August 25, 2009
The Dead Sea Scroll of TV Historyby 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."
Curator, Television and Radio
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.
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