TV, and How It Grew Managing the electronic wonder-child brings a whole new set of skills into play, including the ability to duck, squat, ad lib and find the mike.
By Jean Winkler
Whether television has become adult had best be left to debate between the man who won’t leave his receiver to come to dinner and the man who wouldn’t have one of the things in his house. But for those of us who have been around it since its birth in St. Louis, there’s no question that television has passed its infancy. That infancy left scars on everyone who had anything to do with the child.
KSD-TV went on the air February 8, 1947, with the latest equipment money could buy and a crew competent to operate the equipment. But it turned out that one other factor was required – experience in producing television shows. And the only way to gain such experience was for us to go ahead and produce them, learning the hard way.
One of our first shocks was the discovery that our cameras, those magnificent $15,000 objects, built by RCA’s finest brains, had no view finders. In its eagerness to get on the air, KSD-TV had badgered RCA into selling and lending equipment that was, in this respect at least, incomplete. There was no way for a cameraman to see the picture he was taking, to frame it properly and get into focus.
For those first few weeks, until view finders were obtained, the operators blindly pushed their cameras forward and backward, swung them from side to side, changed lenses and turned their focusing knobs, completely in the hands of the director, who could see what they were getting on the monitor screens in the control room.
During those early days, the company that made ad slides had trouble centering them properly, so that often part of the message did not appear on the screen. One night announcer Carl McIntire was reading a beer commercial behind a series of slides. The first slide read “It’s dry!” The second read “It’s smooth!” The third one read “It’s goo.” McIntire, choked with laughter, never did finish the commercial.
It was about that time that McIntire became known as the Range Rider. He was serving as announcer at a performance of a hillbilly band which called itself “The Range Riders,” and decided to move from one microphone to another, across the path of the camera. To avoid being seen by the audience, he squatted and proceeded across the floor in a series of little leaps. But he had miscalculated the range of the camera, and as he passed the lens, the audience saw him jogging up and down for all the world like Hopalong Cassidy.
KSD-TV began operations with modern lighting equipment, so that its performers never suffered the broiling administered by the lights of the pre-war television stations. But even up-to-date lights put out a certain amount of heat. In a production called “Vodvil Varieties,” there was a shot of Bob Ingham reading a theater program. The camera was supposed to peer over Ingham’s shoulder and pick up the program page, and to make the words legible a thousand watt spot was mounted about 18 inches behind him. Bob smelled something burning. Sure enough, it was his hair.
On another occasion, Ingham was conducting a sports program in the studio, first sitting at a desk, then getting up and walking over to a blackboard. Since he was using a microphone suspended from a boom, it was necessary for the engineer to loosen the boom arm and follow him across the studio with the mike. But the engineer, whose name was Arthur, turned the wrong know, and Bob glanced up to see the microphone descending toward his head – fast. He ducked just in time, and remained huddled in his chair while Arthur wrestled with the boom counterweight and finally hauled the mike out of the way. This incident, trivial in itself, has been immortalized in a poem written by another engineer, entitled, naturally, “When Arthur Lowered the Boom.”
More embarrassing was John Roedel’s microphone hunt at Kiel Auditorium. John was going to interview some prominent individual or other, between matches on a wrestling program. The KSD-TV microphone was
under the ring, in easy reach – but nobody had told him that. And as he began to speak, he became suddenly aware of the mike’s absence. He looked around uncertainly, reached for the microphone attached to the public address system, backed away in response to wild signals from engineers, and finally discovered the right one – all in full view of the television audience, because the ring was the only lighted spot in the big convention hall, and there was no place else to swing the camera during the search.
But if inanimate things such as microphones caused trouble, it was nothing [compared] to the anguish created by live animals. Horses, dogs, mules, even Elsie the cow, appeared on KSD-TV at one time or another. And entering the studio seemed to stimulate their natural functions, with untidy effects. After Elsie’s visit, a stagehand spent an hour furiously sawing wood to make sawdust.
The stagehands finally became so irked at doubling as stable-boys that one of them, learning that a dog show was in prospect, decided to anticipate matters. He obtained a quantity of dog-repellent powder and sprinkled it liberally on the floor and the equipment used in the show. The effect exceeded his expectations somewhat. The puzzled dogs, sniffing the repellent as they approached the hurdles they were supposed leap and ladders they were supposed to climb, shied away in bewilderment. The show was a flop.
A debacle on another and, to the audience, much funnier type occurred during a live commercial for one of those new phonographs that plays without a needle. The demonstrator, Rush Hughes, inserted a record in a sort of drawer and closed it. Music flowed out smoothly – from a transcription on a studio turntable. Hughes, continuing to extol the virtues of the phonograph, pulled out the drawer and removed the record. But he found himself holding only a fragment of it. The record had crumpled when he closed the drawer.
The advertising agency in charge of another phonograph commercial was understandably incensed when, after the thing had been on the air for four or five weeks, it developed that the script, all the time, had included this enlightening sentence: “No tone from radio or phonograph.”
Sometimes, even when everything went completely according to plan, the result was amusing to certain listeners. As when, after a Romeo-and-Juliet balcony scene involving love-making that, even at the distance was somewhat torrid, [Russ] Severin stepped to the microphone and said: “And now – a timely message from U.S. Rubber.”
Probably the most elaborate fiasco in KSD-TV history was the Little Henry incident. Little Henry, of course, is the stripped-down 90-pound helicopter that is the pride of McDonnell Aircraft. NBC had just launched its nightly news network show and was anxious to demonstrate how it could pick up live features from any of its member cities. So it was determined that the St. Louis contribution, on this particular evening, would be a performance by Little Henry. Engineers worked for hours stringing cables and mounting lights at McDonnell’s airport plant. Little Henry was in fine shape, circling and hovering over the scene. Then, just as Frank Eschen received his NBC cue and launched into his account of the helicopter’s remarkable abilities, Little Henry faltered. Perhaps it was too much to expect him to escape stage-fright, with the eyes of television audiences in eight cities trained on him. At any rate, Little Henry dropped to the ground and crouched there stubbornly, while Eschen improvised an account of what he could do – if he wanted to.
KSD-TV has been on the air for some two-and-a-half years now, and the roughness has pretty well worn off. No longer do programs run fantastically off schedule; the network requires split-second timing. No longer do sets topple over and props turn up missing. But there is still so much in television that depends on human eyes and ears, minds and muscles, that funny things are going to go on happening. And no matter how machine-perfect everything else may run, it will still be possible for an announcer to say, as one said not long ago:
“This is KSD-TV, the St. Louis Past-Dispoach.”
(Originally published in Page One in 1949. Jean Winkler began writing news for KSD-TV when the station went on the air.)