WASHINGTON — If you were young at the same time television was young, you may tend to romanticize these early years. In the '50s, nobody knew exactly what TV was going to be, and so it tried to be all things--movies, radio, theater, a concert hall and a playground for a child's imagination.
Much that was on TV seemed banal even then. But some of it was legitimately magical, too--especially around the holidays. TV created a slew of instant new traditions to go with all the old ones. For some of us who grew up in the Midwest, it was a sign of imminent glad tidings when Burr Tillstrom hung a wreath and some holly around the diminutive proscenium of "Kukla, Fran and Ollie."
Children's TV shows, especially the local ones, were mostly live then, and so they could respond to the moment. You knew that many of the shows you watched would mirror the warm feelings and anticipation you felt in your own home. People actually became friendlier during the holidays then; so did television.
Certain network programs were dependable perennials. "Amahl and the Night Visitors," an opera commissioned by NBC, turned up every year, and so did "The Night the Animals Talked," a special episode of "(I Remember) Mama."
No, "The Night the Animals Talked" was not a debate among presidential contenders. It was about a miracle that happened in a barn on Christmas Eve, when such miracles were expected to happen.
In addition to the movie versions of "A Christmas Carol" that were rerun, "Chrysler Theater" on CBS offered a lilting musical adaptation of the Dickens classic starring Fredric March as Scrooge. The music was by Bernard Herrmann and the script by Maxwell Anderson. Some years, close to Christmas, Mary Martin would fly into the national living room as "Peter Pan." If you were there for that, you will never forget it.
In those days, many TV shows were still sponsored by a single company, and sponsors would declare with glittering munificence that this or that special show was a gift, from their house to ours. Nobody believed this was a purely humanitarian gesture, but it did seem a way of thanking customers for the year's business. It was understood that Christmas was no time for the shrieking hard sell.
There was, relatively speaking, peace on earth. And in the air.
Nor was television perceived then as the master manipulator it has since become. It was greatly respected for its selling power, yes, but the audience was respected too. Broadcasters considered themselves keepers of a public trust, and the Federal Communications Commission was there to make sure they honored that compact.
The FCC doesn't do that any more; in the '80s, it's every viewer for him or her self. Television has become a battering blitz of coercive importunings, one that never ceases and that is no respecter of holidays. If the animals talked now, they'd try to sell you something. Or tell you not to take drugs.
TV's big national stars all did special holiday shows: Jackie Gleason, Red Skelton, Dinah Shore, Milton Berle, Arthur Godfrey "and all the little Godfreys." Musical programs such as "The Bell Telephone Hour" and "The Voice of Firestone" offered Christmas concerts. Rock hadn't taken over the world then, and certainly nobody thought of it as a religion or a way of life.
Computers hadn't taken over, either. And there were no home shopping networks; you went out to shop, as God intended. There was only one telephone company, so you knew whom to call with a complaint. And there was no cable TV, which means there was no cable TV to break down every day.
Really, the only good thing we didn't have then that we do have now is David Letterman. But we did have Steve Allen and Ernie Kovacs, and they were just about as funny.
At the holidays, we are all permitted to be weepy and sentimental, to remember the past as having been much better than it really was. But television actually was much better. Yes, Virginia, there was a golden age. At times it glowed like the star at the top of the tree.
To be young when TV was young was a privilege and an adventure. No one will ever be able to have it again. Television was like Peter Pan's Never-Never Land then: "a place where dreams are born, and time is never planned."
It isn't on tape, and it isn't on film. It's only playing in the mind's eye. And some of it even has earned a place in the heart. It's there next to childhood games, snowball fights in vacant lots, your sister's stuffed animals, your mom's Christmas cookies and your dad's heroic struggles with the turkey.
Sometimes, like at Christmas, "then" seems much more real than "now."