Baltimore Glimpses: Filling The Small Screen When Tv Was Young

April 22, 1997|By Gilbert Sandler

MANY READING this were not in Baltimore, or perhaps not yet born, and so were not in front of a television set in Baltimore at 3 p.m., Thursday, October 30, 1947. But if you were in Baltimore and watching a TV (there were 700 of them in Baltimore at the time) and turned to Channel 2 you took a place in history.

What you saw (it was 50 years ago -- Happy Birthday, WMAR!) when the "snowy" screen came alive was a "test pattern," an arrangement of lines going in various directions and for some unexplained reason with an Indian chief in the center. This was the beginning of the very first television broadcast in Baltimore and what the viewers (all 700 of them) were about to see was the sixth race at Pimlico.

Out at the race track, perched at the top of the grandstand was a cameraman, zeroing in on the starting gate; beside him, Gov. William Preston Lane and Mayor Thomas D'Alesandro Jr.

Viewers did not know about that. They were staring at this test pattern and wondering, are we really going to see in this room something happening miles away? Finally, Jim McManus (now the famous Jim McKay) came on screen to assure them that, as they could now see, the horses were in the starting gate, and the sixth race was about to start.

Since the Monday previous WMAR had been testing its telecasting capability, and now at long last the television listing of that Thursday paper told the story of the first day of television in Baltimore: 2: 30 p.m. Test Pattern

3: 00 p.m. Racing From Pimlico

4: 00 p.m. Test Pattern

5: 00 p.m. Test Pattern

8: 50 p.m. Instruments For the Orchestra

9: 15 p.m. Basketball from the coliseum (Monroe Street), Baltimore Bullets vs. Indianapolis Kautzskies

Here, as promised, were the shots of the horses, restless in the starting gate, the cheering, the fans milling about -- and they're off! You could see it all between "test patterns" in living black and white on a 6-inch screen.

Silhouettes on a screen

Then began a long and glorious history of locally produced TV, using local talent. "Shadow Stumpers," in which the audience was asked to identify silhouettes on a screen, was the brainchild of the veteran media personality Brent Gunts. It ran from August 1949 for five years on WAAM (later WJZ). It was sponsored by Motor Sales DeSoto-Plymouth.

There probably never was and never will be again, locally or nationally, a show quite like Eddie's Supermarket's "Prosperity Parade." Before a live studio audience, contestants stood with grocery carts and answered questions posed by emcee Jay Grayson. For another show, "Date to Dance," Grayson fostered a quiet, relaxed ambience by wearing glasses without lenses. On "Prosperity Parade," he was all manic energy, frantically throwing groceries into the carts of winning contestants. Precipitous piles would accumulate and start tumbling out of the carts, while to great applause contestants would wheel out of the studio.

And who can forget the "Buddy Deane Show," the inspiration for John Waters' "Hairspray;" "Quiz of Two Cities" (match-up of a Baltimore panel of experts with peers from D.C.); and the "Nick Campo-freda Show."

WAAM in those days was what Nick Campofreda had wrought. He was a former professional football player who drifted into show business after World War II as master of ceremonies of what was called the "WAAMboree" show. It aired from 1: 30 to 4: 30 and dominated not only WAAM programming but all of Baltimore TV during those early exploratory and erratic programs.

All local, all luck

George Mills, a cameraman at the station, recalled the show. "It was all live, all local and all luck. Anybody who thought of him- or herself as talented and wanted to get on TV got on Nick's show. Nick would put them on one by one, in between commercials -- and hope for the best.

"The commercials were live, carnival-pitch style for vacuum cleaners and sewing machines that broke down on camera even while they were being demonstrated."

Lois Sandler, who was assistant to the directors, recalled some of the players who made up the WAAM family at the time: "There were, among other, Tony Donadio, Marlene Marlene, Buddy Lucina, Rae Gerard, Penny Chase, Jim Killian, Nelson Baker, Tommy Dukehart, Harvey Jerome, Paul Kane, Ed Sarrow."

And by the way, were you a "DoBee?" If you don't know what a DoBee is you are either from out of town or you are too young to remember Miss Nancy and "Romper Room" on WBAL-TV at 8: 45 every weekday morning. " `Romper Room' was a kind of kindergarten on TV," Nancy Claster told us. "In the 1950s schools were on shifts and there were lots of kids home in the mornings. Each show took in six kids, giving them their big break, getting on TV and sharing in the glory of becoming DoBees -- DoBee a milk-drinker, DoBee a room straightener, but Don'tBee a street crosser.

"I'll never forget this one show," Miss Nancy said, "We're on camera and this child raises his hand and I call on him and he says, `I have to go, Miss Nancy. Uh-oh, I'm going right now."

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