By David M. Fitzpatrick
Of The Weekly Staff
Editor’s note: This is the second of two articles about WABI-TV’s 60th anniversary as Maine’s first television station. This week: the evolution of WABI’s programming.
When WABI went on the air in 1953, it featured programming from all four networks: ABC, CBS, NBC, and DuMont. In the early days, with Bangor not on the long-distance coaxial lines through AT&T, the networks sent programming on film; local viewers generally saw originally live broadcasts about a week later.
But even with multiple networks, the broadcast day was short, probably over by 10 p.m., and even during the day it wasn’t full. Frequently when a person turned on a television, “You’d see a test pattern, and you’d wait until something came on,” said WABI Program Director Steve Hiltz.
WABI began filling in its day with original programming, which early on was generally talk shows, such as Mike Dolley’s Mid Day. Dolley, who wore many hats at the station — from producer to announcer — went on to play Bozo the Clown on “The Bozo Show,” which delighted kids from 1962 to 1967.
Even the early talk shows attracted big names. For instance, when WABI showed the Western films of movie star Tim McCoy in the 1960s, McCoy appeared on WABI. Shows like Studio City Bandstand, a local dance show, attracted many big names, such as The Four Seasons with Frankie Valli.
The annual “Santa’s Workshop” and “Santa and His Friends” shows of the 1960s and 1970s were extremely popular. In fact, for years after the Santa shows, area post offices continued to forward mail addressed to Santa Claus to WABI. No footage of the Santa shows remains — and, in fact, there’s just one brief clip from “The Bozo Show,” from an episode featuring Ringmaster Bob’s birthday.
“The photographer shot the monitor for him as Bozo gave him a birthday card,” said Hiltz.
Local newscasts grew from lead-ins to the 15-minute national news; for 15 minutes prior, announcers would read the news, sports, and weather, just as they did on the radio. But when the national news expanded, networks demanded expanded local newscasts that became the affiliates’ cornerstones.
WABI soon added reporters, but at first there were no field cameras; reporters would take Polaroid pictures, and the photos were mounted on flip cards. The studio camera would zoom on them, and the pictures would be flipped through to illustrate news stories.
This was all before videotape, so most local shows and commercials were live, with only a few shot on film. Very little of the local shows survive, but WABI has plenty of old commercials, news, and sports. And it has access to more: In the 1980s, when videotape was firmly in place, the station considered throwing out much of its old film, dating to the 1950s. Luckily, someone thought of Northeast Historic Film in Bucksport.
“The station donated all the film to them, thank God,” said Hiltz.
He has unearthed many other film treasures while combing through WABI’s archives, particularly with sports. For example, after the University of Maine’s 1965 Tangerine Bowl trip (Maine lost to the East Carolina Pirates, 31-0), WABI produced a special where George Hale interviewed coaches and players. The entire special survives.
Hiltz found many old newscasts and plenty of commercials from the 1980s when the station celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2003. Those were transferred using an old video deck.
“We had to keep cleaning the heads every pass because it was wearing off on the head, but we got them transferred,” Hiltz said.
There’s a complete taping of a Bangor parade, full of kids who today are all grown. There’s even a feature showing the 1979 Foxcroft Academy cheerleaders doing their cheering routine to that “new disco” music — complete with era-appropriate hairstyles. One found gem is a complete episode of “Outdoors with Bud Leavitt,” probably the only surviving film of the show, which ran from 1953-1973. Leavitt was a famed sports and outdoors writer at the Bangor Daily News whose later show on MPBN went national.
From the early days of videotape, tapes were expensive. They were reused repeatedly, so only major news, sporting events, and commercials were archived.
“When we first started doing it, the rule was, it’s too expensive to archive,” said Hiltz.
Surviving archive video and film footage will appear in a series of WABI’s “Time Capsule” retrospectives. A planned half-hour sports special has been expanded into two half-hour specials because there’s so much available footage. Also in the works are Time Capsules about the station’s newscasts and local commercials, to begin airing in late May.
So after a look back at what WABI has done in 60 years, what can viewers expect 60 years from now?
“What I hope, in 60 years, is that media isn’t too different than what it’s always been,” said Hiltz. “I don’t think we’ve changed what we’ve done, any of the media companies. We just changed how we do it… I go back and look what happened 60 years ago, and we’re doing what this station did 60 years ago.”
The sports Time Capsules will air 7-8 p.m. Thursday, May 16, on WABI-TV5. For more information about other retrospective specials, visit WABI online at wabi.tv.