My Afternoon With Red

















By the late thirties, the hostilities in Europe were escalating.  It would be only a matter of time before the U.S. joined the war.    The draft had begun and Red had pulled a low number.  Confident that his continued bouts with TB would certainly earn him 4F status, keeping him out of the war, Red would be shocked when he was told he passed the audition.  Seeing the situation as it was, Red acted on the only choice he had- which branch of the service?  He chose the Navy.  He joined in 1940 and stayed for five years, finding time to marry his first wife in the process.  After his hitch Red would find himself living in upstate New York, where he would spend the next year writing a book that would never find a publisher.  Knowing he had to find a job, he headed back home to Chicago. He quickly snapped up a job writing advertising copy for a small AM station in suburban Cicero. 

It was while working at this job that Red would begin noticing ads and articles on television station WBKB, the third oldest station in the country.  Red was hooked.  Knowing absolutely nothing about television wasn't going to prevent him from getting a job in the new medium.   The Balaban & Katz owned station, managed by former submarine captain Bill Eddy, had been on the air since 1940 as experimental W9XBK, one of the few television stations in the country allowed to broadcast during the war years.  Red answered a newspaper ad and landed the job as crewmember, which in those pre-union days, entailed just about everything from setting up sets to running cameras to even applying makeup on talent. 

After about a year he moved up to technician, running the audio board.  While still at channel 4, Red picked up another job writing scripts for the radio series Captain Midnight.  The producer, who was friends with Red, had grown tired of writing for the series and offered the gig to him.  The ever-ambitious Red took the job but it would cause him some embarrassing mistakes while working at the television studio when his attention would be on writing the next script rather than on his music cues in a live television production.  Red remembers quite a bit of shenanigans going on in those early days when few households had a television receiver.  Red would purposely play the wrong sound effect during a show like machine guns in a bow and arrow scene or the station's staff announcer John Dunham identifying the station as WBKB, Constantinople, just to see what reaction they would exact.  As the station grew and television became common in the home, things like this would cease.  But these were the pioneering days of experimentation.  

Early television audiences were weaned on a diet of boxing and wrestling, fine programming for the guys down at the bar where most sets were, but not the kind of shows that the whole family was inclined to sit together and enjoy in the living room at home.  Bill Eddy knew this and hired his friend, puppeteer Burr Tillstrom for a show called Junior Junction.  This program, aimed at the whole family eventually would become the more familiar Kukla, Fran, and Ollie with Fran Allison as the human companion to the Kuklapolitan Players.  The success proved that everyone could enjoy television.