Issue: Issue Summer 2003

Hollywood’s Broadcast Beginnings

If you were to walk down Vine Street in the 30’s-40’s, you would see lit-up station call letters in every direction. In the golden ages of radio and television, Hollywood was the broadcast capitol, and Vine Street was mecca.

Movies, of course, made Hollywood’s image, but daily national radio shows captured Hollywood the place in living rooms across the country, and helped it become the world’s entertainment capital. And when TV came on the scene, show business would change forever.

It started in 1924, fledgling station KNX beamed daily broadcasts of orchestra music and movie star interviews from a downtown theatre.

KHJ soon sprung up, employing Pat Weaver (the “father of modern television”) as announcer in 1934. And KFWB erected its towers off Sunset in 1925. Housed in legendary theaters or built on the bones of historic movie lots, the studios soon clustered around Vine Street. In the 30’s, KMTR, the forerunner of KLAC, occupied a hacienda-like studio at 1000 Cahuenga, on land once owned by Buster Keaton’s studio. Ernie McKinley, 78, remembers his father piling the family into the sedan on weekends to see Stuart Hamblen and his Covered Wagon Jubilee.

But KNX which led the pack in wattage power, was acquired by Columbia Broadcasting System, and found a permanent home in 1936 at the reborn Vine Street Theater as the CBS Playhouse. KNX/CBS took off, with the Hollywood Lux Radio Theater. As hosted by master of extravaganza Cecil B. DeMille and spotlighting movie stars like Bette Davis and Clark Gable reading radio versions of their films (sometimes 50 actors on the stage at once!), it garnered a listener audience of 40 million by 1940.  

By 1938, with studios overflowing, KNX/CBS studios rebuilt on the site of the 1910 Nestor Company, Hollywood’s first movie studio on Sunset at Gower. From the forecourt of Columbia Square – an art-deco triumph – lines of visitors formed out to the street, waiting to see their favorites: Red Skelton, Jackie Gleason, Orson Welles, Jack Benny, Burns and Allen, and Gene Autry on “Melody Ranch” - complete with thundering hoof beats. “It was really exciting to see these shows and the live actors on stage,” says Hollywood denizon Dennis O’Rorke. “They didn’t just stand in front of the microphones - they made it real. It was like going to the movies.”

“What was important was the public desire to hear their favorite movie stars on the radio,” says broadcast writer John Schneider. “Rudy Vallee apparently started the trend when he aired his NBC show from California , and he introduced his audience to film star guests.”

NBC – tuned into the trend – released no less than 20 programs from Hollywood in the 1934-35 seasons. Thus, in 1938, NBC relocated their west coast headquarters to Vine Street, building a sprawling, 4 1/2 acre facility on the lot of the old Famous-Lasky studios. As NBC Radio City Hollywood, it accessed rosters of stars (i.e., Judy Garland and Bing Crosby), and broadcast new shows such as “The Bob Hope Pepsodent Hour” (based on Hope’s 1938 film, “The Big Broadcast”). Abbot and Costello debuted here in 1944). Every Saturday night in 1947, “Your Hit Parade” aired.

Hollywood now was a radio as well as a movie production center. Movie studios cashed in, putting out a series of radio films, like the Bob Hope and Bing Crosby “Road” films and “The Big Broadcast” series - featuring new radio stars like Burns and Allen and Crosby in their first movie roles.

And Hollywood hot spots set a scene: “Hollywood on the Air” - trumpeted with great fanfare from the Ambassador’s Coconut Grove, and the 30’s “Hollywood Hotel,” with emcee Dick Powell, and Louella Parsons interviewing stars from the famed residence (where painted gold stars on the ceiling honored the hotel’s celebrity guests). The Hollywood Palladium, situated between CBS and NBC, was the setting of many broadcasts.

“They would do nightly band remotes – whatever band was in there – Stan Kenton or Woody Herman, or Billy May – would do half an hour from a broadcast booth up on stage and then go back to the regular show,” says Randy Van Horne, whose swing vocal group, the Encores, backed Billy May.

Van Horne, leader of the big band “The Alumni Association,” also recalls standing in long lines in 1949 to get into Steve Allen’s free late-night radio show from a converted movie theater south of the Hollywood Ranch Market, where Allen forecast his zany “Tonight Show” stunts.

According to radio/TV aficionado Mark Evangier, Allen’s 60’s local TV show, ‘The Steve Allen Show,” aired from the same spot, similarly featured pranks such as running ostrich races on Vine Street and starting war games amid the market melons.

In 1943, ABC (originally, NBC Blue), the last of the “Big Three,” settled into “Hollywood Recreation,” a bowling alley with a restaurant called Breneman’s. From there, host Tom Breneman served up one of radio’s earliest national audience participation shows, the enormously popular “Breakfast in Hollywood” (later, “Breakfast at Sardi’s”), interviewing everyone from 100-year-old birthday guests to Orson Welles. ABC Studios was transformed into The Merv Griffin Theater in the 70’s; later became the TAV Celebrity Center. When, in 1948, the Don Lee Mutual Building was dedicated with great ceremony, Vine Street had four networks within walking distance.

Although Don Lee Mutual’s success was short-lived, the building lay claim to the first facility designed with television in mind. From its state-of-the-art studios sprung such seminal shows as “Queen for a Day,” “Peter Potter’s “Jukebox Jury,” “The Cavalcade of Stars” hosted by TV newcomer Jackie Gleason – and Lucille Ball’s, “My Favorite Husband” (from KNX-TV). Steve Allen had offices here in the 60’s.

Television had arrived! Since networks weren’t here until late in 1951 – independent stations flourished in studios scattered throughout Hollywood. People quickly accepted the medium as their new form of entertainment.

KTLA-5, from a stage at Paramount Sunset studios, was first to sign on in 1947 with the Bob Hope-hosted “Western Premiere of Commercial Television,” featuring a galaxy of Hollywood headliners (the next day, the Hollywood Reporter heralded the new television age, with “TELEVISION IS HERE!”).

KTLA’s innovations reached beyond Hollywood’s borders (foremost, with Stan Chamber’s memorable on-the-scene coverage of the Kathy Fiscus tragedy in 1949). They were first with man-on-the-street interviews (with “Meet Me in Hollywood”), and telecast remote band shows that introduced (among others), Lawrence Welk to audiences.Indeed, musical variety was local television’s mainstay. KLAC-13 (now KCOP-13) in 1948, boarded the hillbilly bandwagon in 1951 with Cliffie Stone’s legendary “Hometown Jamboree” with Mollie Bee, a pre-network Tennessee Ernie Ford, even Elvis and sometime guest Liberace, soon-to-score big on his own show.

KTTV-11 countered with “Town Hall Party,” a three-hour Saturday night dance bash running for nearly a decade, featuring nearly every national (or soon-to-be), pop, rock and country star, from the Collins Kids to Johnny Cash and Brenda Lee (backed by musicians Tex Ritter and Merle Travis).

Naturally, this exposure worked to provide jump-off points to networks, as in the case of Liberace, Jackie Gleason, Lucille Ball and other names. The shows themselves, in fact were primetime models, as when Ball’s “My Favorite Husband” morphed into “I Love Lucy.” Even with the Milton Berle phenomenon, people’s eyes remained fixed on favorite local stations.

But the picture was changing. NBCH-4 (NBC Hollywood), signing on last, in 1949, was first out of the box, when networks arrived in 1951. From its new stages at the 1920’s era El Capitan Theater (now the Hollywood Palace), the NBC Television Theater hosted one star-studded spectacle after the other: the Bob Hope Chesterfield Specials and “This is Your Life” (surprised guests were nabbed at the nearby Brown Derby) and – a turning point – “The Colgate Comedy Hour.” transferred from New York in 1951, with hosts varying from Eddie Cantor to Martin and Lewis and Jackie Gleason, the competition-stunting show was the first (but not the last), national TV network series to originate from Hollywood. Obviously, people wanted their stars. 

That same year, Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz insisted on filming their pilot show in front of an audience at Columbia Square rather than live from New York. Radio stars like Burns and Allen made the transition to network TV. The golden age of primetime TV was dawning, and local TV dominance faded.

The new live Hollywood network variety and quiz shows would bring its broadcasting eminence back full circle. Shows like “Lucy” and “Ozzie and Harriet” ushered in the era of sitcoms, changing television forever. As programming increased, the need for new studios, production and administrative offices grew. CBS moved a big part of its operation to Televison City on Beverly near Fairfax, NBC left long ago for Burbank. ABC kept a presence on Vine Street using it for Olympic broadcasting headquarters in 1984 although for years its main studio was in Los Feliz (at the site of Vitagraph Studios (home of 1920’s era stars Valentino, Fairbanks and Pickford) before it moved to Glendale. KTTV and KCOP recently moved to West L.A. Today only KTLA at Sunset and Gower and CBS remain to remind us of Hollywood’s role in the early days of television.  

Yes, the ghost of Hollywood’s broadcasting’s past may haunt the historic structures that remain, but in this constantly changing industry, it’s future is always up in the air.