Dad bought our first television in 1954 when I was seven. My younger sister, Shirley, and I virtually welcomed Roy Rogers and Dale Evans into our small, shingled house in rural Taylors, S.C. We loved our black-and-white, 24-inch-screen TV.
We soaked up “The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin,” featuring Rusty, a boy orphaned by an American Indian raid, and Rin Tin Tin, a German shepherd dog. They lived on an army post called “Fort Apache.” We loved watching Westerns!
Mom and Dad liked “The Jackie Gleason Show” and “Dragnet.” Dad relished “The Life of Riley” starring William Bendix. A U.S. infantry veteran who fought in Germany in WWII, Dad smiled at “Riley” and his television predicaments. My parents also liked “You Bet Your Life,” a quiz show starring Groucho Marx.
Not everyone thought highly of “telly-vision.” A few pastors referred to it as “helly-vision.” I recall this joke from those days when TV sets came with “rabbit ears”(two extendable antenna on top):
An older lady bought a TV. One day, she looked out a window and saw her pastor arriving. She ran and threw a bed sheet over the TV that sported long “rabbit ears.” She welcomed her pastor and they sat to chat. Looking around the room, he saw the sheet and realized the two points poking upward beneath the sheet were antennae. He told the lady, “Well, you can hide the Devil, but you can’t hide his horns!”
“At the start of the decade [1950-60], there were about three million TV owners; by the end of it, there were 55 million, watching shows from 530 stations,” says Steve Wiegand, adding that the average price of a TV set was about $500 in 1949 but by 1953 had dropped to around $200.
Families huddled and watched shows. In 1954, the Toledo, Ohio, water commissioner reported that water consumption surged at certain times because so many people were simultaneously using their toilets during commercial breaks on the most popular shows.
Before TV came to our house, Mom persuaded Dad to read (several nights each week) to our family from “Hurlbut’s Story of the Bible for Young and Old.”
Somehow, TV started replacing those “devotional times.” Instead of hearing how David defeated Goliath, we watched fictional Marshal Matt Dillon dispatch bad guys in “Dodge City, Kansas,” on a program called “Gunsmoke.” Instead of learning about Moses leading the Children of Israel from Egypt to the Promised Land, we watched “Major Adams” lead actors in covered wagons toward California on a program called “Wagon Train.”
Someone said, “Bad things seen on television may prove harmful, but TV’s greatest danger may lie in what it replaces.”
During my fifth grade year at Mountain View Elementary (Greenville, S.C.), Mrs. Barton, a good teacher and a Southern Baptist, asked us to write something and read it in front of the class. Gladys King stood and read about her imaginary trip to the “Gunsmoke” version of Dodge City, where Matt Dillon was “the law” and Miss Kitty, Dillon’s friend, owned and managed the Long Branch Saloon.
“I walked down the street and met Marshall Dillon,” Gladys said. “Then, we went into the Long Branch, and I met Miss Kitty, and we had some beers.”
“Gladys!” exclaimed Mrs. Barton.
Gladys reddened, smiled sheepishly and finished her story.
Later that year, Mrs. Barton asked Kenneth Salmon a history question, and he gave an answer.
“That’s wrong,” Mrs. Barton said.
“I goofed,” Kenneth said.
“Where’d you hear that word?” Mrs. Barton asked.
“I heard it on TV,” Kenneth said.
Mrs. Barton didn’t smile and went on with our lesson.
Pictured above are Genelia and Hovey Parker with their daughter and only child, Marian, who married Clifton Lister. Clifton and Marian have two sons: Phil and Mark.
Shown above is a March 1957 photo of Phil Lister. He was around age seven in this photo.
I was about ten years old when I rode my bike a mile from home to visit Phil and Mark Lister. Phil was seven years old; Mark was three. Their parents are Clifton and Marian Lister. Their family then lived next door to Marian’s parents, the late Hovey and Genelia Parker. Hovey was my maternal grandma’s brother. He owned several acres and had fenced in a pasture for a horse he bought for Phil and Mark.
“Hey, Steve!” Phil said, after their mother invited me into their house. “Let’s go to the basement and play cowboys!”
Many Westerns entertained us during those black-and-white TV days – stories about Hopalong Cassidy, Gene Autry, Roy Rogers and Dale Evans, the Cisco Kid and Pancho, Tex Ritter, Annie Oakley, and the Lone Ranger and Tonto. Many of us owned cap pistols, holsters and cowboy hats. Back then, we could tell who were the good and bad folk on TV Westerns.
Phil and Mark were wearing shorts; I had on long pants. We clamored into the basement and dreamed up a cowboy drama. We began acting out a scenario, but, after a while, Phil wanted a fight scene. I soon was laughing and “fighting off” Mark, with my back toward Phil. Suddenly, I felt something “ka-blam” me in the back of the head. Whoa! I placed my left hand on the rear of my skull and brought that hand around for a look. Have mercy! Blood was flowing. Phil ran screaming for his mama. Like a shadow, Mark ran behind him.
On television, Phil had seen cowboys get into fights, pick up chairs, and break them over the backs of opponents. When we began play-fighting, Phil picked up a straight-back chair and whopped me on the back. One leg of that chair caught me on the head. I still have a scar. (Some chairs used on cowboy TV shows were made, no doubt, to break apart, but the chair Phil used was not a fake TV prop.)
Their mother, Marian, quickly brought me a towel for my head. She was thin and frail, back then, but she grabbed Phil by one arm and somehow laid hold of a long hickory. She jerked Phil out into the yard. I stood at the basement door, and Mark and I watched as Marian and Phil whirled round-and-round in what seemed like a kind of maypole dance – Marian was the pole; Phil was the not-so-happy dancer. As Marian laid on lashes, Phil circled his mother, who had a firm grip on his arm. As he tried to avoid stripes landing on his bare legs, Phil yelled, “I seen it on TV! I seen it on TV!”
Television can provide information, entertainment, inspiration and virtual companionship, and TV ads influence choices and decisions. I recently viewed 14 commercials during only one break in a program.
Alfred Hitchcock said, “Seeing a murder on television . . . can help work off one’s antagonisms. And if you haven’t any antagonisms, the commercials will give you some.”
Neil Postman said, “Americans no longer talk to each other, they entertain each other. They do not exchange ideas; they exchange images. They do not argue with propositions; they argue with good looks, celebrities and commercials.”
According to “Wikipedia,” Postman's best-known book is “Amusing Ourselves to Death” (1985). Postman warns of a decline in our media’s ability to share serious ideas and argues that TV replaces the written word and demeans and undermines political discourse “by turning real, complex issues into superficial images, less about ideas and thoughts and more about entertainment.”
Groucho Marx said, “I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on a set, I go into the other room and read a book.”
Writer Jess C. Scott said, “People are sheep. TV is the shepherd.”
When I mentally search for an example of TV’s powerful influence, I think about the scar on the back of my head and about Phil’s mother lashing his legs as Phil yelled, “I seen it on TV! I seen it on TV!”
The above photo shows Mark Lister (left) and his older brother, Phil, as they pose with the famous Roy Rogers in 1993. Phil and Mark are singers and guitarists who worked for years in Nashville, Tennessee.