It’s not every day you come across a TV pioneer like Frank Merklein, or a family like Frank’s! There are two stories here. One is Frank’s incredible history in television, and we’ll get to that…but first, I want to introduce you to what could be one of TV’s only three-generation families. To make my point, let’s start with a few pictures.
Above is Frank’s father, James Merklein, in a March 1951 photo on the set of Space Cadets at ABC New York. Below we see Frank at a TK10 at NBC New York in 1952. By the way, this is on the Howdy Doody set, and the director of the show has suddenly become Frank’s dolly grip…well, at least for this shot.
But the Merklein family tree is by no means complete. Frank must have liked the old radio show I Married Joan, because in 1946 he did! Below we see a 1952 photo of Frank’s wife, Joan, on the set of The Sid Caesar Show. Joan was an actress and was hired occasionally as a “straight man” on several Comedy Hour shows.
Their first child was Jay. Guess who’s running the Norelco in the images below? Yep…Jay Merklein, who’s still with ABC in Los Angeles handling worldwide satellite feeds. Below, Jay operates a camera on Ryan’s Hope.
In the two photos below, Frank and Joan visit with Jay and his Norelco at a PGA event near their home in Florida.
The Frank Merklein Story
Now, the really interesting part of Frank’s story. Below is a photo of Frank at my home in Georgia posing with my RCA TK41C…not an unusual pose for him, for he’s one of the original color TV cameramen.
Frank worked the first RCA TK40s at the now-famous Colonial Theater in New York, where RCA and NBC did several years of experimental broadcasts, as well as the first real color broadcasts. The Colonial events started in the fall of 1951 and continued there until around 1954. Frank also worked the TK40s in NBC’s first in-house color studio, Studio 3K at 30 Rockefeller Plaza.
This is a tiny part of Frank’s history and it is really just too much to tell in detail, but I’ll hit a few more high points. Frank was in the Army with General Sarnoff’s nephew in World War II. One day Frank asked what would be a good job after the war, and Sarnoff recommended television. Frank graduated from the RCA Television School as an engineer and got a job at NBC in March 1948.
Frank worked the RCA TK10s and 30s on a lot of shows, including Howdy Doody, the Camel News Caravan with John Cameron Swayze, The Comedy Hour, Your Show of Shows, Today and many more. He later ran the color cameras on Howdy Doody, Perry Como, Kraft Music Hall, Hallmark Hall of Fame and more.
As a matter of fact, Frank was there for the January 14, 1952 debut of Today. Below you can see him in action during the program’s very first half-hour, keeping a TK30 trained on original “master communicator” Dave Garroway.
Frank also became a part of broadcast history in two other ways. About a year into the color work, Frank was appointed to the National Television Systems Committee, which had the task of coming up with a compatible standard for color broadcasting.
It was actually Frank Merklein that broke the news to Gen. David Sarnoff that the NTSC had agreed that RCA’s dot matrix system was the winning concept and would be the basis of the industry’s future. Below is part of an email from Frank to me on these subjects.
General Sarnoff was the force behind trashing the CBS mechanical wheel and to forming the color committee of all the USA manufacturers. NBC did daily shows (same every day for 2 1/2 years) from 3K and the Colonial Theater (now Lincoln Center).
When the FCC chose the NTSC system, the General was in our studio, 3K. I was on the phones with the FCC. I turned to the General and gave him a prepared message. “General Sarnoff, the FCC informs you that they have unanimously approved of the NTSC system for color.” He grinned, blew smoke from those over-sized cigars he inhaled and thanked everyone… Great memory.
If Sarnoff receives the proposed EMMY Award for Color Television in the name of the industry, I want to be the one to whom it is handed before turning it over to the Sarnoff Museum. I think I’m the only one left that was on the color committee.
p.s. I’m glad you had heard of the famous green banana/Revlon incident in which I was involved. Stage manager Warren Philips threw a green (unripe) banana on a table for us to balance the color in our 3 TK40 cameras. Since we usually balanced our color with ripe yellow bananas, we all produced a perfect match of yellow bananas in the monitors behind us. As a result, the Revlon commercial we were setting up to tape had a bit of a hue shift. So did the color of the faces of the executives in the booth with the client when the lipstick came up blue. That was the only day we could ever hear through the glass of the control room the shouting was so loud.