Revisiting the Park: Our ever-changing Idiot Box: TV

Revisiting the Park: Our ever-changing Idiot Box: TV

Revisiting the Park: Our ever-changing Idiot Box: TV

Many moons ago, in the 1940s, we kids pressed our noses against a store window displaying a TV.  Even if it was only a test pattern, it was a thrill like no other. At the time we were dependent on our favorite radio shows — Captain Midnight — after school, with most of us having signet rings for decoding the secret messages of the day.

A schoolmate invited us to watch TV in his house, but we had to have our hands inspected for stickiness from candy and we had to remove our shoes. It was common for socks not to match. We huddled close to the 12-inch screen to watch the Buffalo Bill show starting in 30 minutes. Broadcast around 5:45 p.m. for 15 minutes was Howdy Doody with Clarabell the Clown. And for five minutes, The Crusader Rabbit had a spot. That was our schedule besides doing homework.

Once on a Sunday we were invited to a relative’s home in Ballard to watch Milton Berle. It was a pretty clear show via a small TV with mono speakers in a large console.

Mr. Hamlin owned a furniture store on Madison where Starbucks is now. At the rear was a TV with the yoke tube turned to produce a 4-foot-square image. It had to be very dark in there to even create an image.

Here we saw Boston Blacky, a detective show centered mostly around a tobacco stand that promoted cigarette products. “After all, they are mild and good for you,” and at $.20 a pack, it was a bargain.

Limited TV shows began with King Channel 5 in 1948 and KOMO Channel 4 in 1953. The big problem in those days was TV was line of sight, so if you wanted to change channels, you had to move the antenna.

That could be rabbit ears, twisted clothes hangers or an actual metal piece that sat atop the roof that one could add an arm aimed in different directions for additional stations.

Surely one channel was enough, now two? Who could find the time?

South of Madison Park, stately mansions situated below our small, yet impeding hills meant there could be no TV. The TV was affordable, but if there was no line of sight, there was no TV.

Tom Askey to the rescue. Tom owned and managed Scientific Radio and TV, located where Madison Kitchen is now. He acquired the desired signal and erected a tower to capture not one signal, but all of the signals by way of a motor directional antenna. TV owners would turn a remote to the selected station.

My roommates and I were getting pretty tired of aiming the coat-hanger antenna a certain way to catch a show. We read an article on how to acquire TV from a twin lead. Enter, the “borrow,” which was a little wayward signal from a twin lead to an antenna. One early morning it was affixed atop a nearby large building. Voila: TV at its best.

I was single and felt it was time to find new adventures, so I landed at 221 13th Ave E. I was shopping for brew and ran into Tony Zahran. I knew him from the downtown group of friends who enjoyed what was popular in the 1960s — wrestling.

Saturday nights, the group would enter the Eagles Auditorium for a night of happy intemperance. During the bouts, we stood and waved our arms, having made a point of wearing white shirts, after consuming a few bootleg gins and sevens.

Wrestling began airing on TV on Saturdays, showing at 9 p.m. We made a night of it and watched ourselves on TV waving like hell in the audience. It was way too blurry, but we were the only ones in white shirts with arms flailing.

This era was also popular for hot cars and new and improved televisions. Tony had a big Zenith set that was good resolution but had a round screen. I was ready to buy a set.

Bon Marche came out with a 19-inch model with no rounded corners — not circular, but the first true rectangular TV. Tony soon followed suit in 1964.

I was able to purchase my late grandfather’s house in 1966. It was time to update the TV and audio portion of life. A knowledgeable sort moved into our area and joined our singles gatherings. He worked for Cable Vision, and he explained about a new signal not needing line of sight and that it provided many channels. He said he would loan me a box and then I could order it.

Soon, we all became cable people, and movies were viewed by families and friends while wearing pajamas and their favorite drinks in hand. The plusses: no parking problems, no crowds, excellent pausing for refreshments and, most importantly, the screens were bigger and the sound was better than ever before.

Home entertainment stores, like Electocraft, flourished. Magnolia HiFi became the “it” store and sold bigger-than-life 10 or more feet screens with all the accoutrements like projectors and speakers — front, rear, side and center!  

Magnolia is Best Buy now, and with the realities of the pandemic, we are starting to look at the cost of TV programming.  It is a time to trim and a time to reflect.  

I don’t miss having to get up and move the dial or bend the rabbit ears. I am researching how to whittle down my programming bill.

Change is afoot once again.


— According to Google, “idiot box” became slang for a television set in 1954, but in that instance the term used is actually “idiot’s box.” “Idiot box[es]” in this sense appears in 1955 in a newspaper article in Illinois, and it proliferates after that.