Wednesday, March 5, 2008

"Television and Me"

Television and I grew up together. When it was young, I was young.

When I was five, only one family on our street had a television. The Wagmans. I have no idea who the Wagman were. All I knew was that they lived down the street and at four-thirty, all the kids in the neighborhood – I guess we were invited – would walk in their open front door and deposit ourselves in front of the Wagmans’ television to watch Howdy Doody, the “must-see” children’s show of its day. There were cookies and milk provided, and we’d sit on the floor and dunk and drink. And watch. Mesmerized by a freckled wooden doll and his human sidekick, Buffalo Bob.

When it was over, we’d get up and file out, no “Thank you”, no “Goodbye.” It was out the door, and back the next day. The Wagmans were a total mystery to me. I didn’t even know if they had kids. (By the way, if you want to know what the fifties were like, at least in Toronto, the foregoing offers an illuminating snapshot.)

When we got our own TV, we watched at home. Communal viewing was now history, but thank you, Wagmans, whoever you were. You gave me an introduction to a medium that played a central role in the rest of my life.

When my Dad brought home our first TV, a 16-inch screen encased in a mahogany frame, sitting atop a thin-legged mahogany stand, I couldn’t have been more excited. Now I could watch Howdy in private, eating cookies I liked better, and no milk, which I didn’t like at all. After what felt like forever, I saw our picture come flickering to life. It was four-thirty. The next words I expected to hear were Buffalo Bob’s shouted opening line:

“Hey, Kids, what time is it?”

to which millions of American children, and Canadians in cities close enough to pick up American channels, would screamingly reply,

“It’s Howdy Doody Time!”

That didn’t happen.

Instead of Buffalo Bob’s, “Hey, Kids, what time is it?” I heard a sandpaper gruff voice reciting the following statement: “Mr. Chairman, I refuse to answer on the grounds that my answer may tend to incriminate me.”

It turns out that that this protestation of Fifth Amendment protection was delivered by a gangster, testifying at the Kefauver Crime Commission Hearings. On the first day of television in my house, Howdy Doody had been pre-empted by a Senatorial Investigation.

I learned about the pre-emption later. At the time it happened, I was horrified. I thought my father had messed up, and mistakenly bought a Grown-up’s television instead of a Kids’ television, the kind that programmed crime hearings instead of Howdy Doody. I was really upset.

Ultimately, however, the hearings ended, and the television I was hoping for returned. I watched everything. Howdy, Sagebrush Trail, with its host “Cactus” Jim introducing the commercial breaks during the B-westerns they were showing by announcing, “I gotta go water the horses; I’ll be right back with more ripsnortin’ adventures with ‘Hoot’ Gibson and Bob Steele.”

I watched everything back then, even John Conti’s Stairway to the Stars, though I had no idea who John Conti was, and Kate Smith, who was a large woman who sang. I also recall Flash Gordon and the Mole People. TV wasn’t on 24/7 back then, but however long it was on, that’s how much I watched it. I’d even watch the Indian on the Test Pattern.

Right from the start, my mother, ever-vigilant for telltale signs of social deviance – detected some worrisome signals – my intense, laser-like stare, my disappearance into video fantasy, which could only be broken by the word “Dinner!” and even that had to be repeated innumerable times. My mother was deeply concerned. I was wasting my time. I wasn’t making friends. When I watched TV, I was, somehow, “gone.” Television, like some predatory cult, had invaded her house, and had carried away her little boy.

Sometimes, my mother interrupted the spell, switching off the TV and demanding that I go outside, for some fresh air. I didn’t understand why she was punishing me. What had I done wrong?

Why did I have to go outside, in winter? I remember standing in our front yard, in my snowsuit and galoshes, wiping clean my sleet-blurred bifocals, and staring through our den window at the back of the TV. So near and yet… Then, my father came into the room. Risking his spouse’s rebuke, my Dad turned on the TV, and turned it around, so I could watch from outside. (My Dad died when I was six. This is one of the few memories I retain.)

Growing up, TV, like Charles, was in charge of my days and my nights. On Saturdays, I’d watch eleven straight hours of television, starting with cowboy shows like Buffalo Bill Junior and The Lone Ranger, and finishing with the Leaf game on Hockey Night in Canada. Over time, I developed a patented television-watching position. I wish I could show you a picture of it, but I don’t know how to do pictures on my blog, so I’ll have to describe it to you.

I’d lie on my back on the floor, a child’s body’s length from the television, my feet against the “hot air” vent on the wall. I’d prop up my head in a position that appeared uncomfortable to others, but to me, was natural. Here’s how it worked. I’d bend my left elbow and place my left arm behind my raised head; I’d then lower my head onto my bent-back wrist, supporting my wrist on my extended index and third fingers, pressed firmly into the carpeting. In this manner, I could lie on my back with a perfect view of the screen. Would a pillow have done me just as well? I suppose. But this was my way. I’d watch in that position for hours. With no negative effects. Until I turned forty.

My bible back then was TV Guide. I’d buy one every week. (TV Guide cost fifteen cents years after it should really have cost more.) Every Saturday morning, when the week’s listings began, I’d pick up the old TV Guide from on top of the television and replace it with the new TV Guide. When I was thirteen, I gave my ritual a little name. I called it “The Changing of the Guides.” Come on, I was thirteen.

All my life, I’ve collected TV Guide Preview Editions. (I stopped when they went large format.) I have all the TV Guide Preview Editions going back to the 1957-58 season, except for four.

A year or so ago, I went on eBay to see if I could locate copies of the missing Preview Editions. I found one, I won the auction, I sent the check and I waited. Finally, I received a parcel from the seller. Excitedly, I ripped open the wrapping. Inside, instead of the TV Guide I had purchased, I found an antique silver fork and spoon. That’s right. I’d paid for a TV Guide Preview Edition and had received instead a fork and a spoon. I returned the fork and the spoon to the seller, with a note, requesting the TV Guide I had paid for. I never heard from the guy again. I hate eBay.

What I’ve written here gives you a clear picture of what television meant to me. Television was my writing school. I learned by osmosis. When it came time to write my first TV script, it felt like I’d written scripts before. That “wasted time” watching TV gave me a career. My personality, however, does present a number of gaps.

Here’s the special part, and the reason I wrote this before posting “Story of a Writer” – Part Seven. In 1973, I was watching The Mary Tyler Moore Show in my friend, Alan’s, basement. In 1975, I was writing for that show. To me, it was as if, one day, I got up from my TV-watching position, stepped through the screen and was now, magically, on the other side. With not a huge amount of effort, I had advanced from TV watcher to writing for watchers. It wasn’t a goal I had carefully planned to attain. It just happened.

I couldn’t have been happier.


Veggie Gal said...

Your dad was cool. Can't wait to read the next installment.

Alan said...

that's where you went

Anonymous said...

Do you remember the Seinfeld episode about George's father's obsession with his TV Guide collection?

Those Fall Previews were indeed a peek into the future. Good things did indeed come in small packages. (Including Hirschfeld caricatures.) Not like today's big, boring TV Guides nobody reads.

Can't wait to hear about the MTM years.

Gail Renard said...

That's beautiful, Earl, and also explains how I too became a television writer. We're probably still chasing the dragon of our Howdy Doody days! And that tribute to your father spoke volumns about the sort of man he was. Thank you!

Chris said...

Earl: Love your blog. I got here through a link from Ken Levine, but I'm enjoying this just as much as Ken's site.

And I must admit, even though I'm an American, living here in Seattle we get CBC on the local cable and HNIC is "must see TV" in my house. Don Cherry and the Canadian commercials are a great way to live vicariously (sp?) as a Canadian.

Please keep up the regular posting.

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