Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Ashtabula's "Beacon" of Entertainment-Part Two

A continuation of an excellent look at the History of WICA-TV As told by people who were there at the time..
By Carl Feather
Ashtabula Star-Beacon
Part Two

As test signals were first beamed across Ashtabula County in August, 1953, Sales Manager Donald Fassett and his staff _ Robert Rydberg, Irvine Bleasdale, Joseph Yourcheck, Vernon Webster, JoAnn Klasen, Jean Moss, Jeannette Kolasinski, Patricia Nelson and George H. Murray _ drummed up sponsors. Fassett, who retired from the radio station in 1979, said the sales department had one of the toughest assignments in the new venture."We had a heck of a time selling advertising," he said. The station was not yet on the air and advertisers were reluctant to put their dollars into an unknown when radio and newsprint advertising was proven and readily available. Further, the absence of popular programming made it difficult to drum up sponsors for the old movies and locally produced shows that would become the station's mainstay.But Fassett and his staff did succeed in signing on several major sponsors. The Illuminating Company sponsored one of the station's most popular shows, "I Led Three Lives." East Ohio Gas signed on as an advertiser for a live cooking show that required construction of a kitchen set in the studio. Fassett and other station employees exchanged their business suits for carpenter's aprons and constructed the set."We did everything back then," he said.Radio station personnel were pressed into service to fill new positions in the television side of the operation. Fred Baker had signed on with WICA in December 1951 with the hopes of getting a radio announcer's job. He ended up in the advertising department, but when the television project was announced, made the transition to the new film and slide department of WICA-TV."I was responsible for the movie and the slide projectors," he said. "There was a girl who worked with me. We prepared the films and the slides for each day's run. It involved inspecting, cleaning them and getting them ready...loading the projectors. It was just about the same type of work a projectionist would do in a movie theater."Fassett said slides were a big part of the station's programming. Usually, the slides illustrated an advertiser's message. While the slide was on the screen, an announcer in a studio off camera would narrate the image. Fassett recalls R.W. Sidley in particular using many slides. An amateur aviator, Fassett shot the photographs as he flew over the company's sprawling facility in Thompson.Slides were an essential part of the station's operation because there was only one television camera for the entire station. The behomoth had a turrent with fixed focal-length lenses that could not be changed while feeding an image to the control board. If the camerman needed to switch to a different lens, he had to signal the control room to cut to a slide or film, make the change, then return to feeding his signal from the camera."We were pioneering," he said. "There was no book on this. There was no where you could go and get anything on how to operate a station in those days. It was by guess and by golly."One camera operation was not unique to WICA-TV. Fassett said it was an economic necessity for many staions. "They were fabulously expensive," he said. "They were a huge thing and they were very, very expensive."Economy was not limited to equipment. Staff was stretched thin between radio and television duties to keep the operations on the air. Virtually everyone who worked at WICA ran camera at one time or another. Weighing in at 100 pounds, the studio camera was primitive compared to today's lightweight camcorders. Operating it was physically exhausting, because it had to be in almost constant motion."The sensitive element of the camera tube was such that if you didn't move that camera every so often, 30 seconds or so, you'd get a double image," Mandrake said. "You had to remember to shift the camera.""We had to watch those burn spots like crazy," said Strasen. "Only a few seconds would do it. We had to watch different types of lighting, too. If you put the camera tube on the lights and held it there for a couple sets, bingo, you had a burned tube and there wasn't anything you could do to get rid of it."The constant motion requirement made for some tedious camera work _ and viewing. Adding to the tedium was the lack of network feeds or news footage during news and sports broadcasts. The most viewers could hope for would be a slide or photograph shot at the scene of the news event."It was simply the announcer's handsome face on camera, that's all," Strasen said.
By mid-September 1953, Channel 15 was set to go on the air in Ashtabula, a scant seven months after the FCC gave its final go-ahead to the license. WICA-TV was one of the first UHF stations to begin broadcasting and was believed to be the first to occupy Channel 15. It was a great occasion for Ashtabula County and the local newspapers _ Conneaut News-Herald, The Star-Beacon, Geneva Free Press and Painesville Telegraph _ ran a special supplement announcing the debut of the new station at 6 p.m. Sept. 19, 1953."An aspect of WICA-TV's opening night will be spontaneous `television parties' in the homes having sets converted for receiving UHF transmissions," the newspapers reported. "Many owners of unconverted sets are expected to swarm in on friends and relatives who have converted to see how the picture and sound come through."The first man to be seen and heard on the new station was Charles Mandrake, veteran WICA radio announcer and assistant program director. Following his identification of the station, Mandrake delivered a 10-minute news program. A film program, "The Christophers," followed. Andrew Holecko presented a sports report at 6:40 p.m. A 35-minute inaugural program followed.The Star-Beacon gave the following account of WICA's first three hours on the air:"Saturday night's inaugural television program went off `quite well,' officials said, although some sets experienced difficulty in bringing in as good a picture as expected. Adjustment of sets has, in many cases, not been perfected due to the last minute rush which took up most of the time of local television dealers and repair men."Local television had come to northeast Ohio.

On Oct. 3, 1954, the station celebrated its first anniversary with an open house and afternoon of local programming. A look at the program grid for that special afternoon provides a revealing look at the kind of programming WICA hosted:
n 12:30 p.m. _ Fred Dense, an organist from Painesville, gave a program of organ melodies in the studio. His program was repeated live (videotape was not introduced until 1957) at 4 and 5:45 p.m.
n 12:45 p.m. _ The Polka Toppers with Robert Bilicic presented a 15-minute program of music.
n 1 p.m. _ Joanne Marie Salo, a 16-year-old Harbor High School student, presented 15 minutes of favorite piano selections. Her program was repeated later in the afternoon.
n 1:15 p.m. _ The Texas Tornadoes of Painesville, Dave and Irene Stowe, entertained with a program of country and hillbilly music.
n 1 p.m. _ Patricia Nelson, a vocalist from Ashtabula, gave a program of secular and religious music.
n 1:45 p.m. _ Phil Hammon's Orchestra, the Scarlet Notes, performed.
n 2 p.m. _ Charles Mandrake, WICA personality, presented his "popular television show," "Ye Olde Record Shoppe."
n 2:45 p.m. _ An all request program of piano music was played by L. Robert Coxe.
n 3 p.m. _ The Kiddies Korner.
n 3:30 p.m. _ People's Missionary Baptist Chaurch, with Rev. R.L. Fields presenting a singing program of spiritual and gospel songs. Also performing that day were area teen-agers and the members of the Massucci Accordian Band.
Colin recalls the open house as extremely successful. Over 2,500 people toured the studios and watched the programs being aired. Up to 300 crammed in one studio, hoping to have their faces beamed across the county as the station's only camera panned the audience.
The marshy land around the station was transformed into a parking lot. Colin said many of the visitor's cars got hung up in the muck and had to be rescued by station personnel who dashed between tractors, studios and desks.

The fascination of seeing your neighbor sing a song in a 21-inch box was not enough to capture and hold a television audience, let alone to convince an advertiser to spend money on the station. And in that was the demise of WICA-TV.
Consider the WICA programming line-up for Jan. 10, 1955. After the news and weather, viewers would be treated to "Telecomics," "Americana," a film program by "The Christophers," "Your Business" and a full hour of wrestling (film).
That same night, the network affiliates from Cleveland and Erie, Pa., would beam the following shows across the lakeshore: "Dinah Shore," "Milton Berle," "Fireside Theatre," "Warner Brothers Presents," "Wyatt Earp," "Danny Thomas," "The Phil Silvers Show," "Red Skelton" and "The $64,000 Question."
Three years earlier, these shows would have been no competition for local programming. Snow, ghost images and other symptoms of a weak signal would have mared the viewing.
But Colin said that the FCC granted the VHF stations substantial power increases shortly after the local UHF channels started going on the air. Not only could these small stations not access the network's programming and advertising dollars, they had to compete against them.
"Lo and behold, just about this time, the FCC allowed VHF stations all over the country to come in with full power enough to encompass us and get the picture we get today," Colin said. "When the FCC did this, there were 100 or more stations that went off the air, they couldn't handle this."
The financial loses were tremendous.
"The equipment we had was the best money could buy," said Bernato. "I understand that Rowley invested $250,000 in was just that UHF had its problems and the receiving equipment was not the best in the world.
WICA-TV struggled along despite the stiff competition for viewers who could now get programming without having to purchase adapters, a new set or antenna. The station's signal strength was not an issue in its demise. Colin has in his possession letters from viewers in New York, Michigan, Indiana and Connecticut reporting reception of WICA's signal.
The problem was a lack of local viewers who possessed sets capable of receiving WICA and programming of high enough quality to make it worth the investment of an adapter or new set.
According to program grids published in The Star-Beacon, the last day of broadcast was June 16, 1956. Programming included a full hour of "Home Town Teens," featuring "Five Kings," "The Barnyard Five" and "Vlock-Dahl Quartet," no competition for "The Lone Ranger," "Dinah Shore" "You Bet Your Life."
"I hate to be negative about it, but for a small town like this, it was state of the art," said Mandrake. "It was similar to the early days of sound recording. All it had to do was make a noise and people would be fascinated. I have to compare the early days of television's local stations to that."
"The problem with UHF was we simply couldn't get enough viewers in the area to make the business pay," Strasen said. "You got to have a bunch of people watching if you wanted to sell adds, and that's what it was all about."
In contrast to the yearlong build-up that preceded its arrival, WICA-TV left the air without fanfare.
"Bingo, we were off the air," said Donald Fassett, who was the station's business manager. "It surprised all of us."
"I think there was a sigh of relief among the staff," said Strasen. "I worked the better part of another year clearing up the debris _ mostly empty film cans and stuff that had piled up all over. I returned the free films before they got lost. There was a pile of them. Oh, gee, what a job that was."
Courtesy Ashtabula Star-Beacon Archives

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