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.

Lost Garroway: “Dave’s Place,” 1960

There are moments in Dave Garroway’s career that are well known. But for every one of those, there must be at least ten that have vanished into the ether and are likely gone forever. One of those is a curious entry from 1960, when Dave Garroway tried one more time to bring the Chicago magic to prime time. Very little material exists on it, and so far as we can tell there’s no known recording – not even the Paley Center seems to have a copy. Which is a shame, because on Friday, November 18, 1960, NBC invited viewers to spend an hour at Dave’s Place.

According to Robert Metz in his book The Today Show, the idea for Dave’s Place began sometime in 1960. Garroway had sensed his days at Today might be numbered, and that a good showing on a prime-time special could lead to a series. Garroway asked his producer, Robert “Shad” Northshield, to head the project.

Northshield hired Andy Rooney, who had written for Arthur Godfrey, to write the program. At least once, Rooney visited Garroway’s town house to discuss the project. But Garroway was unhappy with Rooney’s script, and turned to Today writer I.A. “Bud” Lewis, on whom he had come to depend in recent years – so much that Garroway informed other Today writers that he refused to speak any lines unless Lewis had approved them. Lewis and Lester Colodny completed the script; more than a decade later Lewis himself later referred to the script as “slap-dash” and “not a particularly good show.”

As if that wasn’t enough, during the special’s gestation, Northshield fell out of favor with Garroway and was soon gone from both Today and Dave’s Place. Norman Kahn was brought in to shepherd the prime-time special to its air date. The program went over budget, and Garroway himself funded part of the production. Lynwood King was tapped to direct.

The thought of Garroway in prime time tantalized columnists. Larry Wolters of the Chicago Tribune noted that the title reminded him of Studs Terkel’s old program Studs’ Place, and that like Garroway’s Chicago program, “the atmosphere will be relaxed, and the format free wheeling.”

As it happened, the completed script wasn’t so much about Garroway himself. Instead, the script connected everything through the RCA Building at 30 Rockefeller Plaza, a place Garroway had called his professional home for decades. “The theme, the mood and even the format of the program are an expression of how Dave Garroway feels about the building and the NBC studios it houses, where he has spent such a large part of his life,” read NBC’s press release. “As Dave puts it, ‘Twenty-three years is a long time to be in love with an idea…but I have…and it’s all been connected with this building.'”

The day before the program aired, newspaper columns previewed the program. Most had high hopes. The Nashville Tennesseean looked forward to “an amiable amble” through the RCA Building as Garroway told stories and met people, while the Salt Lake City Tribune noted “it seems that Mr. Garroway has decided that ordinary stage settings are inadequate for his Friday night show…thinking big, he has decided to use the 70-story RCA Building.” Another columnist suggested, “If you’re one of his early morning addicts or want to know if you could be one, here’s an hour-long amble, visit, sentimental journey or what-have-you, with NBC’s goggle-eyed philosopher-astronomer-huckster at his “home” in New York City…mostly this is Garroway, wandering about from lobby to studios to roof, the happy historian of 23 years at Dave’s Place.” Several listings had it as a viewing “best bet.”

According to surviving accounts, the program began with a view of the outdoor skating rink at 30 Rock. Garroway arrived in his beloved Jaguar, walked to the rink, and began telling the audience about “Dave’s Place” and what it meant.

Inside 30 Rock, Garroway took viewers to several points of interest, including the central videotape facility; Studio 3B, where The Dave Garroway Today Show originated; and the eighth floor, which Garroway noted was the home of all the big shows back in the day. Garroway reminisced about his first job at NBC, as a page on the eighth floor, and about being present on Christmas Night, 1937, as Arturo Toscanini debuted the NBC Symphony Orchestra in Studio 8H.

Along the way, Garroway met up with his old Chicago friend, comedian Cliff Norton; comedians Sid Gould, Bernie West, Helen Halpin, and Al Kelly, known for his double-talk routine. Singer Julie London performed three songs: “Making Whoopee,” “Well, Sir” and “All of You.” The Joe Wilder Sextet performed “Heat Wave,” and the New York Woodwind Quartet presented “St. Anthony’s Chorale” by Haydn. In a joint performance, the two groups presented an original song, “It’ll Never Sell,” by Alec Wilder. As the program went on, Garroway segued into several commercials – for American Tourister luggage and Elgin watches, among other sponsors.

Near the end of the program, Garroway stood on the RCA Building’s observation deck, looked down on the lights of Times Square, and then cast his gaze on the stars above. This led into a sequence (likely based on one of Garroway’s favorite works, The Cosmic View by Kees Boeke) that showed how, in the grand scheme of things, humans and the world itself were both insignificant and unique against the scale of the universe.

Along the way were some innovations. A “motion sculpture” sequence, using stainless steel rods that were vibrated with electricity, provided what one reviewer called “fascinating images” on the screen. And at 45 minutes into the program, Garroway remarked that closing credits usually go unread. As Julie London sang a song, the closing credits were seen in the dark background behind her.

Other little whimsical moments took place during the hour. At one point, Chet Huntley passed by Garroway in one of 30 Rock’s corridors. “Good night, David,” he said, reprising his famous Huntley-Brinkley signoff. As Huntley walked on, Garroway said, “He says that to everybody.” And at the end, in a sequence a reviewer called “eerie,” a photo of Garroway morphed into a photo of RCA chief Gen. David Sarnoff. “We’ve called this Dave’s Place, and it surely is,” Garroway said. “Good night, and thank you, David.”

Reviews were lukewarm; the consensus was that while the Garroway charm was there, the execution was off. “N.B.C. made a stab at re-creating the atmosphere of the old Garroway at Large program last night,” read a review in the Louisville Courier-Journal. “A closing sequence rather oversimplified the theory that man is pretty small potatoes compared to all creation. The show, though pleasant in spots, bore out this viewpoint.”

Harry Harris of the Philadelphia Inquirer generally liked the program but was distracted by the constant commercials. “We kept wondering if it wouldn’t have been more appropriately tagged ‘Dave’s Store.’ Almost every moment, he seemed to be peddling something – luggage, watches, spark plugs, NBC and, not least of all, Dave Garroway. Maybe it just SEEMED like a commercial-studded commercial because, except for a song interlude by Julie London, Dave was endlessly present, making with the soft-voiced hard sell.” Harris also noted that by confining the proceedings to within 30 Rock, the former Wide Wide World host “seemed reduced to serving as guide to an extremely narrow world.” However, Harris was entertained enough by the musical and comedy segments to call Dave’s Place “a winner of a ‘Place’ show.”

While Dave’s Place was a pleasant Friday night diversion, it never led to anything beyond that single program, and records about it remain scant; even finding this much about it has been a challenge. I’d like to hope a kinescope or videotape exists – not only because of the obvious Garroway connection, but having roamed the halls of Dave’s Place myself, I would love to see how some familiar places looked in 1960, made even better with Garroway as my tour guide. It may have been an odd little program, but if a copy exists, it would sure be a treat to see.

SOURCES:

  • “Dave’s Place.” Fort Lauderdale News, Nov. 18, 1960.
  • Harris, Harry. “Screening TV: Hallmark’s “Macbeth” Is Excellently Filmed But Not Top Video.” Philadelphia Inquirer, Nov. 21, 1960.
  • Londino, Cathleen. The Today Show: Transforming Morning Television. Rowman & Littlefield, 2016. p. 52.
  • Martin, Richard O. “Checking the Channels: TV Goes Bizarre Today.” Salt Lake City Tribune, Nov. 18, 1960.
  • Metz, Robert. The Today Show. Playboy Press, 1978. p. 130-133.
  • “Radio, TV Highlights: Visit to ‘Dave’s Place’ Is All Dave Garroway.”
    Eugene (OR) Guard, Nov. 18, 1960.
  • Rooney, Andy. “The Death of Dave Garroway.” Lakeland Ledger August 3, 1982.
  • Terrace, Vincent. Television Specials: 5,336 Entertainment Programs, 1936-2012. 2d ed. McFarland, 2013. p. 119
  • “TV Review: N.B.C. Tries To Re-create Old Garroway Program.”
    Louisville Courier-Journal, Nov. 19, 1960.
  • “TV Scout: Garroway Ambles Through RCA.” Nashville Tennesseean, Nov. 18, 1960.
  • Wolters, Larry. “Dave Garroway to Do 1-Night Variety Show.” Chicago Tribune, Oct. 13, 1960.

Another time capsule

Time got away from us here at Garroway At Large World Headquarters, and the Wide Wide Blog has suffered as a result. Last week I had to take a trip to conduct research on my other project. (Maybe I’ll write something about that project in a future post. It’s pretty interesting.)

To make up for my absence, here’s a really big present for you. Perhaps the best way for you to get a glimpse of what the Garroway magic was like, as it happened, is to unplug yourself from the present, journey back to November 1957, and enjoy Garroway and friends in long form. (Note: the title gets it wrong – that’s Kokomo Jr. and not Muggs – but don’t let that distract you.)

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.