Growing Up Electric: An Essay
I consider myself fortunate to have been born at the end of fifties. If I had been born earlier, chances were that I would have listened to a lot of radio, but I would have missed out on that newly-invented home accessory, the television. It would have been an expensive piece of bulky furniture, and my parents were too budget-conscious and practical to invest their hard-earned money in something that seemed unnecessary. Actually, my mother was the practical one, and she would have vetoed any proposal for the unwieldy equipment faster than anyone could say, “T.V.” If my father was left to his device-curious instincts, he would have bought one as soon as it rolled out of the factory.
As it were, the prices were affordable by the early sixties, and my family was able to purchase a cabinet model stereo/black and white television. That television became an important part of our family’s daily life. We often marked the time of day by the show that on television. I can remember hearing the sound of television coming on at sunrise, and an announcer informing the Shortt family of the date, the time, and “This is “Today.”
Some of the memories are fuzzy, but I can remember padding into the living room in pajamas and bunny slippers, trying to get a glimpse of Shari Lewis and “Lamb Chops” before my mother made me wash up and get dressed. Then there was Captain Kangaroo, who I thought was kind of corny, but I watched his show anyway.
But my absolute favorite shows came on the afternoon—cartoons. I loved cartoons almost as much as I loved my mother’s homemade oatmeal cookies and milk. Popeye, Rocky and Bullwinkle, Sinbad, Woody Woodpecker, Terry Toons, Deputy Dawg, Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Huckleberry Hound and my all time favorite, Mighty Mouse—I sat as close to the T.V. as I could, in spite of my mother’s constant admonishments that sitting to close to the television would ruin my eyesight. (Of course, she never considered the fact that I often read books after bedtime by flashlight and that probably did the most damage to my eyes.) I was enthralled by cartoons, and even my mother’s protection of eyesight failed to dampen my enthusiasm. In fact, while I was supposed to be concentrating on classroom activities, I spent a lot of time daydreaming about the cartoons I could watch after school. That was the absolute highlight of my day.
There was much more on television than cartoons, of course. I remember the Red Skelton Show had my sister and I laughing so helplessly that we had tears streaming down our faces. My parents seemed to be only mildly amused by Skelton’s wild comic antics, but they dutifully turned the station to his show every week so my sister and I could have a good laugh.
Looking back, I now realize that I was fortunate to witness the golden era of the variety show format on television. In addition to the Red Skelton Show, we joined in with the rest of America to watch the Ed Sullivan Show, and later on, the classic comedy/variety show, Laugh-In. I actually witnessed the Beatles historic American debut on the Sullivan, although I have to admit that I was not very impressed by the strange looking (to my way of thinking at the time; I was only six years old) mop-haired guys from England. It was confusing to me to hear all those girls in the audience screaming as if someone was torturing them, and I came away thinking that teenaged girls were all crazy, and when I became a teenager, I would never act like that. Unfortunately for my parents, I forgot about that vow when the Jackson Five appeared on the Sullivan show six years later. Mom and Dad nearly jumped off the couch when the ear piercing, octave-jumping shrieks came out of the mouths of my sister and I.
While writing this essay, I decided to use the amazing electronic medium called the Internet to take a trip down memory lane and the Jackson’s performance on the Sullivan show. All it took was typing in www.youtube.com, then doing in a search for “Jackson Five” and “Ed Sullivan Show”. A number of videos were available for me to view, but I wanted to return to those moments in 1970 when L thought my heart was pound out my chest at the sight of Jermaine Jackson dancing, singing and playing the bass guitar with his brothers. Everyone thought Michael was the star (and he was), but it was his older brother Jermaine who pushed my pubescent hormones to the critical mass stage. Scary stuff, those pubescent hormones.
Michael was, of course, awesome in ways that he can no longer be due to age, mental health and an ongoing crisis of identity. This is my opinion, of course, but it’s an absolute shame what has happened to the man in the years since that Ed Sullivan broadcast I am thankful to the Internet and web sites such as youtube.com for reminding me that at one time, Michael Jackson was not only a very handsome young African American man, but he had more talent in the tip of his baby finger than most people have in their entire bodies. Now, he just looks and acts like a freak show, a mere caricature of the vocal and performance dynamo that he once was. With the video web sites, I can enjoy the memories Michael Jackson as he was during the 70s, instead grimacing and feeling nauseous whenever I see him on television these. It’s nice to be able to remember that at one time, Michael was a normal human being.
However, I have to point out that prior to the late 1960s, it was rare to see Black performers like the Jackson Five on television. I still recall how my parents would get excited and call us into the living room for a rare glimpse of a Black man or woman on the T.V. screen: “Angie, Tam, Ricky! Come here, quick! There’s a black man in this commercial!” It seems absurd now, but all of us would come running, anxious to see a face on T.V. that looked like ours.
Of course, there was an occasional appearance on network television of Black singer or actor prior to the 60s and 70s. Nat King Cole had his own variety show, but it was cancelled before I was born. I remember my parents talking about the show, but it didn’t seem interesting to me. At that time, I found nothing particularly interesting about a guy playing the piano and singing a bunch of old slow songs that my parents liked. I preferred the more modern sounds coming out of the Motown recording studios, and having the opportunity to see the Temptations or Smokey Robinson and the Miracles was rare until the 60s and the Civil Rights Movement.
By 1968, we could not only see Diann Carroll in her own series, “Julia”, but we also saw Black people in commercials, and guest-starring in weekly series. To me and my family, those shows weren’t just entertainment. They were causes for celebration. It meant we as a race were not longer invisible to America, and that we mattered to the rest of the nation. Television provided the means for us to see ourselves reflected (even if was a somewhat stilted image) in the mass media that unimaginable in previous generations. Watching “Julia” was source of pride for my family, and we considered it our duty to support Diann Carroll and “Julia” by becoming loyal viewers.
I’ve never really taken the time to reflect on this, but I realize that I have had the privilege of personally witnessing some very momentous occasions in television history. From early network broadcasts of the emerging television medium to proliferation of independent and cable networks, I’ve witnessed an incredible amount of changes in both the programming and the technology over the past four decades.
Now, when I tell my children stories about how their grandparents used to shout, “Y’all come here quick; there’s a Black person on T.V.!”, they just stare at me. It makes no sense to them. But of course it wouldn’t. They grew up with UPN and BET.