• Ted Stillwell: John Cameron Swayze, Howdy Doody and other old-time TV

  • I can well remember when my dad brought home our first 13-inch, black and white TV in 1951. There was only one station on the air and that was WDAF Channel 4 in Kansas City, an NBC affiliate.

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  • I can well remember when my dad brought home our first 13-inch, black and white TV in 1951. There was only one station on the air and that was WDAF Channel 4 in Kansas City, an NBC affiliate. My favorite shows were “Superman” and “Howdy Doody.” KCMO-TV, Channel 5 and KMBC-TV, Channel 9, were next to come on the air in 1953. The networks didn’t begin broadcasting color TV until about 1960 with only a handful of prime-time programs, but it was not until about 1965 that all the network programming was broadcast in full living color.
    Some of those early kid’s TV shows back in the 1950s were “Hop-a-Long Cassidy,” “Pinky Lee,” “Ding Dong School,” and “Kookla, Fran & Ollie.” For the evening schedule, there was “The Red Skelton Show,” “Our Miss Brooks,” “The Voice of Firestone” and Milton Berle on the “Texaco Star Theater.” The most popular sit-coms were “The Life of Riley,” “Father Knows Best,” and “I Love Lucy.” “The Colgate Comedy Hour” starred Bob Hope, along with Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, Abbott and Costello and Donald O’Connor. The original “Dragnet” with Jack Webb, “Your Hit Parade,” and “Ted Mack’s Original Amateur Hour” all became prime-time favorites.
    When we got that first television set, Harry Truman was president and Randall Jesse was the first local news anchorman. John Cameron Swayze was the first national news commentator on NBC’s “Camel News Caravan.” Swayze was also well-remembered by most Americans for a series of commercials he did for nearly two decades for Timex Watches and the catch-phrase “It takes a licking and keeps on ticking.”
    John Cameron Swayze was born in Wichita, Kan., in 1906, but grew up in Atchison. His desire to become an actor took him to Broadway following high school, but the acting roles in the New York theaters became so scarce following the Wall Street market crash in 1929 that he had to return home to make a living, where he went to work as a reporter for the old Kansas City Journal Post. From there, Swayze graduated to radio, doing news updates for Kansas City’s KMBC in 1940 and reportedly, an experimental early television newscast. Four years later, Swayze jumped to Hollywood where he hired on at NBC in their western news division. In 1947, they moved him to their New York operations.
    The following year, Swayze provided the voice-over for the “Camel Newsreel Theater,” an early television news program that broadcast Movietone News reels. Meanwhile, NBC made Swayze their host of the 1948 national political coverage – the first commercial coverage ever by television, which saw Harry Truman upset the Republican challenger, New York Governor Thomas Dewey.
    The following year, Swayze was chosen to host NBC’s 15-minute “Camel News Caravan,” where he read items from the news wires and periodically interviewed newsmakers. He had a very flamboyant delivery style with catchy phrases, such as “Let’s go hop scotching around the world for headlines,” and his somewhat cartoonish sign-off: “That’s the story, folks – glad we could get together. And now, this is John Cameron Swayze saying goodnight.”
    Page 2 of 2 - In time, Swayze’s almost manic style seemed frivolous compared to his CBS rival Douglas Edwards who’s rather sober and no-nonsense delivery style began to pull ratings away from NBC. During 1956, Swayze was dismissed in favor of a new anchor team, Chet Huntley and David Brinkley – “good night David; good night Chet.” They, in turn, pulled ratings away from Edwards, and in 1962, he was replaced with another Kansas City broadcast pioneer, Walter Cronkite.
    Incidentally, in case you were wondering, yes John Cameron Swayze and actor Patrick Swayze were related, sixth cousins once removed. He was also related to actors William Holden and Tom Hulce.
    Reference: The Golden Years of Broadcasting, by Robert Campbell.
    In cooperation with The Examiner, Ted W. Stillwell is available to speak before any club, church, civic, senior, or school groups.
    To reach Ted W. Stillwell, send an email to teddystillwell@yahoo.com or call him at 816-252-9909.

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