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Random thoughts from the first TV generation

Why lie? I stole this idea from Facebook -- after tweaking their idea a little.

So this is a column listing 15 Random Things About Me Growing Up in the First TV Generation.

1. A new toy. I'm pretty sure that our family had the first television on our block. It was a long block but my older brother was going to be laid up a while after surgery and my novelty-loving father figured that the new-fangled invention with the glass eye might help amuse him while he healed. I probably wound up watching it more than he did.

2. Local TV commercials. Sponsorship was different in the 1950s. Esther Gulyas and the Mighty Taco notwithstanding, local TV commercials were once really local. I knew the people whose morning show was sponsored by, yes, The Dixie Hat Shop. It was a friend's father -- a jeweler -- who would suddenly appear on the tube at the piano and sing an invitation to his jewelry store. I can't imagine what she felt, but we all loved his jingle and used to sing it to each other all the time. I still remember it.

3. Millionaire shows. This one's going to make a comeback. "The Millionaire" was one of the greatest 1950's fantasias. A raspy-voiced billionaire named John Beresford Tipton (you never saw his face) gave away $1 million every week to someone who might have been deserving and might not have been. Tipton just really wanted to see what the recipient would do with the dough. Needless to say, other shows tried variations. My favorite was "Mr. Garlund," about the richest man in the world, his good works and what we would now call his "lifestyle." In one episode that I remember, he used his money and influence to save Simon Rodia's Watts Towers in Los Angeles.

4. Jack Paar. Steve Allen really invented late night TV comedy, but you had to love his successor Jack Paar. No other comparable figure ever walked off his show in the middle of its run because of a censorship tiff with the network. (Red Buttons had problems, but they were different.) The offending word Paar used in a joke was -- are you ready? -- "W.C." (as in water closet).

5. Private eyes. We need more of them on TV. Somebody has to figure out how to do it. "Peter Gunn" was just too cool and even more so was "Johnny Staccato," among the shows with jazz themes. (Mancini's "Peter Gunn" theme is the most famous in TV history.) So, years later, was "The Rockford Files."

6. Sidekicks (otherwise known as announcers). They almost had to be secretly funny in the 1950s. Once every two years, George Fenneman on Groucho Marx's "You Bet Your Life" would allow himself an ad lib. Despite Groucho's constant jokes about how dull Fenneman was, his wit seemed twice as fast as Groucho's, if not exactly as practiced. Think of Fenniman as a proto-Tom Bergeron.

7. Gene Rayburn. He was Steve Allen's sidekick/announcer on "The Tonight Show." He too was about as rapid fire as TV wits get (which is why he hosted "The Match Game"). Announcers can be openly funny now (see Allen Kalter on "Letterman").

8. Ricky Nelson. No, not the records. They were mediocre white suburban versions of what the great rockers were doing. The wisecracks. He had the best deadpan kid brother wisecracks in the business.

9. Joan Davis and Jim Backus. While most of America loved Lucy, I loved Joan Davis. I always preferred "I Married Joan."

10. Desi Arnaz. Nevertheless, I liked Desi. I still think it's intrinsically hilarious that the hero of TV's first blockbuster smash in the supposedly conformist 1950s was a Cuban conga drummer who routinely worked in shirts with poofy sleeves.

11. John Cameron Swayze. My all-time favorite newscaster, Cronkite, Brokaw and Brinkley be damned. Swayze, after all, "hopscotched the world." And then told us about watches that could "take a licking and keep on ticking."

12. Jackie Gleason. The weeks following the disastrous first show of "You're In the Picture" were as funny and free form as anything that's ever been in prime time. Gleason just sat in a chair, talked to the audience and drank from a coffee cup his favorite brand of coffee "chock full of booze." 13. George Burns. My favorite moments on "Burns and Allen" were when he'd step outside the French doors and comment on the action, thus far. I've modeled a career on them.

14. Maverick. My second favorite Western. It would have been my first if James Garner had made them all and not split them up with Jack Kelly.

15. Neil Hefti's Theme From Virginia Graham's talk show "Girl Talk." The coolest TV theme in a place you'd never expect. Jazz musicians still play it. Runner up: the theme to Hugh Hefner's "Playboy After Dark."

e-mail: jsimon@buffnews.com

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