A unique characteristic of baby boomers is that we are the first generation to grow up with television. The history of the development of television goes back to the early 1900’s, but it wasn’t until broadcast networks offered regular programming in the late 40’s and early 50’s that televisions became available to the public. By 1955 estimates are that half of American households had a TV set. There were just a few channels in those days and the programs were in black and white.
It’s the 1950’s shows that I remember fondly. Our TV set was in the basement during much of that time. Part of our basement was converted into a family room with knotty pine walls on which my parents allowed me to hang my precious baseball pennants. There was a brown and beige linoleum floor with an area rug, a coffee table, couch and chair so that our family of four could watch television in the evening. I loved getting up early on Saturday mornings to watch what I considered my own personal shows. I don’t remember the exact lineup, but there were a lot of cowboy programs; The Lone Ranger, Fury, Sky King, Roy Rogers and Hop-a-long Cassidy.
Andy’s Gang was a strange show hosted by Andy Devine and sponsored by Buster Brown shoes. It had some bizarre characters which included a mischievous toy frog named Froggy the Gremlin. Andy would say “Plunk your magic twanger Froggy” which elicited a twanging sound, a puff of smoke and the appearance of a stiff little toy Frog with arms and legs sticking out to the side. Froggy greeted us by saying, “Hiya kids, hiya, hiya hiya”, in a low male voice. One of the funniest bits to my child’s mind was when Froggy confused the teacher by interrupting him in the middle of teaching us something scholarly and serious. The interruption was “And I put it on my head” after which the teacher absentmindedly repeated the phrase and placed whatever he was holding on his head. I’m certain kids across America were laughing with me.
The Howdy Doody Show was the first television program I remember totally getting into. It was our Sesame Street minus all that healthy educational stuff. It took place in Doodyville and even had a Mayor, Pheneous T. Bluster. The most important part of the show for me and what made it more personal was the Peanut Gallery, a bleacher filled with kids just like myself. Buffalo Bob, the host, opened the show by asking the Peanut Gallery, “Hey kids, what time is it?” and all the kids would yell, “It’s Howdy Doody time,” and break into the Howdy Doody song, which was to the tune of Ta ra ra Boom de ay, an old Vaudeville song. I can finally admit that I sang along with the other kids. Some of the other characters on the show were Clarabel, who didn’t talk until the very last show, but instead honked a horn on his belt or squirted someone with a seltzer bottle, Chief Thunderthud who created the not very PC greeting and later resurrected by Bart Simspson, Kowabonga, and Princess Summerfall Winterspring, who vanished as a real person and later reappeared on the show as a marionette, like Howdy(unbeknownst to us kids, the actress was killed in a car accident).
The Peanut Gallery concept caught on across America. In the St. Louis area where I grew up, there were several shows that had live kid participation. One was Ernie Heldman’s Parade of Magic. My friend Paul and I got a chance to be on the show with our cub scout troop. TV was such a big part of our lives that to actually appear on it was a huge deal. I remember feeling nervous that Ernie would call on me to come up and help him with a magic trick, but he some chose other kids and I was relieved. Moments before the cameras rolled, our friend Craig spilled coke all over Paul and so Paul was pulled out of the gallery and didn’t get on the show. Later when it was on television we watched it and as the camera panned the rows of kids, I spotted myself. For a few brief seconds I felt the fleeting glory of fame. Then the show was over and my fame was lost in history. Very few of my friends saw that particular show and if one did, he or she didn’t remember seeing me on it.
A very popular show in the St. Louis area was Texas Bruce and the Wrangler Club. The kids were the Wranglers. Texas Bruce and his horse Trusty were popular figures around St. Louis. They appeared at many events. During the show, Texas Bruce allowed the boys and girls to individually say hi to family and friends. Most of the kids said hi to there moms and dads. On one show, a boy said “Hi mom, hi dad,” and then stuck up the middle finger of his right hand, thrust it toward the camera and added, “And this for you Herby.” The kid became legendary. Everyone was talking about him. Who was he? And who was Herby? What did Herby do to him to deserve this? I imagined Herby taking his revenge out on the kid and expected to see headlines in the newspaper, “One of Texas Bruce’s Wranglers murdered in his sleep.” But we never found out anything about the kid or Herby. In fact Texas Bruce denied that the incident ever happened. We couldn’t find anyone who actually had seen this show. Most parents believed it was all a rumor. But we kids were believers. This one brave boy who stood up to Herby the bully for all the world to see, lives on in our hearts and minds.
The unique feature of television is that you can relive history exactly as it happened in the past. Many of the shows we watched as kids were saved on film and can be viewed on the internet. I don’t recommend it however. The kids’ shows look cheesy and corny and the serious shows aren’t much better. I recently watched a few episodes of Have Gun-Will Travel with Richard Boone as Paladin. The shows concept was great and I would love to see it remade for current times. But when I watched these old episodes, I thought, Man is he ever an obnoxious one dimensional know it all. I guess we can’t really go back to our childhood. We can however savor the memories. I still believe in that lone Wrangler who gave Herby exactly what he deserved. As Texas Bruce used to say, Hasta la vista vaqueros, I’ll be seeing you Wranglers .