Sunday, March 17, 2013

The golden age of (my) television

I possess a rather good recollection of our family's television in the 1970s.

Kiddies, there was a time when the primary TV in your house weighed 200 pounds and was essentially a piece of furniture. That's what our TV was: perhaps 3 1/2 feet tall, wood-paneled, heavy, no remote control. It took my dad and another adult to move it.

I remember our secondary TV as well, the one in our basement on McVicker and in my parents' room on Rascher. It was white, with probably a 27-inch screen, no remote control, and on a white stand we used for a while after the TV had died. My Atari 400 was hooked to it in the 1980s, years after we played a Pong console on it. I also remember the black-and-white TV we watched in our kitchen (it sat atop a rolling stand with a spot to put newspapers or magazines underneath, as well as the big standalone TV my grandfather gave us that actually had a clicker for a remote, a small color one (also from my grandfather) I had in my room in eighth grade and that barely worked, and the black-and-white TV in my dorm the first two years of college (wow, also from my grandfather).

But the big-ass console in our living room in the 1970s was the main television. I watched my first Super Bowl on it, as well as "Romper Room," "Bozo's Circus," my first Schoolhouse Rocks, "Solid Gold '79" and "Happy Days." Our first VCR (a big monstrosity in its own right) sat atop that TV. And it was furniture as essential as the couch and coffee table.

By 1980, our big console TV was dying. Televisions, much like cars of that era, weren't built to last. Are picture tubes even replaced now? We had a TV go kaput a few years ago and simply bought a new one. Our little kitchen TV is 10 years old, works fine, and is obsolete. But three decades ago, the console age was fading, with big TVs being replaced with only slightly smaller ones that could be placed on stands.

In March 1980, we needed a new television. The search began. I remember going to JC Penney's and Sears in Golf Mill (a mall in Niles, Ill.) with my family at the start of the journey (and for some reason, I connect hearing "Still" by The Commodores and "Working My Way Back to You" by The Spinners). Then that Sunday, we went to an electronics shop near Wrigley Field that had, and I'm not making this up, a cage with a live chimpanzee or monkey in the window. I don't think I went near the cage (and some time later, the store got in trouble for the simian). I believe we bought our TV there -- a 21-inch (I'm guessing on the size) Sylvania that seemed light years ahead of our big old console.

Thirty-three years later, this Sylvania GTE survives. Pardon the flash in the picture, but here it is in my home office.

The TV has definitely seen better days. It didn't come with a remote; we just turned the dial to the desired channel. But you could adjust each channel to get whatever signal you wanted, then place a plastic inlay over the number (this was useful for UHF stations). Over the years, zeroing in on one channel is tricky, even if I only need channels 2, 3 or 4. The latch on the TV's front door broke long ago. The picture isn't the greatest. This was the last generation of TVs to not come cable ready, meaning you had to screw on the antenna connectors to get a video game or VCR to work (or the antenna, for that matter).

And yet, the TV lives. I think I took ownership of it when I moved to Milwaukee permanently. It's never been the primary TV, but worked well as an extra TV for the bedroom or to play video games. In 2000 when we moved to Utah, I brought this TV to Salt Lake because I knew I could leave it in the car while I was staying in a hotel waiting to move into a new apartment (after all, if someone wanted to steal a 20-year-old TV, it wouldn't be a great loss). For two weeks until I flew back to Wisconsin to complete the move, the apartment was filled with mostly myself, a Super Nintendo and the TV. I watched HBO, played Liberty or Death and missed Lori those two weeks.

When we bought the TV in 1980, it came with a free GTE Flip-Phone -- one of the first non-AT&T phones produced after the breakup of Ma Bell. It was cheap; I don't know how long we used it before switching to another phone. But while the Flip-Phone is in a landfill someplace, the TV remains.

A couple days after buying the TV, I remember watching Chicago's St. Patrick's Day parade on TV and seeing my grade school marching in it. I wasn't sure why we weren't in school that day, but there it was, some of my classmates on TV -- a brand new TV.

The console got sent to the curb, where apprehensive garbage men put it in the truck and we watched it get crushed. The Betamax moved to the new television. We added an Atari the next year. I don't know if this TV saw cable in the old house -- we might have had a better TV by the time we finally got cable (1988 or so?). But the Sylvania GTE carried on.

Currently, the television isn't hooked to the satellite. Without the special box now required for old TVs, I might not even be able to get local stations. But there was a DVD player hooked to it up until recently. Michael and I used to play Mario Kart on the SNES before we bought a Wii (and subsequently moved the SNES to another TV). But I have plans for the Sylvania in its twilight years: Hooking up an Atari 2600 on it again.

This television is about to relive its glory years.


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