The History Of The Ampex Owned…Video Tape Center, Part 1 of 3
America’s First Commercial Television Production Facility
In 2014, our friend Tom Coughlin traveled to Minnesota to comb the 3M archives as part of his ongoing research into the history of America’s first, and most innovative commercial tele production facility. Tom is a professor of journalism, but his deep interest here is also personal, as his dad was a longtime staff member at Videotape Center as well. This is part one of three fascinating instalments. Enjoy and share! Bobby Ellerbee
By the way…if you have Videotape Center photos…please send or post them here as they are quite rare.
The rise and fall of Video Tape Center – Tom Coughlin
Videotape Productions of New York (a California company), was initially founded as a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Ampex Corporation in 1958 by Ampex and Howard S. Meighan, who served as the company’s first president. Meighan had started his career in the 1920s at J. Walter Thompson, and had worked at CBS for 24 years. For a time, he served as the president of CBS Radio, and Vice President of West Coast Operations where he was in charge of the development of Television City. An early advocate of Ampex videotape technology, he was responsible for CBS’s purchase of Ampex’s first production videotape machines in 1957. After leaving CBS, he was eager to start his own firm, and his reputation and experience as both an advertising executive, and a builder of broadcast facilities made him well-qualified for starting New York’s first independent videotape production house. http://www.nytimes.com/1995/03/14/obituaries/howard-s-meighan-dies-at-88-led-in-using-videotape-on-tv.html
Almost immediately, the 3M company stepped in and acquired half of Ampex’s shares, making Videotape a joint venture between the 3M Company and Ampex…the two giants of video tape technology.
The initial corporate board of directors for Videotape Productions was composed of six representatives– three from Ampex of which Meighan was the president and chief operating officer, and three directors appointed by 3M. John B. Lanigan, one of 3M’s directors, who had served as the eastern sales manager for NBC-TV and an account supervisor for Compton Advertising, took the role of vice president and was actively involved in acquiring the initial studio. Years later, he retold the story of the starting of the company to later members of the Videotape board, which was captured for posterity in the meeting minutes, and are cited here.
Lanigan recalled that in 1958 they needed to find a working studio in New York City that they could lease–and fast. They were hoping to rent a fully built-out existing facility in order to start into the venture quickly, and reasoned that since the introduction of television video recording, there would be a reduction in the need for studios for network TV use, and if they looked around, they’d find something.
The first lease opportunity was from Metropolitan Broadcasting Company (previously known as Dumont Television, and later known as Metromedia Television), where they had negotiated to rent Studio 1 and 5 at the studio center at 205 E. 67th St., however at the last minute, they lost their bid when CBS offered a three-year lease for those two studios at a higher price than what Videotape was offering. Metropolitan offered them Studio 4 as a consolation prize, which Videotape declined. (CBS referred internally to these two stages as Studio 63 and 64, “Sargent Bilko” was filmed there, along with the videotaping of the serial “Edge of Night”.)
While visiting NBC, they toured the studio complex at 101 W. 67th Street, which Lanigan thought was perfect, and he made an offer to NBC to lease the facility, but NBC wasn’t interested (though three years later, NBC relented, and leased them the facility, which became Videotape Productions’ “Videotape Center” (1961-1970). At the time NBC was using the facility for the “Home” show with Arline Francis.
Instead, NBC offered two alternatives—The Colonial Theater, a former RKO movie theater at Broadway and 63rd St. that NBC had used since 1952 as their first color broadcast center, and The New Century Theater at W. 58th St. and 7th Ave., which the Videotape Productions board decided to rent temporarily until more suitable space could be found (or in this case, they subleased–the theater building was owned by the Schubert Organization, and under long-term lease to NBC who provided it fully-equipped, except for the lighting dimmer board–Videotape had to purchase one and install it). The facility featured a single stage with a large audience area–not an ideal setup for the recording of TV commercials on videotape, but adequate for a growing start-up company.
Commercials taped in the New Century Theater include spots for Armstrong Cork, Schaeffer Beer, Studebaker-Packard. Coates and Clark, General Mills, Vicks, Rheingold Beer, and Smith-Corona Typewriters.
In 1959, Videotape Center became the first North American studio to install three Marconi Mark IV black and white TV cameras. The cameras were featured in a public demonstration hosted by parent company Ampex (North American distributor for Marconi) on September 30. Videotape was able to get their camera chains into production in time to produce a commercial that aired on ABC on November 23. (“Broadcasting”, October 5, 1959, p 34)
In February 1961, CBS Productions, the in-house commercial film/video production unit of the CBS network was closed down, which provided Videotape a chance to hire their three producers, and potentially gain their accounts (industrial productions mostly) that CBS decided to shed. (“Broadcasting”, February 6, 1961, p 71)
In 1961, NBC offered Videotape the opportunity to move into 101 W. 67 St., which no doubt delighted them. Unlike the Century Theater, the West 67th St studio was built from the ground up as a television facility. Initially built by the Robert Gless Co. in 1951 for The Bamberger Broadcasting Service (a division of the Macy’s department store chain that owned WOR Radio, WOR-TV Channel 9, and was a flagship station of the Mutual Network), the building itself was owned by the Macy’s employee pension fund, and it had been leased prior to completion to Thomas S. Lee Enterprises (a company that was later absorbed into RKO General—Lee, the son of the broadcasting pioneer Don Lee, owned several Mutual Network stations on the West Coast, and held a 25-year lease on the building running January 1952 to January 1977).
Soon after the building was completed in 1952, Macy’s sold their broadcasting division to the RKO General Corporation, and after a transitional period, WOR relocated their TV operations to their headquarters at 1440 Broadway and to a new compact studio facility at the Empire State Building. In early 1954, RKO sublet the 67th St. facility (both building and TV equipment) to NBC for three years with options for extensions. (“Broadcasting and Telecasting”, January 18, 1954, p60)
Aware that they were entering into a sublet situation prior to moving in, the Videotape Productions corporate board was careful to arrange a separate agreement with RKO General, so that they would be automatically offered a lease from RKO after NBC’s lease ran out in 1963. The RKO deal guarantied lease renewals to 1975, however it stipulated that RKO required three year’s advanced notice in the event that Videotape wanted to terminate the lease. There was major advanced preparation at the three-stage studio facility over the summer of 1961, and the final move took place in September.
“The Television Plant Memorandum” between NBC and Videotape Productions describes in detail how the transfer of NBC-owned studio equipment between the various studios was to be conducted. The three control rooms at 67th St. (67-A, 67-B and 67-C) were to remain unchanged, except for the removal of turntables and sound effects equipment (which were sent to studios 3-A and 3-C in Rockefeller Center). An effects amplifier in Studio C, a Tektronix 524 oscilloscope and a Conrac monitor were retained by NBC, along with all of the loose tubes, and the image orthicon tubes that NBC had been using in cameras owned by WOR. Several recently-installed NBC-owned RCA TK-12 cameras, and a color camera that was used for chroma key were removed, along with their pedestals. Other NBC equipment that was removed included mic booms, Houston cranes and floor monitors.
Videotape Productions traded to NBC the lighting dimmer board from the New Century theater for three older boards that NBC had installed at 67th St. (A peculiar quirk of the NBC lighting installation at Videotape Center was that while Studio A was the largest of the three studios, Studios B and C had larger dimmer boards and more power available for lighting use.) NBC left for Videotape much of the equipment that had been installed prior to 1954 by WOR—one Houston Fearless Panoram Dolly, six camera pedestals, eight camera chains, four Mole Richardson mic booms, eight sets of Ektar 50 mm, 90 mm and 135 mm prime TV lenses, four Ilex 8 1/2” long lenses. Lighting equipment remaining included 40 scoops and six strip lights.
Almost immediately after the move, the company reached the conclusion that the facility was too small their operation, so in 1962 the board contacted Charles Luckman, the architect for CBS’s NY Broadcast Center, to evaluate the site. Luckman concluded that a third floor could be added for between $750 and $900 thousand, which the board of directors thought would be a good investment for the landlord (considering the re-gentrification going on in the Lincoln Center neighborhood at the time), but it was an expensive improvement for tenants to undertake. The company made do with their perennial office space shortage by moving many members of the non-production support staff out of the building. End of part one.
Below is a page from a magazine article that shows what I think is the 67th street location. The cameras are the NBC TK30s which NBC inherited from WOR. VTC was the first in the US to use the Marconi Mark IV cameras…I used to have photos of them but don’t have them anymore. Does anyone have any VTC Marconi photos?