May 04, 1989 12:00 PM

Four decades later, Buffalo Bob Smith’s question is still a rouser. “Say, kids! What time is it?” he asked every weekday afternoon. To the Peanut Gallery it was “Howdy Doody time”—time to start the show. And what a show TV would prove to be. As television’s first images flickered to life in living rooms across the nation, the clock began ticking on a cultural revolution that would change the very way we know ourselves and the world. Experimental television had been around since the 1920s, of course, but commercial TV really had begun only in 1939. That year TV sets first went on sale in department stores. After World War II, the assembly-line trickle became a flood—thanks, in big part, to Milton Berle. Slipping onto the nascent airwaves (and into high heels) to become “Mr. Television,” the medium’s first superstar, Berle and his Texaco Star Theater’s wild popularity sold millions of TV sets. While new owners fiddled with the vertical hold, Ted Mack’s Amateur Hour, Kate Smith, Ed Wynn, Paul Winchell and his dummy Jerry Mahoney—even John Forsythe—made their first, blurry appearances. As comedian Fred Allen saw it, TV in those days “looked like a collection of passport photos.” Still, for most early viewers that was miracle enough.

Ed Sullivan began to move Sunday supper from the dinner table to the couch. The first cowboy hero rode onto the screen without reshooting: Snipping his old Hopalong Cassidy movies into a series, William Boyd beat the Lone Ranger to the tube. Fred Waring’s Pennsylvanians filled the night air with forthright melodies; something called The Hank McCune Show became the first sitcom to use—ha!—a laugh track, but it folded anyway; Studio One (CBS), Philco (NBC) and Kraft (NBC) brought real theater home, and there was no such thing as excessive violence. By the end of the 1940s the mornings were still aglow with test patterns, the afternoons were scarcely livelier, but the evening lineup—except for five hours a week of Roller Derby on ABC—looked a lot like any network’s today. TV was on its way to becoming the dominant cultural institution of the late 20th century. It would be the best of times. It would be the worst of times. It would be prime time.

Those eyes! That mouth! Those strings! Howdy Doody, TV’s First megahit and marketing phenom, corralle pre-Muppet moppets for 2,343 shows from 1947 to 1960. Jud Tyler—Princess Summerfall Winterspring—would star in Elvis’s Jailhouse Rock. And, despite host Buffalo Bob Smith assessment that Bob Keeshan, the first Clarabell, was “200 lbs. of no-talent blubber,” he would become the one and only Captain Kangaroo.

“Yoo-hoo, Mrs. Bloom,” called Molly Goldberg (Gertrude Berg), beloved matriarch of The Goldbergs, TV’s first successful (and Jewish) sitcom. The “soup opera,” however, was marred by McCarthyism: Co-star Philip Loeb was fired as a suspected Communist and later committed suicide.

At one point, he starred simultaneously in a network radio show and two top-rated TV series, Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts and Arthur Godfrey and Friends. Enormously popular—considered TV’s most effective on-air pitchman (for sponsors Lipton tea and Chesterfield cigarettes)—”the old Redhead” later lost much of his following when he began firing his talent, “the little Godfreys,” in the 1950s.

Burr Tillstrom’s bald, bulbnosed, star hand puppet got his name at a ballet when Tillstrom took his new creation backstage to meet some dancers. “Oh, look! It’s a kukla,” said a Russian prima ballerina, using her native word for doll. Kukla, velvet-lipped dragon Ollie and real-life foil Fran Allison delighted kids and adults with their whimsey, nearly all unscripted. “When 250 fans sent in handkerchiefs after Kukla blew his nose on a nearby curtain,” said Tillstrom, “I knew there were viewers out there who cared.”

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