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Jacques Kelly: When the first private television came to Baltimore

The Baltimore Museum of Industry’s recently opened exhibit “Tap Talk Text” looks back at Maryland’s communications pioneers.

It touches on the telegrams once delivered to homes to announce a death in the family.

And it shows that WBAL-TV’s popular afternoon program, “The Quiz Club,” lasted an hour (circa 1956), while its total nightly news broadcast was a brisk 15 minutes. Once the recap of the day’s events was over, the station returned to the reruns of “The Little Rascals.”

Joseph Abel, the museum’s historian, turned up a fascinating relic: Elizabeth Behlert’s handwritten 1929 notebook from her training class at the old Chesapeake and Potomac Telephone exchange at Guilford Avenue and 31st Street. As a telephone operator, she took and placed calls from the Belmont, University, Tuxedo, Chesapeake, Homewood and Hopkins numbers.

She was told to use preferred telephonic English pronunciations. She writes that when pronouncing the word “Broadway,” it is important to emphasize the “d.” For “Lafayette,” accent the “et.” Her trainers instructed Behlert to pronounce “nine” in two syllables, “ny-en” and “w” as “double U.” The Baltimore accent was not allowed.

The show reproduces a list of telephone users about 1895: one page, in large type. Mayor Ferdinand C. Latrobe is among the connected, as are the Hutzler department store, the B&O Railroad, a handful of physicians and druggists, Mount Vernon Mills, and the Patapsco Guano Co., one of numerous fertilizer businesses trading on the city’s harbor.

The exhibit acknowledges the role that the Bendix Corp. once played in Baltimore, both as an employer and as a maker of consumer radios and early televisions. This business began at 920 East Fort Ave. in South Baltimore and in 1941 built a new East Joppa Road headquarters in Towson.

While Bendix radios came in nifty Art Deco Bakelite chassis, there was a drop-leaf mahogany model that doubled as an end table. The table’s drawers were false, and their pull knobs turned the radio on and off, adjusted the volume and tuned in stations. The speakers were out of sight. It was marketed as the Bendix Phantom Dial.

The exhibit also notes how in 1947, John Moscato, a new owner of a Highlandtown radio repair shop, bought a build-it-yourself television kit and became what is believed to be the first working private television owner in Baltimore.

In an interview, Moscato’s son, Thomas, recalled how his father had just given up a good job at Bethlehem Steel’s Sparrows Point shipyard, where he helped build Liberty Ships during World War II. His father bought what had been a corner pharmacy, at Gough Street and Highland Avenue, where a few years earlier, he had met his future wife, Mary Fratta.

“It was not far from Haussner’s restaurant and I think I spent my childhood giving directions to it,” said the son.

After a month at a work bench, John Moscato got his television to function. Baltimore then had no broadcasters. He rigged up a rooftop antenna and tuned in WMAL in Washington. They put the set, with a 7-inch picture tube, in the shop window. It drew a crowd for televised prize fights. Even the crosstown bus slowed down. John’s brother-in-law, Lou Fratta, adjusted the rooftop antenna for better reception.

John’s Radio Repairs eventually acquired a neon sign and sold the Admiral, RCA and Zenith brands.

“When my father opened, we were poor. There wasn’t much business,” said Thomas Moscato. “As television caught on, all of a sudden, we had two or three guys working for us. I no longer had holes in my shoes.”

There were other perks. “RCA was generous with providing tickets to Colts games,” he said. The Moscato shop endured for decades and was used as a location in “The Wire.”

“I had a television in my bedroom,” said his son, “when most people in Baltimore had no television at all.”

jacques.kelly@baltsun.com

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