It all began unceremoniously, as a test pattern became visible on a television set Oct. 15, 1949.
That test pattern, on one channel only, was the only thing the few people in the Tulsa area who owned television sets could see for 45 days. KOTV Channel 6 didn’t broadcast its first real program until airing a Tulsa Chamber of Commerce meeting, filmed at the Tulsa Club, on Nov. 30 that year.
Viewers could get only one station, KOTV, for five years. But in 1954, the television explosion began that would eventually allow Northeastern Oklahoma viewers to choose from a myriad of channels, through cable or satellite broadcasting.
Next up was KTUL Channel 8, which pushed its ratings by airing the first game of the Oklahoma Sooners, then coached by the legendary Bud Wilkinson, in fall 1954. KVOO, later KTEW and now KJRH, Channel 2, aired its first show, a broadcast of “Meet the Press,” Dec. 5, 1954. The Oklahoma Educational Television Authority’s station, KOET, began broadcasting on Channel 11 following funding from a 1959 legislative appropriation.
Though many people couldn’t get its signal because UHF stations weren’t manufactured until 1954, KOKI Channel 23, began broadcasting in March 1954. Viewers could buy UHF adapters for their sets. Tulsa’s second UHF station, KGCT Channel 41, didn’t begin broadcasting until 1981.
Television sets were distributed to stores so people could get their first glimpse of the new, albeit fuzzy, black-and-white miracle. Though they were considered a major investment at the time, many people decided they couldn’t live without them and took one home, into their living rooms. Families gathered, spellbound, to watch such classics as “I Love Lucy” or “Father Knows Best,” on their sole black-and-white set.
People who didn’t grow up in front of the tube remember how they saw it for the first time.
Dorothy Crawford of Tahlequah got her first taste at Purdy’s Sports Shop.
“I was walking down the street and all these people were gathered around there,” she said. “I had never seen a TV before. All the people were blurry. The first show I saw was the Lone Ranger.”
She still likes the adventures of the Masked Man, Silver, and Tonto, as well as other classic TV Westerns such as “Gunsmoke,” “Bonanza,” and “The Rifleman.”
Her friend, Pat Wilson, shares her taste for the Western dramas. She also went without TV in her home for a while.
“We’d go to the grocery man’s house on the corner and watch television. Finally, my dad bought us a TV,” she said.
Many people who had worked in radio news transferred their writing experience to the new medium. The first shows were unsophisticated, by today’s standards, with bulky film or kinescope cameras and newscasters reading from typed sheets of copy.
Those newscasters, by the way, were white males. When women did get a place on television, they were relegated to “soft news” pieces because their voices and personalities were considered incompatible with serious news. Even women such as Barbara Walters, later to develop a reputation as a tough interviewer, gained their early television experience doing “puff pieces” with household or fashion themes.
And if a person with a black face worked at a station, he was probably pushing a broom. Minority on-camera people didn’t get a chance until after the civil rights movements had broken many barriers for them.
In TV’s early days, some stations broadcast only a few hours, ending as early as 7 p.m. No prime time then.
Even in more recent memory, most commercial UHF stations shut down for the night, usually after the 10 p.m. news, “The Tonight Show” or its equivalent. Only after the advent of cable and other competition did stations begin offering programs in later hours, to the relief of viewers who worked unusual shifts.
Tulsa TV stations had personalized closings. Channel 6 ended its day with a broadcast of “High Flight,” accompanied by video of military jets. Channel 8 paid tribute to Oklahoma heritage with Bacone art professor Dick West, clad in a headdress and other traditional Indian regalia, performing the Lord’s Prayer in Indian sign language.
Until other stations joined the broadcasting market, KOTV aired programs from each of the networks. They tested shows with viewers and purchased the most popular ones. Channel 6 and Channel 2 added the capacity to broadcast color in the mid-1950s, while locally produced color shows came a little later. Most people didn’t have color TV sets at home then, anyway.
During its early years, KOTV devoted a third of its programming to locally-produced shows. Stations aired locally-filmed shows for kids, for women, of adult interest, as well as news programming.
One of the first local shows was Lewis Meyer’s Bookshelf. The bespectacled, tie-wearing bookstore owner told viewers about bestsellers and his favorite books for decades, until health forced his retirement. Many people remember the slogan he closed every show with: “The more books you read, the taller you grow.”
Some of the early television people who moved on to success include Jim Hartz, who later became a newscaster on NBC, and Anita Bryant, well-known for her beauty queen status and anti-gay stand, and as a religious performer.
Among the native Tulsa actors who attained success in television and film were Gailard Sartain and Gary Busey. Both appeared on “Dr. Mazeppa Pompazoidi’s Uncanny Film Festival.” Between clips from “B” movies, Sartain (as Mazeppa), Busey (playing Teddy Jack Eddy) and their buddies performed campish and outlandish skits, to the delight of their audience.
Sartain moved from local TV to the syndicated country corn show “Hee Haw,” while Busey received an Academy Award nomination for his role as pop idol Buddy Holly in “The Buddy Holly Story.”
While not all Tulsa stars moved to national status, other longtime Tulsa TV figures became almost cult figures regionally. TV weathermen especially seem to be a long-lasting crew.
Don Woods, of KTUL, is retired, but still draws his cartoon companion, Gusty, during special appearances. Lee Woodward was accompanied by his feline friend, King Lionel, as he gave the Channel 2 weathercast. And Jim Giles, though lacking a similar helper, is celebrating his 25th year on KOTV.
“As far as Tulsa TV goes, the thing that was really good was Don Woods drawing Gusty, and King Lionel,” said David Moore, executive director of Tahlequah Area Chamber of Commerce. “Everybody wanted a Gusty. I don’t know how many times I wrote wanting a Gusty, but I never got one.”
TV proved not just a source of viewing pleasure for Darrell Lingbeck of Tahlequah. It also became a career. He began repairing televisions, and his son later joined him in the business. He bought his first set in 1954.
“That goes back to the era of black and white,” he said. “You hardly had color then.”
Some of the early sets had circular screens, or screens rounded at the edges, as opposed to today’s square ones. Many served as massive pieces of furniture, often with radios and stereo systems incorporated. Lingbeck used to have to visit clients’ homes to repair large sets. But just like a medical doctor, this TV doctor no longer makes house calls.
“We had to deliver a lot of them [TV sets] then, and someone always lived upstairs,” he said with a smile.
The technology has changed greatly, as one would expect with the invention of computerized chips.
“You used to change all the tubes. A lot of them are soldered in now, integrated circuitry,” he said. “You can’t change them.”
And with TV prices coming down in recent years, many people elect to replace a set that’s a few years old rather than repairing it – if repairing it would even be possible. Still, the Lingbecks get plenty of business.
He said Tulsa has always broadcast its share of local TV news, although programs have grown in length and frequency, not to mention technology.
“They’re a lot more versatile and mobile than they used to be,” he said.
As an example, he noted this week’s coverage of a massive gasoline tank fire in the Glenpool area, where TV reporters took advantage of helicopters and their current camera technology.
Lingbeck remembers watching shows like “Blondie and Dagwood,” as well as the news and sports programming.
Cable and satellites were long in the future.
“If you didn’t have an antenna or a pair of rabbit ears, you were out of luck,” he said.
Another popular TV phenomenon, in the 1950s and afterward, was professional wrestling. Many fans rooted enthusiastically for the good guy to triumph over the dastardly villain, not imagining any of the matches might have had a predetermined outcome.
Jack Henderson recalled the professional wrestling heyday.
“My dad would drive 50 miles to watch the wrestling on Sundays,” he said.
If some of the early TV sets were primitive, so were measures for viewing them. Joe Thurman of Tahlequah said he had a telephone pole, and he rigged up an antenna with a rope, allowing him to pull it up on top of the pole.
“You only had two different stations. But back then, they were free. You didn’t have to pay anything to watch them,” he said.
He didn’t remember watching the amount of cartoons that proliferate today.
“I remember listening to Joe Lewis fights. Back then, that was something,” he said.
And, Crawford lamented, they don’t make Westerns anymore. She doesn’t watch too much prime time TV. She thinks some of it is too graphic, in its themes and language.
Lyn Arter of Tahlequah liked Don Woods and Gusty. She remembers as a child watching Cowboy Bob and Art Linkletter’s show. Linkletter was famous for his “kids say the darndest things” segment.
Ed Fite, Oklahoma Scenic Rivers Commission administrator, watched such shows as “F Troop,” “Petticoat Junction,” “The Monkees” and “Batman,” along with “Mr. Zing and Tuffy,” when he was a little younger.
“Mazeppa was fun. If we behaved ourselves, weren’t derelict in our homework after school, our parents would let us stay home and watch him,” he said.
Editor’s note: Much of the historical data about Tulsa TV stations came from a thesis by Gregory Coranto, who received a master of arts in speech from the University of Tulsa in 1967. Coranto discussed the history and impact of television in Tulsa up to that date.
Sunday: Some of the old TV commercials were crazy, while others were classic.
Tuesday: A look at Tulsa TV personalities and the shows on which they performed.
It all began unceremoniously, as a test pattern became visible on a television set Oct. 15, 1949.