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WHEN TELEVISION WAS YOUNGThe Inside Story with Memories by Legends of the Small Screen
By ED McMAHON DAVID FISHER
Thomas NelsonCopyright © 2007 Ed McMahon
All right reserved.
Chapter OneCrosby Enterprises hopes to captivate televiewers with a new series featuring a cast of chimpanzees enacting Sherlock Holmes thrillers. -TIME MAGAZINE, MARCH 6, 1950
The first television show I ever watched was Ed Sullivan's Sunday night variety show, Toast of the Town, in 1949. I was living in a suburb of Philadelphia, and our across-the-street neighbor was the leader of a big band that played at the swanky Warwick Hotel. That was a pretty prestigious job, but what really impressed people in the neighborhood was that he had his own television set. Having a TV set was a big status symbol in those days. Because of Pennsylvania's blue laws, which prohibited most businesses from being open on Sundays, our neighbor couldn't work Sunday nights, and so he would take his wife out for dinner. Being the big-hearted person that I am, I volunteered to babysit.
Although, truthfully, the only sitting I wanted to do was right in front of his television set.
If you ask people younger than forty years old when it was they first saw television, they will look at you as if you had come from ... 1950. If you are under forty, you grew up with television. It was always there. It was always everywhere. You were practically raised on Sesame Street. But if you ask the Greatest Generation or Baby Boomers, they will remember the first time they saw television. Believe me, it was a big deal. Penny Marshall, Laverne on Laverne & Shirley and the director of movies like Big and A League of Their Own, grew up in an apartment building in the Bronx. "The Altmans had the only television in our building," she told me. "They lived on the first floor, near the incinerator. They were nice people. When their TV was on, they would keep their door open so the neighbors could watch. When you took the garbage to the incinerator, everybody would be standing outside watching the Altmans' television.
"We finally got our own TV. I think we had a Hoffman; then we got a Zenith. I got woken up anytime there was dancing on television, particularly tap dancing. I had a blind grandmother who would sit in front of the TV in the living room, and every once in a while she would suddenly shout, 'Babe, come in quick! There's dancing.' That meant we all had to stop whatever we were doing and run in to watch. The problem was that sometimes it was just somebody typing. I think she just wanted the company. I mean, who was going to come running into the living room if she shouted, 'There's typing'?"
Like a lot of other people, the first thing Carl Reiner ever saw on TV was a boxing match. "We went to a friend of my brother-in-law's house to watch Kid Gavilan fight. There were eighteen people there, piled into his living room. We didn't even say hello. We just sat around the house while they banged on the TV set because the picture was rolling."
Jim McKay, host of Wide World of Sports, had a similar experience. He remembers walking into a bar with a college friend, "and up there on the shelf in the corner was this box that looked like a radio, except in the top right-hand corner there was a screen and two guys were hitting each other. It was dazzling; it was mind-boggling. I kept thinking, This is happening right now, just as we're looking at it. I couldn't believe it. I'd heard about television. You know, people kept saying, 'It's coming, it's coming. There are going to be pictures through the air.'"
"Pictures through the air" was a perfect way to describe television. We all knew it was coming, just like we knew rocket ships were coming, and cars that ran on alcohol, and gigantic airplanes that could carry hundreds of passengers, and wrist radios like the one Dick Tracy wore-they were all coming. Television was going to appear in some distant future. We knew that companies were experimenting with various types of radios with pictures, but I don't think anybody really expected it to be available so soon.
Now you would think that the first thing to be televised from one American city to another would be something majestic, something meaningful, something historic. Actually, it was Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover's forehead. The transmission took place on April 7, 1927, and was the highest-rated show in history to that point. I would tell you that this broadcast made ... headlines-but even I wouldn't stoop to a joke that bad.
Actually, Secretary Hoover's image wasn't really transmitted through the air. The thing he was on was known as "radio vision," a mechanical process that transformed light into electrical impulses that could be transmitted over telephone wires. He was in Washington, D.C., speaking to an audience gathered in the office of AT&T president Walter Gifford in Whippany, New Jersey. The problem was that Hoover was sitting much too close to the camera. It wasn't really his fault. Nobody had ever been on camera before, so who knew? But after backing up, Hoover delivered his prepared speech, telling the audience, "It is a matter of pride to just have a part in this historic occasion ... the transmission of sight, for the first time in the world's history."
A telephone operator named Edna Mae Horner helped set up the connection, making her the first woman to appear on American TV.
Hoover was followed by a vaudeville comedian named A. Dolan, who performed first as an Irishman, wearing whiskers and telling his jokes in a brogue. Dolan then changed into blackface and told old minstrel show jokes. His performance was compared favorably by a local newspaper to Fred Ott's Sneeze, which was a moving picture Thomas Edison had made for his kinetoscope.
That was the whole show: Hoover, the telephone operator, and a comedian. Better than a sneeze, critics claimed. That was also the highlight of the radio vision process, because it never took off.
But here's how the television system we use was invented. When most people look at a potato field, they see potatoes. But one day in 1920, an Idaho teenager named Philo Farnsworth-what a great name for an inventor; it sounds like a name W. C. Fields might have made up!-was tilling his family's potato field into neat parallel furrows when it occurred to him that a picture might be broken down into similar parallel lines or dots and sent electronically through the air and reassembled at its destination. Don't expect me to explain the technology. At least Philo knew what he was doing. He worked out his concept with his high school science teacher. "This is my idea for electronic television," he told him.
"What's television?" his teacher asked.
To develop his invention, Farnsworth moved to Hollywood and set up his lab in his kitchen. It took him seven years to make it actually work. The first television picture ever transmitted electronically over the airwaves without a wire was a sheet of glass with a horizontal black line painted on it. This was the first straight line delivered in television history. How could I not love the man?
Apparently Philo Farnsworth had a sense of humor. A few years later, when he was trying to develop his invention, one of his investors wondered, "When are we going to see some dollars in this thing?" Farnsworth responded by broadcasting a picture of a dollar sign.
About twenty-five years later Philo Farnsworth appeared as the "mystery guest" on the game show What's My Line? The object of the game was for panelists to guess the profession of ordinary guests. For the final segment panelists put on blindfolds, and a mystery guest, someone so well-known that panelists would instantly recognize him, appeared. Since the voices of these stars might also be recognizable, they disguised them in a variety of ways, or the host, John Daly, answered the questions for them. The biggest stars in show business appeared on the show, people like Johnny Carson, Lucille Ball, Sophia Loren, and Mickey Mantle.
Anyway, after the panel managed to establish the fact that Philo Farnsworth was an inventor, one of them asked, "Have you invented some sort of machine that might be painful when used?"
"Oh yes," Farnsworth responded. "Sometimes it's most painful." Farnsworth, it turned out, wasn't particularly proud of his invention. He didn't let his own kids watch TV, telling them, "There's nothing on it worthwhile. We're not going to watch it in this household, and I don't want it in your intellectual diet."
Television really began only a couple of years after the broadcast of Farnsworth's line. In 1931 Don Lee, the owner of several radio stations and Cadillac dealerships in Los Angeles, began broadcasting an hour of programming a day-except Sundays. Supposedly he went into TV because he thought it would help him sell more cars than his competitor-a Packard dealer. His main problem was that absolutely nobody in Los Angeles had a television set, and so he gave away plans for do-it-yourself TV receivers so that people could make their own. TV kits were also for sale from major radio set dealers.
Don Lee didn't even have a station. All he had was a transmitter, W6XAO, and it broadcast mostly action clips and close-ups of movie stars. Believe it or not, in 1932 Don Lee successfully broadcast a movie to an airplane in flight. In 1932! That's pretty impressive. A year later a movie clip of the Los Angeles earthquake was broadcast only a few hours after it took place, which was arguably the beginning of TV news. That same year Don Lee broadcast the first movie ever shown on TV, The Crooked Circle. By that time it was estimated that as many as five people had TV sets and could have watched the movie at home.
In 1935, only eight years after the broadcast of Herbert Hoover's forehead, RCA, the owner of NBC, gave away 150 TV sets in New York City and became the first company to follow a broadcasting schedule. It put a transmitter on top of the new Empire State Building and built a television studio in Radio City, Rockefeller Center. The first regularly scheduled program in American history was ...
Imagine a drum roll, please.
The first regularly scheduled program in American history was Felix the Cat, a cartoon. In those days there was almost no original programming, with the exception of politicians' speeches. You can make your own joke about that! But there just weren't enough viewers to justify any investment.
The year 1939 was a pivotal one in the history of television. TV really got started that year. The first public demonstration of television took place in 1939 at the New York World's Fair. David Sarnoff, the head of RCA, said, "Now we add sight to sound," and President Franklin Roosevelt became the first president to appear on TV. I would like to think that as I watched, I became one of the first people to say those magic words, "Let's see what else is on"-but I didn't.
In 1939, nobody was making any money from TV and there were a lot of smart people who doubted it would ever be financially successful. There were some people willing to gamble that it would be profitable, but even among those people, the belief was that the real profit would come from manufacturing and selling TV sets. The programming was just the come-on to get you to buy the set.
In 1951 Milton Berle signed a thirty-year contract with NBC that paid him $200,000 a year-whether he worked or not, demonstrating that there was real money to be made from programming. During a live performance of Berle's show one Tuesday night, an NBC executive mentioned to an agent that Berle looked about ten pounds heavier on television. The agent agreed, but pointed out, "Most of it's in his wallet."
There were other people in 1939 who believed television could be just as successful as radio. Well, maybe not as successful ... because who was going to waste time watching nothing on television when you could listen to Jack Benny, George and Gracie, Amos 'n' Andy, the scary Inner Sanctum, all the soap operas and the dramas, the big bands with Sinatra and Rosemary Clooney, and all the great singers of the Metropolitan Opera-all for free?
But there were a few dreamers who believed television could be profitable. One of those people in 1939 was Stanley Hubbard, who is now a member of the TV Hall of Fame. As a pioneer in radio, Hubbard had gone on the air in Minneapolis in 1923 with the first station in radio history to be completely supported by advertising. His son, another broadcasting pioneer named Stanley S. Hubbard, told me, "Other radio stations had some advertising, but they were actually supported by the company that owned them. My father's thought was, 'If I put some popular music on the radio rather than a fat lady singing opera, maybe I can get enough listeners to sell advertising.' In those days the technology didn't exist to play records on the radio, and so he made a deal with the Marigold Ballroom in Minneapolis that if they gave him a little studio, he would broadcast their band live five nights a week. That was the beginning of advertiser-supported broadcasting." Stanley Hubbard was also the first person to broadcast a fifteen-minute daily news show.
When television came along, Hubbard was already doing very well, but he saw the possibilities. After the 1939 World's Fair ended, he bought the first TV camera, the only one RCA was selling, and seven TV sets. Those TV sets were consoles with a top that flipped up. A mirror on the bottom side of the flip top reflected a small TV screen. The picture tube was vertical. Those TV sets cost as much as $600 each, which was just about the price of a new automobile.
Hubbard set up a demonstration in the lobby of the Radisson Hotel in Minneapolis and then talked the local American Legion into putting on a parade. He broadcast that parade to his seven TV sets. Thousands of people stood in line for hours to see the parade on TV. That was a pretty impressive display of the interest in this new thing. All those people were willing to wait in line to watch the parade on television instead of simply going outside and watching the parade itself.
In 1939 nobody really knew how the television industry was going to work, who was going to own or run the stations, whether television stations would rely on advertising or be self-sustaining, what kind of programming they would telecast, if there would be networks as there were in radio or if stations would be independent. There just weren't any rules.
The stations that were on the air were considered experimental, meaning they didn't have any commercials. No commercials? Let me just pause while we consider television without commercials. It's a good thing that didn't catch on. Just imagine a world without Tony the Tiger or Speedy Alka-Seltzer or Mr. Clean or Ed McMahon!
Less than two decades earlier, radio had started in a very similar way-without commercials. David Sarnoff, an RCA vice president, had started the National Broadcasting Corporation (NBC) radio network because RCA controlled most of the important radio patents, and so RCA received a royalty payment on just about every radio sold in America, no matter who manufactured it. Sarnoff wasn't a broadcaster. He was a manufacturer, and he started NBC to attract listeners who would then go out and buy radio sets. He thought that the real profit was in selling the equipment. In the late 1930s and early 1940s, RCA invested millions of dollars in the development of television because its radio patents were about to run out, and the only way it and other manufacturers could sell TV sets was to put on programming that people wanted to see.
In 1939 a lot of these experimental stations began broadcasting outside the studio, which was sort of necessary because there were almost no television studios. TV cameras covered the gala premiere of Gone With the Wind in Atlanta in 1939. The first musical was broadcast that year, Gilbert and Sullivan's Pirates of Penzance. In the first heavyweight fight ever shown on TV, Lou Nova beat Max Baer at Yankee Stadium. The few people who viewed it were impressed-there was the great Max Baer bleeding real black-and-white blood! In May, the first baseball game was broadcast, a college game between Columbia and Princeton from Baker Field in New York. There was only one camera, and the announcer was the legendary Bill Stern. "Welcome to the first telecast of a sporting event," he said. "I'm not sure what it is we're doing here, but I certainly hope it turns out well for you people who are watching."
Stern was probably radio's most famous sports broadcaster, but he had a reputation for being ... now, my friends, let me be charitable here ... less than 100 percent accurate. One time when he was broadcasting a Notre Dame football game, he told listeners that running back Jack Zilly had broken loose. "He's at the fifty, the forty, the thirty-five, the thirty, the twenty ..." It was about that time that Stern realized that he had the wrong guy carrying the ball. It wasn't Zilly; it was Emil "Six Yard" Sitko. But that didn't faze Stern at all. "He's at the five ... and he laterals the ball to Sitko who takes it in for the touchdown!"
Excerpted from WHEN TELEVISION WAS YOUNG by ED McMAHON DAVID FISHER Copyright © 2007 by Ed McMahon. Excerpted by permission.
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