WBKB—Chicago’s First Commercial Station

by Steve Jajkowski

Editor’s Note: Balaban and Katz may be well-known for their movie palaces, but for Chicagoans old enough to remember they were also pioneers in television and had the first commercial station in Chicago. Steve Jajkowski hosts The Video Veteran, an online archive of the history of Chicago television. We’d like to thank him for permission to reprint his article on WBKB. Visit his archives at: www.chicagotelevision.com

WBKB Test Pattern.

WBKB Test Pattern, part of the Burnham Collection. Image courtesy Norm Gagnon of GGN Information Systems.

Ask any long-time Chicagoan what the Chicago, Granada, Nortown, and Uptown theaters have in common and they’ll say Balaban & Katz. B & K didn’t just build theaters, they built palaces. It was the 1920s, vaudeville was on the way out but Hollywood was coming up fast. By the 1930s, B & K theaters were packed, thanks to their pioneering efforts in air-conditioning. Balaban & Katz was one of many satellite companies owned or controlled by Paramount Pictures, Inc. Commonplace in the early to mid-twentieth century, film production companies controlled the theaters playing their movies, allowing them complete control over the distribution and presentation of their product. Across the country Paramount had more than 1500 theaters plus more in Canada, Europe, and in parts of South America.

There was one more equally significant connection between Paramount and Balaban & Katz—the companies were run by brothers. Barney Balaban had been made president of Paramount Pictures Inc. when the company emerged from the bankruptcy of its predecessor company Paramount Publix Corporation in 1935. John Balaban, along with Sam Katz, ran Balaban & Katz Theaters Inc.

In Chicago, Balaban & Katz had more than 100 theaters displaying their name. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer had a similar set-up with its Loew’s Theater circuit. However, these monopolistic practices caught the attention of the U.S. Justice Department and in the end Paramount (as well as MGM and others) were ordered to decide which business they wanted to be in—film producing or theater ownership. Paramount chose to stay in the picture producing business. Because of this, in 1950, a new corporation was formed—United Paramount Theaters Inc., presided over by Leonard H. Goldenson.

TV Forecast Guide WBKB.

Television Forecast was the first continuously published TV-guide in the United States. It was launched in May of 1948, when there were approximately 18,500 television sets in Chicago. Image courtesy Tom Genova, Television History—The First 75 Years.

But back in 1939, John Balaban convinced Leonard H. Goldenson, then a on-the-rise Paramount corporate lawyer, to acquire an experimental television license that would become W9XBK. The second electronic station on the air (the first was W9XZV, Zenith Radio Corporation’s experimental outlet on Channel 1), W9XBK transmitted at 60–66 megacycles, then television’s Channel 2. Balaban & Katz also held the experimental television licenses for W9XBT, W9XBB, and W9XPR. When the VHF frequencies were changed by the FCC, W9XBK found itself transmitting at 66–72 megacycles, the current Channel 4. W9XZV ended up on Channel 2. Late in 1943, the station would become the first commercial station in Chicago, WBKB. Around the same time Paramount would launch a second television station, KTLA in Los Angeles.

Neither Paramount or B & K had any idea what to do with a television station. John Balaban decided to hire Bill Eddy who had been working for NBC. Eddy was given $60,000 to start up W9XBK. Eddy quickly assembled his staff. As chief engineer was Arch Brolly, who Eddy knew from his days with Philo Farnsworth; Reinald Werrenrath, who worked with Eddy at NBC; and from Chicago, Bill Kusack and Dick Shapiro, TV repairmen who worked for RCA Victor; and Stan Osterlund.

Rigging a small truck they nicknamed “Mobile Unit Number One,” Eddy and Werrenrath drove around the outskirts of the city checking the signal strength of the transmitter. Cameras had to be homemade including the mounts which Eddy fashioned from old barbers’ chairs which had been rigged with small motors to raise and lower the camera. While still working for Farnsworth, Eddy was given the task of dealing with the lighting problems that were common to early television. He later honed his talents at NBC. By the time Eddy and his staff would move into the fourth floor of the State-Lake building at 190 N. State St. (now the home to WLS-TV), Eddy’s input was the standard of the industry.

Al Rhone was WBKB’s film director. He chose the films seen on Channel 4.There were no schedules. Much of what viewers tuned into was man-on-the-street interviews. Because the Chicago Theatre was often packed, there was never a shortage of people to talk to. Performers on stage at the theater would often came over to be on the station. It was all hit or miss.

NBC Studio.

“Studio A” at NBC illustrating a typical “Chicago School” television studio. Burr Tillstrom and Fran Allison of Kukla, Fran and Ollie; Beverly Younger, Chet Roble, Studs Terkel and Win Stracke of Stud’s Place; Dave Garroway of Garroway at Large; comedian Cliff Norton (a Garroway regular and, for a time, star of his daily show, The Public Life of Cliff Norton), Walt Durhban (of Walt’s Workshop) and (in the overcoat) Clint Youle, the archetype of the television weatherman. Image courtesy Rich Samuels.

December 7, 1941, the country would enter the war. Knowing the Navy would need radar (Eddy had developed the Eddy Amplifier, a highly sensitive sonar device) Eddy offered the Navy department his staff and facilities of W9XBK as a training school. Originally estimated to train 135 technicians, the total came closer to 86,000. The school became such a success that similar classes were set up all across the country.

Shortly after the war began, the FCC announced that any experimental stations on the air for at least four hours a week would be able to stay on the air for the duration of the war. Chief engineer Arch Brolly was saddled with the task of replacing the station’s original transmitter in time to satisfy the FCC. Although Paramount ordered a new transmitter to be delivered, the order was cancelled when the New York firm that was building the unit was ordered to convert their facilities for the war effort. Brolly and his staff decided to complete the transmitter themselves and after working day and night and using a ten-gallon pickle jar as a water-cooling system, got the station on the air.

In 1943, W9XBK would become WBKB, Chicago’s first commercial television station. Programming began to develop. In 1945, veteran newsman Hugh Downs announced a fifteen-minute newscast sweating under the hot studio lights. Mike Wallace auditioned but worried about his skin. Boxing and wrestling became popular because it was cheap to produce, and especially in the case of wrestling, easy to schedule commercials between bouts. It was open audition all the time. If you thought you had talent, you would go over to WBKB and be on television. WBKB would also air “B” and “C” films, usually the old cowboy shoot ’em ups to fill out their airtime. Up to this time, television programming was primarily a male domain. Most sets were in bars which were television’s first major buyers. Two things happened that made that all change.

TV Forecast Guide WBKB.

WBKB was the first channel to begin broadcasting baseball games. Image courtesy Tom Genova.

First Phil Wrigley, owner of the Cubs, was an advocate of television. He believed baseball could benefit from television if a system could be developed that would appeal to housewives as well as their husbands. Wrigley asked Eddy to design a system to televise baseball. Experimenting with various techniques during the Cubs’ spring training, including a buried camera on third base and cameras in back of the catcher, Eddy wrote the book on televising baseball that contemporary networks still use today. For his efforts, Wrigley gave the rights to WBKB to air the Cubs for two years free. For a while, Cubs baseball was seen both on WBKB and WGN-TV. Also included on WBKB’s early sports schedule was Cardinal Touchdown Club, a Cardinals highlights program hosted by Bob Elson and Marshall Goldberg.

The second event that changed the demographic face of television was when Eddy approached his friend, puppeteer Burr Tillstrom, with an offer to develop a children’s program. It was Eddy who suggested Fran Allison who Tillstrom had worked with before. Beulah Zachery, after whom Beulah Witch is named, was the producer and Lew Gomavitz was the director. Kukla, Fran, & Ollie appealed to children and adults alike. In fact, it was believed early on that its audience was primarily adults. Now there was television programming that could appeal to the whole family. A much better reason to fork out the big bucks for a set. WBKB would continue to develop programming to appeal to a wider audience. They would hire Lincoln Park Zoo director Marlin Perkins (later to star for years on Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom) to host a show called Zoo Parade. Years later, a similar program would appear as a segment of Ray Rayner & Friends on WGN-TV with Dr. Lester Fisher of the Lincoln Park Zoo. It would all begin at WBKB.

Marlin Perkins.

Before he hosted Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom, Marlin Perkins, shown in this early publicity still, starred in Zoo Parade on WBKB.

Remote broadcasts were a first at WBKB. Again, cameras had to be homemade. At first during the experimental days, remotes were simply a camera out by the lakeshore aimed out toward the neighborhoods. Later on, they would air live football games from Notre Dame in South Bend using a microwave relay system that Eddy, Kusack, and Brolly had fashioned.

News became an important part of WBKB. Using a revolutionary bit of technology developed by the WBKB engineers, Channel 4 used the Multiscope process of keeping viewers abreast of the latest news, weather, and sports by way of an on-screen alpha-numeric ticker. A fore-runner to the alpha-numeric display that WSNS-Channel 44 would broadcast years later in 1970. Multiscope service was provided 24 hours by the Chicago Sun-Times and the Acme Photo Service. For international news, WBKB employed the services of United Press International and for the correct time it looked to Western Union.

But all of this was expensive and Paramount, who had by now spent millions of dollars on WBKB (as well as its sister station in Los Angeles KTLA) was growing tired of television. Unlike his brother John, Barney Balaban did not believe in pouring money into television. This philosophy was made made even more clear by the stormy relationship between Paramount and The Allen B. DuMont Laboratories. They also felt that Eddy was costing them too much money. Eddy, in fact, was never a team player and cared little for the bean counters at B & K or Paramount. Eddy was let go.

By the early 1950s, WBKB was able to boast a bevy of firsts...

  • First baseball game broadcast from Wrigley Field
  • First interstate telecast of boxing matches live ringside at Michigan City Indiana
  • First television remote- the Shriner's parade in front of the Sheraton Hotel
  • First intercity relay golf tournament from Tam O'Shanter Country Club in Niles
  • First football game relayed from Dyche Stadium in Evanston
  • First interstate relay from South Bend Indiana of Notre Dame football
  • First full-length drama ever to be telecast in its entirety
  • First telecast of the midnight Mass at Holy Name Cathedral
  • First Easter Sunrise service telecast from Cook County Hospital
  • First concert to be televised from the Grant Park band shell

In 1948, Goldenson was giving the responsibility of splitting Paramount into two separate corporations. He would also get to run the new one. Two years later, United Paramount Theaters Inc. was formed. As per the consent decree, Paramount kept KTLA. WBKB went to UPT. Goldenson had every intention to go into television. He found his opportunity in the struggling American Broadcasting Company. ABC, run by the eccentric Edward Noble, was finding it difficult to maintain its radio and television networks. ABC needed money and Goldenson and United Paramount Theaters had it.

But a merger would not come easily and when it finally did, it was definitely not a marriage made in heaven. Early evidence that the merger would not go smoothly was the fact that Noble agreed to sell William Paley and CBS WBKB for only six million dollars! The merged companies would have to sell off one of their stations—ABC had WENR-TV on Channel 7, and the weaker of the two. Goldenson and UPT were outraged by Noble’s audacious move. WBKB was worth more than that. It was showing a profit, WENR-TV was not. Noble’s reasoning was he wanted all of ABC’s stations on Channel 7 and he promised Bill Paley. When all the smoke cleared, WBKB Channel 4 had become CBS-owned and operated WBBM-TV. The newly formed American Broadcasting-Paramount Theaters Inc. dropped the WENR-TV calls on Channel 7 and became WBKB. WBBM-TV would soon move to Channel 2 in response to the FCC’s action to clean up the VHF assignment mess. Channel 4 would be reallocated to Milwaukee Wisconsin and WTMJ-TV. Channel 2 in Chicago, long held by Zenith and the experimental W9XZV, the city’s first electronic television station (beating out W9XBK by a year) and (as KS2XBS), the station that broadcast Phonevision, the ill-fated pay television experiment in 1951, was forced to go dark. The station’s transmitter would later be donated to Chicago’s first educational station—WTTW.

Not many remember a station on Channel 4 in Chicago. The names Capt. Bill Eddy, Arch Brolly, Bill Kusack, and the others at WBKB are well-respected among their industry peers but virtually unknown to the public. Yet we have these men to thank for being there and the pioneering efforts despite overwhelming odds.

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