Last week, I observed Earvin “Magic” Johnson interviewed on a cable news station. During his days as a basketball player, Johnson was labeled a phenomenon. This interview devoted some time to his basketball career. I will never forget his exploits during the national finals against the 76ers in 1980, when in game six he moved from his traditional position as guard to center, due to an injury to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. He played this position with the same skill and finesse as he did as guard. In fact, he played well enough for the Lakers to win the game and the championship.
But, on this day, it was not stories about his basketball career that impressed me most. My knowledge of his business acumen was limited, but the level of his accomplishments as articulated in this interview was quite impressive. I knew he was one of the investors and owners of the Los Angeles Dodgers, but I did not know of his many investments through Magic Johnson Enterprises, investments that include fitness sport centers, restaurants, travel, real estate, media and entertainment, and food service and facilities management. I learned that his company also handles asset acquisitions, endorsements, licensing, personal appearances, urban marketing and business-to-business relationships. What jumped out at me as in this interview was his investment in a television channel called Aspire. The Philadelphia Tribune carried a feature story on Aspire last Sunday. What was it about Aspire that I found significant? It will focus on television shows for Black families. Regular followers of this column know the significance I place on the family structure. So, Johnson’s television channel immediately brought to mind an activity most of us participated in in the ’50s and ’60s. We gathered around our 12-inch Zenith black and white television to watch shows along with neighbors and friends. Johnson will provide original and acquired programming with movies, documentaries, short films, music, comedy, visual and performing arts and faith and inspirational programs in his television venture. Hearing about Aspire and reading additional details on Johnson’s website, I could not avoid thinking about the family-oriented television shows I watched with my family and friends, back in the day.
I recognize a number of you did not have television in your homes until the late ’50s and early ’60s. Some families experienced occasional viewing interruptions, because they had to feed the coin box on the side of the television. This was necessary to keep the set operating. This was how some people paid for their television. I have no doubt you have vivid memories of those shows you and other family members simply had to see — even though we are speaking of some 50 or 60 years ago. The favorite shows during our childhood and teen years contained no sex or profanity. Some of my colleagues identified their favorite shows as “Lassie,” “I Love Lucy,” “Jack Benny,” “Art Linkletter,” “Mr. Ed,” “Flipper,” “Gilligan’s Island,” “Hazel,” “Red Skelton,” “Danny Thomas,” “Milton Berle,” “Dinah Shore,” “The Donna Reed Show,” “Father Knows Best,” “Leave It to Beaver,” “The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet” and “The Honeymooners.” Even action, mystery, police and detective shows were suitable for family viewing. Think back to shows in this category from the ’50s and ’60s such as “Dragnet,” “Ironside,” “Private Eye,” “Peter Gunn,” “Ellery Queen,” “77 Sunset Strip,” “Hawaiian Eye” and “The Fugitive.” Others that probably kept you in front of your television were “Mission Impossible,” “The Man From U.N.C.L.E,” “The Mod Squad,” “Hawaii 5-0” and the comedy detective show “Get Smart.” No, I did not ignore “I Spy;” how could I forget this show with Philadelphia’s own Bill Cosby? For most of us, what followed family dinner and doing the dishes was a trip to the living room to watch television. Back in the day, the living room was the place where we watched shows on those large black and white console television sets.
Mine was not the first family on my block to get television. I still have vivid memories of visiting my friend’s home on the same block, on Saturday mornings to watch “Frontier Playhouse.” Several kids would gather to watch this show. It had a variety of cowboys; a different one was featured each week. There were Tex Ritter, Bob Steele, Wild Bill Elliott, Buck Jones, Whip Wilson, the Cisco Kid Lash LaRue, Hopalong Cassidy, Roy Rogers and Gene Autry. I did not like the singing cowboys. I was a big fan of Johnny Mack Brown, but my all-time favorite was the Durango Kid; the cowboy who wore all black with a black mask and rode a white horse. Parents did not find it necessary to sit with their children to watch these movies. They knew they were clean Western shows. However, family members, often came together to watch shows like “Gunsmoke,” “Have Gun, Will Travel,” “Maverick,” “The Lone Ranger,” “The Rifleman,” “Wanted: Dead or Alive,” “Bonanza,” “Wagon Train” and “Cheyenne.” I know a large number of you just had to be in front of your television when “The Adventures of Superman” appeared.
Some television shows were produced specifically for children and they did fit into the category of family-oriented television. I cannot believe that some of you did not watch “The Musketeers” and “Howdy Doody.”
I know you still remember some of the personalities that were part of The “Howdy Doody” show: Buffalo Bob Smith, Mr. Bluster, WinterSpringSummerFall, Chief Thunderthud, and, of course, Clarabelle Hornblower. I still refer to the “peanut gallery” and sometimes find myself singing, “What time is it; what time is it? It’s Howdy Doody time; it’s Howdy Doody time.” Given my love for do wop music, I even sing these words in a doo-wop style. Am I the only one who watched “Willie the Worm” and “Kukla, Fran and Ollie”? As you entered your teens, I suspect many of you watched “The Little Rascals,” “The Dead End Kids,” Abbott and Costello and Laurel and Hardy.
There were other memorable television shows back in the day. They included science fiction and variety shows. Was “Star Trek” one you watched? What about ”Twilight Zone”? The most popular variety show was the Ed Sullivan show. Now, here is a question to test your knowledge of this show. What was its correct name? Give up? It was “Toast of the Town.” One other show I watched with my parents and I suspect few children watched was “What’s My Line?”
Black-oriented television shows did exist, but were limited. “Julia” was unique not only because of its Black main character, but also because Julia was a professional, a nurse. “The Mod Squad” and “I Spy” included Black characters. Nat King Cole and Flip Wilson had their own variety shows. While many Black Americans claim they did not approve of the ’50s’ and ’60s’ “Amos ’n’ Andy” show, a whole lot of them gathered around their television sets to watch it. Without a doubt, plenty of laughs were provided by that show.
Watching television is a big part of the lives of most people. Hours are spent in front of the set. During my childhood and young adult life, television embraced family values. Thus, I wish Johnson the utmost success with his Black-oriented television channel. By launching this channel, I know he recognizes the importance of infusing the lives of our children and adults with some positive aspects. While he has indicated his intention to include both new shows and old Black shows, I hope he will revisit and update some of our Black shows from the past, even shows like “Amos ’n’ Andy,” to provide us with a perspective of what Black television was like, back in the day.