Wednesday, 25 July 2018

Dictating to Other People's Children

It’s laughable that anyone, at any time, could have considered the Lone Ranger, Tom Mix or Jack Armstrong, the All American Boy, as harmful influences on children, programmes that should be censored or maybe banned altogether. But that was the case in the 1940s. The world has always had those who wished to impose their will on others using shame, labelling or legislation.

When I was a kid, after a day at school, I wanted to relax and not have to think a lot. So I watched reruns of Gilligan’s Island or Bugs Bunny cartoons on TV. It was no different for kids a generation before me, except they did it with radio serials.

Ah, but some adults were unhappy. They wanted to tell other parents’ kids what to do for their entertainment. Herald Tribune syndicate writer John Crosby mentioned it briefly in one of his early columns, then went more in depth into it the following year. Basically, all he found wrong with kids’ adventure programming on radio is it was hackneyed. Maybe that (and their episodic nature) is why the serials don’t seem to have the same love from old-time radio fans as night-time comedies, mysteries or variety shows aimed at adults.

The first column appeared on May 17, 1946.
Blood and Thunder From 5 to 6 P.M.
I once lived on a street that was alive with children until 5 o’clock, when they suddenly vanished. They were, of course, listening to the kids’ programs which several networks feature between 5 and 6 o’clock. Since every one on this particular street knew every one else, it was the custom of these children to run to the nearest house, sit in a semi-circle around the radio and fall into a rapt silence. Children, I find, are about the best radio listeners there are.
On several occasions I watched these kids as they listened with stars in their eyes to the extraordinary adventures of Jack Armstrong, the All-American boy. I realize that this type of program has brought storms of criticisms from parents’ associations and women’s clubs and I am perhaps sticking my neck out when I say that the mothers ought to worry about something else.
Provided it isn’t downright seditious, I don’t think it much matters what sort of story puts stars in a child’s eyes so long as they’re there. When I was young, I read with equal enthusiasm “Hopalong Cassidy,” “Tarzan of the Apes” and “Huckleberry Finn.” This does not mean I had a catholic taste; I didn’t have any taste at all. The only difference to me between Tarzan and Huck Finn was that one was cast in a jungle and the other took place on a perfectly wonderful river. I read some pretty awful stuff in those days and still managed to avoid the juvenile courts and to grow up reasonably literate.
The real harm in these broadcasts, in my opinion, is that they lure children away from books and make radio addicts out of them. This is a deplorable tendency, but I don’t know what can be done about it. Radio, I’m afraid, is here to stay and so are the kids’ programs.
I listened to four of them recently that follow each other at fifteen-minute intervals on WJZ from 5 to 6 p.m. and couldn’t see any great harm in any of them.
First I got “Terry and the Pirates,” which, unlike the comic strip of the same name, is slanted for children and not adults. Terry, in case you’re interested and I doubt that you are, is still in China and is mixed up with some one named Ruby Buckle. The comic-strip Terry is noted for his adult dialogue, which isn’t the case on the radio. Over the air, Terry talks pure blood-and-thunder and each move is carefully spelled out for the children.
After Terry comes Dick Tracy, “the protector of law and order,” who is now bending his great mind to the problem of solving the case of the snarling dog. Tracy is played by one of most virile voices in radio, which sounds as if it were nourished exclusively on vitamized breakfast foods.
Since all these adventures move at a snail’s pace, Tracy barely had time to open his mouth before Jack Armstrong took over with his manifold troubles. Jack and Billy, the modern version of Tom and Huck, are now in the hands of Slim Griffiths, a notorious sky bandit who has built up a huge fortune robbing stratocruisers. It’s not for you, pop, but the kids eat it up.
“Tennessee Jed,” the last on my list, who has apparently strayed far out of Tennessee to the wild west, differs from the others chiefly in the fact that he is likely to put his dialogue into song now and then.
“I can’t sit here wasting the rest of the night. I’ve got to meet Pancho before it gets light,” he sings to the accompaniment of a guitar.
I’m told that Superman recently has added a new twist to kids’ programs by mixing education to his adventures. Right now he is battling bigotry in the city of Metropolis and incidentally weaving in some very excellent talk on tolerance. It sounds like a fine idea, but we’ll have to take it up in some later column. At this time, I’m less concerned with programs aimed at winning the seal of approval of the United Parents Association than with shows aimed only at gripping the imagination of a child. All of the four programs I mentioned perform that function adequately and without, in my opinion, any unwholesome effects. I know a great many youngsters who listen to them regularly and there isn’t a juvenile delinquent in the lot.
This column is from August 21, 1947.
Ministers, Psychiatrists and Children
In the last few months the Parent-Teachers Association in San Francisco has been kicking up a devil of a fuss over children’s programs. The most recent action is a resolution urging two networks (Mutual and A.B.C.) to abandon eleven programs—Jack Armstrong, Lone Ranger, Sky King, Hop Harrigan, Superman, Captain Midnight, Tom Mix, Red Ryder, Cisco Kid, Tennessee Jed and Terry and the Pirates.
“Juvenile crime and horror programs are tending to dull the minds of children,” says the resolution with great piety but not much perspicacity. The parents and teachers went on to recommend that all future children’s programs be submitted to a “recognized, expert and impartial board of judges” consisting of radio representatives, psychologists, psychiatrists, ministers, educators, librarians and “listeners such as parents.”
I’m not quite brash enough to defend those eleven programs, but it seems to me the kids require some defense against this sweeping and unfair indictment. It’s much harder to dull the mind of a child than the P.T.A. seems to think. Dull-minded children—apart from those congenitally so—are usually the ones whose imagination has been stifled by well meaning but grim-lipped persons such as parents.
The literary merit of children’s programs is rather questionable, it’s true, but, in so far as the children are concerned, the programs are far better than anything turned out by any such panel of experts. The expertness, and particularly the impartiality, of psychiatrists, ministers and educators—let’s leave the librarians and psychologists out of this—can’t stand very strong examination. I should have violently objected to any of them passing judgment on my childhood reading. My mind might well have been purer if they had, but my point of view would very definitely have been narrower and my appreciation of style probably totally underdeveloped.
Besides, the ministers, educators and psychiatrists would have great difficulty finding any common ground of approval. The minister eager to adjust each word to accord with the precepts of the Christian church, the psychiatrist sniffing suspiciously at each evidence of trauma, his eyes alight with the holy fires of syntax, would be hopelessly at cross-purposes and any agreement any them would be—somewhat like Congress—a matter of generous compromises in which the script would be so excised, bowdlerized, sanctified and grammatical that it would not only dull the mind of the child but put it directly to sleep. Maybe that’s the idea. There’s no more virtuous child than one asleep.
The last group of judges—“listeners such as parents”—is a plain contradiction in terms. It’s the kids, not the parents, who listen to these things, and if any one should be consulted, it should be they. I’m not foolish enough to recommend that children be given complete control, but right now they haven’t any say-so at all.
In fact, without the addition of a single parent, minister or educator, children’s programs are already more carefully edited and supervised than any other group of programs on the air.
Vulgarity and horror are strictly forbidden and law and order and fair play inevitably triumph in all of them. That—to lay it bluntly on the line—is why they have no literary merit whatsoever. Not, dear parents and teachers, because they are so free from restraint but because they are so hag-ridden with regulations. The systematic attempts to purify children’s minds have recurred for years, and in retrospect they always look ridiculous. At the time they were written, “Tom Sawyer,” “Huckleberry Finn,” “Treasure Island” or “Snow White” (a little horror story if ever there was one) could never pass any such impartial board as suggested by the San Francisco P.T.A. These works have been hallowed by time and prestige—not an increase in tolerance or common sense on the part of parents and teachers.
For years, Mark Twain was plagued by many attempts—many of them successful—to bowdlerize his books. As recently as 1906 a group of women with minds like the drive snow attempted successfully to have “Tom Sawyer” and “Huckleberry Finn” removed from the shelves of the Brooklyn Public Library. At the time Twain wrote a letter to the librarian, a little gem of irony, which I produce in full below:
21 Fifth Ave.
Nov. 21, ‘05
Dear Sir:
I am greatly troubled by what you say. I wrote Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn for adults exclusively, & it always distresses me when I find that boys and girls have been allowed access to them. The mind that becomes soiled in youth can never again be washed clean. I know this by my own experiences, & to this day I cherish an unappeased bitterness against the unfaithful guardians of my young life, who not only permitted but compelled me to read an unexpurgated Bible through before I was 15 years old. None can do that and veer draw a sweet breath again this side of the grave. Ask that young lady—she will tell you so. (Ed. Note: I have no idea who is the young lady referred to by Twain.)
Most honestly do I wish that I could say a softening word or two in defense of Huck’s character, since you wish it, but really it is no better than those of Solomon, David, Satan & the rest of the sacred brotherhood.
If there is an Unexpurgated in the Children’s Department won’t you please help that young woman remove Tom & Huck from that questionable companionship? Sincerely yours,
I’ve heard of people who say their parents wouldn’t allow them to watch specific programmes (TV was off-limits to me after certain hours) or didn’t have a set at all. That’s good parenting. A TV has an off-switch. Use it. But if some other parents had tried to tell me not to watch Bugs Bunny (even that lame cartoon where he takes on a boring, drawling Stepin stereotype), I’d likely have a few words for them. Polite ones, naturally. Watching TV didn’t turn me into a mindless boor, like some of these do-gooders seemed to think it should.


  1. With me after school, it was in order, " Dark Shadows "," Bungles The Clown ",much loved afternoon cartoon host on our ABC affiliate. He ran " The Huckleberry Hound Show " in it's entirety, " The Flintstones ", Laurel and Hardy, and others, then to our CBS affiliate for Gilligan's Island re-runs.If there was something my parents genuinely thought I was watching that was maybe a bit too adult, or had questionable subject matter, they would have me change the channel, or turn it off. Plain and simple. Agree with every word you wrote. Great blog.

  2. Coincidentally, I was just thinking of how Filmation ruined the Archies, making Veronica and Reggie almost total friedns much more than they were in comics...(c'mon..Ronnie NEVER acted as a ditz who generally LIKED Bets..) then there were Popeye, Bugs and others in the 80s doing PSAs.SC

  3. Where was this Crosby guy when Wertham and his army of angry mothers were burning comic books...the COMICS folks could've used his help. Likewise when Peggu Charren and ACT For Children's Television neutered Saturday Morning cartoons for a whole generation of kids!😡😠

    1. Crosby's television column -- and his newspaper -- were gone several years before Charren showed up.

  4. What a great and informative article! Yes, I, too, tend to think of my childhood spent in front of the TV as "privileged", because I often think of the now censored cartoons that were in heavy rotation on the air at all hours of viewing time; hey, I saw all (or most) MGM cartoons featuring Bosko, almost all the classic Tex Avery cartoons and even the original take on "BUGS BUNNY RIDES AGAIN", all shown again and again and again, on up through the late 1960's and, while I hate to say it, no amount of hindsight parenting would have stopped me. I remember, at a young age, feeling rather sad and uncomfortable watching a cartoon called "THE GOOD EGG". I thought it was genuinely the saddest cartoon I'd ever seen, but hey, if a cartoon can make you *FEEL* something, even if misconstrued, to me, it is doing its job quite well. The animation was so good that you believed, as a kid, that those were flesh-and-blood characters! And yes, often, good won out over evil, and isn't that really what you wanted your kids to learn?

    No, I'm not "nostalgic" for the "good old days" as I realize that renegade behavior did not begin with the 1960's; there were rude rebels of any generation you can name, and the world of the theatrical cartoon was merely mirroring the times in which they lived, and I'm grateful for that! While not nostalgic, I would never censor even the ugliest aspect of our history because it is censorship and, so, our history remains colorful, if not always able to be summed up in neat categorized black and white. Let it remain that way!!