by Janet Gilmore
“Many people had told us that television was sort of a new toy and that the interest in it would wear off after the child had had a chance to see all the kind of things there were and had sort of settled down. — Dr. Eleanor Maccoby, Dept. of Social Relations, Harvard University, 1955
My mother answered the phone and had one of those grown-up conversations that had no words.
“Uh-huh…okay…yeah… uh-huh…okay, bye.”
“Ellie wants you to go to her house. You can go, Jan, but just tonight.”
It was close to dinner time at our house.
Ellie was six, I was six-and-a-half. She was sitting on the floor in her living room in front of something new when I arrived. I sat down next to her.
The new thing was a big rectangular wooden box with two doors in the front.
“What’s that?” I asked.
“Watch this,” she said.
She opened the two doors, and there was a dark glass circle inside a wooden square. Interesting, but not very.
“What is it?”
She pulled a knob.
The glass circle lit up after a few seconds. A picture appeared inside!
The picture changed to a different picture.
I could read the words.
“Doody?” I asked Ellie, laughing. “Doody” only referred to one thing in my neighborhood.
She shushed me.
The picture on the screen changed again to a picture of a puppet, well, a marionette, who asked, “Say, kids, what time is it?”
I was a kid. I knew what time it was; it was dinner-time. But how could the puppet inside the glass circle talk to me? How?
The picture changed again to an audience of kids about my age sitting on bleachers. They looked like me but they were tiny, in shades of gray like our family photographs. But they MOVED! And YELLED in unison, “It’s Howdy Doody time!”
And that’s when my head exploded. I fell over backwards, and I would never be the same child again.
Howdy Doody time? No it wasn’t, it was dinner time.
“Ellie, what is this?”
“It’s a TV set.”
Incredible. I had never seen or heard of TV before. I had never seen a screen before. Never been to a movie.
There were radio shows for kids in Philadelphia, and we listened to them: the Uncle WIP show, the Phil Sheridan show, the Children’s Hour. All pleasure in a six-year-old life came from the hands of adults. This new thing, this TV — why hadn’t my parents told me about it?
Sitting up again, I saw a man named Buffalo Bob sit at the end of the bleachers wearing some kind of suit I had never seen before with a buffalo on the back. My father didn’t dress like that. Nobody did.
And Buffalo Bob SPOKE!
“Hi, boys and girls at home and kids here in the gallery…” he said.
Within five minutes, I wanted to be in that gallery of kids more than I had ever wanted anything. I tapped on the glass. How could I get through and elbow one or two of the kids out of my way to take my place on the bleachers?
Buffalo Bob went on, “Now stay right where you are, kids, because you’re going to see Howdy Doody stop Mister X’s Fadoozler with our sensational new invention, the Switcheroo.”
Howdy Doody? Mister X? Fadoozler? Switcheroo?
Buffalo Bob didn’t have to tell me to stay right where I was; I was frozen in place, mesmerized, probably drooling.
And all those little gray kids then sang a song I had never heard before, a song that still makes me smile:
“It’s Howdy Doody time; It’s Howdy Doody time. Bob Smith and Howdy, too, say ‘Howdy-doo’ to you…”
I tapped harder on the glass again in different spots. The portal to my new life was through that glass circle. But wait— I was bigger than the kids in the gallery, I wasn’t tiny, and I wasn’t gray. Would they like me? Who were those kids, anyway? And how did they get in there?
After the song, we saw new human characters Clarabell the Clown, who communicated with a honker horn, and Princess Summer-Fall-Winter-Spring, the most beautiful Indian princess in the world, and some more puppets (Phineas T. Bluster and Dilly Dally). Mr. Bluster fadoozled the Princess to vote against Howdy Doody for mayor of Doodyville (where they all lived).
Then Ellie pushed a button, and the light in the circle faded to a tiny dot and disappeared.
The end. Time for me to go home.
“Ellie, when can I see it again?”
“It’s on every night. Come over.”
Neither of us could tell time.
I knew I couldn’t go to Ellie’s house and miss family dinner every night. But I had to see Buffalo Bob and Howdy again. Their performance was called a “TV show.” I understood almost immediately that those little gray singing children and puppets and the glass circle were something new and wonderful and addicting. I asked my parents, “Can we get one (TV set)?”
My parents said no, we couldn’t get a television and no, I couldn’t spend every dinner time at Ellie’s house, but I could go for the rest of the week. I sulked mightily. Being ripped from Doody Land was heart-rending. I sang the theme-song out loud at home and to myself in school all day long.
Eventually, of course, my parents bought a TV set, and we joined the happy, sitting army of watchers. No one could have predicted the effect that round circle of glass would produce over the years. Family events were scheduled around the TV schedule. My family moved dinner-time to 5:30 to welcome Buffalo Bob and Howdy into our house.
My own media revolution had begun.