Special Museums Keep 'Tubes Lit' in Yesterday's TV Gear

Collections run the gamut from cameras to costumes
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ALEXANDRIA, VA.—In researching this series of articles, I located several museums with broadcast-related television artifacts that weren't "mainstream"—they aren't run by boards of directors, don't have staff docents to give tours, and don't maintain regular visiting hours. I previously described the collections belonging to Tommy Bolack, Ed Sharpe, and Chuck Conrad, and need to add another to the list. This one is located in Georgia and has been assembled by one Bobby Ellerbee, who describes himself as having been "obsessed" by broadcast television cameras at an early age.

"As a kid I drew pictures of television cameras the way other kids drew horses or cars," said Ellerbee. "I always loved the way cameras looked and I always wanted to have cameras of my own. I wrote to the networks; I got catalogs and I got tons of pictures of cameras. I knew by the time I was 11 or 12 that I wanted to collect TV cameras."

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Bobby Ellerbee and his “KTLA” TK-41 Ellerbee said that this passion only began to become a reality about five years ago, with the acquisition of an RCA TK-41 three-IO color camera once used by Los Angeles station KTLA.

"It belonged then to the Broadcast Store there in Los Angeles and I had to beg them to sell it to me," said Ellerbee. "It was really a display piece—a "mascot" of sorts—that they had kept in their break room for 18 years or so. The agreement that we reached requires me to send them a photo of the camera every year at Christmas time."

The TK-41 set the stage for Ellerbee, and his collection of antique cameras has now grown to 20. Thirteen of these are on display in a special 1,000 square foot area of his home.

RCA-CENTRIC COLLECTION

"I have at least one of all of the major RCA studio cameras, ranging from the TK-10 to the TK-47," said Ellerbee. "Some of these have interesting histories. My TK-30 was originally presented to NBC Television's first president, Pat Weaver, in honor his programming creations. The TK-41 is one of the last 24 made. It came off the line in 1966 in a special run that RCA made for ABC sports. I also have one of only four Marconi Mark IV's left in the United States."

Ellerbee notes that even though most of his cameras are in very good cosmetic condition, with original paint jobs in most cases, none are functional due to missing CCUs and cables. (This is a situation common to most of the museums and collectors surveyed, as surviving camera heads and pedestals far outnumber the rack and console support gear.)

In addition to cameras, Ellerbee has also collected a number of network banners and other logo-bearing items to create the proper atmosphere for displaying the studio workhorses of television's early years. He also maintains a Website—"Eyes of a Generation"—in which he shares the photographs and histories that he's collected along with the cameras. An area of his Website of special interest to historians is a registry or "census" of all known surviving early studio cameras. The ever-growing list includes makes, models, current ownerships, geographical location, and in some cases, lineage, of some 459 broadcast cameras that are known to exist throughout the world, with some entries dating back to the 1930s

Ellerbee's collection is open to the public by prior arrangement.

CINCINNATI "THREE-WAY" MUSEUM

Cincinnati is something of a U.S. broadcast Mecca, with a great deal of pioneering taking place in the region. Located just north of the city in the former home of the VOA's Bethany shortwave transmitting plant is a relatively new entry in broadcast equipment collections—it's actually three separate museums under one roof. The first of these is the Gray Museum of Wireless History, which contains artifacts that trace the evolution of radio from its 19th century beginnings. Its holdings include a number of television artifacts, including a klystron that powered Washington, D.C. station WDCA in its early years, racking up nearly 48,000 hours of service before it was retired. The National Voice of America Museum of Broadcasting, while devoted strictly to HF broadcasting, features a remaining 250,000 Watt Collins transmitter and the control room used until the facility went dark in 1994.

The third entry, the Media Heritage Museum, is devoted to Greater Cincinnati and Ohio radio and television broadcasting and houses such artifacts, including an Ampex quad videotape machine, RCA studio camera, Grass Valley switcher and monitoring gear, as well as a good representation of audio equipment. This collection is unusual in that it's more focused on the "software" side of broadcasting—the content or programming without which the "fifth estate" would never have succeeded. As Mike Martini, co-founder and president of Media Heritage explained it:

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The newly opened “Vintagetek.org” Museum in Portland, Ore. features scores of Tektronix instruments in its 2,200 square foot display space. "There are several museums dedicated to radios, microphones, and equipment; because we're in the same building as the Gray Museum, we wanted to go beyond that and preserve the memory of the performers, the writers, the technicians and others who helped to put the shows on the air. Most other places are into equipment, but our primary focus is on Cincinnati's radio and television history."

The collection includes a photo wall with hundreds of pictures of radio and television performers, an impressive Wurlitzer organ console typical of the type used in some of the larger radio and television stations in the early days of live programming, as well as costumes worn by WCPO-TV's legendary "Uncle Al" and "Captain Windy" children's show personalities.

TEKTRONIX TOO

Have any readers ever been in a television facility that didn't have at least one Tektronix video monitor at the ready? Probably not, as the good people in Beaverton, Ore. basically invented the video waveform monitor (and a lot of the other stuff that became commonplace in TV broadcasting.)

Now, there's a museum that focuses strictly on Tek gear.

Stan Griffiths and Ed Sinclair, both former Tektronix employees, have collaborated to establish the "Vintagetek.org" Museum in nearby Portland, Ore.

Griffiths explained that the idea for a special museum to honor and preserve the efforts of the many men and women who created Tektronix instruments came about as the result of visits to another museum.

"I made to two visits to the Smithsonian and found no Tek instruments at all," said Griffiths. "Tektronix really had a big grip on the market. Even the Space Shuttle had a lot of Tek instruments. [The absence of Tektronix gear on display] was a really big gap in history."

The Vintagetek.org museum celebrated its grand opening on Sept. 16, and is currently home to some 50 restored Tek instruments, with more to come. (It draws many of its exhibits from Griffiths' personal collection of approximately 1,500 Tektronix scopes, waveform monitors and other gear.) Visitors can view test and measurement products all the way back to Tek's "year zero."

"Tektronix had its beginnings in 1946, with the first product—the 511 oscilloscope—shipping in 1948," said Griffiths. "We have a working 511 on display."

The museum also features a wide variety of Tektronix literature and photographs.

In this age of where virtually everything is disposable or recyclable, it's refreshing to know that there are groups and individuals who have taken on the task of preserving the tools used by earlier generations of broadcasters.