It's been fifty years since my family first got a television set. I remember some of those early programs well, because I replayed them over and over in my young mind. For you whippersnappers who don't recall TV in the 1950s, let me relate some of my memories.
The crowning of the new Miss America was televised for the first time on September 11, 1954, to a huge nationwide audience of 27 million people. I might have been one of those people. I have a vague memory of seeing some such program in a motel room with my parents. The TV was coin-operated, so every 30 minutes we had to drop in another quarter.
I was also able to see TV when I visited my grandparents.
But my mother and father were reluctant to bring television into our home, because too much passive viewing is not good for children. They finally relented in the fall of 1956, when I was 9½ years old.
Marvin's terse voice-over narration as he drove alone through the city, with a light flashing atop his squad car, was later parodied by Leslie Nielsen as Frank Drebin in the Police Squad series, which led to the Naked Gun movies.
M Squad was shot on film. However, this was the Golden Age of Television, and there were still some dramas that were televised live. I recall only the end of one of them, a U.S. Steel Hour production about the search for a valuable upright piano that had been made from carved wood salvaged from Solomon's Temple in Jerusalem but had gone missing during World War II. That premise sounds terribly far-fetched to me now, so perhaps I have it wrong. But at the end, when everyone had despaired of finding the treasure, they were gathered around an ugly old piano that was encased in concrete or plaster or something. Then a corner of the plaster broke off. One character picked it up and saw the impression of an ancient carving, and everyone realized that the missing piano was right in front of them, in disguise.
Dramas like that were expensive to produce. Then as now, reality shows and panel shows were cheaper, and they drew big audiences.
Ralph walked up to the subject and interrupted him. The presence of Ralph and his book and the TV camera and lights suggested what was about to happen, but the guest of honor was usually momentarily speechless. Ralph told him that that it was going to be a very special evening, "because tonight, Andy Devine, This Is Your Life!" We heard music and applause. Everyone smiled and laughed and offered congratulations, and we at home smiled as well.
The guest of honor usually cooperated willingly, although I remember radio journalist Lowell Thomas complaining about the friends who had dragged him to the restaurant, angrily muttering, "This is a conspiracy!" And it's been said that Laurel and Hardy, who had been negotiating for a possible television series, were upset to suddenly discover themselves making their first TV appearance and not getting paid for it.
Nevertheless, no one was going to be a bad sport on live national television. Ralph introduced a commercial break, during which he and the guest hurried next door to the This Is Your Life stage for the main part of the show.
Ralph would reply, "That's right. Your neighbor in the apartment upstairs when you were growing up; all the way from Brooklyn, New York, here's Mrs. Esther Fedelman!" She would walk out on stage to applause and hugs, and Ralph would prompt her to tell her little story.
After half an hour of this, Ralph told us that everyone would be getting together for a big party after the show. The guest of honor would be receiving many gifts from the sponsors, including a movie projector with a kinescope of the program so he could watch it over and over.
Here's a link to a slightly exaggerated version of the program.
Another inexpensive format was the panel show, featuring a panel of four celebrities playing a game by asking questions.
Finally, in a memorable phrase, Bud asked, "Would the real Arthur McArthur stand up, please!" The impostors looked at each other. Each pretended to be about to rise before the real Arthur stood up, to smiles and applause all around.
Sometimes John would disagree with the contestant about which way to answer, and they'd have to put their heads together for a whispered conference. The panelists were amused whenever John called a conference with a female contestant.
My favorite was "I've Got a Secret," a similar show hosted by Garry Moore.
Here the panel usually consisted of Bill Cullen, Betsy Palmer, Henry Morgan, and Bess Myerson or Jayne Meadows. The contestant's secret was usually something rather offbeat.
For another secret, a number of ordinary-looking people were seated on the stage. It turned out that they had been chosen because their names comprised the words to the old song, "In the Good Old Summer Time." Well, approximately, at least. The first four people: Inda, Goode, Olds, Somerstein.
Part of the lyrics go:
hold her hand and she holds yours,
But Garry explained that his staff had had trouble finding people named And, so that section of the song was represented by people named