By Gary Hannes
"LET THERE BE LIGHT"
(.....and moving images....and sound!)
TELEVISION COMES TO THE CARIBBEAN FORCES NETWORK
(One man's memories of the event)
From the time I arrived at CFN as a staff announcer in March, 1955 until the events of early 1956, I was part of a tightly-knit group of servicemen without uniforms whose job it was to inform and entertain U.S. armed forces stationed in the Panama Canal Zone. The conflict in Korea had ended and a lot of servicemen were being phased out earlier than their contract with Uncle Sam originally called for. At CFN there was no pressure. Most of us worked 4 hour daily shifts, four days a week. We had Class A passes which allowed us free travel on and off the military installation (Ft. Clayton in our case) on a 24 hour basis. A few staff members lived off base with wives and family, but most of us bunked on the third floor of Building 209, one flight above the radio studios and offices. For relaxation, many of us used Studio A (the large radio studio which was rarely used) as a recreation hall. Dick Klehmeyer (announcer) would play the piano in the studio while Al Lohman, Jim Anderson and yours truly (all announcers) would sit around the studio table (with microphone and table lamp) chatting about a variety of subjects. When Dick wasn't entertaining us, we might put a Bob and Ray program disc on the production studio turntable and pipe it into the studio for lots of laughs. And that pretty much sets the scene for the lives we were living in 1955.
There was a rumor late in 1955 that television would be invading our domain "sometime soon." and sure enough: in February of 1956 crates and boxes started arriving and were stacked in the hallway outside of the large studio. Then, one day a fellow by the name of Albert McCleery showed up, decked-out in Army uniform with a gold bird on his shoulder. It was announced that he would be giving us classes in TV production every morning for two hours for a two-week period. It turns out that Col. McCleery, a reserve officer, was the producer of a daily one hour drama program, in color, on the NBC television network, the first color program series in TV history. Was he qualified to show us the way? And how!!!
In late March and early April,
a crew of technicians from Dage TV of Michigan City, Indiana, under the
direction of CEO Joe Alinski, invaded our premises, directing carpenters and
electricians to make a TV studio out of our beloved recreation hall and a
control room out of what once was our office.
Track lighting was installed, double glass was put in between the new
studio and the new control room, cable connections were spaced around the studio
walls, while cameras, projectors and a variety of other equipment was unpacked
and set-up by the Dage crew.
Meantime, Program Director, Jim Pattison, OIC Major John Morrissey and a group of us who would be destined to have a hand in running the TV operation held meetings to determine what we would program and how we would do it. Most of the programming would consist of kinescopes of Stateside network programs (Jack Benny, Dragnet, I Love Lucy, etc.) but we needed to have one live program each day. Collectively we came up with "Panorama," a daily one-hour program to be aired at 6 p.m. The first 15 minutes would be news, the second 15 would be sports, and the remaining 30 minutes would be involved with local events, interviews, movie reviews, etc. Full uniforms would be required of all who appeared on camera while floor crew and production staff could be informally attired. We decided to go on the air at 6 p.m. with "Panorama" the first feature program. From 7 to 10 (sign-off time), we would air kinescopes. Somewhere during those early TV days, we decided on one other live show weekly: "The Studio," a thirty minute production to be written, produced, directed, and acted by CFN staff with some outside talent as necessary.
Early in May 6, 1956 we took to the air. There were not many TV sets in the Canal Zone since not many Americans had an interest in Panamanian TV, so our early critics were few! If five men reported that they were TV news anchors, they probably were telling the truth. We had a different newscaster each day, mainly to give experience to everyone and finally decide on one steady anchor. We had no news or sports news source during those early days, so we recorded the 5 p.m. Special English short-wave broadcast from the Voice of America and between 5:15 and 6:00, typed the news on paper. Same with AFRS sports from short wave earlier in the day. Depending on who was making news, there would be a mad rush to track down pictures from the pages of past issues of Time and Newsweek magazines, cut them out, then coerce Jim Giampaoli, our only artist, to paste them on cardboard with a black frame painted around them and mounted, in order, on a music stand in the studio for the close-up camera to shoot them during the news/sports reports.
"The Studio" had a modest beginning with poetry or short story readings by one of us standing at a lectern. Pretty dry stuff. Gerry Sturges tried to recite "Casey At The Bat" from memory on one of the early shows and managed to forget his lines, an embarrassing moment to be sure.
I wrote and directed a sci fi story about a man stuck in space after his vehicle malfunctioned. The story concludes with the man's wife and son looking skyward to see a shooting star, which, as you are made aware, was the man bursting into flame as his body entered gravity, Ron Harper was the actor and Jim Giampaoli and I worked for hours to come up with the visual effect of traveling through a myriad of stars. It ended-up being three small panes of glass with about three inches of space between them, mounted on a piece of wood. Jim painted white dots, representing the stars, all against a black background. As the camera zoomed slowly in on this device, it gave the impression of flying thru space....or at least that was the intention. These live shows eventually became more elaborate and were fun and a challenge to put together for airing.
Our real challenge came within a couple of months of our inauguration: coverage of the very first Organization Of American States (OAS) conference involving the leaders of the 20 member nations. President Dwight Eisenhower would be present in Panama to represent the United States. This historic event was scheduled for July 17th to the 24th. No military uniforms were to be permitted at the conference site. I was the only U.S. Military representative from the Canal Zone authorized to cover the event as a reporter, disguised as a civilian, as were a number of Signal Corps photographers who would furnish CFN still shots and film of the event. Only two leaders ever stepped on Canal Zone soil: Ike was one, and Cuba's President Fulencio Batista who received a special invitation to "discuss matters of mutual interest." CFN radio and TV did an admirable job and many official letters of praise were received. Fifty-three radio reports and features and 31 TV reports were documented during our OAS Conference coverage. A lot of us put in many extra hours to pull it off: a real challenge for a mostly inexperienced TV crew.
During those first few months of TV at CFN, building 209 was like Grand
Central Station: lots of movement and many new faces seen both on and off the TV
screen. The third floor tenants moved their bunks closer together to accommodate
the growing number of TV announcers, technicians, cameramen, floor managers,
directors, sound engineers, writers, etc. In the short time I had left (I would
be leaving in September, less than 5 months after we put the "T" in
AFRTS), I was incapable of knowing intimately all the newcomers.
Even Major John Morrissey, our OIC, since early 1955, got himself an
Executive OIC, Second Lieutenant John Zachary.
The arrival of TV was met with mixed emotions by those of us who had been at CFN radio for a period of time. It meant a hell of a lot more work, fewer hours of free time, more discipline, and having to learn a new trade for a lot of us. On September 20th, 1956, I was no longer a serviceman though I did manage to continue working in the world of radio and TV until 2001. Since then those golden days at CFN radio and TV have been haunting my memory - in living color!!!
Gary Hannes, pfc (retired!!), U.S. Army - Written February 5, 2015
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