Maybe the Sky is Really Green, and We’re Just Colourblind:
On Zapping, Close Encounters and the Commercial Break

 

 

Hillsborough with New Hideaway Styling, 1959

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1950s: Something New in the Skies

 

By the 1950s, television had begun to replace radio as the dominant mass-communication medium. "Are You Ready for Television?" asked an early Dumont TV ad. Not quite yet. At first, the new family member was not that welcome. With its signals beamed in from skies, it was regarded as a somewhat alien presence in the home, and so the television was often hidden away or disguised within its furniture. The Hillsborough, with its new Hideaway Styling, allowed the TV to be flipped back into a regular salon table, acting as if the new medium did not yet exist.9 Even, or perhaps especially, in Hollywood, the television was considered a hostile prop on film sets. Warner Brothers frowned on the appearance of a TV in the living rooms of its feature films, and would promptly order to have it removed. "The assumption," Erik Barnouw writes, "seemed to be that if television could be banned from feature films, it could not survive."10 But not for long: Warner signed a contract to produce Westerns for ABC Television and by 1958, there were thirty Western series programmed for prime-time TV. Soon the telly would re-imagine what the living room was all about.

Leaving Hollywood for New York's growing television bustle, Lucille Ball became the first film star to attain more fame as a TV sitcom-actress. I Love Lucy portrayed her as a woman permanently on the verge of escaping the family trap but failing delightfully—that was until the following week's programme! In a January 1957 episode, on the occasion of her son's birthday, she makes an attempt to conquer the domestic space recently lost to the telly. She dons a Superman costume and makes her entrance through the third-floor living-room window. Alas, "supermom" gets caught on the drain-pipe and the "real" Superman, played by George Reeves, has to make a special guest appearance to save Lucy from domestic disaster. Heroes of the small screen were here to stay.11

The tube did not only zap superheroes into the home—the very first television signals beamed into the ether also attracted "foreign attention". In January 1953 the media reported that two mysterious "Men in Black", who were not from Earth, had landed with a saucer in the Mojave Desert, 200 miles east of Los Angeles. They claimed to have learned English by listening to TV broadcasts.12 Already in 1947, civilian pilot Kenneth Arnold had observed nine elliptical, disc-shaped vehicles travelling in formation over Mount Rainier in Washington at extraordinary speed. He described the objects as resembling "a saucer skipping across the water". Newspapers baptized the unknown crafts after the household object, and thus "flying saucers" turned America's gaze skywards. Something was definitely out there in the skies.