Man who started ABC7 talks about station's 1939 roots

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What is now ABC7 began as Chicago's first commercially licensed television station. And prior to that a handful of men gave birth to us as an experimental station. (WLS)

What is now ABC7 began as Chicago's first commercially licensed television station. And prior to that in the late 1930s, a handful of men gave birth to us as an experimental station.

In 1939, the motion picture theatre company Balaban and Katz gave $60,000 to five men. They were to create an experimental television station in Chicago called W9XBK in the State/Lake Building. One of those men was Reinald Werrenrath, now 101 years old. Retired and living in Evanston with his 102-year-old wife Betty, he remembers what went on the air in 1940.

"We were with test signals constantly because the audience was building around Chicago and had to have something to tune into, so we went on and had a test pattern running all day," said Werrenrath.

One of the first purchases was a panel truck to drive around and measure signal strength.

"Mobile unit number one," Werrenrath recalled. "Of course, that sounds cool, that's big time... it sure means that you expect to have number 2 pretty soon.
"Guess who would be on top putting up the antenna? That was one of my jobs," Werrenrath continued. "Nobody else volunteered for it."

Back in his day, studios were on the 12th floor of our current building, and Werrenrath did not think twice about what it took to create a show. One time, he needed a special guest. That guest made it to the studio on the freight elevator.

"We brought him up in the freight elevator and got him into the studio that's all," Werrenrath said. "Maybe the studio now wouldn't be able to handle that... but we could do it in those days... a regular-sized elephant too, standard-sized elephant."

W9XBK was known for live sports coverage, but eventually all that changed after World War II. Later it became commercially licensed as WBKB-TV. Not too long after, Werrenrath left to work for another station in town and then on his own, making educational films, always aware that what he helped put on the air in 1940 was important.

"I couldn't have visualized what it's like today, but I knew it was the big thing of the future," Werrenrath said.

To learn more about the history of Channel 7, this Saturday at the Museum of Broadcast Communications, former and current members of our television family are gathering for a special historical reunion. It is open to the public. Search museum.tv for information and tickets.
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entertainmenthistorytelevisionChicago - Loop
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