Ron Simon

Curator, Television and Radio

August 25, 2009

The Dead Sea Scroll of TV History

by Ron Simon

Many anniversaries are being celebrated this year, but the public introduction of television seventy years ago has scarcely received mention (and no stamps: Early TV with Lassie, yes; Earliest TV, not a doggone chance). There is no existing footage of the very first TV program, just the speeches that welcomed the launch of commercial TV at the World's Fair on April 30, 1939. But deep in the Paley Center Archives is what director Michael Ritchie called the "Dead Sea Scroll" of television history: the earliest surviving footage from the medium that transformed our national culture.

Quite a few years ago, the American Film Institute uncovered a 16mm reel labeled 1939 in an estate sale. The eleven-minute film consisted of a series of scenes, abruptly changing from one to another, without sound. The acting was very broad, very much like a silent movie. 1939 was one of the most remarkable years in Hollywood cinema with such classics as Gone With the Wind and The Wizard of Oz; there was no way that a studio could have produced this primitive footage. The AFI handed the reel over to me for further investigation.

I researched all of the shows originated by NBC, the network most active in early television production, and discovered a description of a broadcast that matched the opening title card. This film contains scenes from NBC's Thursday Night Program of August 31, 1939: a live adaptation of the theatrical melodrama The Streets of New York or Poverty is No Crime. This play was originally written in 1857 by prolific Irish dramatist Dion Boucicault. Certainly the play's title had a Depression-era ring to it, but this was not the type of dated material you would expect on the latest technology.  But the play was in the public domain, having been revived on Broadway eight years earlier.

There was another clue in the credits: the name known to film and TV connoisseurs, Norman Lloyd. Norman is now one of our media elder statesmen, having worked closely with Alfred Hitchcock as an actor and producer, as well as later starring as the wise Dr. Auschlander in St. Elsewhere in the eighties. I have spoken with Norman over the years, and he always has vivid memories of his fledgling work in the thirties, especially Streets of New York. While he was rehearsing at NBC, Norman remembers encountering Frank Lloyd Wright in the elevator, who predicted that no one would watch the shiny new toy, television. Norman also recalled the show's director, Tony Bundsmann, a former actor trying to establish his artistic credentials. Bundmann later changed his name to Anthony Mann, and became a highly regarded director of cult westerns. And buried in the cast was a Phylis Eisley, who also changed her name, becoming Jennifer Jones.

Playwright Boucicault created old-fashioned theatrical thrills, full of stock villains and last-minute escapes. His plays also called for sensational special effects. You will see in this minute clip, just the way it was recorded, two coups de theatre: a snow storm and the villain setting fire to a house. Norman remembers the heavy coats that the cast had to wear under blistering lights on a hot August day: "On the air we were sweating, shiny thespians, and, as the snow fell, it stuck to our faces like the confetti it was." See for yourself and experience television in its infant stage.

 

Up to this point, television was a major disappointment. The public had purchased less than five hundred sets, much fewer than the five thousand that industry executives had forecasted. Who knows exactly how many people actually watched the Streets of New York? There was no way to record live programs; kinescope technology would arrive after World War II. Both Michael Ritchie, who wrote a book about these experimental days, and I marvel at the clarity of this footage. It is hard to film images off the screen without scanning lines. Whoever did it captured a medium being born. The content is as primitive as the technology. As you watch the rickety staging, Norman Lloyd asks that you "please be kind."

  • Hello Ron:

     

    Wow!  What a find.

    For years people have said that there is silent film footage shot off the TV tube of FDR's World's Fair Speech (April 1939) but the only thing I have ever seen is the off-the-monitor, FDR stills which exist on the Sarnoff Library website.  Presume you don't have any FDR film from the TV monitor like this.

    Would love to see the whole Streets Of New York, so I will try to get to the center.  Meantime, I am curious:  You said that they put up an intermission card at one point.  Do they also show a station ID card?  I often wondered what the W2XBS station identification looked like.  Could you post a still, please, if an ID exists?

    Thanks again for posting this great piece of broadcast history.

     

    DS


    Denny51, January 15, 2012 at 8:27 pm

  • Could also have been someone related to someone involved with the production, who wanted a record of the event.


    Mot, February 24, 2011 at 6:03 am

  • Seems pretty clear to me................when I was a kid I used to tape things off the radio pretty much at random with my little reel to reel recorder- songs, deejays talking, even ads- anything I thought was cool. Then later when I got my first VCR I did the same thing. I still have dozens of tapes and videocassettes that go "almost randomly from scene to scene".

    This film, most likely, was made by somebody who happened to have a movie camera at home and who had one of the first television sets. He obviously enjoyed filming random stuff off the air; maybe because he had a sense of history..............or maybe he just thought it was cool.


    Mot, February 24, 2011 at 4:46 am

  • Yes, I agree with you both. The clip is very odd and no one is sure how and why it was shot. The entire reel of eleven minutes just goes almost randomly from scene to scene. It even shows an intermission card. I guess TV executives were not sure how long people could watch a television set. NBC (the experimental station call letters was W2XBS) did many plays in 1939, including Brother Rat and Jane Eyre, Why Streets of New York survives is a mystery. But I applaud the cameraman; his or her images were probably clearer than what was transmitted.


    Ron, August 27, 2009 at 12:38 pm

  • That is a weird little clip. Is there any idea who might have filmed it?


    Eric, August 27, 2009 at 6:40 am

  • Hi Ron,

    That funny little clip certainly isn’t what I expected to be the earliest surviving TV footage. Did they have to do it live for TV? I wonder why it showed up in an estate sale and not in NBC archives. Did NBC also wonder if the “shiny new box” was going to catch on and be worth archiving? (And I thought Frank Lloyd Wright was ahead of his time.)

    c&g


    comingandgoing, August 26, 2009 at 7:55 pm

About

Ron Simon

Curator, Television and Radio

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Ron Simon has been a curator at The Paley Center for Media since the early 1980s. He is also an adjunct associate professor at Columbia University, New York University, and Hunter College, where he teaches courses on the history of media. Simon has written for many publications, including The Encyclopedia of Television and Thinking Outside of the Box, as well as serving as host and creative consultant of the CD-ROM Total Television. A member of the editorial board of Television Quarterly, and a judge on the George Foster Peabody committee, Simon has lectured at museums and educational institutions throughout the world. Among the numerous exhibitions he has curated are The Television of Dennis Potter; Witness to History; Jack Benny: The Television and Radio Work; and Worlds Without End: The Art and History of the Soap Opera. He also discovered such lost programs as the live Honeymooners and the only video performance of the Rat Pack.

Interests:

Anybody and everything that can be transformed into a pixel.

Contact

Ron Simon
rsimon@paleycenter.org

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