Stories Told, Vintage Television

Vintage TV: Card Sharks

It was a simple high-low card game, played out on TV for everyone at home. But it was good fun, and it always reminds me of my grandmother. It was Card Sharks, and it aired on NBC from 1978 to 1981.

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My grandma used to tell me stories of her grandfather, a sign painter by trade and, according to her, a brilliant poker player. While her dad and his buddies played, she’d serve the drinks and empty the ashtrays — and watch her daddy carefully, trying to figure out his secrets.

Maybe it was her close study, maybe it was genetics, but Grandma had an almost supernatural ability to know which card was next in any deck. When I’d visit my grandma, we often watched game shows together. When Card Sharks came on, she watched especially closely. And frequently, when a contestant would be sitting on a four of hearts and holler “Higher!” — Grandma would holler right back, “No! It’s a black two!” You would have done well to lay bets on those exclamations, because she was almost always right.

Here’s the first ever episode of Card Sharks, from 1978.

From my collection, here’s the Card Sharks theme “in the clear,” as they say, meaning you’ll hear the whole theme start to finish without any voiceovers.

By the way, if you ever encounter me in a poker game, I warn you: my grandma taught me how to play!

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Vintage Television

Vintage TV: The CBS Late Movie

I mentioned this post recently here and decided it’s high time to rerun it. It’s an oldie, originally published in August, 2008.

Starting in the late ’70s, my brother and I got sent to Camp Grandma in southwestern Michigan for a couple weeks every summer. The rules were extremely relaxed at Camp Grandma. Pepsi and Vernors and root beer flowed freely, and Grandma always bought Pringles and Lucky Charms and Slim Jims and all sorts of other junk food we got very little of at home.

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Me at Camp Grandma, 1977

We’d sit up late with our grandparents every night, playing penny-ante poker or Kismet and listening to their stories of the Depression and the fabulous 1950s until Grandma’s Gallo wine (from the gallon jug with the screw cap) and Grandpa’s Pabst Blue Ribbon got the better of them. Then my brother and I would roll out sleeping bags in front of the TV and watch until all the stations had signed off. Those were great days.

The late-night-TV pickings were slim then. The networks gave it up at 12:30 or 1 a.m. and most of their stations just signed off. WKZO, Channel 3 in Kalamazoo, sometimes ran a late show. If skies were clear and Grandpa’s antenna rotator was working, we’d try to bring in independent WUHQ, Channel 41 from Battle Creek; they almost always had a late show. Weather and antenna usually determined our bedtime, actually! Once or twice we were still watching TV when Grandpa made his way to the coffee pot at 5:30.

We always looked forward to the CBS Late Movie, which started right after the news. It ran lots of B movies in the mid 70s, including monster movies on Friday nights. But by the late 70s, the CBS Late Movie showed more and more crime-drama reruns, which were sped up by 10 percent and crammed so full of commercials that the shows ran 70 minutes instead of 60. We preferred the movies, but could be happy with good action and suspense in Hawaii Five-O, Quincy, M.E., or Kolchak: the Night Stalker.

What made the CBS Late Movie so cool was its open and bumpers. The opening theme’s vigorous horns triggered anticipation of gritty drama to come. The colors in the star and spinning wheel popped against the black background, and there was nothing like it in prime time. Here’s how the program opened one night late in August, 1982.

Because this bumper was transferred from the 35 mm masters, you can see how colorful these elements were. This particular bumper was used in and out of commercials, and the announcer would say either “We will return to” or “We now return to” followed by the movie name and its stars. The music sounded lonesome, which seemed appropriate for watching in the dark in the middle of nowhere, as we did.

The CBS Late Movie theme is called So Old, So Young, composed by Morton Stevens, who wrote lots of television music in his time. Here it is, from my collection.

In the summer of 1985, the CBS Late Movie ditched these elements for CBS’s then-current prime-time movie look and theme. The program was also renamed to CBS Late Night. David Letterman, filled with mock indignation over the slight to his program, then on NBC and also named Late Night, called CBS during his program one night, demanding to know why they were infringing on his territory. I saw that bit back then, and it made me laugh. That almost made up for losing that classic theme and graphics. At least until YouTube brought them back.

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Vintage Television

Vintage TV: Freakies

It was a sugar-sweetened cereal for kids. But the cartoony characters that advertised them connected with young viewers in new way, at least for the early 1970s. My mom was not usually a sucker for TV commercials aimed at kids, but she fell hook, line, and sinker for the Freakies. And so we ate Freakies until they were coming out of our ears. I remember them being “good,” in the way any young child finds pretty much any sugar-sweetened cereal to be good. But more than that, the Freakies had a backstory, narrated by no less than Burgess Meredith.

These were the days of toys being packed inside the boxes of cereals aimed at kids. All kinds of crazy stuff came packed in cereal boxes. I remember one cereal — was it Cap’n Crunch? — giving away reflectors to attach to bicycle spokes. Frosted Mini Wheats gave away trading cards of the Presidents of the United States. I had a complete set of them for years. I didn’t eat all those Mini Wheats; Mom sent a dollar to Kellogg’s and they sent a whole deck. But once again the Freakies were different: they gave away only toys related to the Freakies characters.

I had the plastic Freakie figurines and the Freakie refrigerator magnets, complete sets. The figurines didn’t survive childhood, but the magnets lasted into adulthood. When my wife divorced me, they were on our refrigerator. She kept them.

Snorkeldorf was my favorite Freakie. He’s the one with the long, elephant-like snout. The rest of them were Hamhose, Gargle, Cowmumble, Grumble, and Goody-Goody, led of course by BossMoss.

I wish I still had my Freakies magnets.

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Vintage Television

Vintage TV: Beany and Cecil

Have you ever had a childhood memory so dim and sparse that you wondered if you had dreamed it? I’ve had a few. Sometimes I’ll encounter something that cracks such a memory open.

Here’s one. In college thirty years ago, I built a collection of Paul McCartney vinyl. One day I bought a 45 of the song Another Day, a song I didn’t think I knew. But when I played the record I was suddenly three years old, at breakfast in my mother’s kitchen. I could see everything clearly. The kitchen table was covered in dark simulated woodgrain laminate with a brown plastic edge and brown steel tubes for legs. My high-backed chair was covered in vinyl with a loud green floral pattern. The fridge stood in the corner, its long chrome door handle like a giant upside-down T. A white plastic table radio sat atop the fridge, tuned to an AM station that played this song every morning while it was a hit. Transported, I played the song over and over that college afternoon, enjoying the remembered connection.

While Another Day had slipped entirely from memory, a particular cartoon sea serpent had not, at least not entirely. I clearly remembered the main character’s lisp: Theethil the Thee-Thick Thea Therpent. So I was excited to find this clip of the show’s open on YouTube the other day:

My brother was over the other day and I showed this to him. “Of course I remember it,” he said. “You wouldn’t quit saying ‘Nyah-ah-ahh’ over and over again! You did it for years! I wanted to pummel you!” I felt my brain pop with the recalled memory. It was the villain Dishonest John’s signature laugh! I adopted it as my own until I was 9 or 10! How could I forget? Here’s an entire Beany and Cecil cartoon with plenty of Dishonest John nyah-ah-ahhing:

Beany and Cecil were created by Bob Clampett, who animated the craziest Warner Brothers cartoons. (Side trip: On his blog, John Kricfalusi, creator of the cartoon Ren and Stimpy, deconstructs several of Clampett’s WB cartoons and reveals the man’s genius. See those posts here.) Clampett first created Beany and Cecil as puppets, Cecil just a sock with eyes glued on. In 1949, these puppets became a huge hit on TV in Los Angeles. Albert Einstein is said to have been a fan. In 1959, Clampett animated these characters for theatrical cartoons in foreign markets. In 1962, ABC started running the cartoons in prime time and got Clampett to make more of them. The cartoons ran on ABC until 1967 and in syndication through the early 1970s.

I learned recently from the FuzzyMemories forum that the BJ and the Dirty Dragon Show on WFLD in Chicago showed Beany and Cecil cartoons, and that’s where I must have watched them. The Dirty Dragon finished his run on WFLD in July, 1973, which was about six months after we got cable and could have seen the show. Moreover, it was on at noon, meaning we could watch only during the summer. So after watching Beany and Cecil cartoons for maybe four weeks that summer, I then annoyed my brother for four years repeating Dishonest John’s laugh.

Righteous.

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Photography, Vintage Television

Vintage TV: 1950s commercials for Ansco cameras and films

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Pacific Rim Camera photo

Do you remember Ansco cameras and films?

For many decades, Ansco was second only to Kodak in the United States. Headquartered in Binghamton, New York, the company’s history stretched back to 1841. But its peak years were probably the 1950s, when it routinely manufactured two million cameras a year.

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My Ansco Shur Shot

Ansco manufactured simple cameras that anyone could operate, like my Ansco Shur Shot box camera.

Ansco also imported more fully featured cameras from other makers around the world, including Agfa, Ricoh, and Minolta, and rebadged them as Anscos.

During the 1950s, Ansco advertised its cameras and films on television. Many of its commercials were shot on film, and survive.

Here’s a short spot for Ansco films with a simple jingle. Don’t those harmonies just scream 1950s?

Here’s a spot for three Ansco cameras that took 127 film. Ansco manufactured the two Cadet cameras, but imported the Lancer from a German maker. I had a Lancer in my childhood collection. I never put film into it because its weak latch kept popping open, which would have spoiled the film. I hear that this was a common problem with Lancers.

This spot for Anscochrome color slide film mentions its “big extra margin of sensitivity” that makes up for challenging lighting. It also mentions making prints from slides using the Printon process. You can see a Printon print here, which shows that Anscochrome was a capable film.

If you have boxes full of Anscochrome slides, you’re going to want to project them. So you’ll need an Anscomatic projector!

It cracks me up how formally everybody dressed in these commercials. In the 1950s, did friends really gather casually in each others’ homes wearing suits?

Whatever happened to Ansco? Well, in 1967 it began to favor using the name of its parent, General Aniline and Film, or GAF. As GAF, it stopped making cameras, instead selling GAF-branded cameras that other companies made. By the late 1970s, the Ansco brand name was sold to a Chinese camera maker. You could buy Chinese Ansco film cameras through the 1990s.

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Vintage Television

Vintage TV: The Twilight Zone

My kids don’t like The Twilight Zone.

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During my 1970s kidhood, this show was one of my favorite gems of syndicated television. I loved to come across it, especially late at night, and enjoy its tales of science fiction and fantasy, of warped human nature, and of dystopia.

What I didn’t understand was that when the show originally aired, from 1959 to 1964, reason was king. People seriously and earnestly sought surety. They believed in absolutes; they deferred to authority. There was a sense that you could truly understand the world, and that there had to be a rational explanation for everything.

A frequent premise of The Twilight Zone episodes was the search for a rational explanation to events that made no rational sense. Characters were thought to have cracked, to have lost their marbles, when they spoke of experiences that they could not explain logically.

But that kind of modernist thinking had all but ended by the 1970s. I didn’t know it, of course; what small boy is aware of society changing around him? But in those days, the generation entering adulthood felt that things didn’t have to make sense, that there might not be any absolutes, and that a universal, objective means of judging things as right or true might not exist. The postmodern age had dawned.

I found these shows to be delightful because I understood both sides, although only viscerally. I grew up around adults, largely of my grandparents’ generation, who clung to those old modes of thinking – and I watched their children thumb their nose at it all. My grandparents loved The Twilight Zone as I did. But I think our experience with the show differed sharply. I imagine that sometimes it frightened them, because it challenged what they knew to be right and solid. In contrast, the shows excited me, because I wanted to believe that such alternate realities could exist.

But for my children, who have never known anyone from my grandparents’ generation, for whom the postmodern transition has always been complete, The Twilight Zone’s protagonists are buffoons trapped in a too-narrow reality. My kids can’t relate to them. They take as a given that things happen that can’t be explained. It’s reflected in the shows they enjoy watching: The Walking Dead, Supernatural, Doctor Who.They accept as given that their world is full of unfathomable mysteries. They embrace it. The Twilight Zone points to a time when the world was a puzzle that could be solved. It is too different, and it just can’t reach them.

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