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Featured ArticleTelevision - from Clarabelle to Kramer

Howdy Doody is 50, and Jerry Seinfeld is history
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This season of new beginnings, mistaken by many as a period of levity, is a hallmark of serious tidings to the generation of the post-war baby boom. Fifty years ago, television was invented. Following shortly upon the heels of this historic contrivance came the Howdy Doody Show, which debuted on December 27, 1947 and ran for 15 years, long after the original wave of boomers would admit they had ever watched it. Starring a wooden puppet with a crew of comic sidekicks made of cloth, flesh, and varying combinations of the two, the Howdy Doody Show anchored baby boomers in time and place each evening before dinner as we eagerly awaited the question, "What time is it?" Is it mere coincidence that the filming of the last Seinfeld coincides with Howdy's anniversary year? Jerry, George, Elaine, Kramer and Newman take us full circle from Buffalo Bob, Clarabelle, Mr. Bluster, FlubaDub, Princess Summerfall Winterspring, and the jovial, freckle-faced Howdy Doody. (I once heard a joke about what Howdy was called before he took his show-biz name, but I'm too much of a lady to print it.)

I remember when our first television was delivered to the three family house we shared with real aunts and uncles on the second floor and renters on the third floor also called Aunt and Uncle. (Only children raised in avant-garde Manhattan brownstones called adults by their first names.) Burly delivery men brought the enormous box through the ornate front hallway and into the living room, both areas usually untouched except for weekly dusting. After a frenzy of unpacking and paper shredding (we didn't have styrofoam peanuts then), a giant green-eyed Cyclops stared blankly from its brown wooden case. I was four years old and quite suspicious. Only a year earlier, my parents had used the same fancy staircase to bring my sister home from the hospital, and I knew that friendlier additions usually came right into the kitchen through the back door.

After a typical evening meal with enough cholesterol to clog the Midtown Artery, my parents, my sister, the upstairs aunts and uncles, several favored neighbors and I sat down on the usually forbidden couches and armchairs as my father adjusted the dial. I remember Milton Berle wearing a dress and Arthur Godfrey playing the ukulele, performers whose charm escaped me even at the age of four. My mother served fruit cubes with toothpicks on a tray shaped like a giant palm leaf. Soon after, I became an aficionado of The Howdy Doody Show, and our world changed. Of course, we had to move to a suburban home, because an instrument of such imagination deserved its own room. All over America, the den replaced the formal living room, and high-backed Victorian armchairs were usurped by television tables, recliners, and Naugahyde. A few pseudo-Scandinavian couches, a hi-fi with a blond cabinet, and a pole lamp completed the epicenter of mainstream babyboom development. Eating aluminum dinners on fiberglass trays, we casually uprooted two thousand years of productive family practice.

Images on television today change every four seconds, so that even programs designed to be educationally enriching signal young minds to develop short attention spans. But when Kate Smith came over the mountain to sing "God Bless America", she held a note that was longer and more patriotic than a Senate filibuster. It was easy to know who we were then. Bob Dylan probably said it best when he whined to his adoring fans, "But I was so much older then, I'm younger than that now."

Today's entertainment industry is so sophisticated that the little black and white screens dwarfed by bulky consoles are almost forgotten. It's wonderful that the racist, sexist, and chauvinistic attitudes of programs like The Honeymooners and Amos and Andy no longer masquerade as entertainment. Though Lucille Ball was probably the premiere comic actress of her time, it's not so funny today to see how Desi consistently belittles her character's wishes, talents, and dreams. In only fifty years, the television has become as much of a standard in most American homes as indoor plumbing. Yet I wonder if we have been energized by this potentially creative medium or simply seduced by its charms. Perhaps an assessment fifty years from now will clarify the issue.
For now, I have only one question: So, boys and girls, what time is it?
Yada, yada, yada...

Written by Marcia Brown Rubinstien
December 30, 1997

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