Strike up a discussion on Chicago television and the subject will almost always turn to WBKB, the pioneering station put on the map by Capt. William Crawford "Bill" Eddy, an ex submarine commander who also happened to be deaf. There have been three stations that have answered to the call WBKB. Two were in Chicago. The third and current one, in Alpena Michigan, is a CBS affiliate and airs on channel 11. There is no relation to the previous two. This is the story of the first WBKB which aired in the Chicago area from 1940 to 1953.
Ask any long time Chicagoan what the Chicago, Granada, Nortown, and Uptown theaters have in common and they'll say Balaban & Katz. B & K didn't just build theaters, they built palaces. It was the 1920s, vaudeville was on the way out but Hollywood was coming up fast. By the 1930s, B & K theaters were packed, thanks to their pioneering efforts in air-conditioning. Balaban & Katz was one of many satellite companies owned or controlled by Paramount Pictures, Inc. Commonplace in the early to mid twentieth century, film production companies controlled the theaters playing their movies, allowing them complete control over the distribution and presentation of their product. Across the country Paramount had more than 1500 theaters plus more in Canada, Europe and in parts of South America.
There was one more equally significant connection between Paramount and Balaban & Katz- the companies were run by brothers. Barney Balaban had been made president of Paramount Pictures Inc. when the company emerged from the bankruptcy of its predecessor company Paramount Publix Corporation in 1935. John Balaban, along with Sam Katz ran Balaban & Katz Theaters Inc.
In Chicago, Balaban & Katz had more than 100 theaters displaying their name. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer had a similar set-up with its Loew's Theater circuit. However these monopolistic practices caught the attention of the U.S. Justice Department and in the end Paramount (as well as MGM and others) were ordered to decide which business they wanted to be in- film producing or theater ownership. Paramount chose to stay in the picture producing business. Because of this, in 1950, a new corporation was formed- United Paramount Theaters Inc., presided over by Leonard H. Goldenson.
But back in 1939, John Balaban convinced Leonard H. Goldenson, then a on the rise Paramount corporate lawyer to acquire an experimental television license that would become W9XBK. The second electronic station on the air (the first was W9XZV, Zenith Radio Corporation's experimental outlet on channel 1), W9XBK transmitted at 60-66 megacycles, then television's channel 2. Balaban & Katz also held the experimental television licenses for W9XBT, W9XBB, and W9XPR. When the VHF frequencies were changed by the FCC, W9XBK found itself transmitting at 66-72 megacycles, the current channel 4. W9XZV ended up on channel 2. Late in 1943, the station would become the first commercial station in Chicago, WBKB. Around the same time Paramount would launch a second television station, KTLA in Los Angeles.
Neither Paramount or B & K had any idea what to do with a television station. John Balaban decided to hire Bill Eddy who had been working for NBC. Eddy was given $60,000 to start up W9XBK. Eddy quickly assembled his staff. As chief engineer was Arch Brolly who Eddy knew from his days with Philo Farnsworth; Reinald Werrenrath, who worked with Eddy at NBC; and from Chicago, Bill Kusack and Dick Shapiro, TV repairmen who worked for RCA Victor; and Stan Osterlund.
Rigging a small truck they nicknamed "Mobile Unit Number One" Eddy and Werrenrath drove around the outskirts of the city checking the signal strength of the transmitter. Cameras had to be homemade including the mounts which Eddy fashioned from old barber's chairs which had been rigged with small motors to raise and lower the camera. While still working for Farnsworth, Eddy was given the task of dealing with the lighting problems that were common to early television. He later honed his talents at NBC. By the time Eddy and his staff would move into the fourth floor of the State-Lake building at 190 N. State St. (now the home to WLS-TV), Eddy's input was the standard of the industry.
There were no schedules. Much of what viewers tuned into was man on the street interviews. Because the Chicago Theater was often packed, there was never a shortage of people to talk to. Performers on stage at the theater would often came over to be on the station. It was all hit or miss.
December 7, 1941, the country would enter the war. Knowing the Navy would need radar (Eddy had developed the Eddy Amplifier, a highly sensitive sonar device) Eddy offered the Navy department his staff and facilities of W9XBK as a training school. Originally estimated to train 135 technicians, the total came closer to 86,000. The school became such a success that similar classes were set up all across the country
Shortly after the war began, the FCC announced that any experimental stations on the air for at least four hours a week would be able to stay on the air for the duration of the war. Chief engineer Arch Brolly was saddled with the task of replacing the station's original transmitter in time to satisfy the FCC. Although Paramount ordered a new transmitter to be delivered, the order was cancelled when the New York firm that was building the unit was ordered to convert their facilities for the war effort. Brolly and his staff decided to complete the transmitter themselves and after working day and night and using a ten gallon pickle jar as a water-cooling system, got the station on the air.
In 1943 W9XBK would become WBKB, Chicago's first commercial television station. Programming began to develop. 1945, veteran newsman Hugh Downs announced a fifteen minute newscast sweating under the hot studio lights. Mike Wallace auditioned but worried about his skin. Boxing and wrestling became popular because it was cheap to produce, and especially in the case of wrestling, easy to schedule commercials between bouts. It was open audition all the time. If you thought you had talent, you would go over to WBKB and be on television. WBKB would also air "B" and "C" films, usually the old cowboy shoot 'em ups to fill out their airtime. Up to this time, television programming was primarily a male domain. Most sets were in bars which were television's first major buyers. Two things happened that made that all change.
First Phil Wrigley, owner of the Cubs, was an advocate of television. He believed baseball could benefit from television if a system could be developed that would appeal to housewives as well as their husbands. Wrigley asked Eddy to design a system to televise baseball. Experimenting with various techniques during the Cubs' spring training, including a buried camera on third base and cameras in back of the catcher, Eddy wrote the book on televising baseball that contemporary networks still use today. For his efforts, Wrigley gave the rights to WBKB to air the Cubs for two years free. For a while, Cubs baseball was seen both on WBKB and WGN-TV. Also included on WBKB's early sports schedule was Cardinal Touchdown Club, a Cardinals highlights program hosted by Bob Elson and Marshall Goldberg.