A flyer came in the mail today offering more than 100 TV channels for a low monthly fee.
Even without reading it carefully, I’m convinced the package will contain a host of religious channels, which I don’t watch; oodles of home-shopping-network-type stations, which should be banned; scores of sports channels, which probably feature the all-time pro table tennis championship and muskrat hunting.
How many channels can a person watch?
Being a kid when television arrived in town, I can remember having only three channels available under optimum conditions, and some of them broadcast for only three or four hours a day.
The movies were the main form of passive entertainment in the forties and fifties. There were as many movie houses as there were TV channels. The Kiva, on Bridge Street, featured a lot of Spanish-language movies. The Coronado, at the corner of Sixth and University, generally showed second-run films. The Serf was the most popular theater in town.
In Las Vegas in those years, people had a commonality of experience. During school recess on Mondays, any allusion to a line in a movie generally brought a reaction, the assurance that most of the town was familiar with that flick.
It was fun to watch boys strutting around the playground, rolled-up paper in his lips, doing a Humphrey Bogart imitation. The practicing of Bogart’s mannerisms weren’t performed for humor, but rather for emulation, because in a young boy’s mind, that was the way to be successful with the girls.
A close relative attended the same movies. We spent a lot of time together, and I dreaded quality time with her following a swashbuckling movie such as Scaramouch. My relative, identifying with Linda Darnell, or whoever the damsel happened to be the week before, would provoke disputes. She felt free to lash out at any boy she didn’t care for, and when he’d react, either physically or verbally, the cousin would turn to me with “Aren’t you going to do something about it, Manny (that was my nickname then)?”
Yeah, sure. I’m going to draw out my sword, turn the guy to rice pudding, wait for all his friends to arrive and pummel each one, the way Erroll Flynn did last night. That would be an extreme case of life imitating art. For my relative, starting a playground spat was easy: it represented no risk or investment on her part. Were I ever reluctant to teach the slovenly boy a lesson, my cousin would punctuate her admonition with the liberal use of the word “coward.”
Once I got into a mini-melee with a classmate who to his surprise got insulted by my relative. Anticipating her using the c-word, I jumped in and wrestled with the boy. After a torn shirt, ripped pants, a swollen thumb and various other bruises, I–in the persona of Burt Lancaster, and the rival, qua Kirk Douglas–ended the fight through sheer inertia. We brushed each other off and tried to remember what the scuffle was about. Neither remembered, nor did my cousin. It was just something to do.
My earliest recollection of television was through what was possibly the first set in Las Vegas.
A darkened room was reserved for members of the public who wished to observe the fad. The viewing room was at Hilton Motors, now Fred’s Lumber. It was easy to find, as it had a rooftop antenna the size of a Pennsylvania Dutch barn. Surprisingly, the dozen people who watched at any one time were polite. Those getting their fill of Arthur Godfrey or Milton Berle generally left shortly, to allow others to be seated.
That practice ended when my aunt, Manuelita Lucero, who lived just a block south of Hilton Motors, purchased a set. There, until I made a pest of myself, I could watch some of the early syndicated programs. Even the commercials for Coors beer were interesting, though repetitious. Much of television was live in those days, and it was fun to watch as a Coors pitch-woman, who during each break poured beer from a bottle into a glass, got carried away. She overfilled the glass and needed to watch for the remaining 30 seconds of the commercial as the suds spilled over the rim of the glass, on to her hand, and eventually, to her shoes.
That was before TV Guide, so few TV owners really knew what was on schedule. My aunt’s policy was to turn off the TV set at 8:30 each evening. Her rationale was that if she saw what was coming up, she might actually watch it, and that would not be wise, especially on a school night.
Today, it’s difficult to hold people’s attention. Short of becoming a dancing bear, teachers constantly think of ways to motivate their students, or at least to keep them under control. Those who grew up in the TV-set-as-babysitter era often need constant “hits.”
My 7-year-old grandson and namesake finds it hard to believe people our age grew up in a world with few diversions. Like many children his age, he can manipulate video games, with the TV playing in the background.
As for me, I regret the diversity that has robbed us of shared experiences. Perhaps a bruised knee sustained while trying to live up to the feats of Gary Grant and Robert Mitchum wasn’t so bad after all.