Theater of the Mime

There is something magical about it. The idea that an old mirror might show us a reflection of our past, with you and me on the other side to make sense of it all. I don’t believe there is such a thing as old news, unless you are averse to or incapable of examining it in the light of your own reflections. I am still flicking through the August 1949 issue of Radio and Television Mirror, as I have been all this week, if only to test my own maxim (which, I admit, sounds rather like the slogan with which NBC once tried to vindicate its reruns).

Earlier this week, an article in the Hollywood Reporter suggested that television is on its way out (except in Australia), that people turn to their computer instead to snatch out of the web whatever they want whenever they want it rather than rely on the old TiVo, let alone simply stay put when something of interest comes on. Back in 1949, television, though practically dating back to the age when radio became the medium of the moment, was still in its commercial infancy, “commercial” being redundant, considering that its growth and maturity were determined by the medium’s viability as a promotional tool.

According to the Mirror, there were just over 1.3 million TV sets in the US that spring, half of them in New York City. Radio was still tops; but those who did not have a TV set were beginning to think of radio as something inferior, as something that would never allow them to keep up with the Joneses.

Few people defended radio those days, in part because programming had gotten worse (instead of more diverse) with the advent of tape recording, used largely for the sake of economy, rather than reportorial or artistic experimentation. Shows were no longer produced live, which gave audiences the impression that they listened to a reproduction rather than a once-in-a-lifetime theatrical event and, as summer reruns became common, the sense that one had heard it all before. Radio was losing its edge, and listeners were only too ready to find that edge and push their old receivers over it. In other words, they were pushovers for television.

So, just what could television do that was not possible on the old wireless? Not much, really, considering the picture quality was still so poor as to give you a headache finding the difference and the production techniques were so inferior as to give rise to the adage that, in radio, the pictures are better. The theater of the mind, it is true, could not recreate the enjoyment of an old-fashioned charade, as demonstrated above by Vincent Price. Pantomime. Now there’s a concept with which to silence the old wireless (even though silent movies could hardly have staged such a comeback against the talkies).

Mr. Price, who appeared on KTTV’s Pantomime Quiz, along with Lon McAllister (also pictured in the foreground), seems to have leaped at the opportunity of saying “boo” to shake up the public on behalf of the television industry. Pity, he was so much more sophisticated as the Saint of the airwaves.

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