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 week.
A very important part of life in the 1950’s was television. Although television existed in the late 1940’s, the ’50’s decade was when the concept of TV began to take off. Practically every household in the 1950’s had a television set and life inside the home revolved around it. Having a TV in the ’50’s was a must to complete the American Dream.
We are spoiled by HDTV these days and most of us have no idea what it was like to not have color TV. Heck, most of us don’t even know what it was like to be without a remote! But imagine the decades before the 1950’s when people still had to get their entertainment audibly– through radio programs. To them, being able to watch things play out on TV in your very own home was a technological miracle! For the first time ever, they could get comedy, news, music, and other various things with sound AND picture right there in their living rooms.
Television sets in the 1950’s were pricey! Through old ads, I was surprised to learn that TV sets in the ’50’s cost $100 and up. I can’t give you the exact equivalent of what $100 was in the 1950’s, but I’m guestimating… with my shoddy math skills… that it would be close to $1000, if not more. So when a family purchased a TV, they were making a big investment, but it was worth every penny.
A Look At Early TV Sets
Most 1950’s households only had one television set. In the early 1950’s, the TV screen was roundish in shape, set inside a huge console with a big speaker and a big, clunky knob to turn it ON or OFF and adjust the sound level. Sometimes the TV was part of a large cabinet ensemble with doors you could shut when you weren’t watching. And sometimes the TV was part of a huge entertainment console that also housed the record player. These large entertainment centers were also pieces of furniture and were the focal point of every living room.
In the later part of the decade, smaller TVs were introduced. Although television was still black and white, the new TV’s boasted bright colors on the actual console. These new TVs were also portable: they had handles on top and could be moved to different outlets and had adjustable antennas.
Some Classic TV Shows of the ’50’s
There were only a few channels in the ’50’s. ABC, NBC and CBS were the channels in the United States. The was no cable TV. Even so, there were still many programs on the air, ranging from sit-coms to variety shows, sports broadcasts and children’s programming.
Here is a list of some of the programming you would find back in the Fabulous Fifties:
I Love Lucy: (1952- 1957) Pretty much EVERYONE: young, old and in-between has heard of Lucille Ball, America’s Favorite Funny Lady of the Fifties. Although the color of Lucy’s iconic bright red hair could not be seen on TV, her hysterical antics made Americans laugh for 5 years. Lucy was a feisty housewife married to Cuban hubby Desi Arnaz and had a best friend named Ethel. Lucy and Ethel would find themselves in ridiculous, but funny (at least to the audience) situations and then later Lucy would have to explain herself to Desi. “I Love Lucy” is definitely the most memorable television show of the 1950’s and Lucy merch is often sold in the same places as other iconic star’s items such as Elvis and Marilyn.
Trivia: When Lucy was preggers with Desi Arnaz, Jr., (she was actually pregnant for real as well as on the show) the producers were unsure of how to let the audience know about the baby-to-be. You could not say the word “pregnant” on television in those days, and even alluding to it was considered vulgar.
The Honeymooners: (1955-1956) Although very short-lived, “The Honeymooners” is probably the second-most recognized of the sit-coms of the ’50’s. Ralph Kramden (Jackie Gleason) was a gruff bus driver with a wife named Alice and a best friend named Norton. Norton had a wife named Trixie. The show mainly focused on the four main characters in the Kramden’s modest Brooklyn apartment. Ralph was always scheming on how to become rich quickly, but inevitably his ideas would fail. He’d seek forgiveness from Alice, who always forgave him at the end of the show and so it was on to the next.
Trivia: There were only 39 Classic episodes of “The Honeymooners”, but “The Honeymooners” was also featured in skit form on “The Jackie Gleason show”.
Life With Elizabeth: (1953-1955) This early sit-com was the television debut of America’s Senior Sweetheart, Betty White! Elizabeth was an independent-thinking housewife married to a man named Alvin. Each episode was about 8 minutes long and referred to as an “incident”. Elizabeth would do things such as burn dinner, borrow Alvin’s car without asking (and have a fender-bender) or confuse things in the office while answering phones. Every incident would end with the announcer asking “Elizabeth, aren’t you ashamed?” and Elizabeth would start to nod, then smile devilishly and shake her head no.
Trivia: Of all the roles she’s ever played, Betty White says that she is the most like her character Elizabeth!
The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet: (1952-1966) This show spanned into half of the 1960’s. The Nelson family consisted of Ozzie, his perfect wife, Harriet and their two sons David and Ricky. Similar to”I Love Lucy”, the Nelsons were not just actors, they were an actual, real family. When you think about it, in some ways, these were the world’s very first Reality Show! The episodes were scripted, but the relationships of the people were real. In the mid-1950s, Ozzie and Harriet could be seen on ABC on Wednesday evenings at 9pm.
Trivia: As the show continued into the 1960s, the old-fashioned family unit was slowly beginning to deteriorate. Ozzie attempted to adjust the show to fit the times. However, most viewers considered the Nelson family as passé and the initial success of the show was never re-lived.
More Trivia: Ricky Nelson had a very successful music career in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s with hits such as: “I’m Walkin’”, “Stood Up” and “Poor Little Fool”. Sadly, Ricky Nelson died at the age of 45 in plane crash on December 31, 1985 in DeKalb, TX. His sons, Gunnar and Matthew (identical twins) had short-lived musical success in the early 1990’s as the Rock duo “Nelson”. Tracy Nelson (the twins’ sister) was featured in many television programs in the 1980’s such as her role as Sister Steve, the crime-solving nun on “Father Dowling Mysteries” (with former “Happy Days” dad Tom Bosley).
The Ed Sullivan Show: (1948 – 1971) “The Ed Sullivan Show” was a popular variety program that was hosted by America’s conservative straight-man, Ed Sullivan. A long-running variety show that entertained families for years, “The Ed Sullivan Show” goes down in history for featuring some of the most iconic performances of all time. Sunday nights were a time for families in the 1950’s to gather around the television console and watch Mr. Sullivan introduce a plethora of good, clean entertainment acts. Unlike Perry Como and Milton Berle, Ed Sullivan was not himself an entertainer. He was sort of like watching an uptight principal introduce the next act in a high school variety show. Some of the re-occurring acts that Sullivan featured were plate spinners, jugglers and puppeteers. But what young America liked the very best was ironically, what Mr. Sullivan had the most complications with: Rock n Roll. Early Rock n Roll stars got Nation-wide television exposure on Ed Sullivan playing their top hits live. Elvis Presley’s appearances on the show are some of the most famous pieces of entertainment history footage. In addition to Elvis, The Ed Sullivan Show featured live performances by Buddy Holly and The Crickets and The Everly Brothers, to name a few.
Trivia: Elvis Presley was filmed from the waist up when he appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show. The producers felt that Elvis’s dancing was way too suggestive to be aired on TV.
Your Hit Parade: Sponsored by Lucky Strike (1950-1959) It took me a couple of reads to understand what this show was about. From what I can comprehend, in the mid ’50’s, there were four main singers: Dorothy Collins, Russell Arms, Snooky Lanson and Gisele MacKensie who performed their renditions of the Top 7 Hits on the music charts. The music numbers were performed with costumes on elaborate sets. Funny enough, the show’s success began to fade with the rise of the Rock n Roll Revolution. The Big Band singers couldn’t quite grasp the genre of Rock n Roll, and their performances were shoddy versions of the hits by the top recording stars. (For example, in 1956, Snooky bombed with his performance of Elvis Presley’s “Hound Dog”. I can imagine that at the time, the only one people wanted to see do “Hound Dog” was Elvis himself.)
Trivia: “Your Hit Parade” heavily endorsed Lucky Strike cigarettes and featured a line of dancing girls, much like the Rockettes, dressed in Lucky Strike cigarette boxes.
American Bandstand: An American classic that helped usher in Rock n Roll, this long-running show ended in 1989, but began it’s popular run (with Dick Clark) in 1956. The early days of American Bandstand featured regular teens being interviewed by Clark, giving opinions on the latest hits. They would also spend a portion of the program dancing with one another to the top tunes. The show also featured Clark on the Bandstand unveiling the Top 10 songs on the charts at the time. It was an iconic part of the exciting craze that began the popularity of Rock and Pop music.
Trivia: In 1957, “American Bandstand” moved from its daytime slot to a slot on primetime in the evening– on a Saturday night. Dick Clark predicted that this would be a bad idea and he was right. Teens and young housewives were busy on Saturday evenings with other interests. (i.e. Teens = dating. Housewives = making babies.) The ratings dropped during the Saturday evening broadcasts. Thus, American Bandstand was destined to be a daytime weekend show.
The Mickey Mouse Club: (1955-1959) “M-I-C-K-E-Y… M-O-U-S-EEEE!” The Original“Mickey Mouse Club” made it’s television debut in 1955 with the original Mouseketeers: Bobby, Annette, Darlene, Cubby, Karen and Doreen. The show was hosted by Jimmie Dodd and featured singing and dancing acts by the kids who wore sweatshirts with their names on them and, of course, Mickey Mouse ears. The show was by today’s standards, horribly corny, but it will always be an original classic and a favorite of youngsters in that era.
Trivia: Original Mouseketeer Annette Funicello went on to make record albums, and star in many Disney productions such as the beach party movies with singer Frankie Avalon in the 1960’s.
Now that TV has evolved into a loud, confusing, fast-moving, immoral mess that blurs lines with the internet, it’s especially interesting to see the simplicity of these early shows. It’s nice to know that at one time television still maintained a sense of innocence. Looking back on these classics proves that at one time TV was a relaxing family activity that brought people together– the sweet icing on the cake of The American Dream.
Retro Dee writes about the Fifties at Retro Dee’s Guide to the Best Era Ever, and contributes to The Grooveyard every Wednesday.
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