Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Reeling with mystery

I stumbled on the Mystery Reel late one weekend night. I was cleaning out a small closet at home, and there it was at the bottom of the pile. There were no identifying marks on it, nothing to go on, really. There were no interesting clues on the box either, except a Scotch-3M label someone tried to tear off and a smudged note scribbled in bad handwriting that looked like “At Wx 66.”

I keep a small archive of historic videotape at home—things like Nixon and Khrushchev’s Kitchen Debate, Kennedy’s Cuba speech, FDR, Lindberg, Ike and other historic people—all from old television or newsreel footage that I’ve gathered over the years from the National Archives or other sources during research. But most of that footage is on VHS tape. This was different, not one of mine. I don’t know how it got there—probably, I thought, it was part of my collection of “stuff” I’d been collecting and carting around for years and forgotten about. It was large format—the tape itself was two inches wide—a throwback, an early version of broadcast videotape that in the 50s and 60s was wound on large, heavy metal reels and hung, recorded, played and even edited on what were called Quadraplex videotape machines. They’re relics now.

When you find something like that…something that’s hidden treasure, you just have to find out what it is. So I had the tape dubbed.

What was on it was a great surprise: a weather segment from Harrisburg’s WHP-TV’s 11 o’clock news taped in October 1966. Presenting the forecast for the next day – the man who would years later host Maryland Public Television’s national Aviation Weather series in the mid-70’s. That’s Jim English, my father, but in the 60’s he was known on Harrisburg television as The Atlantic Weatherman. He started in radio playing jazz at WKBO-AM, and made the jump to television in the early 60’s. In those days, WHP—Channel 21 in Harrisburg, Pa.—was in the penthouse offices of the old Telegraph Building on Locust Street, which is to say, the fourth floor.

One thing I remember fondly about my visits there when I was a kid was the elevator. Inside it was all dark wood paneling and polished brass and run by a tiny, white-gloved old man named Carl. He’d invite us in with a slight crook of his hand, gently request our destination and close the ornate brass and glass door. His white glove skillfully rotated the brass control, and the motor jumped to life and hummed deeply as floors two and three came and went. He always thanked us as he opened the glass gate to let us out.

We’d step onto the fourth floor—the place where television came alive—and meander down the narrow hall to WHP’s tiny broadcast studios. Huge RCA cameras stared at the TV-21 news sets, and heavy, black lights reached down from the ceiling. Thick cables snaked across the scuffed hardwood floor. Pushing open the newsroom door released an explosion of clatter—CBS teletype machines from United Press, AP and Reuters and their endless, rhythmic clack-clack-clack, bump, clack-clack-clack-clack, bump. News from the world. Phones rang, cigarette smoke hung in the air and muffled voices occasionally rose and fell. I sat, listened and watched.

Even as the state capitol, Harrisburg was always a sleepy news bureau. But the excitement of broadcast news was alive at channel 21. Every afternoon, a black-booted motorcycle courier marched into the Telegraph Building’s lobby, stepped onto Carl’s elevator, rode to the fourth floor and hand-delivered the latest news films from around the world for that evening’s newscasts.

At one time or another during his time at ‘HP, my father did it all on the air – news, sports and weather, though not at the same time, of course. His tenure as The Atlantic Weatherman lasted only a few years—we left Harrisburg in ‘67 when he was hired to do the weather for WBAL, Channel 11 in Baltimore. He left the on-air business just a few years later, but always savored his time in front of the camera, especially his tenure at what then was called The Maryland Center for Public Broadcasting, now MPT.

Unfortunately, the quaint Atlantic gasoline ad that appeared on the tape during the weather segment didn’t make it; my Mystery Reel was so old that the engineers couldn’t save that piece of it. The tape was good for one pass, no more, and so the commercial is lost forever. Gratefully, one night’s worth of WHP’s Atlantic Weatherman did survive. Now, it’s great to watch a piece of television history from a time when all that weathermen had to work with were magnets and bowties.

It’s even better when it’s your dad.

Michael English
Executive Producer, Outdoors Maryland

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Mr. English:

What a thrill it was to be able to see your father in action!

I never got the chance to see him on "MPT". Is there any chance that we might be treated to something like an encore performance.