The “Back Then” I am referring to is the time when I was a child in the late 1950s. Recently, I was scanning through the channels on my TV and couldn’t find anything I wanted to watch. It got me to thinking what a small percentage of the 500-plus channels available to me have programming suitable for children.
When I was little we were lucky if we could receive one local television station. There were many programs that in today’s rating system would be rated “G.” Most of them were based on simple morality plays where good always triumphs over evil and you wanted to model yourself after these heroes. Oh yes, just in case you’re not old enough to remember these shows, they were in black and white. Color television hadn’t been invented yet.
One of my all-time favorites was the Howdy Doody Show staring its creator Bob Smith, known as “Buffalo Bob” on the show. And yes he was born in Buffalo, New York. He had a friend named “Howdy Doody” who was a marionette dressed like a cowboy whose voice was performed by Bob. They had a cast of characters including “Clarabell The Clown who was played by a man who years later would have a very successful children’s show of his own. His name is Bob Keeshen, who later became known as Captain Kangaroo.
Then there was a silly show called “The Pinky Lee Show” which featured a man dressed up in a silly looking outfit doing silly things. It makes me wonder if that show gave “Peewee Herman,” aka Paul Reubens, the idea for his character.
If you think it took the computer age to produce interactive television you would be wrong. Back then there was a show called “Winky Dink and You” which had a live action host and a cartoon character named Winky Dink. What made this show unique was how we, the viewers, got to interact with the show. You had to buy a kit that consisted of a a thin sheet of see-through vinyl that you would put on your television screen (static electricity held it on) and some special crayons. During the show they would show pieces of a puzzle that might spell out a message. They would give you one piece and you would take the special crayons and trace it on your TV. Then you would add each successive piece of the puzzle as they were shown and before the show was over you had completed the puzzle with the “secret message.” That put the show in the record books officially as the first interactive TV show.
Westerns were very big in the 1950s so Saturday morning television was loaded with cowboy shows. One of the most famous was “The Roy Rogers Show” which of course starred cowboy movie star Roy Rogers and his wife Dale Evans. The show had a theme song that Roy and Dale sang at the end of each show called “Happy Trails.”
What most people didn’t know was that Dale Evans re-wrote a song written for a movie by Foy Willing. She copied only the title and the first three notes and that song was sung-along by kids at home all over the country as the show ended each week. Roy had his famous horse Trigger and Dale’s horse was called Buttermilk.
My favorite western show back then was “The Lone Ranger.” It Starred Clayton Moore as the title character and his Indian companion Tonto was played by Jay Silverheals, who was born on Canada’s Six Nations Reserve making him one of Canada’s First Nations whom we in the United States called Indians and now Native Americans. That was unusual for the times. Most “Indian” roles were played by white men who wore the reddish makeup so they would look more like a Native American. Silver was the ranger’s horse and Tonto’s horse was named Scout. The show had a distinctive theme song and show open that I’m sure most of you have seen or heard before. Many people know that piece of music as the Lone Ranger theme and don’t know it is actually from Gioachino Rosini’s William Tell Overture.
I know it isn’t politically correct today, but we loved to play “Cowboys and Indians” and, at least in our case, the Indians won just as many times as the cowboys did. Yes we played with cap guns and no we didn’t end up really shooting people when we grew up. It gave us a respect for what guns could do and a respect for the law.
Hopalong Cassidy was a unique western hero of the day. He was the first “Good Guy” to wear a black outfit with a black hat. Before that the good guys wore white hats and the bad guys wore black hats. There was always a moral at the end of the show that taught us a lesson.
Another kids show with a more historical tone was “The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin.” Rin Tin Tin was a German shepherd dog whose owner and companion was a young orphan boy named Rusty (Lee Akers). They lived in Fort Apache with the cavalry. Rusty even had his own cavalry uniform. Another show about a boy and his dog was “Lassie” originally starring Tommy Rettig as Jeff, then Jon Provost as Timmy.
One of my favorite informational kid’s shows was “Watch Mr. Wizard.” It starred Don Herbert as the title character who taught us many things about science and nature while having a good time and being very entertaining. Most people today feel that TV back then was sexist having only men on the programs, but Mr. Wizard had youngsters come on the show to help with his experiments and they were usually a boy and a girl.
All of these show were safe for any children to watch and parents could feel safe letting their kids watch them. Actually the daytime “soap operas” were the racier shows with marital affairs, lying, cheating, and sexual innuendo that parents would not let their children watch. Today, even the main TV network programs just about all contain content not suitable for children. Life, to some degree anyway, was easier then for “safe” TV watching for everyone. The family would sit together around their one-and-only TV set and watch “The Ed Sullivan Show” and other variety entertainment. Now parents have to be aware of each and every program their children watch.
Let me know what you would like me to talk about or explain. You can comment below or email me at: [email protected].