The Field Shop and Camera Room...


"Camelot to Sand Lot"

By Roger Lee Miller


The Field Shop and Camera Room referred to areas that accommodated technicians and equipment used to produce programs and news stories outside of the studios.

The Field Shop was located at the eastern end of the dock area on the Merchandise Mart's ground floor. Here the television mobile units, called remote trucks, were stored and maintained. In 1964, WMAQ-TV had one remote truck with six black and white cameras, video control units, an audio console, video switcher and a desk for the Director. Television pictures were sent back to the Mart on telephone lines or microwave units set up by the Telephone Company. This remote unit was used primarily for network sports programs. I suspect that this unit was used for the ZOO PARADE and WIDE WIDE WORLD segments.

Some of my directing highlights from that bus included Martin Luther King Jrs march in the suburb of Cicero in 1966. Arriving early in the morning, to select camera positions, I was astonished by the presence of the National Guard complete with half-tracks and other combat equipment. It looked like a movie set. Yet it was real. As the marchers approached our location, we could hear the cherry bombs thrown at the marchers.

In 1942, scientists, under Stagg field at the University of Chicago, created the first nuclear chain reaction. Twenty-five years later, on December 1, 1967, the Italian Radio TV System (RAI) aired a special commemorating the memory of physicist Enrico Fermi. The program opened in Chicago with an introduction from the Atomic Energy Chairman Glenn Seaborg. Then we switched to Washington for remarks from President Johnson. Back to the University as Fermi's widow and nuclear scientists were honored. A television director coordinates productions with cues such as "Take (camera) One!", "Take Two." At the end of the Chicago portion, we switched to the Italian network affording me the opportunity to give the greatest cue of my career: STANDBY ROME - TAKE ROME!"

In November 1967, Richard Hatcher became the first Black mayor of a major city. To provide live election results, the old bus was parked behind Gary's City Hall. The crew was relieved when Hatcher was declared the victor as riots had been rumored had he lost.

On March 31, 1968, President Lyndon Baines Johnson, crushed by the war in Vietnam, declared that he would not seek reelection. The following morning, after TODAY IN CHICAGO, our crew was expedited to the Conrad Hilton hotel. The President was going to make an unscheduled speech to the National Association of Broadcasters. There was no time for press credentials. I had to talk my way past the secret service to get into the Grand Ballroom. Then they stopped Carl Ebert, my associate director. I said, "He's OK, he's with me."

Jerry Masilionis, one of the cameramen, was shaking as he tried to balance his camera on the tripod. I asked Jerry, "What's wrong?" Jerry replied, "This ain't TOWN AND FARM!"

The bus was parked on 8th street, just south of the hotel. The Telephone Company hooked us up to outgoing video and audio lines. However, the electric company didn't arrive in time to supply power. The other networks and local stations were there also. Our remote truck was the only unit with a generator. Not only did we supply the President's address to the NBC network, but also to all the nets, local stations and CBC, the Canadian network. At one point we were about to lose power. Joe Chovelak, the maintenance engineer, put on an insulated glove and stuck his hand into a hot box to rectify the problem.

The old unit was replaced by CG-3. "CG" referred to Chicago. This remote unit was built on a tractor-trailer combination. The interior featured a large control room and was primarily used for network programs. The trucks' first outing was for President Nixon's inaugural in 1969. Locally, I directed the 1971 Chicago Emmy Show from this remote truck.

CG-4, a bus-type truck, was constructed shortly after CG-3 for local use. It featured two cameras, a two-inch videotape recorder, generator and a control room for video control, video tape, audio, technical director, associate director, director and producer. It was put out to pasture after the CHICAGOFEST in 1981.

CG-3 was replaced by CG-5, a state of the art tractor-trailer unit in 1985. Talented camera operators and technicians, from Chicago, traveled with these units to the World Series, Super Bowl and other sporting and news events.

In 1989 NBC now under the ownership of General Electric, moved their trucks to New York and eventually sold them to a production company for a lease back deal.

In 1965, the station built two small Video Tape Mobile Units on 1966 Ford Econoline Vans. Although they were designated CG-1 and CG-2, we called them VTMUs. WMAQ-TV pioneered the single video camera concept with these units. The camera was cabled to a two-inch video tape recorder (VTR) in the van. A generator provided power for the camera and VTR. Since news film took time to process and edit, we used the VTMUs for the newly inaugurated Noon News with Jorie Lueloff. The VTMUs came of age during the hectic events of 1968. Repainted a slate black, to cover the Peacock logo, these vans saw service during the riots and the Democratic Convention. The VTMUs units were also utilized by the Program and Public Affairs' department for taped features and programs.

Each mobile unit was designed by WMAQ-TV's engineering department and built by our engineers.

In 1970, program director Harry Trigg called me into his office. "Leonard Nimoy wants to do a special on St. Mary's Center for Learning on the near West Side." I asked, "who?" Trigg replied, "You know, the guy with the pointed ears on STAR TREK." Harry asked me to survey the school to determine if there was a show here. St. Mary's offered "advanced" courses, Sister Ann Christine Heintz believed that television was an important part of learning. One class, called STAR TREK, examined each episode and discussed its message to the girls in this Catholic High School. Undoubtedly, this is one reason Leonard had an interest in the school.

Nimoy served as producer and host of this hour-long special titled IF THE MIND IS FREE. Bonnie Remsberg was hired as writer. Carl Ebert served as associate director. We married a single camera VTMU to the two camera CG-4. The entire program was taped at the school, checker-boarding the shooting between the two units. While I was shooting a segment with CG-4, Carl would set up the next segment with the VTMU. Accordingly, I would set up the following CG-4 segment while Carl was shooting with the VTMU.

This program was recorded on 2-inch videotape. It must be pointed out that these machines could playback a picture only in real time. It was not possible to screen the video in fast forward or reverse. In most applications, we would screen the tapes and jot down time code or counter numbers. This of course was time consuming, time that had not been budgeted into this production. We had recorded the events of three 12-hour days. It was amazing. Both Leonard and Bonnie had photographic minds. They were able to locate "sound bites" by identifying the hour and day that they were recorded.

CHICAGO CAMERA, perhaps the most ambitious local remote program in Chicago's broadcasting history, was telecast from CG-4. Hosted by Jerry G. Bishop and Linda Alvarez, CHICAGO CAMERA was a live 90-minute program that was broadcast from a different location each Sunday. From 1974 through 1977, the show tasted typical local fare such as museums, zoos, amateur sports, street festivals, the Michigan Avenue Bike Race and the Air and Water Show.

Technically, the most challenging event was the Renaissance Fair near Gurnee, Illinois. To broadcast the program live, we used a microwave dish that transmitted a line-of-sight signal to the transmitter at the John Hancock Center. Before planning a show, we first had to survey and send a test signal back to the Hancock. This usually meant placing the dish on top of a building or some other high spot. Producer Karen Copeland was told that there was a farm silo near the Faire grounds. Technical director, Paul Hempen, crawled to the top of the silo carrying the heavy microwave dish that was three feet in diameter. About 35 miles from downtown Chicago, we were on the edge of the microwave's transmitting ability. Paul couldn't see the Hancock, but the Renaissance producers had ordered a phone line out to the silo. The phone rang and Hempen answered "silo." Later he called the transmitter operator who was able to talk him into positioning the dish so the signal could be received.

The VTMUs were phased out in the mid '70s and replaced by minicam vans that could feed a live shot back to the studio. By the mid '80s, the units were equipped with telescoping antennas. Similar to a power auto aerial, these poles reach a maximum height of 52 feet. Goldenrods, two yellow horizontal antennae, or small parabolic dishes mounted on top of the mast, transmit the signal to the John Hancock Center or the Sears Tower. Line of sight is desirable but not always possible. On occasion, from loop locations, the signals are bounced off other buildings.

The Camera Room, in the 1960's, covered the first floor of a building at LaSalle and Ohio streets. The film crews were composed of "cameramen," "sound men," "lighting men," couriers and film coordinators. News and program segments were filmed using 16mm silent or sound movie cameras. Back at the Mart, WMAQ-TV was the only Chicago station equipped with a color film processor.

The News and Program departments alternated every week to produce DATELINE: CHICAGO, a film documentary broadcast every Sunday evening at 10:30.

GIANTS AND THE COMMON MEN, is in my view, the finest documentary ever filmed in Chicago. Produced by Scott Craig in 1966, the program, shot by Charlie Boyle, was filmed in part at Graceland Cemetery. The show used the final resting places of George Pullman, Potter Palmer, Marshall Field and other Chicago pioneers, to tell their stories of early Chicago.

In the mid '70s, film was phased out in favor of electronic cameras cabled to portable 3/4-inch videotape cassette recorders. These units were called minicams, a name "borrowed" from Chicago's WBBM-TV. The picture quality was better than 16mm film, and didn't require the additional step of developing. The crews were reduced to two persons. Although there were layoffs, most camera operators "shooters," and film editors made the transition to EJ (Electronic Journalism). A camera-recorder combination was introduced in the '80s and most crews were reduced to one person - irreverently called "a one man band."

In addition to news coverage, the minicam units were used for program production. In 1980, Jim Ruddle, Nick Aronson and I produced SAUL BELLOW'S CHICAGO. The program featured the author's scholarly impressions of "his" city. A highlight was Studs Terkel's re-creation of depression era orators who frequented "Bug House Square" (Washington Square Park). The Newberry Library was used as the authentic backdrop. Studs stood on a "soap box" and recited One Arm Charlie's account of losing his arm in the battlefields of France during the First World War.

Program director David Finney had a teleplay that required a portion to be shot in the back of a truck. Dave and I examined how this could be done. We talked about rigging a flat bed in the studio, and using a dark cyc for the background. Stage hands might jump on the ends to simulate movement. I used this opportunity to suggest shooting, film style, with one camera on location. This was 1988 and previous PLAYWRIGHT'S FESTIVALS had been taped in studio using multiple cameras. We worked out a budget and discovered that it was about a "wash" between this 90 minute program and three 30 minute studio productions.

CRIME OF INNOCENCE, written by Shirley Hardy, Joel Johnson, Douglas Post and Melanie Villnes, was a teleplay based loosely on the story of Emmett Till, a black Chicago teenager who, in the mid 1950's, visited his relatives in the South and was killed for making an alleged pass at a white woman.

The main street residential areas and dusty gravel roads were shot in and around Frankfort, Illinois. Amazingly, Frankfort's downtown had a distinctive southern appearance. Some of the buildings date back to the 1860s. On the morning we were scheduled to shoot exteriors at the preacher's house, we were astonished to find it smoking and in ashes. The local fire department had used it for practice the night before.

Gifted cameraman Paul Nagaro composed the pictures and designed the lighting. Together, we selected rose and fog filters to give the tape a film look. The interiors were shot in Studio A. Jack Hakman and staging services built sets that made the transitions, from outside to inside, seamless.

CRIME OF INNOCENCE gathered numerous Emmy statues and the prestigious Ohio State Award. Daniel Ruth, in the Chicago Sun Times, presented the 90 minute program with three and 1/2 stars.

The Richard Speck murders prompted Joel Johnston and John Logan to write MOMENT OF RAGE, the Chicago Playwrights offering for 1989. Producer Bobbie Clark, Art Director Jack Hakman and I went scouting for a house to shoot this teleplay. After looking at many locations, we came across a large house adjacent to the University of Chicago. Opening the front door, we saw this wonderful staircase leading to three floors. "This is it!" We could just see the Speck character shoving the girls up the stairs. I had to threaten to withdraw from the production to get budget approval for a Steadycam, a gyro camera mount. Strapped to videographer Paul Nagaro, he moved backwards up the stair- case capturing Denis O'Hare as he forced the victims into an upstairs bedroom.

Daniel Ruth presented the production with four stars! Yet this was to be the last of PLAYWRIGHT'S FESTIVAL. General Electric pulled the purse strings from local entertainment programming. In fact, three years later the entire Program Department was eliminated.

Next: The NBC-Chicago staff announcers...

QUICK ACCESS LINKS:
Introduction and main index to this site
WMAQ radio history | "Amos 'n' Andy" | "Fibber McGee and Mollie" | "The Breakfast Club"
Dick Kay | Television at the Merchandise Mart | 1970 television facilities tour | Channel 5 turns 20
The "Chicago School" of television | "Kukla, Fran and Ollie" | Dave Garroway | Mary Hartline
"Lights Out" | Sound effects | 1930 studio tour | WLS | "Empire Builders" | Barry Bernson
Floyd Kalber | The Queen of Love and Beauty | "Today's Children" | Staff announcers | Carol Marin
Ron Magers | Studs Terkel l "Chicago Tonight" | Channel 5 News scrapbooks |Roger Miller recalls
Zoo Parade | Clifton and Frayne Utley | Val Press | Len O'Connor | Johnny Erp | Bill Ray | Daddy-O
Experimental Television: 1930-1933 | Bob Deservi | Kermit Slobb | Ding Dong School | Quiz Kids
Bob Lemon | The Korshak Chronicles | KYW: The Chicago Years | WENR | O.B. Hanson | Renzo
Jack Eigen | Ed Grennan | The World's Best Cup of Coffee | Glenn Webster | Mr. Piano | Hawkins Falls
Chicago Television for Kids |
Radio Hall of Fame |The NBC News Night Report: 23 February, 1967
Audio and video downloads
About the Curator

Comments or suggestions? click here to send them to Rich Samuels

Created by Rich Samuels (e-mail to rich@richsamuels.com)