Peter Bacon Hales

The Lost Chapter:American Geography in a Box, Fall Season,1958   There is a peculiar scene in the December 31, 1958 episode of The Donna Reed Show.  The main plot concerns teenage daughter Mary and the Junior Prom.  Donna has bustled into the living room, and in a moment Mary will rush through the front door, eager to show her mother the prom dress the family seamstress has made just for her.
But in the moment before we see Mary with her dress in hand, we watch as Donna swoops down on pre-teen Jeff, who’s simultaneously reading what looks like one of those kids’ periodicals– Boy’s Life, or Junior Scholastic-- and watching television, having just finished his after-school snack.  His feet are up on the coffee table, and the dishes are precariously close to being pushed off onto the carpet.  Donna turns off the tv, picks up the dishes, and pirouettes to discover Mary with her delicious new prom dress.  Simultaneously, Jeff wriggles on the couch, pulling his feet off the table and folding up the paper.

Though you wouldn’t guess it, this is one of the rarest moments to be found in ‘50s television: a scene in which people are actually watching tv– not watching something through television, as Fred and Ricky did with the fights in that early I Love Lucy episode, but engaging in the particular combination of fantasy, escape, and divided attention that characterized tv-watching as various surveys and sociological studies described it.. As remarkably, it’s quite an accurate rendering, if the surveys and analyses by Nielsen and other pollsters are to be taken seriously.  Kids came home from school, and in the interval before the next round of activities– homework, play with friends, orchestra or band, boy or girl scouts and the like, they turned on the television, ate a snack, used the phone, checked their homework, read the paper, played with the dog– all simultaneously.

And the matter-of-fact reproval implied by Donna’s acts– turning off the tv, picking up the dishes, glancing at Jeff just long enough to make him sit up and act right–  all these, too, had a ring of truth to them.  Everything Donna did was meant to instruct Jeff in the little lessons of conduct and life that parents were to impart– and one of them was resistance to the endless mild interest, the ingratiating presence offered by the set.
When Donna snapped off the tv, the rattle of gunfire abruptly died away: Jeff was watching a Western.  Westerns were popular that year; they dominated prime time with seven of the top ten shows, and their syndicated versions went out morning, afternoon and evening– reruns. Advertisers, networks and stations knew they had something, and they were exploiting it while they could.
A preteen boy in a prosperous middle-class family, sitting in the suburban living room, watching a Western on tv: Jeff was a living demographic sample. By 1958, television programming had evolved from its experimental early years into a sophisticated, market-survey-driven symphony of desires and satisfactions among target audiences and likely advertisers.  All of this was laid out across an imaginative geography, a map of resonant American places sure to awaken interest in the appropriate viewer. Some of those sites invoked a nostalgic past, others announced a bold and hopeful future.  Inside the box, however, all these collapsed into a novel sort of interpretive present, a significant contemporary world.

Postwar television was driven by a rapidly emerging cutthroat industry responding to and feeding a medium with intense market growth and huge marketplace potential.  To survive, television networks and the production companies that increasingly supplied their wares had to figure out what was common to these progressively more disparate populations of potential and actual viewers that they were reeling in, season after season, and then promote their products to advertisers who fed the industry.  Television sought both to recognize the commonalities shared by these different audiences, and to create new commonalities that could be exploited for market share and advertising dollars.
By 1958, television producers had grasped the law of inverse proportions that governed success: one could make a healthy profit from a small number of extremely wealthy and influential people; one could do far better with a vast ocean of everyday citizen-viewers if you could get them to spend disproportionately to their wealth.  Somewhere in there could be found an ideal curve that combined the number of households you could attract, the capacity and willingness of those households to spend money, and the ability of your show and its advertising to actually persuade those households to buy the products you proffered.[1]

From this, television’s most successful entrepreneurs (individuals, companies, networks) moved to the corollaries: they produced shows aimed at the “sweet spot” for their sponsors (the most infamous being the daytime melodramas for housewife audiences sponsored by cleaning-products companies: hence the name, soap operas)[2]; and they sought to use their shows, their seasonal lineups, and the broader curve of their offerings over years, to further the goal of ensuring a unified common culture that could be predicted, catered to and sold–  back to itself and to the globe.
American consensus was both the goal and the product.  Shared American identity was the reassuring fantasy the popular media and especially television created inside the frame, the screen, the box and the covers, for the pleasure, the respite, the solace, the entertainment of ordinary Americans; it made possible a life, a nation, and an economy awash in goods and services just like those that appeared in the regular “special messages” at the front, middle, and end of the suspense, laughter, or tears.

This was not a spontaneous consequence of an upwelling democracy, nor was it a corollary of the moral triumph and global supremacy of the United States, though the machinery behind the television industry often presented it as such. Neither was it simply the seamless providing of entertainment and education to the American families clustered around the electronic hearth, though that, too, was the message proposed in the ads for the networks, the shows, and the television sets themselves. (Look, for example at what’s purportedly shown on the screens of the Motorola and Magnavox television sets in the magazine ads found in the Interjection that follows:  on one, a jolly Santa crowds the screen; on the other, some high-culture Shakespearean drama enthralls a family, including two children, ages 5 and 7, respectively.)      

The advertising and marketing specialists in television weren’t sensitive to cultural nuance nor were they responsible citizens. They gave those outside the mainstream two options: continued exile, or acceptance of a homogenized, white, middle-class standard of meaning, humor, moral outrage, social setting, and identity.

          And those within that mainstream as well discovered themselves to be outsiders to the idyllic world of television.  To be black and watching The Donna Reed Show was only an extreme instance of what nearly all Americans tuned in to that show must have felt—on the one hand, witnessing an idyll of complacency, conformity, and continuity, in which only small problems occurred, never big ones; on the other, looking around at a life riven by doubt, anxiety, strife and fear. Television shows remonstrated with their audiences in a mirror of the ways their ads drew customers—by showing an impossible ideal, suggesting that your failure was a consequence of some pathology, social or economic, then insisting that their product, purchased and applied, would cure you and guide you closer to that ideal. Television’s discomfort was comforting because it suggested it was possible to engage with the demons of the age and, if not vanquish them, then at least hold them at bay.  Donna Reed and her family read the papers; they saw the color spreads in Life offering “new looks at the a-bomb,” and Mary and Jeff participated in Civil defense evacuation drills and “duck and cover” exercises.  But none of that appeared in any episode of Donna Reed.  No one went bankrupt, no communities were riven by racial strife or public accusations by one neighbor against another of Communist leanings; no Jews were threatened or their children humiliated in the school lunchroom; no penny-ante town partriarch arrested for incest; no immigrant farmhands beaten by locals on their way home from mass at the Catholic church.

(In my small town, where I grew up the middle child in a middle-class doctor’s family, all those crises occurred; all of them in 1958.)

Jeff was, at this moment in this episode, a double-fiction: an impossibly ideal American boy; and the perfect tv patron.  He was wealthy, by most definitions.  He had leisure time, and sought to fill it, with television and with the products “his” shows offered to him.  And he was normal, by television producers’ conceptions: he fit squarely within a broad demographic, and so to speak to him was to speak as well to millions like him.

Jeff watched a Western because it was the afternoon and boys were a major segment of the weekday afternoon audience.  Probably it was a rerun of one of the many Westerns that dominated the top 20 in Nielsen ratings during the late ‘50s-- Gunsmoke, or Wells Fargo, or Have Gun, Will Travel. 

In this particular episode of this show, the collapse of time into a universal present might seem to have reached its peak: a viewer in 1958 watching Jeff, also in 1958, watching a Western made, say, (in the case of Gunsmoke) 1955, a Western that portrayed a hypothetical American West of 1888 or 1898, but itself conflated middle-19th century events with those that occurred at century’s end (as they’d been popularized in novels like Owen Wister’s The Virginian) and even well into the next. This was utterly of a piece with the rest of television as the medium developed a particular place for itself in the making, transforming, and preserving of American values, beliefs, traditions, and myths.  On tv, the past and the present merged, and from the reassuring composite, the future promised to emerge, not too rapidly or disruptively.

But for all the pontifications and promises for the medium, its real work could be found in the small moments it offered, diffidently, ingratiatingly, seductively.  This momentary sidelong glance at Jeff and the tv suggests some of the ways that television constructed an American cultural landscape, drawing from places and times, narratives, tales, works of fact and fiction, other media and moments.  The result was inevitably and naturally a confirmation of the older American mythology: a place of wilderness and frontier, possibility and opportunity, moral lessons and social values, Protestant, capitalist, optimistic, a place where American supremacy had been bought with some currency other than atomic guilt and atomic fear: tvland.

* World Atlas
Jeff was watching in the afternoon, when the black-and-white scenes washed out against the brightness of daytime, and the sociable, colorful world outside offered stiff competition.  Perhaps that’s why he didn’t protest too loudly when his mother flicked off the set, and in any case the message of that particular episode was exactly the complex combination of synchronicity and contrast between television’s structures and those of everyday life.  Over the next 13 minutes, the episode reeled out:  Jeff had his crisis, Mary had hers, Donna took on their anxieties, Dr. Stone came home to observe, to interject, to contribute; soon all was orderly again.  Donna had turned Jeff’s show off, but in its place was the show of life, with its proposal that families on both sides of the screen shared values, desires, and, perhaps more critically, structures that ordered and gave meaning to the lives of all concerned.

When the outdoors darkened, and members of the family assembled around the now-brighter and more seductive television, the scenes changed. Bill Levitt put the screen in the wall; tv manufacturers put it into big furniture; Americans by 1958 put the television right where they could see it– in the living room, or the family rooms that were just beginning to gain popularity. By 1958 almost every household had a television, and already a few had two or more.  As at the Stone’s house, home decoration depended upon the television’s placement for its coherence. From room to room, from house to house, of an evening, the rhythm of family and social life flowed around or against the gravitational pull of the television.

If the television inflected the geography of houses, the social life of neighborhoods, the political conditions of towns and cities, the corollary applies as well: inside the box, a new imaginative landscape came into being, stitching together a new geography out of the scraps of half-hour sitcoms, hour-long specials, movies-on-tv, hit series and hit-or-miss experiments.

It was in prime time that this geography presented itself most coherently and its significance as a culture-cohering glue was most powerfully in play.  At 7:30pm, 6:30 Central, television backed away from the news anchor desk, bumped across four commercials, exited the closed quarters of the studio (with a final glance at the lights and the cameras, the anchors gathering their papers, the credits streaming in front) and, blinking slightly in the strong light of outdoors, opened its gaze to take in the span of the continent and the nation’s history.

The nuances of decisions viewers made, en masse, mattered a great deal to the bottom lines of the networks, and the sponsors as well.  But for viewers themselves, freedom was played out within the boundaries of a settled terrain.  Look carefully at the genres; total up the longest-running and most-watched shows of the period from the first atomic tests to the last– 1946 to 1963– and you will have stitched together an American geography.  Wilderness; the frontier; rural idylls on the farm; small town America, the suburban neighborhood; the big city; and, in a slowly but perceptibly expanding and transforming invention, the novel environment of television itself: Americans watched tv and they saw themselves– more attractive, more adventurous, more virtuous and more sure of themselves, but mirrored nonetheless.

While the mythic geography traced out by television each night might have seemed solipsistic, that would miss the sense in which it was one part of a dialectical coupling. You turned on the tv to get away from the world; it illuminated the living room in its glow, as if to protect you from what lay out there, on the street, and beyond. It radiated a comforting contrast to radiation, presenting worlds before the atomic age, or worlds somehow immune to the anxiety and responsibility Americans experienced, on a day-by-day basis, as the bombs went off in Nevada and the South Seas, and the headlines blared the news of another Soviet explosion announced or, more ominously, detected by seismometers and radiation sampling technologies. While Life, Time, Newsweek and the like reported the megatonnage and the fallout levels of test after test, emphasizing their statistics with smashing images slamming home the beauty and peril of the latest event, nowhere outside of the newshour did the atomic age present itself in its terrifying guise.  Instead, you were always before, or beyond, or outside the circles of death drawn in the graphics of other media.

​ Television’s maturing programming offered spatial excursions while promising a bell jar within which you were safe.  And it offered the same protection across time, as well. Advertisers bought tv sponsorship in 15 minute chunks of individual shows.  To viewers, however, tv proffered itself across half-hours, across evenings, across week-long spans, and across seasons.  Compared to the unpredictability of the world, political, social, and cultural, tv was a chatter of variations on a reassuringly predictable vector.  On worknights, this narrative arc began only after the world did intrude, right up front, at 7pm, 6 Central, with the news.  After that, the night’s lineup was a bandage of reassurance and escape, behind which percolated the spectres of the day’s events– economic downturns, unemployment numbers, atomic tests, failed negotiations, political turmoil, ideology in confusion, babbled by candidates and commentators.
Why consider American television, 1958, as if it were a map?  Why not a story, even a meta-narrative?  Because tv presented itself as a substitute geography– you stayed here, and it took you everywhere else– while it drew from the resonant myths of American geography to work its magic.  And because, like the American cultural traditions it purloined and replaced, tv set its stories and its meta-narrative on a national geography.  Seeing the false fronts of Dodge City, viewers were ready; a half-hour was more than enough to call up the ghostly symbols of an American origin myth.  Moving from the foyer of Donna’s colonial-revival house to its living room (where Jeff would surely return, soon, to join his parents in front of the tv) was all it took to set the American family in its proper place: watching, and learning.

America Triumphant: Frontier

Television’s geography was a bit peculiar; it was different than the one that Jeff might have learned in his American history or social studies class. But it did conform to the great myths of American history, albeit with prominent adaptations and subtle shifts, some meant to modernize, some to revitalize, and some to disguise.  Wilderness; frontier; beleaguered small town; family farm or ranch turning untamed lands into breadbaskets (or meat markets); railways and highways connecting region to region, hinterland to centerland; big cities aglow with entertaining lights or sinister in their dingy tenements and foreboding dark streets; suburbs, safe and orderly, idealizing and mirroring the perfect marketplace demographic advertising sponsors were looking for.  And that’s surprisingly close to what TV Guide showed, week after week.  But none of this was as straightforward as it might have seemed from the nightly lineups or the brief, sentence-long précis in the small newsprint handbook or the newspaper’s listings.  Themes that might seem immutably wedded to one genre could migrate to another; historical moments could resurface in the present, details of place could abruptly shift.  On Mondays NBC followed Wells Fargo with Peter Gunn, an urban detective show that mirrored the structures of the Western– an unstable social landscape, threatened by anarchic figures preying on the virtuous citizens, requiring a heroic outsider to champion the weaker or those more firmly constrained by law and propriety.  Okies from the Dust Bowl drove their ramshackle vehicles into Lassie’s farmyard.  I Love Lucy moved to the Connecticut countryside.

These weren’t insignificant mutations, though—they reflected complex ways in which older American myths were being recast, reappropriated, or transformed to better engage the new desires and anxieties of the atomic age.  In the televised American landscape, chronology and geography compressed until they amalgamated.

For 1958, two geographies intertwined:  the West of the past—the frontier, Wild West, homestead and ranch—and the idealized suburb itself. One brought the ennobling myths of the past to reassure an anxious present, doubtful that the mission and the promise still held true.  The other presented that new American landscape of middle-class suburban life as a culmination of the long narrative of exceptionalist triumphalism, into which could be found, hidden, condensed or disguised, all the lessons of the past, requiring only the reassuring guidance of television itself to show how best to apply that lesson to the conflicts still frustrating the achievement of abundance, safety, social harmony, happiness not pursued but caught, held, and treasured.

Frontier was the title of NBC’s realist entry into the historical epic serial genre, premiering in September of 1955.  “This is the West,” intoned the opening: “This is the land of beginning again. This is the story of men and women facing the frontier.  This is the way it happened.”  But historical accuracy and social realism weren’t grabbers; the show lasted just one year.  Instead, it was Gunsmoke that swept the ratings, and its offshoots, competitors and clones that dominated the evenings.

1958 was the year the Western dominated television geography: seven of the top ten shows, according to Nielsen, were Westerns (in the parlance, they were called “oaters”).  Westerns were frontier sagas but their principal function seemed to lie with pulling the margins of American cultural geography closer to the center. The point was, finally, to create a United States by taking viewers back to a time of geographical and cultural localism, and then to show that unique place as it was about to become part of our place, our time. In Westerns, the homogeneity of the American present and future became simultaneously an evolution from a more anarchic and heterodox past (the present as a container for the energies of the past), and a resolution of that past, a solution to its anxieties and tensions.

The changing circumstances of the television business in the late ‘50s provided powerful incentives for a new form of television show, one that combined comforting familiarity and frenetic action. Westerns did just that.  There wasn’t an unpredictable moment to a Western. The symbols reassured, the settings linked heroic American past to uneasy present, and the characters, for all their problems (and Western characters were often flamboyantly neurotic), lived through their crises, worked them out, and returned to the comforts of home. Still, the Westerns that won the ratings wars weren’t nearly as comforting as, say, Life With Father.  Matt Dillon was an authority figure, but his authority was always in question– not just by outlaws or by Kitty, or by selfish town merchants, but by Dillon’s own internal dialogue.  Home might be a saloon or a sod house; children might be dirty and unkempt, even rude; women might be forward and hostile.  In Donna Reed or Father Knows Best, harmony was the fundamental tone, and crisis temporary.  In the most popular Westerns, uneasiness was the state of things, temporarily eased for a moment of needed respite before the next uprising, the next stampede, the next drunken gambler or stir-crazed sodbuster.

Westerns were also signally different than most previous television forms in the ways they came into being and the forces to which they were beholden.  Developed and produced with a single advertiser paying the freight, most Westerns were “licensed” by the networks so that they might control the immensely lucrative syndication and rerun market, but also so that they could exercise real minute-by-minute power over the individual episodes.  Westerns were, in other words, products of huge corporations– networks, and advertising agencies, and the sponsoring corporations, who were for the first time buying the shows as showcases for their products and sponsoring them all through a season or through multiple seasons.

As a consequence the entire line of production, from sponsors to agencies to networks to production companies to writers and directors to actors and set designers, all paid increasing attention to the ratings, and the ratings themselves became more and more specific and telling.  Reports from the studios and the shooting locations described advertiser reps overseeing individual shots, network executives poring over the scripts, and sponsors watching rough cuts and demanding changes both large and picayune: all this in the name of ensuring that a larger and larger audience turned to that channel at that time, and stayed glued to the set throughout that show. 

Westerns weren’t anomalies.  They were harbingers.  They succeeded because they tapped deep historical roots in myth and symbol; they thrived because they adapted those retrospective forces to the cause of present needs-- psychological needs on the part of viewers, commercial and economic needs on the part of advertisers, and, more broadly, cultural needs on the part of institutions, groups and forces that more broadly undergirded American life at that moment.

 Westerns worked (though only briefly– for about three or four years)[i] because they took already deep myths about America and recast them in the new medium.  The formulae were there, the plots, the characters, the heroes, and they’d been used with great success by the movies right up to the moment, so actors, animal trainers, cameramen and location scouts all knew exactly what they had to do.  They just had to do it in a half-hour instead of two hours, and they had to do it week after week, at a fraction of the cost.  And they had to watch their numbers– how many households were watching, but also what members of those households, and what likelihood there was that these particular viewers would buy the particular products the shows were designed to sell.

When the same five or ten characters appear and reappear over an entire season of, say, thirty shows, there’s the opportunity– even the necessity– to produce an ensemble or, more accurately, a community or a family out of those characters. This was a real advantage for the tv Western because it helped serve that second function– to bring the historical into the present, and thereby to make a historical genre into an allegorical one.  As critics and historians have repeatedly noticed, the Western in 1958 tended to take place in communities– whether the roving community of Wagon Train or the saloon-based community of Gunsmoke or the settlements and towns where so many others enacted their stories of adherence to the rule of law and the dictates of the community.  The popularity of The Rifleman, for example, focused around Lucas McCain’s deeply sentimental relationship with his son Mark.  This wasn’t a show about bad guys getting killed– it was Father Knows Best in chaps.

Some of the reasons for this communitarian cast are purely dramatic– based in identification, empathy, all the elements Aristotle found in the dramas of his time.  Viewers liked the idea of peopling their living rooms– temporarily– with a variety of social ecosystems, ecosystems slightly out of balance but, by the end of the half-hour or hour, back in harmony, if only temporarily.  You could watch it happen, you could like these people, or be amused by them or find them annoying or hateful, all without enduring consequences yourself. 

But that independence from the group was, at another level, illusory.  Television’s most popular shows, formats and genres tended to use the particular circumstances around which they were built– their locales, their time-frames, their cast of characters, even their very premises– to create instructive allegories about the lives their viewers were leading—or, more accurately, should have been leading. The sermonizing of shows like Donna Reed and Father Knows Best was obvious; the week-by-week problem the writers faced was to undermine that very quality-- who wanted to be preached to by figures of cardboard perfection and utterly even-handed rectitude, week after week?  In Ozzie and Harriet the sermon was rendered more palatable by the lovably inept diffidence of Ozzie, the putative head of household– Ozzie and Harriet’s premise was: Father doesn’t know best.  Leave It To Beaver solved the problem by moving the focus firmly to the children.

Westerns didn’t have to leap through such hoops.  That was the advantage of a locale that was simultaneously far away from everyday experience and profoundly near to common knowledge and cultural familiarity.  And of course they took place not just there but then.

On television, landscapes were allegories.  But oddly enough, landscapes weren’t easy to render with the television camera, the television studio set, or the television set itself.  While movies were wrapping the sublime emptiness of the West around the popcorn-chewer (with increasingly desperate technologies, like Cinemascope and Widelux), television cameras tended to flatten the space and truncate it.  This was in part a matter of budget– you couldn’t get too wide an angle or it would be clear that the wide open spaces were actually about three acres in area, encroached by trailers and houses, fences and backyards.  But the fact was, if it had been necessary, the studios, networks and advertisers would have bought the bullet and moved to better quarters.  You looked at shrunken spaces because they were sufficient– what mattered was to invoke the mythic spaces, not to reproduce them or even to reproduce the feeling you’d have had if you’d been there.[ii]  This was television.  No one pretended you were there– you were at home, watching there from here.  And that was fine.

What you saw on the Western was a satisfying recapitulation of Turner’s Frontier Thesis played out in dramatic form: every episode, Americans carved civilization out of wilderness, whether the literal wilderness of a wasteland tract fenced in with barbed wire and populated by a grateful family, or the moral and ethical wilderness of lawbreakers and claimjumpers who had to be taught a lesson, tamed or jailed.[3]

What you didn’t see, however, was the nuance of Turner’s argument.  Turner had proposed that the history of America was a history of expansion from populated to wilderness areas by individuals and groups who found there the opportunity to “reinvent” American democratic values in the pragmatic necessities of social action under duress.  He worried that the closing of the frontier meant the end of innovation and rejuvenation for America.  To look at the televised Westerns, you’d be tempted to agree: the lessons taught didn’t change significantly over time, nor did the moral, ethical, and social problems they faced, faced down, and triumphed over.

In place of innovation was the more conservative virtue of recapitulation.  Television Westerns in 1958 made a larger argument about the present and future America, the land of living rooms whose walls glowed with the flickering images of the tv: the old values could be, should be, applied to the new landscapes of American dominion, small and large– in the new suburbs and the terrain of capitalism and in the troubled globe. Out there in the Western, one might see the working out of a moral code, and its application to the daily problems of everyday life, even if in exotic boots and gingham dresses.  Westerns weren’t vessels for topicality; rather they were substitutes for it, reassurances that the eternal moral ambiguity of the Cold War world could be reduced, in television at least, to a simple duality with a resolution.

And of course the Western recapitulated American exceptionalism and triumphalism in the living room, pushing out the daily combat between two global ideologies, in which at any moment atomic warfare could tip the balance and leave America not a glowing city on a hill but a blasted ruin.  Remember as well that the Western took place in the very spaces where, in the other media, the bombs were falling, the mushroom clouds rising, homes just like yours—or just like the one you dreamed of owning someday—were being blasted to smithereens.  As spaces of denial, Westerns were pretty much ideal.                   


Family Farm:  Lassie as Lesson

Westerns proposed the permanent temporariness of American wilderness; even the most stable and established shows, like Gunsmoke, used their sets and settings to suggest that we were passing through a stage in the nation’s history; false-front taverns would give way to supermarkets, dusty trails to superhighways, upon which we could now travel in the summers, on vacations that amalgamated nostalgia with an almost-smug sense of national achievement and personal pride.

By contrast, the middle landscape in tvland was meant to be a place of permanent succor, an eternal presence.  Rural America was a powerful mythic wellspring in the ‘50s: Currier and Ives chromolithographs were being reissued as calendars, placemats, even tv trays; Grandma Moses was still high up on the list of America’s best known and most beloved artists, just below that rural and small town celebrant, Norman Rockwell.  Television sought to tap that well of yearning, but it wasn’t successful the way the Western had succeeded in appropriating the moment of transformation between adventure and domesticity.  (It would take more than a decade before The Waltons would manage to produce a true rural blockbuster.)   

Three shows recast the rural landscape of America: one presented it in the guise of frank nostalgia, remembrance and reminiscence; the other two were polar opposites in attitude, in rhetoric, and in the picture they drew of the old ideal of a middle landscape populated by citizen-farmers.  The Ford Show Starring Tennessee Ernie Ford was named not after the country singer who hosted, but after the car company that sponsored the show.  The Ford Motor Company’s goal was to promise that the rural past of so many of television’s viewers was still available, just a longish car ride away.  This was the dominant theme of the country-town stories that formed the centerpiece of the show, stories that Tennessee Ernie spun in between musical offerings that were equally steeped in bowdlerized ruralisms– music that drove even Nashville to turn its nose up. 

The Real McCoys took a more cynical tack.  A predecessor to later rural-humiliation comedies– The Beverly Hillbillies, Petticoat Junction, Green Acres and the like– the show shared with those a premise of uprootedness that gave a reassuring instability to the older rural virtues.  Mountain folk now living in California’s San Fernando Valley, the McCoys were quaint, eccentric anachronisms, and their neighbors could stand between audience and characters, mediating between the contempt and the pitiability of the setup. 

An almost exact counterpart was the long-running and much-beloved sentimental Sunday-supper staple, Lassie, which for most of a decade singlehandedly represented the farm to American television watchers. The show had a long history; it first appeared in the Fall 1954 season, where it competed with The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin, another dog-saves-man show that was initially far more successful, with its vigilant masculine canine hero, Fort Apache Western setting, and stable of stock adventure characters and situations drawn from its long history in the B movie stockade.  Rin Tin Tin ran Fridays from 7:30 to 8pm on ABC through 1959, but it only broke into the top 20 during its first season.  As “adult” Westerns appeared in the lineup, it lost its appeal.

Lassie didn’t start as well but it was a steady performer in its programming slot: Sundays at 7pm, a prime family viewing time, when Sunday supper was over or could be served in front of the TV as an informal counter to the early afternoon, post-church dinner still in fashion among a great many American households.  From the first, Lassie was a family show, in its content and in its target audience.  But it took time for the writers and producers to determine just what function it was to play. 

Lassie the dog was the hook and the fulcrum for any constellation of elements– characters, plots, settings, and themes.  But what should Lassie be?   Initially, the writers and producers had developed a premise with strong emotional logic: a broken family is held and even healed by the presence of a dog who is simultaneously female and male, worker and friend, animal and human, a shapeshifter, a lesser god but a god nonetheless.  Viewers today, even those who remember the show from its original runs, tend to recollect the absurdity of Lassie’s abilities– her capacity to understand complex spoken messages, to distinguish among good, evil, and simply wayward humans, and to communicate to her human masters the lessons of heart and soul.  But the improbability of Lassie’s talents seems not to have been a difficulty for audiences, at the start or later– indeed, if anything, Lassie’s capabilities grew over the many seasons the show ran.  In a medium marked by relentless secularism (except for Sunday morning church services, of course), Lassie was one of the few to posit a supernatural force that might watch over those in need.

Lassie’s schedule slot was not coincidental; the show took some time to determine how it might live up to that near-sacred moment in American life, when family, religion, leisure, and remembrance all intersected. In the earliest iteration, Lassie belonged to young teenager Jeff Miller, who lived on the farm outside small-town Calverton with his widowed mother and maternal grandfather. Then circumstance and experimentation moved the show into its sweet spot.  Jeff grew up, and his adolescence became too jarring to the balance of the characters with their viewer counterparts; in 1957, the writers introduced a new boy, Timmy, providentially young (he didn’t grow out of boyhood for many seasons), and as providentially orphaned.  Suddenly the incomplete family was satisfyingly strong and sheltering, by comparison with Timmy’s previous life.  Lassie’s rescue of Timmy, and his subsequent pleasure at being safe again, sustained the show for a full season, and it crept to #24 in the prime time ratings sometime that spring.

Then, in the fall of 1957, outside circumstances intervened; the actor playing Gramps died and the subsequent melodrama lasted a season, to the benefit of the ratings; at the end, with the show at #22, the Millers sold the farm to a young, childless couple, the Martins, who adopted Timmy and Lassie.

Finally Lassie had an intact nuclear family, with a strong, quiet father figure whose personality might have been derived in part from the character of Jim Anderson in Father Knows Best, a competitor that had entered the scene along with Lassie in 1954, but had only recently jumped dramatically in the ratings, tying for #13 in 1958 and rising all the way to #6 a year later.  Less derivative was the character of Ruth Martin, whose maternal strength and combination of confidence and competence reflected the writers’ image of a successful farm woman.  Timmy, too, was an unusual figure among the constellation of idealized children on tv– younger, more innocent, more vulnerable and considerably more isolated from the world beyond the family and the farm.

The power of home cannot be overemphasized.  Every character felt it, in repeated crises based upon leaving the home for some larger world.  Father Paul negotiated it best, Grandfather-figures like Cully worst; Timmy and his mother seemed equally overmatched, though for significantly different reasons.  Timmy’s dangers came from his innocence, his suggestibility, his inexperience: his child-ness, in other words.  Ruth’s came from another place.  When she left, she was threatened by storm, by flood, by escaped circus animals, by wildcats.  The message was clear: women separated from the hearth lost their powers, and their strength, and were beset by malevolent demons.  Only the guardian angel Lassie could intervene; episode after episode ended with Ruth thanking Lassie and exclaiming: “if it hadn’t been for Lassie, I don’t know what I would have done!” or some minor variant. 

 Lassie pointedly rejected the power and autonomy of women, reinforcing their necessary imprisonment in home and domesticity; who could have imagined, looking at Ruth Martin, that women had run the factories and the country at large in a war just a decade before? Lassie was anachronistic, and pointedly so—it presented a rural America that leapt backward over the 20th century and landed in some idealized 19th century farmscape where drought and plague, speculation busts and factory dry-wheat farms never interfered with the idyll. 

So many of the small details of plot or character reinforced the late-Victorian character of the Martin household.  Obviously there was no television on the farm; but there was also, it seemed, no radio, either (though when essential to the plot, a radio did appear at times); in a true throwback, Ruth Martin entertained the family by playing the parlor organ!   Lassie was significant because of its liminal place in American culture of the era– on television, in the home, and in the larger arena of values and beliefs.  It was set in the present, but its setting was the past.

Or was it?  One of the peculiarities of the show to those who watch it attentively, today, is the primitive, even careless way in which the illusions of farm and country life are handled– as if, in fact, the show’s producers wanted the audience to notice how artificial was the environment, how much set rather than setting.  What persuaded viewers to tune in every Sunday was, instead, the particular, even unique way the show transliterated an idealized rural farm life to an equally idealized suburban life, reconnecting this new American middle landscape to an older one, and enabling this long-standing American value system, reaching back even further than the late-Victorian, into the pastoral ideals of the 19th century, to replant itself in the suburban present.  While other domestic shows in some way or other reflected the arc of Miracle on 34th Street and I Love Lucy, from an increasingly untenable urban life to a rejuvenating suburban one (with the city usually an offscreen pole for comparison or conflict), Lassie presented the suburban plot as a transliteration of the Jeffersonian yeoman farm, shrunk from a 640-acre homestead to a 1/4-acre lot.  In its broadest strokes, Lassie’s cultural function was to buttress the legitimacy of the nuclear family by presenting it as the most recent version of a fundamental American social unit– not just fundamental, but foundational, as Thomas Jefferson had proposed, providing the grounds for a legitimate democratic system to thrive, without collapsing into self-interested class warfare and anarchy or kowtowing to authoritarian oligarchy. 

The show’s function wasn’t based on illusionism, even in the primitive way that shows like Gunsmoke and Wyatt Earp created an adequate escape by the canny combination of stereotyped sets and props with equally established location-work.  Instead, Lassie’s clumsy illusionism emphasized the mythic dimension of the show, and the artificiality of its other-ness brought home its this-ness, that is, its relationship to the suburban lives of 1950s American viewers who tuned it in every Sunday.  Much of the falseness of Lassie served a particularly contrary function. Invoking, celebrating, and moralizing about the American rural landscape and its social and cultural virtues, the show also memorialized them.  They were dead– in that setting, at least.  To regenerate required that they be replanted from the shrinking and shrunken domains of the middle landscape to the new middle America. 

Lassie’s primary function was to reemphasize values, not just in the plural, but in the singular– that is, to remind Americans that prosperity, consumer goods, upward mobility, and status weren’t enough in themselves: they needed to be informed by an ethical and moral system.  On a Sunday night, during family hour, Lassie bridged between the looming workaday world and the leisured sacrality of the Sabbath, or at least the vestigial memory of Sunday school and Sunday services. By the time the credits rolled, and Lassie sat center-screen, her paw extended in a gesture simultaneously offertory and benediction, American viewers had been primed to consider their small suburban haven as the repository in the present of the long-standing moral center of a nation blessed from the first by Providence– Nature’s nation, and God’s chosen.

The cultural landscape of tvland was overwhelmingly sociable, social, and socializing. Not so with Lassie.  Instead, the show reinforced an older, more conservative picture of family as “haven in a heartless world”, to quote the cultural critic Christopher Lasch; it returned to a cultural constellation that had dominated in the earliest years of the 20th century but had long since waned.  In this older model, the world outside the family was dangerous, unregulated, threatening, requiring canniness, moral strength, and a particularly masculine form of competitive instinct, if one were to survive out there.  Men went into that world, and in the process tested their moral fiber against the amoral anarchy of the marketplace; women remained in the home, buttressing its protective walls with religiosity and making it a place of resuscitation for the man, nurturance for the child.  Children were innocent vessels, thirsting for experience, and it was the responsibility of the parents to fill that vessel with appropriate character-building attributes and experiences, while protecting the child from bad influences.

This is not to say that life only occurred on the farm itself.  There were numerous episodes in which Timmy and Paul, with or without Lassie, went to Calverton, or even to the larger city beyond the borders of the show’s putative geography.  Indeed, the show’s few multi-episode epics involved travels far beyond the farm– most famously, in the 1962 three-part series, “The Odyssey,” which brought Lassie home from the city by a series of episodic adventures.

But the ending of that series echoed with precision the larger dynamic of the show: Lassie came home.  Home, indeed, was more than setting; it was moral axis and ideal set in physical form.  Family without place was not enough; witness the kinfolk of “Okies” who arrived, with laughable anachronism, in a car built by Props from a photograph by Dorothea Lange made in 1936, to seek help from the Martins.  They had each other, but it was home they needed.  This was a message reiterated in another episode, in which Timmy and Lassie discovered a motherless family squatting in a vacant house.  In both cases, the families were resuscitated by the ministrations of the Martins (and, of course, Lassie) and then went on their way in a continuing search for a place as good as that of their benefactors.  Indeed, when the Okies reappeared, in a melodramatic Christmas episode, they were returning from California to their ancestral home, having finally learned the lesson that place mattered. 

Lassie, then, did more than simply transpose older rural values to the suburban home (though, certainly, it did that), or reset the suburban idyll of the present in a rural past-as-present, resecting the two adjacent locales of American yeoman virtue (though it did that, too): it brought into focus linked, underlying cultural nightmares:  a present marked by alienation from the past, loss of meaning and purpose, a hollow prosperity and a shrill sociability masking underlying anomie; a future in which the reassuring American landscape would be stripped bare, rendered toxic by clouds of fallout sweeping like the mythic dust clouds of an earlier era, breadbasket Eden turned to punitive wasteland.

But all these pronouncements overreach; they deny the very nature of the mature television rhetoric.  Yes: fear of nuclear holocaust and the larger debate about the ethics of the fallout shelter and the social form of the post-Apocalyptic world were matters that nibbled at the edges of daily consciousness in 1958.  Yes: most American viewers recognized the somewhat shrill artificiality of all that sociable cheeriness in the other shows.  And yes: the show worked these elements into its alchemy. But the immediate influences around Lassie began with its time slot, its competition, the shows immediately before and after it.  Remember: Lassie came on not after the news, but instead of it. 

If we think of this Sunday-supper moment in the television-watching week as the axis of transition between weekend and week, then the longrunning popularity of Lassie despite its fundamentally undramatic, even unchanging character makes sense. Lassie knit the soon-to-disintegrate family (the family watching, that is, in the last hours before Monday school, work, responsibility, anxiety) into a cocoon of nostalgic harmony, a nostalgia for the past, and for the past few hours and days, simultaneously.  Watching Lassie, you were encouraged to forget the squabbles and conflicts, and reweave your immediate and your cultural memory into a warm blanket.

City Life

The dominant cultural landscapes of tvland were nostalgic and retrospective, whether in fiction or in fact.  Frontier settings were distant: in geography, from the dominant audiences (Cheyenne, Wyoming, the state capitol, got a TV station in 1954, but it had no network affiliation for years; Bozeman, Montana, didn’t get a network feed until 1957); and in time, taking place in a mythic 19th-century moment that might best be described as the “heroic-then” tense.  Rural landscapes were also places of yearning and learning, where the yearning was predicated upon the impossibility of returning.  Cities, however—real, or represented on tv—were different.  They were often places where you still lived (saving up to leave), or places you’d just moved out of.   They were also places to which you or your parent or spouse returned to work, and where you went to shop, to be entertained, to be educated.

By 1958, television had constructed three types of American urbanity.  One was dark, corrupt, requiring forces of authority to punish the wicked, who sought to hide in the crowds and the anonymous apartment blocks outside of which the Dragnet cop-car parked as the boys went in to make the collar. One was grey and stultifying, a place of hopelessness, grinding down the virtuous and the wicked alike: a place to escape, as soon as possible, and a place to which tv returned you to remind you of how lucky you had it out there in Levittown.  And then there was the vestigial city of glamour, bright lights, excitement.  It wasn’t where you lived, exactly.  It was where you went for fun: it was Broadway, Times Square, Central Park, the museums; it was the downstairs jazz club where Peter Gunn’s detective girlfriend sang smoky come-hither songs.

By 1958, though, the glittering city was rapidly being assimilated and transformed by a new and strange hybrid, in which urbanity became entertainment, and television itself became the unmoored, postgeographic locale for American glamor.

The new crop of tv hits appropriated the glittery out-on-the-town urbanity of the ‘30s and ‘40s movies, down to the celebrities who populated every nightclub, theater and apartment-house lobby.  But these new shows were an odd hybrid of real and (to anticipate) virtual.  They weren’t shows about the city; they were shows about television, and television’s cornucopia of entertainment, excitement, financial jackpot and high-stakes gambling. With gusto, they appropriated all the residual virtues of the city, packed them onto a tv studio equipped with minimal sets and props, and beamed them to the box in your living room .  Quiz shows, variety shows (Ed Sullivan), even comedy-varieties like The Jackie Gleason Show all took television as the place where the old rags-to-riches, off-the-farm-to-the-glittery-city narrative could be played out.

Why was television excising the city from America’s cultural geography?  In a word:  race.

By 1958, Brown v. Board of Education had made racial integration of the public schools, and by extension ethnic and class integration, the law of the land. 1955's hedge on the part of the Supreme Court, the call for “all deliberate speed,” had granted municipalities and school boards a little breathing room.  But the expected shift toward integration in the physical and cultural environment didn’t follow.  American cities grew blacker and poorer, suburbs whiter and more prosperous, and television’s America remained white.[iii]

The dour presentation of the city’s left-behinds didn’t show the Kramdens of that Gleason show-in-a-show The Honeymooners talking about the niggers on Ralph’s bus or the little troublemaking pickanninies in the kids’ classes; Ralph and Alice didn’t have kids, so the integration of the public schools didn’t have to concern them.  They could be white, working class, and urban, without the discourse of racism that pervaded that class of actual Americans in 1958.  Similarly, shows like Dragnet and The Naked City and Peter Gunn didn’t show black hoodlums or pimps, drug dealers or fences.  They didn’t have to; anyone who’d left the city in fear during the great exodus knew what those rat-faced culprits stood in for.

But the nature of this wholesale denial had an added benefit for white viewers.  Excising black men and women from the roster of losers populating the dark city made the exodus to the suburbs into something other than a racial matter.  There weren’t any black children in Beaver’s class, or Wally’s, or Timmy’s, or Danny Thomas’s kid’s class either. Nor were there black comedians where Danny worked, or black musicians in Ricky Ricardo’s band. There was just the back-talking black maid to give the Danny Thomas family a dose of further dysfunctionality– but then, they were the family that didn’t take the hint and move out of the city. Outside of Amos ‘n’ Andy, which ran on network primetime only from ‘51 to ‘53, and then moved into local rerun status, there wasn’t really any black presence outside of the occasional entertainer on the variety shows and the anachronisms of black servants who appeared once in a while. [4] (The short career of The Nat King Cole Show, which stumbled through the 1956-57 season sponsorless, got only a 19% audience share, and trailed even the travel-doc Bold Journey, confirmed the networks’ attitude.)[5] By stripping tvland of reference to America’s most intractable failure, the television industry offered a powerful incentive to the guilty perpetrators and beneficiaries of racism to return to the nightly glow, as a dreamland where history could be recast, even reinvented, without its dangerous ethical edges.

Yet the city still could glisten, it could beckon and reward, in that glowing corner of the living room.  What the city offered, in televised form, was an electronic, placeless substitute for one of the most significant actual functions of the postwar city– entertainment.  In this, the urban landscape on tv highlighted and presaged an important phenomenon: the way that new forms of ephemeral, imaginative cultural landscapes came to substitute for, render redundant, and even eliminate, the material landscapes that had preceded them.

It was the city that was most directly affected by television’s hegemony. Even as the triumphant rise of television as an industry gave new economic energy to New York City and Los Angeles, its imaginative productions took over and rendered increasingly immaterial the function of the city as a place of real, as opposed to virtual, entertainment, held in real physical environments and requiring negotiations across the many boundaries of neighborhood and nationality, poverty and wealth, ethnicity, race, and all the other messy conditions that characterized the city as a social and cultural space.  As television increasingly appropriated the glamorous city, it also supplanted it; now one could go to bed and watch a nightclub act or a variety show, without staying up late, paying for a babysitter, or facing a long drive home.  Dozing in the chair or, later, in the bed, you might be momentarily awakened by a burst of canned laughter from an audience, to see a celebrity chatting with a celebrity in front of a glittering cityscape of light and plane, while you and yours could watch-- safe and sound in Scarsdale or Wilmette or Fullerton-- a city purified of its complexity, its heterogeneity.
In a further twist, however, the physical city adapted to this appropriation and redefinition.  As the televised city rented, and sanitized, the glamour of the physical one, real cities changed.  North Beach, Venice, West 4th St. and Rush St. themselves grew smaller, harder, more advanced, taking on an urbanity that spat at the unhip. With television offering bland comedy, the city standup clubs lost their mainstream functions, and Lenny Bruce arrived, free from any hope of hitting it big on the little screen, making a sort of comedy that celebrated the gulf between tv humor and hip humor.  With tv music at its best written by Henry Mancini, at its worst just the rote cueing-up of hack tape-loopers, American jazz moved further out, testing time signatures and decentered tonal systems that would have been utterly useless to television.  With Thurber and Cheever and Updike out in Stamford and the Hamptons and Chappaqua, the city became a home for Kerouac, Corso and Ginsberg.  Promising to unite the nation in a triumphant consensus, television’s effect was sometimes to the contrary. 

Missing Work

 By the 1958 season, tvland’s suburbanization had colonized the middle landscapes of small town life and rural virtue, and extended into urban and wilderness frontiers alike.  Lucy moved from Manhattan to Connecticut, first in realtime (in 1957), then recurrently, in reruns on CBS Thursdays from 7:30-8, in local station syndication at other times, and irregularly, on the Desilu Playhouse. The Real McCoys migrated from the hinterlands to the Valley.   Father Knows Best took over the midsize city of Springfield; but it could have been Montauk, or Shaker Heights, Ohio, or Highland Park, Illinois, or any other of the upper-middle-class suburbs springing up in the later ‘50s along the arterial superhighways that the National Defense Highways Act of 1954 had enabled–  freeways and tollways that extended the older dualism of city and suburb to greater and greater distances, marked by mileage if not (temporarily) by commute time.  The suburbanization of America during the ‘50s and early ‘60s was marked by any number of significant shifts in cultural practice and social engagement– not least the shift in commuting method from rail and bus to automobile, and by consequence from a social intermingling to an isolate, meditative experience within a very expensive cocoon.

One of the characteristics of the new American landscape lay in the greater isolation of the household that it encouraged and sustained– distancing young families from intergenerational contact, and hence from a more organic means of passing along traditions and histories; from the workplace, which increasingly was characterized by a dense, vertically organized, skyscraper urban environ, even as residential housing flattened and spread; from commercial and service hubs, like supermarkets and town halls, which required cars to get to and hence didn’t surface as familiar landmarks of an errand walk; from neighbors, as lot sizes increased and one didn’t hear one’s next-doors fighting, singing, gossiping, making love or punishing their children; and family members one from another, as larger houses and smaller families combined with the general sprawl of suburban life to separate children from parents and from each other, just as parents were separated from each other by the spreading bounds of space and time.

For the working adult, too, isolation and dislocation seemed increasingly the character of the era.   Time to and from work didn’t necessarily expand, but the sense of distance and difference increased.  Each commute involved a series of distinct steps: one drove, first, backwards, out of the driveway, head turned 180°, or eyes focused on the rear-view mirror; then shifted from Reverse to Drive, and idled carefully along the subdivision street to the arterial road. A rigid, stoplit interlude took one out of house and home and into the commercial strip; after that, there was the turn onto the freeway, thruway, tollway, expressway, turnpike or simply highway (subtle variants on a common landscape that was fundamentally different than any before it– a sanitized greensward marked not by the rusticated fences and rusticated stone of the overpasses and bridges in the predecessor parkways, but by the bland efficiency of the concrete, smooth and undistinctive not least to limit sharp edges when accidents occurred); over the next few minutes, time, too, changed– the car slowed, distances that were moments ago traversed in a flash now requiring long quarter-hours to pass; then the exit curved onto the city street, not any longer a place of particularity, of tradition and life, but an artery hardened at its sides to protect the poor who now lived along it, in its crumbling residues of a past neighborhood; stop light after stop light syncopated and thwarted, so you arrived, frustrated, keyed up and tired, at the city center, with its vertical surfaces; and then slid downward or upward into the parking garage, made the quick walk up the sidewalk to the elevator-mezzanine, crowded into the elevator itself and then, finally, came to the floor, the office, the desk.  After such a trip, and a reverse return in the dusk or darkness, what participant could have seen the American landscape as continuous?  Instead, the experience spoke of fragmenting discontinuity; each small segment of the geography of daily life a sharp shard separate from the others.

Against this condition, television’s suburban idyll set itself not as a reflection but a resection– it sought to deny the reality of American anomie, or to explain it as a part of a long rural tradition (as Lassie did), or to redefine it as a noble sacrifice, or to propose, in comedic form, American life as a current alternating sleep or death (the workplace) with rejuvenation, in the lap of the family.  On tv, the commuter experience was a sort of dumbbell life, with a narrow, and usually unseen, connecting bar between work and home. 

Why was work largely absent from the suburban comedies?  Labor may have simply been too complex and loaded a part of American life to fit comfortably in the idealized world of the sitcom. A series of books generally considered seminal to the self-image of American Cold War culture had already proposed a bleak image of work in the prosperous consensus society.  Sociologist C. Wright Mills had written a lacing but widely praised and widely read study of the emptiness of the new middle-class professions.  His book succeeded by only a year Reisman’s equally unsettling assessment, The Lonely Crowd.  Writing The Organization Man in 1956, William H. White described the alienation of work in terms that were clearly drawn from Mills’s critique:  men and women who “not only work for the organization... they belong to it as well. They are the ones of our middle class who have left home, spiritually as well as physically, to take the vows of organization life, and it is they who are the mind and soul of our great self‑perpetuating institutions.”[6] Mills’s own book was reissued that year, along with his new study, The Power Elite.  Sloan Wilson’s The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, published in 1955, was a major motion picture, starring Gregory Peck, in 1956.  There, Peck struggled with the moral emptiness, the boredom, and the social corruption of his new workplace, the public relations department of the United Broadcasting Corporation.  Wilson’s critique, and Peck’s, focused on television as a force that simultaneously destroyed its employees and its viewers, by a similar sort of moral flattening, and also by pitting the temptations of the broadcasting world against those of the nurturing family.  Significantly, both Tom Roth (Peck’s character) and his immediate boss had to choose between the demands and temptations of the workplace and the sustenance of family– while his superior had chosen the workplace, the vision of his tumultuous and, finally, tragic family life served as a cautionary lesson to Roth, and the novel and movie ended, improbably but appropriately, in the bosom of a renewed family life. 

The tv shows beamed out by the United Broadcasting Corporation couldn’t actually mirror author Wilson’s story, nor could they critique the soulless turn which capitalist labor had taken, in sociologist Mills’s analysis, or lament the loss of the “inner-directed man” in Reisman’s text. That would have been industry suicide.  But they could rebut the critiques of all three, recasting the narrative to put white-collar work in synchronous step with the needs of sponsors and the general flow of mass culture toward family and home life.  In televised situations, white-collar workers never worked, or they never seemed to work, or their work seemed never to be work– or their work just never showed up on screen, directly or indirectly. 

Work, then, wasn’t so much a subject for television; instead, it was a looming absence.  In one of a now-infamous series of television ads for Anacin, a white-collar husband enters a kitchen that is brimming with good cheer, and he erupts in rage.

 “Control yourself!... Sure you’re tense, irritable, but don’t take it out on her!” says the echoing voice of the social-science superego.  A companion ad clarified the cause, and the condition, of workplace alienation, in images that contrasted the anonymous workplace and the bucolic ranch-house home.[iv]

“Pain mounts up; you feel dull, depressed; tension puts nerves on edge…” intoned the narrator, behind his nightly-newscast desk.  This was what work did to you.  And  the cure?  Not simply Anacin, but the larger therapeutic environment of television itself, providing you with answers that worked, anodynes that took the edge off nerves, replacing dullness and depression with entertainment and sociability.  There, as the welcoming glow of the tv set drew the dissonant family into harmony, the immediate stresses of the world of work faded, even as the larger import, the national mission, burnished that labor and returned it to its place in the sweep of American destiny.

Manufactured Landscapes

By the later ‘50s, a quality of manneredness had found its way into television. The most important monument to television’s celebration of itself was Walt Disney, originally Disneyland and, in 1958, titled Walt Disney Presents.  Here all the regions of tvland were united; indeed, it’s tempting to see this show as the place where the very concept of a television geography was proposed, tested, established, then repeated with variation until it became a tradition and an expectation.

Disneyland was a microcosm of television programming in its mature state.  The show took many of the nascent or even previously unsuccessful genres that were competing in early ‘50s television and assembled them, modified them, and presented them in truncated form within its hour.  It was a variety show, but rather than taking the proscenium stage as its venue, Disneyland took television itself. From the beginning (in 1954), it asserted itself as a place to be mapped and explored.  The early structure was explicit: four episodes of approximately 12 minutes each, introduced and concluded by Tinkerbell, whose magic wings enabled viewers to travel from one region to the next: Frontierland, Fantasyland, Tomorrowland, and Adventureland. Exotic live-animal and nature episodes dominated Adventureland’s segments; Tomorrowland was the place where science fiction and fantasy competed with documentaries concerning the space race, geophysics, imaginary cities of the future, and the like.  Fantasyland was the segment allowing Disney’s crew to recycle older animated-movie footage of fairy tales, or test new possibilities.

Frontierland was the locale for Disneyland’s first major audience-grabber; there, Fess Parker and Buddy Ebsen (later to be the paterfamilias of the Beverly Hillbillies, in one of those castings designed to confirm the interpenetration of the celebrity landscape with the mythic) presented Davy Crockett: King of the Wild Frontier in three episodes that later expanded in response to demand, resuscitating Crockett by introducing moments surrounding those in the first set of episodes– prequels, sequels, simulquels. 

As Disney told it, Crockett was a mountain man who was also a Child of Nature, a nattily dressed, dandified buckskin version of James Fenimore Cooper’s original American wilderness hero, Natty Bumppo.  A master of woodcraft, he could light a fire with friction, read tracks and traces with unerring accuracy, plant and harvest, preach and pray; most importantly, however, he used these skills to guide emigrants from domesticated lands out to the frontier, and help them settle until, like some Currier&Ives chromo, he combined the entire history of the frontier into one moment– or, more accurately, one episode. 

“Frontierland,” with its plainspoken, hero and its wider panorama of expansionism and American destiny, served as the touchstone for the quadrant of fantasy landscapes within Disney’s America. Americans needed to dream of the future, and bring it into being.  They needed to release their ambitions and energies on the exploring of new lands and the making of new empires– the globe was the new frontier, as much as outer space.  And, faced with the exhausting responsibilities attendant upon the residents of a City Upon a Hill, Americans needed respite and escape; but trust to them– they would find in Fantasyland the echoes of the other regions and would draw from fairy tales and enchanted dreams the lessons necessary to make a world that could combine the responsibilities of adulthood with the wonder and innocence of childhood.

Disneyland appropriated, but it also competed with, the older mythic geography of America.  In Disneyland all places were novel and distinct from our own experience; they reminded or anticipated, amplified or transformed our experience without directly referring to it.  We didn’t have to find ourselves in Disneyland– every destination was an escape.[7]

With Disneyland, the fantasies of tvland gave birth to physical places and commercial products, anticipating a later America in which the virtual and the real interpenetrated. Thanks to Davy Crockett, Disneyland spawned an industry of souvenirs, from popguns to moccasins and, of course, coonskin caps with tails.  What self-respecting child of that era didn’t own one?  They were a novel introduction to American cultural life– souvenirs of an experience the purchaser had never had.  Buying a Davy Crockett hat, or getting one for Christmas, linked one to the huge, invisible, even metaphysical community of others who’d watched the episodes, transported from living room to Kentucky forest.  Wearing that cap, playing the games it served as costume for, completed a complex imaginative journey from past to present, without once stopping in the regions of reality, historical, physical, or experiential.

The most suggestive of Disneyland’s inventions, innovations, and appropriations lay, again, in the cross-axis bullseye of physical and virtual, of artifice and reality: the interpenetration of the show and the theme park, Disneyland and Disneyland.   By the time Disney and his auteurs were done, it’s hard to imagine that any part of reality, as a concept or as an experiential category, was left untransformed. 

The connection of physical, entertainment, and ethereal landscapes was imbedded in Walt Disney’s plans for his park and for his television debut, alike.  Throughout the early ‘50s, all three of the networks had been courting Disney himself and his organization– for where else could one get the certified high-quality animation teams and the already-established cartoon and animated characters so prized by tv’s magnet demographic, the children?  Children would make their parents watch; families seeking to stay families in the face of the disintegrating temptations of television would capitulate to a kid’s cries and, watching, be captivated.  In addition, Disney had money– deep pockets that might be used by the winning studio to undertake often arduous and expensive projects that could then serve and be served by television’s intimate relation to home and family.

But Disney demanded that the networks fund him; specifically, he wanted them investing in the not-yet-built Disneyland.  ABC was desperate; as of 1954 it hadn’t ever had a major hit series, and that year it took the plunge, putting a half-million dollars into the financing of the park, and ponying up another $50,000 every time it aired a show.  The result was a fabulous success for all concerned; ABC got its first hit, and it got a vested interest in an entertainment form that could buffer the shocks of seasonal success and failure on the television programming front.  Disney got the park itself, and an hour’s worth of free advertising for the venue, on primetime tv, for 36 years.

This innovation in entertainment capitalism was crucial for the future of the American entertainment industry.  It pioneered not just the concept of the entertainment conglomerate but the idea of collaborations possible among what might otherwise be competing entities within the industry– fluid assemblies that might be tightly linked on one project, loosely affiliated on another, active competitors on a third, all without animus, conflict of interest, tests of loyalty or government probes into dicey areas of legality vis-a-vis monopoly, say, or diversion of funds, fraud, or deceptive practices.  (All of this was in the ideal, of course, as the entertaining history of the entertainment industry shows.)

And it proposed and prototyped links among media that enabled creative and commercial products to move fluidly from studio to studio, character to character, writer to writer, medium to medium.  Davy Crockett didn’t just spin off hats, shoes and guns; he sang a theme song that was a wild top-10 pop success, though Fess Parker’s recording wasn’t quick or good enough to beat out the Bill Hayes version.  This interplay between television and radio, in which the current of creative novelty went the other way for perhaps the first time, opened up possibilities that Rick Nelson would exploit, among many others, some years later.

Disneyland’s contributions to the “industry” of television are legion.  But its contributions to the transformation of American culture aren’t limited to those specifics, important as they are– specifics like the establishment of the three-network corporate competition (by saving ABC from bankruptcy), as well as those financial and creative combinations we’ve already seen in their nascent forms.  Disneyland proved to television’s principals a hypothesis they’d been incompletely and hesitantly testing for some time: the idea of building an almost-symphonic medium, in which shows that succeeded one another on a given night formed one melodic line, while the recurrent weekly episodes of each show formed another;  offshoot shows, reruns, syndications, specials, and the like could all be set in service of building a deeply attractive cultural form, one to which, week after week, the most important Americans– those who bought and sold, talked and voted– could be drawn.  And Disney embraced the notion of television as a means of social engineering.  Disney offered education in everything from the history of the frontier to the theory of gravity; it offered nostrums about citizenship; it presented the social and the sociable as prime values, to which the individual must always have to defer, but could defer to gladly, with a sacrifice that paid in spades.

But from the distance of another millennium, the most significant contribution of the show lay in its oblique proposal that the virtual American landscape could interpenetrate with the physical and the real, could mine it, inflect it, compete with it and, perhaps, eventually, supplant it.  On October 15th of 1958, while Jeff sat in his living room, watched by those in their living rooms, who looked from the darkness of primetime night at the daylight of a house almost certainly larger, more orderly, less neurotic, and more prosperous than their own, Disney’s Davy Crockett took on another function: at Yucca Flats, Nevada.  There, the Atomic Energy Commission set off a superlightweight atomic bomb, officially named after the Disney frontier sensation. That bomb was part of a test codenamed Hamilton, part of a series codenamed Hardtack II.  Hardtack II Hamilton Davy Crockett:  with that interleaving of names, the AEC bureaucrats had condensed all three of the dominant American consensus myths of the later 1950s-- Pilgrims undergoing the hardships of the Atlantic crossing , subsisting on hardtack biscuit, gave way to the idealist demeanor of the Revolution’s founding father, Hamilton, who then yielded to the democrat-frontiersman, Crockett.[8]

Don’t for a moment think that this is coincidence or retrospective irony.  The men and women of the scientific, military, security, and industrial “complex” that invented these names were more than casually aware of the relationships they were making.  Some may have approved the names for their dark irony (the Berkeley/Livermore scientists named their Hardtack II tests after the fairies in A Midsummer Night’s Dream); others for the straightforward connection of Cold War weaponry with the longer tradition of Injun-killing and space-taming that Crockett represented.  Still others might have hoped (chimerically, it appears) that naming a miniaturized atomic weapon (designed to fit into a Ford sedan) after a Disney character would tame the fears that might be awakened by a press release announcing the successful testing of such a weapon.

That first “Davy Crockett” fizzled in the testing grounds of Yucca Flats, in the heart of the American West.  On October 29th, a second attempt with Davy Crockett, this time as part of a test named after the great Romantic explorer Alexander von Humboldt, succeeded.

“Davy Crockett” was one of 77 atomic tests in 1958, the number that year was greater than all three previous top-test years combined. The atomic defense sector was responding aggressively to its own audience-sampling– recognizing that the steadily increasing pressure from American citizens to stop all testing, unilaterally if need be, could soon move a military-industrial President to turn on them.

Time to hurry; time to blow.  And not just for the benefit of the scientists, or the politicians, or the Soviets.  About every 4½ days through the year (though in fact more often in summer and fall, especially during the weeks of the new tv season’s rollout) another atomic test ripped (or failed to rip) the American landscape of possibility out there in the West or in the palm-fronded utopias of Eniwetak, Bikini, Johnson and the other South Sea islands. Each picture in the magazines, each report in the newspapers, each bulletin in the nightly television news provided another reason to retreat to the solace and the reassurance of the narratives television told—narratives in which Americans were once again blessed, triumphant, prosperous and prospering.

Coda:   American Bandstand

There’s something else that underlies– and undercuts– the reassuring orderliness of Jeff’s television-watching on The Donna Reed Show that late December afternoon.  It’s what Jeff, and more importantly, Mary, weren’t watching that afternoon: by far the most popular afternoon show ever, outgunning its competition by more than two-to-one, a show that could boast 45,000 letters a week from its fans, and had contributed sufficiently to the reincarnation of ABC that the network gave it a Saturday night slot, too, replacing a family-fun quiz show in midseason: Dick Clark’s American Bandstand.[9]

American Bandstand was a derivative, bowdlerized, corporatized dilution of that vibrant interracial synergy of teenagers, music and physicality which it purported to represent on afternoon tv and, even more fully, on prime time.  Clark focused both shows on “top 40", a format of popular radio whose rigid formula extended to the programming of songs based upon sales polling of “singles,” 45rpm records favored by teenagers for their cheapness and hence the rapidity with which they could shift with fashion.  Under its sedate televised veneer seethed the energy of a counter-culture that lay beneath, behind, and ahead of it.

By rights, Mary should have been dancing with her girlfriends in front of the tv; the show ran for 90 minutes after school, and its audience was predominantly female, white, middle-class and teenaged.  A show on that topic would have pitted Donna and Alex against their teen daughter, and the grounds would have passed beyond homework-time (after all, Mary wasn’t doing her homework that afternoon anyway– she was worrying about her prom dress), to questions of proper dress, dating, and– perhaps most poisonously– race.

For 1958 was the year that Dick Clark brought the Silhouettes onstage to sing “Get a Job.” The Silhouettes were a black group, and the song was simultaneously about poverty, race and teenagerdom– about the struggle to find and keep work in a recession when you were the youngest, least experienced, and least respected.  It was, as historian Ed Ward points out, one of the first rock and roll songs to take something other than love or the trivial travails of teendom as its subject– and it was certainly the first by a black group to rocket that idea to multimillion sales on the integrated music scene.[10]

While The Silhouettes’ appearance on television broke with the medium’s overwhelmingly white face, Clark had long been involved with the interracial nature of rock and roll and with its complicated dance of intermixture, appropriation, adaptation, theft and display.  In January of 1958, Clark’s influence over pop music had pressured the Italian-American group Danny & the Juniors to rewrite a racy Do the Bob into a teen-scream At the Hop; that week, the group premiered the song on the last days of an Alan Freed rock and roll show at the Paramount in Brooklyn.  They were there with Buddy Holly & the Crickets and the Everly Brothers but also the Twintones, Lee Andrew and the Hearts, Jerry Lee Lewis and Fats Domino.  With a multiracial lineup and a multiracial audience, Freed’s live shows ran six-a-day for almost two weeks, and on Christmas Day alone had 20,000 fans in line, starting at 5:30 in the morning, and requiring more than thirty policemen to keep the largely female crowd orderly. 

Who were these fans?  They were, Freed declared, teenagers and, increasingly, college students too.  Interviewed by Billboard magazine, Freed pointed out that “kids have been exposed to it for four or five years... and it looks to me as though the colleges will be completely saturated with rock and roll.” And Dick Clark took it further: “There’s never been a time when so many different kinds of music were popular at one and the same time...”[11] Clark didn’t just mean styles– he meant racial, ethnic, class and geographical origins.  Through his shows, his publishing companies, his record labels, and his promotional vehicles, he saw himself as funneling these American heterogeneities to a broad new audience that included such variances but transcended them amalgamated them, united more by commonalities than dispersed by difference. And, of course, profiting by his near-monopoly.

To look at the year’s string of #1 hits, month by month, confirms Clark’s declaration: while Danny and the Juniors were singing “At the Hop” following Fats Domino’s “Blueberry Hill” and Jerry Lee Lewis’s “Shake, Rattle and Roll” at the Paramount, Pat Boone’s blandly pop “April Love” was #1.  March the first, the Silhouettes had the top slot, pushing out Danny and the Juniors.  Down the list:  Elvis, the Champs, The Platters, David Seville, the Everly Brothers, Sheb Wooley (The Purple People-Eater) , the Coasters, Perez Prado, Rick Nelson, Domenico Modugno (Volare!) The Elegants, Tommy Edwards, country star Conway Twitty, Hootenanny folk-popsters the Kingston Trio, Phil Spector (as The Teddy Bears), and finally David Seville and the Chipmunks singing their Christmas hit, The Chipmunk Song.  Next to each other on even the top-40 playlists of the corporatized djs on the national chain-stations you’d have heard Jimmy Rogers singing “Are You Really Mine,” as bland a pop song as you could get,[v] and then James Brown’s “Try Me,” a song that broke right out of the prison of R&B “race” music to propose a new form: Soul.  Black and white, Italian, Armenian and Hispanic, rural and urban, Voodoo and extraterrestrial: all appeared as performers or characters in 1958's #1 list.

This polyglot culture was all the more impressive given the restraining forces of network conglomeration and monopoly that had come to characterize rock and roll radio, and the mass-production songwriting and producing teams that served the industry from the Brill Building in New York.  Lieber and Stoller had written Jailhouse Rock for Elvis Presley in 1957; in ‘58, their Yackety Yak (Don’t Talk Back) went to the Coasters, young, ebullient and black.  Soon the other Brill Building writers would choose not only among black and white, doo-wop and sweet, but also between giving their songs out to others, and singing them themselves, introducing themselves as singer-songwriters, troubadours, celebrants and protesters.

Clark and the cultural spokespeople he represented were doing more than simply channeling black music to white audiences or converting black performances into white ones.  When he took over the Philadelphia tv show Bandstand in 1956, Clark resolved to mute the more disorderly and sexualized forms of R&B, but he didn’t ban it by any means.  This was a major endorsement of a larger development; throughout the early years of rock and roll, the tendency had been to cover black R&B hits with blander, white-performed versions that would then go to djs for mainstream programming.  The Platters had broken that trend in 1955, when their song “Only You” was covered by the Hilltoppers, a white hillbilly-collegiate band, who took it from its premiere position on the R&B charts up to #8 in the Billboard “Hot 100".  Just weeks later, the Platters’ own version shoved it aside and rose to #5.  Clark understood what this meant– white teenagers, who dominated the single-purchasing market, were more interested in the push of the beat and the raw tension of the vocal harmonies than in the question of race.  They wanted authenticity, and he would give it to them, albeit in a television-sanitized form.

On American Bandstand, Mary would have seen, and heard, not just black doo-wop groups but the more raucous sounds of R&B, the black roots of rock and roll.  Even more important, though, Mary might have witnessed something no television watcher would find anywhere else on national network tv: black and white couples sharing an American space: the dance floor.  Clark came from Philadelphia, and he’d had personal experience with racial integration.  At least two of his favored Italian-boy hitmakers came from an integrated high school, and they pushed their black classmates on Clark (that’s how Chubby Checker ended up with his hit, The Twist); more importantly, Clark saw the integrated high school and its lunchroom, assemblies, and weekend gym dances, as the source and model for his show.  He was the chaperone, but he was more than that– he was also the hip teacher, just a few years older, sympathetic, a negotiator between the worlds of teen life and adult authority.

So when he arrived on the show—then still a local enterprise, on Philadelphia’s WFIL—he told the producers to expect black audience members, and to include them in the dance shots.  But while Clark’s own memory paints him as a diehard integrationist, the reality was more dour and more complex, especially as Clark and his producers courted and then achieved, network affiliation and national status. [12]

On one side, Clark was shamelessly borrowing from a fellow-Philadelphian’s black dance show—Mitch Thomas, and the WPFH/WVUE-aired Mitch Thomas Show. Indeed, when the 26-year-old Clark was drafted to host Bandstand, the clean-cut white boy turned to local black DJs like Georgie Woods and Hy Lit for a crash course in the black roots of rock-and-roll, and it was often through the conduit of their shows that American Bandstand found the black rock and roll hits and hitmakers.[13]

As a local show, Clark’s Bandstand might have conformed to the more fluidly integrationist credo that Clark remembers.  But in 1957 the show went national, and its onstage audience and dancers now had to conform to a national network code that kept black participants to a bare minimum—in 1958, the New York Post quoted one of the dance regulars who reported a limit of eight or nine black teenagers per show.[14]

This was a policy that sanitized the racially and ethnically integrated rock-and-roll dance scene in the major American cities where this new youth culture was most rapidly and vibrantly emerging, and especially with the Philadelphia scene from which American Bandstand drew its dancers, and its audience.  The result was a largely-unheralded civil-rights campaign, by black teenagers and by white regulars on the show, to force integration onto the dance floor.  On the outside, organized groups of black teens tested the process that filtered only the most presentable black couples into the studio; on the inside, a few of the regulars pressed to get their black high-school classmates and fellow-dancers onto the show.

Neither campaign succeeded:  until 1966, when the show moved to California, the network regulators kept the audience and the dance floor almost entirely white, even as the performers, the music, and the dances were increasingly black. Members of the core dance corps, who had maintained their relationship with their black high-school classmates and who were avid watchers of the local black dance shows, began to debut the new black dance crazes in the controlled, well-dressed environment of the national show.  At the same time, Clark and his programmer avidly sought and then promoted the most energetic and ebullient of black performers.

The result was complex.  On one side, black dance was being appropriated and recast in the guise of a blander white teendom, and black musicians were, once again, merely entertainers for a white audience.  But there was more to it than that.  In the utterly white world of network television, blackness was appearing, if only at the edges of the shots and in the distance as the camera panned in on one couple or another.[15]

Mary Reed didn’t watch American Bandstand.  When she went to dances in her network-constructed perfect suburb, there weren’t black couples from her high school dancing on either side of her.  Instead, she prepared for a prom date in which the only color would be found in the dress she was showing Donna in that episode where Jeff watched a Western, full of quaint nostrums for a Cold War world.

But Mary’s carefully censored behavior wasn’t the norm for her social cohort in the real world: sixteen year olds, white, middle class, living in the suburbs within a short drive or train ride from the major American cities and the college towns where Alan Freed was taking his wildly integrated rock and roll road shows on a regular basis. In Levittown, as across America, after-school American Bandstand parties were the rule—rituals of passage: “learn the dances;” “see what Justine was wearing;” “Rate the Records;” “dance, Philly style, of course,” as a group of Levittowners from that era recounted.[16]

American television networks may have managed to capture the living rooms, where children younger than Jeff, and their parents, far older than Mary, basked in the glow.  But Alan Freed had the teenagers, and the America he showed them, the America they embraced, was integrated in ways their parents might not have been able to imagine.  Standing in line before dawn on Christmas Day in New York City, around the corner and down the block from the marquee announcing Alan Freed’s Jubilee, just about a year before this episode of Donna aired, Mary’s real-life classmates shivered and gossiped with each other about groups that they might or might not know from the radio were black, Italian, Canadian, Hispanic; poor gang kids or middle-class suburbanites– in the lineup, and on the line.  Alan Freed (and soon the Wolfman), Dick Clark and the other DJs, had already taught them the moves, the tunes, the secret signals and the coded words that united them to each other even as they declared their independence from the house where, soon, the lights of the Christmas tree would go on, and so would the tv.


[i]Actually, as a genre the Western had enjoyed significant airplay on the radio before shifting to television, and tv Westerns had been staple fare from the earliest years.  But the particular kind of Western we’re talking about here was a more limited affair, arriving in the later ‘50s, diminishing and then virtually disappearing in the early ‘60s.

[ii] Consider, by contrast, the extraordinary settings required to resuscitate the Western, three decades later, in the remarkable Lonesome Dove.

[iii]It would take more than a decade, and Norman Lear, to bring these tensions to television;  Lear took the Kramdens, moved them into a house in an urban, working-class neighborhood (no doubt evacuated by a panicked middle-class family in, say, 1961), and played the race card, though timidly, with All in the Family.

  [iv] The Anacin ads in question have resurfaced, blessedly, thanks to YouTube.  The first was found in 2012 at ; the second, at .

[v] This was not the country singer, but a popster, 25 years old, who’d first appeared as a contestant on The Arthur Godfrey Show.

[1] See, for example, two essential works from the period itself: Leo Bogart, The Age of Television (New York:  Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., 1958), which has detailed material drawn from a wide variety of market surveys, viewing-pattern studies, and the like delineating trends and patterns from 1951 to 1957; and Darrell Blaine Lucas and Stewart Henderson Britt, Measuring Advertising Effectiveness (New York:  McGraw-Hill, 1963), which organized and compressed more than a decade of advertising market research under the aegis of two marketing psychologists.  The standard history of television, indispensable, is Erik Barnouw’s multi-volume study; the volume dealing with the ‘50s is Image Empire (Oxford and New York:  Oxford University Press, 1970). Two other secondary sources are especially valuable:  William Boddy, Fifties Television:  The Industry and its Critics (Urbana, Illinois:  University of Illinois Press, 1995); and Patricia Mellencamp, ed., Logics of Television (Bloomington, Indiana:  Indiana University Press, 1990).

​ [2] See, for example, “Daytime Television and the Housewife Audience,” in Bogart, The Age of Television, pp. 79-80.
[3] Frederick Jackson Turner’s essay, originally presented at the World’s Columbian Congress shortly before the 1893 Columbian Exposition, was titled “On the Significance of the Frontier in American History.” It went on to publication as an essay, as a book, and then over time as a series ofrevisions and expansions through the rest of Turner’s life.  While its substance has been challenged by scholars at least since the publication in 1966 of Ray Allen Billington’s The Frontier Thesis:  Valid Interpretation of American History?, its force as myth remains unabated—as every presidential election recurrently hammers home.
[4] The standard source on the black presence in television is J. Fred McDonald, Blacks and White TV: African Americans in Television Since 1948 (Chicago:  Nelson-Hall, 2nd. Ed., 1992.   In a typically brilliant analysis of Amos ‘n’ Andy, Gerard Jones has suggested what the actors on the show themselves had long argued– that this show, as televised, was a remarkable mediation between stereotype and celebration of the black experience; the principal negative character always got his comeuppance and his character was distinctly more unfavorable than he had appeared on the earlier radio version, and the principal positive characters were hard-working, committed to the American dream, and as devoted to the ideals of family and community as any white suburban sitcom family might be.  See Gerard Jones, Honey I’m Home! Sitcoms: Selling the American Dream (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1992), pp. 48-61.
[5]”The Nat ‘King’ Cole Show,” Tim Brooks and Earle Marsh, The Complete Directory to Prime Time Network and Cable TV Shows (New York: Ballantine Books, 1995), p. 731; Mary Ann Watson, “The Nat ‘King’ Cole Show,” The Museum of Broadcast Communications Encyclopedia of Television, web edition,  The case of Cole is also well presented in J. Fred McDonald, Blacks and White TV, pp. 64-71.
[6]William Whyte, The Organization Man [intro, first page]
[7]  While there are a surfeit of publications celebrating “the happiest place on earth,”  there are still not many solidly analytical studies of this important American cultural landscape. The best cultural and critical biography of Disney is Steven Watts, The Magic Kingdom:  Walt Disney and the American Way of Life (Columbia:  University of Missouri Press, 2001).  Disneyland’s design is well-described in the memoir of one of its principal architects: John Hench, Designing Disney (New York:  Disney Editions, 2009). A recent anthology which argues for a cultural and ideological interpretation of the Disney landscape is Kathy Merlock Jackson and Mark I. West, eds., Disneyland and Culture:  Essays on the Parks and Their Influence (Jefferson, North Carolina:  McFarland, 2010). Disneyland is well-treated in John M. Findley, Magic Lands:  Westerncityscapes and American Culture After 1940 (Berkeley and Los Angeles:  The University of California Press, 1993), pp. 56-118.
[8] The code-naming of atomic tests was done by the scientific and military community responsible for each test or series of tests.  Tests were named within a certain basic protocol:  series name, test bomb name, actual test name.

[9] Dick Clark himself penned an autobiography, Dick Clark with Richard Robinson, Rock, Roll and Remember (New York:  Popular Library, 1978), and a highly colored history of American Bandstand, Dick Clark with Fred Bronson, Dick Clark’s American Bandstand (New York, Harper Perennial, 1997);  the more accurate and rich analysis is John Jackson, American Bandstand:  Dick Clark and the Making of a Rock’n’Roll Empire (Oxford and New York:  Oxford University Press, 1997). Matthew F. Delmont’s doctoral dissertation, American Bandstand and School Segregation in Postwar Philadelphia (Providence, Rhode Island:  Brown University, 2008) offers a rich if sometimes inconsistent analysis of race relations on the show;  it is available online at
[10].Ed Ward, Rock of Ages: The Rolling Stone History of Rock and Roll (Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Rolling Stone Press/Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1986), pp. 166-167.
[11].both are quoted in Ed Ward, “The Fifties and Before,” Rock of Ages: The Rolling Stone History of Rock and Roll (Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Rolling Stone Press/Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1986), p. 169; Luke Crampton and Dafydd Rees, Rock and Roll Year By Year (London and New York: DK Publishing, 2003), pp. 64-67.
[12] The actual percentage of blacks on the show—as audience and as performer, is more fully discussed in Matt Delmont, The Nicest Kids in Town: American Bandstand and School Segregation in Postwar Philadelphia (University of California Press, 2012).
[13] Clark cheerfully admitted this in his autobiography, Rock, Roll and Remember, p. 71.
[14] Gael Greene, “Dick Clark,” New York Post, September 24, 1958, quoted in Delmont dissertation, p. 207.
[15] The New York Post’s anonymous informant reported that cameramen were instructed not to focus their cameras on the black dancers.  Ibid.
​ [16] John Jackson also wrote the best biography of Alan Freed, Big Beat Heat: Alan Freed and the Early Years of Rock and Roll (New York:  Schirmer Books, 1991). The quotes are from Levittown’s Division High School reunion website, run by Frank Barning, at the quotes are by Marilyn Monsrud Frese, Joan Bartels Signorelli, and Barning himself