Archive for Sunday, May 11, 2008

In a throwback to Saturday TV, less is more

May 11, 2008

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Return with us now to a simpler era. A time when TV shows were in black-and-white, when basic hand puppets starred in their own series and when a half-hour moved ... much ... more ... slowly.

It's easy to journey back to that time thanks to Shout! Factory's release of a fun bit of nostalgia called "Hiya, Kids!! A '50s Saturday Morning" ($34.99).

Each of the set's four discs is arranged as if it were a Saturday morning block of viewing time. So the beginning of each disc has shows aimed at really young kids, and then as the DVD progresses each show becomes more appropriate for older ones. Disc 2, for example, begins with "Ding Dong School" (which actually aired only on weekdays, but it works in this context). On the show, Miss Frances, on leave from her post as chair of the education department at Roosevelt College in Chicago, teaches kids how to make bubbles and simple crafts.

It's a very bare-bones precursor to such shows as "Romper Room" and "Sesame Street" and may remind you of the children's show created for Mrs. Doubtfire at the end of that Robin Williams movie.

Next comes "Time for Beany," featuring rudimentary puppets voiced by Daws Butler and Stan Freberg, then "The Paul Winchell Show," built around self-taught ventriloquist Winchell (the voice of Tigger in many Disney films). It's amusing to see the show open with Winchell on the phone explaining that he can't attend a party because he's babysitting a neighbor's daughter. It's not the setup that's amusing, it's that he's wearing an ascot and a smoking jacket for the occasion. The disc becomes more action-oriented after that, with episodes of the Western "The Roy Rogers Show" and science-fiction tale "Captain Z-RO."

Other shows in the collection include "Flash Gordon," "Super Circus," "The Pinky Lee Show," "Sheena, Queen of the Jungle," "Winky Dink and You," "Kukla, Fran and Ollie" and "Howdy Doody." A booklet features interesting notes about each production.

One of the most striking things about the shows is the pacing. It's much more leisurely than the whiz-bang rat-a-tat-tat approach of most modern shows. A "Ding Dong School" segment on cereal (the sponsor was General Mills' Kix) meandered on for more than five minutes, time enough for today's educational shows to zip through at least three concepts, from math to spelling to socialization. Such a low-key approach may make "Hiya Kids!!" a difficult sell for today's children, but the set will probably be a nice nostalgia trip for their parents or grandparents.

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