Recollections / September 26, 2019
End of broadcast day bumper from WGBH-TV Channel 2 listing the local New England foundations, universities, and institutions that supported public television in Boston.
I’ve written quite a bit about my broadcast-television-haunted childhood here at We Are the Mutants over the years; some might even call it a bit of an obsession, honestly. But this week we’ve been challenged to put together some of our memories of specifically local TV, and that’s something that I not only feel nostalgic about, but also tend to get a little political about. The past few decades have seen a systematic and widespread destruction of locally owned, operated, and produced media throughout America. Whether it’s small local newspapers, local radio, or indeed local television, the media that Americans consume today is significantly more corporate and less sincerely concerned with real local issues than it ever has been. Part of that is the internet usurping older media over the past few decades, but most of it is due to the intentional concentration of wealth and the means of media production in fewer and fewer hands (begun and completed during my own childhood and late adolescence), with disastrous social consequences.
My childhood straddled the transition from over-the-air broadcast television to cable, as I’ve detailed previously. This was an epochal change in and of itself, and one of the most prominent harbingers of this media consolidation. But both before and during that transition, local stations in my hometown of Boston produced a startlingly diverse array of programming using local talent, and occasionally local content as well. In the days before cable came into every home, and before other technological developments such as the VCR and networked computers, local stations were some of the public audience’s only means of interfacing with their community, to receive both educational and cutting-edge entertainment programming, and to see their own communities, with all their quirks and foibles, reflected on the country’s biggest cultural stage during the Cold War era: the television.
So join me on a trip up and down the dial of Boston television, roughly from the first half of the 1980s. As we change channels on the big chunky dial on our pre-digital television, we’ll look at programming for kids, shows with a decidedly New England cultural flavor, and local institutions that brought cinematic classics from both the A-list and B-list into homes before most of us ever had either HBO or a VCR. (And local Boston folks: this brief survey is by no means complete, so if I’ve missed out on one of your favorite bits of local Boston programming, please speak up in the comments!) Your local channel guide (circa 1983) is below, so let’s crack into it.
One of the great joys of local television in America since its emergence in the ’40s and ’50s was the proliferation of local children’s show hosts, often times just regular employees of the local station who would don clown makeup or a cowboy hat to present cartoons and give out prizes to the local “peanut gallery” of kids. My dad actually appeared in the audience as one of Boston TV cowboy Rex Trailer’s “posse” on his long-running local show Boomtown in the 1950s. Rex retired the year before I was born, and the local kid’s host tradition was beginning to die out by the time I started to watch TV, but there were still a few hangers-on, in both reruns and original broadcasts. The Boston “franchise” of Bozo the Clown was hosted by Frank Avruch, a local television host who did duty as Bozo on WHDH-TV Channel 7. Later, after ditching the greasepaint, Avruch was a local newsmagazine host as well as tuxedo-clad host of local film revue The Great Entertainment on WCVB-TV Channel 5. (We’ll be talking about local hosted film revues later in this piece.) The Bozo reruns from the ’60s and ’70s ran on early mornings on WLVI-TV Channel 56 right through my 1980s childhood. And then there was Willie Whistle, WSBK-TV Channel 38’s sailor-clown cartoon host who spoke only in a frantic high-pitched squeaking thanks to a voice-changing whistle in his mouth. Again, it was amazing to discover that, yes, Willie Whistle ruled the Boston weekday afternoon cartoon airwaves right up to 1987. I mentioned local favorite “Captain Bob” Cottle in passing in my exhibit on Starscroll horoscopes, since he was the voice of fortune-telling machine “Zoltan,” but his early Saturday morning show on Channel 5 was a calming presence throughout my childhood, a sort of Bob Ross for the preschool set.
Enough salty sea captains and scary clowns. Let’s get into the stuff that just screams “Boston” to me.
Wicked Good Boston Programming
Saturday mornings in my family involved everyone piling into the car to head over to East Boston for Saturday gravy at my grandparents’ house, where I’d get to watch the Saturday morning cartoons on the big cabinet TV in their living room, load up on macaroni and bread, and then inevitably lie down on the shag carpet long enough to catch the first few frames of Candlepin Bowling on Channel 5 before heading home. Okay, first a little historical context. Candlepin bowling is New England’s atavistic form of alley bowling, split off from the main boughs of tenpin and duckpin bowling and retained in New England to this day (although like many local traditions, candlepin bowling lanes are harder to come by today than they were in my childhood). Another shocking discovery made while researching this piece is that, while Channel 5’s long-running series (1958-1996!) was the best known during the broadcast TV era, over a dozen other local candlepin shows were taped at alleys all across New England during that time! Mixed doubles, skins games, all kinds of play variants were tried out for television broadcast. Just seeing the familiar names of the towns that these local athletes came from was exciting; it was sports on TV, but with an entirely local angle, like seeing your uncle’s softball beer league get famous. Moreover, it was a sport we all played! I can’t tell you how many trips I took to candlepin lanes as a kid. Candlepin Bowling was homely and democratic in the truest senses of those words; it really felt like the schlub TV viewers got to take over the airwaves for a short while. The sound of a candlepin ball hitting pins is also incredibly relaxing: perfect early Saturday afternoon viewing.
“Star of the day! Who will it be?” Those eight words are probably causing every Boston-area reader of a certain age to hum the theme tune to Community Auditions, Boston’s longest-running local talent competition, which ran on WBZ-TV Channel 4 from 1950 to 1987. Longtime host Dave Maynard presented a revue of local singers, actors, comedians, dancers, and other amateur performers who would compete for a modest prize and the accolades of the local viewing audience. In this era of talent competition shows on major networks, Community Auditions has seen a flashier, American Idol-style reboot, but those endearingly-amateur warbling local singers in the modest WBZ studios will always be my strongest memory of the show.
On the local public affairs side, Boston had the usual mix of locally-produced programming that most American cities did in the 1970s and ’80s. Pre-prime time newsmagazine shows like Evening Magazine (which aired on Channel 4, a Group W/Westinghouse affiliate) that combined local content with syndicated segments competed with fully locally-produced programs like Channel 5’s Chronicle. Local talk shows ranged from Channel 4’s People Are Talking, which had a format very similar to local discussion shows like Donahue and The Oprah Winfrey Show that would eventually be syndicated and reach nationwide audiences. And Boston’s PBS station, WGBH-TV Channel 2, which I’ve lionized again and again in these pages, produced plenty of Boston-specific news shows, including a nightly ten o’clock news broadcast, hosted by Christopher Lydon, that avoided the superficial angles of much of the network affiliates’ eleven o’clock news shows and went deeper into matters of social import to the city of Boston. WGBH’s Say Brother, which debuted in 1968 and still airs on Channel 2 under the name Basic Black, was one of America’s first television talk shows wholly dedicated to issues important to both the local and national Black community.
One thing I realized in putting together this piece is that many of the programs and series that I love and most vividly remember from this time in my life were purely a reaction to the slow intrusion of cable television into a world previously dominated by broadcast TV. Cable not only offered more types of programming but also entirely new formats. Take MTV, likely one of the biggest motivations for my own family to get cable around 1983 (much like our editor-in-chief’s family inviting everyone around to see Star Wars on ONTV, my folks had everybody around for the debut of Michael Jackson‘s “Thriller” video in December of ’83). And as music video became arguably predominant over pop radio as the mechanism to deliver pop music to the masses, local television producers wanted to get in on the action. In Boston there were a few series, mostly syndicated, that aired on weekday afternoons and brought music video to those non-cable-equipped homes, but in 1985 a true disruption to MTV’s supremacy appeared in the Boston market: a new UHF channel dedicated entirely to music video: V66. While V66 only lasted for around 18 months before its frequency was sold off to the new Home Shopping Network, it provided those viewers still tuning into TV on rabbit ears in New England with the latest in music video, as well as being a home for the local Boston radio and music industry to swing the cameras around onto local performers. A recent full-length documentary, Life on the V: The Story of V66, is highly recommended.
From the very beginning of the television age, local television stations would pad their weekend afternoons and late evenings with cheap films, mostly classic black-and-white B-movies in the vein of, say, Abbott and Costello or Charlie Chan. Of course, these cheap films led to many stations hiring movie hosts, especially horror movie hosts, to introduce the films. While the Boston market did not have a Ghoulardi, a Vampira, or even a Joel Robinson in its midst, we did have the regular weekend show that introduced me to Gamera, Godzilla, The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms, and more giant monsters and ’50s B-movie classics via Channel 56’s Creature Double Feature. Running from 1973 to 1983 on Saturday afternoons, Creature Double Feature for me is truly what the heyday of local UHF television was all about: providing a window into those weird ephemeral pieces of pop culture before you could call them up instantly at a video store or online. This fan site, an obvious labor of love, tries to reconstruct the double features aired on Channel 56 back in the day; even now, as I page through it, I can hear the screeches of kaiju and see the cheap special effects from dozens of (giant) monster movies.
But of course there were also more highbrow offerings on the table on local UHF. Probably the best known and fondest remembered was Channel 38’s The Movie Loft, hosted by the mellifluously-voiced Dana Hersey. Every weeknight (at least when the Bruins or Red Sox weren’t playing), Hersey would avuncularly present some of the best in cinema history from Channel 38’s calculatedly cluttered “loft” set. Again, while there were likely broadcast “repertory houses” all over America on local TV stations, The Movie Loft was a pioneer. Not only did Channel 38 offer many of these cinematic classics uncut and unedited with minimal commercial interruptions (a strategy which soon was ripped off by Channel 56 for their own weeknight movie presentations), but it offered some of the best of 1970s “outlaw cinema” for their viewers. Again, without HBO or a VCR, The Movie Loft was the only place during this time to see all these new classics: films like Raging Bull, Taxi Driver, Rollerball, The Godfather, The Deer Hunter, Dog Day Afternoon, Apocalypse Now, and dozens more films with mature themes that would never or rarely be shown uncut on television. Hersey’s hosting style and The Movie Loft‘s hosting format was very clearly the inspiration for many later cable film showcases on networks like American Movie Classics and Turner Classic Movies. For me personally? Hersey and The Movie Loft made me an aspiring cinéaste long before I knew anything about the history of world cinema. I watched films that were well beyond my level of maturity far earlier than I might (and maybe should) have, just because they were on over-the-air TV. When I got to college and I stalked the aisles of the local Cambridge video rental place (and eventually even worked there for a summer), my basic knowledge of the classics of film owed so much to Channel 38 giving this format a shot and priming me to explore cinema on my own as a young adult.
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“I miss TV… Some of this may sound stupid. I miss commercials that were louder than the programs. I miss the phrases ‘Order before midnight tonight’ and ‘Save up to fifty percent and more.’ I miss being told things were filmed before a live studio audience. I miss late-night anthems and shots of flags and fighter jets and leathery-faced Indian chiefs crying at litter. I miss ‘Sermonette’ and ‘Evensong’ and test patterns and being told how many megahertz something’s transmitter was broadcasting at… I miss sneering at something I love. How we used to love to gather in the checker-tiled kitchen in front of the old boxy cathode-ray Sony whose reception was sensitive to airplanes and sneer at the commercial vapidity of broadcast stuff… I miss stuff so low-denominator I could watch and know in advance what people were going to say… I miss summer reruns. I miss reruns hastily inserted to fill the intervals of writers’ strikes, Actors’ Guild strikes. I miss Jeannie, Samantha, Sam and Diane, Gilligan, Hawkeye, Hazel, Jed, all the syndicated airwave-haunters. You know? I miss seeing the same things over and over again.”
—Orin Incandenza in Infinite Jest, by David Foster Wallace
You can’t unring a bell or rewind a clock, so why bother extolling these examples of local programming on broadcast TV from long ago? Some of it is nostalgia for a past television landscape, for sure. But there’s also something that we’ve lost over the past three or four decades in terms of our media being responsive to our needs while being responsible stewards and curators of content. One can absolutely argue that in the era of the internet’s radical “democratization” of data and content that yearning for the days when a local TV producer would purchase whatever cheap, cheesy movies they could afford for putting out over the local airwaves is a pretty silly thing to wish would return. But there is something to be said for chance, happenstance, and curation forming a unique artistic and media aesthetic. This particular combination of quirky local programming in a great many ways made me, and millions of others my age in their own media markets, I wager.
David Foster Wallace’s novel Infinite Jest (1996) takes place in a near-future Boston (around the year 2009) where broadcast TV has been destroyed by advertising so vile that it turned off viewers forever. In its place is constant on-demand entertainment of any kind, downloadable onto home computers, in a startlingly prescient prediction of how the internet would change our media consumption habits (Wallace’s prediction that we’d still use cassette-like “cartridges” to watch this content was not nearly as prescient, but hey, not bad all things considered.) In a scene where a character reminisces about broadcast TV to a survey-taker, he responds to the assertion that he can now watch whatever he wants, again and again, whenever he wants, with the statement, “But not the same. The choice, see. It ruins it somehow. With television you were subjected to repetition. The familiarity was inflicted. Different now.”
Much of Wallace’s work (both Infinite Jest and his posthumous 2011 novel The Pale King, which takes place largely during the early Reagan era) examines the idea of American consumer choice and “freedom” and how it’s largely a hollow, pyrrhic victory: that on some level this overwhelming freedom of consumer choice is, in itself, a kind of tyranny. With media in fewer and fewer hands now, with streaming services so completely atomized to the point that competing subscriptions are now ready to soak the American media consumer for more money than cable systems ever dreamed of, is it any wonder that some of us oldsters wish we could go back to the days when all you’d need to do is buy a TV set, an antenna, and get free (albeit yes, commercial-interrupted) broadcasting that offered true variety in programming, along with a great deal of real local color? Communities need media that serve their interests, not the interests of the powerful. Naysayers might say that Community Auditions or Willie Whistle or Candlepin Bowling or Creature Double Feature aren’t some kind of civic service, but at least they were born and bred right here, by locals, for locals. The people putting together those programs had jobs in the community, earning a living by serving the community, creating entertainment for their community. We could absolutely use a little more of that these days.