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Longing for the Golden Age of Television

The 1950s and early 1960s have been called the "Golden Age of Television." The programs of those early years, when most communities had access to only two or three channels, set the standard for entertainment. Modern television programming, despite all the technological advances made since the early years, is hard pressed to live up to that standard, making us old-timers long for those thrilling days of yesteryear.

Although the number of channels to which we now have access has expanded exponentially, and every home has not one but multiple TVs, and the technology is now light years beyond the first black-and-white sets, the quality of the programs falls far short of what it once was. (And we still find ourselves surfing through the myriad channels grumbling, "Forty-thousand channels and still nothing fit to watch!)

I remember when I was just a toddler, our home was one of the first in the neighborhood to own a TV. We had all of two channels. All programs, including even the opening and closing test patterns, were in black and white. There was no programming late at night, let alone 24 hours a day. The broadcast day began and ended with the playing of the National Anthem. The programs were (and still are) memorable. Adventure, drama, Westerns, comedy, games, and variety shows provided us multiple choices, and we tuned in faithfully to watch our favorites. And we kids then went outside and played at recreating the scenes and characters we had just watched. (I remember once after watching Sea Hunt, I found a pair of my grandfather's work gloves, put them on my feet, and crawled around flapping my glove-covered feet like a skin diver's flippers.)

I think especially of the comedy shows. The writers wrote truly funny stuff, and we viewers didn't need laugh tracks to tell us when something was funny. The writers included nothing that was off-color. They inserted no curse words, sexual innuendo, or political agendas to be driven into us. Just good, clean fun--and funny--stuff. Shows such as The Life of Riley, Doby Gillis, Abbott and Costello, Burns and Allen, Red Skelton, The Little Rascals, I Married Joan, Car 54, The Three Stooges, and My Little Margie.

Even the shows that followed the lives of TV families offered a degree of comedy while teaching true family and community values. Shows such as Father Knows Best, The Donna Reed Show, Ozzie and Harriet, Leave It to Beaver, The Real McCoys, and even The Honeymooners (although I never saw my parents or any of the neighbor kids' parents fight like Ralph and Alice Kramden did).

The adventure/drama programs also taught respect for law and order, marriage, and the family, and they reinforced the values that had made America great. Shows such as Perry Mason, Dragnet, Superman, Highway Patrol, Davy Crockett, Rin Tin Tin, Fury, and Sergeant Preston.

Educational and children's programs were also memorable. Howdy Doody, Captain Kangaroo, The Mickey Mouse Club, The Popeye Show. (I was on The Popeye Show once when Paul Freshour, a neighbor kid, got us on as part of his birthday party.) And then there was Dr. Ruth Stephens of the University of Tennessee teaching history on our public TV channel. She helped hook me on history.

Even the game shows of that era, though the prizes they offered were negligible in contrast to those of today's game shows, were genuine, suspenseful, and fun to watch. To Tell the Truth and What's My Line were my favorites, as you know if you've read my earlier blog posts. Groucho Marx's You Bet Your Life was another good one.

But the programs I enjoyed most (and, to the annoyance of my wife, I still enjoy watching them) were the Westerns. The Lone Ranger, Roy Rogers, Gene Autry, Hopalong Cassidy, The Cisco Kid, Death Valley Days, Rawhide, Wagon Train, The Rifleman, Have Gun Will Travel, Bonanza, and Gunsmoke.

One day when I was still young, before the "golden age" gave way to modern programming, my brother and I had an argument over which of our two channels we would watch. One of us (he insists it was me, but I deny the charge), in a fit of rage, turned the set off and on, off and on, until the tube blew.

"Okay," Daddy said as he entered the room and discovered the result of our argument. "If that's what you're going to do, there'll be no more TV." He put the set in the attic, where it remained until after I had gone away to college. In retrospect, that was the best thing Daddy ever did for me. It forced me to play outside more. I read more. And if I wanted to watch anything, I had to do it at my grandparents' or a neighbor kid's house.

Proof that those were indeed the "golden years" of the industry lies in the number of those programs that are still airing as reruns--or even have their own channels--today. Granted, after having experienced the high-tech advancements, not the least of which was the advent of color television, the old black and whites seem a bit primitive in their sets, backdrops, and special effects, but they set a standard that few programs today can match for quality of content and writing.

That's why I still prefer those "good ol' days" of black-and-white programming over the contrived, over-scripted, overtly "woke," and political agenda-pushing programs of today. Not everything about those "good ol' days" was good, but at least the TV shows were. Oh, for a return to yesteryear, at least in that regard!

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