Lost Butte, Montana, a book by Richard I. Gibson, is in stores and museum gift shops around Butte. Or order from the publisher. It's also in E-book formats at all the usual places. And read an interview with Gibson, here, and on KXLF here. The Facebook page has many historic photos of Butte, and the Butte-Anaconda NHLD project showcases many historic buildings. Location-oriented posts can be found on HistoryPin. On Mondays beginning in January 2016, look for Gibson's "Mining City History" column in the Montana Standard.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Television fever hits Butte

Guest Post By Robin Jordan

In August 1953, the question on the street seemed to be, “What television set are you going to buy?”

A Montana Standard article dated August 2, 1953 announced that KOPR-TV would begin broadcasting from its studios at the Finlen Hotel on September 1, 1953.  Plans were underway to build a transmitter on the Continental Divide. 

According to the article, the station would be on Channel 4 and would be primarily a CBS affiliate, although it would carry some ABC programs, as well as programs for which it had obtained contracts.  It would broadcast on VHF channel 4, which is now assigned to KXLF.

Among those, according to the Montana Standard advertisements, were “Favorite Story,” which was a popular drama with famous actor Adoph Menjou, “Cisco Kid,” and “Boston Blackie.” 

Obviously, the lure of such offerings enticed young and old to gather around the TV set—if you had one.
Apparently, every business in town that had a few feet of floor space had television sets on display and advertised them, often lavishly. 

A strange phenomenon emerged: the 17” television at $179.95.  The model and make were immaterial, the price for RCA Victor, Burton, Admiral and others was the same, no matter where they were sold. The weird exception to this rule, which seemed to run from store to store, was the Bendix, which was being sold by Television Sales and Service at 134 E Park.  The Bendix television was obviously a cosmetic improvement over some of the cheaper models; the $429.95 model offered Chippendale-inspired styling on an impressive cabinet.  The Bendix 17-inch model was listed for $209.95.

The old Finlen (previously the McDermott).
The present Finlen, where the TV station
was located, was built in 1923.

The owners of KOPR-TV were quite proactive, staging a television dealers’ show in the Copper Bowl of the Finlen Hotel.  One of the highlights was the unveiling of the new line of Packard-Bell television sets.  Also shown were models released by the Capehart-Farnsworth Company.  Vice President of that company was Philo T. Farnsworth, who owned 6 of the patents necessary to build every television to this day.  He is frequently credited as being the “inventor” or television, although others had worked toward that goal previously.  Others at the show included representatives of Packard-Bell.

Some of the establishments that sold TV sets were Len Waters, in its current location; Butte Stove Repair, 123 E. Park; Home Supply Store, 28 E. Broadway; Standard Furniture, 65 E. Park; LeSage’s, 204 W. Park; Electronics Service, 130 S. Main; Bertoglio Market, 200 N. Main; Home Supply Store, 28 E. Broadway; George’s Appliance, 1659 Harrison and Lowry’s TV and Radio Service, 14 W. Park.
Of course, the more well-known department stores were in the mix.  Hennessy’s ran a page-and a-half in the center section of the Standard (known in the business as a three-quarter truck, which would have cost quite a bit more than a single television set) to announce that the store was fully equipped to take care of new television customers.  Sears offered its own line, and Burrs, Park and Dakota; Rosenbergs, 120 N. Main were offering various models of televisions. 

My husband, Dave Jordan, remembers watching the test pattern on the family television set.  In his childhood home, it was common to summon his mother from whatever task to see the new test pattern.  Apparently there was something besides the old black and white Indian Chief we all remember. 

“We watched that test pattern for weeks,” he said. He would have been five years old. Television must have been mesmerizing to keep a five-year-old away from sandlot baseball and the other diversions of summer to be such an attraction.

Robin Jordan is co-editor of The Butte Weekly and an amateur history buff, especially when it comes to Butte history.  She and her husband enjoy many hobbies, including model trains, gardening and reading.


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  2. Great memories. I was 11 in the fall of 1953 and remember KOPR's first broadcasts, because my father George Chance was the Sales Manager at the radio station which was expanding into TV. We had one of the first TV sets in Butte, a high-end mahogany Motorola beauty with front doors, for which KOPR paid around $450. It was the focal point of our living room and envy of our neighbors. Before the station started transmitting, I would just watch "snow" on the set while adjusting the horizontal and vertical hold controls. Later I would spend hours watching and adjusting the test pattern.

    Since no neighbors had TVs, they would ask if they could watch our TV and their favorite programs--which were on from about six to ten at night. To get our living room back, we moved our set to the dining room where we had permanent theatre seating set up for friends who would just show up at our back door. Since TV didn't start until after dinner, we kids had the whole day to play baseball and all the other great games of the era.

    The TV tower was on top of the Finlen Hotel. I remember dad giving our family a tour of the new facilities. We stood next to the antenna on the top of the Finlen and looked out over the Butte valley. He then took us down to the KOPR offices which I think were on the second floor or mezzanine. There were stacks to-the ceiling of electronics--all tubes--required for TV transmission. I remember the engineer who gave us the electronics tour, pointing out the "Sync" stack--all dedicated to generating the sync component of the broadcast signal--which could be done today with the brains of a smart watch.

    The manager of the station was Ed Cooney. He, dad and other employees spent a lot of time after work, especially Friday nights, in the Copper Bowl of the Finlen (doing business?). Mom never appreciated that.

    --Geoff Chance