Long before cable, Apple TV or Netflix, East Tennesseans had limited television choices. The early days of television may not have been in High Definition, but to fans, their memories are crystal clear. An exhibit at the East Tennessee History Museum honors a time when television was Live! On Air! And in your living room.
Bradley Reeves with the Tennessee Archive of Moving Image and Sound researched the materials in the exhibit.
"All the artifacts have come from a very wide variety of places," said Reeves. "We've scoured basements, attics, private collections, TV stations. Wherever we could find materials."
And there is plenty of material from the first 20 years of local television to see: old television and commercial clips, equipment, early televisions, and props. There's even a spot-on replication of a mid-century living room.
"The living room that your grandparents may have had back in the early '60s," said Reeves. "It's fun to watch people come and look at it and either reminisce saying 'I had that TV or that couch, I had that painting'. Younger folks come in and say 'this is really cool, I want a living room just like it.'"
That living room set includes a mid-century television complete with an am/fm radio!
"Do you remember the old TVs that had record players and am/fm radios? They were the really high tech audio and video equipment of the day," said Reeves.
Reeves believes the jewel in the exhibit's crown is the re-creation of the old Cas Walker set.
"The original painting that Cas had on the set for 30 years or more! The original WBIR clock with a raccoon on it. That's a real treasure."
The exhibit also pays tribute to pioneers of local music like Bonnie Lou & Buster and Little Jimmy Hartsook as well as news pioneers from the day.
"You'll see the original television cameras from the 1950s, original microphones that greats such as Doc Johnson on WBIR used to use," said Reeves. "WNOX microphones, if you love early country music history, you'll see a lot of the very same microphones that Chet Atkins, Homer and Jethro, and Lowell Blanchard would use."
Those with an interest in technical equipment will find plenty of big, bulky equipment used to keep local television shows on the air.
"It's amazing to see how we've gone from a monstrous machine to cell phones to take video in the span of maybe 30 to 40 years," said Reeves.
Collector Julian Burke helped provide many of the technical equipment included in the exhibit and is impressed with how it's displayed.
"I still remember when television was really taking off when it was done live all the old shows, the westerns, and Howdy Doody," said Burke. "I remember all of the people that were on it that brings back. It's actually like being in a time machine when you see all of this old stuff."
Reeves included many early clips, equipment and props from WBIR including a favorite for many, The Birthday Dog.
"We've always been very rich in music history and our television reflects that. Some of the news events along with Carl Williams old camera from WBIR," said Reeves. "You see the history of our town come to life whether it be Civil Rights movement or Vietnam protests or some of the celebrities that would visit here. It's all represented and you can learn from it."
Long-time broadcaster Terry Jenkins worked at WBIR Radio decades ago and says the exhibit is like going down memory lane.
"I love the Cas Walker thing. I think people really, they'll start remembering some of this stuff. He was such a character and I'm glad that they were able to save this stuff," said Jenkins. "We've come so far in television and to see some of this stuff now is really amazing."
Reeves credits those television pioneers who, for whatever reason, saved mementos from television's early days.
"They thought to save these things when no one else saw the importance," said Reeves. "You know, when these things were being produced back in the '50s & 1960s no one ever thought, 'well, we might want to see these things later' for future reference. Certain people did. They were either attached to it, maybe they worked on the set. Maybe they wrote scripts, maybe they participated in the actual production of these television shows. They held on to these things and luckily, the majority of it is still good, we can still transfer it, digitize it. You'll see it in every corner of this exhibit."
On Air! Live! And in your living room runs through February 23, 2014 at the East Tennessee History Center, 601 South Gay Street. www.easttnhistory.org