THE FIRST TELEVISION ON THE BLOCK
by Anita G. Gorman
It was 1950 in Queens. On the street where the Andersons lived, they were not the only Swedish immigrants; the Carlsons lived next door. The rest of the block was comprised of what the Andersons and Carlsons would call outsiders or just people who were different, or foreigners.
Mr. Anderson worked in a factory in Brooklyn. He did not think of himself as an innovator or a revolutionary, but for some reason he decided that he wanted to buy a television set. Mrs. Anderson was skeptical. “What do we want that for? We’re perfectly fine the way we are right now, with the radio in the kitchen.”
Their two children, Greta and Stig, were all in favor of the television. At their school, Public School 102, also known as P.S. 102, a few kids already had television sets in their houses, and Greta and Stig were beginning to feel inferior. “We want it!” they shouted together, and their mother was overruled, though, if truth be told, Mrs. Anderson secretly wanted a television set. She wanted to impress her neighbors, the O’Briens, the Pulaskis, the Torrentinos, and all the other foreigners on their street. As for the Andersons, they had been thoroughly Americanized, by removing an “s” from their names. In the old country they would have been Andersson, the son of Anders, not the son of Ander, if you, dear reader, are following. So the Andersons really thought of themselves as Americans and the others as immigrants, even though they themselves were immigrants.
They lived in Elmhurst, which sounded better than it looked. There were elm trees in those days, but before long they would be destroyed by the infamous Dutch Elm Disease. Still, even in the best of times, there weren’t that many elms, but there were the usual city noises and some cars and a general ugliness to their surroundings that they tried hard not to notice.
Mr. Anderson knew about a store in Maspeth that sold Stromberg-Carlson television sets. He liked the name, Stromberg-Carlson. It was so obviously Swedish and could not be anything else. So the family, Mr. and Mrs. Anderson and Greta and Stig, walked to the bus stop on Grand Avenue and rode to Maspeth. They did not have a car. A car was deemed unnecessary in New York City, but Greta and Stig knew that a car would be really helpful if they ever wanted to go to interesting places on Long Island or beyond the borders of the Bronx.
They got off the bus and walked to the store. Unfortunately, from Mr. and Mrs. Anderson’s point of view, the store was owned by someone named Prokopf, from somewhere in eastern Europe. Not Swedish, obviously, but the store sold Stromberg-Carlson, and that’s what the Andersons, at least the senior Andersons, wanted.
By the time they were finished being swept away by Mr. Prokopf’s sales pitch, the Andersons had bought the fanciest television set in the store. But it was not just a television. No, this twelve-inch television screen was housed inside of a stupendously large wooden cabinet. Nor did it live there alone. On the lower right hand side there was a little door that when opened revealed a 45 rpm turntable. That meant, of course, that the Andersons would have to start purchasing 45 rpm recordings at an alarming rate. But that was not all: the large wooden cabinet also housed an AM radio and an FM radio. Mr. and Mrs. Anderson were dazzled by the fact that one cabinet could hold four astounding ways to be entertained; what they failed to realize was that they could be entertained by only one medium at a time.
Mrs. Anderson was a baseball fan, so she wanted to use the AM radio. Mr. Anderson thought he was more cultured than most, so he wanted to use the FM radio. Greta wanted to play the 45 rpm recordings and was determined to buy whatever was popular that day and that hour. Little Stig just wanted to watch Captain Video or maybe even a test pattern, those funny screens that the networks showed during the hours when they weren’t broadcasting. Just imagine: there were many hours in the day when the networks, and there were just three of them, were not even broadcasting!
So the Andersons were faced with a dilemma: who was to watch or listen or in any way use the new four-in-one Stromberg-Carlson behemoth that now stood in the corner of their living room?
As it turned out, that was the least of their worries. The most of their worries involved the neighbors on their street, the ones who did not have televisions. The foreigners didn’t care about AM radio (they had that) or FM radio (what was that?) or 45 rpm recordings (huh?), but they knew they wanted to watch television and so, one by one, or two by two, they started to fill up the Andersons’ living room, sometimes with lame excuses, sometimes with blatant excuses, and sometimes with no excuses at all. And Mr. Anderson, who was a polite man to strangers, if not to his immediate family, always graciously allowed the Irish and the Poles and the Italians to sit in his living room and watch what he eventually decided was not, in fact, worth watching.
Eventually, the neighbors drifted away. They, too, had decided that there was not much worth watching. Mrs. Anderson retreated to the kitchen, where she could listen to a Brooklyn Dodgers game on the radio or even, on Saturday afternoons, to the Metropolitan Opera. Greta decided that she liked books better than television, so she spent a lot of time in her room reading the classics that her mother bought her at Macy’s or the contraband Nancy Drew mysteries that no one approved of but everyone loved. Mr. Anderson insisted on watching the news, and he usually watched the news alone. When the news was not on, which was most of the time, he spent his leisure hours working on Stig’s model railroad setup in the basement, convincing himself that he was doing it for his son and not for himself, but he was really doing it for himself.
In the end, little Stig was the only one who spent hours watching television: Howdy Doody, Captain Video, Captain Kangaroo, Buck Rogers. In spite of all that, he grew up to be a responsible adult and earned a doctorate in economics.
About the Author:
Anita G. Gorman grew up in Queens and is aging in northeast Ohio. Her scholarly work has appeared in such publications as Clues: A Journal of Detection; FOLLY; Mythlore; Dime Novel Roundup; the Swedish-American Historical Quarterly, and eight volumes of the Dictionary of Literary Biography. “Where Are You, O High-School Friends?” was published in Unfinished Chapters (2015) and “Finding Bill” in Finding Mr. Right (2016). Her short stories have appeared in Gilbert, Down in the Dirt, Dual Coast, Jitter Press, Red Fez, Speculative Grammarian, Scarlet Leaf Review, and Knee-Jerk. Her one-act play, Astrid; Or, My Swedish Mama, will be produced by the Hopewell Theatre in Youngstown, Ohio in 2018.