The Day Seattle Got TV -- `It's Cute, But I Don't Think It'll Ever Amount To Much,' A Radio Broadcaster Concluded

An excerpt from "KING: The Bullitts of Seattle and Their Communications Empire"

Dorothy Frances Stimson's shy nature and family wealth might have meant a genteel life in Seattle's Highlands if not for two things. First was her marriage to Scott Bullitt, a handsome lawyer whose connections and passion for politics led him to run for senator and governor. Second was Bullitt's premature death from cancer. The marriage drew Dorothy into public life; the death opened a career. Widowed at age 40 with three children, she kept the foundering Stimson real-estate business alive through the Depression.

The next decade changed everything; Seattle boomed with World War II. Looking for new business investments, Dorothy Stimson Bullitt grew interested in radio, a market dominated already in Seattle by another family with old timber money, the Fishers. In 1947, the Stimson company bought the smallest of eight AM radio stations in the city, KEVR, rechristened it KING and launched King Broadcasting.

Everybody knew broadcasting was changing fast. Dorothy Bullitt for years had been keenly following the development of television. So had others; 6,000 people had bought TV sets in Seattle, hoping there would soon be something to watch on them.

SEATTLE IN 1948 WAS a city full of itself. It had emerged from World War II transformed. New neighborhoods sprang from land annexed by the city, which had grown during the war from 368,000 people to 480,000. Big B-47s rolled out of Boeing; the company was fat with $300 million in back orders. The Washington State Ferry System's ultramodern Kalakala crossed the bay like a low-flying Buck Rogers spaceship. Seattle's deep-water harbor no longer looked south to the lumber-hungry market of California but instead faced west to the markets of Asia. Business leaders hoped China's millions would soon be buying goods from the West, once the politics there settled down. A new international airport was being finished south of Seattle at Bow Lake. The University of Washington was gaining national prominence with its new health sciences center.

In politics, a freshman legislator from Spokane, Albert Canwell, staged hearings to root out suspected Communists in the UW faculty. The Democratic governor, Mon Wallgren, was ousted by the mayor of Seattle, Republican Arthur Langlie. And King County Commissioners appointed a new prosecutor, Charles O. Carroll, a Republican and a former All-American football player, to fill an unexpired term. In one of his first public statements as prosecutor, Carroll said he had heard rumors about illegal gambling in the region and, although the police chief and the sheriff had assured him the region was clean, he promised an investigation. Carroll would fast make himself the most powerful Republican in Washington.

The city seemed a worker's paradise. On weekends, dawn rose over Elliott Bay to show hundreds of dinghies full of anglers competing in union-sponsored salmon derbies. Seattle Police Department patrolmen made a starting salary of $2,700 a year, enough to buy a waterfront lot north of the city limits for $1,100. A beer-truck driver made $1.53 an hour, while a sheet-metal worker made $2.21 an hour. Without saving too hard, a schoolteacher could afford a beach cabin in the San Juan Islands.

The single most powerful figure in town was Dave Beck, executive vice president of the Teamsters Union, who made the cover of Time magazine in 1948. Beck had a special screened-off luncheon table at the Olympic Hotel, where his booming curses and cackling laugh filled the dining room. Writer Malcolm Cowley was amazed at the newness of the city and the apparent prosperity of its citizens: "Everyone seemed to be middle class and literate, no matter what his trade."

IN SEATTLE AND THROUGHOUT postwar America, it was a perfect time for the public to experience television: a device to fill the leisure hours of workers and their families and to sell countless goods pouring from the factories: refrigerators, cars, furniture, clothing and more.

Americans had been reading about television for years. The Radio Corporation of America, owner of the National Broadcasting Co., opened its first experimental television station in 1930, using an antenna atop the Empire State Building. The first broadcast, Felix the Cat, was captured on receiver screens the size of playing cards. Columbia Broadcasting System launched its experimental station a year later. NBC displayed the technology at the New York World's Fair in 1939, featuring a telecast of a speech by President Franklin Roosevelt, and began regular telecasts that year. The first sponsored program aired two years later.

During World War II, the manufacture of television receivers was halted, leaving 10,000 sets and a shrinking number of stations. But after the war, the numbers grew. By 1948 there were close to 1 million receivers and almost 40 stations, mostly in the East. No station existed north of Los Angeles and west of Minneapolis. TV networks began the 15-minute news broadcast that year with the CBS program "Douglas Edwards and the News," essentially a reading to the camera of the day's headlines. NBC, the DuMont network and the American Broadcasting Co. soon launched similar programs. Network news generally ran at that length until 1963, when CBS debuted the first 30-minute newscast.

The Fishers assumed that they would bring television to Seattle. In 1929 they tested a television system that sent a signal of a man's face to an experimental receiver at Mary Lawrence's house. The 1-inch-square screen displayed only a hazy likeness. KOMO's chief engineer, Francis Brott, saw a big future in TV, with KOMO as an industry leader. The Fishers were confident that, when the time and technology were right, KOMO would be ready with one of the finest TV studios in the nation.

But it wasn't the Fishers who brought television to Seattle. In 1947 a man named Palmer K. Leberman owned Seattle's KRSC-AM and FM and a license for an unbuilt TV station. Leberman believed television had a great future as a marketing and advertising tool. He also believed its greatest potential was in transforming the distribution of the newspaper, a product that required hundreds of people for its delivery. Someday, he believed, a television station would transmit an entire newspaper to people's homes, where a printer would reproduce the pages.

AS WITH OTHER BUSINESS pioneers, Leberman's vision was ahead of the market. He had a serious problem finding cash. He needed $153,900 for TV equipment alone. Then there was the matter of what to broadcast. What could hold an audience for hour after hour? Could he possibly fill an entire day? Then another day? He guessed he could run some movies, something filmed in Seattle, and maybe carry something from the four TV networks, assuming he could get film from them to Seattle.

Born in the Midwest, Leberman attended the United States Naval Academy. He married a wealthy woman and, for a time, lived on the shore of Lake Washington and ran the Kelvinator Radio Sales Corp. (hence, KRSC) at Fifth Avenue and University Street in downtown Seattle. He started KRSC as a tiny, 50-watt AM station that struggled to stay afloat during the 1930s. After the war, he started Seattle's first FM station, although few homes had sets that picked up the static-free benefits of frequency modulation.

Leberman then moved to New York for a job as an executive with Family Circle, a magazine distributed exclusively in supermarkets and financed by Charles Merrill, founder of a stock brokerage company and of Safeway Stores. Merrill wasn't happy that his lieutenant was being distracted by weekend trips to Seattle, where TV problems kept mounting. In early 1948, Leberman flew out to Seattle and asked his employees for a blunt assessment: Was Seattle ready for television?

The city's newspapers had been trumpeting the coming of television for months. Before there was anything to watch, Philco, RCA, Westinghouse and other TV makers sold some 6,000 sets in Seattle. A cheap TV in a steel cabinet went for $192. An RCA Victor set with a polished mahogany cabinet, 52-square-inch screen, and an "Eye Witness Picture Synchronizer" cost $339. The dealers promised a huge leap from the experience of radio, a chance to see boy meets girl, to see the play called back by the referee, to see news as it happens or cowboys trotting on ponies "right into your own living room!"

Leberman was feeling pressure from the FCC to build his TV station or lose his license. But TV was far more expensive than radio, and the extent of these costs was unknown. Television hardware was unreliable and it broke easily. Costly tubes lasted only weeks. Merrill was helping Leberman with the expenses, but the decision to go forward was not easy. Television was going to cost heavily, without any certainty of profit.

But Leberman had a vital asset, a 22-year-old dynamo named Lee Schulman, one of the few people in broadcasting who had actually worked in television. In New York, Schulman had worked on experimental TV stations for the DuMont network and for NBC. TV had already advanced enormously. Ten years earlier, actors' faces had to be painted orange with purple and brown accents to keep from washing out in a broadcast. Schulman not only knew the technology but had endless ideas for new applications. He never seemed to tire. He was passionate about television, had a flair for finding the theatrical, and was a pain to everyone who knew him. He dominated conversations, bristled around authority figures, and seemed to view himself as a Hollywood director. When he first came to Seattle, he brought big-city automobile manners. While most Seattleites patiently waited for green lights and then accelerated at a moderate rate, Schulman was quick on the horn, anxious to get past other cars. He was always in a hurry. He wanted everyone to jump when he barked. Most did.

But even though he could be exasperating, no one doubted his smarts or instincts. He would push engineers to do the impossible because his gut told him it could be done; and usually he was right. It was other people's money that started television in Seattle, but Schulman pushed it onto the airwaves. He was a true pioneer of television in Seattle but would get little public recognition of his achievement.

Schulman and the KRSC engineers spent most of 1948 trying to get their TV signal working, pushing back that first broadcast. The technical problems were enormous. The hardware was delicate and intimidating to any television engineer, but there was no such thing as a television engineer in Seattle, only radio people trying to make do. RCA sent one of its people to explain the operation of its $25,000 transmitter. When asked how long it took to become a qualified TV engineer, the RCA man answered: "I don't know. There aren't any yet."

Things got under control in late November. The transmitter tower was completed at a site across from Queen Anne High School just days ahead of a perfect candidate for Seattle's first live broadcast: a Thanksgiving Day football championship game between West Seattle and Wenatchee. KRSC had no studio, so it needed a well-lighted event. On Thanksgiving, most people would be off work and would have had time to find a television set. And, equally important, KRSC could broadcast the game for free.

ON A COLD, SUNNY DAY, the engineers set up their cameras on the north side of Seattle's Memorial Stadium, crowded with nearly 13,000 fans. The field was muddy. Sunlight reflected off pools of water, causing a distortion on camera lenses. The RCA cameras had another problem. They had to be kept moving or the image would burn into the screen temporarily, creating a ghosting effect. The football players had their problems, too. They slipped and tripped in the goo, dropped passes and fumbled balls. Wenatchee, ridiculed in Seattle as a team that would rank last in the big-city league, scored early in the first period. Halfway through the game, rain began to fall.

Palmer Leberman had flown out to Seattle for the historic event and he made an appearance on camera. He even made a little speech, but nobody heard what he said. A sound cable lying in a puddle had shorted out, killing the audio. Jack Shawcroft and Tom Priebe operated the two cameras, each with four lenses that pivoted on turrets, following cues from Schulman. The images were microwaved with occasional interruptions to the Queen Anne antenna, about a half-mile away. Ted Bell, KRSC radio announcer, called the game for TV, AM and FM - one of the nation's first triple-casts. Water soaking into wires caused loud hums, but images and sound were going out over the airwaves. It was a ragged miracle of technology, but Seattle had television.

A lot of people in Seattle were excited about the broadcast. Several hotels set up TV sets for the public. Dorothy Bullitt watched a tiny screen at home. She had been keenly interested in television since 1939, when she saw it demonstrated in a department store in New York. She had watched that broadcast from a curtained area, the primitive camera needing so many lights that the heat scorched furniture. But she was hooked. From then on, she read everything she could find about TV, visited labs where TV was being improved and kept asking questions. She particularly followed the finances of the early East Coast stations. How much money did they bring in? What did it cost to run a station? Dorothy never let emotion loosen her purse, but she admired Leberman's pioneering spirit. She sent him flowers on the day of his first broadcast.

As the football game progressed, Dorothy found it hard to follow the blurring shapes on screen. She never saw the ball and had to trust Ted Bell when he announced that West Seattle had tied the game, which ended 6-6.

After the broadcast, the manager of KIRO radio, Loren Stone, left the Washington Press Club, where he had watched the game, and walked back to his studio at the Cobb Building. Stone had been keenly interested in TV, but he now felt comfortable that radio would remain dominant.

"It's kinda interesting," he told his friend, Jerry Hoeck, owner of an advertising agency. "It's cute, but I don't think it'll ever amount to much."

THE KRSC ENGINEERS DID NOT conclude their day with a celebration. They still had work to do that night. The first television broadcast in Northwest history continued as follows: Lucky Pup at 5:15 p.m.; Devil Horse, Chapter 1, 5:30 p.m.; a Romeo Monk cartoon, 5:50 p.m.; News Digest, 6:45 p.m.; Weather, 6:55 p.m.; Face the Music, 7 p.m.; Paris Fashions, 7:15 p.m.; To the Queen's Taste, 7:30 p.m.; People's Platform, 8 p.m.; Air Power Is Peace Power, 8:30 p.m.; Street Scene, starring Betty Field, 9 p.m.; and sign off at 10 p.m. The following day started with a test pattern at 10 a.m., then a Lucky Pup program at 5:15 p.m. Various films ensued and, again, sign off at 10. No programs were announced for Monday or Tuesday, but Wednesday night featured a sure draw, the University of Washington vs. Notre Dame.

KRSC had made history, all right, but not money. Nor would it for a long time. The station was losing $10,000 a month. Merrill refused to put up any more cash. Family Circle had a future, but not television in Seattle, he figured. Desperate for cash, Leberman and his station manager and minor partner, Robert Priebe, went to a bank and made their plea. All he needed was $50,000, Leberman told the banker. That would pay the bills for the short time before advertising dollars started flowing in. The banker replied that television had no future, so it was not reasonable to expect a loan. Leberman soon realized his situation was hopeless. He may have launched television, but he couldn't stay in it. He was about to make television history again, this time as the first person in America to sell a TV station. A grandmother was about to bail him out.

From "KING: The Bullitts of Seattle and Their Communications Empire," University of Washington Press, 1996. O. Casey Corr is a Seattle Times reporter. Corr will read from the book at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday at Elliott Bay Book Co., First Avenue South and South Main Street.