We try to keep down the TV time in our house, but it occurs to me even if my kids are watching a lot less than I did at their age, they’re still getting a lot more out of it. Thanks to cable (meh), on-demand (pretty cool) and streaming services like Amazon Prime and Netflix (awesome!), not to mention our way-too-large collection of DVDs, they have lots more choices than I ever did, whether it’s modern fare tailored to their age group (and far superior to 95% of the “limited animation” drivel I had in the 70s) or all the best old shows of past decades, available for viewing on the merest whim.
It feels ridiculous to invoke the “you kids have it easy” rant about such a first-world extravagance as TV, but doggone it, watching the Boob Tube in my youth often was the viewing equivalent of walking two miles to school in the snow, uphill both ways. We had all of three channels in rural Virginia…when they came in on our set-top rabbit ears…and most of what was on was garbage.
Okay, so maybe that last part hasn’t changed; 500 channels of crap isn’t a big improvement over three. On the other hand, in such a wasteland, the great stuff really stuck out and made a big impression that lasted well into adulthood. Since I’ve resolved to look back at 1974 in this blog, let’s look at some of the content that might have greeted you had you switched on your set that year.
Back in that pre-Nickelodeon, pre-Cartoon Network era, the big day for kids was Saturday morning, when we’d rise from bed and turn on the set quietly so as not to wake Mom and Dad while we ate spoonfuls of the kind of classic, crunchy sugar cereals that have helped earned this country the title of “Fattest Nation on Earth.” (USA! USA!) Frankly, even at age 9 I could tell the glory days of cartoons were behind us. Getting up super-early meant you might get a peek at reruns of canceled classics like Space Ghost, Jonny Quest or Bullwinkle, but once the “all-new” network programming kicked in, we were pummeled with tripe like Yogi’s Gang, which force-fed us ecology-minded propaganda with a “sugar coating” of barely-animated and not-even-close-to-funny gags (preferably verbal gags, since sight gags meant animating more frames). Then there was U.S. of Archie, which had the gang from Riverdale meeting historical American figures in a successful bid to turn a whole generation into history-haters. It should be noted that in 1974 we were well into that dark and joyless period where groups of “concerned parents” had exorcised all violence, humor and joy out of cartoons in favor of “educational content.”
Only when you consider the general awfulness of the Saturday morning landscape will you understand the fondness some of us had for something like Sigmund and the Sea Monsters or how any of us could have considered it even remotely exciting to have Captain Marvel perform bargain-basement super-feats on Shazam. I also remember sort of enjoying the mercifully mindless and message-free Hudson Brothers Razzle Dazzle Show, or at least the slapstick segments featuring Ron Hull and his “Emu.”
Outside of Saturday mornings, a kid’s best shot at entertainment was in the after-school slot, which these days is devoted to People’s Court imitators and talk shows featuring on-air paternity tests, “I married my sister” confessions and Slut vs Slut throwdowns, but back then was a wonderland/graveyard for old sitcoms and adventure shows. This is how I was introduced to shows like I Dream of Jeannie and Bewitched, The Addams Family and the Munsters, Get Smart, Andy Griffith, Green Acres, Hogan’s Heroes and Leave It To Beaver. I used to get up before the sun on weekends to see The Adventures of Superman, which came on right after a short music video of “the Star-Spangled Banner” launched the broadcast day on the local CBS affiliate (my kids will never know what a “test pattern” looks like!). The time slot right before or right after dinner got the really awesome stuff: Mission Impossible, Star Trek and the Wild Wild West. But, as with the cartoons, I was learning that I’d been born just a little too late to see the really good stuff in its prime.
Come prime time, Mom and Dad were in control of the dial (there was no remote!), but some of the stuff they enjoyed rubbed off on me, like the NBC Mystery Movies with Columbo, McCloud and McMillan and Wife, winners all. I remember one episode of McCloud where Dennis Weaver (or rather his stunt double) hung perilously off the landing skid of a helicopter over Manhattan for what seemed like forever; I recreated the scene more than once by hanging from a tree limb and imagining the city below me, but I doubt I ever hung on more than a minute and a half. The network tried to expand the winning formula on another night (Wednesday, maybe?) but George Peppard’s Banacek was never in the same league as those other guys, though I remember kind of liking Helen Hayes in The Snoop Sisters.
I remember 1974 as a time when pop culture was obsessed with horror and the occult in general, but generally I was uninterested. I did love The Night Stalker (which I’ll save for another post) but otherwise the “creepy” viewing experience that left a lasting impression was the made-for-TV movie Killdozer, featuring Clint Walker and Robert Urich.
The premise of the film was that a bulldozer at some remote construction site becomes possessed by a hostile alien intelligence and runs amuck, killing the workers one by one.
It’s one of those goofball concepts that makes you go, “Wait…what?” but it was just insane enough to really “click” with kids. After all, thanks to Herbie the Love Bug and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang on the big screen and Speed Buggy and Wheelie and the Chopper Bunch on TV (soon to be joined by Wonderbug), the initial, major “logic leap” of a sentient vehicle was essentially pre-sold. Killdozer simply asked, “What if that mind in your ‘living vehicle’ turned out to have homicidal tendencies?” I gather the film has developed something of a cult following over time, and even spawned a Marvel comic. Personally I was haunted by the scene where one hapless victim decided the best way to escape a multi-ton killing machine was to hide in a length of flimsy corrugated pipe. What a way to go, squeezed flat like a tube of toothpaste! (By the way if you’re interested, you can watch the whole movie on Youtube. There are worse ways to spend a couple hours).
Another movie I saw on TV that year (but was made for the big screen, of course) was the Beatles’ Yellow Submarine. I remember really enjoying the music and the animation. In retrospect I gather the look of the film was considered “trippy” and “psychadelic” for its era, but by this point I was already a veteran viewer of HR Pufnstuff and Liddsville, and compared to those video equivalents of an LSD trip, Submarine was as tame as Woody Woodpecker. I think it’s interesting that this early exposure to the Beatles did not make me an instant fan; that would come later, in my teen years. Maybe that’s because at age nine I was convinced no group was cooler than The Monkees. And while I may or may not have pegged the Beatles as “Monkee imitators” (I know, I know), I did make a mental note that this “rock and roll” stuff tended to revolve around the names of living creatures: There were the Monkees, the Beatles, the Turtles, the Birds, the Crickets and (rather unimaginatively, I thought) The Animals.
When it came to movies on TV, though, no one was bigger than James Bond. This was the year I saw Goldfinger, Dr No and Thunderball for the first time, most likely providing my introduction to the suave superspy and igniting an obsession that would stick with me for the next 40 years. In those pre-VCR days, you had to just pay attention so you could remember everything to talk about it the next day at school. I recall one of my friends insisting that in the scene where Oddjob puts a Lincoln Continental through a junkyard car crusher to dispose of a man’s body, a stream of blood could be seen trickling from the resulting metal cube as it’s lowered onto the bed of a pickup truck. I was astonished that I’d missed such an awesome detail, let alone that it had made it onto TV, but I chalked it up to the fact that we were still using a black and white set. Only years later did I realize that kid was full of beans.
Anyway, the only down side to 007 was watching the kissing and “sex” scenes with Mom and Dad in the room. Before every viewing, they’d say, “Now we’re going to let you watch this, but we want you to understand we don’t approve of James Bond’s lifestyle.” By which of course they meant sleeping around; shooting people with spear guns or dropping them into giant snowblowers was okay.
Impressive as James Bond was, though, 1974 belonged to the Six Million Dollar Man. For a kid like me, this guy was an embarrassment of riches: a super hero, a secret agent AND an astronaut? All in one? I mean, come on! I first met Steve Austin in the show’s original Friday night slot, after a cub scout meeting at a friend’s house. After that, I planned my week around the show and when Steve moved to Sundays I followed (allowing the possibility, a couple of years later, for a 7-10PM block of Hardy Boys, Six Million Dollar Man and Live and Let Die! If I could’ve voted, the head of ABC programming would’ve been President of Earth!). Like a million other kids, I bought the action figures, collected the trading cards and spent countless hours running in slow motion in the backyard to be like my hero. I even folded back the cuffs on my Toughskins leisure suit to mimic Lee Major’s style and practiced constantly to get my left eyebrow to raise on demand (though it never did trigger telescopic vision). Of course the fun couldn’t last forever: things took a nose-dive by Season 4 and at the end, I considered the show’s cancellation a mercy killing. But in 1974, I was convinced it was not only the best thing on TV but quite possibly the reason the medium had been invented in the first place.
Prior to Steve Austin’s amazing debut, my biggest hero on TV was probably Bill Bixby as The Magician (which actually debuted in 1973). Again the premise was a canny combination of two things kids love, in this case magic and crime-fighting. Apparently Bixby went to some lengths to learn magic tricks so he could perform them himself, and the results were impressive, at least to my young eyes. This was also the first character I remember having a car phone, which was kind of a big deal. I gather the show had some problems with ratings and production thanks to labor strikes and scheduling issues, which contributed to an early demise. Too bad: I’d much rather have had more seasons of this than The Incredible Hulk. Interestingly, this is another show that figures, at least tangentially, in X-Files lore: It’s the show Fox Mulder says he was watching the night his sister was abducted by aliens.
So there you have it, a brief look at the stuff that occupied an inordinate amount of my time as a 9-year-old, and possibly some useful data when it comes time for my psycho-analysis. I sometimes wonder what shows will leave a lasting impression on my kids, if any: Will they look back on SpongeBob Squarepants as a classic of the medium? Will they still think “Wipeout” was the height of humor? Or will TV matter at all to their generation, given how ubiquitous and accessible it is today? When I grew up, we had no controls over the vagaries of programming: we had to wait until ABC was good and ready to show us another Bond movie, and when it came on we had to rearrange our lives to make sure we were there to see it. Power outages, snow storms, breaking news bulletins, road trips, church meetings and (most likely of all) punishments could all keep us from seeing the show we’d waited all week — or longer — to lay eyes on. And with no VCR, DVR or “on demand” service, we had to pay close attention to everything, because who knew when we might get to see it again? These days kids know they can see what they want when they want as often as they want, so like as not they’re “watching” while playing on their hand-held game systems or listening to their MP3 players or surfing the internet, or all three. Maybe in 20 years if you ask them what was on when they were kids, they’ll say, “Hmmm….no idea.”