On September 24, 1945 the Federal Communications
Commission allocated four VHF television channels for Detroit. Applications were
submitted by The American Broadcasting Company, Storer Broadcasting,
United Detroit Theaters, radio station WJR and The Evening News
Association, but only three licenses were issued. This three part series will chronicle the early history of WWJ, WXYZ and WJBK, Detroit’s
first three television stations.
scheduled commercial television came to Detroit on March 4, 1947. The station was
WWDT, owned by The Evening News Association, publishers of The Detroit News.
WWDT’s first broadcast day began at 2:30 PM with a test pattern and recorded
music, followed by a video version of Coffee Club, a popular radio
program heard on WWJ radio, and a cooking demonstration by Detroit News
columnist Jean McBride. Walt Koste, producer of Coffee Club and a
WWJ employee since 1944, was WWJ-TV’s first television director.
For the inaugural broadcast DuMont placed several
“telesets” at high profile locations around town, including Kern’s
Department Store, the Statler and Book-Cadillac Hotels and Convention Hall. An
estimated 1,500 TV receivers were tuned to the historic broadcast. The 500-watt
signal was received eight miles away at the Dietz and Company appliance store at
7 Mile and Gratiot, which exceeded engineer’s expectations. These early broadcasts offered the technicians a chance to familiarize themselves with the
new equipment before operating at full power.
initially considered an entertainment medium, with news an
unnecessary afterthought. WWDT's news broadcasts were basically "illustrated
radio," with an announcer reading stories from the wire services,
illustrated by still photographs borrowed from The Detroit News. WWJ radio
commentator and Detroit News columnist Ken Manuel was Detroit's first TV
On June 3, 1947, WWDT changed its call letters to WWJ,
increased its power to 5000 watts and began daily programming.
During the televised dedication, Evening News Association President William E.
Scripps warned viewers that the broadcasts were experimental and technical
difficulties should be expected. After the brief ceremony it was off to Briggs
Stadium for a Tigers-Yankees ballgame.
Seasoned WWJ radio broadcaster Ty Tyson adapted easily to the new medium. During
a tricky catch by Tiger outfielder Dick Wakefield, Tyson remarked, “He nearly
dropped it! Did you see it bobble?”
WWJ’s first regularly scheduled program was The Hudson
Sketchbook, hosted by Pat Tobin. The show was a precursor to the Home
Shopping Network, designed to showcase products from the J. L. Hudson department
store. Dick Beals, who played Santa’s helper Jump Jump in a holiday edition of
the program, recalls in his autobiography Think Big how he
cleverly dealt with a stage fraught Santa on live TV.
“Santa was supposed to say something like, “Well, Jump
Jump, look at these new 45 RPM records.” And Jump Jump was supposed to ask:
“What’s a 45 RPM, Santa?” Santa: “Well, Jump Jump”… and then he goes
into his pitch. But Santa couldn’t remember which product came next.
So Jump Jump, that clever fellow, “jumped” in with,
“Golly, Santa, here’s something new, a 45 RPM record.” And holding the
stack of records up so I could look at him and the camera through
the new, larger hole, I added, “And look how the center area is thicker so the
grooves don’t touch.” Then I held them up horizontally and looked through
the spaces. Then he was supposed to ask if I would like to play one on the
record player with the large spindle adapter, but he didn’t. Jump Jump:
“Santa, could we play one? I’d like to see how the spindle adapter works.”
He nodded. Thank goodness he remembered how.”
Missed cues, misfiring props and actors flubbing lines were all part of early
live television. In his book Please Stand By- A Prehistory of Television, author
Michael Ritchie tells of an early WWJ broadcast with the station’s general
manager Harry Bannister and director Walt Koste.
“To celebrate the start of regular telecasts, Harry sponsored a contest to
find the most beautiful girl in Detroit. For the live crowning of “Miss
Television,” producer Walter Koste acted as master of ceremonies. The stage
set was a floral garden with a rose arbor at the rear, three steps above the
stage. Each contestant would pause for a closeup in the arbor and then move
downstage in a second camera’s wide shot. As the winner was announced in her
arbor-framed closeup, Koste milked the moment: “Now darling, step down with
all of the beauty and grace that heaven bestowed upon you.” The winning girl
took one step, tripped and fell flat on her face; her legs went up and her dress
flipped over, revealing her panty-clad bottom.”
In 1947 the average retail price for a television receiver was $440.00, quite a
bit of money when the average annual American salary was $3,500.00. But consumer
spending rose by 60 per cent after World War II, and families were eager to
purchase items like TV sets, new automobiles and other luxuries denied them
during the war. Thinking that
children’s shows would have enough family appeal to increase TV sales, RCA,
General Electric and Philco sponsored the first children’s programs on WWJ.
The earliest kids shows were Our Story Book with Jane Durelle, Let’s
See Willy Dooit and Junior Jamboree.
Junior Jamboree was the brainchild of Detroit broadcast veteran
Fran Harris, who first stepped before the WWJ radio microphone in 1930. Harris
became Michigan’s first woman news broadcaster in 1943 when the station lost
most of its male personnel to WWII. She
made an effortless transition to television in 1947 as host, producer and
creator of much of WWJ-TV’s earliest programming. Traffic Court,
a Harris creation, was the first TV court program in the country.
Jamboree’s format served as the blueprint for all kids shows to come,
offering puppets, magicians, animals from the Humane Society, local sports
heroes and a cop with safety tips, all performing in front of a live peanut
gallery of kids. The program was broadcast Monday thru Friday from a makeshift
studio in the Detroit News building, where the rumbling of the printing presses
one floor below was often heard in the background. The cast of Junior
Jamboree included Jo Alexander and her marionette What Now, sketch
artist Jerry Peacock, Detroit Police Sgt. Ronald “Dusty” Rhodes and magician
Karrell Fox, who also played Milky the Clown on WWJ in 1962 after Clare Cummings
TV retirement. Junior Jamboree left the video airwaves in late
1948 when the manufacture of RCA TV sets picked up enough for executives to
think that the show was no longer needed.
WWJ became an NBC affiliate in March of 1948, opting to carry only the
network’s news programs while producing its own entertainment shows, like Mischa
Kottler at the Piano with Detroit Symphony pianist Mischa
Hollywood featuring local radio actor Rollon Parker and The Scotti Show, a musical comedy program starring popular Detroit nightclub
entertainers George and Eleanor Scotti.
Sports proved to be a popular diversion on WWJ. In 1948 the station broadcast
26 baseball games, with Ty Tyson handling the play-by-play. Tyson, along with
Harry Heilmann and Paul Williams, also covered the U. of M. and Detroit Lions
football games as well as Red Wings hockey games and wrestling matches.
The Detroit News sports staff produced Sports Closeup, a
daily ten-minute wrap-up of scores and highlights, and Bob Leslie was host of Cunningham’s
Sports Ace, sponsored by Cunningham’s Drug Stores.
By September of 1948 both WJR and the United Detroit Theaters chain pulled out
of the television race. WJR had appropriated $300,000 for television, but
instead decided to invest $650,000 for expansion of their radio facilities. The
United Detroit Theaters simply couldn’t raise the amount cash needed to fund a
When WWDT first hit Detroit's airwaves, television was considered an expensive
novelty rather than a household necessity. Most TV receivers populated bars and
TV showrooms, with very few home installations. . A short year later, television
sales nationally grew more than 600 percent with most receivers now finding
their place in the family living room. Locally, 9,000 TV sets were now tuned to
Channel 4. For eighteen months WWJ-TV dominated the
airwaves, but they were about to get some competition, courtesy of the
American Broadcasting Company.
Copyright © 2007
Edward Golick Jr. All Rights Reserved.
WIXIE is On The Air!