The past, we’re told, was in color, and I don’t doubt that the generation after mine will remember it that way. Mrs. T told me the other day that Ian, our thirteen-year-old nephew, has taken to turning up his nose at black-and-white movies, a form of youthful snobbery that I’d heard about but never previously encountered. Not for him the clean, crisp surreality of the monochrome image: he wants color or nothing. No doubt blood looks better when it’s really red.
Me, I like black-and-white movies, and I can recall with embarrassing ease a time when color TV was a rarity reserved for the rich. The earliest color TV sets, which went on sale in 1954, cost $1,295 each, a bit more than ten thousand dollars in today’s money. My family, which didn’t have that kind of cash to throw around, waited to buy a color set until 1966, the year that all three networks (remember the three networks?) changed over to full-color prime-time broadcast schedules. Prior to that time, the world came to our living room in black and white, and even though commercial color TV had been introduced twelve years earlier, I knew it not. That’s why it’s natural for me to think of the not-so-distant past as a colorless realm inhabited by great men (and a few women) who now exist only in shades of gray.
It is for this reason that I find myself fascinated by the relatively recent explosion of interest in autochrome, the first color-photography process that was practical enough to be marketed commercially and used by serious photographers. It was in autochrome that the earliest color pictures of famous people were taken, and to see them now is a disorienting, even jolting experience. Alvin Langdon Coburn, for instance, took two autochromes of Mark Twain at his home in Connecticut. Who knew that the author of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn liked to wear a red robe when reading in bed? Who knew, indeed, that there was any color to him but the gleaming white of the linen suits that were his trademark?
Dwight Eisenhower is another of those historical figures who, though he was photographed countless times in color, seems to be locked into the lost world of shadows. Hence I was hugely surprised to discover that the oldest known color videotape, made in 1958, records a public appearance by none other than Ike himself:
It was far less surprising for me to view the color tape of the 1959 “kitchen debate” between Richard Nixon and Nikita Khrushchev. Nixon, after all, was elected president when I was in junior high school. What startled me most about the tape was not that he was (so to speak) a man of color but that, like me, he had once been young:
Most fascinating of all, though, is the fact that the earliest surviving color videotapes of entertainment telecasts should be devoted to the three TV specials featuring Fred Astaire that aired on NBC between 1958 and 1960. Astaire, needless to say, starred in a good many color films, but the movies for which he is best remembered are all in black and white, and to see his dancing preserved via the you-are-there immediacy of videotape is to feel the obscuring veil of the past falling away like a layer of shed skin.
Some clever soul has posted on YouTube an excerpt from Another Evening With Fred Astaire in which the original color video is intercut with a black-and-white film kinescope of the same telecast. If you’re too young to know what it felt like to see color TV for the first time, this clip will convey something of that long-lost shock of recognition:
I confess to treasuring the non-entertaining portions of these telecasts as much as, if not more than, the “good” parts. Here, for instance, is part of what you would have seen if you were one of the few people in Wichita, Kansas, who was sufficiently well heeled to own a color TV on October 17, 1958:
Isn’t it bewitching to see the car commercials? And to know that Lee Marvin’s M Squad and Peter Lawford’s The Thin Man got bumped that cool fall night by none other than Fred Astaire?
Alas, there will be no future autochrome-like explosion of interest in early color television, for videotape was so expensive in the late Fifties and early Sixties (an hour-long blank reel cost $300) that all three networks routinely erased and reused tapes that had not been specifically earmarked for preservation. Surviving color video from the Golden Age of Television is thus as rare–and as eerily evocative–as sound recordings from the late nineteenth century.
The world was simpler then, simpler and more reassuring and–yes–less honest. Much was being swept under the rug in 1960, much suffering and much folly, far too much for our collective good. And now? We get color or nothing, with more than enough blood to go around. But while I suppose I’m glad to know what I know about the world, luridly and garishly vivid though it may be, I don’t think I would have wanted to know very much of it when I was young–and I’m not at all sure it’s a good thing that my nephew already knows some of it.
W.H. Auden said it: Some think they’re strong, some think they’re smart,/Like butterflies they’re pulled apart,/America can break your heart./You don’t know all, sir, you don’t know all.
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To see the complete 1958 telecast of An Evening With Fred Astaire, go here.