I grew up in the 1950s watching TV. I barely remember going to a pre-school on South J Street before attending Stanley Elementary from Kindergarten to the fourth grade. My mother first worked at the Mount Rainier Ordinance Depot at Fort Lewis and then she worked at for the Boy Scouts in downtown Tacoma just up the street from what is now McMenamins Elks Temple. My father was a bookkeeper for Larson Brothers on South Wilkeson just a block away from Stanley.
Then he worked for Howard Chapman Plumbing & Heating on Wilkeson and then on K Street & 23rd. He also did the books for Riser’s Drugs, which was just across the street. We did our grocery shopping at the Thriftway on South 12th and Sprague. Most of our other shopping was either on K Street on downtown Tacoma. We bought furniture from Burgess Furniture, our TV came from Paulson’s, and even before I was given a Shetland pony for Christmas in 1953 we visited the Sear’s Farm Store on K.
I don’t really know what year we bought our nine inch Bendix TV, but we were the first on our block to have a TV. Although Biddy, a neighbor lady and mother of my two best friends David and Kathleen, kept a watchful eye on me, I was a latch-key kid. My mother made my lunch. I walked to school usually stopping at Parthmer’s (spelling?) a very small store on Wilkeson where I would usually spend my milk money on candy before walking the last block to school. I recently drove by the store. It’s still standing. (I enjoyed an easy conversation with a stranger, while I took a few photographs.) After school, I was on my own and either roamed with my buddies or watched TV.
Recently I watched a documentary, “TV in Black – The First 50 Years,” which gave me a little different perspective on some of my favorite TV shows as a child. My parents were high school sweethearts from Nevada, Missouri. Nevada isn’t located in The “true” South, but it’s just five counties away.
I don’t recall any derogatory comments about black people at home, but until her dying days, when she volunteered at a local thrift store with a good friend, she would tell a story about her friend and had to mention (she’s black) with a whisper at the word black. I would just roll my eyes and shake my head.
As a family we watched TV shows like Milton Berle, I Remember Mama, The Life of Riley, and Beulah. Beulah, was a family’s maid, first played on TV by Ethel Waters. Beulah was employed as a housekeeper/cook for a white family. Her best friend was a maid for the family next door. “The show is notable for being the first sitcom to star an African American actress, for being ABC TV’s first hit situation comedy, and the first hit TV sitcom without a laugh track. The show was controversial for its caricatures of African Americans.” – Wikipedia
As a young child I didn’t question the use of a family maid. We certainly didn’t have one. About ten years later (1961) the show Hazel was broadcast. Shirley Booth stared as Hazel, a white live-in maid. I didn’t like the Hazel character. I had no problem with Beulah. Both Shirley Booth and Ethel Waters were excellent actresses, but Beulah just felt more human . . . more real . . . more like one of the family.
On my own I enjoyed Amos ‘n’ Andy with its all black cast. Many people dislike the series because it was populated with caricatures. Even as a young child, though I would see that not all the characters were absurd and funny. Most were just regular people. Amos was the serious one with a job and wife. Andy was a friendly oaf and his buddy Kingfish had a long suffering wife. Andy and Kingish were almost always hoodwinked. The same proved true of Andy and other friends as well. He was a scam magnet. Eventually I was thrilled to see in the TV Guide that an Amos and Andy movie was scheduled, so I tuned in. It didn’t take long to turn me off. It was a film from the 1930s with the originators of the comedy team. I didn’t find them funny as white people in black-face. I felt insulted. Cheated. Later I enjoyed the TV cartoon series Calvin & the Colonel, which had the same type of humor at the TV series Amos’n’ Andy. You can buy DVDs of the original TV shows, or you can even see a few on Youtube. Here is a favorite. It takes Andy some time to realize he’s been taken. I’ve had that same feeling several times . . . maybe more.
My parents had several stacks of 78 rpm records from the 1940s. I don’t recall them buying any more when I was a youngster, but they loved music and one particular TV show we all watched together was Nat King Cole. As a child I enjoyed the show with Cole either singing or playing the piano. He had guests each week, both black and white. The production had a very skinny budget and could not capture any national sponsors. This was the first national TV show hosted by a black man, but to me it was just entertainment . . . very good entertainment. I enjoyed Cole’s easy manner. A favorite episode featured Betty Hutton. Every time I watch this episode I just laugh and smile. Betty Hutton sang and performed at 110%. Almost always over the top. She was extremely funny and yet, she could break your heart with a ballad as well. In this episode from 1957 Cole and Hutton sang each others songs, they made fun of each other, competed with each other, and then danced. Cole even sang Orange Colored Sky, a personal favorite of mine several years later.
Another favorite show from the 1950s was the Jack Benny program. I loved it then and still re-watch it when I can. The show featured guests and regulars. My favorite regular was Edmund Lincoln Anderson commonly known as Eddie “Rochester” Anderson. He played the tight-walleted Benny’s valet. Like Benny, Anderson was a veteran of vaudeville (early 1900 live stage entertainment). He was hired to play Rochester van Jones for Benny’s radio program. He was the first African American to have a regular role on a nationwide radio. The two transitioned from radio to TV in 1950 and continued working together until the series ended in 1965. As Rochester he not only fed Benny straight lines, but he balanced out the show with his own delivery often deflating Benny along the way. We not only saw Rochester as an employee of Benny’s but as a friend as well. We saw Rochester’s companions and heard about his life as well. It wouldn’t have been the Jack Benny Program without Rochester. When Jack Benny passed away, Anderson wept at the funeral.
Here is a sample of Jack Benny and Rochester.
I love this true story about Jack Benny and Eddie Anderson: “Once in New York, a couple at a hotel at which the cast and crew were staying complained about being in the same hotel as Eddie Anderson. The hotel manager tried to convince Eddie Anderson to move to another hotel. The show’s producer and Mary Livngstone’s brother, Hilliard Marks, told the manager that Eddie Anderson would be happy to move to another hotel. The following day the entire cast and crew, 44 people in all, checked out of the hotel.”
In the documentary “TV in Black – The First 50 Years” black actors and entertainers talked about some of the black people who appeared on TV and the rolls they played. Even when they disagreed about portrayals, they agreed it was worth the effort to get black faces before America and the rest of the world as well as getting them payment for the effort.
To me, Black Lives Matter not just because black people, African Americans, deserve the same rights as white people, Black Lives Matter because they are family, our family, my family.
The views expressed in this article are the writer’s own.