Monday, November 14, 2016

The View-Master: Classic TV One Frame at a Time

Here’s something I’ll bet you didn’t know – View-Master is still in business.

Today’s version is touted as a virtual reality device, for which you’ll have to download and launch an app, scan a QR code, and then attach the viewer to a smartphone. No, I haven’t tried it. Sounds like a lot of work.

Back in my day (I love saying that) a View-Master was ready to use right out of the box – no batteries required. But its appeal may be hard to explain to anyone under 30. “See, we had this little plastic hand-held viewer, and you would insert these cardboard reels inside, and look at still images from one episode of a TV show.”

Doesn’t sound exciting now, does it? But in the 1960s and ‘70s almost every kid had a View-Master, and we collected reel sets of not just TV shows but images from different cities and countries, national parks, destinations like Disneyland, movies and wonders of nature.

Obviously we’ll focus on the TV sets here, which is also appropriate since the heyday of the classic TV era coincided with that of the View-Master. The version we all remember was introduced in 1962, and the selection of content multiplied rapidly starting in 1966, when the company that manufactured the viewers was acquired by General Aniline & Film, better known as GAF.

If you’re interested in the complete history of the product, which dates back to 1939, check out the Wikipedia entry.

As I’ve often written in this blog, one of the joys of classic television is the shared memories it engenders – all of us watching the same programs at the same time, and sometimes talking about them the next day at school.

I’ll bet many of us have View-Master memories in common as well, starting with family outings to Sears because somebody needed a new pair of shoes, or a pair of Toughskin Jeans. At some point you’d pass the department with the cameras and the calculators, and there would be the View-Master display, with dozens of reel sets randomly arranged.

It was always worth a quick look to see if anything new was released. Either way there were so many choices, especially for TV fans: comedies (Happy Days, Laverne & Shirley, The Beverly Hillbillies, Welcome Back, Kotter), action shows (Emergency!, The Rookies) sci-fi (Dr. Who, Star Trek, Space: 1999) children’s shows (Captain Kangaroo, The New Zoo Revue, The Big Blue Marble); family dramas (Apple’s Way, The Waltons) even shows that are almost forgotten today, like Daktari and The Smith Family.  

If you owned any of these sets you probably still remember which episode was featured. I’ve always wondered if there were any criteria for dictating that selection.

Sometimes the answer is obvious – Family Affair was represented by “What’s Funny About a Broken Leg,” in which Buffy breaks her leg and can’t go to the circus, so Uncle Bill recreates the circus in the Davis apartment.

The colorful performer costumes and animal acts offered more visual appeal than a typical episode.

But the most memorable aspect of “The Male Chauvinist,” the episode selected for The Partridge Family, is the performance of the group’s biggest hit, “I Think I Love You.”

The set was released before the introduction of the Talking View-Master, and without that audio component it seems like a random choice. If they wanted a more appropriate first season show I’d have gone with “But the Memory Lingers On.” That’s the one where the family bus is polluted by a stowaway skunk, so the family has to borrow clothes before a benefit concert.

I still haven’t answered the central question – why were these sets once so appealing?

Keep in mind that View-Master predates VCRs, so this was a time when there was no way to capture episodes or moments from a TV series. In its earliest days View-Master provided a chance to revisit at least one episode anytime we wished.

Beyond that, the quality, brightness and clarity of each image were beyond anything we could see even on the best color TV sets at that time. A View-Master is essentially a stereoscope, which aligns two images of the same scene that are viewed simultaneously by the left eye and right eye, making the image appear three-dimensional. It was like seeing moments from these shows in high-definition before anyone knew what that was. 

If you were slightly TV-obsessed like me, you also enjoyed the opportunity to take a longer look inside these fictional worlds. What are all those tchotchkes in Julie’s house on The Mod Squad? What kind of gadget is Barney working on in Mission: Impossible? And there are some great views of the Batcave in the Batman set.

It’s nice to know they’re around, even if the company is no longer owned by GAF. If you’re a true-blue View-Master fan, you still say those initials like Henry Fonda did in commercials like this one. You'll probably recognize someone else in the ad as well. 

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