Monday, December 8, 2008

W. Albert Lee - Houston Television Pioneer

The owner of Houston's first television station was born on a farm near Hallettsville in February, 1892. By the time he turned 13, boll weevils had devasted his father's cotton farm and the family moved to Houston where Albert worked hawking newspapers on a street corner and then for a railroad. As a young man he formed a produce company with his two brothers, one of whom owned a grocery store on McGowen, and went to the Rio Grande Valley to be the produce buyer. He also was a watermelon farmer near Sealy before settling back in Houston as a commercial real estate broker downtown, and, beginning in 1925, a hotelman. That year a hotel owner in failing health had listed his hotel with Lee's brokerage and when it didn't sell, implored him to take it off his hands. Lee purchased the hotel and refurbished and opened it as the Lee Hotel, at Polk and San Jacinto.

By 1950, Lee controlled nine hotel properties, including the Walee, Woodrow, Bell, Stratford, Milby and San Jacinto in downtown Houston and the Fort Mason Inn, a resort in the Hill Country. Lee had taken out a long term lease on the Milby in 1937 and in that property and the San Jacinto, Lee controlled two of the largest and most well known hotels in downtown Houston besides the Rice and the Lamar.

He was friends with Jesse Jones and Herbert Hoover and most of the big businessmen of Houston of the era. He was appointed to serve on the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles by Governor Coke Stevenson and was active in politics on the state and local level and even considered running for office himself.

He was one of the founders of the Houston Fat Stock Show in the 1930s and had been instrumental in convincing the organization to start presenting star performers in conjunction with the livestock exhibits in the early 1940s and had been personally involved in the negotiations with many of the performers; he counted show business personalities amongst his friends, too.

He decided to get into radio in early 1946. His partner was a friend and attorney Julian Weslow. He filed an application for a station to operate full-time on 610 kilocycles with 5000 watts, the second application for a permit on that frequency in Houston. Lee considered asking for the calls KWAL but opted instead to go with KLEE. His competition for the application was Robert T. Bartley, newphew of the powerful Speaker of the US House of Representatives Sam Rayburn, who had served as Director of the FM Department of the National Association of Broadcasters. Many assumed that Bartley's connections made him the favorite to win the permit but the FCC was not impressed with Bartley's investors nor his preparation for ownership. Bartley had never resided in Houston, indeed had only visited it twice, and all of his other investors lived in New England and none had ever been to Texas. The group did minimal research into the needs of the market. The permit was awarded to Lee in May, 1947.

Even while KLEE was being built, Lee visited New York to negotiate with talent to appear at the rodeo and was exposed to television for the first time. He came back to Houston determined to put a TV station on the air and filed an application for a station on channel 2 in the autumn of 1947, winning approval just 3 months later. It is believed the FCC expedited the approval process to be sure Houston had at least one TV permit before the freeze on new applications was put into effect. The FCC was favoring diversity of ownership in the awarding of TV permits and Lee got the nod also possibly because of his lack of other broadcasting or newspaper holdings.

Lee died the last week of November, 1951. He had sold his TV station a year and a half earlier. After his death, KLEE, 610, was sold to Gordon and B.R. McLendon's Trinity Broadcasting of Dallas who flipped the call letters to KLBS and affiliated it with their Liberty Broadcasting System, even announcing plans to move the headquarters of the network to Houston and use KLBS as the flagship.

So far as I know, all of Lee's hotel properties in Houston have been demolished but the Fort Mason Inn is still in operation the last time I checked.

The top picture shows W.A. Lee in 1938. The bottom picture, undated, shows Lee astride his horse at a surprise testimonial at the Rice Hotel attended by hundreds when he was presented with a silver-trimmed saddle by radio, recording and motion picture star Gene Autry.

The pictures and much of this information comes from Hilton Waldo Hearn, Jr.'s 1971 Masters Thesis at the University of Texas at Austin, W. Albert Lee, Pioneer of Houston Television. A copy of the thesis is available at the Metropolitan Research Center at the Houston Public Library.


Dr Mac Lee said...

Albert Lee was my great uncle. As a child, I got to have my picture taken with the likes of Gene Autry, Roy Rogers, Poncho and Cisco, etc. To bad I do not remember him better. Thanks for writing such a wonderful piece.

Dr. Mac Lee

Bruce said...

Thanks for the comment.