A Time Before Television

My grandma grew up during the Great Depression (she is almost 86). She lived in Ballard, Washington with her grandmother, father, mother and younger brother. Her father gambled, her mother worked long hours at an egg cracking factory, and my grandma started working at a young age at a dime store.  Before I asked my first question, she pointed out how different her experience with the media was compared to others.  Rather than having numerous forms of the media accessible,  she only had one; the radio. She described the radio shows that she looked forward to as a child and how it stood as her main source of entertainment.  Music, shows and news, including the announcement of World War II, all took place on a much cherished radio in a small house in a neighborhood where “all the Scandinavians lived” around the 1930’s.

In 1938, my grandma was 10 years old. She and her brother loved “The Lone Ranger,” “The Green Hornet,” and “The Shadow.” She recalled how, “Boy, if we were threatened that we wouldn’t get to watch The Lone Ranger, we would do anything to make sure we could!” They would look forward to the next episode. She did not listen to any of these shows with friends, as it was more of a family experience and gathering. She told me the memories she has of her and her brother putting their ears up against the radio to get a good listen on the current episode of the show while sitting on wooden stools. The radio to my grandma was her “Only source of entertainment. Even when TV came out, most people still couldn’t afford it.”

However, what was most important to my grandma in terms of her experience with the media growing up was music. It was through the radio that she learned to sing. While songs played on the radio, her mother would write down the lyrics because buying any sort of song book was far too costly. Growing up, my grandma and her family didn’t have a penny to spare, making the radio all the more important: “That’s the only thing we had [the radio] and that was very important to me.”

I also asked her about other forms of media that were important to her growing up. While there were magazines, books and newspapers, she could not afford to buy any of them most of the time. She mentioned how she loved to buy the “movie star magazines” to see the different outfits they wore. She would save up to buy “Hit Parade” because it included the lyrics to many of the songs she loved. However, she did not find that the media influenced her as a young girl the same way that TV shows such as “Gossip Girl” or even Disney Channel shows influence 13 year-old girls today in terms of the way they want to dress, act and behave differently. While popular culture was less of an influence in terms of shaping individual identity and young girls due to the type of films produced and the lack of televisions, the music and the movies still remained an important part of my grandma’s life, and something she looked forward to. When I asked her about gender roles and how they were represented in the media, she said that she didn’t begin to notice the gender divide until later in life when the media became more prevalent.  Until that point, for her, the magazines, radio and movies were all about enjoyment, a time to be happy, and that is what she remembered more than anything.

When I asked her about the movies, she spoke of them as if it was still old, classic Hollywood. To her, going to the movies and the memories she has of them will always be great luxury, a rare special occasion, and a magical experience. She recalled the exact year, age, and place when she saw Clark Gable at the movies for the first time. She remembered waiting in line for the free showings of various films for hours. She listed celebrities such as Jeanette MacDonald, Nelson Eddy, Ginger Rogers, Fred Astaire, Joan Crawford and Loretta Young who inspired her. For her, the songs and the movies provided her with hope for a better future, and ultimately something exciting to look forward to as a child and a teenage girl. She said that she  “would fantasize that I was on stage, dancing like Ginger Rogers, and then I would sing.” She gave examples of how much she would look forward to going to the movies or being involved with popular culture of any sort. She remembered walking across town as a young girl to go see Bob Hope and Bring Crosby for 10 cents with her grandmother, brother and cousin when they could afford to do so.

She also spoke of restrictions and disapproval her father had of her love of Hollywood. She specifically mentioned Frank Sinatra and how her father considered him to be far too provocative in his body language, dance moves and his song lyrics. Despite only reading about him in the “movie star” magazines or listening to him on the radio, even the way he held the microphone on stage was inappropriate for a young girl to see during that era according to her father.


3 thoughts on “A Time Before Television

  1. I wrote this, and then it deleted it, so here goes again! I really enjoyed reading your interview, and I found it very interesting. I really enjoyed that your grandmother loved media for exactly what it should be made for: happiness. Also, I thought your comment on how the media was much less influential on the formation of self-identity when your grandmother was growing up was really thought-provoking. This is because I began thinking about how today, it seems that it plays a HUGE role in how we (especially women) think about ourselves. Back then, there was a certain image/ideal of women that was present in media, but the women did not shape who they were based on it (or at least less so). Nowadays, it seems that a lot of how we see who we are is in comparison to someone or something in the media. Perhaps this is due to our heavy reliance on visual media, but it is still interesting to me that now we are so easily swayed by something that is on a screen.

  2. I really enjoyed your post. I wrote my post about my mother but I had also talked to my grandmother on my dad’s side who grew up in New York City. Similarly, going to the movies for her was a special treat that she and her friend Ellen got to take part in occasionally. She spoke fondly of the double features on Saturdays were they would also watch the newsreel. They clearly spent several hours at the theater when they did go. What really caught my eye was your grandma’s remembering Clark Gable. My nan when we talk talked about him for quite a while and how much she enjoyed him in Gone With the WInd. I was noticing that her attitude towards him, as well as other romantic male leads was one of adoration. My nana at least talked about him in a way that made me think she would have loved it if Clark Gable had showed up and whisked her away. She had a very romantic idea about all the stars in Hollywood. And although I am sure that there are several teens that would love to be swept off their feet by Justin Beiber or the likes, fan interaction with stars today does’t seem nearly as romantic to me these days.

  3. I’m really obsessed with classic Hollywood stars AND I’m 100% Norwegian so naturally I’m really into this post…..and I like the way you conveyed your grandmother’s description of encounters with pop culture as a privilege. Can you imagine? It’s so omnipresent in our lives that conceiving of a trip to the movies as a true delight — it makes me nostalgic, not for the actual material conditions of life during that time, but just for how scarcity made encounters with media so much more lovely, for lack of a better word. Tremendous post overall.

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