Saturday, June 30, 2007


Seventeen months after putting Houston’s first television station on the air and with the TV freeze guaranteeing him a monopoly on TV viewers for some time to come, hotelier W. Alfred Lee sold KLEE-TV to the Houston Post/KPRC. Executives at KPRC and the Post and the Hobby family had become interested in making an offer for the station and had been assessing its value. They were concerned that FCC policies favoring diversity in media ownership might mean that both the Post and Chronicle would be left without TV licenses when the freeze was lifted or forced to compete against each other for a permit; they calculated Lee was losing $30,000 a month on his TV operation, which they did not believe he could not sustain for long. Then they learned Lee was looking to sell.

Hilton Waldo Hearn, Jr., in his 1971 Master’s Thesis at the University of Texas, W. Alfred Lee, Pioneer of Houston Television, says Lee had become convinced that when the freeze was lifted, he would be left running an independent television station since the TV networks had made it clear they wanted their TV affiliates to go to the companies they had been doing business with as radio affiliates and Lee did not have a radio network affiliation. Lee had little broadcast experience to draw on and the station was still on the air only 4 or 5 hours a day and was running on a minimum staff.

The asking price was reportedly $743,000. The Hobby’s were cautioned that was too much to pay for a money losing operation in the unproven medium of television but they felt they had no choice if they wanted to get into television. A deal was reached and approval sought from the FCC in the spring of 1950.

The other applicants for TV permits in Houston were dismayed, to say the least. KPRC and the Post had effectively executed an end run around the TV freeze and left the other applicants in the lurch. As it developed, they would have another 3 years to build the KPRC-TV brand without competition in Houston.

According to Hearn, the keys were handed to the Hobbys at 10:30am on May 31st, the change of ownership was announced in the Post on June 1, 1950. A month later, on July 3, the call letters were changed to KPRC-TV.

Faced with a small audience (there were an estimated 26,000 TV sets in the Houston area at the time), Lee had been selling TV time for less than radio. The KPRC radio sales staff was charged with turning this situation around and 4 months later, according to Jack Harris, the station was showing a profit. In addition to the $743,000 asking price it had been estimated another $250,000 in losses might be incurred before the station showed a profit but that reserve was never tapped into. By the end of the year, it was estimated the number of tv sets in use in Houston had more than doubled and it reached 100,000 by late 1951. The station changed its primary affiliation from CBS to NBC but still carried programs from all 4 networks.

The new owners drew upon their broadcast experience since 1925 in promoting and growing the station. They scheduled a big TV Fair for the July 4 weekend to introduce the new call letters and stir up more public interest; it was held at the Plantation Club at 9101 South Main and was attended by an estimated 50,000 people over three days. The Post published a special 40 page section on the change-over on Sunday, July 2.

TV dealers set up booths demonstrating their sets and live entertainment was provided on site and over the air including Red Ingles and his Natural Seven band, Carol Bruce, June Christy, the Mel Arvin Trio, Gypsy Edwards, Curly Fox and Miss Texas Ruby, and 11 year old Tommy Sands, who would become a teen idol before the decade was over.

The biggest attraction, however, proved to be the Fair-goers themselves, who got to see themselves on closed-circuit television.

The special section in the Post carried feature stories on station personnel, including station manager Jack Harris, assistant manager Jack McGrew, newsman Harry Arouh, News Director Pat Flaherty and his young assistant Ray Miller, Sports Director Bruce Layer, AM and TV Program Director Jack Edmunds, Chief Engineer Paul Huhndorf and KPRC Chief Engineer Harvey Wheeler, wrestling promoter and announcer Paul Boesch, country music stars Curly Fox and Miss Texas Ruby, and announcer Dick Gottlieb, who had been working in Houston radio for several years and would go on to be known as Mr. Television in Houston but had only been seen on camera recently. There were also stories about KPRC radio personnel and history and on-going KPRC radio programs such as Laugh with the Ladies, Darts for Dough, and Battelstein’s Fashions in Motion, some of which would become television staples in the early years, as well as new programs planned for TV. Thursday evenings would feature Phoenix Phil and his Pals, a puppet show by a local ventriloquist, Chester Leroy, and his cast of Phoenix Phil, Eddie the Cowboy, Miss Linda, Sandy McAndy and Cub Scout.

There were also stories in the section about many of the different TV sets from different makers that would be on display at the Fair.

Improvements were undertaken in the physical plant (KLEE-TV’s studios had not been air conditioned, for one thing) and the broadcast day was expanded. New programs from the networks also became available.

The schedule for Sunday, July 2, 1950, from the Houston Post, the last full day of KLEE-TV calls:

4:45pm - Test Pattern & Music
5pm - Hopalong Cassidy
6pm - Toast of the Town
7pm - TV Playhouse
8pm - Paul Whiteman
8:30pm - Morey Amsterdam
9pm - Baseball
10:30pm - Glamour Go-Round
10:35pm - News Bulletins
10:50pm - Coming Attractions
10:55pm - Sign off

The baseball game would have been the Houston Buffs, a St. Louis Cards farm team.

Monday, July 3, 1950, the call letters changed to KPRC-TV. The new calls were no secret, of course. The on-air unveiling was in the first segment of the 1st Annual TV Show in the 8pm hour. The schedule for the evening was:

12N-4:30pm - Test Pattern
4:45pm (sic) - Test Pattern and music
5:07pm (sic) - For Us the Living
5:30pm - Don Mahoney and His Sears Kiddie Troupers
6pm - Kukla, Fran and Ollie - N (i.e., NBC)
6:30pm - The Walking Machine
6:45pm - Musical Showroom
7pm - Chevrolet Teletheatre
7:30pm - This is Show Business
8pm - First Annual TV Show
8:30pm - Film Feature
9:30pm - First Annual TV Show
10:30pm - News Bulletins
10:35pm - Coming Attractions
10:40pm - Sign off

Some program notes for Monday evening were printed in the Monday paper:

5:07pm (sic) - For Us the Living - Documentary film on how the Food and Drug Act protects the public.

5:30pm - Don Mahoney and His Sears Kiddie Troupers
The easy talking cowboy brings his children's amateur hour to Kiddie Troupers from the Plantation.

6pm - Kukla, Fran and Ollie - N (i.e., NBC)
Popular puppet show led by lovely Fran Allison and unrehearsed.

6:30pm - The Walking Machine
Educational film about foot hygiene -- tells what feet can do for us and we for them.

6:45pm - Musical Showroom
Johnny Royal at the piano with guests.

7pm - Chevrolet Teletheatre
'The Way I Feel.' Story of adolescent love broken by death.

7:30pm - This is Show Business
Binnie Barnes and Abe Burrows join Producer Max Corbin, Radio Star Jane Pickens and Comedian Jan Murray on this intimate get-together hosted by Clifton Fadiman.

8:30pm - Film Feature
'Hollywood and Vine.' Jimmy Ellison stars in this one, which seesaws between laughter and romance.

9:30pm - First Annual TV Show
C.P.Simpson will award watches to the two top contributors to the television Cancer Crusade. Lynn Cole, romantic baritone and Capitol Recording Star, will sing.

10:00pm - (omitted from basic listings): Hands of Destiny - 'Too Old to Live.' This story is inspired by President Truman's recent speech on the difficulties encountered by old people looking for work.

More details on the founding of KLEE-TV and the changeover to KPRC-TV can be found in Jack Harris’ book The Fault Does Not Lie With Your Set and Richard Schroeder’s Texas Signs On. The latter mostly repeats information from the Harris book. There will also be another post on KLEE-TV’s founding here on the Houston Radio History blog.

The above account also draws on newspaper stories at the time in the Post, especially the special section of the Houston Post published Sunday July 2, 1950.

For more on Don Mahoney and Jeanna Clair, see this Historic Houston thread on HAIF which includes comments by kids who appeared on the show and Don Mahoney's son.

The Wikipedia article on Tommy Sands says he was born in 1937.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I was a member of the engineering staff at KPRC between Jan 1949 and June 1950.

Now retired as chief engineer of a consulting firm.

Robert Wilford, PE, Retired