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February 13, 2006

Vignettes of Early Television

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

I have mixed emotions about writing memoirs.

One the one hand, I worry that readers will slap their foreheads while saying "Omigod! Not more of that tripe!!" On the other, I think it's a good idea to get personal experiences recorded so that future historians won't go too far astray in the What It Was Really Like department.

For what it's worth, here are some remembrances of television in the early 1950s when things were so crudely done that it's considered a Golden Age.

You need to bear in mind that TV in those days was broadcast in black and white and often viewed on screens that measured 14 inches diagonally. Videotape wasn't yet in use so programs were either presented live or on film. There was an in-between thing called a kinescope recording. Live programs would be filmed by pointing a movie camera at a TV monitor. The film would be reproduced and distributed for (days or weeks) later showing to stations not linked to microwave or coaxial cable networks. As you might imagine, image quality often suffered. Seattle didn't get linked electronically to the East Coast (via California) until the summer of 1952, so live TV was strictly local; all other programming was from film or kinescope.

  • A significant share of live shows originated in New York. Los Angeles was the source of filmed shows such as Dragnet. But LA wasn't linked to the east until 1951 so it took several years before a lot of live programming originated there. Actually, the rise of LA TV roughly coincided with the advent of video tape which yielded images indistinguishable from live pictures. What this boiled down to was that many early drama and series programs had a New York City setting -- Manhattan for sophisticated themes and Brooklyn where the subject was blue-collar folks. Nowadays nearly everything seems to be non-stop LA.

  • Live TV meant that if actors blew their lines, there were no re-takes. It wasn't like Broadway where there was a comparatively long time for a show to get shaped up before its debut. Consequently muffed lines could be expected fairly often. Oh, and it was fun to see the beads of sweat on actors' faces. Most of this was likely due to the hot lighting but some might have been related to the pressure of performing "without a net."

  • Pressure was even worse for programs such as serials that had episodes broadcast 2-5 times a week. The actors had almost no time to learn lines and rehearse before going live. I remember a Life magazine article about a sci-fi kid-program (can't recall if it was "Space Patrol" or "Tom Corbett, Space Cadet") showing how scripts or dialogue cheat-sheets were taped to the visors of space helmets or other handy objects to prevent a complete acting melt-down.

  • Another fun thing was seeing microphones accidentally appear on-camera. Standard practice was to attach microphones at the end of telescoping "booms" -- they were called "boom-mikes." If lighting and camera angles were favorable, I might get to see the shadow of a boom-mike on the wall of a set. Better yet, sometimes the boom operator (not knowing exactly what was in the TV camera's field of vision) might dip the mike too close to the actor and presto! there would be the tip of the mike at the top of the screen.

  • I mentioned that Seattle didn't get hooked up to national networks until 1952. That meant there was no network-feed reason for time discipline. The TV schedule published in the local papers might indicate that a certain program would start at 8:30 in the evening, but it didn't actually get aired until 8:34 or 8:37. Why? Probably because commercials were stuffed in over the course of the day to the extent that the schedule slipped hour-by-hour. Or maybe it was just sloppiness; I forgot to mention that we only had one station in town until 1953, so why worry when there's no competition?

  • Our one local station (KING-TV, Channel 5) did quite a bit of local live programming, particularly during the afternoon. An especially fun thing for 12-year-old me was when they would do "backstage" peeks at the set. That is, the director would have a camera roll back for a wide shot of the set and its surroundings: concrete walls in the background, lights hung from above, other cameras up close to their subjects, the boom mikes, etc. It was almost, but (thankfully) not quite enough to make me want to go into TV as a career.

  • The local shows I just mentioned made use of filmed popular music. These were two or three minute gigs by Nat Cole, the Inkspots (I think) and other performers in studio settings. These song interludes were similar to those used in radio at the time and gave a whiff of professional polish as well as allowing the live performers a chance to regroup for the next segment. Call it paleolithic MTV.

  • Marching products were a popular advertising theme in those days. You would hear stirring march music (is there such a thing as non-stirring march music? -- yes, but it's likely unintentional). And you would see a model street with ranks of motor oil or whipped cream cans tilted back and swaying from side to side as they moved along thanks to the magic of stop-motion animation. Such ads were eyeball-grabbers because they were so different from anything else on TV which, itself, was novelty enough. I happen to be an Advertising Fundamentalist, so I wonder if those commercials had any effect beyond juicing up brand recognition. And ad agencies are doing the same sort of thing today with sappy commercials that tell viewers nothing about the product being advertised.

Enough for now. Maybe more another time.



posted by Donald at February 13, 2006


In the early Fifties once a week before bedtime we would put on our pajamas and cross the street to watch wrestling on "Peanuts," the only TV set on the block. It was a huge console with a 9" screen. I wonder what we really saw. We sat on the floor, up close. The wrestling was local.

In the summer of 1957, newly graduated from Jefferson High where I was a big frog in the little puddle of our dramatics department, I took a course in TV direction at Portland State University and got to sit at a board and say to the cameramen: "Camera 2, go in for a closeup." "Camera 1, dolly to the right." I always felt it was SO much more fun to be backstage. Very Important.

Actually, at this point I'm getting so I prefer radio.

Prairie Mary

Posted by: Mary Scriver on February 13, 2006 9:29 PM

Laugh all you want, but the whipped cream on the march is what defeated Communism.

Posted by: onetwothree on February 13, 2006 11:19 PM

I'm just old enough to remember "WXYZ now concludes it's broadcast day." Then they'd tell you the wattage of the transmitter (for those viewers who were taking notes, I guess), play the national anthem over a patriotic tableau, and go to static. As kids we considered it a major victory to stay up to see the static, as we'd not only broken our curfew but even outlasted the wimps who were making the programs. Victory!

Notice for TV fans: the Emmy people have been interviewing early television vets and putting the interviews online here. Sid Caesar, John Frankenheimer, William Shatner, Angela Lansbury, Don Hewitt, Mr. Rogers, Dick van Dyke, and on and on. Dozens of 'em.

It's uncut footage, so there's lots of "Is this thing on?" moments, but the content is superb for those who are into this. The interviews often run four to six hours, so kiss your free time goodbye.

Just click on the little "G" after the name and you'll see the interview on Google Video.

Posted by: Brian on February 14, 2006 4:48 AM

It wasn't live TV, but the most notorious appearance of a boom mike was in the movie "Coma".

Not only does the boom mike show up in quite a few scenes, but one scene shows the actors actually standing around the entire boom mike vehicle. I imagine the director thought that folks would just assume it was medical equipment, but you can clearly see the mike hanging over to the left.

Posted by: Yahmdallah on February 14, 2006 11:26 AM

(1) Just how sloppy or drugged up did the makers of "Coma" have to be?

(2) Interesting post. I would have become familiar with TV about 15 years after you, but I do remember "local" TV in the Detroit area, where I grew up, including "Bozo the Clown" and "Soupy Sales." I think you could actually go in person. Also a local guy who's name I have forgotten showed old movies at 1 pm each afternoon---it was great to stay home sick from school and watch the movies.

Posted by: annette on February 14, 2006 12:27 PM

I'm fascinated by TV's "Golden Era," especially it's NYC connection, so it's very interesting hearing what it was like on the other side of the country. And since I was too young at the time to really appreciate and remember these early days of TV, it's also great to hear about it from someone who remembers it in a bit more detail.

Although videotape probably did speed the move of TV from NY to Hollywood, I believe a number of TV shows, even in the early days (i.e., early 1950s) were already being done in Hollywood on regular film before videotape became widely adopted. I could be wrong about this, but I think shows like "Topper" (Leo G. Carroll, Anne Jeffries, Robert Sterling[?]), "Our Miss Brooks" (Eve Arden), "Executive Secretary" (Ann Southern), "My Little Margie" (Gale Storm), "Amos n' Andy," "Sky King," "My Friend Flicka [correct name?], "Lassie," "Tugboat Annie," and, most importantly, "I Love Lucy" were all made in Hollywood using "regular" film.

I think some of the corresponding shows (essentially situation comedies/light dramas) that were done live (at least originally) from NYC were "The Goldbergs" [correct name of show?] (Gertrude Berg), "I Remember Mama," "Sgt. Bilko" (Phil Silvers). (In the early days, "The Honeymooners" were done as part of a variety show, and the one year it was a stand alone show it was filmed in front of a live audience.)

I think the areas of programming where NYC really "excelled" were "serious" drama (e.g., "Playhouse 90" -- but not detective shows, like "Dragnet"), variety shows (e.g., Jackie Gleason, Ed Sullivan, Perry Como, etc.), game shows (e.g., $64,000 Question," "What's My Line," the "Price is Right," "To Tell the Truth," etc., TV specials (e.g., "Peter Pan") and news/miscellaneous type shows (e.g., "You Are There," "Candid Camera," the "Tonight Show," the "Today" show).

In addition to the technical reasons already mentioned (i.e., only film and kinescopes, but no videotape) here are what appear to me to be some other reasons for so much live TV originating from NYC:

-- I think, but am not sure, that TV was developed in the NYC area. (I believe the TV tube was invented in SF, but I think a lot of the subsequent work was done in the NYC area.)

-- The corporate offices of the national or would be national networks were located in NYC.

-- I believe TV was originally seen by the movie studios that controlled Hollywood as a hostile medium. And, at least in the very early days, I think the movie studios were still busy enough, for the most part, to be able to ignore the new upstart medium.

-- On the other hand, it seems like the radio industry, which was also losing out to TV, was more receptive to TV since the TV and radio were, more or less, broadcast siblings. (It seems to me that NBC, for instance, could easily convert its radio studios to TV studios.)

-- A large pool of actors/performers/craftsmen used to working "live" on Broadway or on radio were available. (And quick trans-continental travel was still something of an adventure.)

-- NYC was "captial" of more things in those days, so a higher percentage of big-time celebrities/"stars" lived in NYC.

-- NYC was still the center of the music industry, and Broadway was a much greater source of national entertainment -- e.g., Mary Martin and Ethel Merman were chosen to headline Ford's 50th Anniversary show. So the writers, producers, etc. were already in NYC.

-- Broadway theaters and radio studios (many of which were once Broadway theaters) were being unused and were available for use as TV studios -- especially for game shows and variety shows. Also used for TV studios were studios that were built out in the "boondocks" -- the Bronx and Brooklyn -- as movie studios during the silent film era.

-- Advertisers were a much more important part of TV in the early days. (In those days, shows were often sponsored by one company.) And both the advertising agencies and many of the companies sponsoring shows were located in NYC (e.g., Lever Bros., Revlon, Bulova, etc.)

- - - - - - -

Interesting tidbit: "I Remember Mama" was done from a studio in Grand Central Terminal. The studio is an immense room directly above the GCT's waiting room on 42nd St. (not the even larger "Concourse") -- and is about the same size and shape -- and is today used as an indoor tennis club (with two indoor courts).

Posted by: Benjamin Hemric on February 14, 2006 7:58 PM

Mary -- Sounds like PSU was fairly early (in the Pacific Northwest) getting TV equipment. Washington got hand-me-downs from KING-TV, but not many years earlier.

Brian -- So you're originally from Detroit? I remember WXYZ because the radio station was where Lone Ranger broadcasts originated. And yep, I remember sign-offs too.

Annette -- More Detroit? Was Soup originally from there? When my neices were little we used to have his national show on. I liked when he'd give us the sports scores: "Twenty three, fourteen, twenty, eighteen, twelve ..."

Benjamin -- As usual, you have lots more detail than I can dredge up. As for inventing TV, I forget where DuMont (who eventually had a TV network in the late 40s) was from, but RCA (NBC) was based in and around NYC. General Electric was another pioneer and they had an early TV station in Schenectady that was part of one of the "live" networks. As for radio, all the TV nets save DuMont grew from radio net roots. NBC converted its larger radio studios in the RCA building to TV (the nightly news show is still done there and so is Saturday Night Live, I believe, from the old Toscanini/NBC Symphony studio). I'm not sure about ABC and CBS.

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on February 14, 2006 9:13 PM

Brian -- So you're originally from Detroit?

Heck no. I didn't even know there was a WXYZ! I thought it would be nicely generic. I grew up in NJ, where the big local kiddie show was Uncle Floyd.

You're right about SNL and Toscanini, BTW. NBC Studio 8-H.

Posted by: Brian on February 15, 2006 12:09 AM

In the early 1970's, the "(New) Dick Van Dyke Show" was one of the few network television shows to be produced outside of Los Angeles or New York, suburban Phoenix to be specific. Apparently it created some headaches in terms of finding qualified technical staff.
IIRC, the Jackie Gleason Show in the late 1960's was produced in Miami, for a while at least. And today there are a number of shows coming from Canada, taking advantage of that country's lower costs.

Posted by: Peter on February 15, 2006 12:12 AM

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