Jim Bishop: I’m dreaming of an electronic Christmas, ’50s style

“Mom, Dad, all I want for Christmas is . . .”

I didn’t need to finish the sentence. My parents knew what was coming next because they’d already heard it one too many times.

And the exasperating answer is: a Remco transistor radio and broadcasting system.

I don’t recall where I first saw this “electronic marvel,” at least by 1950s standards. Maybe it was a magazine ad, maybe word of mouth from friends or perhaps it appeared among the child’s garden of earthly delights at Foster’s Toy Store in my hometown of Doylestown, Pa.

The device was toted on television, but I don’t remember seeing it on our GE 14″ black and white set back then. My brother J. Eric Bishop of Souderton, Pa., just called my attention to a YouTube grainy promotional for this item from that era (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rJZi-gYQN4A).

Watching the spot evoked a mix of smarmy sentimentalism and euphoria.

In the commercial, one youngster, the proud Remco set owner, is extolling its qualities to a buddy who obviously is going to run out and pester his own parents as soon as the commercial ends. But the spot itself was a bit misleading.

Once properly assembled – which wasn’t easy for this youngster, I do recall – the one-transistor receiver would pick up a commercial AM radio station within range. Exciting enough, but the set didn’t actually “broadcast” from one receiver to another. It basically amplified my squeaky voice through a small, cheap speaker as I spoke into a plastic microphone.

Yes, the much-desired gadget did appear under the Bishop Christmas tree, not certain what year, but likely around 1956-57.

It was the second-best Christmas present I ever received as a youngster after the ultimate gift found under the tree in 1954, an RCA Victor 45 rpm record player. I remember this special offer from Readers Digest magazine came with a set of extended-play RCA Victor 7-inch discs, a compilation of classical pieces performed by the NBC Symphony Orchestra, Arturo Toscanini, conductor. I played these until the grooves wore smooth.

Watching the Remco vintage video prompted me to do a Google search, and in a few minutes I relived more magical musical moments with another YouTube video, this one showing the identical model and color unit that I had spent endless hours with (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AvN1iDcmCn0&NR=1).

I couldn’t let well enough alone with either pre-computer gift. Not satisfied to sit and listen to Doylestown radio station WBUX, the only station that came in across the “tuner,” I strung special antenna wire from my bedroom window to a maple tree in the middle of the yard. Once connected, I was certain I could pick up one or more Philadelphia stations – WIBG radio 99 in particular.

Nope. After all that special effort, WBUX didn’t even come in louder. It had boring programming for this pre-teen to boot. But, I still spent hours pretending to be a big-time disc jockey, spinning stacks of wax and rattling off the time and temperature and taking listener requests.

Many years later, that childhood fantasy would come true. But, that’s another story, already told – probably more than once – in this public medium.

The 45 player met its demise when I decided to wire a larger speaker to the unit to bring out bass music notes. I should have known something was amiss when I smelled something hot – the concept of “improper impedance” was lost on this lad. By the time I noticed rising smoke, the wires had started to melt onto the printed circuit board. After that, the player “hummed” each time I turned it on, and not in time to the music.

I ponder why certain gifts received years ago remain cemented in my cobwebbed cranium – Tinkertoys, an Erector set, a Slinky, chemistry set, Revell model cars, a Lionel O-gauge freight train, for example – while others have totally dissipated. Might it have something to do with the amount of time I spent with them long after Christmas Day had passed, how much they fired up my juvenile imagination and, in some cases, allowed my friends to join in cooperative play?

Carry that idea forward to the present and note what captures the attention of young people – the latest “gotta have” high-tech gimmick, too often tied in to movies and TV shows, that runs on computer chips and requires batteries, that’s gotta make a lot of noise and, while some will disagree, may encourage aggressive behavior. Some of today’s toys are remarkable, but to me many don’t seem to ignite the creative spark in children that drove some of yesterday’s playthings.

Gift giving and receiving is fine – especially when kept within budget – and adds to the festive nature of Christmas for young and old alike. But the genuine spirit of the season, sharing love and caring, must be present with the presents for true happiness to be found under the tree on Christmas morning.

Jim Bishop is public information officer at Eastern Mennonite University. He can be contacted at bishopj@emu.edu.

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