By Joe Albanese
Miss Caswell: “Tell me this, do they have auditions for television?” Addison DeWitt: “That, uh, is all television is, my dear, nothing but auditions.” (All About Eve)
Like the rest of the world, the Lower East Side once got its news from newspapers—remember them? The ink might still have been wet, and they usually ended up piled up somewhere. But that is how you knew the details of what was on sale, who was in town, and what was playing at the Roxy. Oh—and what else was happening in the world.
The newspapers were sold at wooden newsstands along with glossy magazines and comic books. I recall The Daily News, The Mirror, The Journal American, The Herald Tribune. (Who had money, so why would we buy The Wall Street Journal? That was for the Rockefellers.)
My sister (on the right) and I, circa 1955. You can see the wires behind my sister leading to the antenna on the roof. And that was our beloved 16 inch state of the art RCA television set…Modell Davega’s best! Photo credit: Property of the author’s private collection.
For entertainment, when you didn’t want to dress up or didn’t have the money for a movie at Radio City Music Hall, you would rely on radio. Fibber McGee and Molly, Fanny Brice (before she morphed into Barbra Streisand). I even heard rumors that before they were on television, radio hosted Burns and Allen as well as Jack Benny who shall forever remain 39.
And then there was television. Starting in the very late 1940s and growing stronger in the early ‘50s, no rooftop was safe from an antenna. For those with no roof access, it was considered amongst the locals on Prince, Mott, and Elizabeth Streets, and even rumored of far-away Kenmare Street, that indoor rabbit ear aerials (generally a Rembrandt if one had the money) were considered a decorative touch found in the finer living rooms. Today, the only “Ariel” the kids know is a mermaid in Disney movies.
Parents and the “new” generation sat transfixed, watching screens that might be snowy or blinking; but when they worked—WOW! It was a whole new world, and one that didn’t require spending 15 cents per person to ride the BMT from Prince Street and Broadway all the way to Times Square to see a movie.
Sets were quite large (screens were not) and took up a big piece of space (as well as a lot of money). They could come equipped with a switch in the back so that you could watch television or opt to use the portable 45 rpm record player (sold separately at stores way downtown on Warren Street).
And what television we had. I Love Lucy was a Monday night special that became so popular that water levels reached dangerous lows during the show’s commercial break. No one wanted to miss a moment of the program so they used the bathroom (some in the hallway, and most with a pull chain) at halftime. Of course, poor Lucy had to put up with a controversy when, during the second season, she and her husband found out that they were to become parents. The thought of showing a woman in that condition caused a mild uproar. Even though Lucy wore a smock top (buttoned up to her neck and with a big bow) around “the blessed event,” and long pants, some still found it unseemly. My mother was “expecting” (you did not use the word “pregnant” then) and found her fingers swelling so that she had to remove her wedding rings. Not daring to cause a scandal and go out into the world showing what today we call a baby bump (and I was a big baby, so I would probably have been classified as a baby mountain range) and no wedding ring, she skillfully solved the problem by wearing a brass washer on her fourth finger, left hand, so no one would think she was the 1952 version of Hester Prynne.
Television was all-powerful and few people realized it at the time. Lucy had to face the critics in her “delicate” condition, which caused a fuss way back then. When I think of how today we not only see a woman’s pregnant stomach but, at least thanks to HBO, how she got that way, it must have been an innocent time. (Lucy was a red-head. As the show was filmed in black and white, there had to be some trick, because everybody knew she was a red-head. OK. A red-head thanks to a henna rinse, but still…)
When I was a child, television was our source of entertainment and news (without having to pay five cents for a paper), and a babysitter. We were allowed to watch television as long as we didn’t sit too close, as that would cause us to lose our eyesight. Or, worse still, the television screen’s radiation would damage us in ways that were unspeakable.
But, not fearing the gamma rays doing damage to body parts I would need later in life, I watched Shari Lewis and Lamb Chop, Jerry Mahoney and Knucklehead Smith, and every cartoon show available from Winky Dink to Tom Terrific. We woke to Captain Kangaroo, had lunch watching The Merry Mailman, and after dinner there was a potpourri of shows—from Gale Storm in My Little Margie (and, later, Oh! Susannah!) to Lassie, who was duty-bound to make sure little Timmy didn’t fall into a well.
My parents laughed at Amos and Andy (now considered too controversial to broadcast) and we held our breaths while watching the heroic antics of Joe Friday on Dragnet. But it was Ed Sullivan on Sunday evenings who almost put an end to television-watching in our home.
First, a bit of background: Growing up in Little Italy meant you grew up in the Church Parochial School (St. Patrick’s on Mott Street) where you learned your religious lessons via a teacher (a few lay ones, but mostly Sisters of Charity who held a yardstick, which they called “the board of education,” that they were not afraid to use if you were naughty or not learning your lessons; ). Also, we learned the Baltimore Catechism by the book.
My kindergarten teacher was a woman who was my father’s boyhood friend. Everyone knew everyone in the neighborhood (d/b/a “the hood”), so the teacher, Miss Spera (we hadn’t progressed to “Ms.” back then), probably knew the parents of every one of her students. She taught us the basic words (cat/dog) and prayers. We knew who God was, as well as Jesus Christ and his mother. Heck—she taught us about his whole family!
One Sunday evening, I was laying in front of the television playing with my Lincoln Logs (the predecessor to Legos) while my mom and dad were watching Ed Sullivan. A woman came on and began spouting a comedic monologue. I didn’t understand half of it (having been weaned on the wisecracks of Charly Horse and Howdy Doody, I couldn’t figure out just what the comedian (Sophie Tucker) was saying. But I did hear my mother gasp at one line and my father say something under his breath (in Italian—so the children wouldn’t understand him). Then they both gave a strange laugh, and my dad told my mom that it was a “live” program so there was no way the show could cut away from Tucker. And life would have gone on swimmingly, except that line, strange as it was, remained in my head.
In class a few days later, Miss Spera tried to teach her pupils about the Ten Commandments and how we must honor them. She artfully skipped over us coveting our neighbor’s wife, but, I would swear, when it came to, “Thou shalt not kill” she looked at a few of us and shook her head.
When she came to the commandment about honoring our mother and father she tried to make us understand by asking, “What do your parents say to you when you are good?” The answers were a bit too perfunctory as my classmates raised their hands and, when chosen, said: “I love you,” or “What a good child you are.” Then, just to shake things up a bit, Miss Spera asked, “And what do they say when you are bad?” Remembering Sophie, I shot my hand up and blurted, “When I am bad my mother says, ‘Go. Leave this house and don’t come back until you’ve become a virgin again.’”
I think it was smelling salts that Miss Spera used, and after a few whiffs asked me why I would say that. I told her about Sophie and, after all, I heard it on television so it had to be true. Wasn’t lying a sin? And Ed Sullivan certainly would not have liars on his program.
That afternoon, at three o’clock, Miss Spera stood guard in the schoolyard. Before she would release me back to her friend, my dad, she yanked him down to her level (she was a good half-foot shorter than he was) and read him the riot act. “How could you allow your child to watch that woman? What’s wrong with you?”
When my father got me home (and cooled down quite a bit) he asked me about the line, as Miss Spera was “too much a lady” to repeat it. I patiently explained to him that a woman on television said it and, unlike Miss Spera, I had no problem repeating it. “Do you know what she meant?” my mother asked. “Not really. But she was probably talking to her daughter, Virgin.” “What?” “Virgin,” I explained, wishing I could go into the living room and watch Merrie Melody cartoons or Sandy Becker. “It’s a woman’s name. Jesus’ mother’s middle name was Virgin. Isn’t that what we call her? Blessed Virgin Mary?” It wasn’t for some time that I learned the true meaning of the word, or was allowed to watch Ed Sullivan again.
But those were innocent days (for those who didn’t remember every line Sophie Tucker said). Sitting in Little Italy, with cement streets and fire hydrants (our version of pools in the summer), we saw Leave It to Beaver and Donna Reed, living in homes with front lawns that looked like they were trimmed with an emery board. “Yes,” my mother would say when we asked her why didn’t live in such luxurious trappings where finding dust on furniture was akin to high treason. “They live in the country. But our homes are just as clean as their homes and, remember, we don’t have Beulah!”
I lived through wearing a cocoon-skin hat while blaring out something about Davy Crockett, two Darrens on Bewitched, and shouting, “Sock it to me.” And I actually guessed who shot JR on Dallas.
But rabbit ears gave way to cable and standing on a line at a movie theater converted into Showtime. I still recall the first night I watched cable television. It was Manhattan Cable then and it had a box with buttons and switches so you could still watch the staples—CBS (the Tiffany Network), NBC, or ABC—but around the number 30 came the magic of Home Box Office. Movies uncut and uncensored.
It wasn’t until a quiet night in 1985 that I settled down with a glass of Chablis (having progressed from Chianti now that there was almost a quarter of a mile between Little Italy and me) and found myself watching Police Academy and National Lampoon movies where the dialogue frequently dipped into areas that would make even Sophie Tucker blush!
Yes, I had progressed to a color RCA set. But remote control was still a luxury a bit out of my price range; so every time a four-letter obscenity was uttered, I gasped (much like my parents did that fateful night of The Ed Sullivan Show), and prayed Miss Spera wasn’t walking past my front door.
Now we stream—and I still forget that if the phone rings I can pause the program—and have the luxury of watching shows from around the world. But this kid from Prince Street still remembers eating lunch to Ray Heatherton, spending Sundays with Chuck McCann, and watching —and smiling—at the good, clean, fun.