Those who were young when television was young are likely to romanticize TV's early years along with their own. In the '50s it became a holiday tradition to gather around a television set as families of previous years had gathered around fireplaces.
TV emitted a seasonal glow that had a warmth and intimacy now gone. Nobody knew exactly what television was going to be then, and so it tried to be everything -- movies, Broadway, a concert hall, radio, the funny papers and a playground for a child's imagination.
Much that was on TV was banal even then. But some of it was legitimately magical, especially to young eyes, and especially around the holidays, when TV added a few new traditions to all the old ones. For a kid growing up in the Midwest, for instance, it was a certain sign of glad tidings in the air when Burr Tillstrom hung a wreath and some holly around the diminutive proscenium of "Kukla, Fran and Ollie."
Ah yes -- Christmas!
Every big city had its local kiddie shows, and Chicago's included not only the Kuklapolitans (who soon went network) but also portly Frazier Thomas with "Garfield Goose and Friend" and Uncle Johnny Coons with his "Lunchtime Little Theater." At Christmas, Coons changed uncleships to become temporarily the voice of Uncle Mistletoe, seasonal patron sprite of Marshall Field and Co., the big department store in the Loop with the animated windows and the giant tree worth traveling miles by train to see.
Uncle Mistletoe was a blatantly commercial cartoon character, but to us kids, his annual reappearance helped cue the kind of excitement that only children feel at Christmas. The children's TV shows were mostly live then, not taped or filmed, and so you knew that many of the shows you watched would mirror and enhance the festive anticipation you felt in your own home.
People actually became friendlier, not meaner, during the holidays then. And so did television.
The networks could be counted on for dependable, if less personal, holiday perennials as well. "Amahl and the Night Visitors," an opera by Gian Carlo Menotti commissioned by NBC, turned up every year starting in 1951. So did special episodes of continuing series, like "The Night the Animals Talked" from "(I Remember) Mama."
No, "The Night the Animals Talked" was not a debate among presidential hopefuls. We didn't have televised debates then (oh, poor us!). "Animals" was a fantasy about a miracle that happened in a barn on Christmas Eve, when such miracles were expected to happen. Many shows left realms of relative realism for the supernatural around Christmas time; "I Love Lucy" offered a show in which Santa paid a visit to the Ricardo household. It has been withheld from the dozens of episodes playing in syndication for the past quarter century or so.
In addition to the movie versions of "A Christmas Carol" that were rerun, Chrysler Theater on CBS offered a lilting original musical adaptation of the Dickens classic. It starred Fredric March as Scrooge and had a score by Bernard Herrmann and a book by Maxwell Anderson.
The ghost who made the biggest impression in that production was the ghost of Christmas present, a huge, happy sybaritic reveler in a fur-trimmed robe who sang, "A verrrry, a merrry -- a very, merry, Chrissss-muss," while raising a goblet in a toast.
Some years, close to Christmas or just after, Mary Martin would fly into the national living room as "Peter Pan." If you were there for that, there's little chance you will ever forget it. And when Peter said to clap, you clapped. You clapped until Tinker Bell blinked back to life.
Today's "Care Bear" kids and fledgling "Masters of the Universe" probably wouldn't understand.
In those days, many TV shows were still sponsored by a single company, and sponsors would declare with glittering munificence that this or that special or series episode was a holiday gift, from their house to ours -- a kind of largesse oblige. Nobody believed this to be a humanitarian gesture, but it did seem a way of thanking customers for the year's business. It was generally understood that Christmas was no time for the hard sell.
There was, relatively speaking, peace on earth. And in the air.
Nor was television perceived then as the master manipulator and image enhancer it has since become. It was greatly respected for its instantly evident selling power, yes, but the audience was respected, too. Broadcasters considered themselves holders of a public trust, and the FCC was there to make sure they honored that compact, not just at Christmas time but all year long.
The FCC doesn't do that anymore, of course; it serves the broadcasters and their financial interests now. Television has become a battering blitz of coercive importunings, one that never ceases or relents, and one that is no particular respecter of holidays. If the animals talked now, computer chips would probably be responsible, and the animals would either try to sell you something or warn you off drugs.
TV's big national stars all did special holiday shows in the '50s: Jackie Gleason, Red Skelton, Dinah Shore, Perry Como, Milton Berle, and "Arthur Godfrey and all the little Godfreys." Musical programs like "The Bell Telephone Hour" and "The Voice of Firestone" offered Christmas concerts. Rock hadn't taken over yet; other kinds of music were still allowed.
Computers and their chips hadn't taken over either. And there were no home shopping networks; you went out to shop in actual stores, as God intended. There was only one telephone company, and it didn't offer any dial-a-porn services. And there was no cable TV, which meant that there was no cable TV to break down every day.
We could go on and on. We usually do, at least at Christmas. Something about Christmas always reminds you of when things were better. You remember when you actually loved the sight (also the touch, taste and feel) of snow. In terms of television, the only good thing we have now that we didn't have then is David Letterman. And even then we had Steve Allen and Ernie Kovacs, and they were just about as funny.
The thing is, of all the things that seem to have been better then than they are now, television actually was. Yes, Virginia, there was a golden age. At times it lit up the house. It ended about 1960, when film and tape and big business took over for good.
There was no real stigma against becoming sentimental and misty, weepy even, on TV at Christmas time. Thus it was that George S. Kaufman, the great American playwright and critic, almost got himself banned from TV when he complained on a game show that he didn't want to hear "Silent Night" again. Everybody else did. Or at least had to say they did.
To be young when TV was young was a privilege and an adventure, as improbable as that may sound now. No one will ever be able to experience it just the way we did then. It isn't on tape, and it isn't on film. It is only playing in the mind's eye, and some of it has even found a place in the heart -- right next to snowball fights in vacant lots and mad rushes downstairs on Christmas morning.
It's there next to your brother's model airplanes and your sister's stuffed animals, your mother's carefully decorated cookies and your father's heroic struggles with the tree, the turkey and the training wheels that went on the back of the bicycle. Television was part of that. It was like Peter Pan's Never-Never Land then: "a place where dreams are born, and time is never planned."
At Christmas, if only for tiny fading moments, it can seem that way again.