Life in the 50’s: TV Shows Part 2!


Retro Dee is a regular contributor to The Grooveyard’s website, writing about music, fashion and other trends of the 1950s.  Check out her blog, Retro Dee’s Guide to the Best Era Ever here, and her column here every Wednesday.

Hello I’m Retro Dee and Welcome to another fab edition of “Life in the 50’s”!

About a year ago, I wrote an entry called Life in the 50’s: TV! This is Part 2 of that entry, in which we will have a look at some more classic favorite TV shows from The Best Era Ever!

As I mentioned in Part 1, television was a very important part of life in the 50’s. It was the first decade in which most American families owned a TV set. Because of this fact, more and more programs were available for TV viewers of all ages and the TV industry began to take off at an exciting, rapid pace.

More Classic Shows of the 1950s:

Let’s start with some great Variety Shows. Variety Shows had a variety of entertaining aspects, as the name suggests. There were jokes, skits, singing and celebrity guests. Variety Shows back then were all broadcasted live. Here are a few notable ones:

“The Perry Como Show” (1955-1957) on NBC began in the mid-1950’s, and was one of many endeavors for singer and actor Perry Como. This was a popular variety show for all ages which featured improvised jokes and a lot of singing numbers such the segment called “Sing to me, Mr. C.” The show also had special guests such as Kirk Douglas, Princess Grace of Monaco and Esther Williams. There was also a “letters” segment in which viewers’ mail was read on the air. Mr. Como was famous for the cardigan sweaters he wore on his show.

One interesting fact about The Perry Como Show is that starting in 1956, it began to present most of the episodes in COLOR. That’s right! Color TV was, indeed, available in small doses in the 1950’s. However, in order to view the few shows that were broadcast in color, one would have to own a color television. Color TVs were very pricey in the 50’s, about $1,300 (which equates to approximately $12,000 in today’s money!) So most middle class Americans of the 1950’s opted for a standard black and white TV. It wasn’t until about 1970 that the majority of Americans finally switched over to color TV.

Trivia: A 1956 poll in LIFE magazine revealed Perry Como as the number one choice for American women’s idea of the perfect husband.

perryc
Perry Como was a favorite among Americans.

 

Then, of course, was was “The Milton Berle Show”. You might have heard of Milton Berle also known as “Uncle Miltie” and “Mr. Television”.  Milton Berle was a former radio-turned-TV personality who hosted a variety show on NBC. The show was most popular in the early-mid 1950’s. In 1956, Elvis Presley made two of his very first TV appearances ever on “The Milton Berle Show”. As the 1950’s came to an end, so did Milton Berle’s popularity and he went on to do much lesser things. However to this day when people recall the Golden Age of TV, Milton Berle is still center stage.

Below is a clip of Elvis Presley on The Milton Berle Show singing “Hound Dog” on June 5, 1956. (clip made with sound remastered by John DeCarteret)

Another major variety TV show in the 50’s was “The Steve Allen Show” (1956-1960) “The Steve Allen Show” was on ABC and had a very special time slot: Sunday nights, 8PM Eastern– exactly opposite of “The Ed Sullivan Show!”  Like I mentioned in Part 1 of Life in the 50’s: TV!, “The Ed Sullivan Show” was also a hugely popular variety program during the 50’s. Yes, this made for a bit of competition between ABC and CBS. In the end, “The Ed Sullivan Show” ran longer and is better remembered, but that does not negate the then-popularity of Steve Allen. Many stars were keen to be on Steve Allen’s show and some of his most famous guests were: Sammy Davis, Jr., Fats Domino and Jerry Lee Lewis. (In fact, Jerry Lee Lewis made his very first TV appearance on Allen’s show in 1957!) Elvis Presley also appeared as a guest and sang “Hound Dog”… to an actual dog! And as if that weren’t exciting enough, “The Steve Allen Show” is credited for launching the careers of Don Knotts, Bill Dana and Jim Neighbors to name a few.

Trivia: Before he had his own show, Steve Allen was the very first host of “The Tonight Show” in 1954.

 

The 1950’s was the era for Action Heroes, be it The Lone Ranger or Superman… and, as luck would have it, both those heroes had their very own show:

“The Lone Ranger” (1949-1957) Who was that masked man? In 1949, TV viewers across America tuned in to “The Lone Ranger” which lasted until 1957. The Lone Ranger (played primarily by Clayton Moore) was a masked hero who traveled through Texas, saving folks from injustices. His horse was called Silver and he had a side kick named Tonto. This was an extremely popular program in the 50’s era.

Trivia: John Hart played The Lone Ranger in 1952 and 1953 due to a contract dispute. By 1954, the dispute was resolved and Clayton Moore returned to the role.

“The Adventures of Superman” (1952-1958) Cleverly disguised as Clark Kent, Superman was the hero of the day. Starting off as a comic book and radio show, Superman finally came to TV in 1952. Americans were excited to see The Man of Steel save the day along side his leading lady, Lois Lane. The show was shot in black and white from 1952-1953, but starting in 1954, the show was made in color. From then on, it took on a more whimsical tone, more like that of the comic books. Of course, viewers needed a color TV to see the color in the show, and most Americans only had black and white TVs in those days due to the expense as I mentioned above.

Trivia: George Reeves (1914-1959) played Superman in the 1950’s TV series, while Christoper REEVE (1952-2004) played Superman in the 1978 film and subsequent sequels. I always thought it was a strange coincidence that the two men had such similar names, with the “S” at the end of “Reeves” being the only difference. George Reeves was actually born George Keefer Brewer. He died on June 16, 1959 from a gunshot wound said to be suicide, but some indications point to foul play.

Game Shows were becoming more and more popular in the 1950’s. While there was still no “Wheel of Fortune” or “Jeopardy”, there were plenty of fun competition to be viewed with shows like “Name That Tune” and “What’s My Line?”

“Name That Tune” (1952-1959) “Name That Tune” originated in the 1950’s and was reprised in later decades. As the name suggests, a band would play a song and one of the contestants would ring the bell if he or she knew it. The contestant would win a certain dollar amount for naming the correct tune. Name That Tune was hosted by Red Benson, Bill Cullen, and most famously, George DeWitt.

“What’s My Line?” (1950-1967) “What’s My Line?” was another popular game show which originally ran for 17 years on CBS. A panel would ask questions of the guests and try to determine what the job (or line of work) of the guest was. The dollar amount the contestant could win would increase as the show’s episode progressed, starting with $5 as the lowest amount. Famous guests included Eleanor Roosevelt in 1953 and Lucille Ball with Desi Arnaz  in 1955.

whatsmylineoct55
Panelists on “What’s My Line?” October, 1955. Screen cap from You Tube.

 

And now for the Kiddies!

In Part 1, I mention “The Mickey Mouse Club” as the show for kids of the day. But that was not the only Kid-Themed show in the 50’s!

“Howdy Doody” (1947-1960) It’s Howdy Doody time! “Buffalo” Bob Smith created the red-haired freckle-faced Howdy Doody character which was portrayed as a marionette puppet. Howdy Doody had a whole slew of puppet and people friends such as Phineas T. Bluster, Princess SummerFallWinterSpring, Dilly Dally, Clarabelle the Clown, and J. Cornelius Cobb. Some animal friends included Flub-A-Dubb, which was a mix of animals all in one character, twin bears Hyde and Zeke and Tommy the slow-witted Turtle.

The show, like many other shows of the day, was Western in theme. The characters lived in a fictional town called “Doodyville”. (It’s difficult to fathom that children in those days did not laugh at the name “Doody”. This was prior to the word “doody’s” usage as a slang term for “poop”. It is yet another example of the Proper Fifties. What kids don’t laugh at poop? Why, kids from the 1950’s, of course!)

In it’s many episodes, Howdy Doody and friends would have some kind of adventure  where they would engage the kids in the audience as well as those at home. “Howdy Doody” and its marketed items such as dolls and watches has become synonymous of Pop Culture from the 50’s and such merchandise are now considered collector’s items.

Triva: Judy Tyler (born Judith Mae Tess) who played Princess SummerFallWinterSpring had a much more exciting role when she starred opposite Elvis Presley in Jailhouse Rock. Then tragically, on July 3, 1957, Judy Tyler was killed in a car wreck in Wyoming. She was just 24. Her young husband, 19-year-old George LaFayette, died from his injuries the next day.

“Kukla, Fran and Ollie” (1947-1957) This show with the strange name was another puppet show for children. Kukla was a simple-looking clown character and Ollie was a one-toothed dragon, both puppets. Fran was the only human on the show, played by Fran Allison, a former Radio Star. There were many other puppet characters and the entire show was improvised, with no script. Although “Kukla, Fran and Ollie” was intended to be a children’s show, it had many adult fans who ended up making up the majority of the audience!

Trivia: Adult fans of “Kukla, Fran and Ollie” included Orson Welles, John Steinbeck and actress Tallulah Bankhead.

L-R: Kukla, Fran Allison and Ollie the dragon

 

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