Hollywood on TV

Tv technology collector Dicky Howett reports in 1999 on a trip to the USA and finds an American television communicopia.

On a recent holiday to Los Angeles, I decided that, just to add interest, I ought to drag my family around a few Hollywood tv studios. And why not? After all, I had to endure innumerable ‘factory outlet stores’, countless shopping malls and The Grand Canyon! (after all, just a big hole in the ground.)

First telly-stop was to a tv station called KCAL-TV located on the the fabulous Art Deco North Hollywood Paramount lot. KCAL-TV is situated near the corner of Melrose Avenue and Gower Street, which, to the cognoscenti, is the former RKO/Desilu studio site. The big ‘RKO’ concrete globe is still there but the radio mast and monochrome beeping bolts of light are long gone.

The reason for my pilgrimage was (any old excuse) that I own a restored RCA TK 10A tv camera that was (allegedly) used during the 1950s in Hollywood at station KHJ-TV, forerunner of today’s KCAL-TV. (All this call-sign switching can be confusing. Tracking the history of US tv is fraught. US VHF commercial tv licences are traded regularly. Likewise, station owners change call signs to suit the market. For example, a call sign ‘ KFI’ meant K-Farm Information). Unfortunately, KCAL’s Director of Engineering Neil Mazur had no available company history to offer me. I explained that my RCA TK10A camera had migrated from the US to England in the 1960s and then finished up at a local scrap yard. Also, as a writer I was interested in charting the type of equipment used by US tv during the monochrome era. Further research has revealed that the roots of station KHJ (KCAL) go back to the early days of US broadcasting. Indeed, as far back as mechanical tv in 1931, with West Coast broadcasting pioneer Don Lee tinkering with spinning discs on the medium wave. Later, in 1948, Lee’s experimental tv station W6XAO upgraded it’s output (in order to gain a commercial licence) by pumping out local collegiate track and field meets, including basketball and surfing at Santa Monica. Some of these programmes won Emmy Sports Awards for the station.

Re-named KHJ-TV, the station was bought in 1950 by General Teleradio Inc. who subsequently bought also RKO with its large film library. Movies thus featured heavily in the KHJ-TV schedules, with ‘sports’ broadcasts curtailed in favour of the movie fans. In 1988 the station again changed hands when the Walt Disney Company bought the licence and changed the station ident to the present ‘KCAL’. Today, because Disney now own the US network ABC, they had to divest, and KCAL was sold to an organisation called Youngs Inc. who have re-badged the station ‘KCAL9’.

The studio management at KCAL-TV (9) were very helpful to this nut from the UK allowing me to inspect the actual studio from whence my TK10A (allegedly) emanated. The original 1948 studio space (approx 50x70ft – two studios knocked into one) is now unused. KCAL9 production has transferred to the sprawling Paramount Lot and is located in a purpose-built automated broom cupboard labelled ‘Live News’ (complete with indentikit android ‘anchors’ with unlikely haircuts). My thanks to KCAL9 and whatever incarnation in the 21st Century. I, at least continue to hold a piece of their history. If the origins of my RCA camera might be due to informed guesswork, at least the RCA TK10A handbook I own is inscribed with the station call letters ‘KHJ-TV’ and even the exact address, ‘5515 Melrose Avenue Hollywood CA.’ Magic!

Continuing around L.A., I made a quick visit to North Sycamore Avenue, home of Mole-Richardson, the lighting company (oh, didn’t I mention I also own three 2K Mole Solar spots and a 17ft mic boom?). The Mole-Richardson company – founded in 1927 by Peter Mole and Elmer C. Richardson – have also a retail outlet situated nearby on North La Brea Avenue called Moletown from whence the faithful can purchase Mole t-shirts, caps, bags and perhaps the occasional luminaire. At Moletown, lighting seminars are held, including tours round the small but fascinating Mole lighting museum. Again, my thanks to Mole man John C. Clisham who was roped in at a moments notice to guide me through the well-lit portals.

Next, on the magical tv history tour was Disney’s ABC tv with their studios at 4151 Prospect Avenue, originally the old Vitagraph lot, near the location where David Wark Griffith filmed his 1916 silent epic ‘Intolerance’ ABCtv has seven cavernous studios – the 1925 Lon Chaney movie ‘The Phantom of the Opera’ was filmed in one of them. Modern ‘operas’ of the soapy sort currently in ABCtv production such as ‘Port Charles’ and ‘General Hospital’ where we witnessed impeccable video images on flicker-free monitors. We watched a sun-tanned man in a tan-coloured suit against a tan wall. For good measure, the lighting temperature was tan. It was a case of the Invisible Tanman. Adjustments were made to correct the technical difficulty. Down below, all the soap-sets were laid in situ covering the vast floor areas of Studios 54 and 57. ABCtv dosen’t actually have 57 studios, but that the numbering- which used to be A, B, C, etc – now indicates some arcane signal routing system plus the bonus of making ABCtv appear bigger than the Jolly Green Giant. Specifically, studios that are still extant include nos. 52 which is empty due to damage in the recent Northridge earthquake, 55 which is a rental stage, 61 which is for ABC Network News and 62 which houses ‘Good Morning America’ (West Coast). On the lot, ABCtv has also many redundant technical installations such as analogue 1 inch VT, duplicate Master Controls and post-production facilities. The local channel, KABC 7 has a news facility on the lot (studio 59), but that is moving to a more cost-effective cubby-hole out at cheery Glendale.

Our observations of US broadcast tv (this in 1999 – although I suspect there is little difference today (DH)) is that movies are completely ruined. As a consequence, in order that (say) a 90 minute movie sticks within its endlessly interrupted time slot, great chunks of footage are excised without regard to little things such a plot or intelligibility. Dialogue-especially the risqué kind- is ruthlessly overdubbed, in case it depraves and corrupts or even wakes the viewer. For example, a slightly depraved curse “Goddamit!” becomes a lily-livered “Goshdarnit!” As for the replacement “You MotherFathers!”, well, I can’t imagine what that started life as.

All this mucking about with the dialogue would go unnoticed if the dubbing voices matched, which they never seemed to. The sum total tended to emphasise that certain naughty words had been cut. If this is ‘free’ television, give me old-fashioned British licenced and regulated tv any day!

© Dicky Howett 1999.