History wound on a plastic spool
New York — The set flickers on and, through the gray uncertain haze of early black-and-white television, General MacArthur's car emerges from a Washington, D.C., garage, followed by a motorcade.
The long dark automobiles, sleek and commodious, make their way along Pennsylvania Avenue, which looks strangely unfamiliar. The people are wearing clothes with too much fabric and no color. The buses are rounded and clumsy. There is an autumnal pall over everything.
"Congress is a tense, has been, in the last two days, as I have ever seen it, " a newscaster's voice confides quietly, referring presumably to the controversy over President Truman's decision to recall General MacArthur from Korea.
Inside the House chamber, where a joint-session crowd of congressmen and government dignitaries waits, a tall, square-shouldered MacArthur, the archetypal soldier, emerges from a shadowy doorway. Parting the tumultuous applause with a steady stride, he makes his way along the aisle, up to the podium. A man of obvious power and dignity.
"I address you with neither rancor nor bitterness, but in the fding twilight of life, with but one purpose in mind, to serve my country," he says, bringing a thundershower of applause down on himself.m
This whole dramatic moment -- etched in the taut, serious faces and the tiny hand and eye movements of the assembled crowd -- is frozen in time, wound around a plastic spool and stored with thousands of other such treasures in the vaults of a narrow, elegant little town house on an exclusive midtown Manhattan side street.
If you like, you can walk in off the street anytime between noon and 5 p.m. from Tuesday through Saturday, pay $1.50, select one of these spools, wait your turn, and tune in to broadcasting history.
The Museum of Broadcasting, founded in 1976 by William S. Paley, chairman of the board of CBS, is a unique collection of news, documentary, comedy, and drama from the 50-year history of broadcasting.
It houses more than 2,000 television programs, dating from the earliest days of the medium, as well as 1,600 radio programs, stretching back into broadcasting antiquity.
The range of the collection is considerable: from MacArthur's return to Washington to early commercials showing the fuzz being shaved off a peach; from the march on Washington led by Martin Luther King to early "Playhouse 90" masterpieces; from radio broadcasts by FDR, Jack Benny, Warren Harding, Axis Sally, and Winston Churchill to Ezra Pound's infamous propaganda broadcasts for the Axis powers.
There are whole broadcast days from such epochal junctures as VE-Day, VJ-Day, the day JFK was assassinated, and the second day of World War II. There is complete coverage of outstanding technological achievements, from Lindbergh's landing in Paris to Neil Armstrong's landing on the moon. There is entertainment, from Amos 'n' Andy to Mary Tyler Moore.
The idea for such a museum was spawned when William Paley approached Robert Saudek, producer of the widely acclaimed "Omnibus" series from television's early days, and asked him if he would be interested in heading up an extensive collection of broadcasting history.
Mr. Saudek was definitely interested, and, two years later, the museum was in operation.
Since then, it has proved an unqualified success. Well over 100,000 visitors have come to use the television and radio consoles in the museum's comfortable, modern viewing room. A $628,000 enlargement has expanded viewing facilities and added the capacity for large-screen viewing of special museum presentations, such as a month-long retrospective on significant television directors. And Mr. Saudek's staff is daily adding new attractions to the museum's impressive library.
Mr. Saudek's connections in the broadcast world are a help in this process. As I study pictures on the wall of him walking with John Kennedy across the White House grounds, he is talking with Walter Cronkite, arranging for him to record an introduction to a new tape.
He finishes talking with Mr. Cronkite and then explains the pictures: "Those were taken when I was making arrangements to produce 'Profiles in Courage' for television," he explains. "I didn't even know they were being taken until I saw them the next week in Newsweek."
Neither did he know that, 18 years later, as curator of a broadcasting museum , he would be sending a copy of a rare videotape of President Kennedy's last speech to the JFK Library in Boston.
"It was a political speech. It was given in Dallas the night before he was shot. And we had the only copy of it," he explains.
Uncovering such rare broadcast artifacts is what Mr. Saudek and his staff do best, although sometimes the task can prove formidable.
The priceless TV production of Eugene O'Neill's "The Iceman Cometh," starring Jason Robards, was unavailable until Mr. Robards himself strolled in one day with his own kinescope of the production in hand and allowed them to copy it. And a fantastically rare copy -- the only one known in existence -- of the announcement of the A-bomb drop over Hiroshima came in shattered form and had to be fused together under a microscope.
Most of the artifacts come via a more mundane route, though, as the three networks regularly turn over major segments of their broadcasts and 125 local stations follow suit.
NBC donated its entire radio collection from 1927 to 1967 -- 175,000 disks weighing over 100 tons -- which is housed in the more extensive Library of Congress collection and is gradually being copied onto tapes for the Museum of Broadcasting.
Most of the collection comes from the three commercial networks, but there are some donations from PBS. And lately the museum has begun to acquire significant treasures from abroad, from places like the BBC and the Tokyo Broadcasting System.
The result of all this collecting is a fantastically extensive array of TV and radio broadcasts that one can browse through in the museum's comfortable library, which is arranged in standard library file-card fashion, with an elaborate cross-indexing system.
"You can look up all of Edward R. Murrow," Mr. Saudek explains. "Or you can look for everything in 1954. Everything that happened in Vietnam. All of our programs on architecture. The possibilities are endless."
I sample these endless possibilities one afternoon by paging through the subject guide to the collection:
Abdication, of Edward VIII; Acting, Person-to-Person with Marilyn monroe; Agriculture 1940, speech by FDR; Alcoholism, "Playhouse 90" production of "The Days of Wine and Roses"; Amateur Contests, Major Bowes's "Amateur Hour". . . .
After I make my selection, I go into the viewing room and take my assigned console.
A man in the next cubicle is drumming his finger in a slightly annoying repetitious beat as a pudgy-faced Elvis Presley sweats into a microphone in Las Vegas.
A couple of teen-age girls are giggling in another cubicle as a dirty old man prepares to sit down next to Ruth Buzzi in an old episode of "Laugh-In."
In a cubicle across the aisle, Lucy Baines Johnson is getting ready to be married at the White House, as her father deals with state business and allows himself to be dressed up in his formal attire.
I listen to news of World War II:
"I cannot forecast to you the action of Russia," Winston Churchill says in his gravelly brave voice. "It is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma."
"This is Berlin calling the mothers and wives of America," says Axis Sally in her best American vernacular voice, "and when Berlin calls, it pays to listen.
"There must be some reason I'm not sitting at home with you at the sewing bees. . . . Yes, girls, there is. It's because I'm not on the side of Franklin Roosevelt and his Jewish friends and his British friends. . . . Because, right now, I am thinking of one American boy in a German prison camp who talked to me about the Jewish propaganda he heard in America."
Mingled with the poisoned propaganda of Axis Sally are the sad-voiced pronouncement by Neville Chamberlain that Britain had no recourse but to declare war on Germany and FDR's own patrician voice urging England to endure.
None of this is edited, mind you. So one must rummage throught the speeches and broadcasts for the precise moments of greatest interest. But this is, in a way, the key asset of these archives: that they provide, unembellished, the raw pieces of history to be picked over and enjoyed without the interference or gloss of sometimes meddlesome historians.
It is fascinating, for instance, to listen to random dialogue from radio broadcasts of the Army-McCarthy hearings. The tightly controlled voices of men playing for high stakes make dramatic listening, as Sen. Joseph mcCarthy's belligerent, self-pitying voice grows increasingly defensive under the skillful badgering by the men who finally succeeded in discrediting him before the nation.
Senator McCarthy's name also comes up in a foggy, indistinct televised press conference by Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, the first he gave after announcing his candidacy for the presidency, in 1952.
(The program is preceded by a CBS announcement that it had defied the rule made by Ike's press people that no live TV coverage would be allowed, and had brought its cameras into the Palace Theater in Abilene, Kan. After Eisenhower was elected, television cameras were barred from the White House, and the film of presidential press conferences was edited by the White House.)
Asked if he thought Senator McCarthy should be reelected -- mcCarthy was then still very much in power -- he answered that no one could be more determined than he "that any kind of subversive or pinkish influence" should be rooted out of American government. "On the other hand, I believe that this can be done without besmirching the reputation of anyone through loose association."
Peering back at Eisenhower through the passionless lens of TV history, he comes across a solid, decent, and respectable. A man with a strong touch of commonality. He also handles himself much better at a press conference than many present-day politicians.
Asked by the Monitor's Richard Strout to say who was responsible for the loss of China, Ike answers that he has no intention of engaging in attacks on personalities or assigning blame, but adds later that, since the party in power takes credit for victories against communism, it might as well bear the blame for the fiasco in China.
Such historic news and documentary tapes are only part of the museum's archives, most of which contain thousands of hours of entertainment. Visitors to the museum can rhapsodize over Toscanini's early television recordings, laugh at Ernie Kovac's bizarre humor, sleep through Ozzie and Harriet, or thrill to Pavarotti.
I am drawn to the hour-long 1961 interview of Walter Lippmann, in which he sizes up the Kennedy administration and the shape of the world at that pre-Vietnam juncture, forecasting that the "legal and diplomatic entanglements with nations around the rim of Asia" would prove the most distressing problem of future American diplomacy.
Wearing his granite expression of arch disbelief, Mr. Lippmann criticizes the youthful President for leaving the American people in the dark about crucial subjects.
JFK's failure to explain things, according to Mr. Lippmann, was due to the fact that Kennedy himself thought so quickly that it bored him to plod through a laborious explanation of complex problems.
Another President who has, perhaps more justifiably, been criticized for keeping things from the American people, Richard Nixon, is amply chronicled in these archives: from the Checkers speech through the Kennedy debates through his accession to the White House and his final departure in disgrace.
My own favorite is the record of the 1968 Republican convention, where Nixon won his party's nomination for the second time.
Here, an infinitely confident, obviously much younger Richard Nixon beams and strides on the dais with Robert Dole, Gerald Ford, and George Romney, as the assembled Republicans howl their delight over the man they expect to lead their party to victory. They stamp. They cheer. They scream. They can't get enough of this ebullient, energetic man who waves his extended arms in a double victory sign.
"We want Nixon! We want Nixon! WE WANT NIXON!"
One sees an obscure, dark-haired figure from time to time in this crowd of 1968 conventioneers: Ronald Reagan, then governor of California, now to be the 40th President of the United States.
But that's another era, and a different videotape.