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by Chris Edwards

“CBC- The Spirit of Windsor 50th Anniversary special” airs on CBET-TV 9 September 20, 2002 7pm

First Light: Early Detroit TV

Post World War II. The Border Cities experienced a technological boom that has reverberated through our culture ever since: the birth of TV.

It began in 1947 when WWJ-TV began broadcasting over Channel 4 to a handful of viewers in Metro Detroit. At that time, there were fewer than 100 TV sets in Detroit, so broadcasting was definitely an act of faith. Started by The Detroit News in the 1920s as the nation’s first commercial radio station, WWJ was not alone for long. In 1947, WXYZ went on the air on Channel 7 and WJBK set up shop on Channel 2.

Even though 6,400 Detroit homes had television sets by 1948, this was still a tiny audience for three local stations. Things changed dramatically when network television came to Detroit in early 1949; appliance stores could scarcely keep televisions in stock. By 1953, WXYZ was selling more advertising and making more money than any station in the ABC chain.

It took Detroit’s first radio station, WWJ, a quarter century to get radio circulation to the million mark in the Border Cities. Television reached that mark in less than a decade. With rapid growth came a demand for more programming and a host of local television heroes.

An all-time favourite Border City TV celebrity was Soupy Sales, the wisecracking comic artist formerly known as Milton Heinz. The house speciality for “Lunch with Soupy” at noon was shaving cream pie – a dish served up nearly every time Soupy stuck his face out the door of his set.

Between pies, Soupy’s face was pawed by the meanest dog in all Detroit, White Fang, and petted by the nicest dog in the land, Black Tooth. Pookie the Lion, Hippi the Hippo, and Willie the Worm also wiggled into the scene. And, Peaches the girl next door (Soupy in drag) also visited the set regularly. Soupy had a kind of magic nobody had seen before.

Television was all live in those very early days. Videotape had not yet been invented and film was the primary tool. But film had to be developed in a darkroom, which took time. ABC was so new and poor in those days that it offered no more than three hours a day of programming, none of it much good. So, the three ABC stations that did exist in 1948 – New York, Detroit and Chicago – were left to produce their own programs, none of which survived since live programs weren’t recorded yet.


Enter CKLW TV

It was perhaps inevitable that a TV station would be launched in Windsor, with its unique geographical position south of the border, to tap into the huge U.S. market. And Windsor television would soon emulate – and often surpass – programming being developed by competitors in Detroit.

Windsor residents were possibly the first Canadians to purchase television sets due to the pioneering Detroit shows available over the air – four years before the first broadcast in this country! We have heard of a Westinghouse factory that actually built TV sets in Windsor during TV’s early years but could not confirm this as fact. One thing is certain – Windsorites were tuning into TV faster than anywhere in Canada.

The Mutual Broadcasting Company, operating CKLW Radio, was granted a TV license in 1952 due to its broadcast experience – beating out The Windsor Star. CKLW radio personalities would migrate to the new medium, including Jim Van Kuren, Bud Davies and Art Laing.

Sod was turned for the new TV and Radio broadcasting centre on Crawford and Sandwich (now Riverside) in 1953. When a 670-foot broadcasting tower with a 60-mile radius was erected, it had the most powerful signal in the mid-west – including the United States. CKLW Radio 800 AM’s signal extended all over the mid-west, as it had a “clear signal,” no other radio station could have the 800 band on the dial. It would soon become a powerhouse, but that story will have to wait for another time.

On September 16, 1954 at 2:50 pm, local TV history was made when CKLW Television signed on with Jim Van Kuren, who probably said something like, “You’re watching CLKW in Windsor.” The station launched before it was ready – it wasn’t quite yet set for prime time.
“It wasn’t the ground floor of TV broadcasting- it was the sub-basement,” said Van Kuren. “We had to learn a whole new way of broadcasting. It wasn’t simply radio with pictures. Radio people were not geared to thinking visually.”


CBC – The Early Years

Meanwhile, across the country, Canadians also became enamoured with the new medium. On September 6, 1952, CBFT Montreal broadcast its signal for the CBC; CBLT Toronto followed suit on September 8. The first broadcast picture on CBLT was the station’s call letters – upside-down and backwards! The broadcasting day was three hours long and Lorne Greene read the news.

The first character to appear on CBC-TV was the puppet Uncle Chichimus, followed by the first human – weatherman Percy Saltzman. The first breaking news story was the escape of the Boyd Gang from Toronto’s Don Jail, reported by Harry Rasky.

But it would be some years before folks in the Border Cities experienced Canadian Broadcasting Corporation programming. Unique perhaps to Canada, Windsor remained an island of independent local television production until well into the 1970s.


The Movie Channel

Movies were a natural fit for the fledgling CKLW-TV. They could be broadcast over and over, and CKLW played everything from Tarzan to Ben Hur. Early movie programs were branded as “Command Performance,” “Colgate Theatre” and “Million Dollar Movies” (named after the cost of a package of movies purchased by the station for almost a million dollars!). In Detroit, hosts were hired to fill time between movies, introducing the films, conducting interviews, and reading commercials.

Rita Bell was the most popular movie hostess in the Border Cities – CKLW needed someone to compete, and soon found two that perfectly fit the bill: Bill Kennedy and Mary Morgan.


Bill Kennedy – King of the movies

The king of TV movie hosting was former B-movie actor and film trivia master Bill Kennedy. He aired films daily, and his Sunday afternoon show regularly attracted more than half of the Border Cities’ viewers – even up against pro football.

His intro theme song was his trademark as he strolled into the studio with his signature fedora hat and sat at a plain desk.

“I came to Windsor because I needed a job- simple as that,” said Kennedy. “I started on Friday doing a show called ‘Going Our Way.’ Soon I was working six days a week.”

For 30 years, Kennedy wowed locals with his blinding plaid jackets and encyclopedic knowledge of movies, stars and Hollywood gossip. Viewers would call in with questions that he would answer off the cuff or not at all – “How d’ya expect me to know that?” he’d often reply in a deep gruff voice.

He also was one of the first to conduct in-
studio interviews with top name entertainers stars who came to Windsor’s Top Hat or The Elmwood, including Jimmy Durante and Sammy Davis Jr.

While Kennedy ruled as the king of movie hosts, the queens had their own loyal subjects.

Left: Mary Morgan: aloof glamour
Right: Tiny Tim (left) and Bill Kennedy: “How d’ya expect me to know that?”

Mary Morgan – Queen of the airwaves

Mary Morgan, once called “the most beautiful woman on radio,” hosted movies along with starring on local TV and radio programs, including the popular Mary-Go-Round, a precursor to Martha Stewart. Morgan began her career in the Golden Era of radio during the Depression, taking a job to help her family during those difficult days.

In between hosting movies on CKLW TV, she interviewed celebrities such as Lucille Ball and President Eisenhower. She had an aloof glamour, often syrupy and breezy. Her fans loved Mary and her dachshund, Liebchen, who once licked off one of her false eyelashes and ate it on the air.

Movie hosts were not above promoting products on their shows. Commercials were read live on air, and hosts often added unscripted plugs. In fact, Kennedy became famous for his commercial ad-libs and inflections – advertisers ate it up and the station soon became successful beyond imagination.

An interesting side note to the early rules of commercial TV: in the late ‘40s, Detroit’s WXYX TV-7 developed a program called the “House of Charm,” hosted by Edyth Fern Melrose, which became a staple watched by thousands of women for the next two decades.

It was discovered that Melrose was making more money than the president of ABC, because she was getting paid for endorsing products on the air – there was no such thing as an ethics policy.

It became Melrose’s form of commerce, effectively. If she wanted a particular drape, she would plug it; furniture, she would plug that. She got all the items free and was paid on top of that. In fact, she built a beautiful house on the waterfront in St. Clair Shores, paid by all the suppliers of brick, concrete, lumber, carpets. She even had them build a studio in the house from which she broadcast her show until it went off the air in the early 1960s.

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