Friday, September 25, 2015
The 1951 DuMont Teleset
One of the most gorgeous features of the treasure trove of old ads I just discovered on YouTube is a whole series of ads for the DuMont television set (which is what it was called back then). These ads were performed live on variety shows with singers, dancers and comedians doing their stuff. Some of the ads featured a male chorus singing radio-style ditties praising the superior clarity of the DuMont picture. I remember TV from the late '50s on, and in no way, shape or form was the picture "clear". It wobbled all over the place. It flipped. It developed noisy static and went all white and grainy. We didn't care because we had nothing to compare it to. This 1951 DuMont set must have been much more primitive. For all that, it has a much larger screen than the earlier models from the 1940s which were only a few inches across.
Back then, you didn't say "watch TV" - you said "look at television". It's one of those quaintitudes that disappeared at a certain point (like exclaiming "saaaaaay!" at the beginning of every sentence). But if you listened to the radio, you - what? Looked at television, as in "stop, look and listen". Or something. Even the terminology was unfamiliar. People marvelled at the new technology, but were a little scared and intimidated by it all.
By now you may be noting a certain bizarre feature of these very early DuMont commercials. The hostess or whatever you call her is not opening out the cabinet doors to display the "teleset". She always CLOSES the doors to cover the screen up. I think there's a reason for this. People just weren't used to having this honking big open eye, this shiny piece of glass staring at them in their living room. It was not uncommon for the uninitiated to believe that the people on television could see them. It was more modest, somehow, to keep that thing closed away until viewing time. It looked more like a piece of furniture that way. Maybe a radio.
No one knew how to display a product visually in those days - thus the catchy jingles sung in four-part harmony like a Barbasol ad. A woman walked in, shut the doors on the ghastly thing, and walked off. That was about all the movement people could handle in those days. These television commercials for televisions were meant to waft out into Televisionland only once, as everything was done live and couldn't be repeated. These ghostly remainders come from kinescopes, a primitive way to film a program directly from the camera monitor. I like the smudgy, shadowy, phosphorescent atmosphere of them, a sense of technological antiquity. In many cases they're all we have left of the baby years of TV, when the DuMont network reigned supreme before disappearing into the abyss of obsolescence.
This flickering image of a DuMont Teleset, with doors closed, appeared onscreen for nearly a full minute, with only the slick male chorus to remind us of what they were selling. Come on, folks - buy the new 1951 DuMont - uh - whatever-this-is.