Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Growing up pre-cable/pre-VCR - How lack of choice helped you appreciate the finer things

I was born in 1962.  When I was a kid, there were somewhere between three and six TV stations in the San Diego market, the three networks, a Spanish language station broadcast out of Tijuana, and two UHF stations (PBS and one independent). Now, you might be wondering why I say between, 3 and 6 stations. I remember that the two UHF stations weren't always there. I remember them being new stations. I don't think I could say about the Spanish station. There were one or two L.A. stations that you could get most of the time and a couple of other L.A. stations that only came in clear enough to be watchable once or twice a year.

Our household had one TV. Granted I'm sure that if you really looked around, there was probably another set or two in the garage under a bunch of stuff, but trust me, if any of them had worked well enough, we would have been using them. I do remember on occasion my brother and I trying to put one of these old sets in our room, only to find it was just way more trouble than it was worth.

As a kid, you were pretty limited in how much TV was geared toward you. Saturday mornings were great for cartoons. After school, there were re-runs of things like Gilligan's Island and The Munsters, and of course more cartoons (one of the stations had a segment showing a combination of old Warner Bros. cartoons and Fleischer Studios Popeyes). In prime time, there were always kid-oriented shows, like The Brady Bunch or The Wonderful World of Disney, but shows like that were only on a handful of times a week, and you had to take into account what the rest of the family wanted to watch. There were times, a lot times in fact, where you just didn't have the option of watching a kid show. Even if you had control of the TV, definitely not a given in our house, you had to suck it up and watch what was on. 

When a kid's show wasn't on, you watched sitcoms like Barney Miller, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and All in the Family, police dramas, Adam 12 and Hawaii Five-0, and lots of private eye shows, mostly Quinn Martin productions like Mannix and Barnaby Jones.  First run movies, ones that had been in the theaters a year or two earlier, were something of an event, even edited for television. A lot times, movies on TV meant old movies, Westerns, almost anything with John Wayne, Comedies, everything from Harvey to Rock Hudson/Doris Day movies, Action movies usually meant period adventure stories, like The Advertures of Robin Hood, Ivanhoe, or any pirate movie, lots of Gangster movies, Sci-Fi both good and bad, and Horror, again both good and bad, but more often than not, good, although possibly that's just the way I remember it.

Now, I watch a lot of old movies, especially on TCM, yakking about them with other old movie geeks on twitter, using the #TCMParty hash tag. For the last two or three years, TCM has been doing The Essentials Jr., great classic movies geared toward kids, Sunday evenings during the summer. The other night one of them was Alfred Hitchcock's Lifeboat, and there were probably a couple dozen of us talking about it on twitter, 140 characters at a time. Someone made a comment about how they wouldn't let their imaginary children watch something like that. Well, me, as a kid, Lifeboat was one of those old movies, that you went out of your way to watch. I can tell you right now, I didn't get a lot of the subtle nuances. Then again, I don't think I got the subtle nuances of the Bugs Bunny cartoons I watched after school either.

With a movie like Lifeboat, I can guarantee that the part about Tellulah Bankhead's bracelet and John Hodiak was lost on me as a kid, but the drama of William Bendix getting his leg amputated and the treachery of the German U-boat Kapitan, that part I got. Now, if I had the opportunity to watch nothing but kid stuff The Love Bug, The Jungle Book, and old Bugs Bunny cartoons, I'm sure I would have. But I didn't, I had to watch was on. As a result, films like King Kong, Angels With Dirty Faces, and Lifeboat had a much bigger impact on me than The Love Bug or The Jungle Book. Why? Partly because you got to see them more often, but mostly, I think, because they were better movies. Being forced to watch everything forced me to watch much better stuff that I would have chosen on my own. Kids miss that now. Not just kids really, a whole generation after me missed out on that. I'm glad I didn't.

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