In April, i948, few Richmonders really knew what “television” meant. Dinah Shore’s Buttons and Bows; Art Mooney’s I’m Looking Over a Four Leaf Clover, and Nat King Cole’s Nature Boy…led the pop charts – on radio.
Quietly dismounting, resembling a 78-rpm record, a jerky “test pattern” appeared on small television sets, appointing itself “Channel 6.” Used equipment from the 1941 World’s Fair was freighted to a former bus garage at 3300 West Broad Street, becoming a rudimentary TV studio.
WTVR, owned by Wilbur Havens, became “the South’s First Television Station” on April 22, 1948. Havens had experimented in – WMBG 1380 AM, (Magnetos, Batteries, and Generators) early radio, and WCOD-FM 98.1. Richmond’s TV 6 began televising limited hours daily – with pioneer covered wagon artwork as it first identity symbol.
Without local competition, Havens’ FCC application stood alone – his license prevailed – the last to be awarded before the Federal Communications Commission froze future station applications until 1955. Havens had a guaranteed competition-free Richmond market.
TV signals were transmitted at first by a small tower from Staples Mills Road at Broad where Anthem Blue Cross resides today. In 1953, I studied the “Big Tower” slow-motion construction of Channel 6’s ultimate tower; few men worked on the 1,069-feet-above-sea-level structure. When Hurricane Hazel passed over Richmond in October, 1954, it brought an interesting slight sway to Richmond’s new icon.
Our Westwood subdivision of fifty new homes included a dozen neighborhood TV owners. As pre-teens, we asked if we could come in….and view it. Most agreed. We learned what heightened excitement came from small round Zenith screens.
Those popular shows which were new to us, often landing in strange slots: I Love Lucy episodes rant at 10:30 p.m. Saturday nights, preceding Amos and Andy (sponsored by Blatz beer). What’s My Line (sponsored by Stopette) aired 2 p.m. Sundays. Name That Tune with Robert Q. Lewis, and Life Begin At 80 (which really intrigues me now) with Jack Barry, would follow – all kinescopes of live telecasts.
The Aldrich Family (Henry, Henry Aldrich!) was live Friday at 9:30 p.m. in New York, but televised Sundays at 5:30 – nine days later in Richmond.
There was no kinescoping of TODAY – with Dave Garroway and Jack Lescoulie presiding live. Rising early to view the first TODAY from the RCA Exhibition Hall on 49th Street seemed magical at 7 a.m.
With variety shows, NBC rejuvenated old vaudevillian and silent movie careers. Shows like Four Star Review with Ed Wynn, Jack Carson, Jimmy Durante (“Ha Cha, Cha, Chaaa”), and Danny Thomas; Your Show of Shows with Sid Caesar and Imogine Coca; Colgate Comedy Hour with Eddie Cantor, Abbott & Costello, Judy Canova, and Martin & Lewis, were so New York. Texaco Star Theater with Milton Berle, and The Bob Hope Show were separate institutions.
Kukla, Fran, & Ollie, Garroway At Large, and Don McNeil’s Breakfast Club with Aunt Fannie, plus singer Johnny Desmond, emanated from Chicago – as did Hawkins Falls, a high-end soap with Bernadine Flynn; and Super Circus, a children’s show with Mary Hartline.
We thrived on Howdy Doody, The Gabby Hayes Show (“Howdy, Buckaroos”), and Andy Devine in Wild Bill Hickok….and the Mexican Robin Hood – the Cisco Kid (‘Oh Poncho!…Oh Cisco!”).
WTVR’s local TV productions were modest. John Shand reported Eyes on The Times news. Joe Swartz’s Weather was elementary. Near a map outline of Virginia, referring to notes, he would mark current temperatures in six circled city locations. Sportlight with Jack Lewis was local TV Sports – later replaced by Tim Finnegan. Decades later, Finnegan recalled that his future colleagues were incredulous when they discovered he had NO competition.
Mavis Gibbs, home economist, ran The Cooking Show while John Shand, her side-kick, would do his soft shoe. Story Book Lady, Helen Langton, was always introduced by Bill Maust, A Miller and Rhoads representative. Grove Ave. Baptist Church, with Rev. Byron Wilkerson, was studio-live Sunday mornings.
Color TV emerged in late 1954. Advertised as “NBC’s first 90-minute color television spectacular,” the dreadful Satins and Spurs, with Betty Hutton was live. Channel 6 invited stand-in-line viewers to visit their studios and witness color TV – seemed half of Richmond attended.
By the mid 1950’s, competition arrived – Channels 8 in 1955, and 12 in 1956. Test pattern TV became distant – those pioneering pop hits too. We’re Gonna Rock Around The Clock by Bill Haley & His Comets filled the music charts. The 40’s culture subsided. As did Richmond’s Confederate social obsession too – all became diminished.
Happy 70th Birthday, TV 6 !