17 Feb Television News Pioneer Joel Tator
Joel Tator has produced and directed more than 8,500 broadcasts and collected 25 Emmy Awards along the way. Sally Colon-Petree visited his home, which is a museum to all the television and movie memorabilia he has collected over 40 years – including every TV guide ever printed.
Sally: You started in the mailroom…
Joel: Yes, such a cliché..
Did you aspire to be a director?
Yes, when I was in high school, I always wanted to be a director since I saw ‘directed by’ so and so on the screen. I had no idea what they did so I wrote to directors of shows that I thought would be interesting to watch, and I asked if I could spend the day with them. Without exception, they all said come on down. And I was with some of the biggest directors – sports, entertainment – and they couldn’t have been nicer. Then I realized yes, this is something I want to do.
I started at KTLA in 1960, moved over to the news department in 1962 .
After I was doing the Rose Parades and such at KTLA, in 1991 they started the morning news but it wasn’t doing too well. They asked me to take a look and I made a few suggestions. I was asked to be executive producer of the morning news in 1992 and I did that till 1998.
The great thing about starting the job at KTLA was that they will let you do anything if you don’t want a lot of money and you are good at what you do.
Did you start your collection at an early age?
I started with the TV guides. I got issue 1, and pretty soon I collected every issue. I also have a collection of tickets to audience radio and TV shows. I started that in 1953. There were no video tapes so everything was live so they had to film every day.
You could walk down Sunset and Vine to ABC, NBC, CBS and Mutual (which was around then), and get tickets to 50 shows in one day. That’s how many there were.
Then I started with movie posters and then whatever… I’m not a hoarder! I know where everything is and I’m fairly neat. I like to keep memorabilia.
Tell us about the book.
I wanted to make sure I told the story of the original seven TV stations in Los Angeles. 2, 4, 5, 7, 9, 11 and 13. They all went on air between 1947 and 1949. There wasn’t another station till 1962 so they were really the pioneering stations. They invented the medium as they went along. They were there for videotaping, they were there for color. The first TV helicopter was from Los Angeles. And a lot of famous celebrities started on local TV. Betty White was on Channel 13 in 1949 for 5 and a half hours a day live six days a week. Johnny Carson was a staff announcer at Channel 2 in 1951 – he simply did the station breaks. We never saw him. So one day somebody said what can we do with this guy, and they gave him a 5 minute show three days a week from 8.55am to 9am called Carson’s Coffee Break. If you took out the commercial for the coffee, the show was maybe 3 minutes long.
Steve Allen in 1949 was a wrestling announcer for Channel 7. They wanted to do a funny wrestling show, make fun of the wrestling. Fans did not appreciate that so it didn’t last long. Liberace started on channel 13 with a local show, first time he was ever on television.
There were a lot of firsts – technical firsts, entertainment firsts, news firsts that happened in this market. And the pioneers who started it all – well, there’s never been a book about them. I thought I would like to let people know they did amazing things.
The first television signal in LA was in 1931 from the 8th floor of an auto dealership. They sent a live picture from one side of the room to the other. That’s how it began. They outgrew that studio and if you look at the Hollywood sign, above it you’ll notice a building. That was their second home.
When I started at KTLA the station was only 13 years old so I got to meet and talk to the pioneers who put the station on the air. They told wonderful stories and I remembered them all and that’s how I was able to incorporate some of the material in the book.
Los Angeles Television is available at Amazon and all good book stores.