Three life lessons for baby boomers from TV in the ‘50s

Maybe you can’t remember your favorite TV shows from the 1950s but we’ll bet that once we mention “Sgt. Bilko,” you’ll put it on the list. That’s why we like this piece from Kathleen Bailey of Raymond, New Hampshire, who reminded us here at BoomerCafé about the merits of that old-time TV.

A freewheeling Master Sergeant in the postwar Army with a gambling problem and an aversion to work (and to be clear for you baby boomers, I’m talking about post-World War II). How could we not love “Sgt. Bilko,” the first and greatest of television’s service comedies? Every week my father and I howled in front of the black-and-white at the canny Bilko, played to smarmy perfection by comedian Phil Silvers. CBS ran the show for four glorious seasons, 1956 to 1959.

The television hit program, Sgt. Bilko, starring (left to right) Billy Sands as Private Paparelli, Phil Silvers as Bilko and Paul Ford as Col. Hall.

The television hit program, Sgt. Bilko, starring (left to right) Billy Sands as Private Paparelli, Phil Silvers as Bilko and Paul Ford as Col. Hall.

You’d think if I were to learn anything from “Bilko,” I would have learned it in the Fifties. And I suppose I did learn something, the evils of gambling, maybe, perhaps the perils of lying, although in “Leave It To Beaver,” Ward Cleaver brought that lesson home equally as well. You’d think I would have learned what NOT to do.

So imagine my surprise many years later when, as an adult, I learned three positives from four seasons of “Bilko.”

  1. Illusion is everything. With a series of costumes, wigs, and chutzpah, Ernie Bilko managed to pass himself off as, at various times, a millionaire, a gangster, a dermatologist, and a Broadway/movie/television producer. He believed in himself, and the pigeon or the mark usually believed in him by the end of the transaction. Though his schemes didn’t always succeed, he lived by “fake it till you make it.”
  2. Bilko knew who he was. While he frequently impersonated an officer for the greater good, he had little interest in rising above Master Sergeant. In one episode, he goes to New York for a reunion with his unit from the war, and he finds that they’ve all been successful in business. He rents a tux and tries to cover up the fact that he’s still in the Army. But he relents at the last minute, donning his dress uniform for the formal dinner, and his friends honor him for his decision to stay in.
  3. Bilko never picked on anyone that wasn’t his own size.
Kathleen Bailey with her collection of "Sgt. Bilko" programs.

Kathleen Bailey with her collection of “Sgt. Bilko” programs.

One of the more charming episodes includes a flashback to The War, when he was billeted on a French farm. The owners were near starvation and Bilko saw to it that they had food and he protected them while also protecting their country. He was a surrogate “Papa” to the Frenchwoman’s young daughter, and later her protector when she came to the United States. He didn’t exploit this family; he did what he was sent there to do.

While he took advantage of Col. John Hall (“Melon Head”) on a daily basis on the show, Bilko protected him too. When the Colonel and Mrs. Hall are snubbed at a West Point reunion, Bilko works his magic (see Item 1) and convinces the host that Hall is the center of an important national security initiative.

Bilko was capable of taking on professional gamblers, the rich, the corrupt, and his own government. But he looked out for the weak, and was never cruel in his manipulations.

So that’s Bilko. Maybe not a role model for today’s youth, but not a bad one for yesterday’s.

8 Comments

  1. Thanks for the memories. I remember the show well. It is unfortunate that humor has these days become rather crude and dark. The 1950s can be remembered for many of the things we despise today, the racism, discrimination, and blatant sexism, but it also included shows like Sgt. Bilko, that for its faults, was as you said, “Maybe not a role model for today’s youth, but not a bad one for yesterday’s.”

    1. Thinking back to Bilko, I recall that his conniving schemes were nearly always self-deprecating and humbling, two qualities missing in much of today’s public discourse.

  2. BTB, I think the photo is from the episode where Bilko and Paparelli pretend to be married in order to get a free trip to Florida.
    My adult daughter gave me All Four Seasons of Bilko on DVD. It was how I got through February in New Hampshire.

  3. I remember Bilko very well (with Harvey Lembeck, Alan Melvin, etc.) but haven’t seen it in a while. Truth is many of the old shows that we remember fondly from the fifties and even the sixties are so dated now that, aside from the nostalgia aspect, we almost wonder why we liked them. I still find Jack Benny and Burns & Allen funny, however, not only because of the classic performers but because the writing and characterizations still hold up. I think that Bilko would be the same. And I do remember the reunion episode well!

    1. Perry, I agree, some of them were lame. I have zero interest in Donna Reed or Ozzie and Harriet. I love Mayberry, but in a nostalgic kind of way, longing for that sense of community. I’ll watch an occasional episode of “Leave It to Beaver”because it’s such a universal picture of childhood, not just in the 50s, but forever. Beaver is the TV version of Ramona Quimby, the archetypal KID. “I Love Lucy” has held up well, thanks to the skill of the performers, but “Here’s Lucy” and “The Lucy Show” seem kind of dated, which is interesting because they came later. Lucy was like Bilko: they found a formula, and each week they tried to see how far they could push that character. (Also, they were both obsessed with show business and Bilko frequently tried to get himself onstage, an interest only subordinate to gambling and women.)
      The reunion episode is great, but my hands-down favorite is the one where they induct a chimpanzee into the Army.

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