“Do you girls know how many songs there are to sing? Millions! Millions of wonderful songs that you can learn to sing. There is no reason on earth for you to be singing commercials. Don’t you see? That’s just what those guys on Madison Avenue want you to do!”
Normally, our father didn’t wield a lot of authority over us. He didn’t have to; we were so docile that there were few rules and seldom any punishments. But the one thing Dad wished we would not do was an activity that we enjoyed greatly and did as mindlessly as breathing.
In the early '60s advertisers were forging new inroads to sell Americans everything from flash-frozen vegetables to hemorrhoid medication to mink coats. Television was still fairly new. We had five channels from which to choose on our black and white Motorola.
When we watched TV as a family, Dad leapt from his chair the moment the commercials came on and turned off the sound for the duration. When the show came back on, he shot back and cranked the volume up. He said he didn’t want to be manipulated by the ad men.
When we were very young, my sister, Ellen, and I were not allowed to turn on the television ourselves. If we wanted to watch, we had to ask, and most of the time the television was tuned to Channel Nine. Nine was NET – National Educational Television, which eventually became PBS, the future home of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood and Sesame Street. But in our era, the only show for kids was What’s New, and it was pretty boring.
As compliant as we were, though, we must have changed the channel once in a while, because I have fond memories of The Mickey Mouse Club, Soupy Sales, Sky King and our fair share of Westerns.
But the radio was on all the time. Usually all the radios in the house were tuned to KABL, an easy listening station. On weekends, Dad would tune in the Metropolitan Opera broadcasts brought to us by Texaco. Mom didn’t care for opera – she said the singers sounded like they’d caught their hand in the refrigerator door – but she put up with it because Dad loved it and it was probably good for us girls.
And what television withheld – at least when Dad was home – radio distributed freely. Commercials. Radio jingles. Hundreds of them. All day, every day. For some reason, Dad let radio commercials play with impunity.
My sister Ellen is an extremely good musician, and as a young child could naturally find the harmony for any melody within seconds of hearing it. When we heard a commercial we liked, she would try to keep me singing the melody while she harmonized. And it didn’t matter what the song was. The more familiar, the better.
“Give him Doctor Ross dog food and do him a favor.
It’s got more meat and it’s got more flavor.
It’s got more meat to make him feel the way he shooooould –
Doctor Ross dog food is doggone good! Woof!”
Ellen and I spent hours on the floor playing with our dolls or cars, singing commercials like crazy. When Dad caught us, he’d get so mad. “Sing anything else! Just not commercials!”
But we couldn’t help ourselves. The jingles were firmly installed in our little juvenile brains. Every new commercial was a new song to learn. We couldn’t stop. We didn’t want to.
“Rice-a-Roni, the San Francisco treat!
Rice-a-Roni, the flavor can’t be beat ….”
“Bekins men are careful quick and kind
Bekins takes a load off of your mind
Movin’ heavy things or a fragile fixture
The Bekins men are a movin’ picture …”
“From the Land of Sky Blue Waters (waters)
From the land of pines, lofty balsam,
Comes the beer refreshing,
Hamm’s, the beer refreshing.”
“We are the horses at Golden Gate Fields
And we have a real racy appeal …”
Years later, the irony was not lost on us. If I’d stayed with my original major at art school, I’d have been one of those “Mad Men” in advertising. And Ellen’s desire was to be a radio jingle writer and singer.
Funny, even obedient girls can wage little rebellions.
“See Ellis Brooks today for your Chevrolet
Corner of Bush and Van Ness…
He’s got a deal for you, oh what a deal for you …”