Scene from Leave it to Beaver, 1958; The Honeymooners, the show’s cast in 1955 as it premiered on CBS
Television was one of the hottest topics in the news during the 1940s. But very few homes, relative to the population, actually had a set. In 1945, televisions were more commonly found in bars than in homes. The programming most frequently seen in the local watering hole was professional wrestling.
The 1950s ushered in an explosion of television stations broadcasting shows, and TVs sold with which to watch the shows.
Just how big of an explosion are we discussing? In 1950, four televisions were sold in the State of Oregon. In 1953, 7,261 sets were sold to Oregon families.
What shows were people watching from 1950-1959? Gee Beav, we thought you would never ask.
5. Looney Tunes: The decade of the 50s was the Golden Age of animation. While Walt Disney owned the theatrical animation franchise, Looney Toons (and its companion set Merrie Melodies) ruled the small screen. This was the introduction of Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Porky Pig, and Elmer Fudd to the home viewer. Tweety Bird, Sylvester the Cat, Yosemite Sam, Foghorn Leghorn, and Marvin the Martian were almost as popular. There were more than a few fans of Pepé Le Pew, Speedy Gonzales, Wile E. Coyote and the Road Runner Beep beep.
4. Alfred Hitchcock Presents: On a viewer per episode basis, Alfred Hitchcock Presents ranked fourth in the 50s. Already, a movie director for three decades Hitchcock brought the series to life on the home screen. He hosted the show with his signature, “Good evening.” Fans of the show remember it for the suspenseful stories and the guest appearances by major film stars of the day. These included Steve McQueen, Walter Matthau, Laurence Harvey, Claude Rains, Joseph Cotton, Vera Miles, Tom Ewell, and Barbara Bel Geddes. Most fans do not know that the most frequent actor appearing on Alfred Hitchcock Presents was Patricia Hitchcock, Alfred’s daughter.
3. The Honeymooners: Jackie Gleason was an established comedian when he was asked to host a variety-themed television series named “The Jackie Gleason Show.” He agreed, as long as the show could be filmed near his Miami Beach home. The show opened with a tracking shot inland from offshore and the intoned words, “From the Entertainment Capital of the World, Miami Beach.” A feature of Gleason’s show was a comedy sketch about two bickering couples. Eventually, the sketch was expanded into “The Honeymooners.” Art Carney played Ed Norton, the best friend to Gleason’s Ralph Kramden. Ralph’s wife Alice was played by Joyce Randolph. Norton’s wife Trixie (the inspiration for Betty Rubble) was played alternately by Elaine Stritch and Jane Kean.
Inger Stevens in the Hitch-Hiker episode 16, season 1 of The Twilight Zone, 1960
2. The Twilight Zone: Rod Serling presented to the American public the second most popular 1950s TV series in“The Twilight Zone.” It was a series of stories, unrelated to each other, containing drama, psychological thriller, and fantasy/science fiction. It often concluded with a macabre or unexpected twist. The Twilight Zone is credited with introducing the genre of common science fiction to the television audience. Much like in “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” some of the viewers intrigue was provided by the varied cast of guest stars who appeared. These included Cloris Leachman, Dennis Hopper, Bob Crane, Buddy Ebsen, Burt Reynolds, and Carol Burnett.
Leave It to Beaver cast, Hugh Beaumont, Tony Dow, Barbara Billingsley and Jerry Mathers, 1959
1. Leave it to Beaver: Cartoons, sci-fi, suspense, and slapstick comedy were fine. But, the show Americans flocked to see in the 1950s was a situation comedy about an idealized American family in Anytown, USA. The Cleaver family (Dad, Ward; Mom, June; and Big Brother Wally) was frequently nonplussed by the adventures of young Theodore “Beaver” Cleaver. Hugh Beaumont played Ward. Barbara Billingsley played June. Tony Dow played Wally, and Jerry Mathers played The Beaver. The show was gentle comedy. In fact, Tony Dow later told reporters “If any line got too much of a laugh they took it out. They wanted chuckles.” Whatever they wanted, what they got was the top-rated show of the 1950s. It was the forerunner for many of the same kind of televised entertainment shows in the next 20 years. “Leave it to Beaver’ and its huge audience paved the way for “My Three Sons,” “Make Room for Daddy,” Family Affair,” and many others.