On Thursday, Oct. 30, 1947, television came to life in Baltimore via WMAR (also known as “Sunpapers Television”).
“At precisely 3 o’clock,” according to a 1957 Baltimore Sun article commemorating TV’s 10th anniversary, “the picture of an Indian’s head in a circle fades out, and when light returns the screen shows the Pimlico Race Course clubhouse. Somebody named Jim McManus [later known as Jim McKay] starts talking and Baltimore’s first television program is under way.” Some 41/2 months after those horses made history, WBAL hit the airwaves on March 11, 1948, followed in November by WAAM, the precursor to WJZ-TV.
Just three years later, the juggernaut that was television had begun: in Baltimore, television viewers already outnumbered radio listeners during the 6 p.m. to 10:30 p.m. time period, with the three stations broadcasting approximately 450 programs during their 230 hours of weekly airtime. Indeed, more than a half-million televisions had been sold in the area by 1953, according to The Sun, with approximately 90 percent of all households owning one. With WMAR and WAAM on the air from 9 a.m. to midnight, and WBAL starting broadcasting at the wee hour of 7, the question was: how to fill all the time slots? With very few nationally syndicated programs, the answer was locally produced programming, and the offerings, an almost eerie omen of things to come.
There were talk shows, such as “Luncheon with the Ladies” or WMAR’s long-running “The Woman’s Angle,” all interspersed with live commercials where anything might go wrong— like the time hostess Ann Mar’s tube of Betty Crocker refrigerated biscuits exploded.
There were shopping shows like WAAM’s “Shopping for You” with Penny Chase; game shows such as renowned local producer Brent Gunts’ “Quiz Club” that offered prizes ranging from Mash’s hams to perfume, or the long-running “Dialing for Dollars” that urged you to remember the “count and the amount.” And there were science-oriented programs— “The Johns Hopkins Science Review” and “This is Your Zoo,” with Babette the Baboon.
But perhaps the most memorable segment of programming was devoted to kids. Royal Parker, cap askew with holes in the knees of his baggy pants, shuffled around as P.W. Doodle. Between 1960 and 1965, a swarthy, black-bearded Larry Lewman welcomed “buccaneers” to the “Pete the Pirate” show, while the indomitable Stu Kerr inhabited a plethora of personalities including Bozo the Clown (in the Baltimore franchise of the show) and the cream-pie-throwing Professor Kool.
New local programming slots opened up when the Maryland Center for Public Broadcasting opened in 1969 in Owings Mills, with WMPB, Channel 67 becoming the first public broadcast station in the Maryland Public Television group. (Channel 45 began in 1971.) But, alas, as the costs of local production rose at the same time that nationally syndicated programming took hold, the heyday of local programming would soon be over. And so we look back fondly at the kooky, the fluffy, and the landmark programming that defines our local television past. >>
> The Woman’s Angle, 1951-1976, WMAR
One of the very first shows to appear on local television, “The Woman’s Angle” was also one of the longest running, surviving an impressive 25 years on WMAR. Polly Drummond was the first hostess of this precursor to Oprah, a talk show aimed at an exclusively female audience.
Drummond was soon followed by Ann Mar, the former hostess of another early television show, “Dinner at the Belvedere.” Mar reminisced in a 1979 Sun Magazine article of the many celebrities she interviewed during her tenure: including Emmett Kelly, who “opened his makeup kit and transformed [her] into Weary Willie [his clown character],” Ronald Reagan and Victor Borge. Mike Todd first announced his intention to marry Elizabeth Taylor to Mar on “The Woman’s Angle.” Duke Ellington performed “Mood Indigo” live in the studio.
But “The Woman’s Angle,” which aired at 1 p.m. weekdays, is most indelibly associated with Sylvia Scott, who began hosting the program in 1959 and remained until the show’s demise. Initially, Scott took responsibility for booking all of her guests and producing the show. And although “The Woman’s Angle” retained its characteristic blend of interviews and daytime chat, complemented by a recipe or two, Scott’s stylish elegance and perfectly maintained hairdo— not to mention her ever-present cup of coffee and cigarette— created “a lunchtime world of neatly crossed ankles and furniture polish,” according to a piece written by Sun critic Judy Bachrach in the 1970s. In 1976, the show was canceled and Scott retired to the Eastern Shore, where she ran an antiques store in Oxford.
> Romper Room, 1953-1994, WBAL, WAAM, WMAR
“Romper stomper bomper boo/Tell me, tell me, tell me do/Magic Mirror, tell me today/Did all my friends have fun at play?” asked Miss Nancy before gazing into the Magic Mirror and revealing who she saw in its depths. For many children, hearing your name on “Romper Room” was nearly as thrilling as being on the show itself.
Created by Bert and Nancy Claster for WBAL in 1953 as “kindergarten for preschoolers” before the availability of widespread kindergarten, the show originally starred Nancy Claster as Miss Nancy, the studio teacher who led 4- and 5-year-olds in games, taught lessons and sang songs, all of her own creation. When Nancy Claster fell ill with cancer in 1964, her daughter, Sally Claster Bell, took up the studio teaching mantle as Miss Sally with Bell’s sister Candace Claster filling in on occasion as Miss Candy and frequently as the fuzzy Do-Bee. “They let me dance and buzz,” jokes Candace Claster.
Romper Room was franchised nationally and internationally (including Britain, Japan, Puerto Rico and Australia), and all the Miss Bettys and Miss Susans initially came to Baltimore to be trained by the Claster family, often in their own home. “Some teachers even brought interpreters,” Claster recalls.
“‘Romper Room’ was ahead of its time,” says Claster proudly. The shows “were integrated in the South in the early ’50s. We had handicapped children and children in wheelchairs on. Part of our teachers’ obligations included 10 hours of community service in addition to hours on air.”
Most Romper Room activities were educational, like Romper Stompers: the cups that children would walk on while holding on to attached straps promoted hand-eye coordination. And many Baltimore children first learned the Pledge of Allegiance from Miss Nancy or Miss Sally.
But it’s the Magic Mirror and Miss Nancy’s incantation that people seem to remember most. Candace Claster tells that just before Nancy Claster’s death in 1997, Oprah Winfrey had Kelsey Grammer as a guest, and the two commiserated about how Miss Nancy never saw them in the Magic Mirror. Parents had to write in for children’s names to be read during the segment, and at that time, there was little chance that an Oprah or Kelsey would be “seen” by chance. After the episode aired, Oprah’s people contacted Nancy Claster, and they came to her home and taped a special Magic Mirror spot where she saw the two stars. She was 80 years old, and she was still Miss Nancy.
> The Buddy Deane Show, 1957-1964, WAAM/WJZ
With the success of “Hairspray” on screen and stage, there are few Baltimoreans who are not at least familiar with “Hairspray’s” prototype, “The Buddy Deane Show.” The teen dance and music show hit Baltimore in 1957 and ran until 1964 on WJZ-TV until the show was canceled rather than integrated— unlike the movie.
Hosted by former WITH radio DJ Buddy Deane, who was among the first to play rock’n’roll on the radio, the show was Baltimore’s answer to “American Bandstand.” It ran six days a week, featured a regular rotation of dancers known as the Committee, hosted lip-synced performances by artists of the day like Bobby Darin and Connie Francis and introduced teens to new dances such as the Stroll and the Madison.
Along with the Committee dancers, the show included teens invited from various community centers to dance on the show. Baltimorean Michael Dayton danced on the show in 1959, along with his sister, Nancy, and other members of the Victory Villa Teen Center. “I remember we had to get permission to leave school for a half day,” Dayton recalls. He also remembers meeting some of the Committee members, participating in contests where dancers would predict whether or not a song would be a hit and, of course, dancing, if only with his sister.
Even today, nostalgia for the program runs high. Former Committee members still meet for reunions. Joe Kozak still fields calls from folks wanting to speak with his late wife, Arlene, who was Buddy Deane’s production assistant during the run of the program. “You could go into any bar in the city and it would be on,” remembers Kozak. “[‘The Buddy Deane Show’] kept Dick Clark out of [Baltimore].”
The show ended in 1964 when, amidst protests and bomb threats, WJZ decided Baltimore was not ready for black and white teens to dance together on television.
> Duckpins and Dollars/Bowling for Dollars, Pinbusters, 1964 – late 1970s, WBAL
The national phenomenon known as “Bowling for Dollars” began locally on WBAL in 1964. Created by Bert Claster (who had many television successes, including “Romper Room”), the show was originally known as “Duckpins and Dollars” based on Baltimore’s bowling preferences, but became “Bowling for Dollars” with its first foray into the national market via Milwaukee in 1971. Los Angeles and a score of other cities soon created their own hometown versions of the program. Initially, it ran once a week, but as stations scrambled for local programming between 7 p.m. and 8 p.m. (as a result of FCC regulations that stipulated that network programming could only take place after 8 p.m.), the show ran every day. In Baltimore, it was taped live.
“Bowling was very popular,” explains John Claster, Bert Claster’s son and a retired television production executive, and contestants could apply to be on the show through their local bowling centers. Eventually, lanes were installed at the WBAL studios on TV Hill to create a studio for taping.
Each night, seven contestants would walk through the set’s sliding door, engage in a one-minute interview with the show’s nattily dressed emcee, Tom Cole (or Ron Riley or Dennis Murray), introduce up to six family members or friends in the audience, and take a chance on bowling a strike for the jackpot, which began at $200 but grew by $20 with every missed strike.
Then there were the Pin-Pals. Viewers at home sent postcards to the station, and if their name was chosen, they would win the same amount as the studio bowler.
With the success of “Bowling for Dollars,” Claster Productions created a version of the show for younger competitors called “Pinbusters.” John Bowman (who’d hosted an earlier TV dance program, “Teen Canteen”) was the host of the show for most of its run, later being replaced by Royal Parker. Six four-frame games took place during the broadcast with kids in various age categories. The winners took home trophies, rather than cash.
“Bowling for Dollars” left the Baltimore airwaves in the late ’70s, but remained in syndication until 1981. It had run in 36 markets nationwide.
> Professor Kool’s Fun Skool, 1967-1981, WMAR
Of his many roles— including the Night Janitor, Bozo the Clown, the “Dialing for Dollars” host, the WMAR weatherman— Stu Kerr might be best remembered by generations of children who grew up in the 1960s and ’70s as Professor Kool. With giant floppy shoes, an academic’s robe and mortarboard, floppy bow tie, glasses, mustache and a glossy black bob, Kerr was transformed into the loony teacher who made kids believe they liked school because, as he sang to the tune of “Jingle Bells,” “it’s lots of fun.”
In a 1986 interview on “Evening Magazine,” Kerr recalled trying to sell his idea for Professor Kool to station personnel who doubted kids would want to watch “school” on television. “This will be a fun school,” explained Kerr. “And it ran for 14 years.”
In this “school,” lunches included purposely gross selections such as “poison ivy pudding.” Professor Kool was also known to fling a cream pie or two and dance the hokey-pokey. He also hired a young puppeteer named Kevin Clash (creator of “Sesame Street’s” Elmo) to be a part of the program when Clash was in 10th grade.
Along for the run of the show was John Ziemann, a studio technician who was with WMAR for 35 years. Ziemann played Professor Kool’s nemesis, “Miss Spiderweb,” a silent, stealthy witch-like wraith who wreaked havoc in the classroom. As the villain of the show, Miss Spiderweb was frequently the target of the kids on the set and at personal appearances. “They really had it in for me,” says Ziemann, now deputy director of the Sports Legends museum and president of the Marching Ravens band. In fact, he sustained injuries on the set that sent him to the emergency room on three occasions. Still, he says, “those were my 14 best years in television.”
> Hodgepodge Lodge, 1970-1980, MPT
“It was baptism by fire,” Jean Worthley recalls of her first days on “Hodgepodge Lodge.” “We didn’t even have a TV [at home]. I didn’t know anything about TV.”
Undeterred, Worthley, a former preschool teacher, came up with the idea of “a naturalist living in a cabin.” Directed by Joan Rader, the program featured Worthley as “Miss Jean,” teaching an audience of children (including two of her own) who went “off to the forest to see Miss Jean” (as the theme song went) to learn about nature through hands-on activities, including cooking and crafts, in a small cabin built on the MPT site.
This was not without its challenges, especially when live animals were present. During a segment on bats, one precocious child volunteered on air, “You know Miss Jean, they have placentas like you and me!” And at the end of another episode, a thirsty wolf gulped down a bowl of water and promptly threw up over the rug.
Worthley remembers the feathers saved from her orange-winged Amazonian parrot, Aurora, which she’d send to the many viewers who wrote in. She also has kept gifts viewers sent her over the years, from a stick that a little boy wanted her “to keep forever” to a sewing bag made from an armadillo.
Now 83, Worthley credits some of the success of “Hodgepodge Lodge” to timing. “People were just beginning to get interested in ecology and environment,” she explains. But more importantly, she says, was the show’s mission: “It was television that made you want to do something.”
> Wall $treet Week, 1970-2005, MPT
It was idle cocktail chatter that sparked the original idea for MPT’s blockbuster hit show, “Wall $treet Week.” “One of our development people went to a party,” recalls the show’s creator and producer, Anne Truax Darlington, “And someone said, ‘Why are you wasting time teaching people French cooking? Why don’t you teach them something useful? Why not teach them how to manage their money?’”
The idea resonated with Darlington, who “was in the throes of managing money,” she recalls. “I knew what the problems were.” She remembers thinking, “If I can put together a program that demystifies this, that people can learn from and not even know they are learning, well, then I would really have something.”
The premise for “Wall $treet Week” was simple. The show would be produced on Friday night, after the wrap-up of the week’s financial markets. Discussions would be in “simple English” and not “Wall Street talk.” The handsome set complete with wood paneling, velvet sofas and Oriental carpets was modeled after gentlemen’s clubs on Wall Street, and included a lounge area and a conference room to break the show into manageable visual and informational segments and because Darlington “was determined ‘Wall $treet Week’ was not going to look like any talk show they had ever seen.”
At the center of it all, of course, was the charismatic Louis Rukeyser (whom Darlington had first seen on London television in the mid-’60s when Rukeyser was an international correspondent for ABC) presiding over a panel of analysts including locals Pete Colhoun, Frank Capiello and Carter Randall. With his bespoke suits, his brash self-confidence, and even his facility for punning, Rukeyser was a force to be reckoned with, adding “with Louis Rukeyser” to the program’s title when introducing it on air.
In the first year, “Wall $treet Week” was broadcast on the East Coast and as far west as Chicago. By its heyday, it was shown nationally and internationally. In 2002, MPT decided to replace Rukeyser with a younger talent from Fortune magazine in New York. Rukeyser staged an on-air protest and was summarily fired. The program was never the same without Rukeyser and “Wall $treet Week” went off the air in 2005.
> Evening Magazine, 1977-1987, WJZ
“I’m an ‘Evening’ person,” proclaimed bumper stickers in the late 1970s. They weren’t a rallying cry for late-night club-hopping. Instead, they were proof of the wildly popular half-hour program with the local focus, “Evening Magazine.”
The program originated in San Francisco, one of the five cities with stations (including Baltimore’s WJZ) owned by Westinghouse. The Baltimore version was launched in 1977 with hosts Linnea Anderson and Dave Sisson (later hosts would include Donna Hamilton and Tim White). Each show included two locally produced stories, one story from a Westinghouse affiliate, and various “tip segments,” including The Phantom Diner and a sparkling young woman known as “Daring Denise” who would try anything viewers prompted— from hang-gliding to horseback riding. “If I can do it, so can you,” Daring Denise, a then New York-based actress (now better known as WJZ news anchor Denise Koch) would tell her audience. “I dare you.”
The show worked, explains original co-host Anderson, now public relations/marketing director for the American Red Cross of Central Maryland, because of the “novel idea of immersing oneself in the community,” she says. “[‘Evening Magazine’ covered] the quirky, the offbeat, the things that made Baltimoreans say, A-ha!”
Along with interviewing celebrities such as George Carlin and Jack Lemmon when they passed through town, Anderson remembers a segment that followed then-Baltimore Mayor William Donald Schaefer as he shopped for red-dot specials at the Hecht Co., a profile of uber-Orioles fan Wild Bill Hagy and interviewing a young Kevin Clash (creator of Sesame Street’s Elmo) when he was living at home and just “a little kid doing puppets in his bedroom.”
While a 1979 News American article deemed it a “fluffy magazine show” and asked “Is it too mellow for its own good?” the following year, Evening Sun journalist Michael Hill wrote, “Aesthetically, it is clearly the classiest locally produced program on the air.” Better yet, the public loved it.
“We found stories everywhere,” says Mary Ellen Iwata, now a vice president for program development at HGTV, who produced the show from 1980 to 1987. During the show’s run, it became de rigueur to find “Thanks for Appearing on ‘Evening Magazine’” decals on store and restaurant windows. “Everywhere we went people would say, ‘Put me on ‘Evening Magazine!’” says Iwata.
>>More local faves
Mr. Toby’s Tip-Top-Merry-Go-Round, 1954 -1957, WAAM
On this local kids’ show, “Mr. Toby” would tell stories and show cartoons. Former television personality Greg Otto, who introduced “Mr. Toby’s Tip-Top Merry-Go-Round” show when he was 11 years old, still remembers the day when Mr. Toby’s (aka Keith Hefner’s) brother, Hugh, stopped by the studio to try to sell shares in the new men’s magazine he was promoting.
Captain Chesapeake, 1971-1990, WBFF
“Ahooooy crew members!” Along with the oddly grinning Mondy the Sea Monster and the invisible Bruce the Bird, the ever-turtlenecked George Lewis welcomed youngsters for an afternoon of cartoons and lore from his sturdy deck chair. “Aye, aye, Captain.”
Dialing for Dollars, 1948-1977, WMAR
George Rogers characterized his time playing “Mr. Fortune” as “10 long miserable years,” but the long-running show that found its contestants through the phone book drew viewers to their telephones and their televisions. Immortalized in Janis Joplin’s “Mercedes Benz”: ”Oh Lord, won’t you buy me a color TV? /’Dialing for Dollars’ is trying to find me. /I wait for delivery each day until 3, /So Lord, won’t you buy me a color TV?” Stu Kerr took over as Mr. Fortune until the show left the airwaves in 1977.
People Are Talking, 1978-1988, WJZ
It’s hard to believe that Oprah Winfrey was only 22 when she came to WJZ-TV from Nashville in 1976 to anchor the evening news. While co-anchoring with Jerry Turner didn’t work out, co-hosting “People Are Talking” with Richard Sher did. The two tackled tough topics like drunken driving, and interviewed celebrities such as Britt Eklund and magician James Randi with an easy camaraderie. In 1982, The Messenger praised the hosts’ on-screen chemistry, and Oprah teased that Sher was “like a girlfriend to me.” Each has moved on to other endeavors, of course, but for a few years, these friends ruled morning television.
It’s Academic, 1961 – present, WJZ
There was something about those kids on your high school’s “It’s Academic” team. Not only did they have to be smart, but they had to think quickly under pressure, and have a steady buzzer hand. You knew they were going to go far. The brainchild of the late Sophie Altman, “It’s Academic” celebrates its 48th season of taping in Baltimore. Local alumni include Laura Lippman, while alums of the show’s national markets include George Stephanopoulos and Sen. Charles Schumer. In September, students in Maryland, Washington, D.C., and Virginia will begin yet another series of rounds leading to the Super Bowl of smarts.
MotorWeek, 1980- present, MPT
With an opening camera sweep that follows the curves of gleaming automobiles as closely as those of a supermodel, clearly the cars are the stars on “MotorWeek,” the television automotive magazine that this year celebrates its 28th season on MPT. Broadcast nationally, and written and produced locally by host John Davis, the show has long been the go-to place for car enthusiasts who welcome the informative results that testing and driving approximately 150 cars a year brings. The key to the show’s success? “We don’t get in the way of the cars,” says Davis.