KTLA Innovation: Television’s First Videotaped Western
‘The Wrangler’ was a six episode summer replacement series for NBC’s ‘Tennessee Ernie Ford Show’ and was produced by KTLA on videotape. This is KTLA veteran cameraman Dick Watson on the Wrangler set with a new Marconi Mark IV and the photo is from his wife, Judy. Much of the back story that follows was written by former KTLA, NBC director Joel Tater.
As most of you know, videotape was introduced in late 1956 and prior to that TV programs were either live, on film or on kinescope. KTLA was the last station in the Los Angeles area to get videotape machines because most of their shows were live and they really didn’t see the immediate need. When a new general manager, Jim Schulke, took over in 1959 he bought lots of Ampex videotape machines, the new black and white Marconi Mark IV cameras and built one of the first videotape mobile units which could shoot shows on location. The new mobile unit would be for not only KTLA shows but anybody else who wanted to shoot their shows on tape on location. Stage 6 on the lot was outfitted with state of the art audio and video equipment to allow for facilities work for outside producers as well. In early 1960 ford motor company was looking to sponsor a summer replacement show for the Ernie Ford show…somehow Schulke convinced NBC and ford to produce a western on videotape, something never before attempted. It was called ‘Wrangler’ and starred Jason Evers. Most of the show would be shot on location at the Janns Ranch in Thousand Oaks with interiors shot on Stage 6.
There were many of the usual problems involved in shooting a period piece on location, such as airplane noise, weather and lighting, but, the biggest problem was that videotape editing had not evolved beyond cutting the tape with a razor, piecing it back with cellophane tape and hoping the splices held. Since there is no visual image on the tape as there is on film, it was a hit and miss proposition that you had made an accurate cut. If the tape pulses were not aligned properly, the picture would roll vertically on the air and you would have to try making the edit again. The first episode of ‘Wrangler’ went on the air August 4th 1960. Because of all the editing problems, that first episode was delivered to NBC to play to the full network just hours before airtime. To try to fix the editing problems, KTLA chief engineer John Silva put together a machine called the TV-Ola, which was to be a frame by frame tape editor. It was about 25 feet long and totally impractical. Meanwhile, the KTLA overtime for shooting and editing the show skyrocketed. Unfortunately the directors chosen for ‘Wrangler’ had never worked with tape before causing endless retakes and the outdoor and indoor scenes rarely matched in continuity. 7 episodes of ‘Wrangler’ were shot, but only 6 aired. The last one ran on September 15th 1960…not a moment too soon for NBC, KTLA, Ford, Silva and Schulke.