On the Air exhibit continues to inform and inspire museum visitors
I hated having to miss the grand opening of the "On the Air - 50 Years of Broadcast History" exhibit at the Fort Smith Museum of History last month. It attracted a standing-room-only crowd of hundreds, including many former local media stars such as Fort Smith's first TV weatherman, the ever-dapper and charming Milt Earnhart.
It would have been fun to see so many of my broadcast buddies - Milt, Bill Priakos, Carl Riggins, Larry Ruth, Donnie Green, Daren Bobb and Jim Kell, to name just a few who attended. But I had a great time visiting the exhibit a few days later and I'm very happy it will be open through the end of December.
There's so much in the exhibit to enjoy, I plan to go back more than once. Carl's microphone collection display alone is worth a trip.
And I want to pull up a chair and watch the video of a lively interview of four men key to the early years of Fort Smith's first TV station, KFSA TV Channel 22: legendary radio-TV reporter Pat Porta, weatherman John Candler, cameraman Conaly Bedell and "Party Pack" host Donnie Green.
Another video by the Fort Smith Historical Society has Milt describing what it was like to be in on the birth of local television weather casts. Ask museum staff to play it.
Photos representing some memorable broadcast-related events that occurred during my teens also grabbed my attention. One shows 408-pound "Little John" Gregory being hoisted by a hook and ladder firetruck to the top of a flagpole-sitting platform next to Beverly's Drive-In and KTCS radio station on Towson Avenue on Aug. 1, 1956. Little John did not come down for seven months. When he did, on March 3, 1957, he weighed 296 pounds and was proclaimed a world champion flagpole sitter.
Another was a photo of Jim, a former KFSA TV operations manager and news reporter, interviewing Elvis Presley at Fort Chaffee on March 25, 1958, where the reigning King of Rock 'n' Roll was processed into the Army and got his first G.I. haircut.
Jim left television a few months after interviewing Elvis to manage KWHN radio station, where he hired Carl to be an announcer and host of the 1320 Club, a contemporary music show that quickly became a big hit with area teenagers.
Jim still lives in Fort Smith and has commented on his interview for audiences at some of the Elvis haircut commemorative celebrations held annually at the Fort Chaffee Barbershop Museum, the restored building where the historic haircut took place.
I can't help thinking how interesting it would be if there were some way exhibit visitors could leave a voice or digital recording of some of their memories of - or connections to - local radio and television broadcasting here between 1922 and 1972. I got to hear one such account from a Van Buren couple I met at the exhibit, David and Louise Walker.
David told me after he graduated from high school in 1956, he briefly worked with Kell as a film editor and camera operator. But after Don Reynolds bought Channel 5, David moved to St Louis to take an AT&T job maintaining five microwave towers.
"I couldn't go to work until Johnny Carson went off the air around midnight, and had to have all five towers tuned up and ready to operate before 'The Today Show' came on the next morning," David recalled.
It was a radio job that brought David and Louise together. They met in the KFFA radio station studios in Helena, Ark. He was the station's chief engineer and she was a Phillips County extension agent making radio reports about food, nutrition, family life and other home economics-related topics. They will celebrate their 46th wedding anniversary next month.
Diane White, whose ongoing University of Oklahoma master's degree work in museum studies required her to create a museum exhibit, conceived and produced the broadcast history exhibit with the cooperation of museum director Leisa Gramlich. White collaborated with her former ABF Freight System co-worker Teena Riggins and Teena's husband and broadcasting expert, Carl.
Although the exhibit concentrates on local radio and TV broadcast history, Diane believes area students pursuing media or music and performance careers could benefit from experiencing the multi-faceted exhibit.
She also reminds that memorabilia and artifacts that didn't surface in time for the exhibit's opening can still be considered for inclusion. That being the case, I may possibly have a late entry - if I can find it!
In my senior year at Fort Smith High School, some of us on The Grizzly newspaper staff, headed by our peerless teacher Miss Hazel Presson, got to write and broadcast a series of high school news reports from the KTCS studios. I think a story about the project ran with a photo in The Grizzly. Carl said if I can find the story, he would add it to the exhibit.
I may have to make a trip to Northside's library to search for the story, however. My own archived copies of the 1959-60 Grizzlies are still buried in one of the many boxes not yet retrieved from storage since our recent home renovation.