The surviving examples of early live television only exist because they were recorded on 16mm film. (Basically, a movie camera was pointed at a TV monitor in the studio, or at a TV station. The resulting film was called a kinescope.) Collecting 16mm film prints is a hobby that’s been around for decades, but the vast majority of collectors have been movie buffs who regard television as the hated interloper that destroyed the Golden Age of Hollywood. Okay, I’m embellishing a little. Most of them are just more intrigued with entertainment of the 1920s-1940s than with stuff from the 1950s-1960s, and I can understand that. I was that way myself. I was an active film collector for a third of a century, but all I ever bought were silent movies— apart from a few episodes of The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show, and an ep of Kung Fu that I still haven’t gotten around to watching.
Nowadays I’m pumping my collector friends for stories about any rare kinescopes they’ve found over the years. One of the best things about finding one is that you very possibly have the only existing copy of a broadcast that’s otherwise lost.
I know of a long-time collector in Southern California who was devoted to searching out rare early kinescopes. He prefers to remain anonymous here, but he’s justifiably proud of the rarities he’s found, and he agreed to a little interview.
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Me: Thanks so much for taking part. How did you happen to become interested in collecting 16mm kinescopes?
Mr. X: I did some minor collecting of 8mm films after my grandparents gave me a late-1940s Revere projector (which I still have, and it still runs). I was one of those audio-visual geeks in elementary school, junior- and high-school, up until college. I started operating 16mm projectors around 1963, but never really developed an interest for 16mm until the late ’70s.
In 1979, when I was living in Northern California, I was watching Creature Features on KTVU Channel 2. They advertised a retrospective of early ’50s science fiction TV shows at the Lawrence Hall of Science at UC Berkeley. I went to this, and an instant interest developed. They showed TV episodes such as Space Patrol, Tom Corbett: Space Cadet, and Tales of Tomorrow, among others that were made before I was born and had never seen before.
I started out as a novice collector, getting a little of everything– TV shows, features, cartoons, serials, etc. I subscribed to The Big Reel and other periodicals. I soon made contact with some people who had kinescopes for sale or trade. No stopping from there!
In the 1980s, and in the pre-eBay days of the 1990s, there were many kinescopes around for sale. However, as more and more collectors began to seek them out, they became scarcer and scarcer. I moved to Southern California and met a lot of collectors in Los Angeles. I really started to seek out kinescopes everywhere. However, even at that time they were becoming harder to find.
Then eBay hit. Suddenly there were no more fixed prices, and now I had to compete in bidding wars with deep-pocketed collectors, archives and international groups, so it started to slow to a crawl, unfortunately. A few people I knew kept an eye open for me on private lists, contacts and off-eBay sites. I still found a few pieces. However, the days of easy pickings and low prices drew to a close in the ’90s.
On that day when I attended that showing at the Lawrence Hall of Science, one of the films they showed had an unusual network ID. “This is the DuMont television network.” I had never heard of television networks other than the big three (NBC, CBS, ABC). What was this “DuMont” network? I then searched and discovered there had been a fourth network, started by television pioneer Dr. Alan B. DuMont from 1946 to 1955, and later closed/sold to Metromedia in 1956.
There were no 16mm kinescopes of their shows around, as they supposedly were destroyed in the late 1950s. Later on in my collecting days, suddenly some 16mm kinescopes (aka telerecordings) of DuMont TV shows showed up, and I was able to pick up a few, such as The Adventures of Ellery Queen, Rocky King: Inside Detective, and Captain Video and His Video Rangers.
The only shows that seemed to exist on film were in archives such as UCLA’s, or (now) digitally at some other museums. These are by far the most interesting, since they are virtually non-existent (especially for collectors).
There are so many interesting kinescopes to mention, some of which I still have— and some I do not, for various reasons (primarily financial). An interesting genre that I have a few examples of are the TV detectives, such as Rocky King on DuMont, but also NBC’s Man Against Crime starring Ralph Bellamy and Martin Kane: Private Eye, starring Lee Tracy.
I’ve always been partial to science fiction, such as Space Patrol, Tom Corbett: Space Cadet and Tales of Tomorrow, and I have some fine kinescope examples of these shows. Despite limited budgets and crude technology, for their time they provided entertainment for both children and adults.
Lastly, a big area for me in my collection is dramatic anthologies, such as Studio One, Playhouse 90, The U.S. Steel Hour, Motorola TV Playhouse, Philco TV Playhouse, Robert Montgomery Presents, Climax! and others, when a new play was presented every week, live from New York.
Most TV shows from 1948-1958 were telecast from New York, and only a few like Playhouse 90, Climax! and Space Patrol originated in Hollywood.
Me: Have you found many one-off broadcasts? In other words, specials, newscasts, or local broadcasts from the Golden Age?
Mr. X: There are several I’ve had in my collection that are worth mentioning. One is especially timely, with the passing of Mike Wallace. I have a local New York CBS show he hosted on location in 1950, called All Around the Town, before its CBS network run in 1951/52. They visit a Standard Oil refinery in New Jersey, just across the river from New York City. Lots of technical problems, bad monitors, cameras etc. Quite crude but still very enjoyable! I still have this in my collection.
Another one was a local TV pilot show from Philadelphia with Hollywood actor Dick Foran, called The Phantom Sheriff. No one seems to know anything about this, and it appeared to be a work print (edits, grease pencil marks, cues etc.), which may or may not have been aired. It’s a western, shot back east on a TV station backlot, circa 1950s, so this is a real mystery. A collector friend from Philadelphia desperately wanted this, so I no longer have it.
Finally, I have some prints of a long-running TV show from San Francisco (it ran from 1952 to 1966, apparently), called Science in Action, produced by the California Academy of Sciences in Golden Gate Park, in SF. Wonderfully crude, but entertaining at the same time. I have several of these, and they were run on local TV in San Francisco in that time period.
I look forward to your blog.
Me: Thanks, Mr. X!