Introducing Television at the Fair


Ron Simon

The 1939 World’s Fair in New York was the coming-out party for television. For almost two decades before, networks and entrepreneurs were experimenting with the new electronic technology, hoping to perfect a mass communication system that would surpass radio. More than $10 million had been spent on research, but their tests and struggles were largely documented in trade magazines and legal suits. For the public, the World’s Fair was marketed as the birth of the medium. But as one of the inventors who made it possible, Philo T. Farnsworth noted: “The baby is being born with a full beard.”
The major theme of the Fair was the “World of Tomorrow,” and many new commodities were on display, notably air conditioning and nylon stockings. But the Radio Corporation of America (RCA) was committed to promoting television as the next great transformer of national life. With a big advertising push, RCA began selling sets to the general public the day after the Fair opened on Sunday, April 30, 1939, and launched a regular broadcast schedule on its NBC network. Both the hardware and software of this new technology were framed as a corporate extension of network radio. Meet the new media, same as the old media, at least in ownership.
David Sarnoff, President of RCA, had been a fierce advocate for television for many years, desiring that his company would dominate the burgeoning industry. In addition to speaking at the Fair opening, he also spoke on-camera ten days earlier, April 20th, to dedicate the RCA Building. He wanted to make sure that television would have the headlines all to itself. His remarks were exultant, covered by papers around the county: “Now we add sight to sound. It is with a feeling of humbleness that I come to this moment of announcing the birth, in this country, of a new art so important that is bound to affect all society. It is an art which shines like a torch in a troubled world.”

David Sarnoff, President of the Radio Corporation of America, dedicates the RCA Building at the Fair.

David Sarnoff, President of the Radio Corporation of America, dedicates the RCA Building at the Fair.

The exterior of the RCA Building at the World's Fair.

If Sarnoff’s grand thoughts were not enough, RCA also selected several women to welcome visitors to the pavilion. These women were known as "Miss Television." I was pleased to meet the very first woman hired for the role, Phyllis Creore Westermann, who remembers those days very well. Most of the people she met had not seen television before, but were thrilled to see their images on sets scattered around the room. Their enthusiasm did not immediately translate into sales. Sets at Macy’s or Wanamaker’s ranged in price from several hundred to a thousand dollars, quite expensive for the average family earning $1,225 a year.
In the months after the World’s Fair, NBC achieved many firsts in television history. They revolutionized sports coverage, presenting the first professional baseball and football games in 1939. They produced the first Western on television, examining the death of Billy the Kid. But critics and the public were not buying the new technology. The New Yorker mockingly referred to the “great gales of indifference” that greeted these telecasts, while the public had purchased only several hundred sets, much fewer than the 5,000 that industry professionals had forecasted. Little footage remains from those pioneering efforts. More people heard the World’s Fair’s speeches on radio, where they were also simulcast. But deep in the Paley Center archives is what Director Michael Ritchie called the “Dead Sea Scroll” of television history: the earliest surviving footage from the medium that would eventually disrupt our national culture.

The Daily Worker printed highlights of FDR's speech which opened the Fair on April 30, 1939.

Though FDR's speech at the Fair opening was the first presidential telecast, no filmed record appears to exist.

Quite a few years ago the American Film Institute uncovered a 16mm reel labeled "1939" in an estate sale. The eleven-minute film consisted of a series of scenes, abruptly changing from one to another, without sound. The acting was very broad, very much like a silent movie. The year 1939 was one of the most remarkable years in Hollywood cinema with such classics as Gone With the Wind and The Wizard of Oz; there was no way that a studio could have produced this primitive footage. The AFI handed the reel over to me for further investigation.
I researched all of the shows originated by the NBC network and discovered a description of a broadcast that matched the opening title card. This film contains scenes from NBC’s Thursday Night Program of August 31, 1939: a live adaptation of the theatrical melodrama The Streets of New York or Poverty is No Crime. This play was originally written in 1857 by prolific Irish dramatist Dion Boucicault. The play was in the public domain, having been revived on Broadway eight years earlier. The new medium of the 20th century was going back to the 19th century for material.
There was another clue in the credits: the name known to film and TV connoisseurs, Norman Lloyd. Norman is now one of our media elder statesmen, having worked closely with Alfred Hitchcock as an actor and producer, as well as later starring as the wise Dr. Auschlander in St. Elsewhere in the Eighties. I contacted Norman and he had vivid memories of his youthful TV work in the Thirties, especially Streets of New York. Norman recalled the show’s director, Tony Bundsmann, a former actor trying to establish his credentials. Bundsmann later changed his name to Anthony Mann, and became a highly regarded director of cult Westerns. And buried in the cast was a Phylis Eisley, who also changed her name, becoming Jennifer Jones.

Harvey Gibson stands with "Miss Television" and James E. Robert at the RCA exhibit.

Playwright Boucicault created old-fashioned theatrical thrills, full of stock villains and last-minute escapes. His plays also called for sensational special effects. In our discovered clip, television replicated two coups de théâtre: a blinding snowstorm and a villain complete with a moustache, setting fire to a house. Norman remembers the heavy coats that the cast had to wear under blistering lights on a hot August day: “On the air we were sweating, shiny thespians, and, as the snow fell, it stuck to our faces like the confetti it was.” The staging was too much for the fledgling medium; the large cast got lost on the small screen.
The high hopes for the success of television were ultimately dashed by the United States’ entrance into World War II. Many of the men who worked in the nascent industry were drafted into the military, and companies like RCA diverted their scientific energy into war communications. My “Miss Television” acquaintance, Phyllis Creore Westermann, created her own radio show for servicemen, Canteen Girl. The World of Tomorrow, with television as its shining beacon, would not arrive until the late forties.

A woman and a girl smile for the TV cameras in the RCA Building.

Ron Simon is Curator, Television and Radio at the Paley Center for Media, where he has curated numerous exhibitions including The Television of Dennis Potter; Witness to History; Jack Benny: The Television and Radio Work; and Worlds Without End: The Art and History of the Soap Opera. Simon is also an associate adjunct professor at Columbia University and at New York University, where he teaches courses on the history of the media.

Read more of his writing on the Paley Center website.


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