A Radio-Age Man from the Canadian Wastes finds the shape of things to come in the Cyclops eye of New York’s telescreens
MAKE WAY FOR THE ONE-EYED MONSTER
By PIERRE BERTON
THE City of New York has always presented hazards to the visiting Canadian, but until last week I, for one, had never encountered any serious language barrier. It is now, however, necessary to warn the traveler who wanders into the tall jungle of Manhattan that he will almost certainly be faced with the sort of conversational gambit that was tossed at me during a small house party a few days ago.
"Say, Jack, ’ said a man across the room. "Did you catch Channel Nine last night?”
There was a general knowing giggle which left me blank.
Finally a friend came to my rescue by explaining that I was from the Canadian back country, had no knowledge of television, and therefore couldn’t know that a group of college students were experimenting in a clandestine fashion with this particular FV channel. F hey had, my friends solemnly
declared, been showing naughty and illicit Mexicanmade movies to the delight of most of the television addicts in the New York area.
As there are more than half a million sets in greater New York, these addicts number well over two millions. If a New Yorker isn’t an addict he has a friend who is. The chances are that the friend spends most of his time hanging around the addict ’s house.
Men and women who have spent years fruit lessly Luxing their undies nightly, or reading Dale Carnegie until they can recite him backward without winning a solitary friend or influencing a child of five, have suddenly found themselves
being treated like Harry Truman the day after the election simply because they have acquired a TV set. "In the old days,” one of this happy breed confided to me, "we never used to see anybody. Now we have a wide and influential circle of friends.”
We may soon expect this sort of thing in Canada, now that the CBC has announced its own TV plans. Within 18 months the Joneses next door may have their first receiver. When this happens the things that are going on in New York will become part of the Canadian social pattern.
New York is history’s first TV town. At the moment it has the greatest number of televiewers per square rod, and is the only area in the world where you can choose between five separate programs from five separate stations (six if you count Channel Nine).
In this teleconscious town, where the natives speak glibly of "similcasts” and pugilists wear specially striped telepants for clearer reproduction on the cathode tube, the visiting fireman inescapably finds himself, like a Wells time traveler, viewing with some awe the picture of our future society.
The terms "mores” and "folkways” crop up whenever TV is discussed. "Television will undoubtedly have a profound effect on our social mores,” five or six New York televeterans told me. Already the effect is being felt.
A man I know who owns a set swears that he has known a man intimately for a year without once
seeing his face. "He comes into our room in the dark, sits down in front of the set, stares at it until the show is finished, gets up and puts his hat on and leaves before we get the lights on again,” he told me.
A friend of mine in Manhattan, who is trying in his own puerile way to stem the wave, refuses to buy a receiver. "This monster will devour us all unless we resist it,” he told me seriously. "I refuse to have my life dominated by a 10-inch picture, blurred at the edges.”
But the wave is already lapping at the ankles of this Canute. Sundown finds him fidgety; dusk comes and the telelust is on him; night falls and a milky way of telescreens wink on. He phones an acquaintance who owns a TV set, leaps into a Yellow Cab, trundles across town and meekly takes his place with the other pilgrims before the shrine.
The tele virus is creeping inexorably across the city. A big indoor pool is now advertising "Swimming With Television.” In the bars, where TV has been the greatest thing since the free lunch, a new social stratum has emerged which places the Scotch and soda drinkers close to the screen and the beer and ale men well to the rear. On the Avenue of Americas a fund raising organization has tried to attract attention to itself by building an entire $15,000 house on a vacant lot. To attract attention to the house they’ve turned on a TV set on the walk in front.
The clifflike apartment Continued on page 56
A Radio-Age Man from the Canadian Wastes finds the shape of things to come in the Cyclops eye of New York’s telescreens
Continued from page 8
blocks that girdle the city are rapidly sprouting the new foliage of the TV aerial, and the small bilk around town is peppered with tributes to the new gods of the television era: a puppet named “Howdy Doody,” a wrestler who calls himself the “Golden Superman” and a none too successful radio comedian named Milton Berle who is currently the hottest thing on the telegriddle.
Berle prepared himself well in advance for his teledebut by rendering ¡ his schnozzle more photogenic. A plastic surgeon pared it down and Berle liked the effect so much he has since given further “sehnoz trims” (as Variety, the show-business bible, calls them) to his friends for Christmas.
TV advertising is already overtaking radio advertising in the New York press. In one tabloid I counted a total of four full pages of TV ads compared with about two and a half of radio. There is, however, a better indication of the astonishing strides that TV has made in the past year: a swaddling infant in the advertising world, it has quickly lent itself to the same comparatives that have long been a part of
the soap and cigarette hucksters’ vocabulary. Each TV manufacturer now announces unequivocally that his set gives a bigger picture than that of any competitor.
“You’re really socially ostracized if somebody has a bigger screen than you,” a man with a 12-inch screen told me the other day. “They’ll desert you like flies.” As the average televiewer today has only a 10-inch screen, this man feels fairly safe for the moment, but there’s a rumor that a fellow down the hall is thinking of buying a set with a 15-inch screen—a prospect that makes my acquaintance start up all heady with sweat in the dark of the night.
1 had a glancing encounter with TV when my wife and I dropped around to the apartment of a New York magazine man. Our host was a moment or so late getting up from the office and, as his wife was in the kitchen, his 10 - year - old daughter opened the door. The child surveyed us with a dazed look and then, as if drawn by a magnet, returned without a word to a low settee ih the hall, sat down beside her eight-year-old brother and began to stare fixedly at the wall. Our hostess presently appeared and explained her daughter’s actions: “They’re waiting for Howdy Doody, you know.”
1 then saw what it was the tw’o
children were gazing at. Opposite the settee squatted the Monster, its great square Polyphemus eye returning the unwinking gaze of the youngsters. From its fiat cranium there protruded two great beetlelike feelers, knobbed at the end. Later I learned this was a built-in antennae, but at the moment the whole machine bore an uncanny resemblance to one of the Insect Men of Mars.
On the screen a black and white cartoon was reaching a violent climax. The children watched it with sober interest. It had the jerky movements, the crude drawing and the simple story line of the early vintage anima teds and reminded me nostalgically of the first cartoon I’d ever seen— Oswald the Rabbit in “Mississippi Mud,” circa 1927.
The cartoon seemed to be shown from under a pool of gently rippling water and it had some of the qualities of an aluminum engraving, due to light contrasts. Our host, who arrived at this moment, apologized for this. “Honestly,” he said, “the television picture has the same clarity as a modern motion picture—except at our place.”
We moved into the drawing-room but the children remained behind, still staring fixedly at the eye. “Do you like this better than the radio?” I asked the little girl by way of a parting
shot. She gave me the withering glance I deserved. “The thing seems to act on the children like a ... a soporific,” said our hostess. “Anodyne,” quickly corrected her husband, who works for Time.
The next day we attended a “television evening” at the invitation of a friend named Jim who has a friend who has a set.
“Always a crowd at good old Al’s,” Jim told me as we arrived at Al’s apartment. “We’re here in good time.”
We were indeed. Al and his wife were half through supper and AÍ waved us toward the TV set and continued eating coleslaw. The set, a console model, formed the focal point of Al’s apartment and performed the same function as a fireplace in a pre-TV room. Facing the set were three occasional chairs in a row behind which was a chesterfield, all arranged in theatre fashion. A newsreel, made up of films taken the previous day, was just finishing, and presently a placard appeared announcing the beginning of the Milton Berle show.
Berle In a False Nose
The entire show took place on the stage of a theatre, curtains closing after each item and parting to reveal new scenes. Four gas station attendants, standing before a painted gas station, gave a visual singing commercial about a motor oil and Berle arrived a moment later, wearing a toga and wig and driving a Roman chariot with four horses.
“Isn’t it awful what you got to go through for a lousy $15,000 a week?” he asked an unseen audience which laughed madly at him.
After .some more of this patter Berle introduced an acrobatic team of four men. Once again 1 had the feeling of nostalgia that the old-time cartoon had given me. Here, by means of this bright new medium, I was being reintroduced to a vaudeville act apparently identical with one I had last seen at Shea’s Hippodrome in Toronto, circa 1930.
“Are there television shows all day long?” my wife was asking.
“Right from 7 a.m.,” said our hostess happily. “That’s why our kitchen looks the way it does.”
Berle had returned sans toga and was introducing a man who he said had developed a new spring suit. The man walked across the stage wearing a suit to which giant springs were attached.
Then Berle introduced his first guest star, Keye Luke, the Chinese movie actor. Luke and Berle went through some patter then reappeared in Chinese dress and began to talk in pidgin English. “Who was that mandarin I seen you with last night?” Luke asked. “That was no mandarin,” returned Berle, “that was a ukulele.”
There was some more of this (Berle donned a false nose at one point), then Berle introduced his second guest, Ethel Merman, the Broadway musical star.
“Hey, they finally got Merman,” shouted AÍ. “They finally got her for $5,000. They’ve been trying to get her on TV for a year and they finally did it.”
Miss Merman appeared in a black evening gown which the ladies were quick to criticize. Something about the lighting gave her face a soiled appearance and a white horizontal line near the neck of the dress served to accentuate the flattened, somewhat obese look that the screen tends to give to TV actors.
“Poor Ethel,” clucked one of the ladies. “She has no TV future.”
Ethel sang a song, then she and Berle appeared dressed in turn-of-the-century
motoring costumes (Berle also wore a tremendous mustache) and went through a patter routine before a painted replica of an early-vintage auto. “What kind of an automobile is that anyway?” Miss Merman wanted to know. “It’s a Hardly Able,” Berle answered.
The man who gave the commercial appeared dressed as an old-time bowlerhatted street hawker (selling motor oil) and went through a sure-fire vaudeville routine which at one point involved a tried and ancient wheeze in which a man enters, gyrating from side to side, and announces that he’s a clock. “What time is it?” asked the hawker. “Eight o’clock,” said the clock. “But I’ve got half past eight,” said the hawker. “Then I must be slow,” said the clock and speeded up his clock movements to the delight of the invisible audience.
I could be wrong, but I thought I detected on the faces of both these men the same look of fierce delight that had ennobled the countenances of the four acrobats. The look seemed to say: “We told you so. We always knew vaudeville would be back.”
Berle and Miss Merman wound up the show with “Varsity Drag,” circa late 1920’s—Berle dressed in blazer and wide-bottomed trousers, Merman attired as a flapper.
By the time this hour-long show was over I found that I had been enjoying myself hugely. The telecast had borrowed virtually nothing from either radio or the movies and most of its material and format had been dredged out of a nostalgic past. There was only one thing missing.
“Hey,” Jim said. “They didn’t throw any custard pies tonight. Usually they throw pies or squirt somebody with a Seltzer bottle.”
“They threw ketchup,” said his wife cheerfully. “That announcer threw a rubber meatball soaked in ketchup.”
Theatre in the Parlor
We watched for a couple of hours more, then AÍ turned off the set and said, “Now comes the horrible moment. We see each other.” We had been sitting in the dark for the entire evening.
“If you should have a feeding problem about the time your daughter’s one,” Al’s wife was saying to my wife, “just let her watch Howdy Doody. Honestly, you know, you stuff the food in their little mouths and they don’t even know they’re eating.”
“The trouble is getting them to bed,” said Al. “The kids never want to go to bed any more.”
“It’s different from radio,” Jim said. “The trouble with television is that all the shows can be considered kids’ shows.”
At this point I noticed we were all still sitting theatre fashion and that the three persons in the front row were twisting around awkwardly to talk to the three in the rear. This was adjusted somewhat, but for the remainder of the televisit something of this orderly theatre-row effect remained.
A couple of days later we returned to Toronto, a town where TV has yet to make its mark. In our apartment we have two small radios, one for the living room and one for the bedroom. We always thought they were pretty good to have around, but now, somehow, they’ve taken on a shoddy, almost 19th-century look. And when we twist the familiar knobs to tune in the familiar programs we feel rather as Henry Ford must have felt when, after taking the first whirl in his new horseless carriage, he was reluctantly forced to step back into a buggy and jolt off down the rutted road. it
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