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Excerpt: ‘When Television Was Young’

The former "Tonight Show With Johnny Carson" announcer interviewed scores of television legends to provide not just a history of early television, but a history told by those who made it happen.
/ Source: TODAY

Ed McMahon has known most of the entertainment icons of the last 50 years. For “When Television Was Young,” the former longtime “Tonight Show With Johnny Carson” announcer has interviewed writers, producers, cameramen and stars such as Annette Funicello, Dick Clark, Andy Griffith, Art Linkletter, Gale Storm, Barbara Billingsley, Walter Cronkite, Jerry Mathers, Soupy Sales, Ron Howard, Merv Griffin and more to provide not just a history of early television, but a history told by those who made it happen. Read an excerpt:

Warm-up
Greetings! My name is Ed McMahon, and I want to welcome you and thank you for coming to this book. We sure have some nice-looking readers here today! I know that many of you have traveled a lot of years to get here, and I want you to know how much I appreciate it. So just settle back in your seat and relax. In just a couple of pages the book is going to start, and we’re going to tell you a really fascinating story. I know you’re going to like it. But before I introduce Chapter 1, I want to take a few paragraphs to tell you a little about what you’re going to read and get us all warmed up.

This book doesn’t come with a band, but I do have some bad jokes.

Here, let me give you an example: A lot of people believe that kids today spend much too much time glued to the television set. Well, when I was growing up, believe it or not, we didn’t even have tele­vision, so my parents had to glue me to the sofa.

See, that’s a warm-up joke.

But there is some truth in it. I grew up before television existed. Instead we listened to a crystal set, which was a kind of homemade radio. I remember my grandfather, who lived in Lowell, Massachusetts, wrapping aerial wire around his house to try to catch the signal. Within a few years fancy radios were put inside beautiful wooden cabinets and became the central piece of furniture in a lot of living rooms, just as television sets are today. I remember I would lie on the floor in front of the radio for hours. When the wind was blowing just right, we could get as many as twenty stations. When people complained there was nothing to watch on the radio, that’s exactly what they meant. We would sit and watch the radio set. Think of radio as television without the pictures.

In my house today we have eight television sets. I’m not kidding. The largest one is forty-eight inches, several of them are equipped to receive high definition, and each has cable and a DVD recorder. I don’t have TiVo yet because I can record anything I want to see already, and I can watch it anytime I choose to. I can get about 425 stations.

The technology is unbelievable. In my lifetime we’ve gone from my grandfather wrapping wire around his house to pick up a distant radio signal, to bouncing signals off satellites so that we can watch live events taking place anywhere in the world. All that incredible technology, billions of dollars, and almost a century of research all enable me to turn on any one of my eight TV sets at any time, day or night, any day of the year, and find an episode of “Law & Order.”

What I’m going to do in this book is tell you how it all started. Television is something we all take for granted now, but it wasn’t always that way. There was a time when the concept of live pictures being sent through the air was science fiction. It was fantasy, magic. How could you send pictures through the air? Close your eyes and just think about that. Think about the wonder of the magic we take for granted. Pictures being sent through the air!

And once the magicians made it possible, the question became, what pictures would be shown on this magic box? Once the amazement had worn off, what pictures would capture the imagination? Would it be expensive? Who would pay for it? There were no answers to any of these questions. It all had to be imagined and created and discovered. The story I’m going to tell is how it all happened. I know the story because I lived through it.

I really was there at the beginning. The first public demonstration of television took place on the opening day of the 1939 World’s Fair in Flushing Meadows, New York. And I was right there, standing among the thousands of people watching President Franklin Roosevelt announce that the fair was officially opened — on tele­vision. I don’t really remember what I was thinking. I suspect I thought it was a very impressive gimmick. But I knew where my future was — I was going to be a radio announcer. Radio — that was my real love.

As it turned out, I hosted my own TV show even before I owned a TV set. Right after World War II, most of the TV sets were in bars. They were too expensive for people to have in their own homes. So people would go to a bar to watch a little twelve-inch, black-and-white flickering picture, and the longer you stayed in the bar, the better it seemed the TV picture got. Ah, yes, my friends, it’s true. The occasional libation did enhance the viewing process.

Actually, I wasn’t the first person in my family to be on television. That would have been my little cousin Sylvester. I’ll never forget my mother looking at the TV and yelling, “Sylvester, get off the TV. You’re going to fall and hurt yourself.” That’s another warm-up joke!

Now, obviously, you’re much too young to remember those first TV sets. So let me tell you how they worked. In the late 1940s and early 1950s, you turned on the TV and had to wait a few seconds while it warmed up. You could smell the large tubes in the back of the set. It was kind of a pleasant aroma. You could hear it, too. It made a sort of high-pitched sound that got louder as the picture came on. Then, after the picture appeared, you often had to play with an antenna on top of the set, moving the “rabbit ears” around, to get the picture to come in clearly. Finally, you would have to use the dials on the front of the set to adjust the vertical hold to get the picture to stop rolling, or the horizontal hold to straighten it out.

There was no such thing as a remote. If you wanted to change the channel, you had to turn a dial on the set. In those days the only remote control we had was my Aunt Mary. “Aunt Mary! Put on channel four, please.” Young people find it hard to believe how difficult it was to watch TV in those days. I try to tell them how rough it was: “When I was your age, we were lucky if we got three channels. And if we wanted to change the channel, we had to get up, literally get up from the couch, and walk all the way across the entire living room to the TV. We learned how to change the channel for ourselves. But we survived.”

Growing up, more than anything in the world, I wanted to be a radio announcer. I would stand in front of the radio with a copy of “Time” magazine, speaking into a flashlight, pretending it was a microphone, and practice reading the news — and the advertisements. Even then I knew who paid the bills.

Before going into the Marines, I was the night announcer on WLLH in Lowell, Massachusetts, “The Synchronized Voice of the Merrimack Valley.” Not only did I read the news, but I also gave the time. “It’s 12:17 a.m. Please, no applause.”

But by the time I got out of the Marine Corps, everybody was talking about television. Nobody knew what it was, but we all knew it was coming. There were very few TVs in existence and almost nothing to watch. In the few cities that did have television, there was usually only one channel. And even on that one channel there was almost no programming. The eleven o’clock news was broadcast at nine o’clock. The entire TV schedule for the night usually consisted of something like: 8:00–9:00 p.m.: The Whatever-We-Can-Figure-Out-To-Put-On-That-Doesn’t-Cost-Anything Show. Hosted by: To be announced.

To be announced? That was me! That was my future, and I knew it. I knew that one day, if I worked hard, I could be “To be announced”! At that point I had as much experience in television as just about everybody else in the world: exactly none.

Actually, a very few people had already been on television. One of them was a young kid named Jerry Lewis. Now listen to this one, because you’re not going to believe it. In 1943, Jerry Lewis, the great tap dancer Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, and a woman named Arlene Woods performed on a very special broadcast. They were escorted by guards up to a secure studio in the RCA building at 30 Rockefeller Plaza, the same building where for so many years I had the privilege of working with Johnny Carson on “The Tonight Show.”

The way Jerry tells the story, this was one of the most exclusive broadcasts in history. The whole thing was a very big secret because NBC was developing its color television system and didn’t want CBS to know anything about it. This show was broadcast from the RCA building in New York to Princeton, New Jersey, where Albert Einstein was watching it.

Think about that! Jerry Lewis performed for Albert Einstein on color television in 1943. I guess the good news was that it didn’t matter how good or bad Jerry was, because Einstein couldn’t change the channel.

After the broadcast, Jerry, Bill Robinson, and Arlene Woods were driven to Princeton to meet Albert Einstein. Now, my friend, that would have been some act: Einstein and Lewis! I asked Jerry what they talked about. He told me Einstein told him the story of how he had discovered the theory of relativity. “He said he was talking to one of his children on the telephone, and he was doodling on a pad. A little while later his houseman asked if he should throw away the pad, and Einstein looked and saw E=mc2 and went to his lab, and the rest is history.”

Who knew that Einstein was the comedian and Jerry was the straight man?

With just a few hours of programming a night, the only thing being broadcast most of the time was a test pattern. A test pattern was a black-and-white line drawing that looked a little like a very fancy hubcap. The test pattern meant that the local TV station was transmitting a signal, but there was no programming. The purpose was to allow viewers to adjust the sharpness and contrast of their TV sets. Sometimes the test pattern had a soundtrack, a high-pitched whine.

But people didn’t care. It was television. People would watch the test pattern. Maybe they wouldn’t talk about it around the water cooler at work the next day — “Boy, did you see that great test pattern on NBC last night?” — but they watched it. Just about the only good thing you could say about a test pattern was that it was broadcast without commercial interruption.

So that was the competition when I got into television. What would viewers rather watch, Ed McMahon or a test pattern?

I made my first appearance on television in 1947 when I was studying speech and the dramatic arts at Catholic University in Washington, D.C. My teacher was playwright Walter Kerr. I was married and paying my tuition by selling stainless-steel pots and pans door-to-door in the winter and working as a pitchman on the boardwalk in Atlantic City in the summer, selling the famous Morris Metric Vegetable Slicer. In my second year at Catholic, my class performed “Touch and Go,” a play Kerr had written. I was cast as a naval officer, obviously because I had a natural talent that Kerr was able to unearth — as well as the fact that I already had the naval officer’s uniform. The play was such a big success that we were invited to perform it on television.

The fact that we couldn’t see it, and that no one we knew could watch it, didn’t matter. We were going to be on television! Even more exciting was that our play would be the first program broadcast on an experimental network. Somehow they had linked Washington to Baltimore, Philadelphia, and New York by coaxial cable. We all knew what that meant: It meant that no one would watch our play in four cities rather than just in Washington!

We turned the banquet room of the Wardman Park Hotel into a little television studio. We made all our own studio sets. I think we had one camera. No makeup. And that is how I made my dramatic debut on television.

The play eventually went to New York, and Walter Kerr became the most respected theater critic on Broadway. I went back to Atlantic City and sold Metric Slicers — making me a star of television and boardwalk. But within two years I was doing thirteen hours of programming on WCAU in Philadelphia, everything from cohosting a cooking show to having my own late-night talk show. In Philadelphia, I was Mr. Television. I was on the cover of one of the first issues of “TV Digest” in 1949, which eventually became “TV Guide.”

TV had arrived. It was black-and-white and the screen was rarely larger than twelve inches, but it worked. It changed the world. It’s hard to believe how very little people understood about television. I was in a supermarket one afternoon when an older woman stopped me and asked if I was “that nice Ed McMahon from the television.” She seemed unusually suspicious that I could be me.

“Yes,” I admitted. “That’s me.”

“My,” the woman said. “You certainly are considerably taller than you look on my TV.”

“Really? How tall did you think I was?”

She held up her thumb and forefinger to me. “Oh, about four inches.”

But seriously, folks, it is a pleasure being on the same page with you. I hope you’re all warmed up by now, but let me just tell you one more thing before I bring on Chapter 1.

The availability of television after World War II created a real para­dox. Groucho Marx, on his quiz show “You Bet Your Life,” defined paradox as “two doctors,” but that’s not the kind of paradox I’m talking about. Television sets were very expensive, and people didn’t buy them because there was very little programming. If there was something they really wanted to see, they could go to the corner bar or go downstairs to Mrs. McGillicuddy’s apartment and watch through the open door like everybody else. However, because there were so few viewers, advertisers wouldn’t pay very much to produce new shows, and so there was very limited programming.

A lot of smart people believed television was a novelty, a gimmick that would never catch on. In 1946 the legendary movie producer Darryl F. Zanuck told people confidently, “Television won’t be able to hold on to any market it captures after the first six months. People will soon get tired of staring at a plywood box every night.”

Even Lee de Forest, the inventor of the vacuum tube (which made radio and television possible), said, “While theoretically and technically television may be feasible, commercially and financially I consider it an impossibility, a development on which we need waste little time dreaming.”

Finally, the two major radio networks, CBS and NBC, plus DuMont, a manufacturer of TV sets, and pioneering broadcasters in cities all around the country decided that if they made it, viewers would come. And they would buy TV sets. “It” was television. “It” was the forerunner of just about every television program on the air tonight. And what I’m going to tell you now — with a little help from my friends who were there — is the story of how it all happened.

So without further ado, I’d like to introduce you to the very first chapter. I hope you’ll enjoy it. If I had a band it would start playing right now. But go ahead and hum the theme song of one of your favorite shows.

Let’s get on with the book! Right here on this page today, I am very pleased to be able to write these words, Heeeeeeerrrrrrre’s Chap­ter One!

Excerpted from  “When Television Was Young,” by Ed McMahon. Copyright © 2007 by Ed McMahon. Excerpted by permission of Thomas Nelson Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.