EAST TEXAS (KLTV) - In 1954: Elvis recorded his first hit single That's All Right, Stevie Ray Vaughn was born, Father Knows Best premiered. Gas was 25 cents, a car cost $1,950, you could buy a house for $17,500, and minimum wage was 75 cents an hour. If you were born in 1954, you are celebrating your fiftieth birthday this year.
Fifty years ago, the first major television station in our area went on the air in an old airport hanger off Kilgore Highway and changed East Texas forever. On October 14, 1954, a legacy of caring people, committed employees, and a TV station that's proud of East Texas was born. Now it's on the air! Television, Channel 7, so long awaited in Tyler and our East Texas area, is reality! stated The Tyler Star Sunday October 17, 1954. History was in the making that Thursday, October 14, when KLTV's first broadcast hit the airwaves at night. The employees were excited, East Texas was excited, and Mrs. Lucille Buford, KLTV's founder and the first woman to own and operate a television station, was setting the bar for a new era of broadcasting in East Texas.
Lucille, a graduate from the University of Missouri with a degree in journalism, was heavily involved in the broadcast industry. Having owned and operated a station in Oklahoma with her husband, she knew the ropes. Sadly, Mr. Buford became ill and later died, so she left Oklahoma and brought her family back to Tyler. There, she bought KGKB, a station she had interned at while home for the summer in college, and began her roots in the broadcasting world of East Texas. Not long after, word of television coming to the area sparked her interest and changed everything.
"It was very exciting, a really interesting time!" Mrs. Beryl Berry recalled. Berry, originally from London, England, came to work for Lucille in 1952 for KGKB. A long time friend of the Buford family, Beryl was a part of many of the first moments of KLTV.
"I remember that Lucille was advised by her Washington attorney that TV was the up and coming thing, so she immediately put in an application for the rights to Channel 7. The newspaper people had also applied as well as several others, so there were competing applications for some time," Mrs. Berry said.
Channel 7 was set to be the only VHF television station allocated by the FCC to serve East Texas between Dallas and Shreveport, so interest in owning it was high. At the time, General Electric had recently put in a UHF station that went out of business within months. Its lack of success gave many of the applicants cold feet, and after sticking it out almost two years, Lucille Buford won the rights to Channel 7.
From that point on, KLTV was in the making and Mrs. Buford never looked back, despite local criticism and lack of support from some.
"She was a pioneer in the broadcast industry," Barry Hanson, KLTV's East Texas Angler, said. "People told her she was crazy, that it would never work. For her to step out and start a station from the ground up was a very brave move."
Bravery comes with a price, but Lucille Buford was a hard worker and did what it took to see KLTV succeed. She spent over a quarter of a million dollars on equipment alone, and hired only the best to build the station out of the airport hanger.
"She had to put everything on the line after her husband died to see the station succeed," Beryl Berry said. "In the early days, money was very tight, but Lucille was a great sales person. She would come in once a month and we would sit down and decide which bills absolutely had to be paid to stay on the air! But we weren't in the red long; KLTV was very profitable."
The success of KLTV was definitely not just one person's accomplishment. A strong, intelligent team of workers joined KLTV, and, under the direction of station manager Marshall Pengra, they reached new milestones every day.
When KLTV was unveiled in October, the community was overwhelmed by the clear signal and perfect picture on their television screens. Sitcoms, as well as local news and weather, came right into their living rooms with unprecedented quality. KLTV was just what East Texas wanted.
With each day on the air, KLTV changed history. One of those was the day Marshall Pengra brought television into the courtroom for the historical Billy Sol Estes case. This was the very first time television was allowed inside a court, and it was a huge accomplishment for the station, as well as East Texas television itself.
Many East Texans remember other early KLTV personalities, such as Ralph Coleman, chief engineer Hudson Collins, and Glen Rich and the Fowler Playboys. Fridays at five, before the news, The Fowler Playboys, a group of musicians sponsored by Fowler Furniture, would come on for a 30 minute country and western program that was a hit all across East Texas. Nell Anderson, the wife of former Fowler Playboy Roscoe Anderson, singer and guitar player, remembers their fame.
"People loved them, they had a huge following," she said. "And they got to have many famous people on their show- Tommy Sans, Harvey Douglas, Cheryl Pool, Davis Houston. People loved Grandad Rich, too, the announcer. He was a character."
"When I think of Glen 'Grandad' Rich," Beryl recalls, "I think of a commercial he did for Ideal Bread that called for him to take hot rolls out of an oven. Well, when he pulled them out, they had a Wholesome wrapper on! Oh, his face! He had to throw them back in there real quick, but this was all live, so there wasn't much he could do! He never lived that down."
And who could forget Kip Kippenbrock, KLTV's famous anchor and entertainer? An alumnus of The University of Texas, Kip came to KLTV on December 4, 1954, less than two months after the station's opening. He was an immediate favorite and extremely good at his job.
"Well, you know, broadcasting is really just a combination of intelligence and good acting," Kip said. "And since I'm an ex-drama major, this was the perfect job for me!"
KLTV and Kip were a great fit too. Starting off on the noon news, he ended up doing the weather, commercials, hosting a quiz show and commentating on the live wrestling show that aired on KLTV as well. He would also report on the scene every year at the Rose Festival.
I was fast and loud," Kip said, "and I was blessed to be a quick study. Since we didn't have teleprompters, you either made big cheat cards or memorized it, and I could memorize. But if you asked me two days later about anything I said, I wouldn't have a clue! In those days, it was black and white, no teleprompters, and no tape. But I'd have to say, in '54, it was a lot of fun."
Kip left KLTV 17 years later, after the 'die hard bachelor', as Beryl Berry referred to him, finally married and moved to Dallas. He commuted for almost 18 months, but the hour and a half drive in his little VW Carmen down Interstate 20 finally got the best of him.
"It was just too stressful. And though Lucille was understanding, she hated to see me go," Kip said. "And can you believe it? Within three months of my leaving, she died in a fire at the Fairmont Hotel in Dallas."
Kip's departure and Lucille Buford's tragic death, while saddening those at KLTV, didn't keep them down. Things kept growing, new faces graced the scene, and the television world changed every day.
Barry Hanson, who joined KLTV in 1967, remembers how different the television world was back then.
"I came in as a staff announcer, and ending up doing everything from news, weather, sports, production, reporting, and finally commercials," he said. "And now I have my own fishing show! I'm kind of an oddity in that I've gotten to do several different jobs and work in a single market this long. It has always been a privilege to work for Channel 7."
In the 70's, the staff was still unbelievably small. The anchors, which varied between three to four people, would do everything themselves, from shooting the news and sports, to deciphering the weather without all the technology that we have today.
"In weather, I used to work on old World War II Vintage Radar and Weather Computers," Mark Scirto, current Chief Meteorologist remembered. "They were so old that when I called in for repair information they said 'You have what machine?' Being flexible and multi-talented was a must, and specialized professions didn't come about for some time.
"We did it all!" said Steve Lee, former KLTV sports reporter and anchorman who came onboard in 1975. "We called to set up the interview, started the camera, walked in front to ask the questions, went back to the station, and either processed the film or edited the tape, then went on air to present it. We were all a one-man show. It was very hectic and very enjoyable."
Bobby Perdue, a former anchor who started at KLTV in 1970, agreed.
"The environment was fun, challenging, and very hectic. It was great fun working there," he said. "In those days, local personalities were 'local celebrities' and it was always fun representing the station. I still have people who say they remember me from KLTV News and I haven't been on for 24 years!"
It's tough to forget a good thing, and fifty years later, it's obvious that KLTV is far from being forgotten. Current Station Manager Brad Streit has been with KLTV for 14 years and has seen what kind of an impact this great station has had on our area. When it comes to running KLTV, he couldn't be happier.
"The thing that's most fulfilling is the role we play in the community," he said. We can have a huge impact on anything we decide to get involved in, whether It's a problem in the community or a promotion to mobilize groups. What really makes it gratifying is the culture of East Texas. It's a family-centered culture with strong work ethic that we easily mirror in our practices here at KLTV. We've become a part of that East Texas culture, that East Texas family. People have grown to trust and respect us, and while that comes with a lot of responsibility, it also brings us a lot of pride. We're very proud of East Texas."
"KLTV has chronicled much of the history and growth in East Texas," Pat Stacey, general sales manager, said. "Few things have been as constant and solid in the past 50 years."
"It's pretty rare to see a television station with the type of widespread support that we've earned in the people that watch us," Streit said."When it comes to local news, 70 to 80 percent of the people that tune in always watch KLTV. It's pretty rare for a business to have that kind of support over 50 years. And when you look at the 50-year-old companies that are still thriving, you realize what an honor it is to be in that kind of fraternity. A lot can happen in 50 years, and KLTV considers it an honor to have gotten to share those moments with East Texas and bring this area the most accurate and timely news around."
From JFK's assassination, to Vietnam, shuttle crashes, presidential elections and September 11, KLTV has been a part of this history.
"The shuttle collapse over East Texas was an experience I was both sad and proud to be a part of," recalled Dana Dixon, current anchor of East Texas News Daybreak and MidDay. "I was in awe. I used to work in that part of East Texas and never had seen so many people descend on the area. East Texans offering to search for wreckage, law enforcement doing the same, and all so sad because we lost a shuttle of heroes."
In 1996, KLTV had a historical event of their own, when they finally moved out of the old airport hanger and into the beautiful new building that sits on 105 West Ferguson. With three different levels, spacious offices, and a new studio, KLTV only got better.
"The rats in the garage of the old building would scare me and Clint every morning when we came in," Scirto said.
Oh, and there are no rodents in the new building.
KLTV employees have millions of memories between all of them, like interviewing Presidents, movie stars, going to the Super Bowl, experiencing their first live shot, or learning the lessons of the job. Joan Hallmark, who has been with KLTV for around 35 years, counts one of her most memorable events as the day she helped save a life. "A program I did on the Heimlich maneuver was used by a viewer to save someone's life. Being able to affect the lives of our viewers has been very rewarding. I constantly run into people who say I have inspired them in some way," she said. "And that's just the way it is around here."
"KLTV's anchors don't just give the news and go home," receptionist Sarah Sandoval said. "They are involved in the community and will always give a helping hand."
"This community truly believes we care about them. I hear it all the time," Cindy Dotson, Account Executive, agreed.
Gillian Sheridan, former reporter and current anchor for the 6 and 10 p.m. newscasts, is definitely one of the reasons the community feels that KLTV cares. Her weekly segment, Gift of Love, brings attention to kids looking for a home in this community and has touched many lives in East Texas.
"KLTV 7 has always been there," she said, "and people have come to trust us. It means a lot to me to be a part of a station celebrating 50 years of service to our community! It's a job we don't take lightly."
And it's true. KLTV doesn't just give the news and report the weather. Joe Terrell's Does It Work? saves you time, Morgan Palmer and Bob Hallmark's Restaurant Report saves you money, and Mark Scirto and the weather team's work with Project Tornado has saved lives. Their commitment to the community is unequaled and unmatched.
"KLTV has affected East Texas in so many ways by caring about its coverage and viewers, being committed to helping and informing, and being proud of East Texas, their stories, their issues, their achievements and their lives," said Michael Hetrick, KLTV tape operator. "The success is due to the dedication and hard work of the employees," Cathy Carmichael, Programming Director, said. "They have built a reputation for Channel 7 that has made the 50 years possible. That is why people turn to us; they know they can depend on us."
KLTV Channel 7. You know them, you love them, you grew up with them, and they've grown up with you. It's been a phenomenal 50 years, and in the words of Joe Terrell, "Here's to 50 more!"