It seems to me that television is exactly like a gun. Your enjoyment of it is determined by which end of it you’re on.
― Alfred Hitchcock
Did you ever see something on an old television program that was immensely insignificant at the time, but you still think about it occasionally? More to the point, and I’m really shooting in the dark here, did you ever watch the old Ernest Tubb television show? If you don’t already know, Tubb was a famous country and western singer whose signature song was Walking the Floor Over You. His TV program, aptly titled The Ernest Tubb Show, began airing in 1965, but it wasn’t until about 1974 when I watched my first episode. It was not my choice. It was my job.
In the mid-70s, I worked as audio-visual coordinator for a university library. It was a great job that afforded me a chance to play with the latest technology and sit ringside during the wrestling match between Betamax and VHS. It was a creative outlet too. I was a technical assistant for the theater and music departments, mixing sound for stage productions and recording music tapes for student listening stations. I even dabbled in 16mm filmmaking, shooting regional ethnic festivals for the sociology department one year, and creating a filmed song and dance number once for the spring musical, Godspell. Here I am shooting the annual Syttende Mai parade at a Norwegian festival in Stoughton, Wisconsin. (That’s me under the natty hair. I worked near a beauty college where cheap haircuts reigned. Students were learning to style Afros one day when I walked in. The nascent hairdressers persuaded me to be their guinea pig.)To supplement my academic job, I was a part-time production assistant for the programming arm of a local cable television station. It was before big business swallowed up the industry. There, I operated a studio camera for news and entertainment shows. One of my favorite gigs was a kids program, The Uncle Dan Show. It featured a goofy host and a hand puppet sidekick, “Thurman the Worm,” operated by the station news director who was mostly hidden behind a curtain or under a table, except for his arm which was costumed in a green, snake-like sock-puppet.
Camera operation often required going outside the studio to shoot live remotes, mostly high school basketball games. Imagine the challenge of covering a fast-paced basketball game with a single camera. Some Friday nights would find us at the local Shakey’s Pizza Parlor to broadcast Shakey’s Jamboree. It featured old-timey music, typically involving an upright piano and a banjo. Here I am operating the camera at Shakey’s one night, obviously mesmerized by banjo music.
The most exciting remote shoot in which I participated was at the Playboy Club in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin. Not a live shoot, it required trips there on two consecutive evenings to cover interviews with managers, bunnies and bartenders. Oh, my.
The least exciting remote for which I became the weekly cameraman was the First Lutheran Church service, broadcast live every Sunday morning beginning at eight a.m. It was a drag getting out of bed early to fetch a studio camera, load it, haul it, and set it up in a dim church balcony every Sunday morning. Though it required little in the way of camerawork, I’d sometimes imagine Francis Ford Coppola shooting the baptism scene in The Godfather. Zooming in and locking on the minister as he stepped up to the pulpit to deliver a homily was de rigueur, providing a welcome opportunity to lie down in a nearby pew and relax for a while. I slept through sermons once or twice, waking to the howl of massive organ pipes jolting me upright in the pew. Each time, I was unsure how long the camera had remained aimed at a deserted pulpit before I resurrected.
When not behind the camera, I could be found in the studio’s control booth, operating a mixing board and video playback machines. Canned programs were broadcast by slipping large videocassettes into a machine, pressing a couple of buttons and flipping a switch. One program series was The Ernest Tubb Show. Ernie had stopped producing new shows by that time. These were all ten year old programs for which some local businesses bought advertising spots to broadcast on the new and exciting cable channel.
As you can see from the photo above, I was transfixed while monitoring Ernest Tubb & the Texas Troubadours as they plowed through thirty minutes of musical guests with no set changes. One of the guests I clearly remember was a barely recognizable, clean-cut Willie Nelson. Less memorable was a mother-daughter duo who, as I recall, were introduced as the “dancing Judds.” The pair kicked up their cowgirl heels with great enthusiasm while a guest musician fiddled. Years later, a mother-daughter team of Naomi and Wynonna Judd rose to country music fame as singing duo, the Judds. But I can’t draw any conclusions. I’ve never been able to prove my hunch that the dancing Judds later became the singing Judds. And while this unresolvable, immensely insignificant bit of trivia is still troubling me, dear Judds, it ain’t nearly enough to be walking the floor over you.