Rascals, Stooges, Afternoon TV, and the Imagination

Still Waiting
Still Waiting | Photo: RCA Test Card

Sheriff John (John Rovick) has died. He was 93. He was preceded in 2008 by Engineer Bill (Bill Stulla). He's survived by Tom Hatten (whose moniker, if he had one, hasn't stuck).

Afternoon TV in 1950s Los Angeles was crowded with presenters in costume, like the sheriff and the engineer, who recycled '30s and '40s comedy shorts to fascinated boys and girls sitting in front of a black-and-white television set. I was one of those who sat too close to the screen.

They were clowns, skippers, a beach bum, ventriloquists, little people, slapstick comics -- an entire vaudeville troupe that occupied the attention of kids like me with the humor, pathos, and sly absurdism of the the middle third of the 20th century. The violence and evils of those years were there, too, either taken for granted (racism, sexism) or fractured into crude satire (fascism, class inequality).

Crudity was not a problem. There was plenty of room in the afternoon for the burlesque of Pinky Lee or Soupy Sales, for the anarchy of "The Three Stooges" (presented by Don Lamond, son-in-law to "Stooge" Larry Fine), or the surreality of watching Bill and John and Tom frame low comedy for impressionable seven-year-olds. The juxtaposition was wildest in Tom Hatten's show.

Hatten was a smiling man in a deckhand's work clothes who taught nervous youngsters a brief lesson in freehand drawing in between screening rough, Depression-era "Popeye" cartoons from Max and Dave Fleischer. What were we in our suburban living rooms to make of Popeye's dockside slum with its greasy spoons, its saloons, its down-and-out residents, their cheap entertainments, and their almost incoherent speech? What translation did we have for their catchphrases or for the slang of our parents' youth? For the topical jokes that had made their parents laugh? For the wrongs that had angered them?

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Afternoon television kept that past fitfully alive and with enough context and enough repetition to connect the B picture patriotism of a '40s war movie with the pie-in-the-face version in a Bugs Bunny cartoon with the Pledge of Allegiance at the start of Sheriff John's show.

Nostalgia has diminished the presenters who curated a discarded popular culture. So has irony. But for those enthralled who watched the detritus of the past's enthusiasms, fears, resentments, and modest aspirations, the lessons were deeply engrained. Only some of the lessons were intended.

The sheriff, the engineer, and the sailor joined hands with parents and teachers in support of values that we were told were universal: kindness, generosity, deference to others, and cheerfulness. The sheriff, the engineer, and the sailor were mistaken, although those are values nonetheless.

The cartoons and comedy shorts in between taught that the world was undomesticated and often brutal, hilarious, and gaudy, a place where history (and the story line) always repeats itself to endings in the past and mostly harmless. That was also only partly true.

Turn the TV off in 1957, and today reappeared, full of impatience for tomorrow. Grown up people wanted to live in tomorrow, then. Their children watched the cartoon shows, the Stooges, and the Rascals and saw the past's shadows, laughed at them, and wondered at what lingers and will not fade.

D. J. Waldie, author and historian, writes about Los Angeles twice each week at KCET's SoCal Focus blog.

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