Sputnik, 50 Years Later - Page 3

The Launch of Techno-Power

Modern household gadgets and snazzier cars appeared with great commercial fanfare while millions of families, with a leg up from the GI Bill, climbed into some part of the vaguely defined middle class. The fresh and exciting technology called television did much to turn suburbia into the stuff of white-bread legends -- with scant use for the less-sightly difficulties of the near-poor and destitute living in ghettos or rural areas where the TV lights didn’t shine.

On the surface, most kids lived in a placid time, while small screens showed entertaining images of sanitized life. One among many archetypes came from Betty Crocker cake-mix commercials, which were all over the tube; the close-ups of the icing could seem remarkable, even in black and white. Little girls who had toy ovens with little cake-mix boxes could make miniature layer cakes.

Every weekday from 1955 to 1965 the humdrum pathos of women known as housewives could be seen on Queen for a Day. The climax of each episode came as one of the competitors, often sobbing, stood with a magnificent bouquet of roses suddenly in her arms, overcome with joy. Splendid gifts of brand-new refrigerators and other consumer products, maybe even mink stoles, would elevate bleak lives into a stratosphere that America truly had to offer. The show pitted women’s sufferings against each other; victory would be the just reward for the best, which was to say the worst, predicament. The final verdict came in the form of applause from the studio audience, measured by an on-screen meter that jumped with the decibels of apparent empathy and commiseration, one winner per program. Solutions were individual. Queen for a Day was a nationally televised ritual of charity, providing selective testimony to the goodness of society. Virtuous grief, if heartrending enough, could summon prizes, and the ecstatic weeping of a crowned recipient was vicarious pleasure for viewers across the country, who could see clearly America’s bounty and generosity.

That televised spectacle was not entirely fathomable to the baby-boom generation, which found more instructive role-modeling from such media fare as The Adventures of Spin and Marty and Annette Funicello and other aspects of the Mickey Mouse Club show -- far more profoundly prescriptive than descriptive. By example and inference, we learned how kids were supposed to be, and our being more that way made the media images seem more natural and realistic. It was a spiral of self-mystification, with the authoritative versions of childhood green-lighted by network executives, producers, and sponsors. Likewise with the sitcoms, which drew kids into a Potemkin refuge from whatever home life they experienced on the near side of the TV screen.

Dad was apt to be emotionally aloof in real life, but on television the daddies were endearingly quirky, occasionally stern, essentially lovable, and even mildly loving. Despite the canned laugh tracks, for kids this could be very serious -- a substitute world with obvious advantages over the starker one around them. The chances of their parents measuring up to the moms and dads on Ozzie and Harriet or Father Knows Best were remote. As were, often, the real parents. Or at least they seemed real. Sometimes.

Father Knows Best aired on network television for almost ten years. The first episodes gained little momentum in 1954, but within a couple of years the show was one of the nation’s leading prime-time psychodramas. It gave off warmth that simulated intimacy; for children at a huge demographic bulge, maybe no TV program was more influential as a family prototype.

But seventeen years after the shooting stopped, the actor who had played Bud, the only son on Father Knows Best, expressed remorse. “I’m ashamed I had any part of it,” Billy Gray said. “People felt warmly about the show and that show did everybody a disservice.” Gray had come to see the program as deceptive.