Duluth’s first television station, WFTV

After posting a 1950s-era photo of Superior Street a few weeks ago that showed a sign for WFTV, Duluth’s first television station, I was curious to learn more about that operation. I did some digging in the News Tribune files and came up with this, which ran in today’s paper:

WFTV newscaster Gordon Paymar (right) goes through a test show on June 4, 1953, three days before the station – Duluth’s first – started broadcasting. Running the cameras are Lee Butkiewicz (left) and Fred Badecker. (News Tribune file photo)

LIGHT OF DULUTH’S FIRST TV STATION FADED QUICKLY

By Andrew Krueger, News Tribune, June 2, 2011

It arrived with great fanfare, ushering in a technological and entertainment revolution in the Twin Ports.

But little more than a year later, it was left in the dust by more powerful upstarts, and relegated to being a largely forgotten footnote in local history.

Fifty-eight years ago next Tuesday, at 2 in the afternoon, WFTV Channel 38 started broadcasting as Duluth’s first television station.

“The opening program will mark the start of a new form of mass communication in the Head of the Lakes area,” the News Tribune reported on June 5, 1953, two days before the first broadcast. “It will make available to this area a type of broadcasting which up to now has been received on a catch-as-catch-can basis from the Twin Cities.”

From the beginning, WFTV faced an uphill battle as an ultra-high frequency (UHF, i.e. high channel number) station in an era when few existed.

Up to that time, anyone in Duluth with a TV set would have tried to snag occasional signals from distant VHF (i.e. lower channel number) stations in the Twin Cities. In the days leading up to WFTV’s first broadcast, local stores placed many ads in the News Tribune touting TV sets and antennas that could pick up the new UHF signal.

WFTV, owned by Great Plains Television Properties, took out its own full-page ad on June 5, introducing the station and its staff. “This is it,” the station proclaimed. “The big event is here. … The hard work and months of planning are now completed. … The excitement is now at its highest.”

The first show was something called “WFTV Opening Salute,” the specifics of which were not described in news accounts of the time. Next up was Billy Graham, followed later in the afternoon by footage of Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation, held the week before.

Early network shows on the station included “I Love Lucy,” “Flash Gordon,” “The Web,” “Dragnet” and “Philco TV Playhouse.”

WFTV program director Robert Potter (standing) and assistant chief engineer Douglas Cole monitor a test show production on June 4, 1953 at the station’s studio’s in downtown Duluth. (News Tribune file photo)

WFTV produced local news, sports and weather programs, initially hosted by Robert Potter, Gordon Paymar, Bill Kirby and Ernest Orchard. According to contemporary news stories, WFTV also had local women’s programs produced by Elizabeth “Libby” Smith; commentary from Wallace W. Hankins; entertainment from Famous, a country-western singer; and a “kiddie program” conducted by Earl Henton — who later went on to a long career at KDAL / KDLH.

WFTV’s first studios were in space shared with WEBC radio at the corner of Superior Street and Fourth Avenue West — a building that today houses Beacon Bank and other offices. In March 1954, WFTV moved to studios at Superior Street and Third Avenue East.

WFTV enjoyed a monopoly in the market for the better part of a year, but by early 1954 two new stations — KDAL, channel 3, and WDSM, channel 6 — signed on. Not only did they snag some of the top network programming from WFTV, but as VHF stations, they were more powerful and easier to receive. We know those two stations today as KDLH and KBJR.

WFTV lingered on for several more months, but on Friday, July 9, 1954, the Duluth newspapers carried word that the city’s pioneering television station would cease broadcasting that Sunday at 10 p.m.

“We find the market unprofitable,” general manager C.G. Alexander told the Duluth Herald, “and rather than spend more money, the best thing is to call it quits.”

And so on July 11, 1954, WFTV’s days in Duluth came to an end. The station that brought the Twin Ports into the age of television faded to black.

WFTV public service director Ernest Orchard (left) and program director Robert Potter, as seen in a station ad in the News-Tribune on June 5, 1953.

First day of programming

The schedule for the first day of broadcasting on Duluth’s WFTV Channel 38 on June 7, 1953, as printed in that day’s News Tribune:

9 a.m. — test pattern

2 p.m. WFTV Opening Salute

3 p.m. — Billy Graham

3:15 p.m. — TV Matinee

4 p.m. — Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II

5:30 p.m. — First Presbyterian Church

6:30 p.m. — Front Page Detective and Between Acts

7 p.m. — Toast of the Town

8 p.m. —TV Playhouse

9 p.m. —Boston Blackie

9:30 p.m. — Hollywood Half Hour

10 p.m. —News in View

10:15 p.m. — WFTV Weather Man

10:20 p.m. — Sports Spindle

10:30 p.m. — WFTV Theater

Call letters live on

While WFTV went off the air in Duluth in 1954, its call letters found new life in the 1960s when they were picked up by an Orlando, Fla., television station — where they remain to this day.

WFTV assistant program director Gordon Paymar (left) and women’s director Elizabeth M. Smith, as seen in a station ad in the News-Tribune on June 5, 1953.

WFTV staff

The staff of Duluth’s WFTV at the time the station went on the air, according to a station ad in the News Tribune:

James C. Cole, manager

Robert Potter, program director

Gordon Paymar, assistant program director

Ernest Orchard, public service director

Elizabeth M. Smith, women’s director

Norman Gill, chief engineer

Douglas Cole, assistant chief engineer

Theodore Steinberger, engineer

Roger Elm, engineer

Lee Butkiewicz, engineer

Fred Badecker, engineer

Elgie Mae Carter, traffic director

Harvey Wick, film procurement director

Tony Marta, account representative

Thomas Fiege, account representative

Mildred Reed, secretary

————–

WFTV Channel 38, Duluth’s first TV station, shared studio space with WEBC Radio in a building at the corner of Superior Street and Fourth Avenue West. The building today houses Beacon Bank and other offices. This view is from the mid-1950s and is a cropped version of the original photo; to see the full version, click here. (News Tribune file photo)

Here is an online extra – the full text of an article about WFTV that ran in the News Tribune on June 5, 1953, two days before it started broadcasting:

TV in Duluth starts Sunday

News-Tribune

Television broadcasting will get under way in Duluth at 2 p.m. Sunday when WFTV goes on the air over Channel 38.

The opening program will mark the start of a new form of mass communication in the Head of the Lakes area. It will make available to this area a type of broadcasting which up to now has been received on a catch-as-catch-can basis from the Twin Cities.

Actually, WFTV has been on the air for a number of days already, but with a test pattern only. The test pattern has been on the air to give TV owners a chance to adjust their sets to receive UHF, the ultra-high frequency wave length on which WFTV will broadcast. That test pattern will continue on a 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. schedule until the opening broadcast.

No shadow areas

Before the test pattern went on the air, there was wide difference of opinion on whether there would be “shadow” areas at the Head of the Lakes into which the TV picture would not reach. WFTV officials said last night that so far, extensive testing has established no complete shadow areas in Duluth. They said they now have TV sets receiving the test pattern in all parts of the Duluth-Superior area.

The pattern also has been received all along the South Shore as far as Ironwood, Mich., and along the North Shore as far as Grand Marais.

The test pattern was run primarily to enable conversion of VHF sets to the UHF band. Most of the sets in Duluth prior to the coming of WFTV were adjusted only for the VHF type of broadcasting emanating from the Twin Cities.

Although it has been established that the TV picture will be received in most parts of the area, there is considerable experimenting going on yet with antennas. In some places the bow-tie antenna, or some version of it, is working best. Some owners are receiving the UHF signal clearly on their old antennas, and in a few cases the signal has come in with only an inside antenna Some isolated areas have had difficulty adjusting sets.

Schedule posted

WFTV’s regular broadcast schedule will include programs daily from 2 to 11 p.m. Sunday’s program, however, will run until midnight.

Among features planned Sunday are opening ceremonies at 2 p.m. The coronation will be shown from 4 to 5:30 p.m.

The station will carry a number of network as well as local shows, according to James C. Cole, station manager. Network shows will be carried on film, as there is no direct wire or microwave link between WFTV and the TV networks.

However, Cole said, the Duluth audience will see many of the network shows at the same time as other parts of the nation. He said most of that type of shows are prepared in advance on films and released simultaneously all over the country.

Among the shows the station will carry will be such drama features as Dragnet, The Web, I Love Lucy; drama featuring Robert Montgomery; and such kiddie serials as Flash Gordon and Rocket to the Moon. Other features will include Arthur Godfrey, Groucho Marx, the Hit Parade, Toast of the Town, the Dennis Day show and Philco TV Playhouse.

Also on film will be the “Telenews,” the daily highlights of newsreel films. “Live” shows will be produced locally and will include news, interviews, music and the demonstration type of programs.

WFTV will share two hours of its broadcast schedule with Arrowhead Television Network, an affiliate of WEBC radio. WFTV studio and tower facilities were leased from WEBC in exchange for the two hours of air time. The ATN organization will be on the air daily from 3 to 4 p.m. and from 5:30 to 6 and 6:30 to 7 p.m. The two organizations will operate independently.

——-

And one more online extra – here is a copy of the complete TV schedule for WFTV, along with Twin Cities stations KSTP and WCCO, from June 8, 1953:

Share your memories of WFTV by posting a comment.

8 thoughts on “Duluth’s first television station, WFTV

  1. The history of long-defunct broadcasting stations in this area is quickly disappearing. Someone on line has written a history (albeit somewhat biased) of WDTH. Would love to know more about WREX, WSBR (Superior,) WQMN and WIGL (also Superior,) KAOH, KPIR, WGGR, KBXT, KLXK, WRSR, and KDUL-TV. Except for the first two, all of these are within my own lifetime and memory; but little exists on line or anywhere else about them. (I’ve omitted stations like WAVC, WAKX, and the original KZIO, as they all still exist under changed ownerships, call letters, and formats; but material on them would be great too.)

  2. WFTV’s engineer, Roger Elm, passed away a few years ago. He was one of the founders of WWJC-AM 850 Radio in Duluth where he served as an engineer, manager and an on-air personality. His son, Ted Elm, is WWJC’s current General Manager. WWJC is located on the site of the old WREX-AM Radio Station (built in 1947). At the time, this was the only station in the U.S. to use a seven tower transmission system.

  3. I remember Channel 38, during it’s short life in the evolution of live local television in Duluth in the ’50′s. I remember being a young Cub Scout, and our Pack, being invited to be on live TV; we were on the “Rocky Teller Show”. We waved to the camera, as it panned the audience.

  4. I can remember seeing Boston Blackie for the first time on that channel. I thought it was magic. On weekends I could stay up and watch Night Owl Theater……memories.

  5. Early TV was awful, especially at the local level. But after watching “Snow and shadows” from Minneapolis, we would watch anything. This includes music by Jack Teagarten and Connie Boswell, who must have been on film, as we saw the same stuff over and over. I remember Famous (Lashaway ) on WEBC radio, but not on TV. He wrote “Chocolate Ice Cream Cone”! And Earl Henton had also had a talent show for kids on WEBC radio. You haven’t lived until you’ve listened to tap dancing on radio. Gordy Paymar went on for many years, often paired with Herb Taylor on other stations. Local “Talent” indeed.

  6. Your article today about WFTV brought back many memories. I knew Bob Potter years ago when we both worked for WCCO Television. He also raced stock cars at the State Fair. Earl Henton gave me my first job in television at KDAL-TV after having me play my violin at age 10 on a kiddie talent show broadcast live from the Garrick Theater.

    Two young men with great voices were the announcers at WFTV. Tom Carlson from Hibbing, who went on to have a very successful career in New York and Doug Rapp a Denfeld graduate, who later graduated from UMD where he played leading roles in many University Theatre productions.

    Thanks for stirring up these great memories of the early days in television in Duluth.

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