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A Retro TV Summer: Getting Cozi (and Me-TV, and Others) with Lassie, Circus Boy and the Beaver
September 14, 2013  | By Ed Martin  | 9 comments

The official start of the 2013-14 television season is only one week away. Why am I not more excited about the arrivals of all those new series that are about to burst forth on CBS, NBC, ABC, Fox and The CW? Can it be that most of them aren’t terribly exciting? Nah – that never happens!

Maybe the reason I’m not so interested in the programs coming in the weeks ahead is that I’m too busy enjoying programs from decades gone by. Something interesting happened this summer: By day and by night, when I wanted to relax and watch television, I often found myself turning to the sudden wealth of retro channels available on my cable system: Me-TV, Antenna TV, This TV and Cozi TV.

Collectively, and if you know what times to look for certain shows on each network, they offer an embarrassment of nostalgic Fifties and Sixties riches. The Patty Duke Show! Green Acres! Mister Ed! F Troop! Hazel! Father Knows Best! I Spy! The Rifleman! Circus Boy?

(I said the same thing when I first saw it: What the hell is Circus Boy? Quick answer: A half-hour family drama that ran in the Fifties and starred a very young Micky Dolenz. Yes, that Micky Dolenz, seen at right.)

The list is endless. Fortunately for those who prefer balance in their lives, these networks don’t all run great old series around the clock; instead they shove movies and/or regional station programming into their schedules at different times.

So what compelled me to write this column right now? I think it has much to do with Lassie, which runs every weeknight on Cozi at 7 p.m. I happened upon it the other night, on September 11, when my mind was on the horrors that froze the world on that date 12 years earlier.

This particular Lassie was an early episode from the Fifties titled The Tree, and it concerned young Timmy's efforts to save his favorite tree – one rumored to have been planted by Johnny Appleseed. It was going to be cut down to make room for a new highway.

"They're going to cut down Johnny Appleseed’s tree – for progress," sighed little Timmy, sounding worried and saddened, but never as obnoxious or disrespectful as any of the kids in modern television shows.

"It's happened before," replied his dad, sounding very matter-of-fact, but not at all comforting.

Never one to give up on a good cause, Timmy took it upon himself to write a letter to the President of the United States, asking for help in saving the tree. It fell to Lassie – the most amazing dog ever – to bring the letter to the friendly neighborhood postman, who, upon noticing that Timmy had forgotten to put a stamp on the envelope, smiled and said, "I'll take care of it!" Like that would ever happen.

In a further test of disbelief, the President of the United States sent an immediate reply to Timmy informing the boy that he had referred the matter to the Department of the Interior. Naturally, Lassie delivered the letter to Timmy, who was standing nervously by as two men were preparing to rip the tree out by its roots. Lassie got there just in the nick of time. By episode's end, Timmy was thrilled to learn that the tree would be transplanted to his family's orchard.

If I didn't have dim memories of Lassie repeats from my childhood, I don't think I could be convinced that shows like it ever were sent out over the air into the living rooms of families across the country. I can't imagine how Nickelodeon or The Disney Channel would tell a story like this one today, but I'm reasonably certain there would be a smart-mouthed kid and a befuddled adult somewhere in the mix.

I have to admit, when I heard the mournful Lassie theme at the end, I might have choked up a little. Was it simply a reaction to the deep emotions we all feel on September 11, or did something in it spark a longing for more innocent times? Or did it simply make me aware of the passing of time? (in this case, my time!) And why does that music sound so sad, anyway?

Maybe my sudden fixation on retro programming will pass. There are only so many hours in the day when one can absorb television, and the months ahead will offer far too much new programming to allow for significant enjoyment of the old.

But the multiple temptations available via Me-TV, Antenna TV, This and Cozi will always be there. Similarly, The Alfred Hitchcock Hour on Encore Suspense is hard to resist. Forty-eight years after this show ran its course, it provided me this summer with a dandy alternative to late night local news and other post-prime programming. The youthful nightly celebrity sightings made it as much fun as watching a Twilight Zone marathon on Syfy.

Surfing through these retro channels is somewhat akin to watching one's life pass before one's eyes, to the tunes of Lassie and other shows, and often in glorious black and white. The other night I watched the first two episodes of Gilligan’s Island. (Did you know that the Professor and Mary Ann – arguably the sexiest of the seven castaways – weren't even mentioned in the first season's theme song?)

I don't think I had seen them since I was a little kid, when everything on the tube was black and white or shades of grey, because in our household we didn't have the luxury of color television. There was only one house on the street with a color TV, and every Tuesday and Thursday night in 1966-67, every kid in the neighborhood would gather there to sit spellbound in front of the exceedingly colorful Batman (now available on Me-TV). We would all scream out loud at every "BAM!," "SOCKO!" and "SPLAT!" But I digress.

I'm actually a bit put off with Me-TV right now, because it recently dropped The Mary Tyler Moore Show from its primetime lineup, replacing it with Hogan’s Heroes (and pairing Hogan’s with F Troop). There’s nothing wrong with the adventures of the gang at Stalag 13, but I could watch an episode of MTM every night for the rest of my life, if it were readily available to me. (Yes, I own the series on DVD, but I’m not about to watch those disks seven nights a week. Who does that?) Grievously, The Dick Van Dyke Show, The Bob Newhart Show and Bewitched also have disappeared from primetime. I'm sure it's just a matter of time until Me-TV cycles them back in again.

Meanwhile, thank heaven for the simple pleasures of Leave It to Beaver. I work at home, and I write about television, so it only makes sense that my TV is on all day. The 9-10 a.m. hour used to belong to Regis Philbin and Kelly Ripa, and then for a while to Kelly Ripa and Michael Strahan, but there's a sameness to what they do that, earlier this summer, had me seeking more interesting fare. I couldn't find it – especially not from the chattering anchors at NBC's Today. So I've been having morning coffee with the Cleavers, and finding new things about them to appreciate as a grown-up that I never really thought about when I was a kid.

With its easy charm, slow pace and admirable moral center, Beaver, which once reflected a daily ideal for millions of American families (in the way that The Brady Bunch did in the Seventies and The Cosby Show did in the Eighties) and always felt comfortably familiar, now plays like something beamed in from another planet. But it's utterly charming, and unfailingly soothing, and often provides some much-needed feel-good nostalgia at a time when the madness of the media itself is almost as overwhelming as the bad news it seems to deliver on a daily basis.

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Turn On Tonight NBC Now One More Me-Tv and Antena And Retro Old News channel 8 WVLT WATE channel 6
Nov 25, 2016   |  Reply
Thank You put On old Today show
May 2, 2016   |  Reply
Great column. It would be nice if one of the retro channels ran "What's My Line?," an incredibly entertaining experience. Since summer, I must've watched 50 Mystery Challenger segments on YouTube, along with portions of the regular show. The only mediocre panelist I have come across to date is Phil Rizzuto, in much later life one of my favorite broadcasters ("It's Sports Time with Phil Rizzuto" in addition to the Yankees games), who seemed uncomfortably overwhelmed in the presence of Bennett C., Arlene F., and Dorothy K.
Dec 26, 2013   |  Reply
Circus Boy is one of those occasional shows I'd watch,but not appointment TV for the average kid,at least in my neighborhood.But I distinctly remember Mom forcing us to turn off the TV during an episode because of the remnants of a hurricane hitting the Philadelphia area.Probably the only kiddie show on amongst three channels at the time and we were stuck inside because of the rain.Read a book? Play with army soldiers?Nah.
BTW,appointment TV for a male in our neighborhood would be Home Run Derby,followed by an evening of our own wiffle ball version of the show across the street at the playground,with every kid trying to imitate the batters in the episode.Talk about teleliteracy...
Sep 16, 2013   |  Reply
How cool to discover Circus Boy is out there still. And it's not just fun to see pre-Monkee Mickey but also Noah Beery Jr., later to become beloved for his work on The Rockford Files (and many other TV shows and movies). Circus Boy was a childhood fave of mine. Now, when do we get Buffalo Bill Junior? Oh, and one last thing, Ed. Your description of the Lassie episode makes it more understandable why the series won a Peabody.
Sep 16, 2013   |  Reply
Great to see I Spy back on.I don't know the technical details,but it is shown in a square with black borders,a variation of letterboxing to give a ratio of film to screen which I don't remember from original airings.Also,this show, and some of the others are closed captioned so my wife can enjoy the story.I Spy had big budgets,lush locales,two of the best bromancers in the business and decent scripts(also filmed in color,which I never saw till the '80s). Their doppleganger episode,a staple of spisodic media,was one that turned my head around as a teen and it still delivers. And that exciting theme,as good as any spy film,was from Earle Hagen,who did other Danny Thomas/Sheldon Leonard shows like Andy Griffith(and Earle did the whistling on that one).
Sep 16, 2013   |  Reply
The BEST Lassie episodes were with Tommy Rettig.
Sep 15, 2013   |  Reply
And just to add one more thing --
People can kid about "June Cleaver & her pearls" all they want, but when I watch the reruns the Cleaver parents were as good a set of parents as you'll ever find. Every episode had a moral lesson involved but in a very gentle, non- preachy way. Even Eddie Haskell learned the error of his ways (over & over & over again!). Interestingly, Barbara Billingsley remained friends with Jerry Mathers and Tony Dow until her death a few years ago; they both considered her their second mother. That in itself says volumes about her. And if Tony Dow wasn't the best looking guy on tv, I don't know who was.
Sep 14, 2013   |  Reply
Ed, I love this column! I returned my two cable boxes to Time Warner Cable last Friday, and wished them well (not really!). And guess what? I haven't been phased in the least. When I would look at the programming for the evening and it was a steady diet of old Jennifer Lopez movies and reality shows, I knew it was time to cut the proverbial cord.
The good news -- with a converter box I get Cozi, Antenna TV and This-TV along with a new Fox channel, Movies 5.2. And I'm loving Leave It to Beaver, Father Knows Best, Rin Tin Tin, Alfred Hitchcock Presents and a host of others. Who knew?
Sep 14, 2013   |  Reply
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