Station manager George Koehler described the show merely as “a time eater,” a generous description according to other staffers.
“The people in the studio thought this was a waste of time,” said Ed Yates, one of the show’s directors. “What are you gonna do with a bunch of kids dancing? So what? The directors didn’t care much for the thing and I know the engineers thought it was stupid. … Most of the stuff was shot right in the studio. Everything had to be set up and corrected. They had to insert, play music and all that kind of stuff. It was a pain in the neck to them.”
Cameraman Bill Russell shared Yates’ opinion.
“Someone asked me what I thought of the show,” Russell said. “I said it might last three weeks.”
Russell’s perspective was as good as anyone’s in the still-evolving TV business. A former motion picture operator for Goldman Theaters in Philadelphia, Russell moved into television when WFIL hired him as a dolly pusher for the bulky two-man Fearless Crane camera.
“They’d hire you if you were breathing,” Russell says of those early days.
WFIL-TV was definitely a fly-by-the-seat-of-your pants operation in the early days.
“We would say, well let’s give this a shot and see what happens,” Russell said. “We didn’t know. Nobody knew. There wasn’t anybody in television who could tell you. They never did it before. It was a lot of trial and a lot of error, but really, when you think about it, not too many errors.”
WFIL staff announcer Bill Webber said many of the errors came at the most inopportune times, during sponsor-paid commercials.
During pitches showing the ease of operation of storm windows, the windows would refuse to budge. During one vacuum cleaner commercial, a white powder was sprinkled over a dark rug and sucked up by the powerful machine, only to have the bag inside the vacuum burst, filling the studio with a white cloud.
Lee Stewart’s Kissling sauerkraut in a bag demonstration was a disaster, when the contents exploded all over the studio when punctured with a fork. A pizza-making demonstration went well over its allotted time when a substitute model ad-libbed improvements to the script during the presentation with disastrous results.
Just lighting a set proved to be an adventure.
“We used to say that they could have a very small staff because the lighting was so imperfect that you looked different each time you went on,” said staff announcer Shelly Gross. “There were big scoops that were on scissors-like projection, like springs. As I’d go on, they’d say, ‘Light ‘em,’ and someone would jump up and pull one of these things that would still be shaking as I got on the air.”
Excerpted from Bandstandland © 2014 Larry Lehmer