Remembering the birth of television in Reno
At 4:30 in the afternoon of Sept. 27, 1953, what was surely one of the dullest programs in Nevada television history flickered from TV screens around western Nevada. However dry it was, there were nevertheless thousands of people glued to their sets. It was the first television program broadcast in the Truckee Meadows.
In terms of news programming, television station KZTV was coming on the air at an exciting, ominous time.
The highly decorated war hero Robert Thompson, who had been convicted of being a communist in 1951, was a fugitive from justice believed to be hiding in the Sierra Nevada. On Aug. 28, California Attorney General Edmund (Pat) Brown announced that the fight against marijuana was “showing marked results.” A prisoner of war from Gardnerville, Hamilton Shawe Jr., was released by North Korea after the armistice. In Waldrick, N.J., all public gatherings were banned after seven people in the town were stricken with polio in four months.
From today’s perspective, Reno was unrecognizable. The Nevada Club’s job notices offered “Good Opportunity for Attractive Girls Between 21 and 27 Years.” Reno news stories and editorials referred in headlines to “wetbacks.” Sierra Beer was still sold. Pinky Lee, a big star on television, was appearing at the Mapes Sky Room. There were only 32,497 people in Reno, 8,203 in Sparks. Barely ahead of Clark County (48,289) in the 1950 census, Washoe (50,205) had probably already fallen behind by the time television went on the air. Nevada’s first television station, KLAS in Las Vegas, had begun operating two months earlier.
It’s not as though Renoites had never seen television—some of them, anyway. Then as now, the town experienced terrific population turnover, and some residents arrived in town with television sets. Someone from Reno Radio-Television Inc., the company that started KZTV (owned by Albert Cahlan and Don Reynolds of Las Vegas), did a survey in the valley and, while it probably underestimated the number of sets, still found that at least 97 people had televisions.
In addition, the California television signals sometimes bled over the Sierra and could be picked up in certain locations. In the mountains at Crystal Bay, Hale’s Drug set up a television set to pick up California programming, which it advertised in Reno ("Have you seen television? See it at Hale’s").
Durward Yasmer, one of KZTV’s charter staff, says that the Vista Bar regularly got a strong enough signal from Sacramento that it started hosting Friday-night boxing. “I don’t know that it was the best signal, but it was clear, and we could see it pretty good,” Yasmer says.
Jerry Cobb, a photographer and radio figure in Reno, set up a relay of rooftop-style antennas from the hills down into town to bring a signal to his home about halfway between the university and Keystone Avenue. His son Neal says, “He could get reception maybe 16 or 17 minutes out of a half hour, and then interference would mess it up.”
At KZTV’s building at 770 E. Fifth St., a steel-reinforced concrete base about five feet high was installed for the 100-foot orange tower that became a familiar landmark in the small town. It was built to withstand 100-mile winds. The station signal was strong enough to broadcast 10 or 15 miles around Reno.
The station managers seem to have been fairly casual about hiring. Yasmer was a bellhop at the Riverside and got hired for “film librarian and transit” after a chat with station manager Harry Huey in the hotel lobby. Loren Logan worked at a movie theater in Gardnerville and one day fell into conversation with Huey. “They were just building the place, and he found out that I was a film editor or film projectionist in Gardnerville, and so he said, ‘I want you on my staff.'”
KZTV opened with 15 employees. (Spelling of names in this article is drawn as much as possible from documents, but in some cases we’ve had to guess.) The station, and particularly its co-owner Don Reynolds, were known for squeezing every cent. Logan says he ended up departing when Reynolds wanted him to work two jobs at only a fourth more than he was making doing one.
The new television station did very little advertising in advance of opening day (mainly occasional small newspaper ads about the size of two postage stamps that invited advertisers to buy time), but it didn’t really need to—merchants selling television sets did it for them.
Newspaper display ads reported that TV was coming to Reno and gave dates for the start of broadcasts, though the dates conflicted as the start date kept slipping back. A full-page RCA Victor ad was headlined, “Look what KZTV-TV will bring you!” Customers at Hasco Appliance could watch a “sample program review of television station KZTV.” A Philco ad said, “Reception from station KZTV is scheduled for approximately September 15. … Reception is free on KZTV.”
It may seem self-evident that television reception would be free, but the inexperience of some Nevadans with television was a fertile growth medium for rumors and scams. Soon the Nevada State Journal and Reno Evening Gazette (Reno had competing daily newspapers then) found it necessary to run prominent announcements: “Notice to Prospective Buyers of TV Sets. Contrary to widespread opinion, you do not have to pay a service charge nor a $100 installation charge to receive Reno Station KZTV, Channel 8. Reception on Channel 8 is free to anyone owning a TV set.”
In the same edition, Barnes Radio Service ran an ad warning against door-to-door TV sales and sought to raise questions about claims of “free service” with the purchase of a set: “All service calls must be paid for, either on a service contract or a charge on each call.” An Airway ad read, “Ten expert TV technicians at your service day and night.” Customers may have wondered just how advanced this technology was.
Barnes and other long-established firms in Reno such as Lusetti’s, Art Rempel and Nevada Machinery and Electric may have been struggling against the new stores like Airway and Ace that had popped up to sell televisions. Barnes held an open house with door prizes—cash credits toward the purchase of sets.
Some of the merchants recognized that Nevada’s terrific population growth rate, high even then, made it important to assure people with television experience from other cities: “No tuner strips or converters to bother with,” said one ad.
At the Record Room at Second and West streets, a viewing lounge was set up—"Try before you buy.” With no signal or only a test pattern, it must have been riveting viewing.
“Teleramas” were held. This was a display of television sets by local dealers, like a home show. Cameras were set up so people could see themselves on the screens. One telerama was held in Crystal Bay’s Cal-Neva Lodge.
In Reno, television set dealers joined together to stage a major telerama in the Riverside Hotel’s Redwood Room. There were more than a hundred sets displayed by various Reno and Sparks dealers representing 20 brands, and with live entertainment and movies. Thousands of people attended, and KZTV brought in one of its $18,000 studio cameras. The Velvetones, a combo from the Air Force base north of Reno, sang for the camera, and their performance appeared on the sets around the room. There was a barbershop quartet, and Yasmer did a magic act.
“Many Renoites, watching the sets, were suddenly aware that the figure they saw on the screens looked amazingly like themselves,” wrote a columnist. A 3-year-old refused to believe it was himself on the TV screen.
After Yasmer was hired by KZTV, he went to a Nevada Air National Guard summer camp in Idaho. “And while we were up there, they decided to have this telerama thing. … All I know is they came to me and said, ‘Hey, you’re wanted back in Reno.’ Well, TV was a big thing then.” The National Guard flew him back to Reno to help put the telerama together.
Television sets were selling. By Aug. 29, an estimated 6,500 to 7,000 sets were in homes. Prices ranged from $715 to $159. This is not as cheap as it sounds. $159 in 1953 is equivalent to spending $1,053.32 in 2003 dollars, $715 equivalent to $4,736.63.
Television represented a competitive threat to other media in the community, but reports that they took protective actions aren’t entirely accurate. For instance, the folklore that newspapers refused to print television schedules is not true, at least for Reno. The newspapers printed the schedule from the beginning, though it was tiny compared to radio logs.
And the newspapers found a way to profit from the coming of television. On Aug. 27 they ran special sections full of news stories and, not at all coincidentally, advertisements. For instance, nine Philco dealers bought a half-page ad, so the newspaper ran a two-column “news” story headlined “Philco Scores Bullseyes In Television Set Sales.”
There was nervousness in movie theaters. The Tower Theatre at the corner of Ryland and South Virginia (beloved by teens because of its love seats) gave away radios at free Saturday children’s matinees.
KOLO Radio ran occasional newspaper ads but did not seem alarmed by the competitive threat. (The television station eventually acquired KOLO and changed the TV call letters to match the radio station.)
For those unable to afford television sets, Hervey’s TV rented them, with the rental cost applied to eventual purchases. So did Wonder Appliances, which like Professor Harold Hill assured renters, “Rental doesn’t start ’til station is on the air. Play with it in the meantime …” The rent was $1.50 a week for a Hallicrafter 17-inch.
The appetite for television sets became great enough that non-electronics stores, such as Eagle Thrifty Markets and tire dealer B.F. Goodrich, started stocking sets. Lassen Home Supply, a sewing machine store, sold TVs and accepted old sewing machines as trade-ins. The Emporium of Music took “unwanted musical instruments” as trade-ins.
When late September started looking more like the KZTV starting time, merchants added the impending televised World Series, which would start on Sept. 30, to their sales push. Home Furniture sold its sets with a pitch of “Hurry, get your ‘Box Seat’ with a Philco TV in your Living Room Today!”
The World Series was entirely marketing on KZTV’s part, a way to start off with a bang, because ordinarily the station would not be equipped to carry live network coverage. It had to make special arrangements to carry the games (a subway series between Brooklyn and New York).
As the start date came closer, stores like Barnes, Ace, Hasco and Airway started evening hours. Going television shopping became a family outing.
The television sets available bore little resemblance to the sets used today but in many cases were works of art. The set my parents bought for our home on Maple Street was a major piece of mahogany furniture. It was about 5 feet tall, weighed roughly as much as an iron lung, and had two floor-to-top doors that opened for viewing. Other sets were table-top models, and some middle-range models created a market for something to put them on—Sears sold mahogany stands for $16.95 and blonde for $17.95.
The valley was already looking at expanding viewing options beyond KZTV by providing community antenna service to bring signals from California stations. The Reno City Council granted a franchise to a San Mateo firm called CAMCO Enterprises, which failed to post a required bond $20,000 bond, whereupon Community Antenna of Grass Valley (which had lost the franchise in the first go-round) reentered the field and posted it. Both firms planned a $100 installation fee for community antenna service, followed by monthly fees of $3.50 by CAMCO and $4 by the Grass Valley firm.
On the air
Sept. 27 dawned with a full-page ad in the Sunday Journal in which the station introduced itself, listed its programming and staff, explained how television worked, and announced the station would go on the air at 3 p.m. All these items were posted around a large photo of a baseball.
At 3 o’clock, the test pattern gave way to an actual image, and KZTV was on the air. The station opened its first broadcast with a half-hour ceremony emceed by local attorney Pete Echeverria. Stations owners Reynolds and Cahlan were on hand with U.S. Sen. George Malone, Reno and Sparks Superintendents of Schools Proctor Hug and Earl Wooster, University of Nevada President Minard Stout and other dignitaries.
Film editor Logan, one of the 12 charter staffers, says of the program, “Well, it was kind of local history. I don’t remember all of it. It was kind of a jumble that we got on the air.”
KZTV was a CBS affiliate but would draw on the schedules of ABC, NBC and Dumont as well. That first day, 16 programs were aired—none appear to have been network shows—and the station signed off at 9:30 in the evening. One of the programs, Greco’s Review, was a talent show that became an enduring local fixture.
Once KZTV was on the air, people settled into new routines in their homes and in the community. Living rooms were reconfigured to face the set.
A “Dennis the Menace” cartoon in the Gazette on Sept. 29 showed a crowd of Dennis’ friends gathered around his television and Dennis asking his mother, “Can’t you fry some hamburgers or somethin'? I promised ’em refreshments!” Parents rapidly learned this was not far from the truth and less amusing than in the comics.
And television promptly began rotting civilization in the valley. It started teaching kids a healthy disrespect for authority by contradicting figures like their own teachers. Margie Foote of Sparks says of Mary Margaret Pearce’s cooking show, “She cracked the eggs on the edge of the beater bowl, and in home ec they told us to crack them on a separate bowl so there would be a place to put the pieces of egg shells.”
A children’s program called the Clean Plate Club would help start kids on the road to obesity.
While television could be said to have isolated people from each other, it was also true that the World Series did the opposite, with people getting out of the house to watch in the community. The Riverside Hotel set up a television so people could watch the series there. The Elks Club did the same for its members.
In my case, I came home from kindergarten at Mary S. Doten School each day to watch Red Riding Hood, a film the station ran every day. I never got tired of it. Even dull programming was exciting where once there had been nothing.
In KZTV’s early history, there were no satellites. Coast-to-coast programming was still rare. Kinescopes (motion pictures of the television screen) were made in New York and flown west for rebroadcast.
But if there was little live network programming, there were a lot of live local shows—the station survived on them, and an astonishing 37 shows were regularly broadcast live from the KZTV studio in its first weeks. They included Know Our Nevada History, Nevada Editors Speak, The Baby Has Been Named, the Hole In One Club, Reno Gray Ladies at Work, The Best Sale I Ever Made, Show Your Hobby, something called Prospectors Pow Wow, debates between Reno and Sparks high school students, letters to the KZTV, talent shows, children’s programs, cooking shows, a Chamber of Commerce program, and programs on sports, secretaries, horoscopes, manners for children, weather, magic, pets, school lunches, a businessperson reading the Bible. There would later be a lip-sync show on which local teens “performed” current hit songs. Today’s community access channels have nothing on television in the mid-1950s.
Nello Gonfiantini Jr., a school teacher who played the accordion in a band evenings and on weekends, appeared on KZTV weekly on a program whose title now escapes him. He says of the show’s band, “It was created for that program; it wasn’t one that we stayed together, because I had another group that I worked in most of the time.”
He says the program could not have been more spartan—no opening sequence, no announcer, not even a hand signal of an imminent commercial. The red light went on and they were on the air doing big band numbers. “The show was on, so we started playing … One of the guys did the talking, some of them sang, we played various numbers of songs and they’d be interrupted by advertisements.” He laughs at the notion that they were paid.
On the third day of operation, KZTV broadcast a program called Oil Story of Iran. A few days earlier, the United States and Britain had overthrown the civilian government of Iran and imposed Reva Pahlavi as shah, infuriating the Islamic world.
The station would run anything as long as it was free—training films, travelogues. Yasmer says, “It was a lot of stuff that you could get for nothing and just run on the air … industrial things and old movies—I mean old, old movies in those days. And everybody that worked there … got busy and put together TV shows and actually did work on the air.” In the telling, it sounds a lot like Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney putting on a show in someone’s barn.
The adventure of creating television in Reno from scratch produced an esprit de corps that even Reynolds’ penny-pinching could not suppress, at least at the beginning.
“Oh, yeah, we had a good time,” says Richard Colon, the KZTV development director. “You know, we were a close-knit group and … we were all in it together, a small group of people from various walks of life, and we had fun, yes, very much so.”
The air product of KZTV wasn’t polished. As the station scrambled to fill air time, many things went wrong or fell through the cracks.
“It was a fiasco, believe me,” Logan says. “Film would come in with breaks in it. I would get the wrong—it wasn’t labeled properly—I’d get the wrong film in the middle of another film and [seeing it on the air], I rushed from home, go over there and straighten it out. I spent a lot of time at that place.”
There was a news program, but it, too, was pretty bare—mostly rip and read, with the principal advance over radio being the sight of the newscaster. Logan remembers Reno’s first news anchor: “In news, at first we had a boy from New York, Jewish boy from New York. Name was Lou Zegerman, and he was our newscaster. … [Later] we had a fellow name of Frank Lawrence [from the] state of Washington as our weatherman.”
Reno’s economy kept learning television. Merchants found that some products, such as platform rockers and barcaloungers, enjoyed greater popularity after television came to town, and they started stocking new products such as TV trays. Wilson’s Store on Commercial Row (then still a thriving shopping area) sold TV dinner trays for a dollar each. My family had four TV trays, and on Sunday evenings we watched together over dinner.
My brother and I were also awakened in the middle of the night on at least one occasion to watch a broadcast of an atom bomb test in Southern Nevada.
As the community learned television and television learned the community, the local on-air product slowly became smoother and more professional.
“Oh, yes—we learned as we grew,” Logan says.
Veteran Nevada reporter Dennis Myers made his broadcasting debut on KZTV’s children’s show Pixie Fun. He also appeared on KOLO’s Junior Auction.