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Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Was there life before TV?

Monday, August 21, 2006

Some young people today may not realize that there actually was life before TV. I can barely recall those days of listening to the radio for entertainment, or reading a good book.

Life sure changed when television invaded our lives.

I remember back in the early 1950s living on the very edge of town in Grand Forks, N.D, when the Dezotell family became the first people on Sunset Drive to own a television.

My mother won this black and white marvel at the grand opening of the Red Owl Grocery. That big black box was set in our utility room right next to Mom's wringer washing machine. Reception wasn't real good, but that was okay. We loved it anyway.

The neighborhood kids would gather in that back room and share in the excitment of watching figures dance across the screen. Never had we seen such a wonderful sight outside the movie theatre.

That black box finally made its way from the utility room by the back door into my parents' bedroom; after all it was Mom who won the thing. Then later, when we all learned how important that box was, it ended up in the living room. That kept us from congregating in Mom and Dad's private sanctuary.

There was a big ugly antennae attached to the back of our house running up and above our roof. That was a symbol of prosperity to some. The long flat wire from the antennae ran through the window, wound its way through the house and was attached to the back of the TV.

It wasn't long before most of the other families in the neighborhood got televisions, too. The Mauchs were the first family on Sunset Drive to actually get a colored TV, and we were all envious. TV life for most of us was just black and white.

I looked forward to the days when I could stay home from school, due to one of my frequent bouts with asthma, and spend the day doing nothing but watching television. That was back in the days when "I Love Lucy" was a brand new show and everyone loved Lucy, not Raymond.

There were those wonderful westerns that thrilled this little (wannabe) cowboy's heart: "Have Gun Will Travel" with Richard Boone, "Hopalong Cassidy" and "Rawhide" and "Death Valley Days." Then there was James Arnaz as Matt Dillon in "Gunsmoke" and Clayton Moore as the "Lone Ranger." Those were grand shows that taught us the All-American standards of right and wrong, and gave us some real heroes to admire.

TV in the 50s had its adventure shows, too, like "The Adventures of Robin Hood" with Richard Greene, and "The Adventures of Superman" starring George Reeves.

There were the wonderful family series like "The Donna Reed Show" and "Father Knows Best." And the great game shows such as "I've Got A Secret" and "What's My Line" and "This Is Your Life," and my mother's favorite, "Queen For A Day," which Mom longed to be a guest on.

We would gather in the evenings as a family and enjoy the comedy and music on the variety shows such as "The Ed Sullivan Show" and "The Red Skelton Show." And because Mom was proud of her Norwegian heritage we would watch "The Lawrence Welk Show" with all of its Scandinavian flair. After all, the Man, Mr. Welk, was from North Dakota, too.

As we got older, my sister Cindi and her friends would gather in the living room and tune in to "American Bandstand" and dance along with the latest Top 40 hit that Dick Clark would announce. On every broadcast there was also a special musical guest star. But, I think I enjoyed watching Cindi and her friends dance more than I enjoyed who Dick had as his guest.

When I was 18, I moved into my first apartment, downtown above Grand Forks Floral. I furnished the place with just a few items: a bed, a chair, a fish tank, a little stereo, and, of course, a little TV.

Over the years, I've lived in many places other than North Dakota -- Arizona, California, Colorado, Missouri, Kentucky, Texas, Alabama, Michigan, and then Tennessee. And one thing was constant in just about every place I've lived -- a TV. And I watched it!

These days, a person can usually find my wife and me most evenings sitting in the living room with our little dog Buster on one of our laps, eating a TV dinner, watching TV. The screen is much bigger now than it used to be, and I have a remote I can't live without, and, of course, like the Mauchs, ours is a color TV.

I've been a fan of the boob tube for many years now, and I don't see that changing any time soon.

What got me thinking about television this week is the 100th anniversary of the birth of Philo T. Farnsworth, born Aug. 19, 1906.

His is not quite a household name, and I'm not quite sure if he's one of those mentioned in a question in the board game "Trivial Pursuit" or not. He probably is. But, he's a man who has made quite an impact on the lives of so many people. You see, Farnsworth was the gentleman who invented the television.

Maybe his birthday should be a national holiday. Maybe not.

His name is not as well recognized as the inventors of the light bulb or the telephone, but his creation has definitely affected millions.

Farnsworth was born in Beaver County, Utah, the child of Mormon parents. By the age of 12, he had used his interest in electricity to build electric motors and he produced the first electric washing machine his parents ever owned.

The young genius worked out the principle of the Image Dissector Television at the age of 14 while he was out working on the farm one day. And he later produced his first working version when he was 21.

In 1927, Farnsworth was the first inventor to transmit a television image. It was made up of 60 horizontal lines, and then later he sent a transmission of his wife. Farnsworth filed for his first television patent that year.

Interestingly enough, some years later, Philo Farnsworth's son Kent remembers his father sharing his feelings about television. "There's nothing on it worthwhile," he said. "And we're not going to watch it in this household. I don't want it in your intellectual diet."

Farnsworth's wife, Elma Gardner "Pem" Farnsworth, who died in April of this year at the age of 98, said in an interview in 1996 that her husband had a change of heart about the value of television when men walking on the moon for the first time was broadcast for millions of viewers to see.

I know some people don't like television. I have some friends who don't own one, and if given the chance they'll gladly share with you about the evil's of the "Devil's Tube," as they call it.

But, I like TV! And I enjoy watching my programs.

And, I'm glad that Philo T. Farnsworth came up with the grand idea.

I want to wish him a "happy birthday," posthumously.

After all, as Johnny Carson once said, "If it weren't for Philo T. Farnsworth, we'd all be eating frozen radio dinners."

Doug Dezotell
Memories and Musings
Doug Dezotell is pastor of Cannon United Methodist Church and a former staff writer for the Times-Gazette.