For decades, the Chicago market was the leading producer of innovative, entertaining and memorable programming. Now, the Museum of Broadcast Communications with local authors Daniel Berger and Steve Jajkowski pay tribute with Chicago Television, telling the story of how a city of fell in love with television.
The history of television in Chicago begins with the birth of the medium and is defined by the city's pioneering stations. WBKB (now WLS-TV) was the principal innovator of the Chicago School of Television, an improvisational production style that combined small budgets, personable talent, and the creative use of scenery and props. WNBQ (now WMAQ-TV) expanded the innovative concept to a wider audience via the NBC network. WGN-TV scored with sports and kids. Strong personalities drove the success of WBBM-TV. A noncommercial educational station, WTTW, and the city's first UHF station, WCIU, added diversity and ethnic programming.
The airwaves in Chicago have been home to a wealth of talented performers and iconic programs that have made the city one of the country's greatest television towns. Chicago Television gives readers a front-row seat on a journey through the first 50 years of Chicago television, filled with familiar faces and forgotten friends.
Highlights of Chicago Television:
• The book boasts more than 200 vintage photographs, including many from the collection of the Museum of Broadcast Communications, as well as private collectors and the collections of local stations and personalities.
• Chicago’s role in revolutionizing how television programs were produced, referred to as the Chicago School of Television, is highlighted throughout the book.
• In September 1960, the very first televised presidential debate took place at the WBBM-TV studios.
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It takes a lot of nerve to claim to tell the panoramic story of Chicago television in just 144 pages of pictures and words. But I’m pleased to report that two former archivists for the Museum of Broadcast Communications, Daniel Berger and Steve Jajkowski, have proved themselves up to the task.
Through Arcadia Publishing’s Images of America series, they’ve just published Chicago Television, a glorious and nostalgic journey through the first 50 years of the medium — a period roughly from 1940 to 1990. Proceeds from the paperback, officially out Feb. 1 and available online at www.museum.tv and Amazon.com, benefit the Museum of Broadcast Communications.
More than 200 vintage photographs are complemented by the editors’ illuminating captions and commentary. They’re all here — from “Kukla, Fran & Ollie” to “Siskel & Ebert” — the pioneers and pitchmen, the kids’ shows, the talk shows, the game shows, the sports shows, and, of course, the news shows. Another thing I liked about the book: I counted four pictures of Kup and not one of Oprah.
More than anything else, as Berger and Jajkowski note in their introduction, it really is the story of “how a city fell in love with television.” One of those love-struck citizens, Bob Sirott, a child of Chicago television’s golden age who became a local broadcast icon himself, lends his considerable authority to the book with his foreword. In part, he writes:
“For baby boomers like myself, the screens may have been small, but the personalities were huge. We did not have VCRs, DVDs, iPods, and podcasts, but we did have television hosts who connected instantly to us in a very human way. And because we did not have many other sources for home entertainment, those men and women were as important to us as members of our family, sometimes even more so. As the youngest of three children — who were much older than me — I spent a lot of time alone at home with the television.”
In 1951, Chicago was singled out as America’s “Top TV Town” in a Collier’s magazine piece that took note of what was known as the “Chicago School of Television.” Thanks to trailblazers like Dave Garroway and Burr Tillstrom, shoestring budgets and primitive technology proved no obstacle to creating programs that were inventive, intimate and intelligent, all at the same time. Adds Sirott:
“Looking back, it is easy to see why I became comfortable speaking into microphones and cameras. The impression all those television friends made on me is indelible. It made me want to grow up and do what they did. I learned from the best. These days when I am on television — now on the other end of that relationship — I never forget the warmth, comfort, and companionship that connection can bring to someone through the lenses, wires, screens and whatever Apple invents next. All those early practitioners of television know how to do it. Maybe it is because they all started in radio, like Garroway, broadcasting to thousands one at a time.”