KILGORE, TEXAS—Until fairly recently, repositories for cast-off broadcast gear—aside from landfills and scrap metal dealers—didn’t really exist. That has changed, with a number of private institutions opening up around the country. The newest of these, the Texas Museum of Broadcasting & Communications, opened its doors in this east Texas town of 15,000 for the first time in mid-September, and there’s plenty of vintage eye-candy for those who enjoy viewing how television (and radio) was done long before digital and IP.
The “crown jewel” of the new museum is this gleaming and immaculately restored 1949 DuMont Telecruiser. It was part of the equipment package of Texas’s first TV station, KBTV (now WFAA), and came with a purchase price of $94,000 (nearly $1 million in today’s money). It was about to be converted into an RV when museum founder Chuck Conrad learned of its existence and intervened. The restoration took more than 10 years.
It’s the handiwork of radio station owner—and inveterate collector—Chuck Conrad, who has been giving a home to discarded radio/TV devices for just about as long as he can remember. The collection grew over the years to the point that Conrad decided to go public with it and purchased a vacant 19,000-square foot former automobile dealership building in this one-time oil field boomtown to allow it to be put on display. (He said the “tipping point” was reached after he purchased and restored a 30-foot long 1940s TV remote broadcast “bus”)
Conrad’s endeavor now swells Kilgore’s museum count to three, and it’s within easy walking distance of the East Texas Oil Museum and the RangeretteShowcase and Museum for visitors who wish to make a full day of connecting with the past.
While the museum comprises both consumer and broadcast-type radio/TV equipment, it’s especially “heavy” with vintage television cameras.
Visitors to the new facility soon find themselves navigating a maze of broadcast cameras. There are some 70 cameras in the collection, with 40 on display. A couple of later-model color versions are “hot” and trained on a news set which includes a greenscreen for demonstrating the magic of chromakey.
“There are about 70 TV cameras of various descriptions in the collection, with about 40 currently on display,” said Conrad. “There are also numerous videotape recorders, telecine equipment, switchers, video monitors, waveform monitors, distribution amps, camera support equipment, lighting and ancillary equipment, with the count running way into the hundreds of items.”
And this doesn’t include the microphones, audio consoles, monitor speakers, audio tape recorders, turntables and processing equipment gear, as well as a complete radio transmitter and early radio automation system that all found their way into Conrad’s collection.
“I'm sure there are at least 200 examples,” he said, “many of which are connected up and working. Then, there are the radios and TVs. We've never really counted them, but there are a lot, with many more in storage, just waiting their turn to go on display.”
A LONG AND EXPENSIVE PROJECT
This 1950s-vintage GE PE-25 camera is another of the more interesting items in the collection, as it has a strong tie to events that changed the world during the weekend of Nov. 22-24 in Dallas. The camera was part of the gear being used by CBS affiliate KRLD-TV (now KDFW) to provide live network coverage of the transfer of alleged presidential assassin Lee Harvey Oswald from Dallas police headquarters to a county jail when he was fatally shot by nightclub owner Jack Ruby.
Launching the museum project and taking it to completion took more than two years, according to Conrad.
“Finding a home was the first hurdle,” he said. “We were initially looking at an abandoned TV station in nearby Longview, Texas, but it was simply out of reach. The Kilgore City Manager suggested our current building, and the family that owned it was very amenable to the idea of turning it into a museum and really helped to make it happen.
Kilgore area residents once purchased their new and used Chevrolets from this downtown location. It’s now home to the newest broadcast museum in the county.
“However, updating an old building to modern standards was a huge undertaking,” Conrad continued. “We had to remodel the existing restrooms and add two new ADA-compliant restrooms, install a very elaborate fire sprinkler system, along with a fire alarm system and second-floor fire escape, as well as change all the exit doors and do a lot of other things. All of these were very expensive and quite time consuming.”
Conrad acknowledges that the results were worth it, though, as he’s now able to show off some of the gems of his decades-long collecting quest.
Kilgore is located just a few minutes from the stretch of I-20 running between Dallas and Shreveport, and if you’re the least bit interested in yesteryear broadcast equipment, it’s well worth a stopover.