Amsterdam’s earliest owners of television sets were blessed with a strong and steady stream of local programming. This was in large part due to the fact that General Electric Company was a pioneer in the television broadcasting industry and the company’s flagship WRGB studio was one of the first television stations in the world and located just twenty miles west of the Rug City. That programming business model of course changed as first television networks and then technology all but made cost effective local station programming other than news weather and sports reporting pretty much obsolete. This top ten list takes a look at locally produced television programs that were particularly popular with Amsterdam’s small screen viewers back in the day and highlights specific Amsterdam connections to these shows. In today’s blog post I feature four such programs. The complete list of ten will appear in my new book; Fifty Amsterdam New York Top Ten Lists, which will be available in September of 2017.
1. Teen Age Barn – Long before American Idol became a smash hit, there was a local version of a televised talent show that took Amsterdam, NY and the entire Capitol District viewing audience by storm. The first Teen Age Barn episode was broadcast by WRGB in Schenectady, NY on April 9, 1949. The last one aired on January 29, 1966. During the show’s 17-year-run, just about any area teenager who could sing, dance or play an instrument appeared in one of it’s Friday evening broadcasts including the one and only Arlene Fontana, who I like to describe as Amsterdam’s version of a young Liza Minelli. Another talented Amsterdam native who became a regular on this show was Chet Kukiewicz, who would go on to a long career as Boston’s most popular television news personality under his stage name “Chet Curtis”. Teen Age Barn was the brainchild of Albany, NY native Tommy Sternfeld, a professional dancer with credits in both Vaudeville and Broadway productions. He owned and operated a dance studio in Albany, NY and he liked to run talent competitions for youngsters as a way of drumming up new dance students. The competitions themselves became so popular that Sternfeld was able to sell WRGB on the idea of televising them and “Teen Age Barn” was the result. By 1959, it had become the longest running locally produced variety show in the country. It was a staple in my grandmother’s house every Friday night and I can remember a dozen of us cramming into her tiny living room to watch the local acts on her 11-inch black and white Philco. Regardless of how well any of them performed my Aunt Edie would always issue the verdict “She’s all right but she’s no Arlene Fontana, that’s for sure!”
2. Breadtime Stories (aka The Freddie Freihofer Show) – This legendary Capital District children’s show enjoyed the same 17-year run as Teen Age Barn, from 1949 to 1966 and on the same WRGB Channel 6 station. There were six different hosts during that time but the most famous person to ask the assembled guest children the classic question “Who wants to squiggle?” every afternoon was undoubtedly the last one, Uncle Jim Fisk, who filled that role during the show’s final ten years on the air. Over 4,400 live shows were broadcast and they featured a total of right around 250,000 area children, including my future wife as on-air guests. My two older brothers and I watched it every night. In fact, I clearly remember learning to spell my first word “apple” during the segment of the show when Uncle Jim would reveal that day’s mystery scrambled word, which always had something to do with a baked treat produced by the show’s sponsor, The Freihofer Baked Goods Company. Everyone who owned a TV back then had memorized the words to the show’s popular opening jingle which started with the line, “Freddie we’re ready”. Long before the days of Sesame Street, Breadtime Stories served the role of educational television for Amsterdam toddlers.
3. TV Tournament Time – Back in the 1960’s the names Joe Donato, Skip Vigars, Johnny Walthers, and Big John Germann, were as popular and well-known among Amsterdam sports fans as any professional baseball or football player or big time wrestler. Who were they? This foursome was among the most popular bowlers ever to appear on WRGB’s Sunday afternoon televised bowling show, TV Tournament Time. From 1958 until 1986, bowling fans in the Carpet City went to church on Sunday mornings, stopped to get the Sunday papers and a loaf of bread or a dozen doughnuts on the way home and then tuned their television sets to channel 6 just in time to hear the show’s host Howard Tupper welcome his youngest viewers with his trademark line “Hi ya small fry.” During the next hour, two of the Capital District area’s top bowlers would go head-to-head in a three game match to see who would reign as that week’s “King of the Hill.” I can clearly remember the amazingly neat penmanship of Tupper’s score-keeping sidekick, Charlie Bechard (photo), which would keep viewers posted of each bowler’s score. I also remember when a veteran Amsterdam bowler named Shep Romano appeared on the program. Romano lost his match. Ray Sabatini, a Schenectady native who was later hired to manage Amsterdam’s Windmll Lanes had multiple appearances on TTT. The show was sponsored by the Utica Club Brewery and was originally broadcast from the former Schades Bowling Academy in Schenectady, NY. It became one of the longest running sports shows in the history of television thanks to consistently excellent bowling. Walthers, for example, averaged close to 230 in his scores of TTT appearances back when a 200 average was considered great. On April 10, 1960, Donato made television history by bowling a perfect game during his TTT televised match!
4. Answer’s Please (and its predecessor “Little Red School House”) – This was an especially popular locally broadcast show among Amsterdam, NY viewers because one of this program’s most popular hosts during its almost tree-decade run on Channel 6 was Tim Welch, who was a native of Amsterdam. Originally called “Little Red School House,” the first show aired on WRGB in 1963. The format matched two four-student teams representing Capital District high schools against each other in a competition to see which team could answer the most questions about academic subject matter. In addition to Welch, moderators included, Dave Kroman, Jim Brennan, John Wagner and popular news anchorman, Ed Dague. Welch took over as host in 1981. One of the biggest challenges producers had with the program was finding folks who could write the questions that would be asked during each show. Welch told Times Union television blogger Chuck Miller that he enrolled his younger brother, former Amsterdam fireman Bernie Welch, as a question writer at one point. Teams from both Bishop Scully and Wilbur Lynch High Schools competed on the program and then in 1989, a team from Amsterdam High School won three consecutive contests and retired as an undefeated champion.