the earliest days of television -- 3/5/21
Today's selection -- from The Box: An Oral History of Television from 1920-1961 by Jeff Kisseloff. Betty Goodwin, clown-white makeup, Miss Patience, and the earliest days of television:
"Studio 3H at Rockefeller Center was a radio studio until 1933 when its doors were suddenly locked to all but a few NBC employees. Teams of carpenters and electricians were allowed inside. They were followed by stagehands carrying crates filled with strange equipment, and engineers and technicians who presumably knew what to do with the stuff. Something big was going on, but few knew just what. Then in 1936, NBC threw open the doors, revealing a full-fledged television studio. At twenty by fifty feet it was not very large. Camera movements were limited, and the low ceilings meant the hot lights were dangerously close to the performers and crew.
"That year, NBC's inaugural broadcast was aired exclusively for RCA licensees. The show opened with an introduction by radio commentator Betty Goodwin, an attractive, personable brunette. She was selected to host the show at the last minute when the veteran radio announcer, George Hicks, walked off the set, disgusted with the chaos in the studio. Ms. Goodwin introduced a number of acts, including the cabaret singer Hildegarde, comedian Ed Wynn, members of the Rockettes, and a coterie of RCA executives eager to get their own mugs on the air. The twenty-minute show was followed by a press demonstration in November.
"The New Yorker, for one, took a dim view (literally) of those proceedings, reporting that faces looked like they were mounted on watered silk. 'President Roosevelt's face not only came and went,' the reporter wrote, 'it came and went under water.' There was still work to be done, but make no mistake about it, television was on its way.
"BETTY GOODWIN BAKER: I was a feature writer with the Seattle Times until I was fired the morning after I eloped with Bernie Goodwin. They had a rule during the Depression that they fired anybody who had other means of support, so in January 1934, we decided I would go to New York and forage for work. I had letters to the head of NBC and Henry Luce at Time.
"In New York, I was terribly disillusioned with Luce because he only offered me twenty-five dollars a week. Also, it wasn't in fashion, which I wanted to do.
"He sent me to Edna Woolman Chase at Vogue. Here was this enormous grayhaired sternfaced woman, who had scared her own daughter to death, and I decided I didn't want to spend another five minutes with this woman who looked just like Queen Mary.
"Then I went to see the president of NBC [owned by RCA]. By then I didn't care what he offered me, I would have swept out the place, but being an old newspaperwoman I was hired as an assistant to Abe Schecter, who was their head of news. …
"In 1936, I was sent to the Democratic and Republican conventions. Mostly, I escorted Dorothy Thompson, who had signed on to be a commentator. CBS had Clare Luce, and these two were rivals. Dorothy used to say, 'Oh, Clare Luce, she just climbed up by her bra straps.' …
"The convention was the maddest kind of escapade. The engineers were working out of hotel bathrooms. We had to put up with all kinds of inconveniences, so it wasn't surprising that right after the convention [president of RCA David] Sarnoff gathered us together to tell us about some crazy new scheme. He figured the kind of people who lived through a convention were the people he wanted involved.
"We were sitting in this congratulatory meeting when Doc Morton says, 'You'll be working with the RCA engineers, and we're going to be able very soon to make public our achievements in television.'
"We said, 'In what?'
"'Television, it's just like radio except with pictures.'
"Then they ushered us into this horrible studio that had been closed off. lt was a huge room full of more machines, more engineers, more lights, more chalk marks on floors, it was completely unlike anything we had ever seen. It was like some mad Hollywood studio. The cameras were these huge big black dinosaurs on wheels. They had people screaming from the control room. We were just bug-eyed by the whole thing.
"They were planning this inaugural show for RCA license holders with Grace and Edd Albert, Jean Sablon, Hildegarde, and a fashion show segment. Of course, the main thing was David Sarnoff announcing that television would be open to the public for the '39 World's Fair. I was supposed to assemble the fashion show, and go on to introduce the fashion models and tell what they were wearing. …
"I had to find out what the engineers needed for the fashions. They said nothing on your face would show unless you wore chalk white and black makeup, so all the clothes had to be sharp black or white.
"We had hired Eddie Senz, a Hollywood makeup man, to do our makeup. He said to me 'Oh, the eyebrows are terrible,' and he plucked my eyebrows out. I haven't had any since! Then he smeared chalk-white clown makeup all over my face and gave me brown eyebrows and lips. I didn't care. It was all so much fun.
"In the meantime, the engineers would call me on the intercom by the hour to come down to the studio so they could test the cameras. You had to stand where the chalk marks were, and the second that red light went on, you were on.…
"The lights were so hot. Finally, I said, 'Look, I can't do this, I'm getting blisters on my cheeks.' I got them a mannequin I named Miss Patience. We gave her a whole wardrobe, and she did their testing.
"She was my real contribution to television. They could experiment with all different shades of makeup on her without having her bum up under those lights.
"George Hicks was the announcer picked to introduce General Sarnoff at the beginning of the show. He was chosen rather than Ben Grauer because Hicks was blond and tall, and Ben was short and dark. Poor George. Every day, they kept changing his script. Finally, he blew his stack and said, 'This is just driving me crazy.'
"Not only did George bow out, but so did Ben Grauer and all of the well-known personalities. They wouldn't touch television with a ten-foot pole. In radio, they simply had to read what the advertising agency gave them. For this, they had to prepare for hours and hours, and they weren't making any money from it, because there were no commercials. I didn't complain, because I had always done ad-libbing, so I was given the job of announcing the show and introducing Mr. Sarnoff. …
"The day of the show, Bonwit's sent over a black gown with a wide red cummerbund. On the screen, the cummerbund made the woman look like she had been sawed in half and had a missing middle. The people who watched it on television thought it was funny as hell."