Eyewitness: 1949 / TV makes Pittsburgh 'A New Promise'

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When commercial television finally arrived in Pittsburgh in 1949, the manager of the William Penn Hotel offered a cautious prediction.

"It is not improbable that at some future date almost all our rooms will be equipped with television receivers," Tom Troy told the Post-Gazette on Jan. 11. That was the day that station WDTV began regular broadcasting of both local and national programs.

"The lustiest youngster in the nation's industrial family -- television -- puts on long pants in Pittsburgh Tuesday night," reporter Sterling P. Anderson wrote that morning.

The launch of DuMont-owned WDTV, which later became KDKA-TV, also marked a technical milestone for the industry. Pittsburgh's new station was linked via coaxial cable to 13 other cities from Boston to St. Louis. "WDTV will be able to go on the air from the start with the best programs of all networks -- NBC, CBS and ABC and, naturally, DuMont," Anderson wrote.

The newspaper recognized both the sociological importance of the long-awaited event -- WDTV was the nation's 51st television station -- and the opportunity to make some money. The Post-Gazette's second section was devoted to dozens of stories, graphics and photos telling "The Complete Story: American Television Today." The 12-page section also had plenty of display ads for TV receivers made by Crosley, Westinghouse, Philco, Emerson, Admiral and RCA.

Most of the sets had the equivalent of 10-inch picture tubes, and they were expensive. The Emerson floor model, with "Miracle Picture Lock," cost $349.50 at Boggs & Buhl department store. That price is equal to about $3,150 today.

The first-night local program was broadcast, starting at 8:30 p.m., from the Syria Mosque in Oakland. Featured on the broadcast were "Uncle Ed" Shaughnessy, a KDKA radio veteran, who that night portrayed city icon "Pa Pitt." Identified by his Colonial-era garb, "Pa Pitt" appeared regularly in drawings by Post-Gazette cartoonist Cy Hungerford.

Other local acts on that one-hour broadcast included the Homestead Steel Choir, soprano Mary Martha Briney, the Polish Falcons and "Little" Jackie Heller. Mr. Heller, a Pittsburgh native, had success as a radio vocalist, night club owner and singer in Las Vegas. Also on the bill were performers from the Pittsburgh Savoyards. The Savoyards, founded in 1938, continue to present twice-a-year productions of Gilbert & Sullivan operettas.

The local special was followed by network programs that featured newly minted TV stars: Arthur Godfrey, Milton Berle and DuMont Network band leader Ted Steele.

The next day the Post-Gazette deemed the station's launch a triumph in its news columns. "[T]he success of the inaugural operations prompted DuMont officials ... to schedule daytime broadcasts at least three days this week in addition to the evening programs," the paper reported Jan. 12.

The newspaper's opinion page was more restrained in an editorial headlined "TV -- A New Promise."

"We have seen radio, which began with such promises for spurring the mind and heart, sink too often to a moronic level of be-bop narcosis and giveaway shows. ... [E]xperience has taught us to be skeptical of new wonders," it said.

"The greatest wish we ... can make for television ... is that those who use this instrument will show in their own way the same measure of ingenuity that the scientists did who have brought video ... to a startled and confused world."


Len Barcousky: lbarcousky@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1159. Past stories in the "Eyewitness" series can be read at www.post-gazette.com/pgh250


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