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.
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.
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.
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.
Click pictures to enlarge.