The sun grazed my shoulder, bared by a halter top as blue
as the Pacific Ocean swelling but a hundred yards away, so
I stepped beneath a peaked tent to rest in the shade and found
myself in the midst of a farmer's market as wild and diverse
as the bazaar in Joyce's "Araby." Dark pink slabs
of ahi rested in rows on my right while magenta orchids tangled
in buckets on my left. I wound through tufts of pineapples,
mountains of mangoes, curtains of Hawaiian shirts, strands
of pearls, and pods of bronzed dolphins.
As I rounded the final bend, I came across a sight rarely
seen even at a carnival like this one. Resting on three card
tables were a dozen boxes of old magazine advertisements and
articles backed with card stock and covered in cellophane.
Being interested in American popular culture as I am, I started
flipping through the collectibles. Judy Garland sold Max Factor
Pan-Cake Make-up, Jane Russell posed pin-up style on the back
of Yank magazine, but there, behind the movie poster
for Mutiny on the Bounty, I saw it. No, not the Chesterfield
commercial featuring Rosie the Riveter, not the November 1st,
1968, cover of Life snapping Jackie and Onassis mere
moments after they took their vows, here at the farmer's market
in Hilo, Hawaii,
I found a 1939 Life article announcing, "Television:
It makes its commercial debut this spring with World's Fair."
The article opens: "Regular television broadcasts are
to be inaugurated by National Broadcasting Company on April
30 in conjunction with the opening of the New York World's
Fair. This means the decade's most revolutionary invention
is at last ready to emerge from the laboratory and make its
commercial debut in America."
But the writer seems uncertain of the invention's success,
"If the television consumer market were large enough,
such expenditures [tens of millions by promoters and $250,000
for transmitting equipment for each television station] might
warrant the expectation of sizable profits. Unfortunately,
however, television is, so far, doomed to small areas and
hence small markets, because at present, transmitters can
broadcast their waves a distance of only 50 miles. As a result,
Metropolitan New York with its 10,000,000 inhabitants will
rank as the No. 1 television area. Only other cities to receive
television this year will be Philadelphia, Los Angeles, and
Schenectady. Ultimately all centers of over 100,000 inhabitants
may be covered. But at best television in its present state
will reach only 6% of the land area of the U.S., in which
live 50% of the population."
The skepticism continues, "Whether television consumers
will be satisfied with programs consisting mainly of newsreels,
one-act plays, fashion shows and interviews is a question
no one can answer."
To think, the glowing box that daily holds the majority of
Americans hypnotized has only been a part of our culture for
seventy-two years. Decade's most revolutionary invention?
Try century's. In terms of impact on popular culture, no other
invention has so dominated, influenced, and changed the American
lifestyle as the newfangled contraption first displayed at
the 1939-40 World's Fair in Flushing Meadows, Queens. And
how fascinating to feel the writer's skepticism. In the ensuing
decades, television would reach far more than 50% of the population,
profits would far exceed investments, and consumers would
Just ask Aaron Spelling.
As I wandered away from that stand with my freshly purchased
Life magazine article tucked neatly under my arm, I
was astounded once again by the technological progress of
the twentieth century. In the days and nights of 1938, Americans
read or played bridge or listened to the radio or went to
the movies, but they did not gather in front of the television
set to ogle at the latest episode of Survivor or laugh
along with Seinfeld, a ritual we consider commonplace
and take for granted today. Television not only "made
it" after its debut at the World's Fair it has become
an entrenched part of our culture; indeed, it only continues
to grow and improve with, for example, the current release
of high definition and the post-1980 explosion in cable channels.
Thus in the end, I must say, the double entente buried
in the subtitle, "Its range is short, its road narrow,"
could not have been further from the truth.
Regardless of the wisdom and foresight of the writer (or
the lack thereof), I still could not believe my luck in finding
this buried treasure, more precious to me than the roaring
falls, the soughing palm trees, the sweeping rainbows of my
beloved Hawaii--the original Life magazine article
announcing the debut of that funny new invention called television.