100. Burnaby, 1961: Rabbit Ears and Gorilla Suits
The Sunset Auto Court was technically a motel, with two-vehicle garages separating the apartments. But the place was filled with families, and I don’t remember too many of them having cars. The garages between the apartments were mostly empty.
Our place was a one bedroom apartment with a stove and bathroom. On one wall of the main living space, three or four feet from the floor, was a door to a little cubby. Looking through it, you could see—through the wire mesh at the back of the cubby—the garage, which was itself open to the air. This cubby was our refrigerator. Reasonable enough. The outdoors and window ledges had been our refrigerators up north too.
And you had an extra window where you could see through to the garage.
Our apartment had two beds and some chairs, but we and it had little else:–literally what we had and what we wore when we were on the road traveling. I think we had an income then, though. I remember buying clothes, perhaps to get us ready for school. And shortly after moving into the auto court, in signal of our changed fortunes, my father sat us down in the front room and made a proposal.
“TV!” replied the three of us unanimously and without hesitation.
Television arrived then in two channels, in black and white, through rabbit ears, in round cornered thumbnail-shaped screens of maybe 17 inches corner to corner. There were more channels for folk with antenna on their roofs. There were antennas on the roofs of houses all over town looking like ambitious oven racks, but not on the roofs of anyone with whom I had visiting privileges. So for me and us it was two channels, 2 and 8, Canadian channels public and private, with occasional ghostly images of Channel 12 from Bellingham across the border—when the meteorological conditions were exactly right.
Reception was uncertain even for those two channels sometimes. Where you placed the rabbit ears was always local lore, known to the inhabitants of each separate living room. Extend this ear at this angle here. Extend that one there. Sit here holding this. Maybe a bit of tinfoil…
When reception was not good, television pictures tended to flicker up or down, or lean over sideways and become visually indecipherable. The little knobs behind a panel beneath the screen were always being twiddled this way and that in desperate hope that we could get a good picture while it was still possible to understand the story of whatever we were watching.
But that’s what TV was, and nobody minded.
Pop culture came a-sidling in through rabbit ears.
That tiny, low-definition, round-cornered black and white screen was a wonder toy to the three of us. There were sit-coms set in imaginary suburbia, The Donna Reed Show, Father Knows Best, Leave It to Beaver. Route 66 kept us on the road. “Man, woman, birth, death, infinity,” intoned Sam Jaffe, as the symbol for each was displayed for the opening credits of the medical show Ben Casey. It was possibly the only line better than the closer to the police show, The Naked City: “There are 8 million stories in the Naked City. This has been one of them.”
(Seven million nine hundred and ninety-nine thousand nine hundred and ninety-nine to go….)
Hawaiian Eye featured not only its tropical setting but a car that converted into an airplane and the crooning of Don Ho. 77 Sunset Strip boasted a plastic hipster jiving the most unconvincing hip-speak in the unhip history of Hollywood—yes, Kookie and his Brylcream comb. The Littlest Hobo was our favourite impossible dog, even better than Rin Tin Tin or Lassie. Bonanza and Pa Cartwright represented the impossible West, not much more than a dinosaur rodeo away from the impossible cave folk of the Flintstones or the impossible wooden alien of My Favourite Martian (impersonated by the wooden Ray Walston, with his own set of retractable rabbit ears in his head.)
Television didn’t necessarily run all day. It opened with a tone and a picture of feathered Indian, and there was always a sign-off time at night, but programmers still found it necessary to fill all the extra air time with old materials, old cartoons, old movies. Children’s fare included reruns of the Howdy Doody show, the Flintstones and cartoon shows featuring Tom Terrific—an amazing if poorly drawn boy with a funnel hat—and far, far too many Popeye cartoons. Top Cat had a one year run then. It featured a sarcastic cat referred to as “TC” by his gang. My initials. That tickled me.
I saw far too many Popeye cartoons to ever forgive him, but I didn’t mind the old Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney movies, or the Road movies with Bing Crosby and Bob Hope. I saw The Wizard of Oz several times on black and white televisions beginning then, and it had already become one of my favourite movies before I ever saw it in colour. This, despite the circumstance that the first scene after arriving in Oz—where the world (and Dorothy) transforms from sepia to Technicolor—was utterly lost on me for decades.
“Toto, I have a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.”
Perry Como, Jack Benny and Dean Martin hosted variety shows, but the king of Sunday night was Ed Sullivan. Hootenanny gave us folk music, and Sing Along with Mitch (“follow the bouncing ball”) gave us corn. I remember the blues entering my ears through the sweet sanitized singing of Gail Garnet, “I Know You Rider.” Good enough. I have never let go of the blues since.
I suppose it was that television which reintroduced me to the stream of American pop, which was then city-folkified, with rock and roll in temporary danger of being candied down and tamed. Somewhere off in the distance, still obscure to me, Bob Dylan was making a record, and the Silver Beatles were taking rock and roll seriously in the clubs of Hamburg. I encountered Elvis more Saturday afternoons than I liked in what seemed like one bad movie after another. My sister Irene’s obsession with him at that time—and those inexcusable movies—meant that I loathed Presley and the pelvis for nearly 30 years.
I’m over that now.
It was clear that the television was a hit in our family. I remember us sitting there on a weekend afternoon listening to Jack Short, the voice of the races, calling a horse race. We’d all choose a horse and cheer him on, Irene slapping her knees sometimes in excitement. It was, I think, one such afternoon when we were watching TV when suddenly the toilet flushed. Since anybody then occupying the toilet could not have gotten there without passing right by us and right in front of Irene’s line of vision, that flushing toilet seemed positively spooky. And when my father opened the door and came out, it must have been a little odd to see all his children staring at him, then breaking into laughter.
Half a century later, social scientists would gain fame by demonstrating that at any given time at least 50% of people—given something else to look for—would miss a person in a gorilla suit crossing a basketball court. Maybe Dad was wearing a gorilla suit when he sneaked past us that day into the bathroom.
I don’t think any of the three of us resented losing our allowances over that television.