Television on Gotham Place – 1940s

My sister, Shirley, and I are standing in our front yard in 1949.  I was a junior at Withrow High School and Shirley was in the 8th grade at Highlands (Cincinnati).  Mother made our “Dottie Mack”* dresses
My sister, Shirley, and I are standing in our front yard in 1949. I was a junior at Withrow High School and Shirley was in the 8th grade at Highlands (Cincinnati). Mother made our “Dottie Mack”* dresses

The first time I ever heard the word “television” was during World War II when my father showed me an article in one of his radio magazines about this new invention which would change the world after the war was over.  I was interested  (anything my father showed me was interesting), but I didn’t hold out too much hope for it – a lot of things were promised “after the war”.

Then one day in 1945, the war was over and within a year, my father was in the workshop he had built on the back end of the porch of our little red brick house on Gotham Place, fiddling around with trying to make a television set.  He had always been interested in radios and my image of him throughout the 1930s-40s was of him reading a radio hobbyist’s magazine.  He had made small radios and was a HAM operator during the war.  One hot Saturday afternoon in 1946, we were called to the workshop to see a screen about 5×5 inches and on it was the rather faint image of two men wrestling.  It was the first time my father had been able to access one of the few local broadcasts.

My father and mother standing in front of the back porch where my father had his workshop
My father and mother standing in front of the back porch where my father had his workshop

I understand there were kits available around that time to build a primitive TV set, but my father built his from parts he accumulated as he could afford them.  He continued to work and finally built his own set – very rough – all of the innards showed and the small screen just sat there without any kind of  cabinet, but it was magnificent because there was a moving, talking picture on it.  We were among the first residences in Cincinnati to own a television set.  He eventually put a huge magnifying glass in front of the tiny screen to make the picture bigger and on Saturday nights he drug out his masterpiece to set in the front yard of the red brick where the folks on Gotham Place could bring their folding chairs and sit clustered around, watching wrestling.  By the following summer, most of the families had their own TV sets.

My sister and I are standing in front of the gate where my father would set up the TV set for the neighbors
My sister and I are standing in front of the gate where my father would set up the TV set for the neighbors

The most popular show at the beginning was wrestling and little by little other programs were added, although the day was far from being fully scheduled.  When an actual live broadcast wasn’t on the screen, there was a kaleidoscope test pattern so people could adjust and readjust their sets to hopefully get it right before a real show came on.  I also remember some kind of an Indian head image with rays going out from it to help with getting the sets adjusted.  My father ran for the set every time any kind of image was being broadcast and fooled with it continually.

Eventually, we bought a small TV set with a 7-inch screen which required a humongous aerial on the roof and a lot of adjusting with that, but aesthetically the little cabinet looked a lot better in our living room.  There were still problems with “snow” – a hazy snowstorm that appeared over the picture; getting “out of synch” – the screen rolling around and around; the adjusting of the black and white screen; the logistics of getting everybody in a position to see the tiny screen – but there were never any serious complaints (except from my father who had to fix everything) since everybody was just enraptured by the sight of that screen and the wonder of it.

A television set similar to the one we owned
A television set similar to the one we bought

Programming continued to improve.  In 1947, the first Cincinnati Reds baseball game was televised and for the first time in my life, I skipped school to come home and watch the afternoon broadcast.  I had taken the streetcar to Withrow High School but got off and got on another one coming back home so I could see that game.  It was a little disappointing.  I guess I had thought even on the small screen there would be close-ups such as there were in newsreels, but they apparently only had a couple of cameras in the stands and we got nothing but long shots.  This was before the zoom lens that at least brought home plate into focus, but I was still glad I got to see that piece of history.

Sporting events were always big on television, and lots of local shows – Midwestern Hayride; cooking shows, Ruth Lyons (a show for housewives by a Cincinnati legend), news broadcasts, comedy shows, Bride & Groom with local star Bob Braun singing “Oh, Promise Me”, etc.  A favorite was Paul Dixon’s Make-Believe Bandstand with pantomiming to music by Paul, Dottie Mack and Bob Braun.  Dottie Mack was a young, pretty model who was an expert at pantomiming and had a gorgeous wardrobe.  For Christmas in 1948, Mother made my sister and me matching outfits based on one of Dottie’s – black faille skirt and tie, white blouse and rhinestone pin.  (*See picture, above)

Eventually, we got feeds from the networks with big time broadcasts like Show of Shows with Sid Caesar and Imogene Coco, live theater, Ed Sullivan’s show, soap operas and variety shows.  My father usually scoffed at the variety shows, saying they were just a bunch of vaudeville acts – and he was right, but most of us had never seen a vaudeville act and we thought they were wonderful:  Milton Berle, Burns & Allen, Ed Wynn, and scores of animal, juggling and miscellaneous circus acts.

In a few short years after the war had ended, television was truly the marvel my father had said it would be.

I'm standing with my mother and sister at the back porch where my father built his workshop and first TV set
I’m standing with my mother and sister at the back porch where my father built his workshop and our first TV set

Click pictures to enlarge.

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Lillian Applegate Westfelt was a mother of 4, grandmother of 6, and great-grandmother of 3. She was an 86-year-old widow living in a nice little bungalow with her oldest daughter and a beagle-dachsund named Addie. She passed away in November, 2018.

12 thoughts on “Television on Gotham Place – 1940s”

  1. What wonderful memories of something that truly did change the lives of everyone. I remember my mother talking about going to my grandfather’s house in the evenings to watch TV… he had the only one in the family. And I vaguely remember my parents getting their first… mainly because my dad had to drill a hole in the floor of the living room to run the wire from the TV to the antenna outside. What I remember is looking down thru the hole and seeing my dad in the basement/crawl space. *lol*

  2. You must find it incredible to see & hear about all the wonderful inventions & improvements in our lives over your lifetime, Lillian. My DH is about your age & he talks about them a little but not with the eloquence you display.

    My grandkidlets think it is amazing that I grew up without a computer & have no idea how to work a Ipod or a smart phone. LOL

  3. Such a great memory. Your father seems like he was very clever with technology but then your mother seems clever too with making your clothes based on new looks seen on TV! So much has changed in terms of our self sufficiency. Thanks for sharing the photos.

  4. Aren’t we something, those of us who had a life before television! I remember the snow, the test patterns, the small screens too. We still didn’t have our own set when I started high school, and classes were let out to see Queen Elizabeth’s coronation. I went to a friend’s house to watch. Loved your reminiscences.

  5. Oh those old B&W TVs! I wasn’t around for the first ones with the little screens, but I do remember the smaller round screened one. My father was always talking about the “latest news in technology” when I grew up too.

    The two that stand out the most for me were the color TV and Movies on Demand. We were the first on our street to get a color TV, a huge coffin shaped affair with a record player and a radio in it, and I remember the neighbors coming by to ooh and ah. The talk about movies on demand was way ahead of its time and he was long gone before they were available. I have to think he would have really enjoyed that, too.

    Thank you, Lillian, for sharing with us today. I always enjoy your remembrances and photographs from when you were younger.

  6. My mother talk some of her families first TV set, but your rendition was far more descriptive and really took me back there with you! Thank you so much for sharing your family and your life. Sincerely, Kathleen

  7. Oh, gosh, that’s wonderful, Lillian. It brings back so many memories! I skipped school to watch the World Series between the Brooklyn Dodgers and the New York Yankees! My dad was watching. I came home for lunch and never went back to school that day. =) Dance marathons – that was the west Texas screen filler when there was no broadcast programming! We had a little “portable” TV. Thanks for sharing your memories. I’m amazed that your dad built your first ones! I loved seeing the pictures of your family.

  8. So incredible to hear a first hand account of when TV’s came into existence! Must feel pretty neat to have been there, and now live in the digital age!

  9. Love those photos, Lillian! I remember when my Dad bought our first “big” TV… it was a huge piece of furniture that weighed a ton, and since I was the youngest, I had to get up every time somebody wanted the channel or the volume changed! I REALLY appreciate our remote control! 🙂

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