The late 1930s were an incredibly different time. Television was just barely a thing. There was limited programming. And most households didn’t even own a TV set. For “M*A*S*H” star Alan Alda, the most readily available source of entertainment came in the form of live performances.
And as a child in the late 1930s and 1940s, he was exposed to plenty of it. Especially considering his father ran burlesque theaters.
In a way, Alan Alda was born into show business. It just wasn’t the exact genre in which he’d find success later on in life. Although the comedy aspects, including skits that his own dad performed in and helped write, were an early education in the types of stuff Alda would eventually use on “M*A*S*H.”
The man who famously played Hawkeye on “M*A*S*H” has vivid memories of growing up around his dad’s burlesque shows. In a 2000 interview with the Archive of American Television, Alda recalled what it was like, and how it was different from entertainment today.
“I watched burlesque,” Alda said. “I remember very vividly standing in the wing watching the comics and the strippers, which is a very bizarre childhood. But it was not nearly as raunchy in those days as ordinary television is today. Commercial, network television. I’m not talking about cable.”
And why exactly is that? Well, a single aspect of burlesque, the strip-tease, became synonymous with the entire format. As a result, action was taken to prevent things like full nudity. And it earned a certain stigma.
According to the ‘M*A*S*H’ Star, Burlesque Was Innocent, Network TV is Not
It’s important to note that the “M*A*S*H” star gave this interview more than 20 years ago. So when he called network TV raunchy, he was referring to the state of it in 2000. One has to imagine that it has only got raunchier as time goes on.
“Burlesque was in its own way innocent. Even though the women took off most of their clothes,” Alda continued in the interview. “Each state had its own, and each city I think, had its own censorship rules. In New York, for instance, the women had to wear a panel of material that covered her bellybutton.”
So some places could be a little more risqué than others. But in New York, where Alan Alda was as a child, the shows had to be at least slightly more conservative. And while there are plenty of restrictions on what can be shown on network TV these days, the content itself can be pretty shocking to a child. Of course, network television shows can’t depict full nudity. But that doesn’t mean shows shy away from depicting things that are arguably just as revealing to children like Alan.
The worst the “M*A*S*H” star got at a burlesque show was some slightly erotic dancing and nudity equivalent to that of a bikini. Flip through the channels on TV, and you’re bound to find some far less innocent content.