't come home from work wearing a suit. I never understood why I didn't see people who looked like me.

I appreciate television as an opportunity to escape from reality and, to some degree, I realize just how silly some of those old shows really were.

But give me the Flinstones and the Jetsons and you never heard a peep out of me until it was time for my bath and to go to bed.

Melodieann said...

I've never been much of a TV watcher - even as a child. My grandma took me to the library for my first library card when I was 6 and I've had my nose in a book every since. I'll take a book over TV anyday!

Joyce Mason said...

Beverly, so true that not many people's parents looked like Ozzie and Harriet or Donna Reed and her doctor husband. My dad was a mechanic who came home dripping grease in bib overalls. His far cry from Dr. Alex Stone was a thorn in my Italian-American immigrant mom's side, who wanted to assimilate to become Donna Reed. I can see a lot of kids "checking out" from those unrealistic images. They were more fantasy and ideal than actual. Yet, agreed, escaping reality does have its value!

Melodiann, glad to know you have always been an avid reader. I wish I had a little more reader and a little less boomer tube baby in me.

The Uppity Woman said...

Joyce, I like your style! (See my reference to your "Don't Act Like a Dinosaur" in the comment section of Feisty Side of Fifty.) I, too, enjoy having friends of all ages. I feel it enriches and sharpens my perspective, as it obviously does yours.

Joyce Mason said...

Thanks for your Comment, Uppity! Great to have you on the Cool Insights blog. Hope to see more of you and get to know you!