1948 saw first televised convention Politics: Hot glare of TV lights shone on the Republican gathering in a steamy Philadelphia summer.

Way Back When

June 27, 1998|By Fred Rasmussen | Fred Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

In the sweltering summer of 1948, those attending the Republican National Convention in Philadelphia made political history by taking part in the first convention to be broadcast on television.

"Superlatives and red-rimmed eyes are as common as campaign buttons at a national convention but television has added to the number of both at this session of the Republican enclave," reported The Sun.

The newspaper estimated that 10 million viewers through 300,000 "television receivers" along the East Coast would see and hear the convention activities. Another 5,000,000 were expected to see it within 24 hours through film versions for "west of the Alleghenies."

Newspaper ads promised Baltimoreans that anyone watching WMAR-TV -- then owned by The Sun -- "will have a front row seat at the Convention."

"The most elaborate coverage in the history of television is planned for the Philadelphia convention," the newspaper reported, adding that "television has firmly established itself as another fixture of the convention scene."

One of those roving the convention hall dressed in a seersucker suit and straw boater was Sunpapers reporter H.L. Mencken, who had covered national conventions -- which he described as "orgies" -- since 1920. He took a different view about the intrusion of television.

"Television will take its first real bite at the statesmen of America tomorrow, and this afternoon there was a sort of experimental gumming or rehearsal in Convention Hall. It passed off well enough, all things considered, and no one was actually fried to death," he wrote.

Sitting in the press stand, Mencken wondered if any politician "no matter how leathery his hide," could survive the "unprecedented glare of light without considerable singeing," when 10,000 watt lamps were turned on to illuminate the hall for the benefit of TV cameras.

"The initial sensation was rather pleasant than otherwise, for it was a good deal like that of lolling on a Florida beach in midsummer. But in a few minutes I began to wilt and go blind, so the rest of my observations had to be made from a distance and through a brown beer bottle," he wrote.

He gently poked fun at Carroll Reece, chairman of the national committee, who was rehearsing his opening speech before the newsreel cameras and after losing his way, started over again, being somewhat thrown off by what he termed "all of this hocus-pocus."

"Even under the mild newsreel lights Reece did some very free sweating. Tomorrow, under the television superglare, he may faint or even catch fire. But no one is worried about that for the National Committee has a blanket accident policy on all participants in the convention, with a very juicy indemnity for the widow of any who is actually put to death."

Mencken observed that the every cosmetic counter in Philadelphia and their wares were suddenly in high demand.

"The ladies who will cavort before them [TV cameras] are running about town tonight seeking advice about television makeup. The report circulates that it differs enormously from makeup for the movies, for the newsreels, or even for stoking a blast furnace.

"One female politico told me that she had learned that all the ordinary pigments were ineffective, and that it would be necessary to lay in purple, green and even black grease paints," he wrote.

The Sun reported that in some Baltimore bars, customers grew tired of "all that political baloney" and preferred listening to a baseball game on the radio. In the Terrace Room of the Belvedere, however, "all chairs were occupied -- mostly by prosperous-looking men of middle-age -- and all eyes were on the television screen."

In another amusing moment, a Mid-Western delegation requested that in the future TV engineers give delegations a warning before turning on their cameras.

"When the camera roved over the audience during the keynote speech Monday night, it caught two of the delegates sprawled out on their chairs asleep," said The Sun.

Pub Date: 6/27/98

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