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A Weight Lifted from our Cultural Shoulders

The eldest daughter of England’s King George V recalled that her father had an almost pathological aversion to change. “The postwar world was to him an abomination,” she said. “He disapproved of Soviet Russia, painted fingernails, women who smoked in public, cocktails, frivolous hats, American jazz, and the growing habit of going away for weekends.”

After the mind-numbing carnage of World War I, the world’s people awoke to a different kind of experience. It had a lighter air. There was a distinct sense of frivolity about this period. Suddenly, a sense of the modern hit public consciousness. Automobiles were replacing horse-drawn carriages. The first radio stations began broadcasting. In years following the Great War, there were vaudeville shows, New Orleans jazz, chorus lines, and a new type of entertainment called the movies. Unserious in its tone, this was an age of popular culture. It was such a relief from the culture of high art that had filled the 19th century.

The fourth civilization came together in the wreckage of the previous culture when western society appeared to be committing suicide. The bloody world war, sinking of the Titanic, discordant themes in music and art, and overall pretentiousness of the old order created an urge to jump off the historical track and try something different. In Europe, the old antagonisms continued to rage. The harsh reparations imposed upon Germany by the treaty of Versailles left a bitterness that led to Hitler’s assumption of power. Mussolini and his fascist supporters bullied their parliamentary opponents into submission. Claiming that their enemies would be “swept into the dustbin of history”, the Bolshevists staged a coup d’état in Russia. Angry ideologies of various types were destroying public civility. Cultural decadence and economic crisis shook society at its roots. In America, on the other hand, people were enjoying an unprecedented level of prosperity, there was a casual disregard of laws prohibiting the use of alcoholic beverages, new dance fashions emanated from Harlem, and the movies began to talk. Americans tuned out the hostile, intellectually overpowering message of Lenin and opened themselves up instead to the lightheartedness of Bing Crosby.

Some Difficulties in Telling this History

To write the history of CivIV presents some special difficulties. By its nature, entertainment appeals in different ways to different individuals. There is such a diversity of interests that historians would be hard pressed to find a single set of events to represent a community’s experience. A sensible approach might be to select entertainment experiences on the basis of their size of audience. The history of this culture might therefore include descriptions of the most popular shows. Unlike most historical events, those of the entertainment culture would consist of staged productions experienced by people sitting in movie theaters or in front of television sets at many different locations. For example, on the evening of December 17, 1969, more Americans were tuned to the Tonight Show to watch “Tiny Tim” marry “Miss Vicky” Budinger than for any other event in the history of that show. Can, however, simultaneous tunings to a television frequency by a large, but geographically scattered audience be considered an event in the same sense that the “Woodstock” rock concert which took place on Max Asgur’s farm earlier that same year would be?

The history of entertainment should, of course, include reference to specific images and sounds to which the audiences have paid attention. Each venue has its own set of internal experiences. For instance, the history of Major League baseball might include exciting events such as Don Larsen’s “perfect game” in the 1956 World Series or the time when Babe Ruth pointed to the centerfield bleachers during the 1932 World Series with the Cubs and hit the very next pitch to that spot for a home run. Seasoned sportswriters could surely come up with a list of memorable incidents in each sport and write a history which narrates them in some way. Most would agree, however, that a history of Major League baseball should also include events related to its institutional experience. For example, Branch Rickey’s decision to add Jackie Robinson to the roster of the Brooklyn Dodgers or the change in the free-agency rule might be considered historically significant events related to the game of baseball which did not happen in the games themselves. One can see that a multi-volume history could easily be written on Major League baseball alone.

The entertainment culture includes much more than this. Some of its categories might be: drama, sports, popular music and dance, stand-up or situation comedy, exotic or pornographic exhibitions, and public demonstrations. In addition, what we consider to be “the news” is increasingly being treated as a form of entertainment. Given the eclectic nature of its content, the progress of entertainment cannot be told in a simple narration like the rise and fall of imperial dynasties. Each type, or venue, would have its own history. The idea that a society as large as that of the United States could have a focused set of entertainment experiences seems quite unrealistic. The problem is compounded by the fact that each society or nation has its own pastimes. The people living in India, Africa, the Middle East, and Latin America may not be interested in the same kinds of music, drama, or sports as those in the United States. They each have their own type of public diversion. Therefore, a world history which makes entertainment a major focus of attention may have less coherence than what people would want in such works.

World history could be presented in a collection of stories, visual images, samples of music, and memorable lines representing the highlights of popular culture. But, if history consists only of a stream of audiovisual vignettes, it may lack recognizable themes. Too much would depends on the historian’s judgment as to what is important. Photojournalists often produce a montage of images using time as the unifying element. For instance, a television documentary on events which Americans experienced in 1957 might include these images: President Eisenhower sending federal troops to Little Rock to enforce a school desegregation order; Elvis Presley singing “All Shook Up”; Mickey Mantle hitting a home run in Yankee Stadium; Soviet rockets launching Sputnik; the tail fins on that year’s models of cars.

History in that mode becomes a kind of generational experience, appealing separately to each age group. Each decade brings its own style in popular music, clothing fashions, and political leadership. It becomes the journalist’s function to characterize each period in a meaningful way and anticipate what might come next. So, the “Roaring Twenties” in America were followed by the depressed “Thirties”, the wartime “Forties”, the bland but prosperous “Fifties”, and the turbulent “Sixties” of the youth culture and anti-war rebelliousness.

A book-based history necessarily takes another approach. This book will tell the story of structures supporting entertainment as well as of the entertainment itself. Being a commercial industry, popular entertainment needs to attract enough revenues to pay for the programming. Its events can be financed directly through ticket sales, or, indirectly, through commercial advertising and associated activities such as gambling or the sale of licensed products. Such considerations would partly drive its history. Another aspect would concern the mode of presentation. Are the audiences live, or do people experience entertainment events via radio, television, motion pictures, or cassette tape? Here again, practices have changed over the years. The history presented in this chapter will focus upon entertainment in the United States, both to keep the discussion to a manageable length and to acknowledge the fact that communications technology has spread American entertainment quite broadly to other parts of the world. This more than other national cultures has become the basis of a worldwide civilization.

Amateur and Professional Sports

Athletic events have been a part of popular entertainment in all countries. Horse racing came to America with the Dutch settlement of New Amsterdam in the 17th century. In 1779, the Earl of Derby instituted a horse race on his property at Epson Downs in England, which became an annual event. A horse-racing event on Long Island in 1823 drew 60,000 spectators. This is believed to be the first large crowd to watch a sporting event in the United States. Regular racing began at Saratoga Springs in 1863 and at Churchill Downs in Kentucky in 1875. Cockfighting was also a popular sport in many American cities until the Massachusetts legislature banned it in 1836. Huge sums of money were wagered on these fights. Boxing became an organized sport when rules were imposed in the 18th century. An amphitheater owned by Jack Broughton near Tottenham Court Road in London was the center of English boxing. Rules issued there in 1743 governed the sport for more than a century. Then, in 1865, the Marquess of Queensberry issued a new set of rules, giving the contestants gloves, dividing the contest into separate rounds, and providing for a ten-second count before a downed boxer lost the bout. John L. Sullivan was the reigning world heavyweight champion fighting with bare knuckles. In 1892, he lost to James J. Corbett fighting under the Queensberry rules.

Sports such as boxing, wrestling, fencing, or archery, which involve physical violence or the use of weapons, utilize skills which once had military value. English monarchs between the 11th and 15th centuries required their subjects to practice archery. English proficiency with the long bow helped produce a string of victories over the French in the Hundred Years war. The Asian sports of judo and karate are martial arts with a different twist. Judo, derived from the Chinese Buddhist art of jiu jitsu, exercises mental and physical disciplines that were attractive to the Japanese samurai warriors. It taught the warrior how to win by yielding to superior force. Karate was developed in Okinawa by patriots resisting foreign rule. Because their Japanese conquerors forbad them to possess weapons, Okinawan patriots trained at night in techniques of manual combat that could be employed without weapons. As spectator sports, however, such contests may be too individualistic to attract large crowds. The sports which play the greatest role as entertainment tend to be team sports. Such teams are symbolically linked with communities to which the spectators may belong.

The game of football is one such sport. During the Middle Ages, residents of English villages used to play a primitive version of this game. The whole town was the playing field. An unlimited number of players on both sides would try to kick a ball between goal markers at opposite ends of the town. The sport tended to become rowdy, so King Edward II banned it in 1314. Young people continued to play football on an informal basis well into the 19th century. Then this game was picked up by English public schools such as Eaton, Harrow, and Rugby. Each school had its own version. The first attempt to develop a standard set of rules for football might have been at a conference held in 1848 at Cambridge University. Fourteen different schools were represented. A second conference in 1862 produced agreement on ten rules for football, which became the “Cambridge University Football Rules.” In October 1863, football players from the London area gathered at the Old Freemasons Tavern where they formed “The Football Association”. Association football, or “soccer”, thus became formally organized. (The word “soccer” is student slang for the letters s-o-c in “association”.) English players took this game with them to all parts of the world.

In 1823, a young football player at the Rugby School in Warwickshire, England, committed an impulsive act which forever changed the game. Against all rules, William Webb Ellis suddenly picked up the ball and began running with it down the field. Football rules then permitted only kicking and bouncing the ball. Word of Ellis’ rules infraction spread to other schools. Some students decided to try the game as it had been played “at Rugby”. The Rugby version of football, today known simply as “Rugby”, acquired its own participants and rules. In 1872, twenty-one clubs in London partial to this game formed the Rugby Union. Rugby was then an amateur sport. However, the game became popular among industrial workers in northern England. Many who were eager to play for their club could not afford to take unpaid time off from their work. Northern clubs began to pay these workers small sums of money to compensate them for their travel expenses and wage loss. When the issue of paying players came up at the annual meeting of the Rugby Union in 1893, a vote was taken and a decision made not to permit such payments. Two years later, delegates from several Rugby clubs in the North organized their own league on the basis of allowing the payments. This “Northern Union” became, in effect, a league for professional players.

The American game of football is a derivative of rugby. While the first intercollegiate football game took place between Rutgers and Princeton in 1869, these two teams were actually playing soccer, which forbad running with the ball. Rugby-style football came to the United States by way of Canada. In May 1874, athletes at Harvard University invited a team from McGill University in Montreal to play a game of football. Watching the Canadians practice, the Harvard players realized that the teams were playing two different games. So a compromise was reached. The two teams would play the first half of the game under Harvard’s soccer rules, and under McGill’s rugby rules in the second half. The Harvard players decided that they liked rugby better, so it became a part of American collegiate sports. Walter Camp, Yale’s first coach, is known as the father of American football. He developed the concept of eleven-man teams, the scrimmage line, and other features and rules of the modern game. After several college students were killed while playing this sport, President Theodore Roosevelt convened a conference for the purpose of improving safety. To relieve congestion at the line of scrimmage, a committee chaired by Walter Camp decided to allow the forward pass. Notre Dame’s Knute Rockne popularized it during an upset victory over Army in 1913.

Venerable tradition has it that Abner Doubleday, a Civil War general, invented the American game of baseball at Cooperstown, New York, in 1839. Soldiers in the Union army played this game for recreation between battles and took it home with them after the war. However, a book published in 1834 presents rules for a game similar to baseball and a woodcut illustration which shows boys playing it on Boston Commons. It seems more likely, then, that American baseball was derived from rounders, a game played by English schoolboys since medieval times. A game called “old cats” used a wooden cat in the shape of a spindle and a stick for hitting this object. As in the British game of cricket, a batter ran between two bases after hitting a pitched ball. He was “out” if an opposing player caught the ball on the bounce or in flight. In American baseball, the number of bases was increased to four. After hitting the ball, the batter ran as far as he could in a clockwise direction without being tagged. The running direction was later changed. In 1842, a group of young men began to play baseball for recreation in lower Manhattan. They became organized as the “Knickerbockers” club three years later. In 1857, a group of amateur clubs formed the National Association of Baseball Players which issued the game’s first uniform set of rules.

Basketball was a game started from scratch in the United States. Its inventor, Dr. James Naismith, was a physical-education instructor at the YMCA in Springfield, Massachusetts. He was looking for a sport which young people might play during the winter or at night. Naismith invented basketball after studying other existing sports. He determining what elements were needed and then developed a set of rules. The first basketball game was played in December 1891 in the Springfield YMCA gymnasium. Peach baskets were suspended at either end of the court. They had to be emptied by a man on a ladder each time that a “basket” was made. In 1906, open loops mounted on a backboard replaced these receptacles and the number of players on a team was reduced from seven to five. The game of basketball became an immediate sensation. By the early 1920s, it was the most popular sport in American schools. The annual state high-school basketball tournament became the biggest athletic event in town. In 1923, Robert and Helen Lynd noted in their sociological study Middletown: “More civic loyalty centers around basket-ball than any other thing.”

The sports of football, baseball, basketball, hockey, and golf, among others, have become important entertainment features on television, appealing especially to men. Because the event is unscripted, it sustains viewer suspense. The tradition of team play includes a moral dimension in suggesting vigorous camaraderie and unselfish cooperation in an endeavor identified with a larger community. These sports are regularly played in American high schools and colleges, where spectator interest is equated with “school spirit”. In professional sports, a polite myth is maintained that professional teams represent cities or regions; civic piety obliges residents of those communities to root for the home team. Professionalism came first to baseball. Teams of professional players representing certain U.S. cities formed the National League in 1876, while the American League was created in 1900. The first World Series was played in 1903. The American Professional Football Association, forerunner of the National Football League, was established in 1920, and the American Football League in 1960. The National Basketball Association was founded in 1949 through a merger of two groups.

Sports competition also takes place between teams representing nations during the International Olympic Games, held once every four years. This worldwide event revives a tradition begun in Greece during the 8th century B.C. Athletes from the Greek city-states competed then in such sports as running, jumping, throwing, and wrestling. While the games were initially held in honor of the Greeks’ ancestral gods, they became a force for pan-Hellenic cultural cohesion and peace. Their revival in 1896 A.D. was a result of efforts by the French baron Pierre de Coubertin. The baron had been impressed by the enthusiasm with which rugby was played in English public schools. He was also inspired to revive Olympic competition by the recent excavation of archeological sites near Mt. Olympus and even the controversy regarding free trade. “Let us export our oarsmen, our runners, our fencers, into other countries. This is the true Free Trade of the future,” he declared. Baron de Coubertin’s proposal to revive the Olympic games won acceptance at an international athletic congress held in Paris in 1894. The first Olympiad of the modern era took place in Athens, Greece, in April 1896.

Other Entertainment in 19th Century America

An early form of entertainment in the United States was the lecture circuit. Well-known writers, scientists, preachers, educators, and other learned persons would go on tour, lecturing on topics of interest for a fee. The lyceum movement, begun in New England in the 1820s, included more than 3,000 local groups by the mid 1830s. The English novelists Thackeray and Dickens were among the more popular attractions. Ralph Waldo Emerson, Horace Mann, Theodore Parker, and Mark Twain were American celebrities in demand. While these events appeared to be instructional, the social aspect was also important. They were a suitable form of entertainment for couples while courting. Lectures at the Cooper Union in New York City were vehicles of self-improvement for the working class. Rather less serious were the traveling shows that featured dance companies, acrobats, wax museums, singers, ventriloquists, and comedians such as Artemus Ward. Equestrian acts, combining acrobatic or circus-like features, were popular in the 1830s. Exotic animals or artifacts were exhibited in traveling circuses or in museums, sometimes pretending to serve a moral purpose but always entertaining.

The live theater, which became popular in the United States during the 1840s, was at first considered to be a questionable activity. Religious stigma against theatrical presentations went back to the 1600s. Theaters tended to be located next to billiard parlors and saloons. In addition to the main piece, the performers usually did short routines that featured women in breeches singing bawdy tunes. Italian and French ballet added to the sense of scandal by putting the female dancers in skimpy costumes with a full view of their legs. Many of the early theatrical productions were imported from England. Famous British tragedians such as Edmund Kean and Junius Brutus Booth, father of Lincoln’s assassin, regularly performed on the American stage. As it did later in Hollywood, the star system came to dominate the live theater. Edwin Forrest, a melodramatic tragedian, and Charlotte Cushman, who specialized in performing male parts in Shakespearean plays, were among the better-known American performers on tour. The American theater included stock characters such as the villainous Yankee or Davy Crockett-like frontier characters. By the end of the 19th century, most American cities had their own opera house which gave several theatrical performances each week.

In the 1890s, mechanical gadgets became an important part of the American entertainment scene. Besides popularizing Egyptian belly dancers, the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893 included a Ferris wheel which rose 200 feet above the shore of Lake Michigan. The carnival midway made its debut at this event. In many American cities, the streetcar companies operated amusement parks on the outskirts of town. Families on weekends could ride the trolley to the park where they might enjoy a picnic together, experience roller-coaster rides, and listen to concert bands. The penny arcades were filled with mechanical novelties, many of the peepshow variety. A crank-driven “movie machine” spun photographic images on a reel of cards attached to a wooden spool, creating the illusion of motion. A fortune-telling machine purported to read a player’s palm and predict his future. Another type of machine tested mens’ arm strength and endurance. A coin-operated phonograph developed from Edison’s invention emitted recorded sounds. For a nickel, thrill-seeking patrons could experience a mild electric shock by gripping two handle bars. And, of course, the “French postcard” peepshows showed women in various stages of undress.

Racial Overtones

A theme unique to American entertainment may have been the relationship between black performers - or white performers imitating them - and predominantly white audiences. Initially, white Americans found the song and dance routines of Negro slaves to be childishly amusing. Daddy Rice’s “Jim Crow” act started the craze which blossomed into the minstrel shows. White entertainers by the score, their faces darkened with burnt cork, traveled the country exhibiting the southern Negro’s songs, dance steps, humor, and style of speech. This was America’s most popular form of entertainment for a half century. The minstrel shows were typically performed in two parts. In the first part, a dozen or so entertainers would be gathered in a semicircle, shaking tambourines. An elegantly clothed “interlocutor” standing in the middle would act as straight man to two gaudily dressed comedians, Mr. Tambo and Mr. Bones. This part of the show was a mixture of repartee, banjo playing, ballads, and dancing, smartly performed, until each performer in turn broke away from the circle, did a “walk around” followed by a jig, and then retired from the stage. The second part of the show was an assortment of monologues, comedy skits, songs, and dances, followed by a burlesque in which a male entertainer wearing a wig, brassier, and swishing skirts pretended to be a woman.

The “Virginia Minstrels”, starring Dan Emmett of “Jim Crow” fame, opened in New York City in 1843 with great success. It was followed by the “Kentucky Minstrels”, “Ethiopian Minstrels”, and other minstrel companies comprised entirely of white-male performers. Black entertainers did not perform in these shows until after the Civil War. The first all-black company was the “Plantation Minstrel Company” whose members, although black, darkened their faces and circled their lips with white or red paint to exaggerate the racial features. A similar event occurred with the “Tom shows”, which were melodramatic performances based on Harriet Beecher Stowe’s book, Uncle Tom’s Cabin. These shows included such exciting features as bloodhounds chasing Eliza across the ice and the famous whipping scene. The slave girl, Topsy, often played by female impersonators, was a highly memorable character. The scene of Little Eva going to heaven never failed to raise tears. The first performance of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, took place in Troy, New York, in 1853. While black singers were used in the chorus, whites generally took the acting parts.

Even after the minstrel shows declined in popularity, the routines performed in the “Olio” were continued in the form of vaudeville shows, which offered a complete evening’s entertainment. There were both white and black companies. The Theater Owners Booking Association was an important vaudeville circuit for black performers after World War I. Pantages, Loew’s, and the Keith Orpheum Combine booked predominantly white performers. Vaudeville was performed both on the road and in big-city theaters. The acts included everything from tap dancing, comedy, and snake charming to demonstrations by heavy-weight boxing champions. Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, the tap dancer, was the highest paid black performer. Vaudeville was an important mode of entertainment from the 1880s until the early 1930s when radio cut into their audiences. Famous radio comedians such Jack Benny and George Burns began their careers as vaudeville performers. Radio’s first hit show, “Amos ‘n Andy”, begun in 1928, continued the American tradition of expressing black people’s humor through the mouths of white entertainers. However, the television version which went on the air in 1951 featured a black cast.

Inevitably, black entertainers worked in their own productions and white imitators faded from the scene. As early as the 1820s, a black theater group, the African Company, performed Shakespearean plays in New York City. Ira Aldrich, an actor known as the “African Roscius”, toured Europe to great acclaim. The Luca family was a popular group of black singers who performed for Queen Victoria. By the turn of the century, black entertainers were appearing without blackface in their own shows. Singing comedians such as Bert Williams and George Walker starred in the so-called “coon shows” in which a well-dressed male performer flanked by an alluring female chorus would do a musical routine with a derby and twirling cane. A dance routine known as the “cakewalk” created a sensation in Europe. Female singers such as Ethel Waters, Florence Mills, and Josephine Baker, who performed at the Folies Bèrgeres, developed routines which became hugely popular with white audiences in the 1920s. The Harlem Globetrotters entertained crowds with a burlesque of basketball. More serious presentations of black cultural themes included Paul Robeson’s performance in The Emperor Jones and George Gershwin’s social opera, Porgy and Bess.

The impact of black culture on American popular entertainment may be greatest in the field of music. The Negro slaves brought certain rhythms with them from Africa which many whites found appealing. In the early 1800s, slaves used to gather at a place in New Orleans called “Congo Square” to perform their music for tourists. Black melodies were converted into popular tunes by white composers such as Steven Foster. A slave tune originally called “Old Zip Coon” became “Turkey in the Straw”. At the turn of the century, a new kind of piano music called “ragtime” incorporated a syncopated jazz beat. It was made popular by Scott Joplin, a white composer living in Missouri. Ragtime opened the door for jazz music performed by black artists such as Buddy Bolden and W.C. Handy. The Clef Club’s Syncopated Orchestra brought jazz to Carnegie Hall in 1912. From New Orleans came Louis Armstrong, who, together with Duke Ellington, Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, Count Basie, and Ella Fitzgerald, developed this into a distinctively American musical art form. Blues singers supplied vocal accompaniment. During the 1920s, the Savoy Ballroom in Harlem was known as “the Home of the Happy Feet”. The Charleston and the Lindy Hop (named after Charles Lindbergh) began there, setting off a new dance style in which couples danced apart.

The Big Band era, beginning in the late 1920s, centered on “swing music” performed in a somewhat less spontaneous way. White instrumental groups dominated this period. White crooners such as Bing Crosby and Perry Como set the tone of popular music with their laid-back style. Dancers such as Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire projected an image of cool sophistication. Frank Sinatra became famous as a vocalist with the Tommy Dorsey band. Black musicians were being relegated to a cultural ghetto, albeit one which continued to be a source of new ideas. Bebop music challenged swing in the late 1930s. Mahalia Jackson’s Gospel recordings sold more than a million copies. Most hotel supper clubs provided opportunities for black entertainers such as Johnny Mathis, Lena Horne, and Nat King Cole to find work. Black-oriented radio stations played a peculiar kind of music that attracted many white fans. Harry Belafonte’s Calypso started a brief musical craze in the 1950s with its Caribbean beat.

Black-Flavored White Singers

From the 1930s through the mid 1950s, American popular music bore the stamp of Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, and other white singers who had mastered the cool style of black jazz musicians. Bing Crosby did not seem to take himself seriously as a singer. He often missed shows and, in fact, could not read a note of music. Though a family man, Crosby liked to chase chorus girls and drink booze. His intimate style of “crooning” softly into the microphone inspired a generation of imitators. He had a smooth and pleasing voice which made singing seem easy. He may have borrowed his habit of “scatting” - substituting sounds for words - from Louis Armstrong. On stage, Bing Crosby projected an image of carefree sophistication and good cheer. He played the part of a wisecracking hustler in light-comedy films co-starring Bob Hope. His breezy, easygoing way captured the spirit of America in the late jazz age. Frank Sinatra combined Crosby’s intimate style of singing with overt sex appeal. His boyish intensity excited a generation of bobbysoxers. The young Sinatra precipitated a riot in Times Square on Columbus Day, 1944. In later years, he became pals with Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr., making a big splash in Las Vegas. His immense popularity even survived the coming of rock ‘n roll.

Sam Phillips, a Memphis record producer, is supposed to have said in early 1953: “If I could find a white man who had the Negro sound and the Negro feel, I could make a billion dollars.” He found such a person in Elvis Presley, a young truck driver who came into Phillips’ studio later that year to make a private recording of a now forgotten song, “My Happiness.” Another song, “That’s All Right, Mama”, which Elvis recorded a year later, attracted considerable attention. It was a fast blues swing piece, like some heard on black radio stations, which had strong country influence. After performing mostly in the South for two years, Elvis broke out of this regional ghetto to become a national sensation. With his sideburns and half-smiling sneer, he presented a rebellious image to Americans of high-school age. Mobs of screaming teenage girls attended his concerts. In an age of social conformity, his stage performances included sexually suggestive hip gyrations. Therefore, when Elvis appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show in September 1956, television cameramen were instructed to show only the upper part of his body. His songs struck a chord with restless youth and changed the chemistry of race relations in America.

Elvis Presley was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1958. He married, returned to the United States to resume both a singing and acting career, became a headline performer in Las Vegas, and died in 1977 of a suspected overdose of drugs and medications. The rock ‘n roll revolution which he began resumed, after a brief interlude of experimentation with folk music, in the early 1960s. A young, fun-loving Harvard graduate then occupied the White House. The black Civil Rights movement, supported by idealistic white students, was raging in the South. Bob Dylan’s folk anthem, “The Times, They are a-Changin’”, seemed to capture the spirit of this generational and racial change. Then, suddenly, a new wave of rock music came to America from across the seas. Invited to perform on the Ed Sullivan Show, a British band called the “Beatles” arrived at the international airport in New York City greeted by newspaper reporters and a large cheering crowd. More than 70 million people witnessed their American television debut on February 9, 1964. Beatles tunes hit the top of the charts; and then songs by other English groups such as Herman’s Hermits and the Rolling Stones. The “British invasion”, bringing rock ‘n roll back to its homeland from abroad, was in full swing.

During the next five years, a culture saturated with rock ‘n roll music became intertwined with drug experimentation, racial protest, the anti-war movement, free love, and other strands of the youth culture. The Beatles were transformed from a clean-cut band which produced ballad-like hit singles into an album-producing group which experimented with marijuana and Eastern meditation. America’s youth shared in the Beatles’ personal growth, appreciating their political views, their offbeat humor and shaggy appearance, their interest in drugs, and the direction of their music. The ’60s rock culture integrated black and white music as never before. Black “Motown” performers including Diana Ross and the Supremes continued the tradition of romantic ballads while Jimi Hendrix appealed to the avant-garde. After the flower children visited San Francisco in the summer of 1967, the mood grew uglier. The anti-war protests intensified, and two political assassinations took place. There were race riots in several large cities. The Chicago police clubbed protesters at the Democratic national convention. Rock fans assembled for a colossal rally at the “Woodstock” concert in July 1969. This peaceful event, which drew one-half million spectators, was followed by another of similar size at Altamont in California which turned violent.

Rock ‘n roll music now belongs to an international culture that appeals to young people in Asia and eastern Europe as well as in Britain and the United States. In America, however, it has entered a mature phase. There are no more “hit parades” of Top 40 singles; no more Major Bowes’ amateur hours giving a Frank Sinatra his first break, or television variety shows like Ed Sullivan’s which would showcase an Elvis Presley. Recording artists today produce albums rather than singles. The corporate managers who control this music are into packaging sounds for different radio audiences and consumer types. The amplified heavy-metal sound of the 1970s had drifted far from the simple love songs of the previous decade. Punk rock was more audaciously theatrical. Video presentations entered the rock scene. The biggest-selling album in the 1980s was Michael Jackson’s “Thriller”, promoted with the help of MTV. Jackson is the grown-up version of that small black boy who once performed with the Jackson Five, now strangely vulnerable, with an innocence which still appeals to teenagers and preteens. British rock icons such as Eric Clapton and Elton John are joined by a new generation of American performer, including Madonna and Prince, who attract young, hip, racially mixed audiences.

Productions on the Broadway Stage

Traditional entertainment suggests live theater. The center of this activity in the United States has been a complex of theaters in New York City known collectively as “Broadway”. A street by that name runs the length of Manhattan. Near Times Square (42nd Street) it becomes the “Great White Way”. The tradition of the Broadway theater goes back to the 19th century. Its spirit has always been entrepreneurial rather than academic, focused on producing new hits. Yet, a type of academic, the theater critic, is on hand to observe and analytically report each production on opening night. In March 1915, the Schubert brothers, who controlled the theater market in New York City, tried to influence this process by refusing to allow a drama critic from the New York Times to enter their theaters after he had written an unfavorable review of one of their plays. The Times retaliated by refusing to publish advertisements for Schubert productions. When the Schuberts backed down a year later, it reconfirmed the critics’ independence and enhanced the newspaper’s reputation for editorial integrity.

Broadway theaters are torn between the urge to produce creative works of high quality and the need to stick with productions which appeal to basic human instincts. Plays which are too intelligent often fail from a commercial standpoint. John D. Williams, a successful theater producer in the early part of the 20th century, once said: “Intelligence and good taste are fatal to successful play producing anywhere in America because, handicapped by either of these, you are apt to produce the kind of play you think other college graduates will go to see.” Such productions would fail because “(e)very college graduate ran as fast as he could past the theaters containing these handstitched college graduate plays, put on by a college graduate. And they didn’t stop running until they landed in the front row of the ‘Follies’; failing that, they ran over to see ‘Girls, Girls, and Nothing but Girls’, ‘Oh, You Girls’ or ‘The Skidding of Tottie Coughdrop.’” Still, when an intelligent work such as Eugene O’Neill’s Beyond the Horizon developed new tragic themes or a performer such as John Barrymore brought personal magnetism to a production of Hamlet, critically acclaimed works might also enjoy box-office success. O’Neill’s genius set the stage for other serious playwrights such as Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams.

An important element in drama, as in other types of entertainment, is the appeal of individual personality. This fact became clear when the Actors’ Equity Association, whose members were individually much better known than their bosses, struck owners of Broadway theaters in August 1919. Threatened with legal action, the striking actors took their case to the public. They did fundraising benefits and free performances in the streets and marched down Broadway waving American flags. The theater owners capitulated after thirty days. Some of the actors, organized in a group called the “Theater Guild”, put on their own performances in a rented theater during the strike. This organization became an incubator for daring and original works both by American dramatists and Europeans such as Chekhov, Ibsen, or George Bernard Shaw. Its idea was to create theater in the form of a democratic cooperative that would produce works for subscription audiences. This concept progressed to that of the “Theater Group”, a politically inspired company which celebrated America’s working class. Clifford Odets’ Waiting for Lefty, produced in 1935, dramatized a New York taxi drivers’ strike of the previous year. The methods developed here to teach acting shaped the careers of Marlon Brando, Paul Newman, Robert De Niro, and others.

Even so, Broadway theaters were in the business of entertaining customers and making money. The Ziegfeld Follies did this by presenting beautiful women in chorus lines. However, there was always room for a play which became a smashing hit by giving Americans a new look at themselves. Showboat, produced by Florenz Ziegfeld in 1927, was among the first Broadway musicals to explore race relations in a socially conscious way. Based on a novel by Edna Ferber, it employed the creative talents of Oscar Hammerstein and Jerome Kern to depict life and love on the southern stretches of the Mississippi river. A controversial musical hit of 1940, Pal Joey, starring Gene Kelly, glamorized the life of a low-class womanizer who danced his way into women’s hearts. In 1943, Oscar Hammerstein teamed up with Richard Rodgers to produce an upbeat view of life on the farm. Considered “corny” by some, Oklahoma! dazzled audiences with its western costuming, energetic dance routines, and memorable tunes. It was unapologetically optimistic about heartland America. The same creative team went on to produce such Broadway favorites as Carousel, South Pacific, and The Sound of Music, until Hammerstein died in 1960.

The Movies

During the 20th century, a new element entered American entertainment in the form of newly invented technologies to convey sensuous images. Edison’s pair of inventions, the phonograph and motion picture, captured fluent sights and sounds in a medium which allowed later retrieval by electrical machines. The earliest film production took place in the East perhaps because Edison’s studio was located there. The jump was made from short features for nickelodeons to longer productions that told a story. An eight-reel Alaskan adventure film, The Spoilers, drew 40,000 customers to New York’s Strand Theater during its first week. D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation, offered two and a half hours of entertainment on twelve reels. Released in 1915, it provoked black riots in Boston by glorifying the Ku Klux Klan. On the other hand, cinema historians credit Griffith with being the first director to realize the full potential of filmmaking techniques. He greatly increased the number of shots and shifted the camera from one view to another to follow significant events in the story. It was Griffith who pioneered close-up shots and crisscrossing between simultaneous action. While creating a new art form, his works attracted a growing audience for the film industry.

In 1913, a New York vaudeville producer, Jesse L. Lasky set up an independent film company engaging Cecil B. DeMille as its creative director and Samuel Goldfish (later Goldwyn) as sales agent. Its first production was the film version of a western stage play, The Squaw Man, starring Dustin Farnum. DeMille proposed making the film in the West to take advantage of the more realistic scenery. After spending an afternoon at Edison’s studio in the Bronx to observe filmmaking techniques, he and his colleagues headed west to Flagstaff, Arizona, to shoot the 90-minute film over a period of eighteen days. The editing work was done at a rented laboratory in Hollywood. Hollywood had certain advantages over eastern locations. Its season was longer for shooting outdoor scenes, its labor costs were lower, and, most importantly for independent producers, it was far from film makers whose works were licensed by the Motion Pictures Patent Company. Members of this “trust” used legal threats and violence to discourage independent film production. Being close to the Mexican border offered independents an escape if a U.S. court attempted to shut them down. In DeMille’s case, an unidentified vandal broke into his laboratory and destroyed the negative of The Squaw Man. Fortunately, DeMille had made a second negative.

Lasky’s production company made more than twenty films during the next two years before merging with Adolph Zukor’s Famous Players. They became Paramount Pictures in 1917. Sam Goldfish and an associate, Edgar Selwyn, left Paramount to form their own studio, Goldwyn Productions, which merged with Louis B. Mayer Productions in 1922 to become MGM. A third Hollywood studio, United Artists, was created in 1919 through the efforts of a studio manager, Benjamin Schulberg, who convinced some of Paramount’s principal actors and directors to form their own company. United Artists was jointly owned by Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks, and Mary Pickford - three of the biggest stars of the silent-film era - plus D.W. Griffith and William G. McAdoo, the general manager. It had become apparent by then that the presence of certain actors or actresses in a film was critical to box-office success. Realizing that, the film stars demanded and received higher salaries. Pickford, for instance, negotiated a contract with Paramount to do ten films for $2,000 per week plus half the profits. Charlie Chaplin signed a contract to receive $670,000 for a year’s work. The idea behind United Artists was that the stars, in performing for their own company, might keep all the profits.

Starting with Thomas Edison himself, several inventors had envisioned adding sound to motion pictures. The film studios did not push this, however, because silent films were so popular. In 1923, Lee DeForest, a pioneer of radio technology, started the Phonofilm Company to produce and market an optical recording device that would provide synchronized sound for motion pictures. Bell Laboratories developed a similar process called the Vitaphone. In 1926, the Warner Brothers studio produced an experimental film using the Vitaphone technology. Its next venture was a full-length movie with sound. Warner Brothers bought the film rights to Sam Raphaelson’s hit play, The Jazz Singer, starring George Jessel. Jessel would not come to terms so the studio signed a contract with Al Jolson, the singer on whose life the play was based, to do the film version. Jolson was a veteran vaudeville performer used to wisecracking on stage. What made the film so appealing was Jolson’s ad-libbed lines in the scene with his mother. The spontaneous conversation struck a chord with the audience, and Jolson became a national sensation. The film industry could not turn back from sound.

Motion pictures had a huge impact on popular culture. Their increasingly frequent performances cut into attendance at lodges. The cheaper theaters featured western adventure films and comedies. “Society” films were more apt to be shown in the high-class theaters. Young women went to the movies to learn how to handle problems of dating in a modern society. Al Jolson’s next film after The Jazz Singer was The Singing Fool, in which he sang “Danny Boy” to his character’s recently deceased son. Horror films also became a popular genre. The premier of Dracula, starring Bela Lugosi, on Friday, February 13, 1931, introduced a theme which appealed to Depression-era audiences. Dracula, the monster, had some human qualities that drew a sympathetic reaction from audiences. Theater operators promoted the film by telling customers to stay away and placing nurses in the theaters to revive spectators who had fainted. This winning formula led to sequels such as Frankenstein. Boris Karloff’s frightening appearance was increased by applying cadaver-like makeup to his face.

The decade of the 1930s is considered a “golden age” of film production. Talented writers, actors, and comedians from the New York stage trekked to Hollywood in search of fortune and fame. To lure financially pinched customers into the theater, MGM’s production head, Irving Thalberg, conceived the idea of putting several of his studio’s top stars into a single film in order to create an extravaganza with irresistible box-office appeal. The result was Grand Hotel, released in April 1932. The glamorous Swedish actress Greta Garbo was yoked with Joan Crawford, John and Lionel Barrymore, and others from MGM’s stable of stars in this blockbuster film. Shrewdly promoted, it earned millions of dollars and set the pattern for future all-star films. Hollywood’s best year was 1939. Its seven major studios produced a total of 341 films that year. Many were grade-B westerns, but the offering also included Dark Victory starring Bette Davis and Humphrey Bogart, John Wayne’s Stagecoach, Goodbye, Mr. Chips, and many other notable films. This was also the year of two all-time Hollywood favorites, Gone with the Wind and Wizard of Oz. Gone with the Wind, a cathartic experience for the American South, holds the all-time record for box-office receipts as adjusted for inflation. Wizard of Oz made Judy Garland a cultural icon.

Offering the cheapest form of high-quality entertainment ever devised, the film industry was riding high. However, its success attracted criticism of several kinds. First, the industry came under attack from religious groups for the “immorality” of its productions and its performers’ “decadent” lifestyles. The impetus for this criticism may have been comedian “Fatty” Arbuckle’s arraignment for manslaughter in 1921 after an actress was found dead in Arbuckle’s San Francisco hotel room following a night of orgy. To forestall Congressional action, the industry set up a committee headed by a former U.S. Postmaster General, Will Hays, to self-police its productions. The Catholic church formed a “Legion of Decency” which boycotted morally offensive films. Though ruining the career of Mae West, such measures came too late to stop Cecil B. DeMille from producing The Sign of the Cross, a 1932 thriller about Nero’s Rome, which showed Claudette Colbert’s bare breasts and a lesbian love dance. The film slyly included a moralistic message condemning such behavior. Another attack came from the U.S. Justice Department. In July 1938, its Anti-Trust Division filed suit against eight Hollywood studios and numerous executives charging restraint of trade. This move forced the studios to divest their theater holdings and change their booking arrangements.

A greater challenge to the film industry was competition from television. Annual attendance at movie theaters dropped from 80 million to 46 million in 1952 as the new technology was being introduced. Television had the unbeatable ability to deliver free entertainment into a customer’s living room, but two disadvantages: its tiny screen and lack of a colored image. The film industry counterattacked with technological innovations to demonstrate its visual superiority. The first was “Cinerama”, a technique of projecting color film onto three adjacent screens to create panoramic scenery. Audiences were taken on a realistic roller-coaster ride while seated in theaters. A year later, in 1953, the CinemaScope technique was unveiled using a single camera to produce crisp wide-screen images. Thousands of theaters were converted to this type of projection. A third innovation, 3-D films, enjoyed brief popularity. Viewers wearing paper glasses experienced the illusion of activity in three dimensions. The process of improving film sight and sound continued with systems such as Imax which were introduced during the 1970s.

Hollywood continued to prosper in the television age, thanks to video rentals, foreign distribution, product licensing, film libraries, and made-for-television features. However, the film industry was slow to enter the business of producing shows for television. That left an opening for independent producers such as Revue Productions, which was a subsidiary of Music Corporation of America (MCA), a talent agency. Agents representing the Hollywood stars originally were forbidden to enter programming because a prohibition imposed by the Screen Actors Guild. Lew Wasserman, MCA’s president, negotiated a blanket waiver from that rule with Ronald Reagan, the Guild’s president. MCA went on to become a powerhouse in the television industry, producing roughly one third of NBC’s shows in the late 1950s. This one-time talent agency purchased Paramount Pictures pre-1948 films in 1958 and Universal Picture’s Hollywood studio and adjoining lots a year later. When in 1962 it attempted to acquire Decca Records, Universal Picture’s parent company, the U.S. Department of Justice filed for a restraining order. MCA had to agree to abandon its business as a talent agency to acquire Decca and Universal Pictures. The wisdom of accepting those terms was confirmed in 1990 when Wasserman negotiated MCA’s sale to Matsushita for $6 billion.

So Hollywood has moved from the old studio system of producing films to a new system based on packaging creative talent. Success at the box office starts with the stars, and talent agencies control that resource. Successful filmmaking also requires finding the right script, the right director, cameramen, and music specialists. The person who can put all these elements together by his contacts, contracts, and negotiating skills becomes the real power in the film industry. An additional element in contemporary productions is the increasing reliance upon computer-generated special effects. George Lucas’ 1977 Star Wars started a trend toward computerized films. Steven Spielberg has become Hollywood’s most successful director with such hits as E.T. and Jurassic Park, which used computer technology. There was a renaissance in animated cartoons during the 1990s as the Disney Studio has produced The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, The Lion King, and other works appealing both to children and their parents. The creative talent which once produced a successful Broadway musical has lately gone into this kind of production.

Radio Broadcasting

Ham operators dominated radio broadcasting during the first twenty years that the technology existed. The first commercial station, KDKA, began regular broadcasts in Pittsburgh in November 1920. Initially, profits were made in selling radio receivers. As sets were sold, additional stations became licensed for commercial broadcasting. Radio Corporation of America, headed by David Sarnoff, established the first radio network, NBC, in 1926. A Philadelphia cigar manufacturer, Sam Paley, purchased United Independent Broadcasters in 1928 and gave it to his son. William Paley renamed this fledgling network Columbia Broadcasting System. The Radio Act of 1927 regulated federal licensing of stations. Commercial operators were given exclusive use of certain frequencies for broadcasting their programs. The Federal Communications Act of 1934 established an independent agency to oversee all telecommunications. The authors of Middletown describe typical radio programming in the 1920s as consisting of “a Philharmonic concert, a sermon by Dr. Fosdick, or President Coolidge bidding his father farewell on election eve.” Later, vaudeville-style comedy, play-by-play sports announcing, and dramatic presentations became staples of radio broadcasting in the United States.

In Great Britain, the Wireless Telegraphy Act of 1904 required all wireless transmitters and receivers to be licensed by the Post Office. This agency asked the radio manufacturers to organize themselves into a cartel to avoid the chaos thought to have developed in the United States from unrestricted broadcasting. The (British) Broadcasting Company, later known as BBC, was licensed to broadcast in 1922. Broadcasting was defined as a public utility. Under the BBC’s managing director, John Reith, radio was to function as “a servant of culture”, which would help to create a more unified and egalitarian society. A clause in the BBC’s license forbad it “to deal with controversial matters in its programming service.” Although that provision was softened in 1928, the BBC ran a tightly controlled operation which became regarded almost as an extension of the British government. Winston Churchill complained that politicians such as himself who were unacceptable to the party whips were denied access to radio. The BBC’s policy was “to eliminate from (news) bulletins all crimes and tragedies that have not a national or international importance.” Another policy forbad jokes about politicians, advertisements, U.S. prohibition, medical matters, and Scotsmen or Welshmen (but not Irishmen).

By the time of the 1938 Munich crisis, the BBC began to be compared unfavorably with competing models of broadcasting. The relatively wide-open news reporting in the United States gave the American public a more accurate picture of events in Europe than the government-managed radio news in Britain. In the mid 1930s, competition from two offshore commercial stations, Radio Normandie and Radio Luxembourg, forced the BBC to lighten up. For years, it had avoided “infusion of the human element” in news announcing to preserve the focus upon policy questions. That started to change in 1938. The BBC, which had not even had a news department until 1934, began to do recorded interviews and “eyewitness reports” from specially equipped cars. More entertainment features were added including the highly popular sports broadcasts. Fearing job losses, the Variety Artists Federation, fearing job losses to radio, had advised its members in 1923 not to cooperate with the BBC. Used to feedback from live audiences, comedians at first found it hard to work in radio studios. The BBC struggled to find a type of music that would appeal to diverse audiences. Light music and dance music were early staples of its musical programming. Later, it included more gramophone recordings and more vaudeville or variety features.

American radio was quicker to recycle talent from the vaudeville circuit into the new medium. It gained stature from quality reporting of the European crises by foreign correspondents such as Edward R. Murrow and William Shirer. More radio sets were sold during the three-week period when Neville Chamberlain met Hitler in Munich than in any other comparable period. The Nation said then that radio had become America’s dominant system of news communication. In October 1938, its power was confirmed when Orson Wells and his Mercury Theater company broadcast a radio play based on H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds. The play consisted of faked news reports about a Martian space ship landing in New Jersey. Simulated news flashes were interspersed with weird noises and then a period of prolonged silence. A mile-long traffic jam was created as panic-stricken New Yorkers tried to flee the city. Radio was an ideal medium for fast-breaking news and interviews exemplified by the famed newspaper columnist, Walter Winchell, who turned celebrity gossip into a minor industry. It showcased wisecracking comedians such as Jack Benny and Bob Hope, and presented imaginative dramas such as The Shadow or The Lone Ranger which gave it a reputation of being “theater of the mind.”


During radio’s heyday in the 1930s, David Sarnoff and his RCA engineers were engaged in patent battles with Philo Farnsworth, inventor of electronic television, for rights to this technology. Sarnoff unveiled RCA’s system of commercial television at the 1939 New York World Fair only for World War II to interrupt its introduction. The Federal Communications Commission assigned the VHF (very high frequency) bands to commercial television, which supported only twelve channels nationwide. CBS pushed for delay of further development of VHF broadcasting in favor of color-television broadcasting on the much broader UHF (ultra-high frequency) band. The television industry stagnated during this period of technical uncertainly. When the FCC denied CBS’s petition in April 1947, the FCC promptly received sixty new applications for stations and sales of VHF sets increased. Only 60,000 sets were in use that year, two thirds of them in New York City. About half were owned by affluent individuals, and half by bars serving a predominantly male clientele. The bar audience preferred news and sports programming. Because of scarce resources, there was a tendency to recycle talent and materials from radio to commercial television and recreate vaudeville in the form of comedy-variety shows.

Both NBC and CBS financed their early television operations from profits earned in radio. In addition, RCA made money from manufacturing television sets. Commercial television fought Hollywood’s attempt to create an entertainment alternative in the form of large-screen television placed in movie theaters. It successfully opposed pay-television schemes brought before regulatory agencies. The Hollywood film companies were not allowed to own television stations. The scarcity of VHF licenses and an FCC-imposed moratorium on permits for station construction between 1948 and 1952 put the commercial-television industry in the driver’s seat in negotiating both with advertisers and producers of programming. Advertisers, no longer the sole sponsors of programs, conceded their licensing to the television networks while retaining certain rights to censor programming content with respect to subjects, characters, and language. From program producers, the networks demanded and received ownership and syndication rights for the shows in exchange for giving them a network time slot. The success of I Love Lucy and Dragnet during the 1952 season brought increased attention to filmed productions. That led to syndication of show reruns, especially in foreign markets.

In the mid 1950s, U.S. television audiences moved from an upscale clientele to include more lower- and middle-class viewers. More than half of Americans who purchased television sets in 1950 financed them on credit. “TV is becoming the poor man’s theater”, a journalist observed. While original plays such as Paddy Chayevsky’s Marty were shown on commercial television in the early 1950s, network executives soon realized that continuity of programming increased audience size. The popular western, Gunsmoke, ran from 1956 to 1975. Bonanza aired from 1960 to 1973. Soap operas had been developed for midday radio audiences during the 1930s as a means of selling soap powder to women. Commercial television took over this format. CBS, which had started well behind NBC in the television race, roared back in the 1950s to become the top-rated network. Its chairman, William Paley, had a good sense of audience tastes. He hired star comedians such as Red Skelton, Jack Benny, and Burns and Allen from NBC radio in the late 1940s and switched them over to television in the following decade. As always, the performers’ personalities were the key to attracting large audiences. Viewers grew comfortable seeing the same faces week after week on the silver screen.

CBS styled itself “the Tiffany network” because of its high-quality programming, especially in television news. Paley was a close friend and supporter of Edward R. Murrow, a journalist known for his hard-hitting investigative reporting. For instance, Murrow’s expose of Sen. Joseph McCarthy in a See It Now program aired in March 1954 helped to turn the tide of popular opinion against this anti-communist crusader. Yet, CBS’s prestigious news operation was subsidized by earnings from the more popular sitcoms, quiz shows, sports broadcasts, and action drama. The network competition for audiences brought programming down to the lowest common denominator of public taste and produced what FCC chairman, Newton Minow, in 1961 called “a vast wasteland”. Academic critics called for an alternative to commercial television. The FCC responded by reserving 242 channels, mostly on the UHF band, for educational broadcasters. The first noncommercial station went on the air in 1953, but public television languished for a decade. In 1960, only 7 percent of U.S. television sets were equipped to receive UHF signals. Then, after the quiz-show scandals on commercial television, Congress provided public subsidies for educational broadcasts and required that new television sets sold in the United States be equipped for UHF reception.

The two main commercial-television networks, NBC and CBS, were joined by ABC, the American Broadcasting Company, which was formed in the 1940s when the U.S. Department of Justice forced NBC to divest its smaller network. And, in 1986, Rupert Murdoch created the Fox Network from a group of independent stations. ABC was an also-ran until the 1970s when sponsorship of the Olympic Games and programming direction by Fred Silverman, CBS’s one-time entertainment strategist, lifted it for a time into first place. In the 1980s, NBC enjoyed a resurgence of popularity under the direction of Grant Tinker, a former Hollywood producer. In 1980, Ted Turner, owner of local station WTBS-TV in Atlanta, created an all-news channel, Cable News Network, which broadcast reports of international events 24 hours a day. After losing money for five years, Turner’s operation became profitable in 1985. It has become a forum by which the world’s political leaders talk to each other and monitor ongoing events.

The BBC began television broadcasts to home audiences in 1936, sooner than in the United States. These were discontinued during the wartime period, but resumed operations in 1946. Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation in 1953 aroused interest in this medium. In 1950, only the United States, Britain, France, and Soviet Union had regular television broadcasts. The Russians used television to “mold a Marxist-Leninist outlook and promote the political and cultural development of all the Soviet people.” The French, too, tended to have politically flavored programming; many television stations were either owned by politicians or the government. The British put more emphasis on educational and cultural programs. The market-driven Americans produced television shows that appealed to wide audiences. Family-oriented shows such as The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet and Father Knows Best were popular during the 1950s. ABC’s Disneyland made its debut in 1954, combining Hollywood-produced entertainment with the opening of Disney’s first theme park. Reruns of U.S. television shows became popular in other countries. Gunsmoke, Rin Tin Tin, and The Lone Ranger were among Mexico’s Top Ten television shows. Japanese society in 1958 was described as “TV-obsessed”.

Ted Turner had long wanted to buy a television network. When that effort failed, he made a deal in 1985 to purchase MGM along with its library of 3,30l films plus 1,450 additional films from the RKO and Warner libraries. High debt forced Turner to sell the MGM studio and other assets, leaving him with the film libraries for which he had paid $1.2 billion, seemingly a high price. Turner realized, however, that the film classics which he had purchased, including Gone with the Wind and Casablanca, were a unique commodity. In a maturing industry, they were like ageless stars whose service commanded a high price. Turner colorized many black-and-white films, increasing their value in syndication. He established a cable-television channel, Turner Network Television, to show the films on a regular basis. Cable television was undercutting audiences tuned to the major networks. It was creating a new niche-focused mode of entertainment. Movie reruns were an important segment of cable as were sports, news, and educational programs. MTV, a youth-centered channel presenting rock videos, revolutionized the entertainment industry with its artful editing of bizarre visual images accompanying synthesizer-enhanced music. A freewheeling question-and-answer session with two hundred young people on MTV in June 1992 helped to propel Bill Clinton to the U.S. Presidency.

Television coverage has changed the nature of political campaigning. The classic event was the first Presidential debate between Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy in September 1960. Many who heard it on radio thought the result was a draw. However, the debate gave Kennedy’s campaign a boost since, to the 75 million Americans who had watched it on television, Kennedy appeared vigorous and well-tanned while Nixon, who had refused facial makeup, seemed sickly. Kennedy had been coached to look at the audience while Nixon looked mostly at Kennedy. The lesson for subsequent candidates was that one’s visual appearance on television matters as much as the words spoken. On the other hand, Richard Nixon’s political resurrection in the 1960s might have been partly due to an appearance which he made on the Tonight Show with Jack Paar. After playing a short piece on the piano, Nixon quipped that this incident would surely doom his political future since, after Harry Truman, “Republicans can’t stand to see another piano player in the White House.” George Bush came off as a more engaging, likable candidate than Michael Dukakis in the 1988 candidate debates. Though Dukakis’ verbal proficiency was high, his body language suggested lack of emotion.

Television news has gravitated towards the cult of the anchor man. The avuncular Walter Cronkite, CBS’s news anchor, was known as “the most trusted man in America.” Political conservatives charged that Cronkite, a liberal, was able to slant the news by the intonations in his voice or by raising his eyebrows in a certain way. News organizations developed a format by which public officials communicated with the public through sound bites selected by television editors. They dodged questions posed by reporters such as Sam Donaldson known for ferocity of attack. In this tough environment, the most that political candidates could expect from news coverage would be to present an attractive visual image and avoid making gaffes. News editors controlled what part of their taped appearances the public would be allowed to see. Network commentators and pundits put a spin on its interpretation. The only way that a candidate could guarantee that his message would reach the public in its original state would be to purchase time for a paid commercial. However, television commercials were expensive, and the cost of running media campaigns has forced politicians to devote more time to fundraising and cater increasingly to well-funded interest groups.

Television has become a force in shaping social and political attitudes. Whether it was the Army-McCarthy hearings in the 1950s, the Vietnam war in the 1960s, the Watergate hearings in the 1970s, the clash between Clarence Thomas and Anita Hill in the 1980s, or the O.J. Simpson trial in the 1990s, television coverage has created a national morality play which polarizes the public along ideological or demographic lines. Its programming reflects the fact that sponsors want primarily to attract female viewers between the ages of 25 and 54 because they are prime shoppers for the kinds of products advertised in television commercials. Therefore, much of the programming that appears both in prime time and during the day is calculated to appeal to women. Women are shown in strong professional roles, often matching wits with men and winning. A male ghetto on television is found in the weekend sports programs. With respect to racial stereotypes, the days of Stepin Fetchet have given way to shows presenting confident black males often in military or police roles. On the other hand, the national preoccupation with the Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill conflict or O.J. Simpson’s murder trial may have continued a long-standing tradition of white Americans of viewing blacks as sources of amusement.

The distinction between news and entertainment is increasingly blurred. The news shows want higher ratings and entertainment-like features deliver them. So local television coverage tends to focus on crime, scandals, accidents, and other emotionally charged events. Tabloid journalism and talk shows such as Jerry Springer’s specialize in revealing personally embarrassing and lurid conflicts. The new “reality-based” television programs such as A Current Affair or Inside Edition are cheaper to produce than sitcoms because some of the work can be done by regular news staff. Partly, however, such shows reflect the current disposition to trash celebrities. That may be a reaction to their contrived nature. The entertainment world is populated by a galaxy of young, physically attractive men and women who behave in a sure-footed way. Yet, the viewing public is aware that this world is essentially illusory. There may be a discrepancy between the public image and actual lives of those performers beheld at a distance in theaters or on the silver screen. People grow hungry for personal information, especially when their idols betray human frailties. NBC’s Tonight Show and its clones have offered a venue for interviewing celebrities.

Sports Broadcasts

An important type of entertainment is the presentation of artificial but unscripted events where a spectator does not know their outcome while they are taking place. Athletic contests illustrate this type of entertainment. The first televised game may have been BBC’s broadcast of a tennis match at Wimbledon on June 21, 1937. Only 2,000 well-heeled Londoners owned television sets at that time. The pictures were blurred. The BBC persuaded the Football Association to permit a telecast of the soccer match between England and Scotland held on April 9, 1938. There was a concern that broadcasting this game would conflict with attendance at some of the lesser sporting events in the London area. Sports broadcasting in those days also faced the challenge of unreliable equipment. The technicians hooked up the camera with thick cable which sometimes became disconnected, causing a sudden blackout. NBC kept two cameras on the fifty yard line at football games to guard against that possibility. Inadequate lighting was another obstacle. Even so, sports programming was a staple of early television because it was cheap. The networks, which lacked the resources to fill all their time slots with credible programs, paid little for this type of ready-made entertainment. It was common for saloon keepers to lure customers by offering televised wrestling or boxing matches.

Televised sports make successful entertainment because they combine a visually exciting spectacle with human drama. Each contest creates immediate winners and losers. Their physical strain and fatigue elicit a strong emotional response. After ABC sponsored the 1972 Olympics, it jumped from third to first place in the ratings. ABC executives realized that exclusive sports coverage was the key to network supremacy. While the 1972 Olympics in Munich commanded unusual attention because of the terrorist kidnappings, the television editors shrewdly focused upon individual athletes such as Olga Korbut to build human interest. They highlighted the ice skating and gymnastics routines. ABC’s sports director, Roone Arledge, developed many of the techniques used in sports broadcasting today such as slow motion shots, instant replays, computerized graphics, and the practice of panning the stadium crowd to establish a sense of kinship with television viewers. Monday Night Football with Don Meredith and Howard Cosell affirmed the importance of personality, the commentators’ as well as the athletes’, in sports broadcasting. Cosell himself said: “There is no damn way you can go up against Liz Taylor and Doris Day in prime-time TV and present sports as just sports.”

The way to involve audiences personally was to convert athletic events into stories about the athletes. For instance, after the South African runner Zola Budd accidentally tripped Mary Decker-Slaney during a race at the 1984 Olympics, sports broadcasters billed their subsequent appearance together at the Olympics as a “grudge match”. NBC’s coverage of the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan, seemed to be more a collection of documentaries about the athletes’ lives than reports of the competitions themselves. A favorite trick of sports broadcasters is the so-called “honey shot” - letting the camera linger for a moment upon an especially attractive female spectator in the stands to discourage the predominantly male viewers from switching channels. Sports figures have become frequent guests on talk shows, quiz shows, and other television programs. Their celebrity status allows them to command higher salaries and secure lucrative product endorsements. That has, in turn, put the spotlight on the money involved in professional sports, caused ticket prices to increase, and created pressure for team owners to demand public subsidies for building new and larger stadiums. Television money has changed the nature of sports from being a recreational pastime to big-time entertainment.


A characteristic of television entertainment is that it concentrates mass attention upon a particular event. The trick is to make money from that situation. One way is to insert paid commercial messages next to the programming. Another is to tie entertainment directly to the process of spending money. If many people in a large audience each contribute small sums of money, their pooled contributions can finance a large payout to the winner of a gambling event. Because the outcome is unscripted, each person who places a bet has a small but real chance of winning the big prize. There is something within an otherwise rational individual which convinces him or her that betting money on games of chance with certifiably unfavorable odds is fun. Gambling experts refer to “the heat” - an irresistible feeling that one must continue placing bets to recoup past losses or continue a winning streak. In any event, the proprietors of gambling activities set the payouts at a level which assures a healthy profit margin for themselves. While individual fortunes are being won and lost in the games, the house always wins.

Gambling has long been tied to sporting events. More Americans attend horse races each year than attend professional baseball, basketball, and football games combined. An even more popular form of gambling is the lottery. A lottery run by the Continental Congress helped to fund the American revolution. Another supplied funds to build the city of Washington. Lotteries were abolished in Great Britain in 1826. A crackdown on them occurred in the United States during the 1830s. Congress closed interstate commerce to lottery materials in 1895. However, lotteries were revived in the 20th century to fund charitable projects. The Irish Sweepstakes, organized in 1930, used gambling proceeds to operate hospitals. The states of New Hampshire and New York established lotteries during the 1960s to support the public schools. Today all but two U.S. states, Utah and Hawaii, have legalized gambling in one form or another. The biggest gambling state is, of course, Nevada, where such activities were legalized in 1931. Much of the betting here takes place in casinos where card tables, slot machines, and wheels of fortune fill the rooms and line the halls.

Gambling was legalized in Nevada in the same year that construction of the Hoover Dam began. Construction workers who came to nearby Las Vegas to spend their paychecks were exposed to this activity. Nellis Air Force Base was not far away. The city’s first full-fledged resort hotel, El Rancho Vegas, opened on U.S. Highway 91 in April 1941. Three other resorts - the Last Frontier, Flamingo, and Thunderbird - soon appeared. Las Vegas acquired a reputation as a frontier town where gambling was legal. The Hollywood connection began when Clara Bow (the “It Girl”) and her husband, Rex Bell, bought a large ranch just outside town. Well-known film personalities were frequent visitors. In 1946, a gangster with Hollywood ties named “Bugsy” Siegel oversaw construction of the “Fabulous Flamingo” Hotel. Suspected of embezzling money from this project, he was killed a year later. However, Siegel’s vision of a big-time center of gambling and entertainment survived. Jimmy Durante became the Flamingo’s first headline performer. Lena Horne, Sophie Tucker, Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, and Ella Fitzgerald were among the entertainers who worked Las Vegas during that period. The downtown gaming clubs along Fremont Street came to be known as “Glitter Gulch”.

Gambling was initially the main attraction of Las Vegas resort hotels, and entertainment merely an adjunct. However, competition among the hotels forced their managers to upgrade the live entertainment. Celebrity performers were the lure that enticed gambling customers from the other hotels. Casino executives evaluated how each headline performer affected the casino “drop” - its gambling profits - and paid accordingly for the next engagement. This sometimes resulted in huge paychecks for Las Vegas performers while nightclubs in places without gambling could not afford to book their acts. Patrons of Las Vegas casinos could expect to find a concentration of big-name entertainers such as Frank Sinatra or Sammy Davis Jr. A memorable event took place in November 1956 when Liberace and Elvis Presley performed an impromptu role-reversing duet. Presley put on Liberace’s glittering jacket, assuming for the first time an image which he and countless Elvis impersonators have made famous. Las Vegas also became the site of major sporting events such as the Tournament of Champions golf event and several heavyweight-championship boxing matches.

Gambling is today America’s most popular form of adult entertainment. The number of Americans who visit casinos has doubled in the past five years. More than 31 million people a year visit Las Vegas as tourists. America’s fastest-growing major city, it has eleven of the world’s twelve largest hotels. The amount of money bet annually in the United States exceeds the combined amount which Americans spend for automobiles and housing. Despite misgivings, the gambling juggernaut continues in part because many of those who are charged with guarding community well-being are themselves in on the take. State lotteries are widely used as substitutes for taxation; they seem to lawmakers like sources of “easy money”. Indian tribes, whose casinos represent the industry’s fastest growing segment, sometimes refer to gambling as “the return of the buffalo”. Today’s owners of Las Vegas resort hotels are no longer mobsters but large corporations and pension funds. In two years, $6 billion of new construction has taken place in Las Vegas to build such monumental attractions as “New York, New York”. In ten years, some say, there will be no more controversy about gambling. “Gaming”, as industry spokesmen prefer to call it, will merge with other activities to provide “one-stop shopping” for persons seeking entertainment.

It may be that a cluster of entertainment activities, including gambling and pornographic shows and, perhaps, prostitution and drugs, may emerge in Las Vegas and similar places under the heading of “adult entertainment”. If not controlled by organized crime, these legalized activities will be managed by hard-nosed business types, oblivious to their social effect. Meanwhile, another cluster of activities, centering in a place like Disneyland, might provide “family entertainment.” This would be entertainment suitable for children or, as they say, “for children of all ages.” When Disneyland first opened in 1954, an article in Reader’s Digest suggested that Disney had pulled off the entertainment industry’s first “triple play” in adding a theme park to a top-rated television show and a hugely successful movie business. (Since then, this company has acquired a professional sports team and a major television network.) Both Las Vegas and Disneyland are “virtual cities”, created by the culture of mass entertainment. Where once entertainment events required special places such as auditoriums or fairs to assemble the crowds, the process has come full circle in that mythical places like Disneyland have been created of images broadcast everywhere.


The television broadcasting industry, which has dominated the U.S. entertainment culture, shows signs of losing its cultural grip. The top three television networks in the United States - CBS, ABC, and NBC - held 85 percent of the prime-time audience when the 1980s began. By the end of the decade, only 67 percent of prime-time audiences were watching those programs. The percentage then dropped to 54 percent in the summer of 1992, and, by the summer of 1997, to 40 percent. In 1997, almost as many Americans were watching cable-television shows as those on the big networks. Competition from cable television, the new Fox network, and personal computers have combined to produce serious erosion of audiences for network television, CivIV’s form of empire. The average U.S. household owns two to three television sets and receives more than forty different channels. Eighty percent own VCRs. Ninety-four percent have remote controls. The ability to switch channels is as easy as pushing a button while one reclines on a sofa.

Cable television offers dozens of different channels catering to specialized interests. Web sites number in the hundreds of thousands. With so many more people watching such spectacles on their television or computer screen, the trend has been to move from radio and television broadcasting toward what some have called “narrowcasting”. Entertainment is being pitched more narrowly to segments of the viewing public which share certain interests. Advertisers benefit from this trend because they can reach audiences known to be interested in their type of product. Their message can go out to groups of likely buyers without having to pay the higher broadcast rates. This trend toward narrowcasting may, in part, represent public reaction to the dumbed-down culture of commercial television. People are bored with the one-size-fits-all programming. They want variety tailored to their particular interests. Partly, however, it may reflect the changing nature of communications technology. Computers have become more important. The computer adds an interactive capability to communications. Allowing multilateral contact among individuals, it is the ultimate specialized communicator.

The trend is to give individuals exactly the kind of entertainment that they want. What viewers choose, in turn, drives marketing strategies to develop programming content and sell products to the various audiences. The computer is an important tool in this process because it allows entertainment executives and advertisers to track individual preferences. Data from viewer surveys and product sales are collected in computer files and then analyzed. This information becomes a basis for creating demographic profiles to be used in marketing campaigns. Individuals fitting a profile are included in the target audience for a particular sales message. Because the message is tailored to known attitudes of the group, the sender can be reasonably sure that it will strike a sympathetic chord. This is where commercial advertising is headed. We are no longer one people, able to be reached through broadcast messages, but a population segmented by demographic identity and personal interest. The sellers of products communicate separately with each known type. In this brave new society, we are defined individually by the mailing lists that include our names.


Computer-Generated Entertainment

The computer’s ability to store aural and visual images and change them in desired ways has taken entertainment to the next level. Digital samplers can create music by modifying sounds stored in the form of numerical codes on a floppy disk. By altering the codes for previously recorded sounds, this device can raise or lower the pitch, speed up or slow down rhythms, insert new musical segments, or overlay the sampled sounds to give an orchestral effect. The music is clearer than what synthesizers used to produce. Likewise, computer-generated graphics have revolutionized filmmaking. For example, technicians working on a keyboard with a five-second clip from Interview with the Vampire which shows Tom Cruise bending over to bite his next victim can alter details such as the color of blood smeared on Cruise’s face and the size of his fangs to increase the sense of horror. Real-life actors and actresses have become models for cartoon characters, giving them a more realistic appearance. Ever since George Lucas’ Star Wars, Hollywood filmmakers have successfully used computerized images to create scenes that could never be shot by camera. Action pictures relying upon such special effects have become some of today’s biggest box-office hits.

Taking entertainment a step further, computer technicians have developed a technology called “virtual reality” to produce images that change in response to the viewer’s physical movements. In the 1980s, a firm in California called VPL Research invented a set of goggles and gloves linked to a computer. If the viewer turned his head sideways, sensors inside the goggles would relay that information to the computer which would then create images in the goggles reflecting the changed scenery. Finger movements inside the gloves to simulate firing a gun might send imaginary bullets to a target on the screen. VPL Research’s DataSuit, resembling an aviator’s jump suit, was lined with more than fifty different sensors attached by fiber-optic wiring to a computer, which allowed visual images to change following some action on the actor/viewer’s part. Unlike previous technologies which merely recorded sense impressions, computers can alter them to achieve this life-like effect.

During the 1990s, interactive entertainment became a feature of theme parks and shopping malls across the United States. This industry already earns more revenue from youngsters dropping quarters into machines than first-run movies do. The realistic action games are an outgrowth of military flight-simulation technology. The BATTLETECH center, which opened in Chicago in August 1990, was an early application to popular entertainment. Visitors to the center played a combat game on virtual-reality terrains by manipulating buttons and switches on control panels. English entrepreneurs have created a similar role-playing game based on “Dungeons & Dragons”, featuring mythical characters in a medieval setting. “Merlin’s Magical Motion Machine” at the Excalibur Hotel in Las Vegas takes audiences on imaginary high-speed train and roller-coaster rides. Its seats are equipped with lock-down safety bars. The “Star Tours” ride is Disneyland’s most popular attraction. Blockbuster Entertainment Corp., the video-rental giant, has branched out into the area of creating “high-tech adult playgrounds” which take customers on virtual-reality tours of city streets. A firm called LunaCorp. has even proposed placing a dune buggy on the Moon’s surface which customers at a theme park on earth might operate by remote control.

Note: This page reproduces Chapter 7 of Five Epochs of Civilization by William McGaughey (Thistlerose, 2000).

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