Don’t touch your dial; the difficulties are with the columnist: The birth of TV in northern Nevada

Rowan

 

 

The Team You Knew and Trusted

Ahh, it’s five o’clock on any weekday, time to squeeze the remote and bring the tube to life, Pat and Sarah in living color, weird creepers running under their elaborate newsdesk, a picture-in-picture image of a news-making scene above their heads, a white contrail trailing under weatherman Dick Stoddard’s pinkie as he explains what some phenomena somewhere is doing for the first of four times he’ll explain it in the next hour, and replays of sports from around the nation, all in stereo sound, slo-mo, and right here in your media room.

                No, that’s not how it happened, 60 years ago, as the Donald W. Reynolds Media Company (Donrey) put Reno’s first TV station – “KZTV” it was called, onto the air on channel 8 of the 13 possible notches on the early sets.  And you didn’t sit on your Barcalounger with a remote – you walked over to your Philco television set, turned on the black ceramic panther lamp on the top of your set (for we were told we’d go blind or sterile or something if we didn’t have a light on in the room), then turned the set on.  In a moment or five it would warm up, and the sound might be OK, but the flipping image forced another walk to the set to adjust the vertical hold.

                Instead of Pat and Sarah and Dick, we’d see KZTV news anchor Frank Lawrence in black-and-white, with very little, if any, on-the-scene news coverage (on the early staff was Jimmy Nichols, the 16-millimeter movie cinematographer.)  The weather came, maybe, from June Osborne – no fancy props and maps in 1953, and if a change wasn’t in the wings, maybe no weathercast at all (a novel idea someone might resurrect.)   Sports updates came from Leila Brown (yup, Gene’s wife).  [Leila passed away in early 2004, Gene a month ago] After the news – maybe the 17th re-showing of Liberace, Groucho Marx, Hopalong Cassidy (sponsored by Sewell’s Market), Dragnet, or maybe an infomercial for Vegomatics.  “Please Stand By,” incessantly.  Maybe a movie – all this stuff was on 16-millimeter film, as were any commercials filmed locally.  Some of the daytime shows, all live, were Uncle Happy, Carol Guild’s Clean Plate Club (possibly what whetted Tad Dunbar’s early appetite for TV), Betty Stoddard’s Be My Guest, Chet and Link’s Sportsman’s Corner, Vicky & Jim Johnson’s afternoon local guest show and Mighty Mite Wrestling.   And a sign-off, the flag waving and the National Anthem playing.

                The station’s facilities were at 770 East Fifth Street, which I visited as an electronics geek before the term was originated.  Station manager Harry Huey had been transferred here from Donrey’s head shed in Arkansas and was anxious to show off the facility; ex-Navy SNJ jock Dick Colon was the general sales manager – key advertisers were Sierra Pacific Power, First National Bank, Savier’s (who sold TV sets, natch), Osborne & Dermody (ditto), and the Nevada Club.  The studio originally had one camera, black-and-white, need I remind you, and a dozen sets for the different shows, all made by Durward Yasmer, a great guy with a great voice that you’ve heard for 50 years on commercial voice-overs, and a longtime volunter as a computer teacher with the school district.

                Heat was the byword inside the station as I recall it; heat from the myriad Kleig lights necessary to make the lone low-tech Westinghouse camera work, heat from the vacuum-tube electronics at the other end of the thick cable connecting the camera to the control booth, the booth to the amplifiers, and the amplifier to the four-story antenna on the station’s premises (their Slide Mountain “big-stick” and countless repeaters would come in later years.)  And heat, it was, that ended the life of the building at 770 East Fifth Street, causing a spectacular fire on March 31st of 1977 that took the station off the air for a few days while it was relocated with rudimentary equipment.

                Where, you ask, did the current call letters come from?  KOLO radio, the brainchild of early radioman Hy Wells, was bought by Donrey a couple of years following KZTV’s debut, and the television station renamed “KOLO-TV.”  The radio outlet was moved to the El Cortez Hotel in 1955, and some of the names associated with the two Donrey media outlets are legendary in our town – Fred Davis, later to spend three decades at the Nugget; Howie Doyle and Gene McKenna, who later operated one of Reno’s major advertising agencies for many years, and Mark Curtis Sr., who did a popular daytime show Mark Time.

                The years were kind to KOLO-TV, and the station still puts immense good back into our community.  One of my favorite memories of the early years were in the late 1960s and early 1970s – I was a part-time (night) cameraman, and the station, which had been broadcasting color only from network shows for several years, finally got color cameras and videotape recorders.  I worked a few Be My Guest shows, but the best comedy acts in town, albeit acts that never hit Harrah’s or the Nugget’s showrooms, came from two stars: The first was the Carson Five, five Carson City auto dealers who took the scenic route from the Capital City periodically and loosened up a bit for their stint in front of the cameras (KOLO had two by then), and we were lucky if we could get four complete usable commercials in two hours of taping.

                Ditto, the late druggist Jim Henderson of the Big Keystone Owl Rexall Drug, who by chance befriended Dan Rowan and Dick Martin (of TV’s Laugh-In) when they were performing at Harrah’s.  “We’ll help you make a few commercials,” one of them proclaimed at the 19th hole after a round.  I can vouch that after four hours of taping we had five useable 30-second spots, none of which included a clue of what they were advertising, but to this day are still the funniest commercials that ever hit the local market and packed shoppers into the drug store.  Rowan and Martin returned to Harrah’s for a number of years, and always made a few more spots for Henderson.  If someone located the tapes with the outtakes of Keystone Owl’s or the Carson City Five’s spots today, they’d be priceless entertainment.  Yet every one would still un-air-able from the current PC mania.

                I have a feeling that the saga of KOLO’s 60th anniversary is far from over, and look forward to some e-mails and calls with anecdotes and old-timers’ names and stories.  We’ll probably revisit this in a couple of weeks.   Until then we wish all the present Team That We Know and Trust, and the earlier team that brought them to where they are today, and 60 more years of success.

           Film at eleven!

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