Monday, October 26, 2015

listening and seeing

I must have been six or seven when the first television set showed up in our neighborhood. As it happened, the set was purchased by the family of my sometimes playmate Gordon Groland and I was invited over to see this new marvel.

From afar and without having seen it, I was simultaneously wowed and smug. Wowed at the notion that movie-like creations could be viewed at home without having to wait for the weekend and a Saturday movie matinee that included two movies, four or five cartoons, Movietone news and previews ... a five-hour gluttony of visual pleasure. Wow ... at home!

And smug at six or seven because I had long imagined and wished and pleaded with the universe to make such movies available at home and here some grown-up had obviously fulfilled one of my long-held and dearest wishes. Grown-ups were not so obtuse as I sometimes thought they were. I was "right" and this invention proved the point. I liked being right ... but that was before I actually saw the television in action.

On the afternoon in question, everyone gathered around a large box with a small screen. Someone no doubt fiddled with the antenna to clarify the black-and-white picture. We were going to watch something called "The Howdy Doody Show," an amalgam of children's programming that included ventriloquism and the dummy, Howdy Doody.

After watching it, I never asked to go back and see it again. The marvel of technology could only impress me for so long. After that it became a one-line joke. I looked for the substance that excited me at the movies and ... it wasn't there. It was puerile, this six- or seven-year-old thought. How could grown-ups screw the pooch when they had such a wonderful story-telling tool in hand? Millions of people loved Howdy Doody. I thought it sucked.

In my house, my mother would read me fairy tales and other stories. We would sit on the couch, she would read and I would sail away into some edgeless, wondrous realm. I floated, I soared, I cringed ... I didn't just listen to it, I WAS it. There were the unexpurgated stories contained in "Grimm's Fairy Tales" or "The Wind in the Willows," or even the whole -- the whole damned thing -- of "Frankenstein." I listened and allowed my mind to fill in at will the transmitted tableau. I was part of the story I heard. The colors, the scowls, the speed ... I made it all and added it to the tale.

And the same was true for the magical realm of radio. True, there were the girlie soap operas of weekday afternoon radio, but come 7 p.m. or so and on Saturday mornings, the good stuff would come on: "The Green Hornet," "The Shadow," "Sergeant Preston of the Yukon" and "The Lone Ranger." I listened. Here is the voiceover introduction to "The Lone Ranger:"
Return with us now to those thrilling days of yesteryear, when from out of the past come the thundering hoofbeats of the great horse Silver! The Lone Ranger rides again!
It was an invitation I never spurned. Return I did and in ways that television could never provoke. Television was visual and hence limited. Radio was aural and as such unlimited. I liked the unlimited, the wide horizons, the invitation to join the story and soar. Howdy Doody was inane by comparison. Listening to some sci-fi or horror drama, I can remember being transported or scared shitless as the radio disgorged its universe. My mind wept and excoriated Dr. Frankenstein at the cruelty he inflicted on his creation; it applauded and felt vindicated when Sergeant Preston got his man.

Listening, lounging, flexing, stretching languorously like some wake-up cat ... I stuck with radio and the voice that read the tales for a long time. I never asked my mother to please-please-please get a television set. Television, even at six or seven, was a wonderful idea poorly applied. And yet not really poorly applied: Visual stuff truncates by definition... or at least often enough to warrant a broad-brush generalization that loses its savor on examination.

Listening is more like the Miracle Gro I prefer.


  1. Television continues to disappoint, and folks have forgotten how to listen.