Television was so much simpler thirty years ago. Things have gotten way too complicated. Oh, don’t get me wrong, I am not willing to give back my 42″ wide-screen with HD capabilities, although we did just recently switch from ComCast to DIRECTV. It was basic economics, the new service is like half the price. And I don’t really have any complaints yet, other than I have to re-learn were all the channels are. You see, TV is just too complicated these days. I used to have a feature called On Demand, but that is now gone. What I have now is this DVR thing that allows me to record any show I want, in effect creating my own On Demand, but I can only record up to two shows at a time, and I have to be watching one of them to do this. The only time this really causes me a problem is on Thursday nights. As anyone who has read any of my past blogs knows, I am a big CSI:Wherever fan. I have recently added NCIS and NCIS:Los Angeles to that list. Although I just can’t look at Linda Hunt’s character without thinking she looks just like Edna E. Mode from The Incredibles.
You get the idea, so anyway, on Thursdays Maureen has school, so I need to record Project Runway and The Office for her, but I also need to record CSI:New York because I have hooked her into my addition to anything with the letters C, S, and I in them. So I have to watch one of the programs at the same time I record, or I have to at least leave the TV on while the two shows are recording. I tried to set the Record Series button for both of these shows, but since they both have syndication versions running on other networks, the DVR wants to record all of the shows anytime they appear. This would have filled up the memory very quickly. To make matters worse, last Thursday the Bears were playing at the same time, so I had to ditch The Office. I would have been gracious and passed on CSI, but it was the second part of the CSI:Trilogy, and that was just a must! See, it is all very, very complicated.
There are other parts of the DVR thing that I do really like, mostly that pause and rewind live TV thing. No need to hold it in anymore, just pause and run to the restroom. And on those rare occasions when you are in there a little longer than expected, no need to try and fit it all into just that two and a half minute break. Take your time. The TV will wait. Even better still is the rewind feature. If something should happen during a ballgame, and you want to take a second look, no more waiting until the replay, you can create your own replay. A couple of weeks ago, Alex and I must have watch Brett Favre blowing out a snot rocket a couple dozen times. Then it became a game, me trying to hit the pause button fast enough to catch it in mid-air. Isn’t technology great?
But it also made me think about how much simpler TV was back when I was a kid. We only had the three major networks, and then channel 9, WGN before it became a “super station” and channel 32, WFLD before it was Fox. And for a more educational turn, there was always channel 11, our local PBS station. The closest thing we had to Reality TV back then was the evening news with the likes of Joel Daly and Fahey Flynn with his custom bowtie. And there were a handful of daytime talk shows hosted by people like Mike Douglas and Phil Donahue. This was all pre-Oprah, it wasn’t until 1983 that she took over the flailing AM Chicago and rode it all the way up to mega-millions street. We didn’t have Survivor back then, but we would did have Battle of the Network Stars. Hosted by Howard Cosell, the stars of the three networks would compete in various athletic events, although they would also throw in a few less strenuous events like the “Simon Says” competition. But the stars really took this seriously. I remember Robert Conrad getting pissed off when LeVar Burton blew pasted him in the final leg of a relay race. Although Burton had been on the ABC Network as a part of the mini-series Roots, Conrad felt he didn’t really qualify as a “star” for the network. Battle of the Network Stars always concluded with a Tug-o-War between the top two networks to see who the winner would be. The losers would be pulled into a pit of mud. Maybe they should revive that with all the various Housewives. I might watch that.
There are almost too many choices these days. With all the different cable stations and networks you never seem to be shy of choices, and if you want to watch a movie, the choices in movie stations start with HBO and Showtime, and branch out from there. Classic films on AMC and Turner Classic Movies or a variety of independent films on IFC and the Sundance Channel. And don’t even get me started on children’s programing. Noggin, The Disney Channel, and Nickelodeon all cater 24 hours to just kids programing with hits like Hannah Montana and iCarley. And although Cartoon Network does take a more adult turn at night, their daytime schedule is filled with kid themed shows including this thing called Chowder that Molly watches every now and then. As a child, my choices for TV watching was fairly limited. In the morning, you would have various kids programing offered up by WGN, and as I understand things, most cities had these local shows and they would be customized to the market they were in. I am not entirely sure of what time things started, but I believe the day would start with Garfield Goose. Garfield was basically a sock puppet with a beak, and a little crown on top of his head. He didn’t actually speak, but just clapped his beak together like a castanet. The only person who seemed to understand Garfield was the human host to the show, Frazier Thomas, who also hosted the WGN weekend movie series Family Classics. There were other puppet characters as well, a rabbit and a moose I believe, but I can’t remember their names anymore. What I do remember is that between visits with the puppets, they would cut to cartoons featuring The Funny Company and other short features on the screen below the puppet stand. The most popular was of course the now classic Clutch Cargo. The most distinct feature of this cartoon was that actual human lips were used on all of the characters. Even the dog Paddlefoot would on occasion bark out a few “Arfs” with a set of human lips. The stories were done in series, so sometimes it would take a whole week of watching to finish a storyline. They would do the same thing with other shorts, both live and animated. My favorite was a story about a group of kids who follow a river back in time. I don’t recall the name of the series, but I do recall that they journey all the way back to the dinosaurs, and I was amazed by the actual moving creatures that they found. Of course, if I saw it today, I would probably laugh at the lack of production quality, but it was very impressive to my young mind. During the holiday season, they would also show other family favorites like Suzy Snowflake, about a snow fairy who comes tapping on your window sill, and Hardrock, Coco, and Joe three of Santa’s elves who take that ride with him around the world on Christmas Eve.
After Garfield was over, there was The Ray Rayner Show. Every kid in Chicago knew the song The Unicorn by the Irish Rovers thanks to Ray Rayner. The song was played as the opening to the Ark in the Park segment of the show, where someone from the Lincoln Park Zoo would tell about one of the animals via a taped visit. There were also cartoons to keep the kids attention, but the best parts of this show were all the live interactions. Ray would give the news and weather, complete with an umbrella hat if it was going to rain, and boots and mittens if it was snowing. And during the baseball season, he had a hat with one side Cubs and the other side Sox, and he would flip it around depending on which team he was talking about. I also believe he should have gotten credit for inventing the post-it-note, because he used to tape little pieces of paper to his colorful jump suites to remind him of what he had to do next. He would pull off one of the notes and then announce that it was time to visit Chelveston the duck, or head over to Cuddly Dudley’s house for the mail. Cuddly Dudley was more of a stuffed animal than an actual puppet, but they would read the mail from the kids who watched and would often read jokes that were sent in. Ray usually messed them up. Chelveston on the other hand was an actual real duck, and he would often nip at Ray Rayners feet causing him to dance around a little. Chelveston was also a wizz at art projects. He would always have some sort of “easy” project on hand, and Ray would then try and reproduce the art project which usually included cutting felt and glueing things together. Very often there was more glue on his hands and on the duck than there was on the project. They always ended the segment by putting Ray’s project next to Chelveston’s original so we could all see what a good job he did. And finally, you just couldn’t be part of the in crowd if you didn’t send in a postcard each year with your guess as to how many jelly beans were in Ray’s jar. And they actually counted them on air.
Other notable kids shows of the time included Zoom and The Electric Company over on PBS, as well as Bozo Circus and the pre-school classic Romper Room. Hasbro actually sold Romper Stompers for many years, basically just a plastic yellow cup with green handles and you walked on them making a clomping noise as you went. But there was also a mostly forgotten kids show that was overpowered by the WGN kids programing, and that was a little show I remember as The BJ and Dirty Dragon Show. When it originally aired, it did so under the title of Cartoon Town, but most people I talk to most remember it as a Sunday morning show on WLS called Gigglesnort Hotel. The puppet characters remained the same from each show, and it was hosted by their human creator Bill Jackson. Dirty Dragon was the postmaster and actual smoke would come out of his snout. Other characters included Mother Plumtree, Dr. Doompuss, and W.C. Cornfield to name just a few. The puppets were very unique and were works of art in their own right, and maybe this was why it failed to catch an audience. The more simple Muppets of Sesame Street were gaining popularity at the time, so maybe these characters were a little a head of their time. I do find it interesting that what most people remember about Gigglesnort Hotel is the most simple fun-loving of the characters. A giant lump of clay known only as The Blob. Similar to Garfield Goose, the Blob didn’t speak, he only grunted and groaned, and only Bill Jackson seemed to know what he was saying. But the truly amazing part about The Blob was that depending on weather the grunts were happy or sad, Jackson would mold Blob right in font of our faces to match the mood of the groans. With relative ease, the Blob would be transformed, usually in just one camera shot. It was actually quit amazing to see.
Unfortunately, many of these programs have been lost to time. In the early days of television, tape was very expensive and many of the early shows were never saved. But there is still a chance to re-visit your childhood one more time. On Saturday, December 5th, Bill Jackson will be performing a live version of the old show one more time. It will be held at The Lake Theatre in Oak Park, and it benefits the Museum of Broadcast Communications. I have included a link at the bottom of this page for more information. I am not sure how my kids would react to this type of entertainment. It would be nostalgic for me, but I have a feeling they would be looking for the remote. Television has spoiled them. It is way too complicated these days.