Technology changed life in the Twin Cities

Channel 11 got its start in a building connected to the WMAM radio station, seen about in this vintage postcard, in 1954 in Marinette. The building is still located on Wells Street.

Just when a large crop of the senior publication has figured out the updated technology in the television industry, along comes something new. I’ve finally mastered the exploding number of channels available to us, and even took a liking to the finger exercises in maneuvering the handy remote control gadgets, and now comes the digital process.

It took an act of Congress to plug over-the-air broadcasting by full-power stations into the digital television system. The change is supposed to make for much clearer pictures on the screen, something seniors shouldn’t be complaining about when their eyesight starts to wane. It makes people wonder how far the television industry will take us when it comes to improving technology and all of the splashy doodads that come with it.

Although the renovations have been impressive, I don’t think older folks consider them as astonishing as the initial period when television first entered their living rooms more than a half-century ago. We didn’t have television in our home when I departed for life in the Army in the early days of 1952. When I returned from Korea two years later I had to ask what those wire contraptions were on residential rooftops. Come to find out they were antennas for black-and-white television sets that were fast becoming popular household items.

Nine months after my return home, the Twin Cities were bracing for a monumental happening in local communications. Marinette was to become home for WMBY-TV (Channel 11). It was a major advancement for the old sawmill towns on the Menominee River at the hub of the Green Bay waterway.

The twin towns were undeniably excited after the scoop. Inhabitants beamed with joy. After all, the towns were proud of the miles of advancement they had traveled since Louis Chappieu became the first white settler here in 1797, and the first mail began arriving aboard sailing vessels in 1832. The Menominee Herald was the first newspaper on the river in 1863, the telegram made its maiden arrival here in 1871 and the first telephone rang here in 1882.

The old Signal Electric Co. on Broadway (13th Street) introduced the pioneer radio communication, Station KELB, in 1924, but the broadcast operation was limited and it didn’t last long. Station WMAM opened its doors in Marinette in 1939, WAGN went on the airwaves in 1952.

The buzz about a new television station coming to town hyped local interest. Channel 11 launched its signal on Sept. 10, 1954, as a NBC affiliate. Six months later I embarked on my newspaper career at the Herald-Leader and was familiar with some of the early staffers at Channel 11.

The two local daily newspapers — Herald-Leader and Eagle-Star — had a solid grip on area advertising, and the arrival of a television station was certain to put a dent in the revenue derived from advertisers.

The anticipated competition for advertising revenues didn’t contain either newspaper from providing their readers with detailed news about the fledgling station. Both newspapers devoted Page One space for the startup. Additionally, the Eagle-Star produced a special 24-page section to the pioneer station. The Herald-Leader ran a 12-page section.

The two newspapers benefited from the new business coming to town. Their advertising pages promoted a 21-inch black-and-white Philco set for$159.95 at Sengstock’s House of Television next to Hotel Menominee, and at its Marinette store, 1722 Main St. The model featured a “fingertip” tuning system as one of the newest advances in the young, but growing industry. Gambles, Midtown Radio & Appliance, Lauerman Bros., Drees Electric were other major retailers in Marinette.

Menominee stores engaged in the sale of television sets were Montgomery Ward & Co., V&N Electric, Anderson Sales & Service, Cherney’s Music Store and Van Domelen’s, the latter developing into one of the largest in the area. Besides Philco, some of the other preferred models were RCA Victor, Motorola, Westinghouse, Sylvania, Sentinel, Du Mont, Admiral, Bendex, Crosley, Coronado and General Electric.

WMBY-TV operated from a 35-by-50-foot concrete building attached to M&M Broadcasting Company’s radio studio (WMAM) on Wells Street. A 313-foot tower was installed at High Cliff on Lake Winnebago with other towers positioned at Slinger, Peebles (Fond du Lac County) and Anston (Brown County).

Five studio sets brought the local programs to viewers in the M&M area telecasting range. Dorothy Jernquist was featured in a program that was popular with women. Her kitchen included all of the modern conveniences of a home in the early 1950s. Pat Ryan handled the weather, using a folded map of Wisconsin and a pull-down map of the United States. She utilized information from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, National Weather Service bureaus in Green Bay and Escanaba, Mich., and North Central Airlines at the Menominee County Airport for weather reports.

Bob Southard was the first news anchor with Don Metzger, Bill Liegeois and Ed Maxwell as announcers. The affable Bob Macaulay was news director, and Orrin Greutzmacher headed the art department. Howard Emich, who managed radio operations, also was involved in the TV operation. Howard Witt left a position with Scott Paper Co. to become promotions manager.

William E. Walker was president of M&M Broadcasting, and Joseph D. Mackin was general manager. Mackin, in an address before the Menominee Rotary Club in 1950, predicted Marinette would have a television station within four years. Television was slow in developing during its infancy period of the late 1940s, but once it got moving it has been unstoppable.

A kickoff dinner to celebrate the introduction of Channel 11 was held at 5:15 p.m. at Hotel Marinette on Dunlap Square, and the first show opened at the TV studio at 6:30. A condensed version of the first chapter of the Bible, according to St. John, was the opening program. The station opened and closed its broadcasts with a Biblical reference. Local dignitaries were introduced at the opening program along with station personnel.

NBC’s well-liked “Cavalcade of Sports” followed the introductory program at 8 o’clock. The show featured Carman Basilio and Carmine Fiore in a snappy 10-round welterweight bout at Madison Square Garden. An NBC film feature, “Greatest Moments in Sports” followed the fight until 9:15 p.m., when Southard came on with the station’s first newscast.

Channel 11 struggled during its four-year run in Marinette and petitioned the Federal Communications Commission to terminate its identification with Marinette, and transfer it to Green Bay. The transfer was made in 1959.

The inauguration of digital television will not spark the interest of M&M viewers such as AW in 1954 with the launch of WMBY-TV Channel 11, but it should be fun as it adds to the experiences of seniors as they attempt to stay tuned to all of the masterful changes in technology. But, please, don’t do away with our remote controls.