Thursday, October 22, 2015

That's Entertainment

    I can't recall our first TV, the one with the rounded tube in a blond, mid-century cabinet atop spindly little legs sporting faux brass socks. We may never have had such a set, actually, and I could be confusing it with the Victrola upon which Dad spun such timeless platters as Percy Faith, Lester Lanin and Drums of Passion. But I do remember the excitement and fanfare that built up around the day he brought home the modern, table-top version; a Zenith, which carried us from the grainy Nixon, Kennedy debate through the assassination, the endless, crepuscular funeral cortege and Jack Ruby's astonishing epilogue. Along the way there must have been some Alan Shepard and some Elvis, but popular apprehension concerning what television might do to our brains had convinced my parents to ban the Box altogether on weeknights.

If I were sick and home from school, a feat that might be easily achieved through the judicious application of an oral thermometer to a glass of hot water - this proscription might be eased, and I'd catch up with a bit of Dobey Gillis or Bowery Boys, but after the early morning newsreels devoted to American agriculture or industry on parade – those stentorious epics depicting massive combines rolling over amber fields of grain – there wasn't much to watch beyond test patterns until Johnny Mathis showed up after lunch to help the housewives with the ironing.

    Between Lyndon Johnson's reluctant, on-screen ascension and his withdrawal a few years later, Dad's restrictions had eased, though he never ceded control of the device, switching it on for Chet Huntley and off after Walter Cronkite. Occasionally he'd insist on a Special or Gala after the news, hosted by Judy and Bing, perhaps, and featuring Ethel Merman; nothing drove his children from the room faster than these three wrapping it up with an encore of  “Alexander's Ragtime Band”!  By that time the War was well under way and it was hard to pass by the tube without Cronkite grabbing you by the elbow and forcing you down into a chair, regardless of house policy.  Night after night, over a plate of Triscuits and Cracker Barrel, we'd watch choppers hovering above the flattened paddies, disgorging one hapless soldier after another into the maelstrom of visible tracer fire below. This prospect -  my nearly certain future, if the TV's prognostications proved correct - made me so unsettled that I rarely stayed for the somber casualty call that ended each report. My father had no stomach for footage of rude, entitled hippies, and, with the barbarians at the gates in Chicago we left home for school and nearly an entire decade elapsed – with the notable exceptions of the moon landing and impeachment hearings - before SNL got my attention. On infrequent trips home I'd find that Dad,  having finally given up regulating the box, had chosen to embrace it and had pretty much given himself over entirely to Carol Burnett, Colombo and Kojak.


     Somewhere over the last thirty years – perhaps it began with the relentless podium digressions of Ronald Reagan, the Great Communicator, I find we've fallen once more into the void. We bought cable. When analog faded away, we went digital; we found ourselves glued to real-time wars, disasters and elections. We subscribed to pay-stations, had to get NetFlix and have burrowed into intricate dramas that take years to resolve. Where thirty minutes of a thoughtful Mr Cronkite was once enough, we subject ourselves to hours of shrieking from Matthews or O'Reilly and, in place of the comedy of Carol Burnett, sufficient to lull my father to sleep of an evening, we're transfixed by the giddy hysteria of the  fall of Republicanism and the rise of Donald Trump, the Great Charlatan.

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