WKJG-TV, Channel 33, signed on November 21, 1953, as Fort Wayne’s first television station. Studios were initially in the downtown Purdue building, but moved to 2633 West State Boulevard in 1958.
Everything was new on television
By DOUG LeDUC of The News-Sentinel
The momentary flicker of flame from the tiny squirt of lighter fluid was supposed to leave a small spot of residue that could be wiped off to demonstrate the durability of a new dinette set. But havoc ensued that day in 1954 when the announcer, Bill Fiore, better known by his stage name of Bill Foster, reached the spot a split-second early with the wrong cloth. “We had talked about a cloth with water. The floor manager didn’t hear about it and thought the same cloth he used to clean the (weather forecast) Plexiglas would work,” Fiore said. “It was highly flammable.” “It burst into flame in my hand. I dropped it instinctively. The cloth landed on the seat of one of the plastic chairs and smoke billowed through the room. I’m shouting off camera, ‘Would somebody please get a fire extinguisher!’ The camera director’s shouting, ‘Go to black! Go to black!’ ” Viewers who had tuned in to Fort Wayne’s first television station that day witnessed one of its more memorable commercials.
The 1950s were known as the golden age of television partly because it was an era of experimentation with the new medium. Viewers never knew exactly what would happen next because talent on the set could be caught off guard, and there was next to no editing to fine-tune what would hit the airwaves. WKJG, Channel 33, gave northeast Indiana its first clear TV signal when it began broadcasting in 1953 as an NBC affiliate. Area interest in the gee-whiz technology was keen even while the station was under construction. “At the corner of Irene (Avenue) and Wells (Street), a guy was selling TVs and he had a drawing on the window of . . . the progress they had made building the Channel 33 tower,” said Bill Mullins, who had purchased his first television two years earlier. The city was excited, because it couldn’t pick up much more than the stations in Kalamazoo, Mich., and Dayton, Ohio, at the time, “and they were snowy,” he said.
Dick Florea, a local history buff and public service director for WKJG, said people take today’s sophisticated production for granted if they are unfamiliar with early television. Before videotape made it affordable for small stations to shoot and edit tape, almost “everything was done live,” he said. “You had no other option.” Television stations in Fort Wayne “had live kid shows, cooking shows, farm shows, and each of those required a set you could put up and take down.” Today, computerized and digitized editors put flashy graphics within the smallest stations’ reach.
To start the “Cartoon Express with Engineer John,” a WKJG cameraman panned across a train painted on a 14-foot backdrop. The crude simulated locomotion was accompanied by steam train sound effects. The show always included a studio audience of youngsters. “One of my better talents was to relate to the kids, converse with them and draw out their personalities,” said the star, John Siemer. “It was a low-key program, a nice little program for nice kids,” he said. But it kept him on his toes. “Since it was all ad-libbed, kids could get you in awkward situations if you let them say too many jokes from home.” The program ended in 1971, but it was so popular that “whenever I run into people, there isn’t a day goes by that somebody doesn’t remind me of “The Engineer John Show,” Siemer said.
Most local commercials were live. Many at WKJG were done by Fiore. “I would try to memorize the commercial as best I could, and if my memory went blank while I was on air, I would try to ad-lib around it until I could remember,” he said. “One thing I never wanted to get wrong was the sponsor’s name or address.” Occasionally, mistakes could be embarrassing, but “sometimes it was to the sponsor’s advantage, because people’d remember the commercial long after,” Fiore said.
“Television was crucial in establishing a certain ideal, a certain way of life best epitomized by the refrigerator commercials, the homemaker commercials,” said Steve Carr, who teaches media history classes at IPFW. “It idealized images for a culture that hadn’t had the kind of wealth during the depression to afford these things.” The programming of the early days was attracting a mass audience for those commercials. “I Love Lucy” on CBS was the standout show of the decade. Other popular shows included “Dragnet,” the “Jackie Gleason Show,” “You Bet Your Life” and a variety of sports, game, talent and theater shows. The new media rapidly created new stars, including comedian Herb Shriner, who grew up in Fort Wayne and based much of his comic material on life in Indiana’s small towns.
Color television was introduced the first year Fort Wayne had a local station. Rarick’s Hardware and Paint Store enticed consumers with the new product by putting sets up in its windows, said Mullins, former president of Raricks Inc. “People would come and sit on the grass outside and watch the TV in the evening.” The decade began with TV programming broadcast from 7 to 10 p.m., but it soon stretched out to 11 p.m. By the mid-1950s, it was running throughout the day, and by the late 1950s, night owls could watch it past 11 p.m.
Prices came down on TV sets as more and more consumers purchased them, and by November 1957, a television set with a 17-inch (diagonal) screen cost as little as $88.88. The amount of advertising The News-Sentinel ran on television sets more than doubled from the early to late 1950s, and television programming listings supplanted those for radio in popularity. TV became one of the country’s most ubiquitous appliances. It became the yardstick used to measure the success of any new consumer electronic product. “The public response and the impact were tremendous, and we forget that now,” Carr said. “It was after World War II and there were suddenly all these veterans coming home and you had the rise of a new kind of economy — a consumer economy,” he said.
WKJG had close to a year’s head start on its first area competitor, WANE, Channel 15, and that gave it a major advantage in the Fort Wayne market. Local viewers “were glad to have a second station, but 33 was their favorite because they were the first,” said Reid Chapman, who began managing WANE in 1958. Both stations were UHF, which meant viewers had to direct antennae to transmitter towers for clear reception. And too many TV viewers were unwilling to turn antennae from the WKJG tower on West State Street to WANE’s tower five miles south of Auburn. “For the first four or five years (at WANE) it was touch and go, Chapman said. “There were challenges every time you turned around.”
WANE overcame part of its disadvantage by building a transmitter tower and station on West State Street, so viewers wouldn’t have to reset antennae. It also made a concerted effort to increase its community involvement, and launched some popular shows late in the decade. “I started a program called ‘Meet the Manager,’ and from 9:30 to 10 (p.m.) I answered letters from viewers. It helped bring the station closer to the viewer and the viewer closer to the station.” WANE also expanded its audience with “Dance Date,” an afternoon record hop show, and with “The Ann Colone Show,” a noon homemaker show so popular it was expanded from half an hour to an hour, then eventually to an hour and a half.
The third local TV station to hit the air waves in 1957, WPTA, Channel 21, began operating on West State Street within two weeks of WANE’s location to the neighborhood. The ABC affiliate with a staff of 24 broadcast such network programs as “Lawrence Welk,” “Cheyenne,” “Wyatt Earp,” Walter Winchell, “Wednesday Night Fights,” Pat Boone, Frank Sinatra, “Date with the Angels,” Mike Wallace and “Top Tunes.” Locally originated programming ranged from wrestling to dance and kid shows. Workers at the station generally were undaunted by the competition they confronted from WKJG and WANE, said Barbara Cassidy, a copywriter and promotions specialist who helped put the station on the air. “We were all pretty young and enthusiastic and worked all hours of the day and night,” she said. “It was a small group of people and we all did a lot of jobs.” “I had wanted to do TV because it was so new and so exciting,” Cassidy said. She left television after three years, without fully realizing the impact the medium would have on America, or what she had helped launch in Fort Wayne. “Not a clue,” she said. “It was too new to even have those kinds of feelings about it.”