Nearly everyone born within the past fifteen years naturally thinks of screens as both touchable and responsive to touch. But smartphones, tablets, and the other devices those kids have never known a world without will always look like technological marvels to their grandparents’ generation. Growing up in the 1950s as part of one of television’s most enthusiastic viewerships, they experienced the rise of that then-marvelous medium and the various concepts it tried out before settling into convention. Some may even remember happy Saturday mornings with CBS’ Winky Dink and You, the show that they didn’t just watch but actually “interacted” with by breaking out their crayons and drawing on the screen.
First aired in 1953, Winky Dink and You came hosted by Jack Barry, a famous television personality since the beginning of television broadcasting. (He would remain so until his death in the mid-1980s, having bounced back from the quiz show scandals of the later 1950s.) His animated sidekick, the titular Winky Dink, was voiced by Mae Questel, best known as the voice of Betty Boop and Olive Oyl. “Winky Dink said he wanted the children to mail away for a ‘Magic Window,’ which was actually a cheaply produced, thin sheet of plastic that adhered to the TV screen by static electricity,” writes Winky Dink-generation columnist Bob Greene. “Along with the plastic sheet that arrived in the mail were ‘magic crayons.’ Children were encouraged to place the sheet on their TV screen and watch the show each Saturday, so that Winky Dink could tell them what to do.”
Winky Dink, and Barry, often told them to draw in the missing parts of a picture, or to connect dots that would reveal a coded message. In the episode above, writes Paleofuture’s Matt Novak, Barry invites kids to “draw things on Winky Dink’s family members, like flowers on the button hole of Uncle Slim’s jacket, or an entirely new nose on the old guy. Uncle Slim sneezes in reaction to getting a nose drawn on his face, as you might expect” — by the standards of 1950s children’s programming, “comedy gold.” Dull though it may sound today, Winky Dink and You dates from an era when television “was still seen as an education force for good,” when “Americans weren’t quite jaded enough to believe TV was a passive technology that didn’t actually stimulate the mind.”
And though the show managed to move two million magic screens, concerns about X‑rays emanating from picture tubes (as well as the likelihood of impatient kids drawing right on the glass) ended its run in 1957. But in a sense, its legacy lives on: a much-circulated quote attributed to Bill Gates describes Winky Dink and You “the first interactive TV show,” and it does indeed seem to have pioneered a kind of content that has only in recent years reached full technological possibility. Anyone who has watched young children of the 21st century play on smartphones and tablets will notice a striking resemblance to the activities led by Winky Dink and Barry. Different reboots have been attempted in different eras, but has the time come for a Winky Dink and You app?
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.