Past Times

Looking back on the days of live TV

Triangle children knew Paul Montgomery as TV’s Uncle Paul.
Triangle children knew Paul Montgomery as TV’s Uncle Paul. News & Observer file photo

In an era of live-streaming video, here’s a look back at where it all began, with local TV programming. In 1979, N&O writer Jane Welch profiled two local shows that started in the 1950s and were still going strong.

In this age of videotape, they still go on the air live. They’ve conquered falling sets and bloopers – and wouldn’t trade any of it for the perfection of tape.

Here are their stories:

In the 50s – before Betty Friedan and her “Feminine Mystique” – the formula was obvious. Peggy Mann was a woman hosting a show for other women, so the focus was “food, fashion, fads and flowers. That was thought to be the reach of our mental capabilities,” Mrs. Mann said.

She smiles when she says that now. Since it aired Sept. 9, 1954, when Durham’s WTVD was only a week old, her show has evolved into more than a typical women’s show. Men watch it now.

Oh sure, there’s still a sprinkling of the “four F’s” on “At Home with Peggy Mann,” but the main topic might be how to check for breast cancer, with live models demonstrating, or teenage sex. The weekday show has become as sophisticated as the viewers.

“I started when television was young and fresh,” Mrs. Mann said recently. “People were so fascinated with the tiny tube. I know grown people who would just sit and watch the test pattern before a program came on.”

Twenty-five years ago, Mrs. Mann was “discovered” in the press box of Wallace Wade Stadium at Duke University. For each home game she packed 200 box lunches for sports writers. Her husband, Glenn E. “Ted” Mann, was Duke’s sports information director.

WTVD executives Floyd Fletcher and Harmon Duncan liked the way she packed a lunch and asked her to audition for their women’s show.

For her audition, this mother of two grown children demonstrated the variety of things she could do with biscuit dough. A drama and history major at Duke University, she had no home economics degree.

With tongue in cheek, she popped the biscuits into the top drawer of a rickety table, turned to the camera, smiled and said, “Now you cook them for 10 minutes at 450 degrees.”

She got the part as hostess of “Home Cooking.” The show kept that name through the early ’60s.

Mrs. Mann admits those early shows were awful compared to today’s standards. But the standards hadn’t been set when she first stepped in front of a camera. An audience that would watch test patterns wasn’t too particular.

When Mrs. Mann began asking experts from local universities to appear on her show, many balked. “I had quite a bit of talking to do,” she said. “They were afraid of what their peers would think. They thought television was a publicity gimmick.”

One thing hasn’t changed: The show is still televised live. …

Live means no re-shooting to taking it back when a cracked egg misses the bowl and lands on her foot, or when an upright mattress falls over – BLAM – during a commercial. …

Paul Montgomery, known to the preschool world as WRAL-TV’s top-hatted Uncle Paul, entered the world of kiddie television 22 years ago this month. Before Uncle Paul, he was Bozo the Clown. And before Bozo, he was Capt. Five’s sidekick. …

But he had been on the air long before that. Montgomery dabbled in television from its snowy beginnings, starting with Greensboro’s WFMY-TV after it signed on in 1949. He later worked for Raleigh’s WNAO radio and WNAO-TV before joining WRAL-TV, Channel 5, after it went on the air in 1956.

In the ’50s, the rights to kiddie shows such as “Romper Room” and “Bozo the Clown” were sold to stations. The rights included the stage set and costumes. Stations had to put their own people in the costumes.

One day Montgomery was whistling as he walked down the hallway at WRAL. As he passed the office door of program manager Jesse Helms, Helms said, “There’s our Bozo right there.”

As Bozo, Montgomery would knock on the door of a set made up as a store front to “see who’s here.” A sound effect, such as a train or applause would follow.

One morning he knocked on the door and the whole store began rocking. He desperately held up the set using his gigantic Bozo feet and kept right on talking, even though his back was to the camera.

Deciding it was hopeless, he eased to one side and let the set fall with a crash. “What do you know, boys and girls, Bozo made the store disappear,” Montgomery quipped. Then a cartoon came on.

“Live TV goes as it goes,” Montgomery said. But he wouldn’t have it any other way. …

In recent years, children’s shows have been measured by their educational merits. It’s a yardstick Montgomery would try to avoid.

“I think children need a break,” Montgomery said. “We cram education down a child’s throat until I don’t think we allow them to be a kid anymore.” The N&O Sept. 30, 1979

Read more stories from local and state history and send us your own stories on the blog Past Times, newsobserver.com/past-times.

Teresa Leonard: 919-829-4866, @lizardlodge

Video

Watch a vintage episode of “At Home with Peggy Mann” at newsobserver.com/past-times.

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