Caught up in Thursday’s trick-or-treating amid an unwelcome snowstorm, you might have missed an important anniversary. Seventy years ago, on Oct. 31, 1949, the Quad-Cities entered the television age when WOC-TV (Channel 5 at the time) began the Quad-Cities’ first nighttime schedule of programs.
It wasn’t much; about four hours total, as I recall, but it was the start of a means of communication which has pretty much shaped a lot of our thinking — or emotional responses, to be exact. TV ads really work.
It wasn’t until social media started to carve out its imposing sphere of influence that television lost its dominance. It still has its effect, but its impact has been diluted by being fractured across hundreds of cable sources and challenged by the ease and ubiquity of the smaller screens of computer and cell phone.
It was a Big Thing, back in 1949. The Quad-Cities had stepped into the latest permutation of the Age of Communication. Across the river, WHBF-TV (Channel 4 then and forever) was due to enter into competition shortly after. In fact, it had run a few on-air tests in advance of WOC-TV to stake out a tenuous claim of being first.
I was but dimly aware of it all. I was just a few weeks into my senior year at St. Ambrose and was dealing with the discovery that I had developed a stomach ulcer — probably caused by a daily breakfast of Pepsi and a Hershey’s almond bar. (The best that vending machines in Lewis Hall had to offer.) There was some discussion as to whether or not the college was prepared to provide me with the special, sharply-reduced diet that treatment required. That was settled when a kindly nun offered to provide my meager meals.
A bigger challenge for me came shortly as WOC-TV signed on. Father Marlin of the speech department told me that the station was casting about for a student to work in the production department and he had tabbed me for the job. So it was that I ventured into the career that has shaped my life.
It was not a glamorous job. The studio was in an old farm house at the top of the Brady Street hill: white trimmed in red, as I recall. The studio was in the dining room and all props were stashed in the parlor. As one program ended, the production crew — me and a Palmer Chiropractic student — had to hustle the gear from the program just ended out of sight and get set up for the next during a lengthy station break.
It was not that tough, except for moving an organ and piano in and out for George Sontag and Majorie Meinert’s 15-minute music program. Another challenge was wrestling the Mr. Weatherwise set in place. A marionette shuffled about the eight-foot stage, checking dials and looking out the window as preamble to announcing the weather forecast.
I have often reported, only half in jest, that the first object I touched in that job was the Weatherwise set; an encounter that fated me to one day replace that dummy on TV.
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Between hauling furniture and props, I was tasked to handle the boom mike, hold cue cards, or — on three occasions — appear on Pat’s Record Shop to lip-sync a brief male voice in one of the Beatrice Lillie records Pat Cobert mimed to entertain her viewers.
And that, kiddies, is how Uncle Don was diverted from his chosen career as a science teacher into television. Not a conscious choice at all; I was just doing a job someone else chose for me.
It didn’t stop there. After the beginning of 1950, KWPC, a dawn-to-dusk radio station in Muscatine, asked the Ambrose speech department if they had a student who could work weekends. Again, Marlin tapped me and I rode a bus to and from Muscatine every Saturday to work as a disc jockey and handle some announcing chores.
So it was, 70 yeas ago, that I found myself getting further and further into broadcasting. As graduation approached, I had three offers for full-time employment: the production department at WOC-TV, radio work at KWPC, or writing copy for WQUA in Moline.
I had learned to respect the judgment of Ray Guth, who was floor manager at Channel 5 (he was to advance to general manager a few years later) and asked him which job I should take.
His advice was to work in Muscatine. His exact words: “Working at a teapot station (his term), you’ll have to do everything and that will set you up to do anything in this business.” He was right. Those two years at KWPC prepared me for all that followed.
So, while the world might not have noticed, this past Thursday had significance for both me and the community. Quad-Cities television and I got our start 70 years ago at WOC (now KWQC).
I’ll toast the anniversary with Pepsi and chocolate.