Baltimore On Air: A nostalgic look back at Maryland’s role in the ‘Golden Age of Television’
by Mary K. Zajac, Baltimore Style, Sept/Oct 2008
On Thursday, Oct. 30, 1947, television came to life in Baltimore via WMAR (also known as “Sunpapers Television”).
“At precisely 3 o’clock,” according to a 1957 Baltimore Sun article commemorating TV’s 10th anniversary, “the picture of an Indian’s head in a circle fades out, and when light returns the screen shows the Pimlico Race Course clubhouse. Somebody named Jim McManus [later known as Jim McKay] starts talking and Baltimore’s first television program is under way.” Some 41/2 months after those horses made history, WBAL hit the airwaves on March 11, 1948, followed in November by WAAM, the precursor to WJZ-TV.
Just three years later, the juggernaut that was television had begun: in Baltimore, television viewers already outnumbered radio listeners during the 6 p.m. to 10:30 p.m. time period, with the three stations broadcasting approximately 450 programs during their 230 hours of weekly airtime. Indeed, more than a half-million televisions had been sold in the area by 1953, according to The Sun, with approximately 90 percent of all households owning one. With WMAR and WAAM on the air from 9 a.m. to midnight, and WBAL starting broadcasting at the wee hour of 7, the question was: how to fill all the time slots? With very few nationally syndicated programs, the answer was locally produced programming, and the offerings, an almost eerie omen of things to come.
There were talk shows, such as “Luncheon with the Ladies” or WMAR’s long-running “The Woman’s Angle,” all interspersed with live commercials where anything might go wrong— like the time hostess Ann Mar’s tube of Betty Crocker refrigerated biscuits exploded.
There were shopping shows like WAAM’s “Shopping for You” with Penny Chase; game shows such as renowned local producer Brent Gunts’ “Quiz Club” that offered prizes ranging from Mash’s hams to perfume, or the long-running “Dialing for Dollars” that urged you to remember the “count and the amount.” And there were science-oriented programs— “The Johns Hopkins Science Review” and “This is Your Zoo,” with Babette the Baboon.
But perhaps the most memorable segment of programming was devoted to kids. Royal Parker, cap askew with holes in the knees of his baggy pants, shuffled around as P.W. Doodle. Between 1960 and 1965, a swarthy, black-bearded Larry Lewman welcomed “buccaneers” to the “Pete the Pirate” show, while the indomitable Stu Kerr inhabited a plethora of personalities including Bozo the Clown (in the Baltimore franchise of the show) and the cream-pie-throwing Professor Kool.
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