Bugsy and Bunny are the most popular kids on the block. They are twins with the only TV set in our neighborhood and a mother who understands why we kids press our noses against the screen of their door every day after school. She stands back as we tumble inside, scrambling for prime floor space in front of the little round-screen TV that looks like an antennaed Martian.
Yay! A freckle-cheeked puppet face fills the screen and we sing along: "It's Howdy Doody time, It's Howdy Doody time"--and then our time in Doodyville is up and it's time for "Rootie Kazootie" or the Kuklapolitans. There's a whole world of puppet people to explore. We travel without moving, transported to a place of magic, a black-and-white wonderland.
My mother is calling me for dinner. I can hear her, but I am too enthralled by Gala Poochie Pup to move, and not until we finally get our own TV set, a 17-inch 1950 DuMont in a walnut cabinet with pointy little legs, do I look forward to dinner. Especially when it's Swanson's TV Dinner served on the plastic tray tables in the living room so we don't miss a precious moment of Dinah or Lucy. And when Dinah sings "See the USA in your Chevrolet," it's just another reminder that there is a world out there beyond my family, my friends, my neighborhood--a world I can reach with the touch of a knob, every day and every night, right in my own living room.
Nothing has ever been this real, immediate and compelling. Television is both wonderful and scary, and, like watching the movie "The Thing" through a curtain of fingers, I just can't stop looking. My mother comes home one day to a living room full of unfamiliar kids she has to step over and around. "I didn't know you had so many friends," she says to me. "I don't," I say. "I don't know who they are. They opened the door and came in because they saw the antenna."
My mother's own fascination with television--she wouldn't think of missing one of her favorite shows--isn't shared by my father. Sometimes he gives up and goes to the movies, leaving my mother to sit alone, mesmerized, tuned to the flickering light.
Life at home has changed. Not just mealtime or bedtime (please please please let me stay up to see Red Skelton), but playtime. Summer nights outside were once a symphony of sounds: high-pitched voices of kids playing hide-and-seek, grown-ups murmuring on their front porches, maybe a ballgame somewhere on the radio. Now the stoops and yards are deserted. Identical silver rectangles glow from windows of houses, and you know that everyone inside is facing the same way.
And then everyone begins to talk and think and look and behave the same way, too. My specialty is Milton Berle. During recess at school, I demonstrate my bucktoothed Uncle Miltie grin, do his goofy walk on the insides of my loafers. But I am upstaged by Linda Ivins, who is already wearing a bra and is well on her way to Dagmar-hood. We both identify with the creatures we see on TV, although Linda's choice is appreciated, particularly by the boys, far more than mine.
My generation, the kids of the 1950s, was the last generation to remember when there wasn't a television in the house. Television wasn't just a novelty; it was a miracle. Television became our daily touchstone, the one thing everyone had in common.
It created a new kind of celebrity. Any teen who ever danced in front of a television set to the "American Bandstand" beat not only knew the names of the Philly kids but also dreamed of being one. TV has fed the desire for fame expressed by every wannabe from the sign-waving goofballs wearing funny hats outside the "Today" show studio to the nuts battling it out on "Jerry Springer" to the parade of dysfunctionals on "Leeza."
Everybody wants to be on TV. When three channels became 500, it seemed possible that we all might get our 15 minutes. With the Internet, it's probable. Chat rooms and dorm-cams could make us all Web celebs--only our moment of fame may shrink to just the nanosecond it takes for someone to "hit" on our own private Web page.
The Internet is TV's cousin, a newcomer we already take for granted. Where is the awe we children of the '50s felt the first time we watched TV? What happened to the naivete that kept us staring at that fuzzy image of a test pattern on the walnut-encased set in the store window?
As I watch my 4-year-old grandson play a game on the screen of my computer monitor, his hand on the mouse as casual as it is sure, I think of that first magical moment when my hand touched the knob of our TV set and an incredible new world blossomed forth on the screen.
Early TV was like falling in love. At first glimpse, it was magic. There was never anything like it before, and you couldn't stay away. You thought of it all the time, how you could get close to it, how you could spend more time with it, how you wanted it for your very own. And then you married it. It was in your house all day and all night, there for the taking. Little things about it began to annoy you. It wouldn't shut up. It wasted your time. It made stupid people important and made you feel inadequate.
Still, it was comfortable to be with and kept you company. It filled a space in your living room, talked to you at dinner, went to bed with you. Sometimes you got so disgusted with it that you threatened to throw it out, but you realized that would leave a big empty hole in your life so you didn't. And now you are growing old together, and you just don't understand the children.
Marjorie Klein, Woodrow Wilson High School class of '58, will have her novel about the early days of television, "Test Pattern" (William Morrow), published next month.