Television and I are old chums. We were born not too many years apart and I have fond memories of our childhood together. So I was really looking forward to last night's PBS show Pioneers of Primetime. From the review in the Star Tribune, I knew I'd better not expect too much, and I was glad for the warning.
The history of television is too big and the medium has had too much impact on modern society to be stuffed into a one hour time slot. Had this been part one of a multi-part series, like Baseball or New York , it would have made a better impression. As it is, it skimmed, trimmed and skipped over a lot of what made early television great.
There's no doubt that the personalities and shows that were covered were indeed pioneers. But, the show only covered comedians that came from or were heavily influenced by the vaudeville era: Red Skelton, Bob Hope, Donald O'Connor, Burns & Allen, among others. Where was drama, where were the shows with headliners from nightclubs, where were the game shows. Early television wasn't only about comedy and variety. What's My Line began in 1950 and ran for 17 years in virtually the same format. Kraft Television Theatre was the first drama series (1947).
The show touched on the presence, or lack thereof, of minorities, showing clips of Sammy Davis, Jr. and his father and uncle. Mr Davis's regular musical variety show didn't even show up until 1966. Nat King Cole's program was on in 1956-57. And Beulah, a situation comedy starring Hattie McDaniel aired in 1950.
There were some wonderful clips of Milton Berle and Red Skelton, along with their rememberances, and comments from vaudeville "brats" such as Steve Allen and Donald O'Connor. There were even films of live vaudeville shows, although who was in them was a mystery since there were very few captions. Production was shoddy in this vein because if the makers knew who they were, why didn't they let us in on it, and if they didn't, shame on them for not doing better research. This is probably a show that shouldn't have been undertaken at all if it wasn't going to do a better or more complete job.
One thought came through loud and clear, even though the topic wasn't discussed: television changed forever how we spend our free time and paved the way for the isolated, sedentary, attention-lacking world we find ourselves in today. A vaudeville show was a family activity that lasted a few hours one evening every once in a while when a show came to town. Moving pictures dealt it the first blow, but even they were something that lasted only a couple of hours at a time. The rest of the time, people had to make their own entertainment. People learned to play a musical instrument, they made up plays, they read, they played cards or games, they went for walks, went to the library, went to visit friends or relatives. They still connected. In person. With each other.
When radio appeared, it was the beginning of a different world. Yes, you could do other things while the radio was on, but it was right there in the home, right there waiting to be turned on, any time, and left on. There was an interesting picture on the show of a family sitting around the living room watching the radio. It commanded more attention and there was less incentive to do other things that took more effort. Many vaudevillians, in an effort to keep going, developed shows for radio that used their non-visual talents, but when television came along, they jumped at the chance to be in front of an audience, albeit an unseen one, and once again use broad, visual humor for big laughs. Now the audience was captive. You had to watch every minute or you'd miss something. And, being that this was a time well before VCRs and TiVo, you had to watch every week.
After a long day at the office or looking after the kids, it was just a lot easier to sit back, turn on the television and enjoy Uncle Miltie than it was to read, play the piano or visit the next door neighbors. We started staying home, staying inside, not talking to each other, slavish staring at the glowing blue screen. Try having the television on and resist the urge to just sit in front of it and stare. It's difficult. It's almost as though it's an alien being sucking the life blood right out of you.
Now, I'm not one of those people who have thrown away my television, nor do I even pretend that I never watch it. I like to see Kenneth Brown's latest decorating triumph, pick up a cooking tip from Rachael Ray and enjoy the witty banter between Lorelei and Luke. I even like to watch reruns of Magnum, P.I., especially on really cold days in January. But I know that my old friend who I spent so many hours with as a child, probably didn't have my best interests at heart and it was a friendship where I gave more than I got. We have a lot of history together and I'm willing to cut it some slack, but I'm going out to the opera tonight, I'm going to listen to the live orchestra broadcast on Friday night and I just might finish the book I'm reading on Saturday. Sorry pal.