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“He was my adviser throughout my career, and no matter how difficult things might become, Scotty was always there to hold my hand. He had class and grace, and he doubtless was one of the finest all-around talents broadcasting has ever known.

- Philadelphia News Anchorman John Facenda

When Dagmar Barely Fit On Our 8” Sets

Television was live and neighbors ate you out of popcorn some 25 years ago.

From The Philadelphia Bulletin
By Alan Scott

You know how astonished your children are when the conversation happens to turn on the fact that television wasn't always with us. They never seem to question that it was always there like sleep and eating and playing games.

"What did you do, mommy, when you were sick and had to stay in bed?"

Life without television is inconceivable to them. They never pause to question the technological fabric of its function.

old t.v. set

We said, on beholding the new wonder, "How does it ever work?" THEY would say if they said anything "Why Not?"

Children have a way of seeing things whole and if they assume that television is timeless as sleep and eating and playing games they may have scored an observation that cannot be improved on. Is it not sleep, in a sense, if we sit immobilized lumps in front of it? It is diet, certainly, and like any, sometimes dyspeptic; sometimes fortifying. And man, does it ever play games!

Can you recall its beginnings? I can. In fact, I was part of it and if this secures my reservation forever in the Purgatory Hilton, so be it.

[missing] be picked up by six or eight sets located elsewhere in the building. I was master of ceremonies because I was a radio newscaster and, for some reason, this was thought to qualify me for the role. Also I was young (as who wasn't, that long ago?) and sort of man about town ish and this lent itself to the special assignment because the substance of the program was to be what else? a bathing beauty pageant of sorts. Not a contest. Just a parade spectacular in the hotel ballroom.

Reception may have been something less than satisfactory. I don't remember, mostly because I was thinking about the contents of the bathing suits assembled.

dagmar the starlet

My next brush with emerging television came a year or two later. I had an invitation from Commander Bill Eddy, U.S. Navy, retired, the gadget genius. Retired, that is, until World War II when he was granted a waiver for deafness, and brought back to service to lend his genius to the development of military radar. Commander Eddy knew me only through my 11 o'clock news broadcasts and thought I would be interested in seeing how experimental television was coming along at the Farnsworth Studios.

Bill Eddy was sure television would be a great medium for drama in the future, when actors would just be told the outline of the story and be expected to ad lib their lines. That is to say--if television was ever to come about at all. And it could only come about if Farnsworth and a few of the other very private enterprise electronic giants would quit holding out on each other their respective patent rights.

In 1939 I was in Chicago when Bill invited me to TV station WBKB and put me through some ad lib news broadcasts. Bill's idea was that the newscaster should not be hampered by notes in hand. He was to be free to move about the studio. Neither he, nor anyone else at the time, could envision teleprompters.

I was pretty bad, but consoled by the fact we could not have been received by more than 40 or 50 sets for the good reason that that's all there were in the area. Allowing for the probability that not ALL the sets would be tuned at any given time, it was no more embarrassing for me than talking to my family.

Then as the movie subtitles used to say came the war. Dostovefsky could, no doubt, have worded it more effectively, but that's what it came to. What with strategic materials being denied any but military use, television just hung there in suspended animation. At war's end to hold to the distinct rhetoric of subtitles it proceeded to wrap us up for delivery on the doormat of tomorrow.

Television, in its earliest days, programmed for an hour or two, one or two evenings a week. A basketball game, maybe. Later on a roller derby. Or a vaudeville show of sorts. Remember Kuda Bux? Tuesday nights with Milton Berle? And that was all. At other times, just a test pattern.

The test pattern was a fixed chart of black lines on white background. If you managed to get the pattern aligned Monday morning you could turn off your set and be ready to turn it on for the beer sponsored basketball game next evening. True, an occasional voice suggested that the programming might be extended to other evenings but the arguments against prevailed for a time. Obviously nobody is going to sit at that set at home and watch something every evening. It could never come to that!

It came to that sooner than seemed probable; test patterns during the day; programs in the evening. But how to come up with enough program variety night after night; week after week? I remember a Wednesday night program highlight which consisted of household hints -- probably Jack Creamer, the Handyman --do's and don’ts of ironing. The incredible thing was that in households where there was a television, with the ironing demonstration up against radio's Lux Theatre or Orson Welles Mercury TV Players or March of Time, guess what the family tuned in? Not only the family. Neighbors were invited in or barged in to sit goggle eyed, watching the care and feeding of the electric iron.

magician kuda bux

I think, perhaps, I should footnote here that I'm just sitting at a typewriter letting my two hunter hitters jog my memory in the most casual fashion. Since I'm doing no scholarly research, but leaning loosely on some 40 years of participation well, 40 in all, including radio I know I'm going to leave a lot of empty spaces.

Do you know that afternoon television was very probably pioneered in Philadelphia? I have some first recollection of it because the program was Cinderella Weekend, which I hosted. When program director, I got the bold idea to venture into afternoon, it was considered absolutely zany. Who would there be to watch?

But they were there and they watched. Incidentally, don't be too astonished that many of television's innovations of timing and substance were effected in Philadelphia. We are so accustomed in the later years of simply assigning away the rights of breakawav moves to Hollywood and New York that it seems incredible that there was a time when the moves were first in Philadelphia. Much later the New Yorkers and Californians came to Philadelphia to snoop and copy.

There were several factors that nourished this leadership. The principal one was that there were more receiving sets here than in any other city.

Farnsworth was here and Philco and RCA just across the river. So . . . when it came to pioneering afternoon time, why not Philadelphia?

Who remembers the Bulletin News at 6:45 each evening? I do because I was the newscaster and I can tell you that the New York agency boys were down after we had put in a few months, feeling our way, asking how we did it and how our directors handled it and where we got the material the still pictures with which we illustrated the news.

I'll tell you where we got the material. The Associated Press office in the old Bulletin Building gave us all the pictures we could use by way of national and international coverage. And Mike Freeman, Bulletin photographer processed the local stuff shot by Bulletin staff men in the course of the day. A newscast consisted of copy which I wrote and delivered to the accompaniment of pictures assembled on two studio easels so that the director could switch from one to the other in series, while busy floor men switched them and frequently spilled them. I suppose there are only about a half dozen people anywhere who can remember first hand the studio panic that ensued when the carefully sequenced pix came down in a heap.

anchorman john facenda

It was at about this time that John Facenda, who has become the dominant news figure in the viewing area, tried something interesting. Would some of you remember it, I wonder? He used a late evening hour, eleven or thereabouts which seemed suitable to its mood, and just sat in easy chair, lighted cigarette going (at the time not yet taboo) and with newspaper on his lap, talked easily and casually about the news. I have often thought that it was too bad the technique didn't catch on. It might have been preferable in many ways to the teletype delivery we get now.

The indoor sport of 'remembering when' works best when everybody gets into the act. So I think I'll just grab at a few more anecdotals and then open it up to audience participation.

Do you remember when home sets were a matter of 8 or 10 inches? For a time there was a lively market in hook on magnifying lenses to make the picture appear to be larger. Expansive hosts invested in a lens mostly to gratify their roomful of guests who came to devour sacks of cheese toasties and popcorn. The new large sets around in the early days were in taverns and bars. Sports events packed the customers in.

I can also recall the geneology of the Tonight Show. It started out as Broadway Open House. The first MC, I believe, was Morev Amsterdam. Then Jerry Lester. That’s when it started to roll. I think of Dagmar who was at her best when she just walked across the camera view taking all eyes with her, as she had what I think the boys in the back room used to call "some built on her!" Then came Steve Allen under whose aegis there were celebrated offshoots: Andy Williams, Eydie Gorme and Steve Lawrence and much memorable hijinks with Don Knotts and others. Then to Jack Paar with such names clinging as Elsa Maxwell and Alexander King.

howdy doody and buffalo bob.jpg

And then to Johnny Carson. All right. Enough, enough! Now you're ready to swing, right?

So swing at these:

Who used the line "Tell ya what I’m gonna do?”

What did Bishop Fulton Sheen have to do with TV?

Who was the young lady who started the fuss about plunging necklines?

Who or what is Hopalong Cassidy? Howdy Doody? Martin Kane, Private Eye? Mr. I. Magination? Garrowav at Large? Omnibus? Studio One? This is Your Life?

Mr.Peepers? Topper? The Goldbergs? The Continental?

If you don't remember. you're much younger than Alan Scott.