WBAL and WBAL-TV
Edwin Armstrong’s 1923 invention of the superheterodyne radio that operated on household current totally changed radio from a signal that could only be heard by using headphones from battery-powered sets to sound that filled a room, and could be enjoyed by the entire family.
The Consolidated Gas, Electric Light and Power Company of Baltimore (now BGE) decided that the best way to get people to buy and use these new radios was to begin broadcasting interesting programs. This was known in the power industry as Load Building. On November 2, 1925 Consolidated began broadcasting on their new station WBAL, (as in BALtimore) at 1090 on the radio dial. The radio studio was located on the 5th floor of the company’s Lexington Building headquarters at Lexington & Liberty Sts., in downtown Baltimore. As more and more homes bought and used radios, Consolidated sold more and more electricity. Having achieved the goal of selling more electricity, Consolidated sold WBAL to the Hearst Corporation on January 12, 1935. The studios remained in the Lexington Building.
Fast forward to the mid 1940’s and we find that one of WBAL’s Sunday programs was called “Woman of the Week”, which was sponsored by Schleisner’s. Schleisner’s was an up-scale woman store located on the north west corner of Howard and Saratoga Streets. Each Sunday several ladies would appear on the show and talk about what they were doing, career wise. Listeners would vote for their favorite by sending in a letter or postcard naming the lady they particularly liked. One Sunday evening Edee was one of the people interviewed while Bernie and the boys got to watch from the studio audience. The next Sunday we tuned in to hear who won. Edee didn’t, but the experience was fun.
Following World War II television began to take over the airwaves so WBAL branched out into this new medium with the introduction of WBAL -TV on channel 11. The station went on the air on March 11, 1948, as a National Broadcasting Company affiliate. At this time WBAL had recently moved into their new studio building at Charles and 26th Street. As you entered the front door, you were greeted by a receptionist at the curved reception desk. Directly behind this desk was a glass-enclosed room containing several teletype machines which were connected to the news wire services. A hallway to the right of this room lead to the radio studios at the rear. To the left of the reception desk an oscilloscope was illuminated with a line that moved to the pitch of the radio signal. On the far right a modern stairway with metal railing curved around a large glass drum-shaped chandelier up to the foyer on the second floor. Opening off this area was a large studio with a stage that was named the Air Theater. This was designed for broadcasting radio programs with studio audiences. The stairway continued it’s curved journey up to offices on the third floor. A hallway on the right lead from the top of the stairs on the second floor back to the television studio, which was actually in part of the adjoining building . The building on the corner was a 6-story structure used by a moving and storage company. It was designed to appear as a separate building, but was really all one structure. The television studio was a large rectangular 2-story space that was located directly above the loading dock of the storage warehouse. A freight elevator from the dock was used to bring large items up to the studio. The studio walls were lined with insulation, covered with unbleached muslin, with an overlay of metal chicken wire to protect the fabric while allowing the sound to be absorbed into the insulation. In the center of the long wall facing Charles Street was a large plate glass window in front of the TV control room on the upper level.
It was from this studio that, after bringing their stage and equipment up from the loading dock, and setting everything up on January 8, Edee & Bernie presented their first live 15-minute show on March 22, 1948. At first the show ran on Monday & Wednesday. When Hutzler Brothers Department Store began sponsoring the show in 1949, the time slot was changed to 6:00 PM on Tuesdays and Thursdays. It followed the live network feed of the Howdy Doody Show from New York City. Originally this one studio had to serve all of WBAL’s live program needs. In the far left corner was a permanent kitchen set used by the Look & Cook show, aired earlier in the afternoon. At some point Bernie made a new marionette stage designed to work better with the TV cameras. Instead of the stage floor being about 18” off the floor the new TV one had the puppet stage about 36” off the floor, which allowed the two cameras used for the show to have better camera angles, and save the cameramen from working bent over. This stage was mounted on wheels so it could be rolled out of the way between show days. The wooden access ladders on each end of the bridge where Edee & Bernie stood were about twice the height of the regular stage. From this height Bernie could reach out and adjust the many lights hanging from the ceiling. Every job in the studio was controlled by the various unions, but Bernie told the stage crew that the puppet union cover all kinds of jobs. That was OK with the stage crew because that meant they didn’t have to climb a ladder to adjust the light, and they really didn’t care that there was no puppet union. In addition to Dave Nottingham, the director, plus an assistant in the control room, there were four men needed to do the show. There were two black & white RCA cameras, one mounted on a metal base with telescoping center column to adjust the height, and one on a wooden tripod mounted on a wheeled frame. Both cameras had three lens mounted in front that could be rotated into position by the cameraman. Sound was controlled by a man on the movable mike boom. He had to pick up sound from both Edee & Bernie, while making sure the shadow of the mike did not show up on the scenery or puppets. The fourth person was the floor manager who took instructions from the director via his headset and used hand signals to cue in Edee & Bernie about when to start, etc.
Edee and Bernie rehearsed each scene on their practice stage at home. On TV show days there were often lots of phone calls from Dave Nottingham with his ideas for hoot do various parts of the scene. Dave did not consider this just a local kids show h e tried to make it a dramatic production that was of equal quality to anything being done for network distribution. Dave would later move to London where he became a director for BBC television productions. This was followed by a long career as college professor.
There were no electronic effects used for the show. Scene titles were hand-lettered in black on gray cardboard by Hutzler’s sign letterer, Joseph Alpert. The show opened with a kaleidoscope that was basically two mirrors set on an angle in a tube, in front of a motor-driven revolving glass disk covered with black designs.
Because the floor of the stage was at waist level, someone decided that it would be nice if Jo-Jo could talk to Edee after the scene was completed. This allowed them to make adjustment in the about of time remaining in the allotted 15 minuets. Because it was all done live, there was no way to edit to fit the time slot, they had to keep talking until the floor director signaled to cut. Edee was never very happy about having to appear in person, but it was well received by the TV audience. She eventually had a very large collection of blouses, none of which were white, because white would bleed and blur the camera image. Parents would write in and ask Jo-Jo to say happy birthday to their child, so Bernie invented the Peep-a-Scope which allowed Jo-Jo to magically look into the birthday child’s living room. He could even tell them where to look in the room for their hidden present. As you can imagine this became very popular, and the number of kids with birthdays kept increasing to the point that were was not enough time to say hello to all of them. It became necessary to find some way out of this problem. The Peep-a-Scope was mounted on four small wheels. The base started life as a Bakelite decorative cover for a Babbo scouring powder can. The lens section was composed of camera parts and miscellaneous stuff from Bernies junk box. He never threw away anything that might be useful someday. One night, at the end of the show, Jo-Jo pushed the Peep-a Scope out onto the stage, but for some strange reason it did not stop where it was supposed to. Instead it kept on rolling, right off the front edge of the stage. Jo-Jo looked shocked, as shocked as possible when you have a painted face. He looked down, back up, down again, and then sadly announced that the Peep-a-Scope was broken into so many pieces that it could never be repaired.
Bernie found a man that custom made bicycles for performers who used them for trick riding. He had the man make a scaled down custom bike, just the right size for Jo-Jo to ride. He used it a few times on the show, but it was so heavy that it was hard to maneuver, so it spent most of it’s life stuck away in the prop closet.
Edee made a large rectangular canvas tote for carrying each days scenery from their studio to WBAL. There was a large suitcase for the puppets and props. Because they also did the regular full-length shows at schools and parties, they needed to move Jo-Jo back and forth from the TV suitcase to the regular show puppet case. Yes, you know where this is going. The ‘if it can go wrong it will’ rule came into play, and one time Jo-Jo was not in the proper place and the show had to go on without him. As a result Jo-Jo got cloned and then there was one that stayed in the TV suitcase, while his alter ego remained in the regular show case. When they began doing hand puppet shows, more cloning was done, but this time he was not the same from the neck down.
As the number of local programs grew and the popularity of local radio programs shrank, WBAL-TV converted the former Air Theater on the second floor into a second television studio. The plaster sound domes mounted on the walls were cut off to allow scenery to be placed against the walls in the area that originally held seats for live audiences. Then the Paul’s Puppet stage was rolled down the hall into it’s new home in Studio B.
It was from this studio that Paul’s Puppets performed the first live color show aired on WBAL-TV. It was such a big event that representatives from Hutzler’s management came to the station to watch the show. I was there with my Revere 8mm movie camera to try and catch some of the rehearsal action. Finally Dave Nottingham’s voice came over the intercom announcing that there was one too many cameramen in the studio, and I was the extra one who needed to leave. This was a very difficult program to do live because they only had one color camera, and it was a big one, much more difficult to maneuver than the B&W cameras. Because there was only one camera, David Nottingham could not cut back and forth between cameras for different angles. The title card was set up just below the edge of the stage front. The show began with the camera focused on the card, then panned up to Jo-Jo on the stage. The curtain then opened and the story began, all through the lens of this one camera. I got to watch the show, along with the group from Hutzlers, on a color tv set that had been set up in one of the radio studios downstairs. For all the problems involved with having just a single camera the show was a great success. Because Bernie & Edee had made all of the puppet costumes and sets in color for the shows that were telecast in black & white, they were ready to go when color broadcasts began. They continued to do their show in color until the end of their run at WBAL-TV in May of 1957.
WBAL photographs from “Going Forward With Radio 1909 on Your Dial”. 1950, National Radio Personalities, Edited by Tom White, WBAL.