THE BOX

An Oral History of Television, 1920-1961

By Jeff Kisseloff

Viking. 1995. Out of print.

Somehow "The Box" never stays on my bookshelf for very long. Like the collected film reviews of Pauline Kael, this is a volume that can be opened anytime to any page and relished, the second most entertaining oral history about television ever written (or, okay, maybe even the first most). Author Jeff Kisseloff traces the growth of the most important mass medium from before its invention through the year 1961, when the lust for profit killed "live" prime-time entertainment and the Golden Age turned green.

"The flowering ended," playwright Tad Mosel tells Kisseloff, "when television began to get rich."

Kisseloff spent 4 1/2 years interviewing 400 people who carved television out of the wilderness to help correct "the sad fact," as he writes in his introduction, "that those who contributed so much to television's development have largely been forgotten." TV, the medium that remakes itself every morning, pays little attention to the great figures of its own history.

It won't be long before the generation that laughed at Sid Caesar, sang along with Mitch Miller and was wised up by Edward R. Murrow will have died out, and who will remember then? Who will remember how wonderful and magical television was when Paddy Chayefsky and Rod Serling wrote original plays for it, when Dave Garroway managed to be relaxed and riveting at the same time, when technology served the artist and not the other way around?

Television would have replaced radio in the American home much sooner if not for an interruption known as World War II, during which no civilian electronics were produced. Kisseloff cites the first TV drama as having been produced in 1928.

So much light was required for the early attempts at television shows, recalls newswoman Betty Goodwin, that she got blistered cheeks from it. Hildegarde, the famous chanteuse, did an early experimental broadcast and remembers having to wear black lipstick and feeling her mascara melting and running down her cheeks. "The cameraman crawled under the camera and gave me a napkin to blot out the smears," she says.

TV suffered not only by going from live to tape (starting, in a limited way, in 1956) but by crossing the country to Hollywood from New York. Actress Bethel Leslie puts her finger on it: "When I went out to Hollywood, the first thing they did was fit me with falsies. . . . The whole atmosphere was different." No snob or elitist, Kisseloff covers the filmed shows, sitcoms and dramas that aired in the '50s and '60s. Billy Gray, who played Bud on "Father Knows Best," says of the series, "It just sucked." You find out, among other things, that Aunt Bee on "The Andy Griffith Show" was a big crab, always complaining about the scripts, and that Walter Brennan, Grandpappy Amos on "The Real McCoys," was an ill-tempered old bigot.

Kisseloff even tries to cover, in the last third of the book, the growth of television news, with more recollections from Don Hewitt, Fred Friendly, Mike Wallace, Frank Stanton and the great Reuven Frank, who teamed Chet Huntley and David Brinkley for NBC convention coverage but was less thrilled with the idea of having them do the news together every night, though the casting coup gave NBC dominance for years. "I wrote . . . 'Good night, Chet, Good night, David' because it was the shortest closing I could think of," Frank says. "They hated it. They said it made them sound effeminate."

The book overflows with wonderful, wonderful stuff, and I don't think there's a dull page in it. Companionable, wistful and hugely amusing, it proves good books can be like good friends. To own a copy is to join a club, a club whose members not only take joy in remembering but adamantly refuse to forget.

Tom Shales is The Post's TV critic.

Chet Huntley, left, and David Brinkley gave NBC dominance in news for years.