Boomers See That Everything Old Is New Again

In a recent discussion around the lunchroom at Mister Boomer’s workplace, a colleague was describing her success in eliminating her need for cable TV with a digital TV antenna. While the “rabbit ears” of our youth haven’t returned in their original form, this latest incarnation is a direct descendant of the contraptions we knew as young boomers.

For you trivia fans, the TV antenna we came to know and love/hate was invented by Marvin Middlemark in 1953. He was a Queens, New York resident born in 1919. After the war, when TV broadcasts started a regular schedule, Middlemark saw the need for a booster so people could receive better TV reception. His solution was to invent an indoor dipole antenna that took the shape of a central unit with two adjustable telescoping rods on either side. This gave the antenna a “v” shape protruding from a central “head,” thus giving it the appearance of “rabbit ears.” The rods could be positioned at any point along a 90 degree radius, from fully vertical to fully horizontal. In the middle of the central unit was a numbered dial that allowed for a change of frequency as a means of intercepting the strongest signal. When used in conjunction with the angling of the antenna rods, the best possible signal could be received.

In reality, we boomers recall that rabbit ears were a source of frustration and amusement. Adjusting the antenna was a constant necessity whenever the TV was turned on or a station was changed. It seemed like the rods could never hold the position that was most needed. Instead, they would succumb to gravity and fall to the closest horizontal or vertical stopping point. Flipping the central unit dial would, on occasion, remove a few flakes from the snow-filled TV screen, but as a general rule didn’t help much. Ultimately, boomer families found their own ways to further enhance the boosting power of their antenna. The most common method was to crimp a ball of aluminum foil to the end (or, occasionally, middle) of one or both telescoping rods. The theory was that a clump of metal might act as additional surface area for reception. In some families, links of paper clips were festooned from the rods, or between them. At Christmastime, tinsel could be found to perform the same function, while adding a festive holiday flair, as well.

Mister Boomer recalls two different sets of rabbit ears for the three black-and-white TVs his family owned in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s. More than likely, the family’s first TV was a hand-me-down when Mister B’s parents were married after the war, so it’s possible the rabbit ears came with it. The first one was an art-deco looking thing. The central unit was essentially a metal ball with the bottom third cut off. Between the rods was another wire, twisted around itself and looped to return to the base, criss-crossing like the snakes on a caduceus. On either side of the central dial were three eighth-inch wide strips of metal, painted the same dull brown-black as the rest of the unit. It looked very much like the one pictured in the episode of The Honeymooners when Ralph and Norton are fighting over the TV!

The second set of rabbit ears was similar to the first, but now plastic parts were beginning to make deep inroads into consumer products. Instead of a loop-de-loop central wire, this one consisted of a simple circle, with each end of the wire bent sharply on the bottom of the circle, forming a “tree trunk,” that fit into the brown-plastic base.

Mister B’s father was often the General in Charge in the Battle for Better Reception. He’d issue orders to Mister B and his siblings to move each end of the antenna up, down, left and right until the best picture was established. Inevitably, as soon as one of the kids would let go of a rod, it would fall, ruining the reception. “Go stand there and hold it,” was the General’s half-kidding solution. A quick trip to the kitchen for foil, maybe a few rubber bands, string or tape from the junk drawer, and the makeshift work would begin in earnest. Somehow the battle was always at least partially won, but would be repeated on a daily basis.

When a rod or central wire broke, one of the more common remedies was to replace it with a wire coat hanger. In some households, you’d see the full hanger shape sticking out of the end of one of the rabbit ears’ rods. In others, it was straightened to replace a rod, taped or rubber-banded to a rod, or jammed into the central base to replace a central wire.

Rabbit ears were what we had at hand in the early days of TV. Now that they are poised for a digital-makeover comeback, what memories of these TV antennas come back for you, boomers?

Boomers Loved Their Teen Angels

The passing last week of Davy Jones, frontman for The Monkees, prompted Mister Boomer to recall an era of teen idols. Teen idols were not new or exclusive to the boomer era; some say this phenomenon began in the 20th century as celebrity fandom appeared along with silent movies. The quintessential male star of silent movies in the early 1910s and 1920s was Rudolph Valentino. The silent film star gathered his share of teenage fans for his confident, suave, romantic and passionate roles. The writer H.L. Mencken wrote of Valentino shortly after his death that he was “catnip to women.”

The next really huge teen idol was Frank Sinatra. In the 1940s, his appearances caused near riots as legions of teenage female fans — known as “bobby-soxers” because of the type of socks they wore, rolled-down to the ankle — stormed theaters and concert halls. Many people point to this pre-war era as the beginning of Youth Culture.

The two — one a film star, the other first known for his singing before he entered the movies — displayed some basic characteristics of the teen idols that were to follow: first, their celebrity was gained through their talent in acting or music; secondly, young women found them irresistible to the point of obsession; and third, they had to reciprocate by graciously accepting the adulation while remaining humble, yet “dreamy.”

Boomer teen idols continued that pattern. Most teen idols were the object of desire for teenage girls rather than boys, and were often men twice their age. The prime age of teen idol worshippers was 11 through 17, after which tastes tended to change. The 1950s produced a slew of teen idols from movies, TV and music. Among them were “older” men such as Rock Hudson and Pat Boone, to the “younger” stars like Elvis, Troy Donahue, Frankie Avalon, Bobby Rydell, Fabian and Ricky Nelson. On rare occasions, women crossed over into teen idol territory, the most famous being Annette Funicello. Her appearances as a Mouseketeer on The Mickey Mouse Club TV show gave her instant fan recognition from both boys and girls when she made the transition from child actor to adult in a series of pop-historically significant “Beach” movies.

Into this mix of actors and solitary singing sensations, whole bands entered the teen idol world, most notably The Beach Boys and The Beatles. By the mid-sixties, girls everywhere had chosen their favorites in The Beach Boys, The Beatles, Herman’s Hermits and The Monkees. Naturally, one star rose above the others in each band to become the most-loved teen idol. In The Monkees, that teen idol was Davy Jones. Shows like American Bandstand, Hullabaloo, Shindig! and The Ed Sullivan Show only fueled the fires of teen idolatry.

The teen idol world got two additional big boosts in the 1960s: a proliferation of a sub-genre of pop music that was called bubblegum pop (also known as teenybopper music) and the introduction of made-for-teen magazines called 16 Magazine (which actually first appeared in 1956) and Tiger Beat (launched in 1964). Bubblegum music appealed directly to teenage girls, who liked the danceable beats, love-laced lyrics and the stars who sang them. The fanzines did for 1960s teen idols what the Hollywood movie magazines had done for stars of the 1940s and ’50s: maintained and expanded the celebrity of the stars through constant exposure.

Mister Boomer’s sister joined in on the teen idol explosion in the mid-1960s. She bought 16 Magazine and Tiger Beat on occasion and in the late ’60s, became infatuated with Bobby Sherman. Sherman was a recording artist at an early age and a regular on Shindig!, but didn’t attain teen idol status until he landed a role in the TV series, Here Come the Brides (1968-70). By then millions of boomer girls had posters of Sherman, with his trademark hair and teen idol smile, on their bedroom walls. Mister B’s sister did not have posters of Sherman, or the other big teenybopper idol of her decade, David Cassidy, but her magazines sure plastered their pictures on pages. Nonetheless, she felt compelled to buy her idol’s 45 RPM records.

16 Magazine May 1964 issue
Mister B's sister bought this May 1964 copy of 16 Magazine. The cover reads like a Who's Who of teen idols in the early 1960s: Paul Petersen, Bobby Rydell, Elvis, James Franciscus, Richard Chamberlain (a Boomer Sister fave!), Elvis and of course, The Beatles. Also listed is "Lesley & Connie," which refer to Lesley Gore and Connie Francis. Patty Duke is also pictured on the cover.

Perhaps the pre-war 1940s marked the first teen generation that would break from the tastes of their parents to explore a subculture of their own. But World War II interrupted their progress, and that left it up to the Boomer Generation to embrace the tide of Youth Culture, of which teen idols were a part. What memories of teen idols do you have, boomers?