Remembrances of an Old Codger: Black and White Television

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by Harry L Rinker 

Chip Sansom’s October 17, 2020, Born Loser cartoon strip struck a memory cord. Art Samson created The Born Loser in 1965. The daily strip began on May 10 and the Sunday strip on June 17. His son Chip Sansom began assisting his father in 1989 and today is the current artist of the strip.

Born Loser features Brutus P. “Thorny” Thornapple (a born loser), his wife Gladys “Hornet” Thornapple, their son Wilberforce Thornapple, Wilberforce’s friend Hurricane Hattie, Brutus’s Uncle Ted, Kewpie the Dog, and Brutus’s boss Rancid W. “Rank” Vesterfester. Characters vary from strip to strip.

The three-panel October 17 strip begins with Wilberforce and Hurricane Hattie standing beside Uncle Ted seated in a chair. Wilberforce remarks, “You Know Those Old TV Shows They Rerun on the Nostalgia Channel?’ The second panel features Hurricane Hattie’s reply, “The Shows That Are So Old, They’re in Black and White?” The final panel is a close-up of Wilberforce and Hurricane Hattie standing beside Uncle Ted seated in his chair. Uncle Ted, as he usually does, stares straight ahead oblivious to his surroundings. Wilberforce responds to Hurricane Hattie’s question, “Yeah, Well, Uncle Ted Is So Old, He Actually Saw Those Shows on a Black-And-White TV Set!”

I have long been fascinated by question series that can be asked to identify a person’s approximate age. An example is questions about television:

1. Do you remember life before television?

2. Do you remember when you saw your first black and white television shows?

3. Do you remember when you saw your first live coast-to-coast broadcast?

4. Do you remember when you saw your first color television show?

5. Do you remember when you first saw cable television?

6. Do you remember life before HBO (Nov. 8, 1972)?

7. Do you remember life before Netflix (April 1998)?

Whether it is good or bad, I can answer yes to all these questions. Like Uncle Ted, I watched most of the black-and-white shows when they first aired on a black-and-white television.

I find myself hesitating prior to asking questions or talking about my early television viewing. Who was the host of The Tonight Show? Depending on one’s age, the stock answers are Johnny Carson or Jay Leno. I would not mention either of them if I answered truthfully. My answer would be Steve Allen, who hosted the show from 1954 to 1957, when I first watched it.

After a brilliant career as a radio and television personality, composer and writer Stephen Valentine Patrick William Allen (December 25, 1921 – October 30, 2000) returned to radio in October 1987 with The Steve Allen Show, three hours of “rapid-fire repartee and ad-lib antics, broadcast on the NBC radio network. The show had no format; it was completely improvised—just Steve Allen being himself. I appeared as a guest on The Steve Allen Show to talk about antiques and collectibles. The appearance is an indelible memory. It was an honor and privilege to be in the presence of an early black-and-white television giant. I remember how hard it was for me not to act like the host and interview Allen about his television career.

My father was an ardent television fan. He enjoyed family comedies such as The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet and Father Knows Best. He loved the television westerns. Together, we watched the premiere of almost every black and white television western. Gunsmoke was his favorite. For its first twelve seasons (1955-1958), Gunsmoke aired on Saturdays at 10 p.m. EST (9 p.m. CST). 

Saturday night family life revolved around the 10 p.m. time slot. We almost never missed a show.\The Gunsmoke time slot had a negative impact on the Saturday night restaurant business. Business dropped sharply an hour before the show aired.

My mother loved the early variety shows such as the Dinah Shore Show and Perry Como Show as well as the variety show specials hosted by Bob Hope and others. More than anything, my mother loved The Lawrence Welk Show, watching most of the initial broadcasts from 1955 to 1971 and then syndicated versions of the show until she passed away in 1977. My dad, brother and I disappeared from the living room when the show aired. I loved black-and-white television, but not every show on it.

Although I watched many of the initial episodes of The Jack Benny Show and The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show, I cut my comedy teeth on The Milton Berle Show and The Spike Jones Show. The Spike Jones Show is considered one of the craziest shows that aired on television. It has my vote.

[Author’s Aside #1: As I write this column, I am saddened that many of my readers may not have seen some of the shows I am citing. Many have not appeared on nostalgia cable and television networks, albeit less than a week ago I saw a local PBS fundraising hour showing The Lawrence Welk Show and offering show premiums for individuals subscribing to a yearly membership. The good news is that all these shows exist on DVD and some have episodes on YouTube. Take the time to seek them out and watch them. As a bonus, do a search of Ernie Kovac and watch anything you can find. He was a comic genius.]

Black-and-white television impacted home decorating and living habits. First, it introduced a new piece of furniture, most often located in the living room. Early televisions cabinets were box-like, bulky and heavy, the depth needed to house the picture tube. Once located, television sets were not moved. Instead, living room furniture was rearranged so individuals could sit and watch.

[Author’s Aside #2: My parents had only one television, located in the northwest corner of our living room beside the Colonial Revival Governor Winthrop desk. It was on a diagonal so it could be watched from the living room couch and the chairs in the sunroom portion of the living room. Holiday and some Sunday dinners took place in the dining room, which was an extension of the living room area. When you were seated there, it was impossible to see the actual television. Not wishing to miss his favorite shows and sporting events, my father, who sat at the head of the table facing the living room, angled the living room mirrored closet door so it reflected the image from the television screen into the dining room. Increasing the volume allowed those at the table to not miss anything. This greatly impacted and changed our dining room table conversation pattern.]

Another good television question is: Do you remember life before the television remote? In order to change the channel, a viewer had to get up from his/her seat and go over to the television. There was no channel hopping during my youth. Once a program was selected, it was watched in its entirety.

“You will go blind if you watch television in the dark” was a phrase heard frequently in the early days of black and white television. As a result, a television lamp always was located and lit on top of the television. My family’s first black and white television had a rabbit ear antenna. Life improved when my father had a rooftop antenna installed. It became even better when he had a rotating antenna that allowed us to occasionally view channels from New York as well as our home Philadelphia market. Neighborhoods with roofs filled with metal antennas are a distant memory.

Finally, in the corner of my office at Linda’s and my condo in Altamonte Springs, Florida, is my family’s first set of TV-trays. My mother obtained them by redeeming books of S & H Green Stamps. The back of each tray has a label with my father’s name on them. We used them inside as well as for neighborhood backyard barbeque get togethers.

Not only was my father a television junkie, albeit he paled next to me, he loved Swanson TV dinners. The first frozen Swanson TV dinner, consisting of turkey, cornbread stuffing, frozen peas and sweet potatoes, arrived in 1953. I never counted how many frozen TV dinners my family ate while sitting in front of the television. It had to be in the high hundreds, if not thousands. I was attending Lehigh University in 1960 when Swanson added desserts to the tray. When home during semester breaks and the summer, I ate plenty of these as well.

What are your black-and-white television memories? Share them with me at They were part of those “thrilling days of yesteryear” when the Lone Ranger, Hoppy, Gene and Roy rode the silver screen box instead of a movie theater’s silver screen.

Harry L. Rinker welcomes questions from readers about collectibles, those mass-produced items from the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Selected letters will be answered in this column Harry cannot provide personal answers. Photos and other material submitted cannot be returned. Send your questions to: Rinker on Collectibles, 5955 Mill Point Court SE, Kentwood, MI 49512. You also can e-mail your questions to Only e-mails containing a full name and mailing address will be considered. Copyright © Harry L. Rinker, LLC 2021

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