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Live from Spokane – and was it ever

September 11, 2000

Early television was a spontaneous experience for everyone

By Jim Kershner
The Spokesman-Review

On Dec. 8, 1952, eager crowds converged on local appliance shops to watch a home entertainment milestone: Spokane’s first television broadcast.

The next day, The Spokesman-Review reported somewhat breathlessly that “the telecasts caused considerable excitement at retail TV stores in downtown Spokane.”

What classic program held these crowds in thrall?

The KHQ-TV test pattern.

The first actual entertainment program was still a week away, but people had heard about TV for so long (it had been a reality in New York since 1939, and in Los Angeles since 1951) they were ready to watch anything.

KHQ-TV went on the air with actual programming on Dec. 20, 1952, followed by KXLY-TV on Feb. 22, 1953, and KREM-TV on Oct. 31, 1954.

Today, we live in a city (and a world) blanketed by TV. Four additional local stations have sprung up in the ensuing decades, and cable TV customers can choose from dozens, or even hundreds, more. Meanwhile, those three original stations have grown into venerable Spokane institutions, with busy and influential newsrooms, fancy sets designed by national consultants and digital technology worth millions of dollars.

The contrast between then and now can be measured in square footage.

“We were looking through some old floor plans (of KHQ’s original building, a quonset hut) and found seats for four people in the news department,” said Lon Lee, general manager of KHQ. “Today, we have 55 in our news department.”

But no matter how all-encompassing TV has become, it can never recapture the thrill, the fun, the pure adrenaline rush of being a TV pioneer and winging it live in Spokane in the early 1950s.

“We were live for six or eight hours every day in those days, because there were only a few network programs in the evening, ” said Bob Welch, who was known as “Bob Andrews” on KXLY-TV from 1953 to 1959.

“I hosted a number of live shows, including a half-hour show called `Antics With Andrews,’ where I’d sing, tell jokes, interview people. We’d pull anybody off the street and interview them. I had no idea what they would say. Then there was `Tots ‘n’ Teens,’ where we’d play games with kids and have prizes. Anything we could think of to fill an hour.”

His silliest show – at least the silliest title – was something called “Squirt Matinee.” Kids would bring in Squirt bottle caps, and use them as “money” during on-air auctions for prizes.

Meanwhile, over on KHQ-TV, a show called “Mr. Engineer” was also aimed at the younger set.

“Mr. Engineer had a little parakeet named Mr. Pufferbelly who would sit on his shoulder and mumble away,” said Homer Mason, 82, who was hired by KHQ in 1952.

Bob Briley, 76, a radio newsman who switched to TV in 1954 and went on to become one of Spokane’s best-known and respected TV anchors, once “got stuck” doing fill-in for “Mr. Engineer” for a few months.

“You had to wear a striped cap and a foolish-looking bandana around your neck,” said Briley. “That bird would sit on your shoulder while you were on camera and bite you in the ear. Sometimes it would draw blood.”

Mason said that, late at night, the station technicians would put Mr. Pufferbelly on a turntable, get him dizzy and shout foul words at him. Subsequently, Mr. Pufferbelly took to squawking “Son of a bitch, son of a bitch!” while on the air.

“We had to find a new home for Mr. Pufferbelly,” Mason said.

Both Mason and Welch were hired from a background in live theater, but all of the stage experience in the world didn’t make them immune from the bane of live TV, the blooper.

Once, during a supermarket ad, Welch tried to say “Betty Crocker’s Cake Mix” but mixed up the vowels and said “Betty Cracker’s …” – well, we can’t repeat it even today. The advertiser, instead of being upset, told Welch it was the most attention his supermarket had ever attracted.

Welch was one of the creators and original host of “Starlit Stairway,” an amateur talent show, and arguably the most famous local program in Spokane’s history (along with KREM-TV’s “The Captain Cy Show”). Thousands of Spokane baby-boomers and their parents can still sing the show’s theme song, the Boyle Fuel jingle.

“It became the highest-rated show in the area, because we had kids on there from Chattaroy, Cheney and all of these towns,” said Welch. “So we’d have everybody in those towns watching.”

A panel of judges – usually friends or customers of the Boyle Fuel owner – would select the winners, who would get cash prizes.

“Sometimes the least talented kids would win,” said Welch. “One contestant might be a concert pianist, and he would be beaten by someone who would lip-synch to a record.”

Meanwhile, Welch became one of the most famous people in Spokane.

“When TV arrived here, it happened so quickly that anyone who worked on TV was an automatic celebrity,” said Welch. “It got to the point where I had to send Joan (his wife) to the concession stand at the movies, because I didn’t want to hear people say, `There he is.'”

By the 1960s, the age of live programming was fading. The networks began to supply many more shows, and syndication provided the rest. “Starlit Stairway” was one of the few local survivors – it managed to hang on for 20 years, until 1973, after switching to KHQ in 1966.

In the year 2000, not one single true entertainment program is produced locally by the major stations. The only equivalent might be the do-it-yourself cable access shows on AT&T Cable‘s channel 14, featuring local citizens playing their guitars, interviewing other local citizens and acting out their own kung-fu/action comedies for a tiny audience.

Meanwhile, local news, the other branch of local TV production, has had the opposite trajectory. It has exploded over the decades.

Today four local stations have their own news staffs (KAYU-28 being the most recent addition). Not only are the newsrooms about 10 times bigger than they were in the 1950s, but the hours devoted to news has more than tripled.

“We do 27 hours a week of news now,” Lee said. “Go back to the ’50s and they had only a few 15-minute or 30-minute newscasts.”

15 minutes? That was actually considered lengthy in those days.

“In fact, we had a five-minute newscast every night at 11 p.m.,” said Briley, who became the KHQ news anchor before the term was even invented. “We just hit the main headlines, the Spokane Indians baseball score and a short and sweet weather forecast. That was the forerunner of the late evening news.”

Briley said the newsroom consisted of “a fotofax machine, a couple of press wires, and a calendar on the wall that said 1957.”

Today’s stations have professionally designed sets that cost well into the six figures to build.

“Our old on-air set, you would just laugh your head off if you could see it,” said Briley. “I had a plain old wooden desk, a typewriter and a Heidelberg Beer statue (representing the sponsor). People probably never looked at me. They looked at that damn statue.”

TV news was stifled by primitive technology. Briley said the main weapons were “Speed Graphic cameras and portable tape recorders,” and, mind you, the Speed Graphic was a still camera.

TV news was not much more than a newspaper read out loud. In fact, the name of one of Briley’s early newscasts was “The Alka Seltzer Newspaper of the Air.” But as the industry entered the ’60s and ’70s, broadcast journalism matured as a profession.

“Today, the reporters are mostly seasoned journalists themselves, graduates of college with degrees in journalism or economics or political science,” said Briley, who still produces weekly news features for KXLY. “They have a lot more background than when I started out. And they have this great technology.”

TV’s greatest technological revolution began one day in 1959.

“That was when the very first videotape machine arrived at the station,” said Lee. “We must have 50 or 60 of them around here now.”

Videotape, which became more and more sophisticated through the 1960s, changed everything. It killed live commercials and entertainment shows once and for all. Not everybody thought that was an improvement.

“TV got boring,” said Welch, who quit in 1959 and went on to become co-founder and director of the Interplayers Ensemble, Spokane’s professional theater company. “All of a sudden the networks came in, and your only job was to say, `This is good-looking Channel 4, KXLY-TV, Spokane.'” “Boring” was certainly never a problem in the beginning.

“It was so exciting, I mean, it was so exciting,” said Mason, who, in retirement, remains one of Spokane’s top actors. “Just to be live, and to watch those pictures on the air, was an exciting thing. To be able to make a career in this remarkable institution was amazing. You just wondered why you were being paid for it.”

Don’t today’s TV people miss the adrenaline rush?

“Yes, and that’s why we do the State B basketball tourney and Bloomsday,” said Lee. “So everybody on the staff gets that feeling – the feeling of doing live TV.”

Monday, September 11, 2000

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From → KHQ, KREM, KXLY

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