A Brief History of Home Entertainment, Featuring My Parents

1962: The hi-fi breaks. This is especially tragic for me (age 5), because I can no longer spend hours singing along to my parents’ collection of Broadway show-tunes. (Note: I’m being modest. I dance, too, with choreography extrapolated from the photos on the album covers. My interpretation of West Side Story is not to be missed.) Anyway, the hi-fi breaks. I beg my parents to fix it. Months go by. Finally, a “handy” friend of theirs takes the turntable away, our family motto being, “Never pay a professional to fix something if you can get a friend to do it for free.” The friend vanishes and is never heard from again. We move to a new house. The hollowed-out hi-fi, now just a hulking blonde-wood record cabinet, moves with us. I put on my tap shoes and leotard and perform “Whatever Lola Wants, Lola Gets” from Damn Yankees, sans accompaniment. My mother tells me to go outside and play.

1963: Allan Sherman, a song parodist beloved by first-generation Jewish Americans, releases the album My Son, the Nut. My parents laughed till they plotzed over his previous comedy albums, My Son, the Folksinger and My Son, the Celebrity. But My Son, the Nut takes Sherman’s popularity to a whole new level when the single “Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah,” a spoof of a kid’s letter home from sleepover camp, shoots to Number Two on the Billboard chart. Even the Gentiles are plotzing! My parents can hold out no longer. They need to hear the rest of My Son, the Nut. They buy a new hi-fi. Thank you, Allan Sherman.

1964: We gather around the Admiral console TV (blonde wood, like everything else in the house) to watch the Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show. I ask my mother for a Beatles album. Some time later, she presents me with an album called, The Grasshoppers Sing the Hits of the Beatles, our family motto being, “She’s only seven, how’s she gonna know the difference?” (Note: I know the difference.)

1966: All three TV networks begin airing prime-time programming in color. My sister and I beg for a color TV, but we’re told that our parents are “not made of money.” So The Monkees, Batman and the NBC Peacock remain shaded in gray, the color of poverty, shame and broken dreams. There is no event more bittersweet in our colorless TV household than CBS’s annual telecast of The Wizard of Oz. My sister and I live for The Wizard of Oz, but we envy the other kids (with parents made of money) who get to witness the screen bursting into color when Dorothy steps into Oz. But this year, my mother has an idea!

The Wizard of Oz airs during the week that Sid, the middle-aged bachelor tenant who lives downstairs, is away on his annual Acapulco fling. Sid has a color TV. So my mother blithely uses her master key to let us into Sid’s apartment and leaves us there, unsupervised, among the Playboy magazines and the odor of old cigars and fried salami. Did we have Sid’s permission to be there? My sister and I don’t know. (Note: Still don’t.) (Addendum to Note: Our mother claims not to remember any of this.) We watch TV in the dark, not wanting to attract attention, afraid that Sid will come home and catch us in the act. Although, to be honest, Sid is usually drunk with a stewardess on each arm and probably wouldn’t even notice. And a family tradition is born.

1967:  New TV! Still black-and-white. Still not made of money.

1968:  The times they are a-changin’, and so are my musical tastes. The soundtrack to South Pacific just doesn’t do it for me anymore. I ask for my own record player. I receive a small battery-operated red and white plastic contraption that’s the right size for 45s but albums hang off the edge, wobbling dangerously. My treasured copy of the 5th Dimension’s Age of Aquarius is scratched beyond recognition from the bouncing needle, but my parents don’t understand how upsetting this is. They don’t understand ANYTHING!

1970: I get a stereo for my birthday, a real one, with a receiver and turntable and speakers. I disappear into my room and am not seen for three years.

1973:  Color TV at last! (Father: “Your mother wanted it.”) It’s a walnut console with plenty of space on top for baby pictures and the tin-foil-encrusted UHF antenna. My parents read somewhere that viewers must sit at least six feet from the color TV or be fried by radiation. Unfortunately, there is only three feet of floor space from the TV to the couch. Oh, well. Close enough. To be on the safe side, though, my father unplugs the TV every night, to “let it cool down.”

1975:  Cable TV is becoming standard in more and more American homes. My parents remain skeptical. Who would pay money to watch TV?

1980:  My parents get cable. But just basic. (Mother: “Your father wanted it.”)

1991:  My siblings and I decide to buy my parents a VCR for Chanukah. This idea is met with confusion. “What do we need a VCR for? We have cable!” They are adament. They do not want a VCR.

1992: Mother: “Your father wants a VCR.” Father: “Your mother wants a VCR.”

2000:  Curb Your Enthusiasm, starring Larry David, premieres on HBO, but my parents still only have basic cable. See “1963, Allan Sherman”, above.

2006:  Remember the color TV from 1973? It lives! Barely. The picture tube hisses. There is an ominous orange tinge to everything. The on/off knob is gone. Reluctantly, my parents concede that it might be time for a new TV. We offer to buy them a nice new flat screen model, but my parents have a couple of questions. 1.) Where are we supposed to put the cable box and the VCR if we can’t put them on top of the TV? 2.) How are we going to get the old TV out of the house? The latter is, indeed, a good question. The old console TV weighs approximately 9,000 pounds. Yes, the delivery men obviously got it up the two narrow flights of stairs in 1973, but they don’t make delivery men like they used to. After much debate, my parents find a friend of a friend of someone who doesn’t know what they’re in for, and pay them – yes, pay! – to haul it away. It is the end of an era, in more ways than one.

2008: My parents own the last VCR in America, but they can’t actually watch anything on it because the Blockbuster shut down and the neighborhood bodega only rents DVDs. They realize that the time has come: “Your father wants a DVD player”. My sister, brother and I point out that they can simply order movies on demand through their cable menu, but this makes them nervous. So, we buy them a DVD player. After several attempts at watching a DVD and getting only a black screen, my parents inform us that the DVD player is “defective.” (Note: It’s not.)

2009:  The neighborhood bodega no longer rents anything but Bollywood musicals and mixed-martial-arts DVDs. My parents see a commercial for Netflix and are intrigued.

Father: “I’m gonna call them and join.”

Me: “No. You can’t call them, you can only order from Netflix with a computer.”

Mother: “You can’t call them?”

Me: “Netflix is Internet only.”

Father: “Huh?”

Mother: “That’s cuckoo.”

Me: “Why don’t you get a laptop?”

Father: “Nah, we don’t need a computer.”

2010:  “Your mother wants a computer.”


© Joyce Millman, The Mix Tape. 2012

5 thoughts on “A Brief History of Home Entertainment, Featuring My Parents

  1. Phyllis January 27, 2012 / 7:03 pm

    Truthfully between 1975 and 1980 you did not miss much on cable TV. My parents where one of the first subscribers to HBO and as I recall the network had virtually no programming and did stuff like running “The Odessa File” 24/7 for a solid week.

    • joycemillman January 27, 2012 / 8:23 pm

      Haha! Wasn’t it called something before HBO? Or maybe they just went by the whole name, Home Box Office.

      • Phyllis January 29, 2012 / 5:24 am

        Yes they used the whole name in the early days and I’m pretty sure they were the first fee for service cable company. At our house we don’t even have cable because between Hulu, Netflix/Amazon streamed content and full episodes on show websites we don’t need it. Although with a husband and two teenagers addicted to TV our device accounts are always in use and I can’t get near the TV most of the time anyway.

  2. Kerry January 28, 2012 / 11:12 am

    Seriously weeping with laughter here. We truly lived parallel lives.

    • joycemillman January 28, 2012 / 2:32 pm

      So Jewish-crazy and Irish-crazy is the same crazy?

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