50 years ago, Marylanders turned on TV Telecast: First program, with Jim McKay and Joseph Kelly, covered the fifth and sixth races at Pimlico.

Remember When

November 02, 1997|By Fred Rasmussen | Fred Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

Fifty years ago, as the clock ticked toward 3 p.m., a small band of men waited nervously for the moment when they would make history by airing the first television program in Baltimore.

Gathered in a small room at a downtown office tower were Neil H. Swanson, executive editor of the Sunpapers; Philip S. Heisler, later editor of The Evening Sun; Charles Purcell, a photographer for The Sunday Sun Magazine; Charles Nopper, chief engineer; and Charlie Lau, his assistant.

Reporters on camera

Miles away at Pimlico Race Track were two Sunpapers reporters who had been drafted to go in front of the cameras -- Jim McManus, later ABC's Jim McKay, and thoroughbred racing reporter Joseph B. Kelly.

The men had been commissioned by the Sunpapers, as the company was known in those days, to establish a television station -- and do it fast enough to beat WBAL on the air. Their goal was realized on the afternoon of Oct. 30, 1947.

That morning, The Sun reported, "the first program ever televised by a Baltimore station will go on the air at 3 o'clock this afternoon from the Pimlico Race Track. WMAR, the Sunpapers station, is undertaking to televise two races -- the fifth and the sixth, the latter the Grayson Stakes."

Earlier, that week on Oct. 27, McKay made another bit of broadcasting history when he intoned the first words ever heard over TV here: "This is WMAR-TV in Baltimore operating for test purposes."

At exactly 3: 08 p.m. on Oct. 30, Nopper signaled with his hand to a control panel technician and Swanson threw a switch. He then told Pimlico to "take it away."

The test pattern, which featured an Indian's head in a circle, faded out, and when the light returned to the screen viewers found themselves looking at the Pimlico Race Track clubhouse.

"Most of the people who saw this first transmission did so by accident, for there had been little advance notice," The Sun reported in a 1957 10-year anniversary article. "There were about 1,600 sets in the city, most of them delicately tuned to receive snowy pictures from three stations operating intermittently in Washington. At that moment, Baltimore ceased to be a 'fringe' area."

"We didn't know what the hell we were doing," said Jim McKay, laughing the other day from Bellefield Farm, his Monkton home.

"The editor called me upstairs one day and said, 'You're it because you were president of the drama society at Loyola College and that's good enough for us.' "

"There was no script and no plan," said Kelly, who called the race while McKay operated as the color man. "The weather was pleasant and we were installed in a plywood heaven that had been built atop the press box. I then began trying to call the race and told myself to 'use your head.' "

Kelly remembers the situation as being "primitive" and is glad that the invention of videotape was still 10 years in the future.

"That way we didn't have to look at ourselves," he said with a laugh.

"During the broadcast, a track worker walked in front of us carrying a ladder," McKay said, laughing. "He had no idea that he was on TV."

Looking for interviews

During the break between races, Kelly circulated through the crowd looking for celebrities from vaudeville or the movies, or other notables to interview.

Five models -- the first to be televised as well -- showed off the latest fall fashions.

"I wasn't fazed at all or the least bit nervous because TV then didn't have the impact that it does today," said Kelly, father of Sun writer Jacques Kelly, whose column appears elsewhere on this page.

"It didn't bother Jim either. He was a natural even in those days and had a wonderful semi-dramatic style, a graceful way of describing things and a real knack for the proper word."

Nervous that the new medium might affect attendance, Pimlico management limited TV coverage to only two races.

"You know what Mencken wrote in his diary about the broadcast: 'I wouldn't have given a dime for an hour of that stuff even if it included a massacre,' " McKay said, with a chuckle. He was referring to writer and critic H.L. Mencken, the late columnist for The Evening Sun.

'A landmark for the state'

Gov. W. Preston Lane, who shared McKay and Kelly's rooftop aerie for news photographs, hailed the first broadcast as "a landmark for the state."

The broadcast was picked up throughout the region -- to the west in New Market, to the north in Havre de Grace and New Freedom, Pa., and on the Eastern Shore in Rock Hall and Chestertown.

At the conclusion of the race, the station went off the air at 4 p.m. and was dark until 5 p.m. when it showed a brief film, "Instruments of the Orchestra." Then the station went dark again until 9: 15 p.m., when it did a second "remote" of the day from the Coliseum, where the Baltimore Bullets defeated the Indianapolis Kautskys basketball team.

The images were so clear that Mayor Thomas D'Alesandro Jr. observed, "That's probably the first race I ever saw from start to finish."

Implications of the day

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