What a little love can do

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.

Bailey Stortz at his TK-47 on Letterman’s program in the early ’90s. This is how I best remember these cameras.

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 tired TK-47 and matching Fujinon lens on the afternoon they arrived at my home. My feelings were an amazing combination of “I can’t believe I own a studio camera!” and “How am I going to do this?”

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).

My little helper inspecting the restoration.

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.

It’s a ratty picture, a screengrab from an old RCA publication, but I’m pretty sure that’s my TK-47 on the set of “Cosmos.”

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.

The more I thought about the property tags, the more I knew what I had to do.

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.)

All cleaned up and reassembled and looking almost as good as new, with new KCET logos in the right places. Temporarily bolted atop a Vinten Radamec plate so it won’t topple over.

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.

A very happy TK-47 back in its natural environment.

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.

The Starmaker

One of the most iconic things about the early days of Today is unmistakable here:

As much an icon as Dave’s glasses or his bow tie, it’s that big microphone he wore in those early years.

Wanna see one?

Meet the RCA BK-4A “Starmaker.” Last year I was fortunate to acquire this one, and it’s got an interesting history of its own. We’ll get to that in a moment.

RCA didn’t make the BK-4A for very long. But when it debuted in 1950, this was an incredible achievement. Unlike the Altec “Coke-bottle” microphone, which was part of a system, the Starmaker was self-contained; just plug the cable in and go.

RCA made great promotional hay about the BK-4A being a “vanishing” microphone. Unlike the larger RCA 44 or 77 microphones, a singer or speaker could use a BK-4A and not have their face concealed in a head-on shot. (Although I take exception to RCA’s insistence that the Starmaker was “little larger than a big fountain pen.” At 12 inches in length…just how big were the fountain pens they were using in Camden back then?)

The Starmaker was designed for use on television, and that accounts for that dark silver color. RCA called it “TV Gray.” Sometimes you’ll see an RCA 77 in this color, too. Bright silver finishes reflecting the intense studio lighting played havoc with television cameras, and this non-reflective finish made life so much easier. In the case of the Starmaker, it also helped the microphone blend in against a necktie, scarf or jacket.

The Starmaker had a small grille at the top of a long barrel. It doesn’t look like much, but if you’ve heard audio from those early Today programs, you know these microphones did an excellent job against the clatter of a busy newsroom.

At the bottom of the microphone there’s a threaded adapter for a mic stand. It also unscrews, allowing other fittings as needed. Since Garroway and company needed to move around in the RCA Exhibition Hall, NBC constructed those wire hoops with angled mounting brackets that you see in the archival photos. Someday if I can get happy about how they were designed, I’ll construct one for this mic. The Starmaker weighs about a pound, and after three hours it must have felt good to take that hoop off at the end of a day’s telecast. Dave and company also had to mind that long cable, lest they snare themselves on-air.

I don’t know about you, but I sure do miss this logo, and I sure do miss when the letters “RCA” truly meant something. This little circular logo is beautifully fit into the microphone’s case. It testifies to the care and pride RCA put into its design and manufacture.

The most intriguing aspect of my BK-4A is this rollmark on the back. What stories could this microphone tell? Could this have been the one Garroway wore that morning in January 1952? Or did Jack Lescoulie wear it, speaking those very first words into it that morning? Or was it Jim Fleming’s microphone? Many’s the time I’ve wished this microphone could tell me its story, the people who spoke into it, the programs it was on. But it enjoys keeping its secrets.

Fortunately, according to the seller, it’s still a functional microphone. It has about 25 feet of cable and its old Cannon UA-3-12 connector. I have no interest in rewiring this microphone – it’s too significant – but there are folks who make XLR adapters for obsolete Cannon connectors. And I do have access to a very good production room. So there’s a chance this microphone will live again. (Side note: how neat would it be to have an audio version of the Garroway book that was recorded using this mic? It could happen.)

For more on the BK-4A I recommend the Modesto Radio Museum’s very nice write-up, and this page has not only some nice photos of a restored Starmaker but also a modern clip that lets you hear how this microphone sounds in use.