Wednesday, 5 February 2014

Kinescopes Aren't Wynn-derful

Technology has supposed to have come far even within the last few years but, in some ways, it hasn’t. Just go to any video sharing site on the internet and you’ll find someone who taken their cell phone, pointed it at their TV monitor and recorded something. They used to do that in the 1940s, too. Except they used something called a kinescope.

Without getting into an involved history, Eastman Kodak came up with an invention in September 1947 to record images from a TV screen. There was no coast-to-coast circuit then and no videotape. Until both were developed in the ‘50s, any TV show that had been performed live and was re-broadcast was recorded on a kinescope. Network TV began in New York, meaning many shows were kinescoped there and shipped to stations in Los Angeles and elsewhere. For the record, the first show kinescoped in Los Angeles and shipped to New York was Ed Wynn’s CBS variety show. It was aired on kinescope on 14 stations in the east two weeks after the live broadcast on KTTV (still a CBS station at the time).

Wynn had seemingly been around forever when he landed on television; his first monster hit in vaudeville was “The Ziegfeld Follies of 1914.” He was hugely successful on radio in the early ‘30s and was so widely listened to, he begat legions of Ed Wynn imitators (Howie Morris was doing a Wynn-type voice in commercials as Mayor McCheese four decades later). The early TV industry liked Wynn; he won an Emmy in 1949. But his show wasn’t a hit. It changed sponsors from Speidel to Camels before the year was up and moved to a new time slot. The quality of the kinescope was blamed for the failure; Billboard reported viewers in the Midwest complained about the lousy picture. Wynn moved to NBC the following season.

Everyone’s favourite acidic radio critic, John Crosby of the New York Herald-Tribune, took a look at Wynn’s show soon after it signed on. He was kind to Wynn, whose routines must have been corny even when this review first appeared on October 25, 1949. Crosby was not so kind to Eastman Kodak’s recording device.

Radio In Review

Perfect Foot, Imperfect Kinescope
Kinescope, or television recording, the process of filming a television show off the receiving tube, is almost never put on the air in New York where there are more live shows than sometimes seems necessary. Therefore, the arrival of the Ed Wynn show, the first kinescope entrant from the West Coast, was awaited with bated breath. Well, we all can unbate our breath now. Kinescope, to put it mildly, needs work.
On your home television screen, kinescope resembles a particularly decrepit Western or one of the old, old silents. But it’s not silent. The Wynn show, at least, is all-singing, all-talking, all-dancing, as they used to say of pictures back in 1928 when sound was new. There are only two shades on the Wynn show—black and white. There’s nothing in between. Also the film jerks unexpectedly in spots. Or else Ed Wynn has arthritis.
AT STAKE here is something much larger than the Wynn show itself which we'll get to in a minute. A lot of people, who are fastened by golden strands to Hollywood and pictures, would like to get into television via kinescope. Kinescope, if it ever gets any better than this, will mean that any city with a television station can enjoy first-rate shows, coaxial cable or no coaxial cable. It’ll mean that Hollywood with its hordes of entertainers and magnificent technical equipment can become capital of the television world as it is capital of films and radio. On the basis of the Wynn show, that day is pretty far away.
APART FROM its technical limitations, the show is as pleasant a half hour as you’ll find in television. It's nice to have Mr. Wynn’s extraordinarily disheveled profile, manic eyes, quavering voice and boneless, expressive hands in full view again. So many people have been helping themselves to Wynn’s material in recent years that he appears at times to be imitating himself. However, I'm happy to report that Wynn seems more at home with his own material than any of the other comedians.
His show is a remarkably unpretentions affair, consisting largely of Mr. Wynn. He tells those foolish stories, crackling with puns; he ogles the pretty girls; he drifts around aimlessly in his clownish hat.
While it doesn’t produce the boffolas of the Berle show, you’ll find it a good deal more restful and, in the long run, it may wear better.
LIKE THE WYNN shows of old this one abounds in sight gags. A man asks for a long-playing record and Wynn rolls out something the size of a wagon wheel.
“It ought to play about a month,” he explains.
Wynn gets tangled up in a phone booth, a comic bit too intricate to reduce to English. He confides to the audience that he is appearing this evening through the carelessness of his sponsor and that television, like crime, does not pay.
A lone guest star lurks about the premises every week. One of them was Carmen Miranda, whose exuberant countenance I find hardly credible even under the rest of circumstances. On kinescope, Miss Miranda looked as if she had just been disinterred.
ANOTHER GUEST was Mel Torme, the velvet fog, who came off somewhat better. Torme’s personality, incidentally, appears to have been completely redecorated in Hollywood.
When he left New York, he was a gangling youth, resembling an adolescent bullfrog. On television he was a poised, attractive kid and, most surprisingly, his face seems to have been redesigned from chin to hairline. Perhaps he just grew into it.
The Wynn show as a whole probably will please the old Wynn addicts, but I doubt it’ll create any new ones. Mr. Wynn is stacking the cards against him by appearing on kinescope.
I can’t quite understand why, either. Of all the entertainers in Hollywood, he is probably the most footloose and he easily could have come to New York and done the show live.

Television changed during the ‘50s. Variety was out. Wynn made the switch, too, faltering after 16 episodes of “The Ed Wynn Show” where he played a wily widower raising two granddaughters in a show that was part drama, part light comedy. But anyone who thought Wynn was just a giggling baggy-pants comic was truly mistaken. Wynn may even have shocked himself with his fine dramatic performance in “Requiem For a Heavyweight” on “Playhouse 90,” which led to his Oscar-nominated role in “The Diary of Anne Frank” (1958).

Wynn died of cancer in 1966. The kinescope died before that. Wynn’s death was mourned. The kinescope’s may not have been but perhaps it should be. The kinescope captured and preserved many television broadcasts we, today, would never have had the chance of viewing. Including Ed Wynn’s.


  1. From Tim Lones comes this comment:
    One of Wynn's other "Kinnies" featured The Three Stooges..Great stuff from The Stooges heyday as a team. While I am not a "Political Correctness" fan I found the pushing of the Camels sponsorhip a bit unnerving..Especially the "smoking billboard"

  2. Wynn died of cancer in 1966. The kinescope died before that.

    Although some stations and even countries continued to use the process into the 1970's.

  3. Sam Hearn, who plays the fiddling waiter, was Schlepperman on Jack Benny's program in the 1930s.
    He was quite good in that bit.

  4. Even after the coaxial cable was completed in September 1951, and "coast-to-coast" TV programming began, kinescopes were still needed for those areas that couldn't telecast live programs in their "regular" time periods (either due to the station being the ONLY one on the air in their area, and carrying programs from other networks, or they carried "local" programming in those time periods). And even though videotape was perfected in 1956, "kinnies" were still needed because they could also be requsitioned by individuals wanting a "film" copy of a certain program, and saved for legal purposes.....and not ALL TV stations had videotape equipment until the late '60s.

  5. Howie Morris also used that Ed Wynn voice for Mummy in "The Groovie Goolies". Probably the strangest use of it was as the voice of Benjamin Franklin in a "Sabrina the Teenage Witch" episode, which also had George Washington sounding like W.C. Fields!

  6. Kinescopes were definitely produced up to 1970 at least... there's a b&w kinnie of the January 28, 1970 broadcast of ABC's JOHNNY CASH SHOW that circulated on the grey market during the VHS years. As bgrouman wrote, they were needed for legal purposes, mostly by the ad agencies, and VTR tape didn't become more economical than film until the '70s.