Chester Martin Remembers Early Television In Chattanooga

Monday, November 30, 2015 - by Chester Martin

A high school friend and I kept up to date on the progress of the "coaxial cable" which wormed its way slowly from New York City, promising to bring the wonders of network television to Chattanooga. That feat was finally accomplished in 1954 by WDEF. WDOD had desperately hoped to be first, but they lost a court fight for the FCC-allotted channel. (Perhaps WDOD was able to acquire a VHF channel, but this could not be viewed on standard TV receivers, so does not count).

A few years ago that first "regular" station celebrated 50 years of broadcasting and could not even show one film-clip of their first day, week, or year of broadcasting, as video tape was non-existent! Some local individual who had made a color movie (on film) of a teen dance party sponsored by that station provided the only moving images from the earliest time.

But it was not from the first day of operation.

The NBC network provided only part-time programming from New York, and the local stations had to make up the bulk of their daily schedules. In the newspaper listings you would find a lot of "video" listings with no titles, and sometimes there might be a listing for an ancient "Charlie Chan" movie at least two decades old. All early TV was in black-and-white, but American Ingenuity and Technology soon filled the gaps, giving us both black and white video-tape, and a rudimentary assortment of color features from the network. It was common to hear the network announcer proclaim at "prime time" that, "The following program is brought to you in living color". The NBC peacock would then spread its wings and some great show like, "The Wonderful World of Disney" would unfold before our eyes.

"Breakfast at the Glass House" was a long running regular feature of WDEF radio, hosted by one Tom Willette. The Glass House Restaurant was eventually bought out by WDEF, and expanded, to house all its TV and radio operations. These were located on South Broad Street near the former Double Cola bottling plant, now Chattem. WDEF TV has been a CBS outlet for most, if not all, of its tenure.

WTVC (ABC) started in the new "Golden Gateway" area on the west side of town. They provided the city with Miss Marcia and Bob Brandy daily, and once a week Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs came to town "live" to broadcast a 30-minute show - in black and white, as did Archie Campbell, also a “regular” there.

It took a while, but eventually the techies of the day invented COLOR video tape! That was really a big deal back then, and led to the development of the home VCR industry which used "VHS" tape.

Some early TV names included Peyton Brian, (announcer), and Harry Thornton, who did a long-running morning show on WDEF-TV. Mort Lloyd was a well-liked newsman for WRCB. He decided to run for Congress, but was killed in a plane crash. His wife, Marilyn, successfully filled his shoes.

(Chester Martin is a native Chattanoogan who is a talented painter as well as local historian. He and his wife, Pat, live in Brainerd. Mr. Martin can be reached at cymppm@comcast.net )

Chester Martin
Chester Martin

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