Interview with Kathy Aaronson
Q: Do you remember when times were simpler and lives were less encumbered? Do you remember the excitement of that first television set coming into your home?
Aaronson: Well my first memories of television were watching my father on top of the barn in rural New Hampshire putting up an antenna because we lived in a valley and the signal couldn't come through. So, we weren't one of the first I knew to have television; in fact, we were probably the last... We always had to visit someone else to see it. Sports is what inspired us to first get our first television.... There was a big event that was going to be televised and that was what put fire under my father to go out and buy a television and wire the barn for reception. I can remember the first words I heard over the television because it was all that we enjoyed that day: It was a great catch by Whitey Ford and then the screen went to fuzz, and we didn't see any more of the game. But, I got to run around the yard for a couple of days yelling at the top of my lungs and jumping for that great catch by Whitey Ford. I pretended I was Whitey Ford, and from that day forward, I was a baseball fan.
Q: The first time you saw television was at your grandmother's. Was it special that your grandparents had a television set?
Aaronson: It was very special. When we were invited to my grandmother's house to see television for the very first time, it was a very special event. The invitation wasn't phrased, "Why don't you come over to see television for the first time?" It was, "Why don't you come over to see Liberace who treats his mother very well?" And, that was the event. We arrived and everyone sat down. My grandmother turned on the television and had this big magnifying glass in front of the screen -- and there was Liberace. My mother started to cry and my grandmother started to cry. And I wanted to watch something else. That was my first memory of television: coming over to watch the man that treated his mother so well.
Q: When did you become aware of Lucille Ball? Do you remember the first time you saw her?
Aaronson: The first time I saw "I Love Lucy", I was immediately taken by her because it was the first time I saw the inside of a big city home, specifically an apartment. Until then, I thought everyone lived on farms. She was the first apartment dweller I'd ever "known". She also had an interesting group of friends who looked like people that I knew. They weren't perfect... They were a little overweight, a little balding. They also were absurd and didn't seem to care if they did something the neighbors didn't like. Through Lucy, I also saw that you could be outrageous in the big city. You certainly couldn't get away with the things she was pulling in a small town like ours.
Q: What sort of impact did Lucy have on other members of your family?
Aaronson: I believe that my mother was as affected by Lucy as I was. After Lucy traveled across the United States to California, our family took our very first vacation to California. We got a map showing where all the stars live, and drove by their homes. My mother got out of the car and collected leaves and things off their lawns and produced a marvelous scrapbook that I have to this day.... We were in the Brown Derby and Salvador Dali was there. My mother just lifted her leg and had Salvador Dali sign her hosiery, which was really kind of funny!
Q: Let's talk about a couple of the memorable shows. Do you remember when Lucy had her baby?
Aaronson: When Lucille Ball was pregnant, everyone was talking about her maternity clothes because they were very sophisticated, unlike what women in our small, rural community wore. But the biggest gossip was the concern and worry that my mother and her friends had: That Lucy was giving birth for the first time in her mid 40's. Women at that time simply didn't do that. So, I waited for the night when she gave birth, praying that everything would be all right, because women at that age weren't supposed to have healthy children. The gossip created a great deal of tension before we watched the show that night.
Q: What about the episode when Lucy takes vitamins?
Aaronson: Well, when you're brought up on a farm, you tend to look at the crops as though they're vitamins. You know what goes into the crop. When you digest that vegetable or piece of meat, you know what's going to happen to you because you're so close to the earth. What Lucy showed me in the vitamin episode was that you could get the kind of vitamins in a bottle that our family was growing on the farm. So after that show, we ate vitamins from a bottle. Until then, we never would have spent money on something like that. We'd never even think about it.
Q: What were some other shows on the air? Did you watch news programs or was television primarily for entertainment?
Aaronson: My favorite news program was the Dave Garraway Today Show in the morning. I liked the chimpanzee and also the weather. We had relatives all across the United States and could watch the national weather to see what Polly was doing in San Diego or what Aunt Rita was doing down in Florida. So that was really a wonderful news program, and we watched religiously every morning. Because we were on a farm, the weather also told us what crops elsewhere were doing, or what the value of our crop might be if the weather was bad in other parts of the country. It was something that my mother and the children would watch and then report back to my father who was out in the field. So it was also of economic value. The advent of television was very important. Up until that time, I remember that we had an almanac hanging near the dinner bell and that was what would determine the spread or the crop for the year.
Q: In 1960, John Kennedy and Richard Nixon had a televised debate. Do you remember watching it? Was there any kind of political discussion within your family as a result of the debate?
Aaronson: Our family was Catholic and we were also from New England, so the John F. Kennedy/Richard Milhouse Nixon debates really meant a lot to us. It meant a lot in terms of the family philosophy and the part of the country we were from. So we watched intently. Everyone was hushed; no comments were allowed. The debate was also part of one of a class at school. We had to write an essay the next day about what had transpired on TV the night before. It was a very important event.
Q: So as a Catholic and New Englander, were you predisposed towards Kennedy?
Aaronson: Yes, yes. We knew the Catholics weren't going to ruin the country. We knew that.
Q: President Kennedy and his family were in many ways not just the First Family, but the First Family of television. Do you have memories of watching them on TV?
Aaronson: I have two memories about the tour of the White House. The first was that it was the first time I saw a house was that not decorated all in one type of furniture. Up until that time, I thought a house -- from the front door to the back door -- would have only one style. So that tour allowed me to be much more creative in how I decorated my dollhouse or how I assembled projects. It just really gave me a better sense of how I could put things together. I think that was number one.
Number two was the dress... Jackie Kennedy had this spectacularly sophisticated look. Until then, if a woman went out or went into town, she wore a suit with gloves and a hat. Now, here was Jackie Kennedy in the White House in a spectacular dress, not a house-dress, but a fabulous dress. I remember thinking, "My God there's this style of fashion out there that I can wear not only in the home, but there's something that I can take out in the street." We later saw that look become part of "That Girl" and other programs on television. So those are the two: the way she dressed and the way she decorated the house.
Q: What about the President himself? Were you interested in politics? What was it like seeing him on TV?
Aaronson: When I looked at President Kennedy, I didn't just see a President of the United States, I saw someone who had a brother-in-law, Peter Lawford, who was a movie star. He reminded me a little bit of Lucy! I mean he was red-haired and he went to California and he did the most outrageous things that presidents don't do. President Kennedy didn't do anything that you thought a president would do. First of all, he was very young, and you'd see him swimming. When's the last time you saw a president in a bathing suit? He rode horses and played football and was very athletic. Consequently, I became very athletic. It wasn't traditional for women to be athletic, to exercise. But you'd see them romp on their lawns with the Kennedy girls, as well as the boys, playing football. He was a very non-traditional president and you couldn't help but watch to see what he was going to do next.
Q: What was it like watching the Kennedy assassination on television?
Aaronson: When Kennedy was assassinated, it was the very first time I had seen a murder -- not just one murder, but also the murder of Oswald. I remember being paralyzed and totally immersed in the television. You couldn't get away from it. I just remember being numb and falling emotionally into a dark hole as I watched his family walk behind the casket... The assassination of John F. Kennedy affected me in a very profound way.
Q: Did the assassination lead to you to greater political involvement?
Aaronson: No, the Kennedy assassination actually left me adrift politically. It wasn't until the Vietnam War that I awakened.... It was just a startling experience to watch Vietnam on television, to realize that those boys weren't actors, that [it] was a real war. Kids were dying and boys were dying that we knew. It wasn't until the Vietnam war that I awakened politically.... It was with an event where the Vietnamese officer shot the person on television... I wrote a letter to President Johnson, asking him to please do whatever he could within his power to end the war.
Q: Did Vietnam cause any political breaks among your friends or parents? Was the war something you discussed at home?
Aaronson: My family didn't sit around the table and talk politics. I can't remember ever having a political conversation with my family, but I do remember the Vietnam War being a subject in school. We were asked to comment on what we saw on television and how we felt about what we saw on TV. The children at school felt that Vietnam was a very, very far away place and none of us knew anyone from there. We were trying to understand why people were leaving our community and going so far away to die. We wondered who would be picked next in the lottery -- you know, whose older brother would go....
Q: What about the first lunar landing? Did you watch that event on television?
Aaronson: When the first man landed on the moon, it was a subject of a class. We were to watch the landing. We were to write an essay about the landing. The next day we reviewed all of our essays. We had to stand up and read them. Not a single person in our class would have played golf or missed that day.
Q: Was there a television show that you would plan your life around?
Aaronson: Oh yes! My favorite television programs were "Lassie" and "The Rifleman". I would do anything to get in front of that television set so that I could see Johnny Crawford. He was my swoon and those two shows were used as bait to get me to raise my grades, finish my homework on time, complete my chores. I also would come home and be the only person in the house after school. Then, I enjoyed "The Mickey Mouse Club" and Annette Funicello. I went on to take dance lessons and became a very big fan of all the Disneyland parks and everything to do with Walt Disney
Q: Is your house now wired for video?
Aaronson: Yes, we are wired for television -- every room in our house, our bathroom, our kitchen, dining room, living room, den, and bedrooms. In our bedrooms we have two television sets, each one with headsets so that we can each watch our own television. All of our televisions except the one in the bathroom have two remote control switches so that we can surf together. We have our manners as to when I will take off on mine and when he will take off on his. Usually, it will start with, "darling please." which will mean he can surf. Or, he will say "darling please," which means please stop surfing on the television.
Q: Reflecting back on all these years of television, what exactly have you gotten out of the medium?
Aaronson: Television has given me so many marvelous gifts. Most importantly, it has given me information that I've used in order to enhance my financial position. Today, I earn ten times more than my family earned. I credit that largely to the exposure I've had to television. My world has gone from a small community to a global community -- actually a globe that I look down at as though it's a small blue marble and I can pick my opportunities and choices. I'm positive that I would never have had that opportunity without television. Also, I saw the desert storm war happen very quickly with few causalities. I had to think that small villages in remote spaces of the world were watching television -- villages that didn't have Xerox machines or fax machines or adequate telephones -- but that somehow saw America had created these missiles that were able to see a door from outer space, open that door, and hit the target right on the spot. I believe that television has the opportunity to give us world peace and to bring us together as it does when we all get together for a football game or share a common experience like CNN or The Today Show. That brings us together regardless of age or race or religion. We have this new common experience together and I have to believe that the more experiences we share, the greater the likelihood for world peace. In more personal terms, television has greatly affected my life. I was born with a severe learning disability, and it was hard for my teachers and parents to understand how a child going to school could not read, write, or count, yet because of a remarkable memory and the use of television was able to graduate from high school. Upon graduating from high school, I was unable to read the classifieds or fill out applications or even complete normal typing tests that would have given me, what we referred to at that time as, traditional women's work. It was through television and the role models like Lucy -- who every time she failed just stood back up and dusted herself off - that took me out of a small rural community, brought me into business, and gave me an opportunity to see lots of different occupations. Most importantly human beings by our nature tend to be imitative, and so television has given me all kinds of trends and phases and passages in my life where I've been able to mimic very important people that normally would have been out of my grasp. Television has brought them into my home and allowed me to see and enjoy these figures, to take the best of them and use them in my life. I can't imagine who I would be without television.
Q: You still cannot read and yet are a very successful person, to which you credit television. Could you elaborate on this?
Aaronson: If it weren't for television, then conversation would be based on books, what you read in the newspaper. I would never have been able to socially participate in any of those conversations. What television has given me is a common experience with people so that I can be evaluated on what I remember. I can develop social skills not based on my ability to read but on my ability to adapt and learn and shift and change and encourage other people to do the same. It's what I do for a living.
Q: How have commercials influenced you?
Aaronson: The first commercial that I can remember was Dinah Shore. She had a little 15 minute television program with Pinkie Lee and would do a commercial for Chevrolet, "See the USA in your Chevrolet, America's waiting for you." If you were going to go on the road, and that's what America did, you got into a car that you know you could afford. Everyone could afford a car. Pile the kids in the back seat and the concern was the safety on the road. So I remember, "You can trust your car to the man who wears the star: the big red Texaco star." As children, we mimicked the commercials, and I remember actually having a little kitchen and doing commercials for Cheerios and Wheaties.
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