08 November 2019

Bad TV in the Early 1950s

OK, TV was in its infancy and people at home watched any free entertainment they could watch. But some of the stuff was bad.

Researching for my 1950s private eye series, I needed information about early TV and it's a hoot. Thank God for YouTube where you can see snippets and full episodes of TV shows on air between 1950-1953 such as simpleton private eye shows like pipe-smoking Martin Kane, Private Eye who always paused in the middle of a case to visit his tobacconist to secure more pipe tobacco. The show was sponsored by the United States Tobacco Company.

William Gargan as Martin Kane, Private Eye

Other clunkers included Rocky King: Inside Detective, The Plainclothesman and Saber of London, where a British police inspector comes to New York City to show the colonials how to solve homicide cases. There were a few detective shows not completely terrible like Boston Black, Sky King and Dragnet.

Mr. and Mrs. North starred Richard Denning and Barbara Britton as husband and wife sleuths was a real sleeper (not the good kind, he kind that put the viewer to sleep). This prim couple slept in separate beds. Common with early TV.

Barbara Britton and Richard Denning as Mr. and Mrs. North

TV was filled with insipid variety shows and a glut of westerns like Roy Rogers: King of the Cowboys Wild Bill Hickok, The Lone Ranger, The Gene Autry Show, Death Valley Days and others.

I Love Lucy was a big hit, although I never liked it, just as I disliked The Red Skelton Show. I thought Skelton was a nincompoop. I was a strange child. And there was the awful Amos N' Andy.

Lot of game shows like What's My Line?, You Bet Your Life and I've Got a Secret. There were some good dramas on Four Star Playhouse and Masterpiece Playhouse and others.

Some good TV crept through like Jackie Gleason's The Honeymooners, Candid Camera and George Reeves in The Adventures of Superman and my favorite – Sid Caesar's Your Show of Shows with writers Carl Reiner (later The Dick Van Dyke Show), Neil Simon (The Odd Couple), Broadway's Lucille Kallen, Danny Simon (The Carol Burnette Show), Joseph Stein (Fiddler on the Roof), Michael Stewart (Bye Bye Birdie) and the great Mel Brooks.

Early TV science fiction shows bordered on comedy like Captain Video and His Video Rangers and semi-serious pieces with unsophticated special effects like Tales of Tomorrow.

Captain Video and his Video Ranger. Love the helmets and goggles.

The series reportedly improved after 1952 with scripts by SF writers James Blish, Arthur C. Clarke, Damon Knight, Jack Vance with occasional input by Isaac Asimov, Cyril M. Kornbluth, Robert Sheckley and others.

Another hit science fiction show was Tom Corbett – Space Cadet.

The picture says it all.

Links to episodes on YouTube:

Ever notice when they appear, flotsam and jetsam are always together on beaches in novels and short stories? Flotsam never shows up alone. Neither does jetsam. According to four dictionaries – flotsam and jetsam are marine debris associated with vessels. Flotsam is debris not deliberately thrown overboard, debris from shipwrecks or accidents. Jetsam is debris thrown overboard by humans, trash or item tossed overboard to lighten a ship's load.

So, if a beach has flotsam and jetsam, the beach is multitasking. Pretty cool.

Dead trees, driftwood, coconuts, leaves, sticks and other natural things are not flotsam or jetsam. They are debris.

OK, there were many GREAT movies in the early 1950s, which will be the subject of a subsquent posting.

That's all for now.


  1. The Lone Ranger was great on radio - at least for child listeners. I never saw it on TV but I suspect many of the shows that my generation enjoyed over the airwaves would not have worked on the screen or worked less well when everything was there in black and white ( and static) and less was left to the imagination.

    I never knew the distinction between flotsam and jetsam- a good detail!

  2. O'Neil, you mention a lot of shows that are nostalgic, whether they were good or bad. But one of my faves that you didn't mention was Highway Patrol with Oscar winner Broderick Crawford. It's still running on ME-TV and I still enjoy it....

  3. Great piece, O'Neil. I remember a lot of these, and not fondly. I did watch The Lone Ranger, though, and I still can't hear "The William Tell Overture" without thinking of Clayton Moore and Silver. As for Broderick Crawford, Paul, there was no other voice in the world like his.

    I too loved the flotsam/jetsam observation. Now I just have to remember it.

  4. It's hard for us to understand today how desperate people were for entertainment. Unless you were living in a big city - and even then, you'd better have money - there just wasn't much to do of an evening other than card/board games or the movies. So people would watch almost anything. Just like before that, when radio came out, they'd listen to anything that was on. Because before hand, things were awfully quiet...

  5. To me, “The Honeymooners” show is pure comic genius (though many will find its ‘50s-era gender roles objectionable).

    There are a few seasons of ‘lost episodes” streaming free on Amazon Prime Video. I’ll confess they are on my watch list, not yet watched, so I can’t compare them to the “unlost” episodes that still air occasionally on random oldies channels.

  6. Thanks for the comments. I remember HIGHWAY PATROL. "10-4. 10-4. 10-4." Broderick's jowls reverberating. Good show.
    Eve, yes, we were all desperate for entertainment. My family did not have TV until the late 50s and there was some good and some bad and as kids we didn't know the difference except for the stuff we liked.
    DId like THE HONEYMOONERS from the start and CANDID CAMERA and some local shows like MORGUS, THE MAGNIFICIENT who hosted monster movies on Saturday nights – FRANKENSTEIN, DRACULA, THE WOLFMAN, THE MUMMY etc.

  7. Aw, I liked Mr and Mrs North. She had it all together. I didn't see it until a half century later.

    Also a few years ago, I also watched old episodes of Martin Kane. The only thing I can recall is a scene in the tobacco shop with some well-known baseball player 'assisting' in the ad. To say he was wooden would be an insult to trees everywhere. He might have been a good ball player, but he sure couldn't pitch.

    Rocky King was recorded live at the DuMont Studios in NYC using DuMont's offices in various scenes. The five extant Rocky King episodes are available on SleuthSayers YouTube channel.

  8. "Mr. and Mrs. North starred Richard Denning and Barbara Britton as husband and wife sleuths was a real sleeper (not the good kind, he kind that put the viewer to sleep). This prim couple slept in separate beds. Common with early TV."

    The books (by Frances & Richard Lockridge) are pretty good, though...and Pam and Jerry sleep in separate beds in the books, too...

  9. I'm an utter "What's My Line" addict! And I have a fondness for "Topper," although the writing was pretty formulaic, even from Stephen Sondheim! (Speaking of "What's My Line," I have to go to the bottom of this page and "sign in, please!")

  10. A fun read O'Neil. I wasn't around in the '50s and I haven't seen any of the shows you mentioned (heard of them, tho), except for Dragnet. I love that show. I especially like episodes where Friday has long discussions with hippies about the pros and cons of drugs (esp. the evil marijuana). The writers allow the hippies sensible, cogent defenses of drug use. And then Friday smashes their arguments with his own. He usually ends up arresting them in the end, unless the hippies o.d. first. Great stuff.


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