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I C London, I C France

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08.11.04

"Pinto Likes Bobby! Does Bobby Like Pinto?"

2. "By 1954, we will
have Tele-Vision!"

We got our first TV — about an 18" screen Motorola the size of a nowadays dorm refrigerator — in September 1953. Before then, we had watched TV only at night in the house of our landlords, two moves before, in the back of the small store they ran, or at the houses of friends in the subsequent moves. My sister and I came home from school to find it — and the installer-repairman — in the living room of our house on Pantego Road. Our mom worked split-shift as a waitress, so she was home from 1-4 in the pm. On the TV was something called Matinee Theater and there was an Indian staked out on a rock. (I would have, and did, watch test patterns which the stations put up every day about 30 minutes before they fired up.) Within days I had mastered the intricacies of the newspaper TV section. If you ran home Real Fast (school was less than half a mile away) you could watch the middle of the Pinky Lee Show ("Yoo Hoo, it's me! My name is Pinky Lee! Funny hat, funny coat, funny giggle in my throat!" — careers have been built on less. He was an ex-burlesque comic. He's in The Screaming Mimi/G-String Murders by Gypsy Rose — no relation — Lee from 1954 if you're curious.) Then came Howdy Doody and I don't know a single pre-adolescent boy who didn't get his first Jones over Princess Summerfall Winterspring... and so on through the afternoon into the evening when the grownups took over the knob...

In 1954, we had all three channels! WFAA (ABC) Channel 8, WBAP (NBC) Channel 5, and KRLD (CBS)Channel 4. Later from 1957 on, we had an independent, KFJZ Channel 11, but I won't go into the wonders of that and will stick with '54. All these stations came out of Dallas or Ft. Worth, and we lived smack-dab between them; a set of rabbit ears were all you needed to bring the mid-20th Century right into your house.

What was SF TV like in 1954? I hear you cry.

It was great for an 8-year-old.

Here's what I didn't get:

Captain Video. That was out of New York City, over the 4th network, Dumont. (Dumont had been a maker of TV sets. In the early days — recapitulating the ontogeny of radio — they started a network so there'd be more stuff to watch, hence more sales of Dumont television sets...) The network was about eight stations in the East plus some more who carried their programming part time, so it was never a contender except in the large markets. The main claim to fame of Dumont: next time you watch a rerun of The Honeymooners, thank your stars — the end credits say, "Filmed in the Dumont Electronicam Process" — Gleason's show was done live, but he chose their system — much better than filmed kinescopes — to preserve them for syndications.

Anyway: Captain Video, the first SF television series, started as a live 30-minutes a day, five days a week afternoon program, the story-arc of the installment taking anywhere from one to three weeks to complete. Besides hacks, some of the people who wrote for it were Alfred Bester, Damon Knight, and Jack Vance... It started in 1949 with Richard Coogan as the Captain — he soon got the better offer of a Broadway play opposite Mae West, and took off from the grind. Al Hodge took over in 1950 and stayed til the bitter end, 1956. At one point the show went to a live, three days a week 30-minute format, each episode self-contained. Then, in the final days the Captain hosted a filmed 30-minute cartoon show on Saturday mornings. With the death of the Dumont network, Captain Video went to the Old Spaceman's Home...

The show had a $25 a week special effects budget — that's all five days. One of the neat things about the cheapness of the show — the Video Rangers were scattered all through Space AND Time. Using his Opticon Scillometer (or whatever), the Captain would tune in one of the Rangers in 1883 — voila! — there'd be Bob Steele jumping from his horse to one of the stagecoach horses, then making his way back to the coach from horse to horse, then a punchout with the robber-hijacker, ending with stagecoach, horses, passengers, protag, antag, all going over a 300' cliff into Lake Tahoe... There was three minutes of the 30 and about 50¢ of the weekly budget. Same for jungle Rangers, desert Rangers, superhero serial Rangers, silent comedy Rangers....

Something had to be going on for the show to last six years. There was a big Life Magazine spread when the show gave away an all-but-working replica of the Captain's rocket ship — it looks about 20' long; there were Video Ranger uniforms for the winner and ten of his friends, complete with ray guns — the Captain and the Video Ranger brought it to the kid's home town on a truck — lucky bastard! The late Tom Reamy always used to say, "I wonder whatever happened to all that great stuff?" Probably sold for scrap metal....

Well, I didn't get Captain Video.

What I did get that had been running since 1950 were two shows: Tom Corbett, Space Cadet (based vaguely on Heinlein's Space Cadet, 1948) and Space Patrol. They both went through various programming permutations (and both were also on radio — different episodes — during their TV runs). At one point Tom Corbett was on all three regular networks in one form or another — new episodes, reruns, etc. — and at one point one of the shows had live weekday programs but a filmed Saturday morning show...

Willy Ley was the technical advisor on Tom Corbett and the show mostly dealt with the challenges to be faced in space; there was not much character-generated violence and no unnecessary killing in the world of 2350 AD!

Space Patrol was set somewhat later, had real-life adult heroes and heroines (as opposed to Corbett's space-happy teenagers with some adult supervision) and had adventures all over the Solar System.

Some of these are on tape and DVD if you look hard enough: the USA Network used to run Space Patrol episodes in the 1980s.

There was of course The Adventures of Superman — farsighted enough to film all the episodes from the second season on in color, though I never saw one in color till the mid-60s. There was Captain Midnight — an updated version of the 40s Fawcett Comics character who was now a superscientific crimefighter at a secret base with a jet that looked like the Navy DS-558-II Skyrocket. Ovaltine dropped sponsorship the third season and took the Captain Midnight name with it — so the show was changed to Jet Jackson. (The episodes were redubbed — probably by Paul Frees — so people talking to the hero had their lips flapping around to the syllables of "Captain Midnight" but what came out was "Jet Jackson".) Anyone who's read my "Mr. Goober's Show" knows that I watched both versions of Johnny Jupiter, part of which was a puppet show about an interplanetary television set.

There was the anthology show Tales of Tomorrow, which did some interesting shows. It was of course the Golden Age of Live TV Drama — done once gone — Playhouse 90, Alcoa Presents, Kraft Television Theater — and filmed 30 and 60 minute anthology shows. It was on one of these that I saw the adaptation of Heinlein's "The Green Hills of Earth" and Alfred Bester's "Fondly Fahrenheit" under the name Murder and the Android. There were other SF dramas scattered all over the tube — you had to take a look at everything, if it wasn't covered in the TV log.

There are some I missed by coming to TV so late: the Buck Rogers series that was on in 1951. Still to come in 1955, the year after I'm talking about: Rod Brown of the Rocket Rangers, with Cliff Robertson and Jack Weston, and Commando Cody, Sky Marshal of the Universe (getting it ass-backwards, a spin-off from the Republic "Rocketman" serials of the early 1950s) and Science Fiction Theater (1955-57). Then it would be a dry three or four years til World of the Giants, the 1958 British Invisible Man, and Twilight Zone in 1959...

But now I'm going to tell you how it was in 1954 around Dallas, and what this column's actually about...

 


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Howard Waldrop is a legend in his own time. He writes, he fishes, he builds bookcases. He does not have a cellphone, a computer, or an email account.

For someone who is about as wired as an echidna, Howard has a pretty substantial online career. He has had a website since 1997. You can read The Ugly Chickens, The Other Real World, Winter Quarters, D = R x T, and his collaboration with Leigh Kennedy, One Horse Town, on SciFiction. Mary Margaret Roadgrader is available on the excellent Strange Horizons. He has an occasional column, Crimea River, on Electric Story. And now he has a blog. Go figure.

For additional embellishments of the Waldrop legend, see Who Is Howard Waldrop, Anyway? For extravagant lies about Howard, see Alternate Waldrops, on Strange Horizons. Howard's most recent books are Custer's Last Jump and Other Collaborations and Dream Factories and Radio Pictures. Buy 'em.

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