Philly Fifties: TV

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"A one-man comedy network": Kovacs

(in surly, tough-guy style:)
Nothin' ever happens here in Philly!
Living in Philly, what would you expect?
But just as long as we are stuck in Philly,
Then leave us show a little respect.

(now perky, Mermanish:)
Philadelphia, you're my mania!
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania!
Your sparkling water is considered top-notch,
But only if you mix it with a bottle of scotch.
From the City Line down to Broad and Vine,
Any place you happen to roam,
Consider yourself lucky
If you live in Kentucky.
Unfortunately Philly is our home.

— Tom Figenshu, from the local musical "Kiss Me Kool," c. 1960

It seemed an old town when I was young. The Declaration of Independence, the Liberty Bell... in the early 1950s, Philadelphia was sooooo 1776. It was the home of The Saturday Evening Post, one of America's largest-circulation weeklies and a prime cheerleader for the starch-and-sentiment status quo. Each New Year's Day the Mummers Parade commandeered Broad Street, as revelers in gaudy costumes marched and strummed "Oh! Dem Golden Slippers" on a thousand banjos; most of the participants wore blackface. The third most populous U.S. city at the time, Philadelphia appeared agreeable to being a sleepy sprawling suburb of New York.

And suddenly: surprise! The '50s provided a pungent belch of pop culture from this nodding geezer of a metropolis. For a few years, in the infant media of television and Top-40 radio, Philadelphia was the happenin' place, babycakes. People who would become famous elsewhere started shaking things up in the City of Brotherly Love. Ernie Kovacs was the host (and everything else) of our morning TV show. Dick Clark hosted "American Bandstand" from our town, and made the kids of West Philly national stars. Ed McMahon was a comforting voice on a dozen shows. We had a live, daily western drama, "Action in the Afternoon," whose musical director was a 20-year-old named Dick Lester; he later went to England and directed a nice little musical — "A Hard Day's Night."

Next week I'll be considering the place of Philadelphia in the explosion of rock 'n roll as a radio (and, on "Bandstand," TV) phenomenon. For now, though, try to see early television as the Childe Corliss did, through a 12-inch black-and- white Philco screen that revealed a world of new wonders.

On December 24, 1948, we got our first TV set. Ah, but this state-of-the-art Philco was more than a television; it provided full-service entertainment. The mahogany monster also housed an AM-FM radio, a three-speed record player and a storage cabinet (for LPs, I guess) that you could have parked your De Soto in. The first program we saw that night was a Christmas concert by Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra.

By 1950 our TV was filled with dozens of kids' programs. We had several puppet shows, courtesy of Paul and Mary Ritts and the Australian import Lee Dexter. Kindly cartoonist Pete Boyle (father of actor Peter Boyle) hosted the noontime "Lunch With Uncle Pete," featuring "your favorite old-time movies": Laurel and Hardy and Little Rascals (Our Gang). For some reason, this East Coast city also had a gaggle of western performers — Rex Trailer, Sally Starr, Chief Halftown — to give the kids advice about crossing at the green and drinking Ovaltine in their mugs with the Ranger Joe cereal logo.

Vagrant time slots would be filled by five-minute commercials for Charles Antell Formula No. 9, a hair product with lanolin. A chorus sang a frantic admonitory jingle ("Why are so many pee-ee-ple/ So rough and tough upon their hair?/ In beauty shops, in barber shops,/ It shouldn't happen to a mop./ Men! Women! You're ruining your hair!"); then a carny-campy pitchman promised follicle salvation through sheep oil. It could have been the first infomercial. If so, damn its eyes, and damn me for somehow remembering those lyrics 50 years later.

For many middling celebrities, just like normal people, Philadelphia was the place to set up stakes and stay forever. John Facenda was the new anchor on WCAU-TV, the CBS affiliate, from 1948 until 1973, by which time he was already lending his plummy baritone to the narration of NFL Films. Herb Clarke was WCAU's weatherman for 39 years — close to a Guinness record. Larry Ferrari, the smiling organist, was a Sunday staple on WFIL, the ABC affiliate, from 1953 to his death in 1997. Chief Halftown, a Seneca brave who had a way with kids, lasted even longer; he joined WFIL in the early '50s and, I believe, is still there. Another gentlemanly crustacean is announcer Gene Crane, who has haunted WCAU radio and TV since 1945. They've all been in Philly about as long as another area institution: TV Guide, which premiered in 1953 and, for most of the time since, has been America's largest-circulation weekly.

I can't immediately prove this, but I'd guess that in the early '50s Philadelphia provided more programming to the three major networks than Los Angeles did — and, if you exclude soap operas, maybe as much as New York does today. "American Bandstand," which at one time took up seven-and-a-half hours of the afternoon schedule each week, was the most famous. "What in the World" was an archaeological quiz show in which scholars tried to identify ancient artifacts. "Paul Whiteman's Teen Club," with Dick Clark as its announcer, showcased promising young singers; Eddie Fisher, Bobby Rydell, Leslie Uggams and Dion (of the Belmonts) DiMucci got their start here. Fred Waring also broadcast his national big-band show from Philly. (Read more about all these shows on the invaluable Broadcast Pioneers of Philadelphia website — a trove of early TV memories for Delaware Valley nostalgiaholics.)

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