Wednesday, August 22, 1990 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Pioneers In Broadcasting


Back in the early 1950s, when the hydroplane Quicksilver flipped over and sank in Lake Washington during the first Gold Cup run here, KING-TV sportscaster Bill O'Mara did what to him was the most natural thing in the world.

O'Mara, an Irish Catholic, fell to his knees in the broadcast booth, crossed himself and said an ``Our Father'' right on camera.

News director Lee Schulman, who was Jewish, frantically directed a cameraman to take the camera off O'Mara and point it to the sky.

O'Mara's words continued, with the camera panning the clouds.

``I thought it worked out well,'' says O'Mara, now a disc jockey with KRKO Radio in Everett, ``even though Lee said later, `The first thing you learn in school is the difference between subjective and objective reporting.'

``We got hundreds of letters, and only two were critical. One of the first . . . calls I got was from Dorothy Bullitt (owner of the station). She said, `You did what you felt, Bill, and I approve of that.' ''

Many such stories were recalled yesterday after the startling news that King Broadcasting Co. would sell its vast communications holdings here and invest the money to promote environmental protection.

Seattle had many radio stations when Dorothy Bullitt began her communications empire by buying a little 50-watt station, KEVR, in 1947, renaming it KING and boosting it to 50,000 watts.

But KING-TV, which she began in 1949 after buying KRSC-TV for a little over $300,000 from P.K. Leberman, was the showcase of her empire.

Indeed, for the first five years of its life - while the Federal Communications Commission froze frequencies - KING was the only television show in town.

By the time other stations began to appear, KING-TV had such a head start that in the minds of most Puget Sounders it was synonymous with television - the way Frigidaire once meant refrigerator, the way Kleenex has become the operative word for all facial tissues.

KING ruled the roost. The station hired the best talent, cameramen, reporters and creative artists, gave them their heads and didn't pinch pennies.

There was curly-haired, crisp-spoken Charles Herring, the first full-time television anchor ``west of Minneapolis and north of Hollywood.''

There were Art Barduhn, pianist, and Stan Boreson, accordionist and master of parody, who headed up the station's first variety show.

There was O'Mara, the king of hydroplanes when Seattle was in a frenzy over roostertails and lost sleep over whether a local boat would defeat the hated rivals from Detroit.

And, above all, there was Schulman, a young New Yorker and graduate of USC's film-making school who was widely regarded as a genius in the infant medium.

KING (while it was still known as KRSC-TV) pioneered live television in the field on Thanksgiving Day (Nov. 25) 1948, when - after countless hours of preparation - its top sportscasters Ted Bell and O'Mara broadcast the state high school football championship game (6-6 tie) between Wenatchee and West Seattle.

There probably weren't 1,000 TV sets in all of Seattle at the time. The screens had a diagonal measurement of 8 to 10 inches, and the images looked as if they were being viewed through the bottom of a beer glass.

Herring, now retired, didn't own a television set at the time. So he drove down to the Camlin Hotel to watch the game.

``It was so fuzzy I'd have been better off staying at home and listening,'' says Herring. ``But it took a lot of courage for the station to try it.''

Television never again would be locked into a studio.

At the outset, KING, as the only television show in town, had its pick from four networks - NBC, ABC, CBS and DuMont. Cable was years away.

Network programs, on 16-millimeter film, arrived by airplane and were rushed to the studio. Kinescope recordings were made by pointing a movie camera at a TV screen.

If it reflected Seattle, there was nothing that young KING wouldn't cover.

When Highline High School students put on a performance of the operetta ``Pirates of Penzance,'' KING-TV brought the entire cast down to its big barn of a studio on Lower Queen Anne, filmed the entire production from curtain to curtain and put it on the air.

Sponsors were hard to find. O'Mara's real name was Rhodes. But the chief sponsor of one of his sports shows was The Bon Marche. As everyone knew, Rhodes Department Store was a major competitor of The Bon. Rhodes would have to change his name.

``I picked O'Mara, which was a good Irish name,'' he says.

Mrs. Bullitt, who was to become the First Lady of television and hold that position until her death last year, knew a bit about changing names. Getting KING for her very own hadn't been easy.

Not liking the call letters KEVR when she purchased her first radio station, she ran through all the four-letter possibilities that began with K and decided on KING. It was, after all, the name of the county in which Seattle was located.

Lots of other would-be communications moguls had entertained the same notion, only to be told the letters were already taken.

But Bullitt, who didn't quit without a fight, checked and found KING represented the marine call letters of a freighter. She contacted the vessel's owners and asked them to free up the call letters.

KING was born. When Bullitt purchased KRSC's FM and TV stations, she moved the call letters to her new properties.

Schulman came to the new station early, when everything was a pioneering venture.

He went shopping for talent at the University of Washington and found Barduhn and Boreson.

``Lee was trying to fill time,'' says Boreson. ``He had Clifford and Clark, a good musical team, and Tom Herbert doing charades, and he decided to get some college talent.

``Art and I were hired. Our pay was $25 for half an hour, which we split two ways. If there was time to fill, Lee would hold out his arm to indicate that we should stretch it out. One night we had Gloria Swanson, the actress, as a guest, and Tom Dargon was interviewing her and we ran one hour and 25 minutes.

``I remember that we finally got a sponsor, Best Pies. They brought a couple to the show, and Lee decided that Art and I should hit each other in the face with them. The next morning, Best canceled its sponsorship. They decided it was not a good way to promote their pies.''

When Barduhn left the show, Boreson was given his own children's program. Boreson's accordion, his spoofs of his Scandinavian ancestry and his sad-eyed bassett hound, No Mo Shun, became institutions.

So did his theme song: ``Zero dachus, mucho crackus, hallaballooza bub; that's the secret password that we use down at the club.''

Others in the KING family who developed a large following included:

Sheriff Tex (Jim Lewis); Wunda Wunda (Ruth Prins); Bill and Cherie Corcoran, who emceed a talk show; a talented pianist/songstress who called herself Merceedes; a handsome daytime talk-show couple, Casey Gregerson and Mike Rhodes (``Telescope''); and the ever-fashionable fashion-show hostess Elizabeth Leonard.

One of the best-loved was Bea Donovan, whose cooking show ran for 25 years.

``Those were such fun days, I'd love to live them over again, and be as young now as I was then,'' said Donovan, now 82, when she learned that KING-TV was to be sold.

Pranks were common on her cooking set, Donovan says.

``One day, I'm talking my head off to the camera, and when I turn around to take the egg off the plate, the darned thing won't come off. The crew had glued it down.

``Another time, I smile into the camera and say, `And now I'll just pop this in the oven.' I opened the oven door, and it was filled with horseshoes.

``The set crew would laugh and giggle in the background, and I had to think of something to say.''

Herring, who was Dan Rather, Peter Jennings and Tom Brokaw all rolled into one in the early days of Seattle television, became anchorman in September 1951.

``They were 16 wonderful and crazy years,'' says Herring. ``I remember spending three or four days out in the Ravenna District, where they had this big hole in the ground, just watching it with a live camera and waiting for a piece of dirt to fall.''

The company had a heart, too.

In 1954, three years after joining KING, Herring was lured to Hollywood to write, produce and anchor a show for a CBS affiliate.

``I spent a few months there and decided I couldn't stand L.A. and called KING and asked if I could have my job back. I was told to `come home.' ''

Herring was involved, along with Chet Huntley and other big-name broadcasters, in the first satellite TV linkup between Europe and the U.S.

``Sure, it's nothing now, but it was really big stuff in those days,'' Herring recalls. ``And I had a piece of it, because I was with KING.''

Before the 1962 World's Fair, says Herring, he had never appeared in anything but black and white. But RCA sent a couple of color cameras out for the fair, ``and pretty soon I had to have makeup before I went on camera.''

One of Herring's most emotional moments in TV was going on the air to announce the assassination of President Kennedy.

KING wasn't bashful about promoting itself.

It hired Disney to create a jaunty cartoon character, KING Mike, to run in company ads.

When Richard Nixon came to Eastern Washington as president, a KING Radio reporter stuck a microphone in his face. When Nixon asked what station he represented, the reporter said ```KING Seattle.'' Nixon responded, ``Boy, that's a good name for a radio station.''

KING aired the president's quote repeatedly over the next few weeks.

Dorothy Bullitt was particularly fond of Classic KING, her FM radio station. It didn't make any money, but it was her favorite music and she wanted to give something to the community.

On the radio side, KING gave a start to Jim French (now KIRO) and Frosty Fowler (now KGNW). At one time, Al Cummings, the man who may have been the most popular disc jockey/commentator ever to broadcast in the Northwest, was a KING Radio man.

KING Broadcasting had a penchant for hiring intellectuals, on the radio and the TV sides.

Vic Stredicke, who wrote a radio column for The Times for many years and was close to the TV scene, thinks the Ivy League influence came from Stimson Bullitt, Dorothy's son, who was president of KING Broadcasting until 1974.

``Stimmy liked the Harvard-educated types,'' says Stredicke. ``The idea was that they were smart and could learn about broadcasting. That's how they got guys like Ross Davis as program director. He later became a Republican honcho. That's also how they got Irving Clark, a liberal lawyer who used to delight in making people mad on his radio talk show.''

One of KING's most daring ventures was Seattle Magazine, a slick publication headed by Peter Bunzel, an Ivy Leaguer who shared Stimson Bullitt's passion for rattling cages.

The magazine eventually failed, but its controversial articles - on homosexuals, on Black Panthers and on Seattle's gambling-tolerance policy - had a tremendous impact on journalists.

Ancil Payne, who was with the station for 30 years, mostly as Dorothy Bullitt's right-hand man, says his fondest recollections are of KING-TV's ``willingness to be iconoclastic, to challenge the status quo.''

``Mrs. Bullitt was not a person who went out and sought controversy, but she never shied from it,'' says Payne. ``I loved controversy myself. I think it's fundamental to the democratic system. Challenge and response are mandatory if we are to have a full discussion of issues.

``I guess that's why Mrs. Bullitt kept me around as a lackey for so long.''

Under Payne, KING-TV did the first editorials on local TV (Payne did them himself). It introduced the first TV commentaries (by Herb Altschul, then by Charley Royer and now by Jim Compton). It also produced the nation's first documentaries.

Many still recall the first one, ``Lost Cargo,'' which ran about 1960 and brought about fundamental changes in the way Seattle's port did business.

Other memorable documentaries include ``Harvest of Shame,'' about migrant workers; ``Suspect,'' an in-depth look at the character assassination of state legislator John Goldmark; and a piece which dealt with murderer Don Anthony White and his victim.

KING-TV did documentaries on race relations in Seattle and Portland before the subject was popular. The station also did a series of documentaries on the environment some time before the environment became everyone's favorite cause.

``Dorothy Bullitt never told me not to do something because we couldn't afford it,'' says Payne. ``You can't find bosses like that anymore.''

For all its past glories, however, KING-TV today is just one of three major television stations in Seattle and just one of dozens one can tune in to on cable.

``I'm watching news tonight on Channel 45,'' says Payne. ``Not long ago there were just three choices. And long ago, KING was the only choice.

``But you can't turn back the clock.''

Copyright (c) 1990 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.


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