I went to admire the new television that my neighbor just bought. It’s a beauty – a 70 inch screen and it takes up most of the living room wall. When I got home I remembered the first TV my family bought in 1952.
Of course, the photo was in black and white. Back then there were no big box stores or huge appliance and TV stores. The largest retail stores were Sears on East Washington Avenue or Montgomery Wards on State Street in Madison.
My father preferred to deal with local businesses. He spoke to the three DeForest TV dealers – Paul Karow sold RCA sets, Art Krueger sold Stromberg Carlson, and “Boolah” Dahl sold Zeinth. They would all install the set in your home and offer home service calls on the sets they were selling. I’m not sure why Wisconsin Power & Light never went into selling TVs – they had this huge showroom filled with the latest appliances, but they chose not to sell TVs.
I’m sure my dad spoke to all three of them and decided to go with Art Krueger who sold the Stromberg Carlson brand. When we first got our TV, we had to call in Milwaukee TV stations. Madison’s first TV channel did not air until June 1953.
A day or two before the TV was delivered, two men arrived to erect a tall, tall TV antenna on top of our two-story house in downtown DeForest. There was an electric rotor on the antenna so it could be rotated in any direction by operating the rotor housing on top of the television.
A day or two later, a new Stromberg Carlson TV was installed in our living room! It was a beautiful mahogany cabinet and it had the largest screen you could buy – 21 inches.
We turned on the TV and waited about three to five minutes for it to warm up. And then the photo arrived. We could see dark figures behind the blizzard of snow, and the sound coming out was a mixture of static noises and hissing.
Art started turning the tuning knobs and adjusting the antennas and eventually a fairly clear picture appeared and the sound could be heard against the static background. Art explained that DeForest was right at the end of the Milwaukee signal. As a result, it took a lot of tweaking to get a good picture. Sometimes a good picture would suddenly turn bad (especially in stormy weather) and then we would try to rotate the antenna slightly and readjust the signal. We could only get two Milwaukee stations – channels 4 and 12. We never knew when we turned on the TV what kind of picture we would get and sometimes we would play with the setting and eventually turn off the TV in disgust – no TV this that night, lousy welcome. Sometimes the picture was pretty good but we couldn’t get clear and good sound.
We put up with bad reception for about a year and then Madison’s 27 and 15 channels were released. This greatly improved our welcome. Channel 3 finally aired in 1956. Then the Madison area had 100% reception from all four networks – ABC, NBC, CBS, and PBS. Man, what a choice, all the big networks!
In the early 1950s, television was not broadcast 24/7. In fact, if you turned on your TV in the morning, you would only get the test pattern. Most of the programs started around noon. And most stations closed after midnight. Every late evening, the announcer said the station was shutting down overnight and the programming ended with the star-spangled banner broadcast, followed by a blank screen and static sound.
Some TV shows were pretty bad in the early ’50s – far too many wrestling matches, bad comedy shows (like we have today) and a lot of reruns in the summer (like today). Local news programs were very technical and bland compared to local news programs today.
Some of the old shows were classic and are still watched today on cable TV channels that replay old classic shows like “I Love Lucy”, “Gunsmoke”, “Bonanza” and “Lawrence Welk”. My favorite shows were “The Ed Sullivan Show”, “Alfred Hitchcock” and “The Twilight Zone”.
The best shows were broadcast on Saturday and Sunday evenings. Now, with hundreds of channels, it’s hard to find a few good shows on these two nights.