Much of the known world does not know what the world would be like without television. And despite years of breakthroughs and Philo Farnsworth patents and World’s Fair demos, Television never seemed to catch on. Thus a phenomenon which was created in the 1920’s was still a mirage to the next generation. My generation. However, with the help of Madman Muntz and Flash Gordon, we solved the dilemma and started a children’s crusade for television.
The dilemma came down to this: Television was perfected but nobody had one. They had no reason to; there were no programs to watch. Milton Berle and Jimmy Durante and Fred Allen and a host of radio personalities, as well as Superman and the Lone Ranger, all waited anxiously for advertisers to pony up the money to take their shows to the television screen. But…the advertisers were hesitant to put up the money because (back through circle) nobody had a TV set.
Well, a few rich people had TVs, just for the novelty. In our neighborhood in Minneapolis, Dickie Mortensen’s dad was a building contractor and they got one. All they could see on the screen was the Indian test pattern and about an hour a day of local programming plus a few movie serials that kids usually saw on Saturdays with their double feature and cartoons. Flash Gordon was a favorite black and white serial, with rocket ships that sputtered along as if they ran on baking soda, and Ming the Merciless always trying to control the Universe, along with his vampy daughter. Many the night we other not-so-rich kids would sneak in from our usual neighborhood marauding to gather in a ring of eager little faces around the edges of Dickie Mortenson’s living room window. This marvel held us transfixed, until Dickie Mortenson’s dad would run us off. Flash Gordon became the legendary symbol of the TV Have-Nots.
Television would later be the pattern for two other Children’s crusades of the American midcentury, against littering the highways and against their parents’ smoking, where children all of over America, and much of the world, found that they had immense power to change the world. After they grew up with TV, children would shout “Litterbug” when parents would throw garbage out the window, and within a year in the 1960s, garbage strewn highways became pristine thoroughfares. With smoking in the 1970’s: children would mimic the anti-smoking ads on TV and wretch when their parents lit up cigarettes. Often they would steal the cigarettes and flush them down toilets. The mediaeval Children’s Crusade was a bad idea that ended in squalor and carnage, but here, in our 20th century, we kids got it right. In America, there were no greater activists than we children. The very first time we used our unique power to crusade for a better world was in 1950, when we stepped forth in song to break that wicked circle of no TV sets, no ads, no shows, thus no TV sets.
To understand how America’s children became so empowered as to bring on a national phenomenon and a record-breaking advertising medium, you have to know a little about Tom Mix. We of the radio generation would listen in the afternoons and evening after school to the radio dramas of Tom Mix, Bobby Benson and the B-BAR-B riders, Red Ryder, Gene Autry, Roy Rogers, The Green Hornet, the Shadow, The Whistler, The Count of Monte Cristo, Sergeant Preston of the Mounties and his dog King, and so many more. It was a fantastic set of images in kids’ minds as they listened to the Count of Monte Christo in massive swordfights (done with clicking spoons, we know now), all in their ear’s imagination.
Of course, the commercial breaks for these shows were aimed at children. Here is how one would go with Tom Mix: The actor himself would take a break and talk straight to his radio audience. “Kids, “ he would say, “you deserve to have Instant Ralston for breakfast, and here’s what I want you to do. When you are at the grocery store with your mother, and when she isn’t looking, slip a package of Instant Ralston into the shopping cart, down in the bottom somewhere. Then, when the cashier is pulling out each item, your mother will see the Instant Ralston, and say she isn’t buying it. Then you should tell her how healthy Instant Ralston is, and if she still tells you to put it back, you should tuck the Instant Ralston package in your arms and lie down on the floor and kick and scream until she buys it to stop the embarrassment. I want you to do this for me, little buddies.”
A few of us did it, and a few of us regretted it because we were not yet a generation freed from spanking. Then the groups of parents complained to the store, and eventually advertisers reluctantly withdrew that ad. However, creative minds immediately went to work on dozens more. We kids were the avenue into the cupboard for cereal grains with a higher markup than pizza.
Which is where Madman Muntz came in. Mr. Muntz had a factory that made TVs, and he wanted to sell just enough TVs that advertisers would realize it would be the greatest marketing tool ever, and also realize that they had to fund the Big Talent in the radio wings so people would watch the new advertisements. This is where Madman Muntz, who must have been listening to Tom Mix, took out radio commercials to appeal directly to the children of America, asking them to lead the crusade to have their parents buy a television for the household. At some point in October of 1950, Muntz himself came on the radio in shrill tones, saying he was Madman Muntz and he was calling on every child in American to ask for a TV for Christmas. He said he wanted children to sing this song, over and over until their parents relented to buy a television.
It was sung by various Long Island kids who they must have picked up at a New York ad agency. To parents the radio kids sounded bratty. To we kids they sounded like freedom fighters. It must have been intentional casting, because it was a tone every kid could mimic to perfection. The song went: “I WANNA TELEVISION CHRISTMAS…” and that’s all. Every kid could sing it and every kid did. “I wanna television Christmas.” The radio gave them the whiny key and the words and they were off, through the months before Christmas, singing up the hallways and during their homework. When mothers sent them off to school “I wanna television Christmas” was being hummed in four parts by kids who hated their music lessons. It was such an annoying song that parents finally knew the only way to stop it: Get the family a TV for Christmas. Muntz TVs were less than $100 a set, and for the average besieged parent, that was a bargain.
So that is how television finally got started. Madman Muntz sold 400,000 televisions that Christmas, and the log jam broke. Texaco sponsored the Texaco Theater with starring Milton Berle, and soon Sid Caesar and Imogene Coca had American laughing to their variety sketches, and the baseball and football leagues televised their championships. Kids…well, kids got to see Superman flying over Metropolis and the Lone Ranger riding the plains. Kids got to see Howdy Doody and Disney’s Mouseketeers and many old western movies buried in the vaults from the 30s and 40s. Television and kids were made for each other, and kids caused the miracle of national television. You heard it here.