WBTV: The First 60 Years

Published: Mar. 4, 2009 at 9:16 PM EST
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The First 60 Years

Part 1

1949 - 1959

This is a special year for us here at WBTV...It's our 60th anniversary!  It was the summer of 1949.  World War II was over...Elvis would soon be crowned King...the very first baby boomers were born that year and so was WBTV!

Imagine going back in time...it's Friday morning, July 15, 1948...12,000 people crowded into Charlotte's Armory to see history being made.  A young announcer named Jim Patterson was speeding to the Spencer Mountain transmitter (and was nearly late)!  But at high noon the first Carolinas' television broadcast was heard..."This is WBTV, Charlotte, North Carolina, signing on Channel 3 television."

For the next five hours, all viewers saw was a test pattern and a time and temperature screen.  They were entranced.  That first night, a movie aired, "A Star is Born" with Janet Gaynor.

Charlotte historian Dan Morrill vividly remembers that time.  "Just think about the fact of what it meant when you could get a picture in a box in your home.  I mean,, that was just astounding."  Morrill continues, "Jim Patterson was the voice of Charlotte to me.  I didn't know who the mayor was...I had no idea who the mayor was...and quite frankly, didn't care."

But remember, back in 1949, television was a gamble...a TV set cost a month's salary...the station didn't even own a camera.  When WBT radio staffers were offered jobs in TV, most refused to make the jump.  The last Jim Patterson kept his radio job...and hedged his bets, "Yes, in July of 1949, we who worked in radio had no idea whether television would last a year."  Many figured TV was just an experiment...a flash in the pan.

Bill Quinn was the second employee hired at WBTV.  "To me...it wasn't an experiment.  I figured this is the coming entertainment medium and I wanted in on the ground floor.  I took a 20% pay cut to come.  I was making $50 a week ad morning man at WTYC and I came to work at WBTV for the magnificent sum of $40 a week."  The first programming wasn't very exciting; Quinn ran films and the test pattern from the transmitter.  Quinn adds, "People would see that test pattern fade in and out and would go "whoo"...a television.  And then three months later, they're all critics, writing letters complaining about the programming."

That first day...there were only 1,000 TV sets in the Carolinas.  A year later, that number had grown to more than 19,000.  WBTV was ready to take the next giant step.  The mayor threw the switch for the very first live network broadcast...the defeat of UNC by Notre Dame.  WBTV was off and running...and a new age had truly begun.  The very next year...television news was born.

It was another three years before the first TV news show hit the air.  In the 50's, there were no satellites, cable or videotape.  WBTV opened with "WBTV presents the early report...sports with Big Bill Ward...news with Doug Mayes...and weather with Clyde McLean."  Doug Mayes was making history as the very first anchorman in the Carolinas.  He says, "They didn't call the anchors, though.  There was no such word as "anchorman" in those days.  It had never been done, and we were new in the business.  I don't think we were aware of the fact that maybe we were establishing the rules that would guide television news in the future.  But I guess we did...we learned by doing."

In the falloff 1952, Doug beat our Charles Kuralt to become the "Esso reporter", one of six across the country.  Walter Cronkite was the Esso reporter in Washington.  Doug read 15 minutes of national news written by the Associated Press, but he knew right away he needed to cover news closer to home.  "We knew we had to have a news organization together to do that."  Soon, a staff of reporters and film photographers were jumping in their news wagons...lights flashing and speeding off to cover plane crashes and bank robberies.  Doug adds, "Ours was the only camera there."

Then came the story in the mid-50's from a young reporter named Nelson Benton...about an elephant that lived at Charlotte's Airport amusement park.  The elephant's name was Vickie and the film on her has long since disappeared.  Her story remains one of Doug's most memorable.  "Alas, one day, Vickie broke her tethers and escaped into the brush."  For ten years...Mecklenburg County police and law enforcement officers from across the state...even a white hunter from Africa who was working for Ringling Brothers in Sarasota, Florida...looked for Vickie.  She was finally spotted, corralled and caught.  She was later sold to a park operator in Hickory, died and had a great funeral that was covered on the news.

By the time President Eisenhower came to Charlotte in May 1954, technology had exploded...the station was able to do a three-camera remote broadcast for the network.  Television news was starting to mature.  Doug continues, "We had all learned television together...and the audience watched us growing with it and learning with it, and they learned with it."

When the first camera arrived in September 1951, a whole slew of local stars were born...and the golden age of television had begun.  Those first shows weren't much more than radio with pictures or glorified talent shows.  The quarters were cramped...the sets were simple...and there were absolutely no rules.  Jazz musician Loonis McGlohon says, "I'm afraid those of us in the business in the early years were naïve.  We didn't know what we were doing.  That we managed to get anything on the air is surprising."  Loonis had one of those first local programs, a late night jazz show call "Nocturne".  He and his producer, Norman Prevatte, were extremely particular about their guests.  Loonis adds, "We're probably the only show in existence that turned down Elvis Presley.  The colonel called and wanted to put Elvis on the show and Norman Said "I'm sorry...he's not a jazz performer.""  Even without Elvis, those first shows created overnight sensations.  Local folks became household names here...weatherman Clye "Cloudy" McLean...anchorman Doug Mayes...singing cowboy Fred Kirby and loyal sidekick "Uncle Jim" Patterson...editorial philosopher Alan Newcomb and homemaker Betty Feezor.

Another mega-star was born in the 50's...here at WBTV's studios.  News is broadcast there now, but back then, bleachers rolled out around a center ring.  The very first television "rasslin" took place at WBTV.  Today you know this league as the WCW...or World Championship Wrestling.  The early shows were fun...and unpredictable.  Producer Bill Quinn says that unpredictability was one of the secrets to their success.  "...they were wildly successful because people watched to see what we were going to do to them."