Howdy DoodyThe Golden Age of Pittsburgh Television

By Sandra Downs

When was the last time you clicked through the cable spectrum on your television remote, only to sigh and say, "There's nothing to watch!" Well, it wasn't that long ago that there was nothing to watch! Television is a relatively recent invention that went through a long period of trial-and-error before it became the fixture it is in your home today.

The German inventor Paul Nipkow used a rotating disk to send pictures over a wire in 1884. This early idea of "cable television" was abandoned as impractical, since the receiving screen couldn't be any bigger than an inch square. It took a fellow named Philo T. Farnsworth to develop an important component of television - out of his high school science project! His dissector tube was instrumental to the creation of the early television camera. Broadcast television (sent "over the air" as opposed to over a cable) also needed to await the creation of a broadcast medium: Radio.

ZworykinVladmir Zworykin, a Russian-American physicist, pioneered television research at the Westinghouse Research and Technology Laboratories at Forest Hills. He developed the cathode-ray tube receiver and built fancy console television cabinets to house the test mechanisms. By 1924, Zworykin had a patent for the Iconoscope, the predecessor of image-orthicon television camera tubes. The Iconoscope stored and amplified light in synch with the camera, so the image could be passed along and displayed.

In 1929 Zworykin broadcast the first electronic image "through the air" from the KDKA radio transmitter at the Westinghouse Recreation Center on Greensburg Pike. KDKA was already testing a daily scanning disk television signal, although few people in the Pittsburgh area had the equipment to receive it. The images Zworykin sent were received on a cabinet television at his home in Swissvale. He had designed the television set, which had a 4- by 5-inch screen. In order to make it work he invented a special type of cathode ray tube called a kinescope.

After the "Radio Movies" were displayed to a crowd of radio dignitaries, an anti-trust action was filed against Westinghouse. Zworykin moved to RCA, where president David Sarnoff was eager to back the idea of broadcast television. Zworykin visited Farnsworth in California to discuss the dissector tube, then returned to Camden, N.J., to take RCA to the head of the pack. Farnsworth joined Motorola in Philadelphia. As the two sides progressed in their research, they would snoop on each other's test broadcasts.

Timeline Part IRCA debuted television in a dramatic broadcast in front of thousands at the 1939 New York World's Fair, with speeches on the future of television by Sarnoff and Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Perhaps 50 television sets existed in New York City at the time.

An RCA Victor television appeared at Gimbel Brothers in Philadelphia, October 1945, attracting more than 25,000 curious customers. Very few sold. The first consumer televisions cost $200 to $600; the screen was only 5 inches across. Only six television stations existed during World War II, with limited programming and coverage. Tavern owners bought televisions for their sports-hungry clientele, only to find that people got so caught up in the show that they forgot to order more beer.

Dom Toretti remembers trying to beat that trend. "I used to install meters in taverns that cost 25 cents for a patron to watch television ... it would last an hour or so, then the TV would shut off and the fellow would have to plunk down another quarter to keep watching."

By 1948, 70 stations were on the air nationwide. Two groups of cable-linked stations flanked Pittsburgh: The Chicago-based group in the Midwest, and the New York affiliates in the East. Pennsylvania's mountains provided a formidable challenge to AT&T as it strained to bring the special television-capable coaxial cable across the state, skirting coal fields and crossing high ridges.

Baseball gameThe first television signal to reach Pittsburgh came across the ridges - from WJAC, channel 13 in Johnstown. Shortwave radio fanatics on the high hills in Pittsburgh used kit televisions and homemade antennas to pick up the first Johnstown broadcasts. The broadcasts consisted of test patterns and a 15 minute promotional film on the benefits of an Alliance Manufacturing television reception product, the Tenna-Rotor.

Major hoopla surrounded the debut of Pittsburgh's first television station, WDTV, channel 3. On the night of Jan. 11, 1949, WDTV went on the air as the "golden spike" that joined the New York and Chicago systems together. Since transmitters had a limited range, the coaxial cable was key to true network programming. All four national networks participated in the event. NBC, CBS, ABC, and DuMont shared time, bringing Milton Berle, Arthur Godfrey, and President Truman's inauguration to a small but growing television audience. Allen DuMont, head of the DuMont network, gave a televised speech from the Syria Mosque.

Bob Rockwell remembers the first broadcast well. He walked a mile through wet snow with his teen-age friends to watch it on the television in the storefront at Carson Electronics in Charleroi, 30 miles from the WDTV transmitter. He recalls that "the signal was not too overwhelming. There was lots of ignition noise and quite a weave in the top of the picture ... we probably watched an hour of a slide saying `WDTV PITTSBURGH' before the show actually started. I remember the top of DuMont's bald head swinging around like a `conehead' during the broadcast."

Televisions weren't cheap. The day before WDTV went on the air, both Pittsburgh newspapers ran special sections on television. These advertising-laden inserts featured every brand under the sun: RCA Victor, Capehart, Motorola, Stromberg-Carlson, and many others. Prices ranged from $99.50 for a Pilot Portable Television to $326.25 for a standard Westinghouse TV and up to $995.00 for a fancy DuMont cabinet model.

Everyone sold this hot new item; you could buy a television at Kaufmanns or Hornes, or at the local jewelry shop or appliance store. Installation cost extra, of course, and the newspapers warned that "television installation should be left to the expert." Most televisions had a 10-inch screen, though there were cheap sets available with smaller screens, and DuMont had one model with a hulking 20" screen. Television add-on gadgets hit the market too. Among the oddities: A color wheel that spun in front of the screen to make a color picture, a huge magnifying glass mounted over the screen to increase the picture size, and television consoles with integral mirrors, "so the whole family can watch the show."

Brenda Smothers remembers what monsters the early televisions were. "My Dad acquired one from his sister's mother-in-law in Coraopolis. It had a motorized picture tube and a record player/turntable setup. At the touch of a button, there was a whirring sound and while we sat and stared, the tube s-l-o-w-l-y emerged from inside the humongous cabinet. We had a small house and a huge TV, so Mom made him get rid of the thing. Years later Dad came across an article that had a picture of a DuMont console almost exactly like the one he threw out. According to the article, it was valued around $25,000! He never let her forget it."

Since only one network could use the coaxial cable at a time, the participants jockeyed for the best times to show their programs. Because of the limited live broadcasts, network affiliates relied on kinescope recordings. The kinescope recording provided a means to tape the live broadcast from a picture tube. The resulting films were often jerky and blurry, but could be quickly sent to affiliates across the country. WJAC in Johnstown used kinescopes from all four networks when it made its official debut Sept. 15, 1949.

James DeanFred Bortz, a local children's science writer, remembers his early encounters with television. "In 1949, most of the homes on Fernwald Road in Squirrel Hill didn't have television. Our neighbors, the Mustin family, were among the first to get one. When Howdy Doody came on, the kids of the street would converge on the Mustin living room for that famous call, 'Hey, kids! What time is it?' A year or two later we got our first television set, a large, beautiful piece of furniture. My favorite show, Captain Video, came on right after dinner."

Local programming was a necessity on WDTV because of the limited network feed. Many of the early programs were only 5, 10 or 15 minutes long. WDTV had one gigantic studio, and the camera crew would shoot "around the walls" as each set changed. The network wire feed didn't start until 3 p.m., so the staff would scramble to create programming to meet the public's demand for television.

Bill Beale was responsible for scripting WDTV's first broadcast, and he immediately began production of the nation's first local television news. P117 PARADE debuted on WDTV's second day on the air. It ran before signoff each weeknight at 10 p.m., right after the last network show. During the day, roving reporters with 16mm cameras would wander the streets of Pittsburgh looking for newsworthy events. The film would then be delivered to Turtle Creek for processing, returned downtown for editing and script preparation, then taken by car to the WDTV transmitter on Perry Avenue. The result was a 5 minute news short with a one minute commercial.

"I was plenty busy in those days" said Bill. "The viewer response was remarkable - way beyond our expectations." A "buy one get one free" advertisement for cases of tomatoes at Donahoe's Market attracted thousands of viewers, making it necessary for the store to ship in truckloads to meet the consumer demand.

Dom Toretti of Dom's TV Video and Appliance in Duquesne Village opened his television repair business in 1951. "Everyone was excited about television back then. People would come down to the shop just to watch television for free ... I worked for Westinghouse before I opened the shop, and I remember this one fellow who had a picnic grove on a high hill. He bought a television and charged people to come up and watch it."

Timeline Part II"Television was still special in those days" said Phyllis McShea of Penn Hills. "When my husband Gene and I first started dating, he'd come over to our house to watch the dramatic series on Friday nights. We especially liked `I Remember Mama.' It made a good cheap date for us."

Roz Schwartz of Monroeville recalls her family's Saturday night ritual. "We lived in a three-family home, and our neighbors upstairs didn't have a television. Every Saturday night we'd invite them down and have grilled cheese sandwiches and tomato soup in the living room. It was the only day of the week we'd eat in front of the television."

WDTV moved to channel 2 in November 1952. Its ``Swing Shift Theater'' marked the first 24-hour broadcast by a television station. On Jan. 31, 1955 Group W bought WDTV. During the noon news with Bill Burns, the call letters changed to KDKA-TV2.

Black and white live broadcasts were the norm for local productions. During a program on Pittsburgh's original television stars, Josie Carey explained how limited this situation was. "Whenever Kay (of `Kay's Kitchen') worked with meat on the set, she couldn't wear nail polish because it came out black and looked like something congealed on her hands. On my show, `Ask The Girls,' we'd put green food coloring around the food to make it look like it'd been cooked ... we didn't have time to actually cook it. Black and white distorted everything - we couldn't wear patterns, polka dots, black or white on the air."

In these days before videotape was invented, the constraint of live broadcasts led to some amusing goof ups. According to Lee Schaeffer of the Pittsburgh Antique Radio Society, Bob Prince never saw Bill Mazeroski's famous home run that clinched the 1960 World Series! "I gave a presentation at a dinner some years back where we showed the clip from the end of the game. Bob Prince jumped up and said `that's not how it happened!'

Lee SchaeferA member of the Pittsburgh Antique Radio Society, Lee Schaeffer uses vintage television cameras in class at Woodland Hills High Schools. (Warren L. Leeder photo)

"Bob had a photographic memory ... it just so happened that he was in the Yankees' locker room at the time of the home run, waiting to start the post-game interview. He'd have to leave a few minutes before the game ended to make it down to the locker room in time to do the interview. That particular night, his staff rushed him over to the Pirates' locker room, where he started his interview with Maz ... if you ever see a tape of the interview, you'll notice how disjointed it is. Neither of them knew what the other was talking about."

Public television sprang to life in April 1954 when WQED signed on as Pittsburgh's second television station. Fred Rogers developed program schedules for the first year. ``The Children's Corner'' showcased Josie Carey interacting with Fred's puppets during an hour's worth of education and entertainment. In 1955, ``The Children's Corner'' won the Sylvania Award for the best locally produced children's program in the country. Josie remembers the 'Daniel's Birthday Party' broadcast as the most exciting moment of her career.

"Daniel Tiger appeared on `The Children's Corner' the very first day ... we couldn't find a cuckoo to pop out of our clock, so we used this puppet that our boss, Mrs. Daniels, had given to Fred. Since the show was all ad-lib, I'd improvise with Daniel whenever we needed to fill time. Once Daniel was established, we invited the children down for his birthday party - but only if they could sing the special song we had written. The song was in French, except for the word `hamburger.' We had little cakes, ice cream blocks, and pop for our guests. They started to arrive two hours before the taping. They filled up the studio, then the hallway, the visitor's gallery and eventually the backyard. We ended up cutting the food up into quarters to make it go around. A sea of children filled the studio floor; I could hardly move. And then, we started the song. Every child sang along ... despite the difficulty, they knew the words! I still get goosebumps thinking about it."

WQED also had live coverage of the Allegheny County Fair each year; the station started the tradition with a donation of television cameras and miles of wire from WDTV. Major David Lawrence hosted the station's first pledge drive March 14, 1955, when the initial 62,000 subscribers were asked to send in a $2 donation.

Timeline Part IIIPittsburgh's third television station had a short life and dramatic end. A group of local investors with a background in audio put together WENS, channel 16. They broadcast for a few weeks from a studio on Troy Hill until a freak storm with 92 mile-per-hour winds claimed their tower. Bob Rockwell, a WDTV/KDKA veteran, remembers the scene:

"On March 11, 1955 I arrived to start my shift. The night crew met me on the front porch and said `look across the hill at the WENS tower.' I looked, but Mama, there was no tower! A carload of executives from our station came out from the studio to gawk. All was quiet until about 1 a.m. when a man walking his dog came up to the door and asked if we were aware our tower was bent!"

A sturdy guy-wired tower soon replaced the bent freestanding KDKA tower. WENS couldn't afford to repair their tower. They received special permission from the FCC to share channel 13 with WQED. This arrangement lasted a short while, and WENS folded.

WIIC Channel 11 began broadcasting Sept. 1, 1957. By Williams was one of the original crew members who shaped the station's early years. "I quit my `lucrative' radio job in Morgantown to get into television, and I never looked back," said By, who joined Channel 11 as a director.

Channel 11 produced many original programs, starting in 1957 with ``Captain Jim's Popeye Club.'' Captain Jim would tromp across his wheelhouse to introduce Popeye and many other cartoons. His puppet sidekick Doug Bug popped through a porthole. Kids could join Captain Jim's Club and be a part of the studio audience. Later on, By Williams went on the air as the local host of the syndicated ``Mickey Mouse Club.'' He frequently visited Saturday kiddy matinees with one of the Disney icons - Jimmy Dodd and Annette Funicello among them - to promote the show.

Channel 11's local programing for the older audience included ever-popular ``Studio Wrestling.'' "No matter where we held it, the show would pack the house," said By, 'from high school gyms to the Civic Arena. At the show's peak, we even beat out Bill Burns' Saturday night 6 p.m. news in the stings."

Ricki and CopperWTAE joined the Pittsburgh television scene in September 1958. Bruce Graham claims his experience on the popular Ricki and Copper show led him into a career in television production. "I was so excited the day I received the invitation to be on the show ... . I could hardly believe it! Mom drove me over 40 miles to the studio. As we were led down to the soundstage, we made a sharp turn through an enormous door ... and there it was: A huge black cavern with the very colorful Ricki and Copper set showered in an island of light. Since the show was broadcast in black and white, it was like the 'Wizard of Oz.'

``Once the show started, Ricki chatted with us and the microphone - `Mr. Boom Mike' - dangled over our heads. With the bright lights on for the camera, I couldn't see my Mom in the studio audience. I felt like I was on an island. When Ricki asked us to follow her across the little bridge, I knew it was the end of the show. I couldn't believe how quickly it had come."

WTAE ad``As we sat there waiting to go on the air, I listened to the technical chatter of the crew. It sounded like NASA. Occasionally, we heard a voice directing us from over a loudspeaker, as if someone was talking to us from Mission Control. I spotted large cables, about 2 inches in diameter, snaking away from each camera. I remember thinking, `I don't know where those cables go, but I bet it's a VERY cool place!'

Ricki Wertz gives the other side of the story: "When I did my show, I wanted to impress on the children that television wasn't what it appeared to be. When they came on the stage they could see that they only shared a small part of themselves with the audience. My caution to them was `Don't believe everything you see on TV!"'

WTAE was extremely popular with the younger set. Local baby boomers still can't forget the silly antics of Hank Stohl's ``Rodney and Knish.'' `Paul Shannon's Adventure Time'' brought the Three Stooges shorts to a younger generation and revitalized the careers of the comedic trio. The show spotlighted the Stooges along with Rocky and Bullwinkle and plenty of studio audience participation. The program's success rested in part on the lively crowd of children in the studio. Busloads of scouts and school groups would come to WTAE for the show's taping.

Billboard"Pittsburgh is unusually fortunate," Lee Schaeffer says, "to have three major television stations with a long history of local programming. This competition allowed them to `keep up with the Joneses' - each time one station upgraded their equipment, the others would follow."

Through his years of association with personnel at local television stations, Lee managed to amass a wealth of television equipment used by WDTV, WQED, and others. He has one of WDTV's original DuMont Cameras, still in working order, along with an array of cameras and tape devices that illustrate the days when "live from..." meant it took five men to carry the cameras and wires to the scene. This vintage equipment helped train several generations of students at Woodland Hills High School.

Timeline Part IV"I've collected so much stuff over the years because the television stations have no sense that they're a part of history" Schaeffer said. He and other members of the Pittsburgh Antique Radio Society have been preserving broadcast memorabilia for years. Members of the hobbyists group formed a nonprofit organization called the National Museum of Broadcasting. Their formal plan is to convert the site of Pittsburgh's first television broadcast into the National Museum of Broadcasting in Pittsburgh. From their proposal, the "Conrad Project":

"Ironically, of all the technological innovations and industries to come out of western Pennsylvania, broadcasting is often forgotten. But perhaps no other Pittsburgh institution has had a greater, more profound influence on people worldwide than broadcasting has."

So, next time you pick up that television remote, take a moment to savor Pittsburgh's role in the development of television.

Sandra Downs is a Level Green free-lance writer.

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