Sunday, February 9, 2014

Early Television History and Significance of the Tonight Show

When I was very little, 
television was an exciting new thing,
it was changing the way American's
lived. Movie theaters suffered,
burlesque finally died,
as people stayed home evenings
to watch Milton Berle.

The TVs then were shockingly primitive
if you are used to flat screens - or color!
They were pieces of furniture
built into cabinetry.
And like the big cathedral radio
(also a piece of living room furniture)
they mysteriously harbored within
the warm orange glow of vacuum tubes
which a kid could smell.
[I can smell that ozone smell
as I write this.]
When those tubes died,
a repairman came to your house
and put in a new one.
It was called
 "Black & White Television"
but was really a small
screen made up of
many shades of gray.
No white or black about it!

We did not have to wait
for the cable guy.
Instead, we sometimes needed
 to climb the roof
in order to adjust the aerial
that captured the signals
flowing through the 
"public airways"
no charge.

Remote control was a futuristic dream.
The TV had a round dial,
that you turned by hand;
Though the dial was 
numbered 1 through 12
a big city like Philadelphia 
had 3 TV stations
carrying each of the 
Three Networks:
American Broadcasting Company- ABC
National Broadcasting Company- NBC
Columbia Broadcasting System- CBS.

And THAT was it!

Your local station was only on the air
when there were programs to broadcast,
which was not 24/7 like today. Far from it.
All the stations had a thing called "Sign Off"
at the end of "The Broadcast Day."
After a brief film 
about how wonderful 
your town is, then
the national anthem
 played over the image of a 
waving USA flag 
with airplanes roaring by,
they actually stopped broadcasting!

A technician threw a switch;
The signal died. 

And you were left
with electronic visual static called:
"Snow" and the hiss
as of intersteller space.
Perhaps there was
a thing called a
"Test Pattern."
RCA Indian Head test pattern

 RCA black/white Indian Head test card,
 motif of the 2F21 monoscope tube,
 used from 1940 until the advent of color television.

Night owls and insomniacs
were alone till morning,
except that radio waves travel
further at night, and each station
in those days
had a live person,
an awake live person,
who shared music, 
and who may have talked
about what was on his mind
(broadcasting was a "man's job").

Country music from Nashville,
or jazz from New Orleans,
or talk from New York. . .
Radio was Night Magic
to the lonely.

THE TONIGHT SHOW Begins in 1954

You can find the bare facts
 about the Tonight Show's
history at Wikipedia, or 
any number of sites and books.
But these are my 
personal memories and attitudes
as a child, then adult, 
growing up with the show 
that America Watched 
every night, 
and talked about
the next day over decades
in a way impossible
to imagine today.

Well first of all, 
farmers, Ben Franklin,
and early Mass attendees
 tend to get up early,
so there was something 
a little subversive
about a late night show 
from the beginning,
something a little sophisticated 
and VERY adult!

Steve Allen was a witty songwriter,
 pianist, and raconteur.
(That is a word popular in the 50's 
for a worldly man (always)
who told great stories.) 
He was Broadway and very New York, 
publishing, and "the latest thing." 
He was a clever uncle 
who brought a sense of the "transgressive" 
with his irreverent, too-clever jokes. 

I was 4 when Jack Paar took over. 

These folks were inventing television. 

No one had done it before. 

I remember Jack Paar as the 
deeply sincere adult, 
trying to articulate important things, 
who got so emotional 
that he actually shed
 a sincere tear or three. 
And in the 50's men NEVER cried. 
That was official policy 
with real social and personal stakes 
for males at that time. 
Hugely more than today. Word. 
But Mr. Paar seemed to be 
yearning for some shared illumination. 
He assumed that we cared 
and thought as deeply 
as he did. 
I do remember the joking disapproval 
of my dad and his male friends 
over this "quirk." 

One day when I was expressing 
a precocious opinion on 
some big topic 
and got emotional about it
 my dad laughed in amazement 
and exclaimed: "Look! Jack Paar!"

When Johnny Carson took over,
I was nine, he was in his 30's, 
and JFK was President. 
It was a bright, magical time 
of high expectations 
for our future.

We had won WWII,
our fathers, and uncles, 
and the mailman,
THEY had personally made
 the world safe for democracy. 
(the Brits, and our other Allies
had "helped")

The economy was growing.
A veteran with a 
high school diploma, 
an Honorable Discharge, 
could support
a wife and family on a factory job.
And even buy a new car
from time to time!

 We were going to the moon next. 
The handsome young prince
 had said so.

Then JFK was shot,
and I learned 
that adults DID cry 
because I
saw teachers 
in my elementary school 
doing it on that November 22.

Johnny Carson 
was small town,
a self taught magician,
the "Great Carsoni" as a child.
  He played at Grange halls 
and other small town
amusements until 
WWII took him into a
larger world. 
After that he helped to pioneer
the TV Game Show. 

But the Tonight Show,
well, he was 
born to host that show!

The Tonight Show [Johnny's Theme] by Doc Severinsen on Grooveshark
Every night it was as if you 
could hear this theme
from the next room,
next door, the next street,
all across America!

 got us past
 the assassination with
another shared experience, 
shared almost as widely
as the experience of 
national mourning had been.

Johnny was Midwestern, 
All-American values,
BUT he was also Hip 
and California, Jazz,
and the latest opinion makers. 

He was a cool guy
that you wished you
could hang around with:
but never bad. 

We loved Johnny, 
our parents
went to bed with him 
every night, 
and we felt very grown up 
eavesdropping on his jokes,
or on Johnathan Winters' 
inspired mad improvisations.

Jack Paar and Steve Allen 
were uncles. 

But Johnny was just a bit older 
than our own young parents,
the generation 
coming into their own.

 He was 
in a very real sense 
arbiter of where America 
stood on every issue
or controversy. 
His nightly monologue 
showed exactly
where AMERICA stood 
in the way the audience laughed, 
or didn't, or clapped. 

And it was a barometer for 
changes in those opinions. 

If Johnny was joking about something, 
and everybody was laughing, 
well it was a time of conformity 
and most decided to 
laugh along.

(Even the non-conformists then
 hewed to pretty narrow confines 
of dress - attitude - behavior).

When Johnny made a politician,
or policy,
look ridiculous
then it was done.

Jay Leno and David Letterman -
one the longest serving host of TTS, 
the other a friend and acolyte 
of Johnny [also guest host
extraordinaire for Carson, 
widely assumed to be 
Johnny's heir apparent ]

- These guys are our generation.
Jay is a master, and Letterman's
unique timing, outlook, and persona,
are still potent. 

But for the 
nightly ritual of the Tonight Show
it's time for a new generation.

Conan was too "Niche" for the 
Big Stage. Sorry, but the ratings
bear that out. Lots love him,
but not the mainstream.

Jimmy Fallon is a friend,
likable, clever,
a good guy, quick on his feet,
very comfortable with 
contemporary culture.

It is a shock to realize
that I might could have had a 
son his age! 

It's humbling
to see the torch passed.

Even the President of the USA
is younger than me!

But like the old ladies
like Grandma
who LOVED Johnny,
I'm still part
of the late night audience.

I'm still invited to
 that American mainstream,
even if it is someone's
kid - not the Great Carsoni
steering the boat.

And the Test Pattern?
Replaced by On-Demand.

Thanks for visiting an old lady!
Your comment is appreciated-
                            Warmly, cloudia