Today’s installment really doesn’t have to do with Dave Garroway. (Well, maybe tangentially, because it does involve RCA and something that NBC once used a lot of, although long after Dave had left the network.) Instead, it’s kind of a love story, an unexpected one. And in the spirit of the season, it’s kind of like my version of Charlie Brown’s Christmas tree: maybe it just needed a little love.
Let’s begin the story with a younger version of me, surfing the web, coming across websites like the one Chuck Pharis has, being green with envy at that kind of camera collection. Or the great collection at Eyes of a Generation. For a long time, I’d wanted a decommissioned television camera of my own. But I had a feeling it would be serious money getting into the hobby. Much as I would dearly love a TK-11/31 or a PC-60 (for my money, the most beautiful camera ever built), I knew from looking around that they were too rich for my blood. Still, a girl can dream, and every few days I’d do a search on eBay just for fun.
A couple years ago, a search yielded an RCA TK-47. Now, the TK-47 never really got me excited. I remembered them from Letterman’s later years on NBC, and you’d occasionally catch glimpses of them on Saturday Night Live, but I never cared much for how they looked. They were a little too modern, I guess. The newest RCA camera I really cared for was perhaps a TK-44; maybe it was all those years of watching Johnny Carson when I was a kid, but the -44 spoke of a time just as those beautiful Norelcos epitomized the CBS of my childhood.
And yet…the more I looked, the more that TK-47 tempted me. It had a buy-it-now price of $500. And the manuals were up for sale, too. I dithered and dithered on it. By the time I decided to act, the manuals were available but the camera had disappeared. I bought the manuals and told the seller if he still had the TK-47, I was interested. He replied that he didn’t have that TK-47 any longer, but he did have a second one and some additional components, and told me to call him.
That afternoon I gave him a call, and he told me what he had available. The TK-47 he had was stripped of most of its internals, but would make a fine camera for display. Better still, this one still had its lens and cables. And even better still, the set included the components of the camera chain. He sounded a little reluctant to sell, but the more we talked, the more he warmed up to a deal, and we finally arrived at a number that worked for us both.
A week or so later, a series of large boxes showed up at the office. One was particularly large, too large to fit in my car, so a co-worker and I ripped it open. Inside was the blue-and-cream body of the TK-47, which barely fit in my car’s little trunk. Somehow, I got it all home: the control units, the lens, the setup console. The only item that didn’t come in the deal was the camera computer, which was too heavy to ship (about 90 pounds), so I’d agreed to let that one go since I knew where to find another one closer to home. The zoom and focus controllers, I hunted down from another source (and I’m fortunate to have found them, since I don’t think I’ve seen another set since).
The poor TK-47 had seen better days; it had years of dust and a little dirt on it, and for a time I thought about stripping and repainting it. But as I started to clean it up and applied some polish to some stubborn spots, I saw it was worth keeping as it was. Besides, those little scrapes and dings were part of this camera’s story. And, about that story…
The seller had sent some pictures before we closed the deal, and on the lens I noted an intriguing detail. Seems the lens had a property tag for KCET-TV. When I opened the camera body, I found another KCET-TV property tag. If that call doesn’t ring a bell, let me do a little explaining.
Back in the day, KCET-TV was the PBS affiliate for Los Angeles (it’s since gone independent). And in the late ’70s, KCET replaced its TK-44s with new TK-47s. And the new capabilities of the TK-47 – the only RCA studio camera to win an Emmy – would aid in the production of a new series that was in the works. Perhaps you’ve heard of it. Much of the series would be shot on location using film, but the in-studio segments, notably the famous “Spaceship of the Imagination” sequences, were shot with TK-47s. Which meant…yep, this camera met Dr. Carl Sagan.
My original plan for the camera was to put it in NBC markings, as a tribute to all the late nights I spent watching Letterman or staying up for SNL. But the more I got into the KCET story, the more I knew what I had to do. A conversation with Bobby Ellerbee convinced me it was the right thing to do. So I did.
As you’ll notice in the restoration photos, the original jeweled finish on the handle recesses was long gone, probably stripped off when the KCET logos were removed. I searched as best I could for something that could replicate the finish. Nothing quite matched it, but I did find some self-adhesive vinyl that was almost the same. I cut some sheets of plastic in the shape of the insets, applied the wrap to the plastic, and stuck them in place with archival-grade adhesive dots. If I ever need to remove them, it’s as easy as just peeling them off. The KCET markings were drawn in Adobe Illustrator and laser-printed on clear decal film. (I still need to have some “4” decals cut for the top of the camera below the tally light, but that will come in time.)
To be completely accurate this camera should be atop a Vinten Fulmar pedestal. Unfortunately, those cost a lot more than I can afford. A month or so before I got this camera, I’d happened across an inexpensive ITE pedestal and head for sale in Virginia (and the story of how I got *that* beast home is one I’ll have to tell someday…it involves an overnight trip, a rented van, a Tina Fey audiobook and a front-end loader. Seriously). It was all I had, so I used the TK-47 with this pedestal. To my knowledge KCET didn’t use this setup, but I have seen photos of TK-47s atop this very pedestal (including pictures from CNN’s earliest days), so it’s allowable. The head was missing its handles, so I had to buy some aluminum stock and my father and I formed them into passable handles one afternoon. (Isn’t it sweet, that kind of father-daughter bonding over metalwork?) The rubber grips were from a medical supply house, intended for canes and walkers, but they worked fine here.
After a few months it was time for the completed project to make its debut. I wasn’t going to park it in our living room, though; our cats would find it a plaything, and aside from that it would be weird having a studio camera in our little den. Nope, this belonged in my office. I rented a truck one afternoon and brought it all in, and put everything together at last. I hung a spare Clear-Com box and a retired headset on the side of the camera. And, like Charlie Brown’s little tree, all it had needed was a little love. That camera, all cleaned up and back on a pedestal, looked happy. A few days later, we had a special event in our television studio, and I wheeled out my TK-47 alongside one of our current studio cameras, and alongside one of the new HD cameras we were switching to. It was quite the exhibit.
That TK-47 now lives in my office. I still wheel it over to our seminar room sometimes if we have guests in, or on special occasions I’ll take it down to the studio and put it on display. It’s not quite complete; I’d love to find an original-equipment lens hood, a shade for the viewfinder, and a shot box to hang on the side, and I still want to get an equipment rack to mount the control room side of the chain. It’ll never function again as it originally did, but even as a static display it tells a great story.
And don’t tell anybody this, but most days I give that camera a hug. It’s my baby, and I’m proud of it.