Wednesday, January 25, 2012

In the Bleak Midwinter or...Gathered 'round the Boob Tube

I hate to admit this, because I sound like the quintessential baby boomer, but what I most remember about the month of January is.....television.  Saturday afternoon television to be precise. Per A.A. Milne, 'When I was Very Young', Saturday mornings were for labor: home repair and improvement, the trips to the lumberyard and hardware store that these entailed, and the household chores small children are responsible for.....dusting furniture and around knick knacks, scrubbing the tub and, lastly, cleaning their own rooms. I can clearly remember dusting; my olfactory recalls the scents of weed killer and turpentine associated with the hardware store much more than my mind's eye can bring up the arrangement of its aisles.  The railyard was across the street and Sherwin-williams covered the globe with color on the exterior sign.  Then as now, there was always a project underway: I remember the divider my father built with 2x4s and maple veneer to create a dining room from the open kitchen/dining floor plan of our tract house.  The book shelves on the dining side held novels by Mary Renault, Ernest Gann, art folios, and other titles I can picture but not remember.  I know my father's set of Will and Ariel Durant lived in the dining room but I feel it resided between the two large teak stereo speakers that bracketed our meals with the FM classical stations of Chicago.  I know for a fact that the two volume set of A. Conan Doyle sat on that homemade shelf, as did the complete Mark Twain.  Those volumes are somewhere in my folks' collection still, I am certain, but they would never pass muster with a collector.  Despite sturdy cloth binding and stitching, the rustling pages are indelibly stained with......popcorn butter.  Winter afternoons in my mind are associated with a heaping green Tupperware bowl of buttered popcorn, paper napkins and a vinyl tablecloth, and the Texaco Opera quiz, erudite and as foreign to me as Hindu expounding from the teak speakers.

On those short and dark winter afternoons, we caught a respite from outdoor activity consigning cold and snow to the Saturday editions of Wide World of Sports.  ABC was a recent network addition in the '70s, joining NBC from Columbia and CBS in Jefferson City.  From the sandstone house deep in the country, we could practically do line of sight from the butterfly antenna on the black and white to its transmitter. As the wood stove in the kitchen snap, crackled and popped, we'd partake of such exotic offerings as ski jumping (the Norwegians had it), downhill skiing (the Austrians won and the Americans wiped out gloriously) .  Everyone was a critic, especially when the subject was figure skating.  Costumes, music, axels, death spirals, general artistry: we had our favorites and our superheroes.  We were deep in the Cold War and knew without saying that the Communist judges would never play fair.  Peggy Fleming created her own gold standard in skating.  It was not the first time in my life I recognized that the old saw "you can be anything you want to be" was a blatant lie, but it may have been the most obvious example.  No matter how much I FELT I could be a figure skater in a sequined costume and sleek color coded skates, I was always going to be lacing my skates over two layers of socks so tight I cut off the circulation.  I would always be that close to tripping over the teeth and winding up with a mouthful of frost.  And no glory.

Those early winter evenings left plenty of time for type of old fashioned picture show.  My folks would pull out the flat grey metal suitcase of translucent slide images.  The old projector fed the slides in one by one with a satisfying mechanical clatter of metal.  The blindingly white screen yielded to the larger than life, crystal clear, jewel bright hues of a  fall walk in the woods, or Buckingham fountain, Abraham Lincoln's home in Springfield, light playing on the waters of the Lake of the Ozarks, laughing family gatherings, or the wildflowers of Mt. Rainier.  We would exhale audibly, ahhhh, like folks do at a fireworks display.  It is difficult now to remember how marvelous color slides appeared to eyes accustomed to black and white CRTs, photography, newsprint, even the color photography of the National Geographic

Laura and I were permitted to watch the Wonderful World of Disney on Sunday evenings.  The staple tale often involved an anthropomorphized critter, usually a mildly cute furry one, and the trials and effort of its daily life and interaction with other more threatening critters, two legged or not.  The closeup photography was fine, but dogs, otters, and even horses, paled in comparison with animation.  Second best would be a remake of some classic tale like Pollyanna. I still remember watching Haley Mills play multiple parts in various permutations of the Parent Trap.  An accent seemed to make for a much more interesting life!!

Speaking of accents, I fondly remember my introduction to Masterpiece Theater.  Sir Kenneth Clarke brought his well considered examples of the very best Western architecture, music, art and philosophy appeared in our living room each Sunday during prime time.  His exposition of the great flows of ideas across the Continent and the English channel combined with filming intricate ornament and detail to bring the genius of the famous and the anonymous alike to this 20th century girl.  Gothic, Romanesque, Baroque, Rococo:  I was entranced with the lexicon of style and amazed at the artistry that existed pre Industrial age.

Quite the other side of British television was the weekly angst of the Forsyte Saga.  Set in the transition between the Victorians and the Great War, it was a guilty pleasure to eavesdrop on this unhappy family, peek through the lacy curtains of their well to do home, and dream wistfully of the elegant hats and delicate fabrics of the ladies' costumes.    The subject matter could be quite adult and I always felt I was almost getting away with something as I hung on every nuance laden conversation.

This all sounds more educational and less fun than it actually was.  Even in the Chicago area, there was very little television by today's standards, but that made everything we watched memorable.  My kids watched the Smurfs; we watched Huckleberry Hound, also blue.  Yogi Bear and Boo Boo, Fred and Wilma, Quick Draw McGraw: all paled in comparison to the cast of the Rocky and Bullwinkle show.  The animation may have been simple and two dimensional, but the humor was not......or at least I thought there must be more to it when I watched my father snicker and laugh a dozen times each show.  Does anyone still play these shows?  Surely there is room on the hundreds of channels for Natasha and Boris, Fearless Leader, Dudley DoRight , Snidely Whiplash and Nell.

"Hey Rocky! Watch me pull a rabbit out of my hat!"!


  1. Boomerang Channel 298 on DirecTV has some oldies..and goodies. It is our channel of choice!

  2. Has Lizzie ever seen 'Pollyanna'? Or 'Heidi'? These are old shows I loved...they ended happily but weren't particularly sugar coated...