The Next Page: The behind-the-camera love story of Pittsburgh TV pioneers Tom Borden and Ricki Wertz
August 31, 2014 12:54 AM
Courtesy Ricki Wertz.
Ricki Wertz lip-synching "I'm Gonna Wash That Man Right Outta My Hair" outside the WENS studios.
Courtesy Ricki Wertz
Ricki Wertz was doing commercials as a "Coca-Cola Girl" when she and Tom Borden met.
Ricki Wertz in one of the children's show stars featured in "Pennsylvania Kids Shows," airing on WQED.
Courtesy Ricki Wertz
Tom Borden, about the time he came to Pittsburgh in 1953.
By John Poister
Pittsburghers of a certain age can recall Pittsburgh’s first television station — WDTV (now KDKA), the city’s only station from 1949 to 1953. But few remember WKJF-TV and WENS both of which signed on in August 1953.
As a person who made his career in local broadcasting, I’ve always been fascinated by “lost” Pittsburgh. I never guessed that in my search for information on these long-gone Pittsburgh TV stations, I would find a love story.
The best place to trace the dawn of TV in Pittsburgh is the Google newspaper archive. With the January 1953 editions, my search began. It didn’t take long to turn up an ad for Sylvania TVs in the Aug. 28 edition of The Pittsburgh Press. “See the FIRST BASEBALL TELECAST from Forbes Field over WENS tomorrow,” the ad shouted.
WENS — the “lost” Channel 16. The underdog TV station’s first broadcast was a live home game between the Pirates and St. Louis Cardinals. Sure enough, in the Aug 30 edition of The Press, there was a lengthy review of the telecast in the “A” section. Si Steinhauser, radio-TV editor, praised the work of Tom Borden, who directed the historic and forgotten telecast.
I knew about Tom Borden through his wife, Ricki Wertz. Several years ago, when I was a radio station program director, I invited Ricki to be a guest on Doug Hoerth’s radio show. During the interview, she mentioned her husband. Now, having seen the old newspapers, I had to know more.
Three months ago, with the help of a mutual friend, I contacted Ricki, who immediately and enthusiastically set up a meeting. We got together at the Irwin Eat’n Park, where Tom had celebrated his 90th birthday several weeks earlier. He looked at the old Sylvania ad and smiled. “Sure, I remember,” he said. “Good times. It was exciting, and I loved what I was doing at the station.”
“We fell in love at Channel 16,” recalled Ricki. “Several of the WENS staff members got married, including Tom and I.”
Taking on the Pirates
There was a lot of work to do to get the station on the air for that first broadcast. When Tom first arrived at the station, he was immediately put to work figuring out how to telecast the Pirates game from Forbes Field. The last-place Pirates would be taking on the Cardinals on a Saturday afternoon.
Tom was up to the challenge, He had the experience, having directed dozens of sporting events in Cincinnati and Columbus Ohio. But it hadn’t been done before in the brief history of Pittsburgh television. In fact, even the largest major-league cities were slow to embrace broadcast of any games — home or away.
The Pirates, frequently a last-place team in the 1940s and ’50s, were concerned that any telecast would impact their already-low game attendance. But Channel 16 had an edge because one of its investors was a Pirates vice president.
Setting up equipment in Forbes Field was initially a problem. Heavy cables had to be strung, a makeshift control room was set up on a catwalk above home plate, and two large awkward cameras had to lugged into positions high behind home plate and along the first-base line.
“I really couldn’t see much of the action on the field, but somehow, it worked,” Tom said. “We had monitors, but we only had the two cameras. Later, I was able to add a third, field-level camera right behind home plate. That shot became my go-to view because it was right on the field level.”
Besides setting up the telecast, Tom had to come up with a way to get the pictures and sound back to the station so they could be transmitted to the viewers. “They gave me this big microwave dish, and I looked around and found a spot on the roof of Forbes Field I thought might work,” he said. “We installed it, turned it on and, fortunately, it was a perfect shot right back to the station. We were very lucky.”
The first broadcast came off without a hitch. Pirates broadcasters Rosey Rowswell and Bob Prince did the play-by-play. There were even sponsors for the game, which the Pirates lost 5-4.
Who’s that ’Coca-Cola Girl?’
In his review, Steinhauser called the telecast “an auspicious bow.” He was particularly impressed with the camera work: “Cameramen, working at Forbes Field for the first time, gave proof that they knew their way around, giving viewers ’on-the-ball’ coverage of the outfield, base running, pitcher, catcher and umpires every split second.”
Sixty-one years later, Tom smiles when he’s shown the review. “I was so busy back then, I didn’t even know they put anything in the paper about it,” he said.
The day after the game, WENS launched its regular schedule, which featured plenty of sports. In addition to Pirates games, the station broadcast Duquesne University basketball and Pittsburgh Hornets hockey. Tom remembered the set-up for hockey.
“It was at the (Duquesne) Gardens,” he said. “We put the control room up in the rafters. Back then, people could smoke in the arena. By the end of the game, we were choking. All that smoke just collected up there. We couldn’t see, we couldn’t breathe.”
Tom directed nearly all of the station’s live studio shows, too. “We did news with Dave Murray, sports with Bob Prince, and we also broadcast an afternoon teen dance show called ’The Bandwagon.’”
“The Bandwagon” was sponsored by Coca-Cola. The commercials, like everything else on the show, were done live. Tom said he couldn’t help but notice the attractive “Coca-Cola Girl” who was hired to do the commercials. Eighteen-year-old Ricki Wertz was attending drama school in Oakland and did the Coca-Cola gig while also appearing on stage in various Pittsburgh Playhouse productions.
In for a shock
They married on Aug. 14, 1954, exactly a year after Tom had arrived in Pittsburgh. They went off on their honeymoon, and when they returned, they were in for a rude shock. WENS had canceled almost all of its local programming. The station would broadcast only from 5 to 11 p.m. Ricki talked about that day: “We came back from our honeymoon and found we had no jobs, no severance and no savings. Tom Found a job at WSUN-TV in St. Petersburg, Fla., and I got a license in cosmetology and made up ladies in department stores in Georgia and Florida. I did some TV freelancing on the side.”
Aside from the memories, Ricki and Tom have photos of their time at Channel 16. There’s Tom, wearing a headset and directing a Pittsburgh Hornets telecast live from Duquesne Gardens, and Ricki, lip-synching “I’m Gonna Wash that Man Right Out of My Hair” in front of the WENS studios for the “The Bandwagon.”
The couple’s exile from Pittsburgh was short lived. They received a call to come back to help another TV station sign on. The call came from former Channel 16 news director Dave Murray, who by this time was program director and news director for WTAE-TV (Channel 4). This was where Ricki and Tom found a permanent — and happy — TV home.
Their partnership resulted in two classic local shows, “Ricki and Copper” and “Junior High Quiz.” Ricki hosted the shows, and Tom directed. The shows were huge hits. Ricki became a Pittsburgh TV icon, one of the most recognizable TV personalities in town. Tom came up with the concepts for both shows and became one of the city’s most respected TV directors.
For the Bordens, it was a partnership and a love story. Oh, and Ricki has another claim to Pittsburgh TV fame. She was the singing weather woman on “Sealy Sleepy Time Weather,” which aired just after Channel 4’s late news in the late 1950s.
Greeting her at our Eat’n Park meeting, I couldn’t help but think that she looks just like she did in her WTAE days. And Tom probably could still direct those shows today.
Pittsburgh’s lost TV stations
During the months I spent combing the archives I did come across some information about Pittsburgh’s lost TV stations:
WKJF-TV began broadcasting on Aug. 2, 1953. By September, the NBC affiliate was broadcasting eight hours of programming a day. It was on the air only for eight months.
WKJF-TV’s studios were located in a Mount Washington building that also housed a sister radio station with the WKJF call letters. WKJF-FM became B-94 FM — a popular rock station in the 1990s. The station now is 93.7 FM, “The Fan.” The studio building still stands on Grandview Avenue but has not been used for broadcasting for several years.
After its initial baseball broadcast, WENS became an ABC affiliate. The call letters for Entertainment, News and Sports. WENS stayed on the air for 4 years.
A wind storm blew down the WENS transmission tower in March 1955. The station made temporary arrangements with WQED to broadcast a prime-time schedule until a temporary tower could be set up.
In 1957, the Federal Communications Commission awarded TV broadcast licenses for Channels 4 and 11. These channels would be available in more homes than Channel 16. WENS’ owners made several efforts to move their programming to one of the new channels, but were turned down by the FCC. On Aug. 31, 1957, WENS signed off the air permanently. The very next day, Channel 11 (originally WIIC-TV and now WPXI-TV) signed on for the first time.
The WENS studios were located at 750 Ivory Ave. on the Pittsburgh border with Reserve.The building has been the home of WPGH-TV since 1969.
Sewickley resident John Poister (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the spokesman for the state Department of Environmental Protection in Pittsburgh and a longtime Pittsburgh broadcaster.
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