EASY ED’S BROADSIDE: Tales from the Rec Room
A Magnavox console with turntable and AM/FM stereo (photo via ebth.com)
My parents moved into a single-family tract home in the Philadelphia suburbs sometime around 1962. There were three models in a 500 home development named Sun Valley that pretty much looked identical and ranged in price from $14,990 to $18,990. A few miles north, the same builder created a more upscale community he called Pine Valley, with homes distinguished by their brown cedar siding versus our more affordable white asbestos. They had larger lot sizes and the prices started at $19,990. Another commonality was that the homes were not sold to people of color, and our neighborhood was marketed primarily to first-born, assimilated Jewish-American families.
Like in thousands of similar postwar “white flight” planned communities of that time period built throughout the country, there was a similarity in the split-level home design: living room, dining room, three or maybe four bedrooms, two and a half bathrooms, a small kitchen, perhaps a basement for laundry and storage, a one-car garage and the rec (for recreation) room. While the latter might also be called a den based on geography, it was the family gathering place. The living rooms were often filled with French or Italian provincial heavy wood furniture with couches encased in plastic upholstery covers, used only by adults on special occasions. But everybody utilized the rec room, and the centerpiece was the family entertainment console.
The entertainment center or console of the early ’60s usually housed a black-and-white television set that could be hidden by sliding doors when not in use. The countertop featured two hinged lids that when lifted revealed an AM/FM radio receiver on one side and a four-speed stereo phonograph on the other. That would be 16-45-33-78 rpm in case you’re wondering. Our rec room was largely Danish modern with an L-shaped modular sofa and long teak table with a leather insert in the corner. My father won the fight to buy himself a green leatherette La-Z-Boy recliner and our DuMont Teleset Combo Console lacked any description other than Basic Early Sixties Ugly.
The television offered up my most memorable cultural experiences. Together with my mom, I saw Lee Harvey Oswald get shot to death live on the air as it happened, our entire family came together for the three Ed Sullivan shows in early 1964 that featured The Beatles, and Walter Cronkite on CBS reporting about a faraway place called Viet Nam was a nightly ritual. By the end of the ’60s, my sister had moved out and when my parents were asleep I’d smoke a little weed, sit on dad’s La-Z-Boy, pour myself a Pepsi, eat a few Tastykake Juniors and maybe a bag of Wise potato chips, and watch Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show.
My sister never really used the stereo system too often, as she was off to college two years after we had moved into the house. Mom and Dad had a small record collection that consisted of Enoch Light and The Light Brigade, a half-dozen Broadway soundtracks, a couple Mario Lanza Italian classics (dad knew him from the old neighborhood), several Sinatra albums, Herb Alpert and The Tijuana Brass, and Sammy Davis at the Coconut Grove.
Up until I was given my own portable stereo for my bedroom when I turned 14, I would use the family console for my very small album collection: a budget Ray Charles album, Meet the Beatles in mono that I bought for 99 cents at Korvettes, the Anthology of American Folk Music my aunt gave me, and some stuff I stole from my sister’s room: about a hundred 45 rpm singles from the ’50s and Joan Baez’s debut album.
In 1969, while my parents were on vacation, my friends and I held our first group “acid test” in the rec room and used the console to play Firesign Theater and Pink Floyd albums while letting the television play with the sound off. It was a few months after Woodstock, and although memories are understandably fuzzy, it culminated at around seven the next morning when I got the idea to wake up the entire neighborhood with Ummagumma‘s “Grantchester Meadows.” A couple of us wheeled my six-foot-high, 200-watt guitar amp out on the front sidewalk, used a hundred feet of speaker wire to connect it to the console, and blasted at full volume the song that kicks off with birds chirping.
The Philadelphia police, not exactly known for their community relations skills, were very kind that day. After cruising by the house a few times, with a dozen strung out hippies sitting on the lawn, they finally pulled up in front of the house, motioned me over to the patrol car, and said “Son, you clearly aren’t getting our message. We’ll be back in two minutes and if your amp and friends aren’t inside the house, we’ll be hauling all your asses to jail and will shave your little hippie heads.”
I kept my hair that day, and the fond memories of our DuMont family entertainment center will forever remain in my thoughts.
Many of my past columns, articles, and essays can be accessed here at my own site, therealeasyed.com. I also aggregate news and videos on both Flipboard and Facebook as The Real Easy Ed: Americana and Roots Music Daily. My Twitter handle is @therealeasyed and my email address is firstname.lastname@example.org