Throughout the fifties, as I grew up, television was mostly a family activity. Sure, we had endless cartoons on Saturday mornings if we wanted them, but we rarely did. We played outside.
Mainstream television brought us together. In the middle fifties we’d stop playing even on sunny summer evenings in time to get home and watch Rin Tin Tin (a German shepherd), Lassie, and Disneyland. You saw the shows right then, when they played on TV, or not at all. There was no catching them later. If you missed them when they were broadcast, you missed them forever.
And football. Pro football. We were dedicated 49er fans. I sat with Dad and Chip watching the small TV and rooting for Y.A. Tittle, Hugh McElhenny, Joe the Jet Perry, Leo Nomellini. They played against the Rams and Norm Van Brocklin.
Television was black and white in the fifties. Color came middle to late sixties, and it was bad for several years. I was in college when they got the first color set at home.
And television was basically one to a family. There were no spare sets in the kitchen or the bedroom until decades later.
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For several years in a row, Chip and I flew to Santa Barbara for a week in Ojai with Grandad and Granma. Then the rest of the family drove down US 101 to pick us up and continue on south to either Newport Beach or Balboa Island, where we’d have a rented house for a week or two. We’d meet up with the family than had lived next door on Benvenue in Los Altos.
The beach trips were a mix of body surfing, sunburn, parents playing bridge, and beach trip highlights. Balboa island had a waterfront boardwalk, games and rides at the Balboa Pavilion, and a pier from which we’d fish small fish with a drop line. There was another big pier close by on Newport Beach
And with kids pressuring, and parents resisting, we’d dedicate one day to Disneyland in Anaheim. It was always the highlight for me. Disneyland opened in 1955 and promoted itself every week with the very popular Disneyland television show. We grew up with the Disney moves and the animated characters. Disneyland, when we’d go there, was a dream come true. The parents hated it. There was already smog back then in Los Angeles, so there was that. But lines were manageable and the opening rides — the jungle cruise, the autopia, and the railroad were our favorites — had only short lines. Park admission was $1.00 and the rides involved tickets, which varied from $0.35 for the most expensive to $0.10 for the least.
The television grew steadily more important. By the late fifties we had a bigger black and white set in the family room. We gathered — parents and kids old enough, Chip and Me — to watch Gunsmoke, Disneyland, Perry Mason, Twilight Zone, Bonanza. We built Friday and Saturday nights around the shows. For Perry Mason we played a game guessing the culprit every week. We had to write our guesses down and drop them in a copper pot near the TV before Perry Mason revealed the guilty, always in the last five minutes. And we watched College Bowl and guessed the answers and learned about Oberlin and Pomona College. Quiz shows were big too, once a week extravaganza in prime time. And we still had to be there on time and sit through the commercials to watch the shows. There were no replays or second chances. So, we were there, as the TV demanded, at the appointed times. Or we didn’t see the show.
Television brought us football. That was a Dad thing. The San Francisco forty-niners, pro football, televised the away games. I learned football from Dad, and watched with Chip and by the time he was 6, Jay too. We dove into the TV, ate it up, analyzed every play, read the sports page every day, debated everything, and enjoyed the hell out of it.
We had three main choices for TV. NBC on channel 4, CBS on 5, or ABC on 7. Plus a local independent on channel 2 and KQED, PBS, on 9. They broadcast from 5 or 6 in the morning until 11 or 12 at night. They signed off with a patriotic message and ran a test pattern through the night. All TV came through an antenna on the roof.