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Mad About Music: My Life in Records Mad About Music: My Life in Records

Part 3: Television

I think part of the whole deal with me and how I respond to world culture is that essentially I feel I was born too late and missed out on most of good stuff first hand, much of which is now probably lost forever. I think I would just about sell my soul if I could experience first-hand the evolution of the movies. To a lesser extent, I feel the same way about radio. Consequently I do not consider myself to be a nostalgic person. I feel that I was born in a world of great popular culture already in decline. There were still plenty of hints around of what had been, but the really good stuff had already come and gone. Somehow I felt that culturally we had already lost something of great value. I’ve had this feeling for just about along as I can remember. I think the major unspoken theme of the creative work I do is an attempt to find and imitate some semblance of what I (we) have lost or missed out on.

However, the one cultural phenomenon that I did get to witness firsthand was the coming of television. I think the first time I became aware of TV was in 1947, and I can still remember the moment quite clearly. I was walking in downtown L.A. with my Father. In a store window, right in the middle of it, was one of those big early televisions with its teeny tiny blueish black and white picture. It was a moving picture of a man sitting at a desk talking, making eye contact with us. I couldn’t hear what he was saying because we were on a noisy street and the TV was behind a big piece of window glass. But over and above the general amazingness of this new invention, I was struck by the fact that the talking man on the TV was looking right at us and my first question to my father after he explained the new machine was, “Is he talking to me Daddy?” I was fascinated and kept my eye on that TV thing after that. They were starting to show up here and there in our neighborhood. I remember looking through the mail slot of one of the houses on our block and getting a good view of that family’s TV. On it was a cowboy movie. A masked man that looked like the Lone Ranger (I knew about him from radio and general osmosis, I guess) was spying on someone. He took his Lone Ranger mask off so you could see his face, then put it back on again. Cowboy movies are the main thing I remember seeing on TVs in those prehistoric days. I was never especially conscious of who the changing hero of these films was but his comedy sidekick nearly always seemed to be a funny looking bearded guy named Fuzzy.

One night in early 1949 I had just been put to bed when my parents told me they were going out, but not to worry as they would be just next door watching TV with our neighbors. What they were going to watch was a TV milestone: one of the earliest remote broadcasts of workers trying to save a little girl who had fallen into a well somewhere in Los Angeles. When you consider all the mega-disasters that TV now covers worldwide, it seems kind of incredible that the story of one little girl falling into a well could cause such a sensation. It was the subject of a movie that came out a year or two later, and was also covered many years later in Woody Allen’s Radio Days. Even if you were not in L.A. it was still a big radio story.

We didn’t actually get a TV until we moved to the Detroit-area later in ’49, and boy what a night that was! It just happened one night, quite unannounced. My father walked in with it and the event seemed earthshaking. There were only three channels and they didn’t even come on until the afternoon. One of the first shows that I remember my father putting me onto was the Charlie Chaplin Show, which consisted of old prints of his 1910s comedies. There was plenty more old TV I could talk about, but I think its time to steer back to things musical. One early show that fascinated me may have been what one station started its broadcast day with around noon. It was a show I watched by myself while my parents were elsewhere, and I can no longer remember why this was. The show was a man sitting at a piano-like keyboard. When he played this device it seemed like the sound of a whole orchestra came out. I found this to be rather amazing and watched it daily for a spell of time. Thinking about it now, it was probably just one of those big theater organs that just sounded like an orchestra to my young untrained ears. The guy had a taciturn look on his face, wore an old felt hat and never spoke. Other early musical shows I can report on more accurately.

There were the live broadcasts of Arturo Toscanini and the NBC Orchestra. We watched all of those. My father didn’t know a lot about classical music but he respected the form and was always ready to listen to it. In fact, an interesting thing about my father is that he was pretty much up for watching any musical presentation on TV regardless of whether or not he actually liked the music. In this way I was introduced to a lot of interesting music early on.

For instance, on Sunday nights there was The Paul Whiteman Show. My father had nothing good to say about the so called “King Of Jazz.” He was a fabulous leftover from the roaring ’20s and just about as big a musical act as there was in those days. And while he may not have been the “King of Jazz,” I later discovered that he left behind a treasure chest of fascinating recorded music. Anyhow, he relived his glory days of the past on live TV and I watched these shows with utter fascination while my Father jeered. Another show that always seemed to be on was Guy Lombardo and His Royal Canadians. These were filmed half hour shows. My father hated him, had nothing good to say about him, and yet we watched. Well, I guess Guy and his brother Carmen were past their prime, as was Paul Whiteman, and I can’t say that I really liked Guy Lombardo at the time, but he had my attention. In later years, when I found out that Louis Armstrong worshiped the ground the Lombardos walked on, I made a mental note to check out this Lombardo thing a little closer, but that came later. Another one we watched was Swing and Sway with Sammy Kaye. I’m still waiting to be shown on that one. One thing my dad said when we were watching Sammy Kaye stayed with me: “Those guys are good musicians but he won’t let them play good.” One day he told me, “Tonight a band is coming on that you’re going to love.” He was right. It was The Spike Jones Show. Jones was a percussionist who played his band for laughs. He must have been the novelty record king of the 1940s. But watching old kinescopes of that show today, I have a similar reaction to them that my father had to Sammy Kaye. There seem to have been some rather good musicians in that band, especially the main trumpet player, whoever he was.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EBdOFg43XSM

My father must have made good at Jam Handy, because in 1951 he got an interesting offer from UPA. They were going to set up an office in Manhattan primarily for making TV commercials, and they were giving my old man the opportunity to come to New York and run it. So suddenly there we were in Westchester County, a suburb of New York. And it was here that I started getting more of an inside look at this TV thing. I was hooked on all the kiddie shows, and most of them would have tie-in drawing contests you could enter for modest prizes. One such show was The Magic Cottage, which ran on the old Dumont network and appeared on channel five in New York. The studio was in the old John Wanamaker department store and it was also where The Jackie Gleason Show began.

Anyway, one day in late ’51 or ’52 I decided to enter The Magic Cottage drawing contest. I got out my crayons and drew a picture representing a scene from that week’s show. Then I folded it up, jammed it into an envelope and addressed it. When my father walked in from work, I asked him if I could have a stamp. He wanted to know what for, and I told him. He told me I was going at it all wrong. He said, “Get a bigger envelope and send it flat. They’re not going to pay any attention to something all wrinkled and folded up like that.” Then he looked at the picture. “This is no good,” he said. “You have that dark background. There’s not enough contrast for black and white TV. Draw it again and leave the background white to give it good contrast. So I did those things and I won! It was the first of a number of such wins. I was learning stuff and it was paying off. Later I actually went down to Wanamaker’s with my mother to be on The Magic Cottage show. It was nearly my first look at the wild world of live TV from the inside. So chaotic! And all these props painted in black and white. Fascinating! Another early TV experience I had occurred in 1954. My father was coming up in the world and a national kid’s TV show called Let’s Take a Trip decided to make the New York office of UPA the subject of their show that week. The theme of the show was that TV personality Sonny Fox would take these two kids named Pud and Ginger on a live remote tour of some interesting place in the New York area every week. My father, as head of the UPA studio, was to conduct the tour. He decided that a good way to get the concept of animation over with kids was with a flipbook. I’d been fascinated by flipbooks since I was about four years old, when my father showed me one that consisted of consecutive cartoon drawings of a rabbit and a bee. By 1954 I was making crude flipbooks of my own. So my father offered me my first big break on the national media scene: I was to make make a flipbook that he could use on the show that would demonstrate the basic principle of animation. I made one of a boat running up on an iceberg and sinking. My father looked it over critically and seemed to think it would do, although he did add a professional looking settling pool that appeared on the surface of the water after the ship sank. This was hot stuff! And it got better. Shortly after the show aired The Museum of Modern Art decided to mount an exhibition based on the art of UPA. Accompanying it was a daily screening of the kinescope of that Let’s Take a Trip episode. Today that kinescope is apparently lost, as nobody has seen hide nor hare of it for years.

And now you may be asking yourself, Hey! Whatever happened to records? Well, I feel that I need to supply one more connecting link to get back to records, which I will attempt to do right now.

Time marched on and I continued to get more and more of an insider’s look at the world of TV. Around 1954 my Father met an actor named Allen Swift. You may have never heard of him, but he made a fortune in TV. He was known as “The Man of a Thousand Voices.” He rarely appeared onscreen but he did voices for countless TV commercials for more than half a century. At the time we first met him he was also a regular on what was then the most popular program, The Howdy Doody Show. It may seem hard to believe, but at that time Buffalo Bob Smith, Clarabelle (later to become Captain Kangaroo and a national institution in his own right), and Howdy Doody (a rather ugly looking marionette) were the kings of TV, and not just kid’s TV—all TV. At this particular time on the show, Buffalo Bob, the big honcho, was taking a year long break to recuperate from a major heart attack. Gabby Hayes (another iconic show business legend) was filling in as the show’s host. Allen, besides playing various parts on the show, was also filling in for Buffalo Bob as the voice of Howdy Doody.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UziiqlPZ0j8

Now let me tell you, the peanut galley, where real world kids would cheer on the show’s daily doings was one hot ticket. You had to have some pull to get your kid in there! Even with all my old man’s inside connections, he couldn’t get me or my brother Simon into the peanut gallery! At a certain point Allen Swift bailed on The Howdy Doody Show and picked up a show of his own: Popeye on WPIX, channel 11. On this show, Allen appeared made up as an old salt, but under his own name, “Captain” Allen Swift, and presented the old Popeye cartoons of the ’30s and ’40s with no commercials in between.

One day in 1957, out of nowhere, he said in his old salt voice, “Well, mateys, one of our favorite shipmates, Kim Deitch, has a hobby of making flipbooks and so I’m asking Kim to make one for you Mateys to see. How about it Kim?” Oh my God! well, of course I would. I drew one up of Bluto doing a kind of clog dance, and before you knew it I was on the program showing God only knows how many kids out in TV-land my flipbook! Well, there was one kid in Westport, Connecticut who saw that show. His name was Tony Eastman, son of Phil Eastman, an ex-Disney/Warner Brothers animation man. Tony told Phil about seeing me on TV and said he wished he could meet me. Phil told Tony, “That shouldn’t be too hard. I know his father.” To be continued…


24 Responses to Part 3: Television

  1. Tom Stein says:

    This memoir is fascinating! I think it’s your best entry so far. As a kid in the 50s, I was glued to the tube and remember all those great kiddie shows, especially Howdy Doody and Popeye. Interesting to hear about your origins as an artist, and also see those select YouTube clips. Please continue with this great series!

  2. Kim Deitch says:

    Thanks Tom. I think I’ll post a few more related clips to go with this episode on my wall tonight. I have a cartoon my old man made in 1953 called Howdy Doody’s Magic Hat. and an nice clip for another great old dumont show, Captain video that came on live every week day right after The Magic Cottage.

  3. patrick ford says:

    Kim’s stories about his dad are amazing. I love the fact that Gene was so frank with his kids.

  4. Kim Deitch says:

    He was 19 when I was born, so it was always pretty easy to get him down to our level.

  5. patrick ford says:

    Another great thing about that small age disparity is he’s still around, and you guys could almost be brothers.

    The advice he was giving you often sounds like it’s coming from an older brother. I get the feeling his authority wasn’t based on his being a parent, as much as it was on him knowing more.

  6. Kim Deitch says:

    That’s a very apt observation.

  7. R. Fiore says:

    Being born about ten years after you I always felt as though I’d come along just in time to watch the end of the parade go by. Provided you had a good corrupt doctor to get you out of the draft I would think your time was about ideal. Another thing I like to say is that if you don’t have clear memories going back at least to 1966 you missed the show. It wasn’t like it was something that only looks big in retrospect; you knew at the time titanic shifts were taking place, even if you were just a kid. The great thing about our general time is you got to see something about the way the world used to be and then you got the see the new world. Of course, the great thing about being young now is you’re not so fucking old. You know what song really brings the feeling of the 60s back to me as I experienced them (as a child of course)? “Lady Godiva” by Peter and Gordon. The song that will bring back the feeling of the 70s is “Heart of Glass.” That’s because I was working in a photo darkroom when it was a hit, and there was always a radio on a station that played it at the same time every morning, so along with the way the song sounded, it would reverberate through this little room while my head was swimming from mixing the photo chemicals . . .

    I figure the experience of fighting in World War II must have made those guys really difficult to live with as parents. You avoided that, and my parents were from the Holden Caulfield generation. My father told me he would ask his father why they didn’t have a TV set, and he said “They haven’t been perfected yet.” At the time they were around $600 1950s dollars. (Not sure about the prices here exactly, but you get the idea.) Then one day a department store advertised a set on sale for $300. “They’ve been perfected,” my grandfather said.

    This is very impressive, but for a guy with a father who gets you into the best things no one has Drew Friedman beat. You practically expect hear him say, “I remember the day the Beatles came by to see my dad . . .”

  8. Kim Deitch says:

    Yeah good old Drew. What I lived through growing up was more like a rags to riches epoch. I can remember very well when my father made forty dollars a week and I watched with keen interest as he improved on that step by step. I also watched, and took mental notes as he grew to gradually despise what he had to do to stay there, and then ultimately did something to get out of it.

  9. Linda Whitley says:

    Kim, the stories are just delightful. Thank you for sharing your memories and your passions.

  10. Kim Deitch says:

    Thanks Linda. Next week, a Rock and Roll Extravaganza.

  11. I just love this. Tom’s grandfather Julius Hachtman was first chair violin in the original CBS Radio Orchestra! His parents used to sit outside and listen to Whiteman’s orchestra, live. I was in the peanut gallery. Very disheartening to see Howdy lying in a heap, on the “stage” before the show. Thought he was “dead”. Spike Jones, great musical cartoonist. Loved that you thought the tv was talking to you! Did you help Winky Dink? Very good of your father to give you real help, instead of on a magic screen! Haha! And I can’t wait to hear how you met Tony. Seem to remember drawing flip book in the corner of a real book, though I’m not generally into “defacing” books. Just fascinating and fun! “Thanks for the memories!”

  12. Kim Deitch says:

    Got in the peanut gallery huh? well, you are one up on me there! I never had a “magic window” either so my watching of Winkydink, [which I did,] was more passive. I think you will enjoy my Tony Eastman phase of this series. I couldn’t talk about record collecting without saying a lot about him. He will feature prominently in several episodes of this.

  13. Marcoshark says:

    Kim, Funny how your Dad contributed to NY TV way back when. That must have been cool! And you got to see the Dumont Network. My Mom worked in Radio Production in NYC in the 40′s, so I learned a lot about this stuff. She also had similar reactions to the older band leaders and musicians who were on TV. A lot of these old timers were way past their better years.

    (and Sonny Fox is still going strong, behind the scenes in the TV business!)

  14. Marcoshark says:

    Kim,
    My Mom worked as a production person in Radio in NYC in the 40′s (VOA and WNYC) and I heard all sorts of stories of early TV including early color TV demonstrations and Dumont TV’s infamous department store studio. It wasn’t until many years later that I was able to connect your Dad’s connection to early NYC TV as well. My Mom also noted that certain golden age performers, when they got really old and started to have shows on TV were way past their best years. But to kids like myself, there was that fascination that did make me go out and look.

    Oh and My Aunt worked as an art director at NBC in the late 50′s. She never really talked much about time, which is a shame!

    By the time I got to work in video production, in NYC, it was a little bitter sweet, because I was pretty aware of what came before and knew that you would never see it again.

    By the time I got my time at bat (so to speak) in the video world,

  15. Dave Hunt says:

    Kim- You write, “…essentially I feel I was born too late and missed out on most of good stuff first hand, much of which is now probably lost forever.” I saw Woody Allen’s “Midnight in Paris” last night and it addresses that very idea in a lovely and gently humorous way. See it if you haven’t already.

    And, like you, I feel that I was “in on” early television. I’m a couple of years older than you and my grandpa, who lived downstairs, bought a TV in 1947. I have vivid early memories of snuggling up next to him and watching wrestling from Laurel Gardens (Newark) on Friday nights. He died when I was quite young, but he left behind his run of the first year or so of ‘TV Guide’ (before it became a national magazine.) I treasure these now.

    P.S.– I used to draw along with Pat Meikle too!
    P.P.S.– That lead trumpet for Spike Jones that you mention was George Rock. His solo piece with Jones, “Minka”, is really wonderful. Amazingly, he was also the guy who sang “All I Want for Christmas is my Two Front Teeth”!

  16. Kim Deitch says:

    Yeah! my old man saw him in Prague about a year ago. He sent me a picture of him he took on his cell phone. He still looked like himself.

  17. Kim Deitch says:

    Yeah. the excitement of live TV! It was almost as exotic as silent movies and often just about as electrifying. In 1950, while still living in Detroit we took a vacation to NYC.. My Mother took me to a live broadcast of the Gary Moore show and we all went to a demonstration of the CBS, [color wheel] color TV system; [a cooking show] It used to be that CBS would broadcast experimental color shows in the morning before the regular broadcast day. You could pick them up on a regular TV, but the image was jammed so without the color wheel and dejammer all you really got was the sound. The CBS system was like the betamax of its day.

  18. Kim Deitch says:

    Yeah. I remember George Rock was really clownish looking, but a totally solid horn player. So what ever happened to Pat Meikle? I did meet her once. We sent for tickets to the show. That afternoon I found a four leaf clover during gym class. When we got to the theater in Wanamakers, where the TV shows were broadcast, They had a drawing based on all the ticket stubs and I won! So I got to appear on the show and get a cookie from Pat. After the show she offered to draw portrait sketches of any kids that wanted one. Everyone did and it was a long line. The maddening part of that was that right around the corner from the line, they were broadcasting Captain Video live. I could hear it, but if I went around the corner to watch as some other kids were doing, I would have lost my place in line. By the time I got my sketch from Pat, Captain Video was over. Pat did remember that I had won the show’s art contest a few weeks earlier though.

  19. I didn’t let a missing magic screen stop me from helping Winky Dink! It was just a piece of green tinted vinyl, anyway. Wasn’t that well connected. Didn’t get a “toy” after the show, just a six pack of Welch’s Grape Juice, and a tee shirt with cartoon of the cast. Had that shirt long time, but I don’t have it anymore! Buffalo Bob was definitely there. Not sure if it was ’54 or ’55. Remember some kid calling out “Buffalo Bob, Buffalo Bob, I have to urinate! Buffalo Bob, Buffalo Bob I mmph!”

  20. Steve Menke says:

    Kim, this adds further resonance to your TV/cartoon-influenced works I’ve read and enjoyed for decades now.

    Have you inquired at the Paley Center for Media about the missing kinescope? I’ve visited several times, and while (traditionally) they only keep the highest-demand programming in immediate inventory, they would be able to check their warehouse for other availability. (Last time I visited mid-decade, most others were younger viewers into The Simpsons, while I savored Groucho Marx’s turn in The Mikado.)

    I remember seeing your opening panel in its original setting: That “Is he talking to me?” sensation reminds of what history’s said about Edison’s “The Great Train Robbery” — but in that case, some viewers were reportedly screaming and jumping about upon sight of the gunman firing into the audience.

    To the Winky Dink fans: I was a participant and culprit in the late 60s version, busted when I neglected to remove stray crayon marks beyond the magic screen. Gabe Kaplan did a routine about the original 50s series, saying “Of course nobody had the screen, we just drew right on the television… One time I used the crayon and it wouldn’t come off. I knew I was gonna get it, so I just drew on every show.”

  21. kim deitch says:

    There’s a great book somebody wrote about the history of Howdy Doody. I wish I could remember the title! It was a lot better than the one Buffallo Bob himself wrote, although that too had its points of interest. There was a fascinating account in it of his first time being on the radio back in the late 1920′s. The one question I wish I’d askesd Allen Swift, before he died was, what was Gabby Hayes really like. [Gabby used to do the show just before Howdy Doody and filled in as the host of Howdy Doody during the year Bob Smith was off the show]. I only realized what a fantastically great movie actor Gabby Hayes was later on when I grew up.

  22. kim deitch says:

    I think that kinescope is in a pile of film cans in the museum of Modern Art. I know someone who has recently done programming over there and he told me that they only have the sketchiest idea of what they have in there. It showed every day for a month there and I’m guessing they just left it behind after the UPA show closed.

    Yes. that shot of the Kid seeing a TV in a store window in 1947 comes from a strip I did back around 1980 called, TV and Me where I had a lot of my early TV memories coming out of the mouth of a fictional character in that story, including meeting Hopalong Cassidy at the 1951 Thanksgiving parade. We arrived for it early and there was Hoppy with his horse and in full cowboy regalia! We, [my brother Simon and I,] just ran up to him yelling, “Hoppy! Hi!” like we knew him. Well, we felt like we did seeing him on TV all the time. I heard somewhere that Hoppy didn’t really like kids much, but you sure could have fooled us. He couldn’t have been nicer to us.

  23. Al Lanman says:

    the book you were trying to remember was probably: “Hey Kids, what time is it?” ‘Notes form the peanut gallery.’

    http://www.amazon.com/Kids-What-Notes-Peanut-Gallery/dp/0316176621

    Living in the boonies (Lexington, KY) I think tv was a year or so later making its impact, which still left enough time for plenty of Howdy doody, and more importantly my first tv crush Princess Summerfall Winterspring. Cowabonga indeed! I don’t think we had a tv before I was 5, c. 1950. Yes there were lots of B Westerns on tv, and much more importantly lots of old cartoons, and without colourization or politically correct editting.

    And the radio stars were all migrating to tv: Benny, Allen (Fred, not Steve), Bergen, etc. And now we could see the Lone Ranger, not just hear him.

    Looking forward to the next section so….”away we go!”

  24. Tom Parmenter says:

    Kim,

    Spike Jones said, ‘We were too highbrow for the lowbrows and too lowbrow for the highbrows.’

    Gabby Hayes had a fuzzy beard and Al Fuzzy St. John had a fuzzy beard and a nickname he picked up when he took over a part that had been slated for Fuzzy Knight, who didn’t have a fuzzy beard. I think. SCTV had Cheaplaffs Johnson with a scraggy beard.

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