After writing about Uncle Elihu and Zeebo, the locally-produced shows for kids that were a staple of my childhood, I started wondering if any such shows still existed. My children grew up on Sesame Street, Thomas the Tank Engine, Mr. Rogers and a bunch of animated network shows, but nothing local. There was no Peanut Gallery or Chicken Roost for them, no Zeebogram to hang on the wall after a trip to the local studio.
An internet search turned up lots of stuff about classic local TV, but nothing I could find to indicate that there still exists anywhere a live local children’s show. The personalities like Bob Martin (Uncle Elihu) and Bowen McClellan (Zeebo), who created so many of the indelible memories of my childhood, are referred to now as “early television pioneers,” which carries more than whiff of dismissal, as though they were antiquated curiosities who could not possibly survive in today’s sophisticated television universe.
The closest thing we have to local TV celebrities are local news anchors and weathercasters, who routinely appear at local functions, although as cable TV eats away at the local audience, their importance seems to be waning.
What troubles me about this (a little; I don’t spend sleepless nights worrying about it) is the same thing that bothers me about politics. Our icons, cultural and political, keep getting farther and farther removed from our direct experience. There was a time when an ordinary American could walk up to the door of the White House and ask to speak with the president, when we could call our senators and representatives and expect a call back (even if we hadn’t written a seven-figure check), and when Uncle Elihu’s kids went to school with us.
We seem to have lost our sense of the commons, that we all belong to the same society, the same culture, the same economy, that we share common experiences not only with our next door neighbors, but also with those we admire and look to for wisdom and guidance. I’m convinced that our current political gridlock stems in large part from the loss of that sense of community.
Perhaps these are the nostalgic musings of a grumpy old man, but I don’t think so. There was much about that era to dislike–the racism, the sexism, the homophobia, the Red Scare–I don’t look back on those times through rose-tinted glasses. But I do miss the sense of community that I think we’ve allowed to slip away.
We knew the clerks at the grocery and the salespeople at the department store. Mr. Nicosia at the Little Store knew us by name and let us read the comics for free. Parents didn’t helicopter. They kicked us out of the house in the morning and let us roam until suppertime, which would be considered neglect today, even though the world is arguably safer in many ways now than it was then.
Still, my children seem to have adapted nicely to the modern world, despite my misgivings. They have found their own niche, and if and when they have their own kids, they will raise them according to their own lights, and I suspect it will all work out for them, as well.
But I wish I’d kept my Zeebogram.