The Glory Years: 1950s

UPDATED 05/04/1989 at 01:00 AM EDT Originally published 05/04/1989 at 01:00 AM EDT

The 1950s will forever be known as TV's Golden Age, and rightly, but there's something touchingly, uncritically human about our remembering it so. First experiences are best. In that decade, TV invented itself, and we were there. In those years, an uncertain, infant medium grew before our eyes to be a daring and gifted child.

The growth began quietly, with that most childlike of TV fare—game shows. Silly stuff like Truth or Consequences and Beat the Clock, as well as panel shows (What's My Line, Twenty Questions), drew enormous audiences by offering safe, if simpleminded, pastimes to calm nerves rattled by a war in Korea, the grating fear of the "Red menace" at home and the steadily lengthening shadow of The Bomb. There were four networks (NBC, CBS, ABC, DuMont) and a battalion of stars whose names have almost faded from memory—Al Morgan, Ken Murray, Paul Dixon, Faye Emerson. Kate Smith sang to viewers in the afternoon, and Douglas Edwards told them the truth at night, but briefly. CBS ran only 15 minutes of news.

As children will, the little medium borrowed liberally from its older siblings. Edgar Bergen, Jack Benny, Frank Sinatra, Perry Como and Burns and Allen packed up their radio acts and moved in; Loretta Young, Donna Reed, Walter Brennan and Ray Milland came over from the movies with their Oscars.

Then along came Lucy, and suddenly the gifted child didn't need to ape the big kids. I Love Lucy was pure TV. A mad pinwheel of comic invention, Lucy perfected the situation comedy and set off the medium's first copycat frenzy, spawning a whole brood of pronominal imitators—My Little Margie, I Married Joan, My Friend Irma, Our Miss Brooks. And where Berle had made the comedy-variety show into a TV staple, Sid Caesar and Ernie Kovacs began turning the form into comic TV art. Weekly. Live. Bang! Zoom! TV stretched and grew and was funny to look at. From the vaude-villian sketches of Red Skelton to the drolleries of "Lonesome" George Gobel to the mellow wit of Tennessee Ernie Ford, TV found its surest instinct in laughter.

Then Jack Webb invented the realistic cop on Dragnet, and before you could say "Just the facts, Ma'am," TV had a new genre (Racket Squad, Mr. District Attorney, Lee Marvin's M Squad). Bad ideas sometimes gave birth to good ones. Late night programming began with shows like The Continental, featuring Renzo Cesana as TV's first and only gigolo interruptus, whispering seductive soliloquies by candlelight. The Tonight Show followed. Pungent, ethnic family series (Life with Luigi, The Goldbergs, Amos 'n' Andy) yielded to such bland, more broadly appealing concoctions as The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, which invented the notion that a bike flat could be an adventure.

Still, being young and eager to please, TV was ready to try anything. A lot of what it tried—fresh dramas like Requiem for a Heavyweight and Twelve Angry Men, from such young writers as Rod Serling and Reginald Rose—proved surprisingly grown-up. Imaginative, dead-on documentaries (See It Now) appeared cheek by jowl with Your Hit Parade and Leonard Bernstein's Young People's Concerts. The Western came to TV city, guns blazing, and for a while took over the place (see page 92).

By the end of the decade, TV was the biggest kid on the block. The Nielsen TV ratings, begun in 1950, measured mushrooming audiences. Advertising money poured in. (Weekly movie attendance, meanwhile, dropped from 82 million in 1946 to 46 million in 1955.) With multimillions at stake, the first major TV scandal soon broke—smash quiz shows turned out to be rigged. There were other signs of adolescence. Violence increased. Private eyes (Peter Gunn, Hawaiian Eye) gathered in numbers for the first time. Elvis replaced crooners, and the music got louder. Television, that Golden Youth, was growing up. Its childhood may have ended on Sept. 25, 1959. On that day, after a four-year run, The Mickey Mouse Club was canceled.

Did anybody really buy that line that Father Knows Best each and every half hour? His family seemed to. Kitten (Lauren Chapin, with Robert Young), Bud (Billy Gray), Princess (Elinor Donahue) and wife Margaret (Jane Wyatt) saw Jim Anderson as downright Socratic. Young would carry on his wise ways as Dr. Marcus Welby and as the Sanka man, but he didn't always know best for himself: He fought a long battle with alcoholism and won that episode in the '70s. Lauren also had troubles, but by 1980 she seemed to have beaten 15 years of heavy drug abuse.

The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, TV's longest-running (1952-66) sitcom, starred actual Nelsons—ex-bandleader Ozzie, former starlet Harriet, sons David (left) and rock star Ricky (who died in a 1985 plane crash). Art so slavishly imitated life that their TV house was a copy of their real one.

Jackie Gleason was a flop in 1949 as a big-hearted, language-mauling hard hat in The Life of Riley. When more muted William Bendix (with Wesley Morgan) tried in 1953, Riley began a five-year run.

Crew-cut, bow-tied and youthful, he had a zest for variety, from playing Pogo-cello to being host on I've Cot a Secret for 14 years. His secret: spotting talent. Carol Burnett's appearances on The Garry Moore Show made her a star.

Talk about good dogs. Lassie shepherded strangers to safety and looked after her owners for 17 seasons. You surely know the neatest trick of all: The six dogs who played Lassie were all males.

Dum-da-dum-dum! Dragnet, based on true cases, brought realism to the cop show. The terse phrases of Jack Webb (left, with Ben Alexander) shot into everyday use ("My name's Friday. I'm a cop") and a Stan Freberg parody sold a million singles. The show is still in reruns.

Marty himself wasn't much: a plain butcher, still living with Mom. No prospects. Couldn't figure out what to do at night. Then Marty (Rod Steiger) fell for a forlorn girl (Nancy Marchand) at a neighborhood dance. Viewers were moved. Hollywood noticed writer Paddy Chayefsky's play. Just like that, TV drama came of age.

Always understated, it was the first show in which the set—New York—was equal to the star (Paul Burke, left). Its motto: "There are 8 million stories in the Naked City."

Ah, teenagers. Ah, career breakthroughs. Hapless Dobie Gillis (Dwayne Hickman, from The Bob Cummings Show) fought for luscious Thalia Menninger (Tuesday Weld, later an accomplished actress) against rich Milton Armitage (originally Warren Beatty, future movie star) with the help of Dobie's—gasp!—beatnik pal Maynard G. Krebs (Bob Denver, later Gilligan). However haltingly, the new wave of rebellious youth had reached TV.

"Three fingers on the cheek are funnier than four," Jack Benny said about his most famous mannerism. Nobody understood comedy's shadings better. From three fingers, a fiddle, long pauses, Rochester, a Maxwell car, a lot of stinginess and "Well! the perennial 39-year-old crafted 42 hilarious years in radio and TV.

"Come along and sing our song and join the jamboree." The Mickey Mouse Club quickly became the big cheese of kids shows, pushing Howdy Doody to a new time slot to avoid, as Buffalo Bob said, "getting killed by the mouse." After a few years, no Mouseketeer filled a pullover quite as well as Annette Funicello, who soon switched to swimwear for beach films.

As lawyer Perry Mason, Raymond Burr (aided by Barbara Hale as Delia Street) won every case. He won the role when he auditioned to play Burr's rival Hamilton Burger, the cocky D.A. who always lost.

Didn't they make a lovely couple? "We usually had more plot than a variety show but less than a wrestling match, said smooth George, of his and ditzy wife Gracie's The Burns and Allen Show. "Our plots were simple," added George, the first to speak directly to the camera during scenes. "Grade puts a dent in the car.... Grade and I have a fight." Then they say goodnight.

A circus clown's son, Red Skelton was the slapstick star of TV's second-longest-running variety show. Guests like Mae West were foils for such Skelton characters as dumb—really dumb—Clem Kadiddle-hopper. When Red was knocked out in rehearsal, it was a big break for one of his writers, Johnny Carson, who stepped in. Red ended each show with a mime, and audience chuckles were recorded—and later used as a standard TV laugh track.

On The Donna Reed Show, she seemed the perfect little wife and mother to Carl Betz and teens Shelley Fabares and Paul Petersen. The real Reed, a movie star, detested her wholesome image and, as quickly as she could, retired rich, vowing if she ever returned to TV, "It won't be as a male fantasy."

Superman could leap tall buildings in a single bound, but after his own leap to stardom, George Reeves found being typecast as the man of steel too big a hurdle. He died in 1959, an apparent suicide.

He had TV's oddest job. Working for The Millionaire, Michael Anthony (Marvin Miller) gave away $1 million of John Beresford Tipton's fortune each week just to see how the recipient would handle it. Tipton's face was never seen. His voice was that of—ready, class?—announcer Paul Frees.

Rusty Hamer, Sherry Jackson and Jean Hagen were always willing to Make Room for Daddy. The series name came from the warning Danny Thomas's real family, including Marlo, gave whenever Daddy came home from the road.

The Phil Silvers Show's lovable con man, with his get-rich-quick schemes and lines from the likes of Neil Simon, was dubbed Sergeant Bilko: for "bilk" and minor leaguer Steve Bilko, who one year hit 61 homers.

It was the most famous comb since Delilah gave Samson a haircut. 77 Sunset Strip's jive-talking Kookie (Edd Byrnes) carried it—and used it. Private eye Stu Bailey (Efrem Zimbalist Jr., right) was his bemused boss. Kookie, who at first parked cars, "kept the eyeballs rolling" (stayed alert) and got everybody singing, "Kookie, Kookie, Lend Me Your Comb."

Steve Allen pioneered the comedy-talk-variety form with (barely) controlled mania. Host of the first Tonight Show and The Steve Allen Show, Steverino had a ripening bunch of second bananas (Louis Nye, Tom Poston, Don Knotts) and created the Question Man, who guessed questions. Remind anyone of Carnac the Magnificent?

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