It is the 4th of January 2021. Welcome to the Christian History Almanac brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org. I’m Dan van Voorhis.
The year was 1953.
It was a monumental year in the history of television. After a 4-year freeze implemented by the FCC, new licenses, signals, and networks began to pepper the American landscape. NBC and CBS were the leading players on the airwaves, but new shows and technologies would democratize the system a little more.
1953 was the year that the FCC approved color television technology. Color television was the newest fad. However, it would be six years before “Bonanza” became the first regular, weekly color television program. Despite limited color programs, a color television would cost about $1100 in 1953, the equivalent of over $10,000 today.
In Great Britain, the television boom was fueled by broadcasting the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. The news that the coronation would be televised led to the first spike in television sales and the growth of a national television infrastructure in the United Kingdom. 1953 was also the year that TV detector vans began monitoring neighborhoods for unlicensed televisions. At least the British government has been telling this useful story ever since.
A few other firsts in television from 1953. It was the year that “Romper Room” debuted. It would be a staple of children’s television until 1994. The oddly named “Knickerbocker Beer Show” debuted this year as well. Luckily, the nighttime variety program was rechristened “The Tonight Show” and has aired ever since.
And in the annals of television history, Christian history, and 1953, it was on this, the 4th of January in 1953 that “The Catholic Hour” made its debut on NBC television. The Reverend Fulton Sheen had hosted a radio version of the program for 20 years on NBC radio. A slew of up-and-coming actors and writers were hired for these once-a-year drama organized by the National Council of Catholic Men. As we’ve mentioned before on this program, before 1960, religious programming was required on national networks, and the religious bodies were not charged for their time.
The story of the Catholic Church in the 1950s is one of a church body that had long been persecuted in America with a long history of nativism and anti-Catholic propaganda. Fulton Sheen and other Catholics embraced new mediums and a distinctly American accent to ingratiate the Catholic church to the broader Christian community. Fulton Sheen was also instrumental in redirecting some of the older anti-Catholic animosity towards the new American enemy, the all-pervasive Communists. In 1953 at the end of a reading of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, Sheen replaced the names of the main conspirators with current Soviet officials. Sheen bellowed, “Stalin must one day meet his judgment,” and a week later, Stalin died.
The Catholic Hour television program was known as a training ground for many young writers and actors. Rod Serling, later of Twilight Zone fame, was one of the writers of the sometimes-melodramatic hourly program. Of all the actors and writers on the show, one would have a particularly noteworthy career. Ramon Estevez was a young actor who had trouble getting parts and even apartments in his name. Long before he would star on the Catholic Hour, he decided to change his name. Despite not being Catholic, Ramon changed his first name to Martin and took his last name from Bishop Fulton Sheen. Martin Sheen would later in life become a devout Catholic. He admitted he took the name at the time because he liked how it sounded, and he was impressed by the Bishop’s oratory.
A strange concurrence, a piece of American history, and a piece of church history, they come together as we remember the popular piece of religious entertainment: The Catholic Hour, which debuted on NBC on this, the 4th of January in 1953.
The reading for this, the 10th day of Christmas, comes from Pauline Johnson, a 19th century Canadian Poet. This is her “Christmastide.”
I may not go to-night to Bethlehem,
Nor follow star-directed ways, nor tread
The paths wherein the shepherds walked, that led
To Christ, and peace, and God’s good will to men.
I may not hear the Herald Angels’ song
Peal through the oriental skies, nor see
The wonder of that Heavenly company
Announce the King the world had waited long.
The manger throne I may not kneel before,
Or see how man to God is reconciled,
Through pure St. Mary’s purer, holier child;
The human Christ these eyes may not adore.
I may not carry frankincense and myrrh
With adoration to the Holy One;
Nor gold have I to give the Perfect Son,
To be with those wise kings a worshipper.
Not mine the joy that Heaven sent to them,
For ages since Time swung and locked his gates,
But I may kneel without—the star still waits,
To guide me on to holy Bethlehem.
This has been the Christian History Almanac for the 4th of January 2021 brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org. The show is produced by the Emilio to my Charlie, Christopher Gillespie. The show is written and read by Dan van Voorhis. You can catch us here every day, and remember…the rumors of grace, forgiveness, and the redemption of all things are true…. Everything is going to be ok.