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The Wild Early Days of Television

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Nathan enjoys researching forgotten and unusual historical and paranormal events.

The First Glow of Television

For an invention that is so prevalent in our lives today, the introduction of television got off to a rocky start with the public. When the small screen with moving pictures was first shown to a wide audience at the 1939 World's Fair, it was thought of as a temporary fad that would soon fade. After all, no one would want to watch a tiny blurry picture at home when they could be entertained viewing a crystal clear picture on a large screen at the local theater.

Besides which, there were only a thousand or so TV sets that had been sold in a few big cities like New York and Chicago. And they typically had little more to watch than test patterns, or whatever the engineers running the local station could beg, borrow, or steal to put on in the one to two hour window that they had to show programming.

However, once the Second World War ended, sales of televisions began to take off, and the programming hours expanded to entertain all these new viewers. Once the sales of television sets hit the millions, performers who were virtual unknowns became stars overnight. Milton Berle was the first TV star after his program Texaco Star Theater became wildly popular starting in 1948. Programming of the time was an odd mix of the new network shows which were sent to stations across the country via kinescope and local shows which consisted of anything the stations could find to fill time.

Live and in Black and White

Almost all shows were performed live and when the clock ticked toward showtime, the pressure was on. It was a stressful, fly-by-the-seat of your pants ride that could always turn into a disaster. The actors and personnel of the earliest shows had no template to go by. Much of the time they made things up as they went along. That could mean interesting groundbreaking television. It could also mean falling scenery and walls, actors forgetting their lines, stagehands wandering on set during live broadcasts, and malfunctions of every kind. If you watch shows from the early 50s, you will hear booms and crashes, and occasionally see a stagehand in the background.

A good example of what could happen during the early years of live television includes the first wardrobe malfunction courtesy of the Faye Emerson Show. Emerson was known for her low-cut dresses worn to show off her shapely figure. On an evening in 1950, the material in the upper part of her dress gave way, baring Ms. Emerson's ample bosom for the world to see. Television critics were unhappy, but the many male viewers of the program were undoubtedly thrilled at this unexpected exposure.

Possibly the best known mistake-prone program is the 1952 Tales of Tomorrow version of Frankenstein starring Lon Chaney Jr. After a few rushed rehearsals where he had been admonished for breaking balsa wood props meant for destruction when showtime arrived, Chaney obviously became confused when the live broadcast started, thinking it was still a rehearsal. Most notably, at about 12 minutes in when Chaney grabs a chair, instead of destroying it, he sets it down and says to somebody offstage, “I saved it for you.” When he goes into where the boy is playing, he gently closes the door, and says "Break later." When something like this happened, all the director could do was pull his or her hair out and curse. There were no second takes.

Space Patrol Takes Over the Airwaves

Starting in 1949, science fiction adventures began rocketing onto the airwaves. Within a year, Captain Video, Tom Corbett, Space Cadet, and Space Patrol filled the airwaves. It was a bold move since most of the live programming up to this point had been talk and variety shows needing few props. The space-oriented shows, of course, needed plenty of special effects to make them work. Of the three shows, the best remembered is probably Space Patrol. The exploits of Commander Buzz Corey and his crew aboard the Terra IV became instantly popular. It was the first television show beamed from coast to coast.

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But being a daily live show in Los Angeles, in addition to a weekly national show, sometimes created havoc with the cast and crew. Actors would be given scripts literally hours before a broadcast, which made for some hurried reading and memorizing. Special effects had to be done on the spot. They mostly made them work, but sometimes they fizzled out and failed spectacularly.

Guest actors, flummoxed with the hectic pace would freeze and stare blank-faced at the camera (until prodded by one of the other cast members). If an actor flubbed a line, they quickly moved on with the show as if it didn't happen. In one episode, while the actors were speaking their lines to the camera, a stagehand walked in front of the camera on stage. The actors watched him walk by, and then acted as if they never saw him and continued with the show. Despite all the problems, they must have done something right, because Space Patrol is still one of the most watchable shows from that era.

Enter Gorgeous George

In the mid-40s, a wrestler named George Wagner was looking for a way to raise his profile. After a decade of grappling, he was still near the bottom of the bill and seemed to be on the way to the unemployment line. While looking for a way to reach featured performer status, he came up with a gimmick that would help raise him out of the pack and help him move towards higher recognition. Wagner began wearing robes of silk, lace, and satin, and growing his hair out and dying it blonde. He turned into a heel (a bad guy in wrestling parlance), and started going by the moniker of Gorgeous George.

At the same time, television was beginning a post-war boom. Hundreds of thousands started buying TV sets. Wrestling and boxing were easy sports to televise because of the limited area of action (a square ring). Wrestling matches became extremely successful and Gorgeous George quickly vaulted to mass popularity. Fans would pack arenas from coast to coast to boo George and watch him get beaten by local favorites.

Gorgeous George was quite the spectacle entering the ring to the strains of “Pomp and Circumstance” with his valet at his side. He would have his valet spray the ring (and occasionally the other wrestler) with perfumed water. He would generally put on a show before the match even started. The fans would boo heavily at everything George would do. Occasionally he would throw dirty looks at the audience, and then do things to antagonize them (such as refusing to shake his opponent's hand). It was a great gimmick, and people loved to hate Gorgeous George.

Wagner's popular shtick made him arguably the most popular television star during the late 40s and early/mid-50s. He also sold a ton of televisions as people all over the country wanted to watch his matches. During that time, he was one of the most important celebrities on the small screen, helping to usher in the age of television.

A Final Word From Our Sponsors

Despite all the problems and growing pains television had, it became more and more popular. Once videotape was introduced in 1956, program directors could have multiple takes and eliminate errors. TV shows became slicker and more professional. But they lost a little something too. They lost that edge of your seat, anything can happen (and likely would) aura that surrounded the earlier live programming. Television would never be quite the same again.

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