This will probably be my last column about TV shows from childhood unless something later begs to be addressed. Walter Cronkite and Andy Griffith were mentioned in the first two articles. Today I’ll try to wrap things up with a brief look at some of my favorites from fifty plus years ago. It was the best of times for television worth watching.
I Love Lucy has to be on the list of great series along with The Dick Van Dyke Show. I’m not sure if those situational comedies are still available for viewing but they should be. They prove that hilarity doesn’t require vulgarity, crude language, or using “Oh my God!” as a punchline. Their scenarios were based around happily married couples whose amusing interactions gave us ample opportunities for laughter. They also helped us understand it’s okay to laugh at ourselves.
The Danny Thomas Show was another of the clean comedy genre where you didn’t have to wonder if it was okay for everyone to watch. The truth is if it’s not okay for everyone, it’s probably not okay for anyone. My Three Sons, Leave it to Beaver, and Father Knows Best, fit that same category.
A few years later The Beverly Hillbillies, Green Acres, and Gilligan’s Island captured our attention. On December 31, 2020, actress Dawn Wells died at age 82. She played Mary Ann on Gilligan’s Island, the cute and wholesome girl-next-door type that suited her perfectly. It was nice when many of television’s characters were good examples for the rest of us. If that same boat got stranded on an uncharted island in 2021, the crew would no doubt have a much different script. The theme of much of today’s fare seems to be how low can we go. As close as we are to the bottom, I don’t think we’ve hit it yet.
Perry Mason gave us the best you could find in the courtroom. Granted, the judge and the opposing attorney allowed him considerable leeway, but that was okay because the man with the gavel and those in white shirts at the other table all wanted to find the truth. My guess is there were some young men and women who became fine lawyers because they were inspired by Perry Mason’s integrity. He didn’t chase ambulances or compromise ethics. Justice seems to be steadily shifting downward on the list of motives for going to court. Money is at the top, I believe.
There were plenty of cowboy heroes like Roy Rogers, U.S. Marshal Matt Dillon, and The Lone Ranger. Roy showed us how to mount a horse with a running start. He drank coffee with Gabby Hayes instead of hanging out in the local saloon. There was a lot to like about Roy whether on screen or off.
Matt Dillon didn’t seem fast enough on the draw in the opening scene of Gunsmoke, but the other guy fell so I guess he was accurate. Matt was an excellent lawman, a man of courage and compassion. His close friendship with Miss Kitty never advanced to an upstairs bedroom in The Long Branch Saloon. That wouldn’t happen today, except for maybe in a couple of early episodes.
The Lone Ranger intrigued me by how well a hero’s identity could be disguised with a mask. Seems like someone would have figured it out and been able to answer the weekly question, “Who was that masked man?” I used to wonder where he got his silver bullets and how he earned enough money to pay for them. He was a good guy fighting bad guys and taught us to respect Native Americans, Indians as they were called then. Tonto was not only Kemosabe’s capable sidekick, he was also his best friend.
The earliest show I remember watching is The Highway Patrol starring Broderick Crawford. I don’t recall anything about it other than seeing Mr. Crawford on TV and hearing the sirens when someone was in a hurry. My main recollection is of our family going a few hundred yards up the road once a week to watch those patrolmen with my grandparents while we ate popcorn. It reminds me that watching TV can be time well spent when the storylines have value and the entertainment is clean.
It’s hard to say what the most important lesson I learned from early television is, but maybe it’s to be careful with what we watch. A lot of what I saw back then secured an enduring place in my memory bank. That would be just as true if the shows had been trashy.
Perhaps I’m being sentimental, but there’s one thing I can say with confidence about the bygone era of three-station TV. It was the best of times for television worth watching.