Wide Wide Blog

That’s three down and seven to go

Sorry there hasn’t been much activity of late. A competing book project with a December due date has been diverting attention from Dave Garroway. (Don’t worry, though – more material came in today, and it’s great stuff.)

In the meantime, there’s few better ways to relax than a vintage episode of What’s My Line? And while just about any episode is guaranteed fun, here’s one that’s especially enjoyable, for obvious reasons.

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.

At large, and growing

We’re happy to report we got not only a very kind mention in It’s About TV this week, but with it some kind words about Dave himself and a vote of confidence in our project. Thank you, Mitchell!

In that post, by the way, there’s a paragraph about the Mid-Atlantic Nostalgia Convention. I’m planning to be there for a while the first couple of days, so if you’ll be there too and would like to talk Garroway, drop me a note through the contact form.

Finally, although we’re still working on it, we’ve made some great new discoveries in the last few weeks, and more could be on the way soon. We’ll share details as appropriate when the time is right. As always, if you have any great Garroway material you’d like to share, or if you knew him and would like to share your memories, we’d really love to hear from you. The more we have, the better a book we can create, and the better we can try to capture Garroway the man in full.

Detective work

Back in June I spent a day at the Wisconsin Historical Society in Madison, Wisconsin. It’s a long story, but Wisconsin has a huge collection of papers related to broadcast history. And, as things turned out, it’s where the NBC papers ended up. For anyone needing to conduct research into broadcast history, Wisconsin is a mandatory stop. (And don’t think one day will suffice, either. I am certain that had my schedule allowed, I could have spent a week and not scratched the surface. The NBC collection is huge.)

It had been about a decade and a half since I’d last done honest-to-goodness research in archival materials. Teaching at a small college means you don’t get much time to do research, because you have a dozen other duties demanding your attention and the day only has so many hours. Research has been one of those “I’ll get around to it” things. The Wisconsin trip let me break that cycle, and getting back into the documents was as delightful as I remembered. I had missed it, and each box the archivists brought out for me contained a new treasure.

This was my view most of the day: a big box of folders full of documents from yesteryear, each of them its own little time machine. I had little time for reverie; as soon as I opened a folder with a worthwhile document, I had the phone on my camera going like crazy capturing pages. It got really interesting in correspondence files, for so many of those documents were file copies produced with carbon paper (anybody remember that stuff?) on onion-skin paper. I’d hoped to get a copy of one especially intriguing document, only to find about ten pages in that it was just about half a ream of onion-skin paper, and I’d expend precious time and battery life to get a document not really related to Dave Garroway. (Argh! The choices we must make!)

Sometimes, though, I’d come across a box that left me speechless. For instance, a box containing the scripts, coordination charts, and other miscellany for each installment of Wide Wide World. I’ve watched this countless times, and yet before me was this:

It was the genuine, game-used (in the coordinating studio) script from that very telecast. In my hands. It was truly a moment. (And reading the script as written really drove home to me just what Dave Garroway could do with a piece of material – that little intangible something that took plain words and made them magic.)

There were dozens upon dozens of finds during that trip, and all of them will come to play somehow in this book we’re working on. But of all of them, this is definitely one of my favorites. It reminded me why I love the historian’s craft, how much I’ve truly missed it, and why I’m so glad I get to engage in it from time to time.

Beginnings, part 1

Before we get too far along, it may serve some purpose to give some background on how we got here. I can only speak for myself; my collaborator on this project will soon be posting thoughts about what drew him toward researching Dave Garroway, and no doubt we’ll share the story of how our paths crossed. All that in due course, mind you.

How did it begin for me? I’m not exactly sure how I grew up fascinated by early broadcasting, but it happened. I was born in the early 1970s, and my childhood was well into the full-color era. Yet when I’d see some historical footage, or hear some clip from an old radio program, it fascinated me. Maybe it’s that time-machine feeling you can get listening to something from the archives, like it’s a half-hour of another time that’s been preserved in real time, and you can relive that moment as it happened. There’s something tantalizing about it.

I must have been five or six when it really first manifested itself, and TV Guide had published a book commemorating its first quarter-century. Its jacket displayed several TV Guide covers from yesteryear, and inside was a color section with dozens upon dozens more covers showcasing the stars of earlier days. I begged my parents to buy me that book – odd for someone my age, perhaps, but mom and dad came through. How I loved that book, too, and how I loved reading through the articles showcased therein and looking at year after year of covers. There were earlier versions of people I already knew of: Walter Cronkite, Sally Field, Lucille Ball, Carol Burnett, David Brinkley. But there were also mysteries. Who was this Bishop Sheen with those intense eyes? Why does Sid Caesar have that look on his face? Who are those people stacked atop each other, especially the guy with the glasses and the funny smile? And who was that Van Doren guy in the headphones? (Was he supposed to be a pilot?)

That TV Guide anniversary book wasn’t where it all began for me, but it was probably my touchstone through my youth. Other things came in, too; for instance, perhaps our local paper would carry a wire service obit for a broadcaster of yesteryear, and sometimes those would have photos, and I’d clip those. Or I’d see a picture in a book of an old radio microphone with the network flags on it, and I’d be endlessly fascinated. (I may well be the youngest reader ever of Prime Time, Alexander Kendrick’s biography of Ed Murrow, which I kept checked out from the local library when I was nine or ten.) It was also around that age I discovered old-time radio tapes at a record store, and that opened a whole world to me. Clip shows and documentaries that showed how television was back in its early days also fascinated me – the heightened shadows and contrast, the extreme close-ups through fixed-length lenses, network logos long since retired, all fascinated me and scared me just a little for some reason, and left me wanting to know more about this weird new world of old.

But why Dave Garroway? Perhaps it was seeing one of the retrospective shows, or maybe it was in a piece on some news or documentary program. I’m fairly certain, though, it comes to having seen the clip we’ve all seen a dozen times or more from that very first morning, ghostly pictures with rainy audio, Dave with that goofy microphone at his waist (and we’ll talk more about that goofy microphone in an upcoming post), welcoming all and sundry to this new program. For me, growing up in the Tom Brokaw-Jane Pauley era of Today when the most unpolished thing about the program was Gene Shalit’s hairdo, getting a glimpse of how it once was…that was fascinating. The guy with the bowtie and glasses who spoke in that low, purring voice? That weird studio crammed with stuff? This was the same program? And I had to know more.

That, sadly, was about the time Dave ended his own life. The obituary articles, and the retrospectives published in weeks and months to come, featured pictures from Dave’s time on Today. I saved all of them I could. Eventually retrospective books about the program came along, some of them very nicely illustrated, and many of them with interesting anecdotes about Dave. He seemed like an interesting guy with a wide range of interests, but also a guy who…well, had some interesting things going on in his mind. (Beryl Pfizer’s 1984 remembrance of Garroway in TV Guide, in which she catalogued many alleged Garroway eccentricities she saw during her time on Today, really left an impression.) And when we got a VCR, I taped the Today retrospectives. This, oddly enough, in a household where we really didn’t watch Today – most of my memories are of Good Morning America or whatever morning program CBS was trying at any given moment.

All of this was in the back of my mind, one of those subjects I had some interest in but no real urge to do anything further with. Other fields had my attention, as did other pursuits – school, college, graduate school, and three or four other causes I worked on during my 20s and 30s. In grad school I really didn’t do that much on broadcast history, despite my deep love for it.

As a full-time academic, though, I found myself with opportunities to put decades of trivia to some sort of use – and I also faced the academician’s challenge to produce papers for presentation and possible publication. (Could I possibly have used more words beginning with “p” just then?) Early on at my present job, I turned some of that fascination with broadcasting into a paper about Garroway’s contemporary Arthur Godfrey, and presented it at a conference. I’d hoped to do more, but the daily demands of the job got in the way, and I found myself devoid of time and motivation to conduct more research.

Garroway remained at a low simmer in my mind, and eventually I came to learn of his abandoned attempt at a memoir. And, tantalizingly, how so many biographical materials were preserved in archives. Over the years I toyed with the idea. “Should I?” I’d published things before and knew it was a big job. You have to love a subject enough to stick with it through times good and bad, easy and challenging. Is that how you could feel about Dave Garroway? Could you commit to him that way?

In the end, I could. The more I learned about him, the more I wanted to learn. Watching so many interviews with his colleagues in the great Emmy TV Legends series reminded me of how important he was to the medium, and of the magic he could make happen. In one interview a longtime television professional who worked with him laments that nobody’s ever written a book about Dave, and what a shame that is. And, personally, I’m amazed nobody’s done it before now, for Garroway’s life has a fascinating, wide-ranging, story to tell, by turns adventurous and heartbreaking.

I am looking forward to the opportunity, both through this website and the book on which we’re working, to tell a story long overdue – and to finally give Dave Garroway the biographical treatment he merits. It’s a shame it hasn’t been done until now, but it’s an honor to have the chance to do so. It will be a big job, and it won’t be easy, but I am looking forward to it.