Fifty years ago, as the clock ticked toward 3 p.m., a small band of menwaited nervously for the moment when they would make history by airing thefirst television program in Baltimore.
Gathered in a small room at a downtown office tower were Neil H. Swanson,executive editor of the Sunpapers; Philip S. Heisler, later editor of TheEvening Sun; Charles Purcell, a photographer for The Sunday Sun Magazine;Charles Nopper, chief engineer; and Charlie Lau, his assistant.
Reporters on camera
Miles away at Pimlico Race Track were two Sunpapers reporters who had beendrafted to go in front of the cameras -- Jim McManus, later ABC's Jim McKay,and thoroughbred racing reporter Joseph B. Kelly.
The men had been commissioned by the Sunpapers, as the company was knownin those days, to establish a television station -- and do it fast enough tobeat WBAL on the air. Their goal was realized on the afternoon of Oct. 30,1947.
That morning, The Sun reported, "the first program ever televised by aBaltimore station will go on the air at 3 o'clock this afternoon from thePimlico Race Track. WMAR, the Sunpapers station, is undertaking to televisetwo races -- the fifth and the sixth, the latter the Grayson Stakes."
Earlier, that week on Oct. 27, McKay made another bit of broadcastinghistory when he intoned the first words ever heard over TV here: "This isWMAR-TV in Baltimore operating for test purposes."
At exactly 3: 08 p.m. on Oct. 30, Nopper signaled with his hand to acontrol panel technician and Swanson threw a switch. He then told Pimlico to"take it away."
The test pattern, which featured an Indian's head in a circle, faded out,and when the light returned to the screen viewers found themselves looking atthe Pimlico Race Track clubhouse.
"Most of the people who saw this first transmission did so by accident,for there had been little advance notice," The Sun reported in a 1957 10-yearanniversary article. "There were about 1,600 sets in the city, most of themdelicately tuned to receive snowy pictures from three stations operatingintermittently in Washington. At that moment, Baltimore ceased to be a'fringe' area."
"We didn't know what the hell we were doing," said Jim McKay, laughing theother day from Bellefield Farm, his Monkton home.
"The editor called me upstairs one day and said, 'You're it because youwere president of the drama society at Loyola College and that's good enoughfor us.' "
"There was no script and no plan," said Kelly, who called the race whileMcKay operated as the color man. "The weather was pleasant and we wereinstalled in a plywood heaven that had been built atop the press box. I thenbegan trying to call the race and told myself to 'use your head.' "
Kelly remembers the situation as being "primitive" and is glad that theinvention of videotape was still 10 years in the future.
"That way we didn't have to look at ourselves," he said with a laugh.
"During the broadcast, a track worker walked in front of us carrying aladder," McKay said, laughing. "He had no idea that he was on TV."
Looking for interviews
During the break between races, Kelly circulated through the crowd lookingfor celebrities from vaudeville or the movies, or other notables to interview.
Five models -- the first to be televised as well -- showed off the latestfall fashions.
"I wasn't fazed at all or the least bit nervous because TV then didn'thave the impact that it does today," said Kelly, father of Sun writer JacquesKelly, whose column appears elsewhere on this page.
"It didn't bother Jim either. He was a natural even in those days and hada wonderful semi-dramatic style, a graceful way of describing things and areal knack for the proper word."
Nervous that the new medium might affect attendance, Pimlico managementlimited TV coverage to only two races.
"You know what Mencken wrote in his diary about the broadcast: 'I wouldn'thave given a dime for an hour of that stuff even if it included a massacre,' "McKay said, with a chuckle. He was referring to writer and critic H.L.Mencken, the late columnist for The Evening Sun.
'A landmark for the state'
Gov. W. Preston Lane, who shared McKay and Kelly's rooftop aerie for newsphotographs, hailed the first broadcast as "a landmark for the state."
The broadcast was picked up throughout the region -- to the west in NewMarket, to the north in Havre de Grace and New Freedom, Pa., and on theEastern Shore in Rock Hall and Chestertown.
At the conclusion of the race, the station went off the air at 4 p.m. andwas dark until 5 p.m. when it showed a brief film, "Instruments of theOrchestra." Then the station went dark again until 9: 15 p.m., when it did asecond "remote" of the day from the Coliseum, where the Baltimore Bulletsdefeated the Indianapolis Kautskys basketball team.
The images were so clear that Mayor Thomas D'Alesandro Jr. observed,"That's probably the first race I ever saw from start to finish."
Implications of the day
Mayor D'Alesandro, impressed with the broadcast, told The Sun, "Within thepresent century we marveled at the invention of the telephone, telegraph,talking machine and electric light, but I doubt if the present era willaccomplish anything greater in the field of entertainment and education thanthe television receiving set. "
Kelly, who recalled being kidded about having his face shown in every barin Baltimore, was present at the first broadcast Preakness in 1948, when thefamed Citation thrilled not only railbirds at Pimlico but home viewers aswell.
"I recall riding an escalator in Hutzler's department store after thefirst broadcast and a lady shouting, 'I saw you on TV,' " Kelly said.
"Before long for most of us, television will lose the attraction of merenovelty and emerge as a remarkably new medium of mass communication," said aneditorial in The Sun, reflecting on the first broadcast. "Clearly televisionhas immense possibilities. But the exploration of these possibilities hasbarely begun."
Fifty years after the first telecast, McKay and Kelly are still workingtogether. Kelly is the publicist for the Maryland Million Race, which wasfounded by McKay in 1986.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun