The Seattle Times 1896-1996
TV's magical early days

This story ran in The Seattle Times on August 25, 1996

J. P. Patches, at left. Photo Credit: Photographic Productions

By Sharon Boswell
and Lorraine McConaghy
Special to The Times

Nearly 13,000 cheering spectators filled Seattle's Memorial Field on a late November afternoon in 1948 as West Seattle, the city co-champions, took on the Wenatchee Panthers in the annual Thanksgiving Day high-school football classic. The cross-state rivals battled to a thrilling 6-6 tie.
    Yet perhaps even more thrilling for thousands of others who jammed appliance stores, clubs and taverns around town was to watch the game on television. It was the first commercial program ever broadcast in Seattle, and by all accounts a memorable event.
"Television is here," announced The Seattle Times in a special supplement, explaining the technology behind this "magical" medium and advising viewers on how to use test patterns to tune their sets. But at this early stage, the advent of TV seemed primarily a marketing opportunity. "Television places a whole new world of home entertainment at your very feet," teased advertisers, wooing buyers with Philco consolettes for $359.50 or Admiral's Triple Thrill model that included a radio and phonograph for just $200 more.
   Seattleites had to be sold on the idea that this newcomer could really compete with other media, particularly radio, which had entertained and informed for decades. Yet radio, "the voice of the people" had also taken time to become widely accepted.
   The city once proudly claimed to be home to pioneer radio broadcasting: A young inventor, William Dubilier, had transmitted voice messages between Seattle and Tacoma on his "wireless telephone" as early as 1910. But it was not until 1922 that the region's first radio station, KJR, received a license and the industry really took off. Soon colleges, churches, and even department stores installed transmitters and began broadcasting.
'Wunda Wunda'
Starring: Ruth Prins
Station: KING-TV
Years on air: 1953-1972
Photo Credit: Forde Photographers.

Bigger, better-bankrolled operations came to dominate the airwaves. Most notable was KOMO, owned by Seattle's Fisher family, whose interests also included flour mills. KIRO soon followed. Started by a rival milling company, the station was taken over and expanded by Seattle businessman and politico Saul Haas.
   By the 1930s, radio's golden age had dawned. In Seattle, each station cultivated its individual personality and its own stable of radio talent.
   Throughout this era, experimentation also continued on new broadcasting technology. In June 1929, Seattle's first television pictures -- mostly symbols, letters and numbers -- were beamed across the airwaves, and a few with vision saw the potential. By 1948, when KRSC, a small Seattle radio station, obtained a television broadcasting license, equipment was available to show Thanksgiving Day football live.

A technician at KRSC-TV, Seattle's first television station, checks the camera before heading to a sporting event in 1949. Photo Credit: Seattle Times.

KRSC-TV WAS ONLY THE 15TH TELEVISION STATION IN THE NATION, but its local radio rivals recognized they had to jump quickly into the fray. The Federal Communications Commission initially stymied their efforts, hoping to stop the mad scramble nationwide by placing a moratorium on new licenses.
   In the meantime, Dorothy Bullitt, a broadcasting industry newcomer, purchased money-short KRSC, changing the call letters to KING and taking advantage of its brief local TV monopoly to create the region's television giant. In 1952 when licensing resumed, the Fisher stations -- led by O.W. Fisher -- finally broke into the business with KOMO-TV. It took KIRO five more years of legal battles to get a television permit.
   Competition for network affiliation was cutthroat as stations vied to air such hugely popular shows as Milton Berle or "I Love Lucy." Like radio, however, area television executives soon found it lucrative to broadcast more of their own live shows. Aside from sporting events, with weekly wrestling matches a favorite, local television focused on family fare -- everything from musical variety programs to chatty interviews, cookbook quizzes and helpful homemaker shows.

'King's Clubhouse' theme song

Zero dachus, Mucho Crackus
Hallaballooza Bub
That's the secret password that we
Use down at the club, and
Zero dachus, Mucho Crackus
Hallaballooza fan
Means now you are a member of
King's TV club with Stan.

'King's Clubhouse'
Starring: Stan Boreson and his basset hounds, Tallulah and No Mo Shun
Station: KING-TV
Years on air: 1954-1967

Photo Credit: Seattle Times.

But at the heart of 1950s households were the children. Soon, the biggest local stars were kids' show hosts. Seattle toddlers grew up listening to the story-telling Wunda Wunda, singing along with Sheriff Tex, or discovering the wonders of the natural world with Captain Puget. And, of course, most kids also became Patches pals, watching the beloved J.P Patches perform his crazy antics, twice each weekday and once on Saturday.
   Despite its rapidly rising popularity, television continued to evoke skepticism, especially among media competitors. The Times went so far as to ban TV sets from the newsroom. But most viewers of the 1950s were sold on television: It had fulfilled the prophecy of its earliest advertisers, bringing a whole new world of home entertainment to their very feet.

Historians Sharon Boswell and Lorraine McConaghy teach at local universities and do research, writing and oral history. Original newspaper graphics courtesy of the Seattle Public Library.

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