In a world where there is absolutely nothing out of the ordinary about a 75-inch television screen — wider than the A-C volume of the Encyclopedia Britannica — it is difficult to describe what life was like in the pre-color days. Just as in the age of Wikipedia it is equally difficult to explain to someone that you used to have to go to a bookshelf filled with volumes of hard copy encyclopedia tomes that some fast talking salesman convinced your grandfather he had to have.
Our family came late to the game of color television. Just to give a little context to why, our dad used to borrow $100 from a local credit union every summer just so he could take all of us camping for a week in Sequoia National Park. So the late 1960s $400 price tag for a 19-inch RCA tabletop color TV was out of the question. We could only imagine what those colors looked like when the NBC peacock unfurled his tail feathers before the start of a program, and when some of the opening credits of our favorite shows came with a somber narrator announcing “In color,” it was almost a taunt.
We had this big black and white monster of a TV whose remote control consisted of somebody, usually the youngest person in the room, getting a tap on the back of the head along with verbal instructions as to what channel to switch. Since I was almost always the youngest person in the room I was basically the first remote control with artificial intelligence. If I had real intelligence, I would have read more in my youth. And when our father sat in “his” chair, the control of the programming was a foregone conclusion and I have the emotional scars of having sat through one too many Lawrence Welk shows to prove it.
By the grace of God, we had another television viewing option — the “TV room.” There were a lot of rooms and places in our old house that had formal names and I don’t know why. There was the “bamboo porch,” the “second ice box,” “Cactus Hill” and, when our dirt driveway was hit by heavy rain, “Lake Mead.”
But the TV room was a special place. It was the hideaway and personal space of our Uncle Rich, our dad’s older brother who took on a patriarchal role as was wont in Irish families of a certain era. Uncle Rich would require many more words than I am allowed to describe, but when the chaos of a house full of kids got to be too much, he retreated to the TV room, a refuge that looked like it was designed by a spartan, with the only homage to high interior design being the rug with JFK’s portrait woven into it that hung on the wall like a shrine.
If Uncle Rich was in an agreeable mood, we would ask if we could come in and watch something our dad had no interest in. This usually meant the Friday night monster movie on one of the local channels.
More times than not, Uncle Rich would let us set up camp and watch “The Werewolf,” “Frankenstein” or “King Kong” or any variation of any of those themes on Friday nights. Maybe it was the particles of nicotine and other carcinogens in the atmosphere due to all the pipe and cigar smoking Uncle Rich did in this room, but I almost always fell asleep before one of the aforementioned monsters either got what they had coming or met a demise full of pathos.
It didn’t matter that both TVs in our house were black and white sets since most of the movies available to us were old black and white movies and most television shows were also in black and white until the mid-1960s. But it all changed in 1968 and we had the St. Louis Cardinals to thank for it.
When you are a bachelor, living in the family home that your father paid cash for right after the world war you fought in, and you received both a Social Security check and a pension from the Department of Water and Power, the $400 plus price tag of a new color TV obviously didn’t seem too imposing a hurdle.
So when the St. Louis Cardinals appeared again in the World Series, Uncle Rich, who was a St. Louis native like our dad, took the plunge and came home in October of 1968 with an RCA 19-inch tabletop color TV. All of a sudden the TV room was THE place to be. Of course Uncle Rich complained that there was too much “red” in the picture during the first World Series game we watched.
We explained to Uncle Rich that it was a home game in St. Louis and that the Cardinals’ predominant color was red, and that most of the fans in the stands were wearing some shade of it. It made no difference and he spent hours adjusting the color until the crowd looked like it had been doused in Pepto Bismol. Our Uncle Rich was the kind of guy who wasn’t happy unless he was complaining about something and if complaining that the color was off was what it took, so be it. We had a color TV in the house and we had arrived.
Robert Brennan has been a professional writer for more than 30 years, including many years in the television industry.