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WTVR Turns 70

How the South’s first television station rose in Richmond and the wild first broadcast featuring a blackout, a teen dance party and a missing governor.

Dale Brumfield Apr 24, 2018 1:00 AM

At 6:50 p.m. on April 22, 1948, the first and only television station south of the Mason-Dixon Line was only 10 minutes from airtime — and chaos ruled in the broadcasting studio.

A magician named Wilfred "the Wizard" Rutherford hustled through the lobby, clutching a handful of props. A group of four white men in gaudy costumes and blackface calling themselves the Minstrelaires paced nervously. Artist Dick Hyland, using his TV moniker, Uncle Schultz, leaned against a wall trying to relax, his drawing easel beside him. The bass player of a two-man singing group called the Green Mountain Hillbillies caught his fake beard on the door of the waiting room as he struggled to get his giant fiddle inside.

"I can't get the bull fiddle through the door," he muttered within earshot of a Richmond News Leader reporter, shifting his beard and denim coveralls back into place.

The lobby of WTVR was crammed with television sets and invited guests, eager to witness the debut of the South's first television station. Across downtown Richmond, hundreds of curious people crowded Broad Street in front of every window that contained an operating television set.

Tear sheet from the April 22, 1948, Richmond News Leader.

Numerous movie theaters displayed sets in their lobby, each surrounded by excitable guests squinting at the 6-inch-by-6-inch screens. The Hotel Murphy set up a then-huge 30-inch screen in its foyer. But the Byrd Theatre outdid them all with a projected lobby screen that was 7 feet by 9 feet. Soon it too was swamped with guests, probably more enthralled with the novelty of television and the huge screen rather than the programming.

At 6:59, station owner Wilbur Havens watched anxiously as one technician counted down and another held the main power switch. Announcer and newsman John Shand stood at the microphone, a boxcarlike camera pointed at him, ready to make the very first station identification. Virginia Gov. William Tuck, NBC Operations Manager Easton C. Woolley and a host of other dignitaries stood by under the blistering klieg lights, hoping they were ready for this strange new debut.

Then, a few seconds before 7, the technician signaled. Havens held his breath while the breaker was pulled.

The entire building went dark.

In January 1948 there was not one privately owned television set in the city. But Havens thought the time was right to start a television studio. Foresight and innovation were nothing new to this unsung hero of Richmond broadcast arts.

Havens cut his teeth on broadcasting in 1926, when he invested $500 in radio station WMBG-AM 1380 near Laurel and Broad streets. It was upstairs from an auto parts store he owned, with the call letters standing for Wires, Magnetos, Batteries and Generators.

Scott Elmquist
Don Talley gestures in front of a picture of WTVR’s first televised John Marshall High School baseball game, 1950.

In 1939 he moved the studio to its current location, a former bus garage at 3301 W. Broad St.

Havens was aware of the history of television technology. While the medium officially debuted at the 1939 World's Fair in Flushing Meadows, New York, significant innovations occurred in the late 1920s, including the first television drama, "The Queen's Messenger," which was televised in 1929 on experimental station WGY in Schenectady, New York.

Havens wasted little time planning his own studio before World War II froze all broadcast technology and licensing.

But he was undeterred. In 1944, he ran a full-page ad in Richmond newspapers announcing his intentions to start a television station.

"Havens said we had to win the war first," recalls Don Talley, a CBS-6 senior account executive who says he's been with WTVR "almost since day one."

"But he also said that after the war there is this cool new thing I'm going to bring to town," Talley says — "it's called television, and you are going to love it."

Tear sheet from the March 7, 1944, Richmond News Leader.

On Aug. 6, 1945 — the day America dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima — Havens was bidding on Army surplus broadcasting equipment at a Baltimore auction for his new project.

"He already knew that broadcast television was going to be much better than what the Army was using these projectors for," Talley recalls of the 24-frames-per-second projectors that Havens carried back to Richmond.

Inside his garage workshop, Havens tweaked those projectors and cameras up to 30 frames a second, which he figured would be the minimum quality that people would tolerate for television broadcasting. Havens built the remainder of the needed equipment, such as microphones, receivers and recorders, from scratch.

All the while, Havens continued to modernize radio. In February 1947 he started Virginia's first FM radio station, and one of the first in the United States, WCOD 96.3. The C-O-D stood for Capital of the Old Dominion.

Talley recalls that just after the war there were three Richmond media companies that were poised to go into the television business: WRVA, which was owned by Larus Brothers Tobacco; WRNL, which was owned by the Richmond News Leader, and WMBG, the only contender owned by a single person, Havens.

He was the only one who pounced when Federal Communications Commission licenses and channels became available in January 1948, to the others' great regret.

On Sept. 30, after WTVR secured a license and the coveted channel 6 — "in the middle of the television dial" — the regulators froze all further licensing across the country to study frequency and channel allocations.

"Wilbur was a little bit faster and a little bit luckier," says Talley, adding that the FCC "didn't realize how fast television would take off."

At the time of the freeze, 37 stations were on the air nationally, with 303 applications pending. Almost as the ink was drying on Havens' approval, the commission ruled that any market in the country with an application had to get at least one license before any second licenses would be granted. The only other Virginia station to squeeze in a license before the freeze was Norfolk's WTAR.

That shortsighted decision stopped two stations in their tracks: WRVA, which had bought property for a transmitter near what is now Regency Square Mall, and WRNL, which had built an auditorium for live broadcasts.

That left WTVR the sole television station in Richmond for almost a decade. It wasn't until 1955 that WXEX Channel 8 began broadcasting, and only because it started in Petersburg, not Richmond — bypassing the FCC ruling.

Scott Elmquist
WMBG logo in the floor of the current WTVR breakroom.

By January 1948 Havens had the equipment ready, but still, almost no one in Richmond owned a TV set. The solution arrived in the form of a New York businessman named Sam Wurtzel, who happened to be getting his hair cut on Robinson Street when his barber mentioned that a TV station was starting up in town.

Sensing a potentially exploding market, Wurtzel moved here and founded Wards TV at 705 W. Broad St. — W for Wurtzel, A for his son Alan, R for his wife, Ruth, D for his son David and S for Samuel, himself. Havens and Wurtzel teamed up to begin selling not only the concept of television, but also lots of television sets.

"When TV debuted everyone assumed that only the wealthy would have TVs," Talley says, "and they would be watching string quartets and things like that, and that the masses would stick to radio."

Television set prices starting at $179 up to $2,100 in 1948 dollars certainly would indicate that. "But then Wurtzel figured out that TV was a blue-collar thing," Talley says, "that Joe Six-pack is going to watch wrestling, bowling and boxing."

John Shand and Dal Burnette in the early 1950s.

Wurtzel then focused his marketing to that blue-collar demographic, resulting in Wards becoming the leading television set dealer in Richmond, with financing plans to fit almost any budget.

"Until [Havens] got enough people with televisions, businesses could not justify the costs of advertising," Talley says of that co-dependent relationship between broadcaster and dealers. "That was why it was so important to WTVR for companies like Wards TV to sell lots of televisions. … They were both working toward similar goals."

Wards TV evolved into Circuit City.

With Wards and other local radio and furniture dealers finally selling televisions, on March 25, 1948, a test pattern suddenly appeared on Channel 6 for a little more than an hour a day.

It was handmade, with the call letters WTVR at the top, "Richmond, Virginia" at the bottom, and an all-seeing eye in the center to match its slogan, "Keep your eye on WTVR." The test pattern served dual purposes. It gave broadcasters an opportunity to fine-tune their outgoing signal, and TV set owners a chance to adjust their sets to get the best reception.

With the test pattern and its eye voyeuristically flickering in a few homes and TV showrooms, Havens embarked on a monthlong marketing blitz to sell his new invention to the public, advertising heavily in Richmond newspapers and trade journals. He brought a mobile television unit to Richmond from New York that parked in various places across town and shot people from a camera, then displayed their live image on a screen on the side.

Original WTVR test pattern.

"The first time you see yourself on the television screen you'll probably be startled," the Richmond News Leader reported April 20, 1948. "Like the movies, the television camera adds weight and a little age to its subjects."

"Television is here!" trumpeted newspaper ads on the big day. Thalhimers Department store called April 22 "T-Day" — T for Tomorrow, T for Television, T for Thalhimers. "You not only hear, you SEE … in your own home!"

Then, at 6:59 p.m. on that big night, the switch finally was pulled.

When the building went dark, employees began scurrying to bring the power back on. Televisions at the time had power-supply boxes about the size and weight of a car battery, and technicians underestimated the amount of power they would pull. Every noncritical electrical appliance and device in the building was unplugged to direct more power to the broadcast equipment. After a few minutes the lights came back on and WTVR officially went on the air.

But now Gov. William Tuck was missing.

As Shand announced the station was now on the air, and Grove Avenue Baptist Church's pastor, Byron Wilkinson, started an invocation to mark the occasion, a few station employees went on a mad search for the AWOL governor.

Knowing he was a man of large appetites, they found him next door in Tony's Bar and Grill, drink in hand and "holding court," Talley says, laughing.

Hustled back into the studio, and possibly fortified with alcohol, Tuck went before the camera and rambled on about "inalienable rights" and "unprecedented eras of harmony and peace" before closing rather presciently with the admonition that television should "strive to see that the pure stream of public information will not be polluted. …"

After his comments, he stepped back from the microphone and loudly yawned, not realizing he was still seen and heard on camera.

After a short speech by Richmond Mayor Horace Edwards at 8:05, the Green Mountain Hillbillies took the stage, followed by a short musical comedy called "Sing for Sweetie," and then a sports update with sportscaster Jack Lewis.

"For the first three months there was no network programming — it was all local and live," Talley says of the amateurish nature of early programming. "So they needed local talent to fill the time. If you could play a banjo, just show up at the station and they would put you on the air."

Ad excerpt for General Electric television sets, 1948.

"People would watch anything in those days."

After a filmed opera excerpt at 8:50, the Minstrelaires went on for a full 30 minutes, followed by Wilfred Rutherford with a magic show called "Which Is Quicker."

After a few more technical glitches and a 15-minute vaudeville act at 9:45, a travelogue called "Wings Over Latin America" was shown, followed by "Uncle Schultz's Drawing School," a teen dance show called "Tele-Disc," featuring WMBG DJ Larry Welch, and a film excerpt on Virginia gardens, "Parade of the '48."

At 11:45 John Shand went live with "Tele-News" before the station signed off at midnight.

"You didn't have news coverage like you do now," former production director Jack Rowley recalled in a 2004 interview. "Before videotape, everything was live."

WTVR took Mondays off and resumed local-only broadcasting from 7:30-9:30 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday until June, when the station joined NBC — a mixed blessing, according to Talley.

"We still had to fill the time up and make revenue because we were not making money on the national network stuff," he says, adding that because WTVR was the only station in the market it was free to include programming from NBC, CBS, ABC and the Dumont network.

While Tidewater Virginia newspapers trumpeted WTVR's debut, Richmond-area press accounts of that historic inaugural broadcast were lackluster by comparison.

The News Leader ran a brief story not on Page 1 but on Page 23, perhaps still chafing from getting out-hustled on its FCC license. "Richmond's new television station, WTVR, which made its bow to the city last night despite technical difficulties which prevented crystal-clear reception on all sets, begins its regular telecasting activities tonight," the April 23 edition affirmed, barely impressed.

Despite the inauspicious beginning, WTVR lasted 61 years on analog. Any recording of that first night, or of the first decade, most likely doesn't exist, says CBS-6's director of interactive media, Scott Wise.

"The only footage from the 1950s that I have seen is footage that had been saved and transferred to more recent media over the years," Wise says. "That said, I would say there is a chance footage from the 1950s exists in the building. We just need the time and resources to find and transfer it."

On June 12, 2009, the station signed off that unwavering signal with the ominous words, "This now concludes our analog transmission."

A new digital era began, and continues to this day.