Television was a formative influence for most people who were growing up from the 1950s to the late 1990s. Today, video streaming and social media have displaced television, especially among young people. But those of us of an earlier generation fondly remember our favorite TV shows.
I Love Lucy
Who can forget this iconic TV series. Starring comedienne Lucille Ball and her husband, Desi Arnaz, I Love Lucy broke ground in many ways.
Television in the 1950s had a very limited schedule. In my case, we had only two TV stations and they only broadcast about 16 hours a day.
But our parents never missed the adventures of the comic redhead, and the kids watched as part of ‘family evenings.’ While I can’t list this show as one of my favorites, it certainly influenced my perceptions of comedy.
Mostly, the cast of the Adventures of Superman remained static throughout the series. A notable exception was the part of Lois Lane. Noel Neill played the part in two movie adaptations in 1948 and 1950, starring Kirk Alyn as Superman. But when the TV series began, Reeves wanted Phyllis Coates, with whom he had shared B Movie lead roles. Coates played the character as a hard-edged reporter, which wasn’t well accepted by younger audiences. She was also known as ‘the best screamer in Hollywood’, evident when ‘Lois’ was confronted by some villain.
After the first season, Coates committed to another film project and was unavailable. So producers approached Neill. She played the part for the remainder of the series, with a much softer edge.
The series was very low-budget. For example, in many scenes, when Superman jumps out a window to fly, you can hear the boing of the springboard on the soundtrack. Similarly, to save money on flying scenes, the editors merely turned the film over for Superman to be flying the opposite direction. That resulted in the S symbol on his chest being backward.
My favorite money-saver occurred in the first episode, Superman and the Mole Men. One of the small creatures who emerges from the center of the earth is carrying a “ray gun” – actually an Electrolux vacuum cleaner with a funnel stuck in the opening where the hose normally connects.
Still, the series mesmerized me as a young boy and probably reinforced my belief in “truth, justice, and the American way.”
The Lone Ranger
Similarly, I enjoyed the western series, The Lone Ranger. The story focuses on a former Texas Ranger seriously wounded in a shootout with outlaws and left for dead. A Native American, Tonto, finds him and nurses him back to health. Tonto becomes his friend and companion. To conceal the fact that he survived – it’s never very clear why that was necessary – he wears a mask and often adopts disguises.
The series starred Clayton Moore as the Lone Ranger. It was a role that Moore took very seriously. In later years, he even went to court when the studio objected to him wearing a mask and appearing in public as the Ranger.
The series is also notable for 1950s television in casting Jay Silverheels, a Canadian who was the grandson of a Mohawk chief. At the time, Native Americans were generally portrayed as ruthless savages. On the rare occasions they were portrayed positively, the part often went to a Caucasian whose skin was darkened for the part3.
Once again, this series played into my appreciation of good over evil.
The series starred Chuck Connors and Johnny Crawford. Connors, a former professional athlete (Chicago Cubs baseball – 1951 and Boston Celtics basketball – 1947-48) turned actor played the lead role, Lucas McCain.
McCain is a rancher who gets involved in problems in the area because of his prowess with a rifle. He never carries a handgun but is exceptionally accurate with his modified 1892 Winchester rifle4. The extended loop of the cocking lever allows him to spin-cock the rifle, which supposedly is faster than normal cocking.
Generally, McCain is played as a man who only resorts to violence when it is only necessary. Most of the time, he wants to concentrate on ranching and raising his son, but trouble always comes to him.
I enjoyed some of the life lessons featured in this series. I appreciated, even at a young age, the difference between someone who sought trouble and someone who confronted it only when no other option was available.
This police procedural, starring Jack Webb as Sergeant Joe Friday, ran from 1951 to 1959. A Los Angeles police officer was assigned as a technical advisor, something unique at the time. The scripts – once approved – had the official support of the Los Angeles Police Department.
Admittedly, the dialog was could be borderline hokey, but Webb wanted to portray police officers as no-nonsense truth-seekers.
Dragnet, and Webb’s production company, spawned other police and public safety shows of the 1960s, including Adam-12 and Emergency!.
I was a teenager at the time the Thunderbirds was on television (1964-1966). But it was quirky enough that I really enjoyed it.
The British series used a form of electronic marionette puppetry called supermarionation combined with scale-model special effects. It followed an international rescue force which used special vehicles to accomplish their mission.
While I might not have gravitated to this series in most cases – I was one of the few people in America who didn’t like Star Trek – the clever use of marionettes made it enjoyable.
Beyond the 1950s
Television in the 1950s and 1960s reflected the mood of the times – stable and comfortable.
By the mid-1960s, television became edgier – reflecting the changing attitudes of Americans. The following decades didn’t see the resurgence of the likes of the Thunderbirds or the Lone Ranger. But Superman enjoyed a resurgence in movies beginning in 19785.
Police procedurals, although none as edgy as Dragnet, continued to be part of television fare in the 1970s and 1980s. Law & Order was one of the best of these later police shows.
Of course, comedy shows continued. But none were on par with I Love Lucy, including Lucille Ball’s own subsequent shows.
But for me, and most of the people I grew up with, these shows represent a memorable part of the entertainment of our youth.
Regardless of when you grew up, where were some of your favorite television shows?
Tell us in the comments below.
- While George Reeves is best remembered as Superman, he also made an appearance in the classic movie Gone With the Wind as Stuart Tarleton. He later appeared as a lead character in several B Movies of the 1940s. Reeves died in 1959 but the actual circumstances of his death remain open to question.
- The character was created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster and appeared in the first edition of Action Comics in June 1938. The character was popular on radio before it moved to television.
- Good examples are Burt Lancaster’s portrayals of Native American Olympian and football player Jim Thorpe in 1951’s Jim Thorpe – All American and Native warrior Massai in 1954’s Apache.
- The series was set in the early 1880s, years before the rifle was actually built.
- The first Superman of the movie series was Christopher Reeve, no relation to George Reeves.