In the 1940s, television was a bold new venture. It fought for legitimacy beside movie studios who would blacklist their stars for participating on the small screen. TV was the Wild West. It would never be quite that way again. Television became universally popular in the 50s, and was the dominant entertainment choice in the 1960s.
The shows were poorly produced and amateurish when seen by today’s standards. Seemingly solid walls and rocky cliffs would sway mid scene. Boom microphones were spotted everywhere. But, the shows of the 40s are fondly remembered by those who were alive then.
The programming was dominated by radio serials given new life in the visual medium. The actors were mostly young and/or minor celebrities. But, anyone lucky enough to have television played with the antenna to reduce the screen snow, pulled up a chair, and watched with rapt attention. There were no video games or cell phones to interrupt. And who would have cared, anyway?
“Come on in, Pa! Our show’s about to start!”
Burr Tillstrom Fran Allison Kukla Fran and Ollie, 1954
5. Kukla, Fran, and Ollie: What began as a puppet show for kids, quickly found popularity with a largely adult audience. It didn’t have a script, and was entirely ad-libbed. “Fran” was Fran Allison, a singer/comedienne. She was generally the only human to appear on screen. She befriended, and refereed, as the puppets engaged each other.
4. Candid Camera: A precursor to many hidden camera shows which were to follow, Candid Camera involved concealing cameras which would film ordinary people being confronted with unusual situations. Often trick props, such as desk drawers that periodically popped open, were employed. When the joke was revealed, victims would hear the show’s famous catchphrase, “Smile, you’re on Candid Camera.” Allen Funt was the host and writer for the show. The show’s popularity catapulted Funt to fame as a punch line whenever something would startle an actor or actress. “Where’s Allen Funt?”
William Boyd (Hopalong Cassidy) and Robert Mitchum in “Hoppy Serves a Writ”, 1943
3. Hopalong Cassidy: One of the first television stars to cross over into merchandise sales William Boyd’s Hopalong Cassidy, was a multi-platform sensation in the 40s. Many radio and movie Westerns became television shows. But, in the 1940s, HC was the most popular. In the original written work Cassidy was tough and hard-bitten. On TV, he was clean-cut and kind. The series was so popular that Hopalong was featured on the cover of Look, Life, and Time magazines. In 1950, Hopalong Cassidy was featured on the first lunch box to bear an image. The boxes’ sales jumped from 50,000 to 600,000 in one year.
2. The Lone Ranger: “With a hearty hi-ho Silver…AWAY!” That was iconic Clayton Moore’s parting cry when he played The Lone Ranger. Though the show didn’t premiere until the decade was almost over, it garnered the decade’s second highest viewership on a per episode basis. The show’s setup told us Moore was the last survivor of a group of six Texas Rangers who were ambushed. His mission, thereafter, was to protect and defend vulnerable settlers. Jay Silverheels played TLR’s trusty sidekick, Tonto.
The Lone Ranger and Tonto, 1956
1. The Ed Sullivan Show: The number one show in America during the decade of the 40s was “Toast of the Town.” But, everyone called it The Ed Sullivan Show. It premiered in 1948, and was hosted by entertainment columnist Sullivan himself. Ed’s hangdog appearance and uncomfortable on-camera demeanor became an endearing part of the show. But, Sullivan’s ability to attract the most popular acts in the world made the show a hit. Must-see TV before there was such a phrase, Sullivan’s show was a cultural Monday morning touchstone for Americans coast to coast. The show may have become known as the place The Beatles played, but its appeal was in the vast scope of the entertainers who graced Ed’s stage. How vast? Here was the Opening Night lineup. Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis performed. They were followed by singer Monica Lewis. Then came Broadway composers Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein. They were touring in support of the score to their new show… South Pacific.
Ed Sullivan and The Dave Clark Five, 1963