The Magic Screen

By David Turner in Places, Events, & History

As I write this, Canadian television is celebrating its 64th anniversary. It was 1952 when the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation introduced its first programming on CBFT Montreal. On CBLT Toronto, program transmission consisted of just two nights a week. In these beginning days of television, a crowd would gather anywhere a set happened to be operating. Record stores, hardware stores, furniture stores, automobile dealerships…one might find a unit for sale almost anywhere.

Queen Elizabeth 11’s, coronation in June 1953 proved to be the introduction of television to our family. Through the brilliance of black and white, a bank of television sets strategically located around the perimeter of the arena of our hometown of Bradford Ontario, provided onlookers a firsthand look at Royal pageantry until then only seen in books.

How time flies…three years ago we watched the festivities commemorating Queen Elizabeth’s 60th anniversary on the throne. (My brother and sister who saw the original broadcast, noted there was a marked difference in picture quality)

In the 1950’s, it was a common rural practice for “TV neighbours” to invite “non-TV neighbours” for an evening of entertainment. Thus was my introduction to this new medium; throughout the autumn and winter of 1956-1957 watching Red Skelton, Perry Como or Ed Sullivan through the courtesy of neighbours. That was the year we moved from Simcoe to Perth County; March 1957, had been a hectic month for my family, gathering and packing our belongings for the 75 mile trek to our new home.

Therefore, just a few days short of the March 30 deadline, when our neighbour Jean Hughes invited us for the evening, Dad wasn’t overly enthused. “There’s just too much to do…why would she ask now of all times?” Following plenty of grumbling, Mom half convinced him a break would be good for everyone. “We’ve all been working too hard.”

The time of evening promised to be there, Dad had yet arrived from the barn. “I told Jean we’d be there a half hour ago!” Mom fumed when he finally appeared. “Well, I still think it’s a stupid idea traipsing off to watch TV when we’re so busy at home!”

Following a quick wash and shave, Mom handed him a shirt. Heading for the door, he stopped. “This shirt has a rip in it!” Mom looked where Dad was pointing, noting the half-inch tear in the fabric. “How could you not notice that?” groused my father.

“Harold, it’s just a little tear in the shoulder…Orville and Jean won’t care…we’re not going to a fashion show!” Reluctantly, Dad steered us kids towards the car. Just before putting it in gear, he glanced in the rear-view mirror, shaking his head. “I should have worn another shirt”.

Pulling into the Hughes laneway, we were met with the sight of a dozen cars parked at various angles about the yard. I remember thinking…there sure are a lot of people here to watch TV! My parents of course understood the real reason for the invitation. “And me with a ripped shirt!” Mom, obviously tired of the subject, retorted “If you just shut-up no one will notice!”

Orville walked over to our car as we piled out. “We had no idea you were planning anything,” Dad said. “I just wore this old shirt…it’s even got a rip in it.” Mom didn’t have to say a word to express what was on her mind at the moment.

While we kids played crokinole, the adults played euchre or just chatted. Somewhere near eleven o’clock a presentation was made; a floor lamp with a turquoise shade, a large picture containing a pastoral scene as well as a cash donation.

Following the ceremony, Dad offered the official thank you; “Well, we certainly want to thank everyone involved…especially Orville and Jean for going to all this trouble. I didn’t even dress up…in fact this shirt has a rip in it…” and in case anyone missed it, pointed out the exact position of the fabric malfunction. Two points of distinction remain, regarding that evening; the lack of conversation between my parents on the ride home…and the fact no one ever did turn on the TV!

With our limited exposure to this relatively new invention, little wonder we were excited when later on that year, a panel truck with “Jack’s TV and Highway Furniture” stencilled on the side, appeared in the driveway of our Perth County farm. The rear doors opened to reveal an Admiral “floor model” television set… could it be? Dad quickly explained we were “just trying it out.” He and Jack Seiler hauled the set up the front steps of our house, placing it in a quickly emptied corner of the living room.

It was Thanksgiving weekend and Mom’s parents were visiting; Grandpa Carruthers had been listening to the World Series on the radio. Jack hooked up the set to the roof aerial the previous owners had left, for which Dad had rather reluctantly paid them fifty dollars. As Jack tuned in the picture, he turned to my grandfather. “That’s better eh!” Everyone gathered around the 21 inch black and white screen as the New York Yankees and Milwaukee Braves battled it out in the third game of what would prove to be a seven game series. Milwaukee got thoroughly pasted by the Yankees 12-3 in that particular game, but led by slugger Hank Aaron would eventually win the contest.

It was difficult to concentrate on anything else the next few days, watching anything that appeared on the screen. Even the commercials were entertaining. We had to wait until the following Saturday before we got to see our first hockey game. By this time, Jack Seiler’s “try it out” philosophy had proved successful and the Admiral was officially ours.

How exciting to see Foster Hewitt talking to the commentator between periods after all those years listening to that familiar voice on radio! The Leafs would lose that game, 5-3 to Detroit, their third loss of their three-game season…a glimpse of what lay ahead.

Toronto had been on a slide the previous three years, losing out in the semi-finals in five games in 1955, and missing the playoffs altogether in 1956 with a second last showing. This particular season would be the most dismal yet with a basement finish. I realize there’s nothing remarkable about a losing record to today’s Leaf’s fans, except one must remember in that era, there were but six teams in the entire league.

In that time, the weekly game from Toronto aired at 9pm, about the beginning of the second period and ESSO was the sole sponsor. It seems almost comedic now, but I recall when the games started coming on at 8pm and Molson Breweries became co-sponsor; an outcry directed towards CBC from a pious segment of the public, bemoaned how the “purity” of hockey was being defiled by allowing a sponsor that promoted the “evils of alcohol”.

In this age of satellite signal TV, several hundred channels, unbelievably clear images, screens that rival small movie theatres for size, high tech electronics and computers…televisions now run for decades without service or even an adjustment. In those early days, one had to continuously “fiddle” with the controls.

“Rolling” was a constant nuisance, necessitating an adjustment with the “vertical” control. Or the picture would “narrow in”, meaning the “horizontal” needed attention. If either of the above failed, a strategically-placed whack on the side of the set with the palm of your hand would sometimes bring it around. If the picture tube was getting weak, the “brightness” control might alleviate the problem. Closing the venetian blinds during periods of direct sunlight also helped. One control we didn’t have to worry about was the channel selector. We only got one…CKNX Channel 8.

With the exception of the news, about the only television I watch these days is baseball; a fitting tribute I suppose as that particular sport was the first thing to light up the screen on that first TV set. But as far as the rest of TV programming…much of what now passes for “entertainment” would have been unthinkable even a decade ago. Will the “reality TV” of today with its poor scripts, inferior acting and liberal use of the “f” word…be the nostalgia TV of tomorrow?

But personal cynicism aside…on that long ago October weekend in 1957, Jack Seiler had been correct in his assumption; once we got a taste for the world of television, there would be no return. The $150 price tag for that used Admiral was nearly half our monthly income at that time. Dad even took an off-farm-part time job that winter to help pay the note. That magical 21 inch black and white screen would brighten many a long winter evening in the years to come.