Younger generations, more of them than I care to contemplate, have never known anything other than 24×7 television, internet and social media. Growing up deprived (by comparison), as we did, our TV viewing was limited to the three networks and a local public broadcasting station. In truth, we really only had CBS and ABC since PBS and the NBC affiliate rarely showed themselves too clearly on the small (by today’s standards) black and white TV that sat in the corner of our Midwest living room.
Television was different back then in ways that surprise me now when I watch the syndicated reruns on Me TV. It was both simpler and more naïve while at the same time groundbreaking. Case in point: Norman Lear’s Emmy-winning masterpiece, All in the Family. Some of what was aired back then would never see the light of day now. One episode in particular comes to mind. The Bunker family was invited to a wedding reception of Archie’s nemesis George Jefferson’s son who was marrying a white woman. Archie offered up his trademark working class, bigoted banter and watching this just a few weeks ago, I was floored when I heard the n-word freely tossed about. Another program that I enjoyed when I was a grade school kid was Hogan’s Heroes. Certainly not in the same league as All in the Family, it is nonetheless hard to fathom now that any network would include a ‘comedy’ about Nazi concentration camps. A recent episode shown on Me TV included a scene in Colonel Klink’s office and I was shocked to see a framed photo of Der Fuehrer himself hanging on the wall.
Primetime television is one thing but when you’re a kid what you really live for is Saturday cartoons and afternoon matinees, especially when inclement weather meant a day stuck inside with little else to do once the boredom of board games, paper dolls and coloring set in (or in my case when you were between trips to the library and had nothing new to read).
Cartoons, propped up with a plethora of advertisements for the latest, must-have, sugar-laden cereals, were eagerly watched by all of us girls, especially when the new fall line-up began. Unfortunately, this was always short-lived as we had Saturday morning catechism and I always resented having to miss out on the new stuff that all my non-Catholic friends would be discussing come Monday morning when our school week resumed.
Aside from the usual animated fare, such as The Archies, Jonny Quest and Scooby Doo, we especially enjoyed programs such as The Monkees (‘Here we come…’) and The Hudson Brothers (‘Hey, Margolis!’). What middle school girl back then didn’t have a crush on Davy Jones or Mickey Dolenz? As for the Hudsons, they were a pop band on the scene at the time and I thought Bill was dreamy (Fun Fact: he was married to Goldie Hawn and his daughter is actress Kate Hudson). My sisters and I would giggle at their zany skits and swoon when they played some of their hit songs (a favorite of mine: So You Are a Star).
As morning devolved into afternoon, once dinner dishes and other chores were done, our family enjoyed watching bowling. Bowling that is broadcast now on TV (oh, it’s out there if you channel surf long enough) is nothing like it was back then. Today’s ten-pin action is a loud, noisy affair taking on what I imagine the patrons experienced back in the days of gladiator action in the Roman coliseum. However, when I was growing up, TV bowling was quiet, solemn almost. No wildly cheering crowds as the bowler prepared to throw the ball which is done today, I’m sure, in an effort to boost ratings from what some might consider to be a fading sport. In any case, we all enjoyed it and when Dad took us bowling we sometimes took on the names of the famous bowlers of the day in filling out our score sheets (my favorite back then was Carmen Salvino).
Of course, Saturday afternoons also found us glued to the set when there was something good on the Wide World of Sports. Despite repeated viewings, I recall how my dad still groaned in disbelief every time when that poor skier flew off course during the opening ‘thrill of victory and agony of defeat’ film montage. Figure skating was a favorite for us girls. We also enjoyed swimming and diving.
The real fun – and adrenalin rush – of what we watched on Saturday afternoons came when scary movie thrillers were shown. We sat through countless Christopher Lee horror films and other films of this genre such as I Saw What You Did, a 1965 suspense classic where two teenage girls become targets of a murderer after they randomly call his number as a prank. Other films of this kind that are locked in my memory include Whatever Happened to Baby Jane and Picture Mommy Dead with its haunting theme The Hearse Song, which as I remember it, went something like this:
When you see a hearse go by, you will know someone has died
They bury you six feet deep and then the coffin begins to leak.
The worms crawl in, the worms crawl out,
They crawl through your stomach and out your mouth.
Later in the evening our family would sit down to enjoy The Monroes, a story about a family trying to settle the land and make a life for themselves on the frontier. Saturday night primetime would include The Carol Burnett Show or the original Bob Newhart and one of my favorites, Mary Tyler Moore. News and weather at ten o’clock – if we were still awake by then – and on particularly late nights for us kids, we might actually make it through yet another movie (ones that I fondly recall include Elephant Walk and The Long Ships). You knew you were getting more grown up if you were still awake when the Star Spangled Banner played to signal the end of the broadcast day. After the final notes of our national anthem: Static. Note to Younger Readers: If you are puzzled as to what I’m referring to, I invite you to check out the 1982 film Poltergeist. An early scene in the movie shows exactly what this looked like.
Today’s TV landscape is entirely different today. Hundreds of cable channels, streaming, subscriber services – all available at any time, day or night. So many options, while exhilarating in some ways, serve to numb us (and dumb us down?) at the same time. Perhaps this is why watching those old standards on Me TV is so pleasurable. Still though, I wouldn’t trade the fun and enjoyment we had from watching the new groundbreakers such as Breaking Bad, Portlandia, House of Cards and Orange is the New Black. A new era of excellent TV – perhaps the best ever.
A summary of Saturday television, of course, would not be complete without mention of Saturday Night Live, which first aired in 1975. Raucous, edgy, groundbreaking and FUNNY! – this Saturday night staple has provided countless laughs and memorable moments and has launched the careers of many of the best comedic – and dramatic acting – names in the business.
Other days of the week have also offered great TV but in my opinion Saturday has dominated over the years. Today however, with easy, inexpensive access to recording devices, it no longer matters what day any of our favorite programs air. The challenge now though is finding time to watch them all.