Television comes to Chicago- Part II
ELECTRONIC TELEVISION ARRIVES IN CHICAGO
Electronic television, as devised by a small town inventor with an amazing vision by the name of Philo T. Farnsworth in the Midwest and by an army of engineers and scientists mainly at Sarnoff's RCA Labs, was the next logical step.
Zenith Radio Corporation was an early entry in the Chicago electronic television race signing on experimental W9XZV on March 30, 1939 on channel 1. The first "high-definition" (441 lines) broadcast from a Chicago based electronic television station, Zenith's relatively low-powered operation had a transmission range of about fifteen miles. Nevertheless the inaugural broadcast was deemed a success that featured a television version of WLS Radio's Hoosier SodBusters with emcee Don Kelley. Programming during the early years was erratic, low budget, but almost always interesting. The station would broadcast a test pattern weekday afternoons from 12 to 1 pm. In the evening, viewers could enjoy the comic antics of Pat Buttram (later Mr. Haney of Green Acres fame); Tommy Bartlett (later of Wisconsin Dells water show fame); and Time Magazine would produce a show called Time On Television
However, Zenith's focus was in the development of subscription non commercial television which Zenith head Commodore Eugene F. McDonald felt should be the true future for television. W9XZV was forced to go dark at the onset of the U.S. involvement in World War II, but Zenith would renew its license (renamed KS2XBS and operating on channel 2) and in 1951 try out its Phonevision pay TV service.
Paramount wasn't far behind with W9XBK, headed by John Balaban in 1940 (later to become Chicago's first commercial station, WBKB in 1943). At the time it seemed that Paramount didn't know which business it wanted to be in- motion pictures, theater ownership, or perhaps, television. (The situation became so complex that the government finally stepped in and decided for them. This resulted in the spin-off company United Paramount Theaters.) But in 1940, they needed somebody who could make the station work and from the Farnsworth camp came Capt. Bill Eddy.
Eddy, despite a serious hearing impairment, managed to make a name for himself in the new field of radar. During World War II, Eddy converted two of the three floors occupied by W9XBK at 190 N. State St. for use by the U.S. Navy for a radar training school. After the war, Eddy brought in Sterling "Red" Quinlan, who took the station (as commercial WBKB) to new heights.
Over at W9XBK, Eddy and his people were recruiting talent from across the street at The Chicago Theater to appear on their station. No schedules, no announcements- anything could happen. Burr Tillstrom was the first face seen over W9XBK. Tillstrom's Kukla, Fran, & Ollie would be one of the station's first regularly scheduled shows. However it all would change again, but this time not due to the FCC but rather to the changing face of world politics and the country's entry into World War II in December of 1941.
By 1945, with the war over, Chicago had only one commercial station- WBKB, which officially became a commercial outlet in 1943. One of two Chicago stations affected by the several frequency reassignments during the 1940s (the other W9XZV), WBKB switched from channel 2 (60-66 MHz) to channel 4, where it would remain until 1953. W9XZV would not change frequencies but now would be considered to be on channel 2. The W9XBK call would continue to be used by station engineers transmitting tests "not intended for viewing by the public" until about 1950. Zenith's W9XZV, still considered an experimental station, would become KS2XBS and conduct their Phonevision experiments in 1951.
The first paid political telecast occurred on WBKB in 1947. An interview format was designed for the campaign speech of Alderman Bertram Moss, who sought re-election. Bob Elson, announcer for channel 4, sat side by side with Moss in easy chairs positioned in front of a fireplace set. Elson asked the questions and Moss answered. No scripts. In addition, the show featured slides of G.I. temporary housing on the University of Chicago campus; the opening of the new 55th street bus line; and various newspaper clipping blowups to display Moss' stand on the issues. The show was directed by Kit Carson.
Also on WBKB's 1947 schedule was "Teen-Agers Take to the Thimble." William Van Hagey organized a group of teenagers and demonstrated the cutting of a simple dress design. The show also featured a fashion show segment where the teens modeled the dresses they made.