Blasts from the Madison media past

Regular readers know that I am a media history buff. (Which makes sense for someone who majored in journalism and political science and minored in history.)

One of the more useful functions of YouTube is as a collection point for old media that can be converted from film, 33- or 45-rpm record (remember those?), reel-to-reel or cassette tape, kinescope or videotape, or, for all we know, Victrolas and wire recordings to electronic form. (Until some obscure copyright-holder who thinks they deserve money demands that YouTube takes down the offending old media, that is.)

While I was looking for something else (and I don’t even recall what I sought), I came upon this treasure trove of old Madison media that dates back before I was born.

First is a series of ads that apparently ran in Madison theaters in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Contained within this video is (1) my mother’s former employer, (2) our favorite pizza place, and (3) the theater where my brother and I watched our first movie.

(The answers are (1) the Bank of Madison, (2) Paisan’s Restaurant, and (3) the Cinema Theater, two blocks east of my father’s bank, where we watched “Lady and the Tramp.”)

The popular radio station among those of us in the grade-school set was the top 40 station, WISM (1480 AM):

Both of these blow my mind. I met Clyde Coffee (he would occasionally drop by the restaurant I first worked, and I watched him broadcast on a Saturday morning at what the station called “Club Syene,” their Syene Road studios south of Madison) and Bill Short (who was also a sports official and as recently as last year was still doing radio traffic reports in Mad City), and once interviewed Jonathan Little, who went from WISM to WZEE (104.1 FM) to turn an automated station into WISM’s replacement and the number one station in the Madison market, Z104. And the last piece has a recording of Madison Mayor Paul Soglin, from the first time he was mayor.

(More Madison radio can be found here. For that matter, the menu on the left has more radio from elsewhere in Wisconsin.)

WKOW-TV (channel 27) was Madison’s first TV station, switching on its transmitter as a CBS affiliate in 1953. (When WISC-TV went on the air in 1956, CBS switched to WISC, and WKOW went to ABC, since WMTV had already started as an NBC affiliate, although WMTV also carried ABC and DuMont.) WKOW commemorated its 50th anniversary with this video. I recall none of this, but I would point out that I met (1) Blake Kellogg when he became a UW professor and (2) interviewed Marsh Shapiro after WKOW fired him in 1986. Shapiro already owned the Nitty Gritty restaurant/bar by then, and I have eaten his Gritty Burgers and drunk his beer. I also remember John Schermerhorn and “Dairyland Jubilee,” a show that ended when he died of a heart attack at 44. Tom Hooper went on to be the consumer reporter for WITI-TV in Milwaukee.

In the days before multiple late-night shows and infomercials, nearly every TV market had at least one station that did Friday- or Saturday-night horror movies, usually with a host. In Madison, it was …

… The Inferno, brought to you by American TV & Appliance, on WMTV (channel 15). It was originally called “Ferdie’s Inferno,” after Ferdinand Mattioli, the first owner of American TV. After Mattioli died of cancer, his younger brother, Leonard, took over the company, and the show became known as “Lenny’s Inferno.” The host was Mr. Mephisto, and the box talked back to the host. The younger Mattioli was a legend in Madison TV, with the most, shall we say, energetic commercials on the tube.

This is a photo of the old WISC-TV studios on the West Beltline. The “Radio AM-FM” refers to what later became WISM and what now is WMGN (98.1 FM, “Magic 98”). WISC was the host of the first appointment TV I recall, “Circus 3,” Madison’s answer to Chicago’s “Bozo’s Circus,” featuring ventriloquist Howie Olson and Cowboy Eddie, apparently a relative of Howdy Doody, along with, as you see from the back wall, the classics:

WISC also had the market’s first noon news, the “Farm Hour,” the theme music to which was Aaron Copland’s “Hoedown.” (The same music as the old “Beef: It’s What’s for Dinner” TV ads. If I ever own a radio station that does farm news, that will be the farm news sounder.)

WISC was actually Madison’s third commercial TV station, but because it had the only VHF channel (2 to 13 in the pre-digital days), it became the Madison TV market’s number one station almost as soon as the transmitter was turned on. And yet it had perhaps the most interesting history. (Other than, that is, WKOW’s owner selling the station to a company that went bankrupt, which gave the owner the chance to buy back his stations. The fact I was an intern at WKOW at the time had nothing to do with WKOW’s owner’s bankruptcy … I think.)

According to a Madison Magazine article on WISC’s first 50 years, in 1970, WISC received a challenge to renewing its Federal Communications Commission license. (According to a former WISC employee who spoke to my high school journalism class, there was some question as to how WISC got channel 3, and there were some accusations of WISC’s covering news events with cameras that lacked film in them.)

WISC’s response was to create Madison’s first and last hour-long news, “Eyewitness News,” at a time when perhaps Madison didn’t really have enough news to fill an hour at 6 p.m. That lasted until the mid-1970s, when WISC returned the 6 p.m. news to half an hour and started the market’s first 5 p.m. news under the banner of “Action News.”

WISC’s 50th anniversary website has a lot of video and photos, including a reunion with Cowboy Eddie, but sadly it does not have photos of the first Action News set. Picture in your mind a checkerboard of blue wooden squares and yellowish glass, with the visuals for the stories projected onto the glass. The anchors sat not at a desk, but on low-backed chairs holding their scripts in their laps.

Tedd O’Connell, who later went on to become the first news director of WGBA-TV in Green Bay, anchored for 15 years. The weather guy was John Digman, a short redhead who used the antenna from a 1949 Cadillac as his pointer. After a couple of years, WISC decided Action News needed a desk after all, so they made one, in the shape of a giant number 3. (Perhaps emulating WTMJ-TV in Milwaukee, the state’s first commercial TV station, whose news anchors read the news from behind a giant 4 around the same time.) Later in the 1970s, WISC ditched the checkerboard for a more conventional-looking set, other than its yellow, orange and green colors.

(WISC’s 50th anniversary website also doesn’t have this blast from my personal past. The night before my girlfriend, who was a year ahead of me at Madison La Follette, was to graduate, we were at her house, when WISC’s just-before-9 p.m. news update came up, with, I believe, O’Connell teasing a Madison high school senior skip day bust. She and I spent the next hour speculating on which high school got busted; we dismissed La Follette immediately. So 10 p.m. arrived, and O’Connell announced that several arrests were made at a senior skip day … for La Follette. Specifically, some of her classmates.)

Finally, something you almost never see anymore: A TV station signoff:


14 thoughts on “Blasts from the Madison media past

  1. unbelievable! Crazy how many memories come flooding back from watching/listening here. I was born at St. Mary’s in ’61 and spent the following 32 years in Madison. It’s nice to “come home” and visit the memories. Thanks for doing such a thorough job of posting all this! -R Hall

  2. I was stationed at Truax Air Force station beginning in June ’66 ending in Dec ’68. Met wife, Nancy in ’67 at Chesty’s on State St. Children, 3, all delivered by same doctor at Madison GEneral, in ’71, ’75 & ’77. Sadly, moved away in Nov ’78, to Eau Claire, then to a ST Paul suburb in ’83. We love it here, but have always missed the Madison of the ’60s & 70s.
    thanks for sharing Madison history via this blog.
    Gordon S.

  3. Just wrote a long post and it deleted. I think you may have known my brothers at lafollette. I’m looking for film clips and anything else from the early 60’s from WKOW on my father, Ross Gordon. Can you help?

  4. Regarding John Schermerhorn of Dairyland Jubilee: Once, representing the network’s Madison affiliate, he somehow made it onto the late-nite Joey Bishop show and was featured presenting the marginal “rat-packer” Bishop with an honorary Wisconsin cheese assortment. In thanking Big John, Bishop mistakenly addressed him as “Dave” or “Bob” or something. Without missing a beat, Schermerhorn grabbed the microphone out of the hand of Bishop’s on-air sidekick, a young Regis Philbin, and ad-libbed, “Tell White Shoes I want my cheese back.”
    Rock on forever in your yellow Cadillac convertible, big guy.

  5. Big John Schermerhorn hosted a kiddie show. Before Cowbody Eddie’s on TV-3 a young law student named Bill Dyke moonlighted with his own show. My cub scout troupe visited Dyke’s show, my brother Big John’s. We got our first TV in, I think 1954. Before that, mom and dad got babysitters to go to a tavern in town to watch TV. I do remember father going up on the roof of our very tall 2-story house on the farm to rotate the aerial to pick up Channel 4 in Milwaukee for a little variety while mother would yell out whether we were getting a picture or not. And the TV repairman being a constant visitor with his supply of tubes. WMTV started out at 33 on the separate UHF dial, which did not click into place like the VHF dial. More like a radio dial. Saturday mornings we’d flop in front of the TV — it took several minutes to warm up — and patiently watch the test pattern until programming began for the day. The constant tone emanating from the console’s speakers we described as “coo’s.” Howdy Doody was a favorite. Ding Dong School with Miss Frances. Roy Rogers. In the evening we could hear dad yelling excitedly so brother and I would crawl down the stairs in our jammies and father would pretend he did not notice. We joined him in watching Big Time Wrestling. Your photo of the old WISC studios on the Beltline is now home to Pacific Cycle, right across from Odana Hills G.C.

  6. I am the person responsible for the old Madison screen ads. I have more rare Madison film footage on my Facebook business page, RGT Archives. As well as If you grew up in Madison you remember…

  7. Tedd O’Connell showed up late one night at the Sambo’s restaurant where I worked waiting tables. He was with a stripper from the Dangle Lounge. After two hours of “Don’t you know who I am?” repartee he left me a tip of three pennies in a stack on the table. What a jerk. At least the stripper was nice.

  8. John Digman became the first Promotion Manager at WMST Ch. 47 as they prepared to go on the air on June 8, 1986.. At that time, 47 was a pure independent station, predating the introduction of the Fox Network. I worked with John, and he was an incredible character! Unfortunately, he died a few months after WMSN went on the air.

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