Sunday, June 06, 1999

This is Crosley Square . . . Signing off

Channel 5 leaves behind a building where Cincinnati's - and America's - radio and television history was made. For nearly six decades, it was a place of stars.

The Cincinnati Enquirer

[wlw history]
Scenes from Cincinnati TV history, from top left: Ruth Lyons with Liberace; Crosley Square lobby featuring Paul Dixon Show; founder Powel Crosley Jr.; Midwestern Hayride square dancers; Jerry Springer as Channel 5 news anchor.
(Rob Schuster photo illustration)
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        When the elevators opened at Crosley Square, nobody knew who would walk out. Jimmy Carter. Peter, Paul and Mary. Duke Ellington. Liza Minnelli. Bob Hope. Doris Day. Jesse Jackson. Lena Horne. Jerry Lewis. Barbara Mandrell. Ronald and Nancy Reagan. Red Skelton. Rod Serling. Angie Dickinson. Roy Rogers.

        Trigger, too.

        For 57 years, hundreds of entertainers, star athletes, political leaders and celebrities have passed through Crosley Square, the downtown studios that WLWT (Channel 5) vacates this week for state-of-the-art digital studios in Mount Auburn.

        Crosley Square has been the Midwest broadcasting mecca since 1942, when WLW-AM moved into the old Elks Lodge during World War II.

        “The greatest stars in the world passed through those Crosley Square doors,” says Bill Spiegel, former Channel 5 program director.

[crosley square] Crosley Square at Ninth & Elm.
        From Ninth and Elm, the 50,000-watt “Nation's Station” entertained Americans coast-to-coast with national broadcasts like An Evening at Crosley Square.

        After the birth of television in 1948, Crosley Square was the center of Cincinnati's Golden Age of TV, beaming Ruth Lyons, Paul Dixon, Bob Braun, Midwestern Hayride and their guests stars into Tristate homes, sometimes the whole nation. Channel 5's aggressive promotion of color TV — and NBC's “Living Color” — earned Cincinnati the nickname “Colortown U.S.A.” by 1962.

WLWT Timeline
        In the mid-1960s, while other stations were airing syndicated daytime shows starring Merv Griffin or Mike Douglas, Channel 5 was broadcasting five hours of live entertainment programming every weekday, plus an hour of news, and sometimes a Cincinnati Reds night game.

        “It was a wonderful time. You'd come in at 8 a.m. or 11 a.m., and the hallways would be filled with people waiting to get into the Paul Dixon Show or Ruth Lyons,” recalls Walter Bartlett, former Channel 5 general manager.

[bob braun] Bob Braun's first day in 1957, in the basement radio studio.
        Fans of Ms. Lyons often had to wait three years for tickets to her daily noon 50-50 Club.

        “Lines of people would stretch around the building. The place was always filled with people,” he recalls.

        They were coming to see their favorite Cincinnati TV personalities showcase a Who's Who of Entertainment: Tony Bennett. Michael Landon. Jayne Mansfield. Jimmy Durante. Waylon Jennings. Count Basie. Lena Horne. Lucille Ball. Bill Cosby. Sam Cooke. Bob Newhart. Annette Funicello. Henry Mancini. Donny Osmond.

        His brothers, too.

        Too many musicians, too many show-business people.

        That was why WLW-AM moved into Crosley Square shortly after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941.

        The U.S. government didn't want Crosley Broadcasting's radio studios in the same Camp Washington building where Crosley made “very highly classified” electronics for World War II, says Clyde Haehnle, a retired WLW engineer.

        On the second and third floors of 1329 Arlington Street, Crosley employees assem bled radar-sensitive proximity fuses that would detonate antiaircraft ammunition without having to hit enemy aircraft, he says.

        The plant, which had produced Crosley radios and refrigerators before the war, shipped the cone-shaped fuses in milk crates delivered by milk trucks to Lunken Airport.

        Up on the eighth floor were the studios where WLW-AM broadcast Ma Perkins, Moon River and “the hillbilly shows,” as they called country and western programs back then.

        “The whole building had to be classified, so we had to move (radio studios) out of there,” says Mr. Haehnle, hired by Crosley in 1941.

        A block east of City Hall, Crosley executives found Elks Lodge No. 5 available for $200,000. Two huge two-story ballrooms in the core of the square building were perfect for radio, and later TV shows.

        The basement restaurant and kitchen were converted into radio studios, and later Channel 5's newsroom. The sub-basement bowling alley became the music library needed for 60 musicians, singers and staff arrangers. (Now it's George Vogel's sports office.) The sixth floor would house writers for variety, comedy, drama and travel shows, the future offices for Earl Hamner Jr. (who lated created The Waltons) and Rod Serling (years before The Twilight Zone).

        “This whole facility was set up for the days of live entertainment programming, when things were done very differently,” says Lyn Tolan, Channel 5 news director, from her office in the windowless, dank Crosley Square basement.

        “Now TV stations are set up for news,” she says. “We really needed a building like all the other TV stations.”

        “Come spend an evening at Crosley Square! Friendly people will meet you there!”

        After the move, NBC's national radio audience heard this invitation for An Evening at Crosley Square, a weekly radio broadcast with comedian Freddy Lightner and orchestra conductor Burt Farber.

        Among the friendly people on 1940s' radio shows were young singers like Andy Williams, Doris Day and Rosemary and Betty Clooney.

        Fred Waring and Ray Anthony brought their orchestras for live national concerts from Crosley Square, then “the most important originating (radio) network city in the U.S.” outside New York, Mr. Bartlett says.

        While radio thrived, Crosley Square engineers were working on video experiments suspended by the war. They transmitted the first pictures to Crosley Square from Carew Tower in 1946, two years before WLWT became Cincinnati's first TV station.

        TV maintained Crosley Square's national reputation. Midwestern Hayride, the weekly country show, was broadcast nationally during summers in the 1950s and 1960s by NBC or ABC. Ms. Lyons' variety-talk show aired on NBC in 1951-52.

        The tradition continued for 50 years, through the first season of the Jerry Springer talk show (1991-92), before it moved to Chicago's NBC Tower.

        Crosley Square also provided a stepping stone to employees who found fame elsewhere: Cincinnati native Doug Cramer (The Love Boat), CNN's Gene Randall, Toria Tolley (Hammill) and Bill Hemmer; ESPN's Joe Morgan and Steve Physioc; and Fox Sports' Thom Brennaman.

        Crosley Square always was on the cutting edge of technology, having the first radio and TV station with its own weather radar (1955), introducing color to Cincinnati (1957) and digital TV (1998). All from the old lodge hall.

        Mr. Braun, who worked 27 years at Crosley Square, can't believe that WLWT will finally vacate Ninth and Elm.

        “They had promised we would move for years, starting when I first took over Ruth Lyons' program (in 1967),” says Mr. Braun, whose weekday show was canceled in 1984. “They drew up a new plan every year. But we never moved.”

        Mary Ellen Tanner was in a Channel 5 bathroom when singer Nancy Wilson asked to borrow her hair spray before a Bob Braun Show.

        Else Sule recalled playing dictionary word games with Tony Randall before a 50-50 Club show.

        Gene Walz remembers how they shoved Trigger into the Crosley Square elevator in the early 1950s so Roy Rogers could ride into the fifth-floor 50-50 Club studio.

        Bandleader Bruce Brownfield told of the time Peter Nero interrupted a Dixon band rehearsal. “Do you mind if I loosen up? I'm on the 50-50 Club today,” Mr. Nero said.

        Dick Murgatroyd was directing the Braun show, calling out camera cues in the sixth-floor control room, when a woman sat down next to him and gushed: “You really do a good job!”

        “I looked over, and it was Liza Minnelli,” says Mr. Murgatroyd, the former Braun producer-director (1967-80) who is Kenton County judge-executive.

        “She was dating some guy who was in a group we had on the Braun show that day. We didn't know she was in town.”

        When Mr. Murgatroyd glanced up, he occasionally spied David Letterman in the control booth in the early 1970s. Mr. Letterman, a weatherman for Channel 5's sister station in Indianapolis, his hometown, grew up watching the 50-50 Club with his mother and later became a big Dixon fan. (Mr. Dixon gave away Oscherwitz Kosher Salamis to his audience years before Mr. Letterman handed out canned hams.)

        “Letterman would come up and sit in the control room and watch, every once in a while, when he was in town,” Mr. Murgatroyd says.

        Jay Leno came through, too. Like George Carlin, Bob Newhart, the Smothers Brothers and other young comics, he appeared on the live Channel 5 noon show whenever he played the old Playboy Club on Seventh Street.

        For 35 years (1949-84), entertainers, singers, politicians or authors knew that they reached viewers in Cincinnati, Columbus, Dayton and Indianapolis with one shot on the live 90-minute weekday 50-50 Club, later the Braun show. NBC sent Michael Landon, Dan Blocker (Bonanza), David McCallum (The Man from U.N.C.L.E.), Barbara Eden (I Dream of Jeannie) and other TV stars to promote new series.

        Country music stars came to Crosley Square for rare prime-time exposure on Midwestern Hayride. Says former director Mr. Spiegel: “Wehad all the big country stars before they were stars. We had Johnny Cash, Dolly Parton, Barbara Mandrell — for about $500 each.”

        There it sat, shoved back against the wall, surrounded by miscellaneous props and high school jerseys from the Friday Night Blitz show.

        About 15 feet from Norma Rashid's anchor chair, behind the fake cityscape backdrop in the fifth-floor studio, was Ruth Lyons' grand Baldwin piano played by Liberace, Oscar Peterson and other greats.

        The relic of another era had been shoved aside by news, the profit center of the modern TV station. The tremendous difficulty in producing newscasts in Crosley Square forced Channel 5's owners, Hearst-Argyle Television, to find a new home.

        While studios in most stations are just down a hall from newsrooms, Channel 5's anchors must ride elevators or walk up four flights from the basement newsroom to the anchor desk. Running a videotape from basement editing rooms to the third-floor tape room on deadline often looked like that scene from the movie Broadcast News.

        “We have done an admirable job of working around the limitations that building presented,” says Rick Rogala, general manager since Hearst-Argyle acquired the station in 1997 from Gannett.

        When Channel 5 moves into new headquarters on 1700 Young St., Ms. Lyons' piano will go, too. It will be the centerpiece of a Channel 5 timeline history display in the lobby.

        Next to it will be the brass plaque that greeted her fans on Elm Street: WLW Studio Entrance, Crosley Broadcasting Co.

        What will happen to Crosley Square?

        An offer has been made to purchase it from the Erwin Vladimir Trust, which bought the building in 1952 from Crosley Broadcasting. The prospective new owners “would change the use from broadcasting to something that would reflect positively on Cincinnati and the building,” says Jim O'Connell of CB Richard Ellis, a Cincinnati commercial real estate broker. He refused to name the buyer which could take over when Channel 5's lease expires Aug. 31.

        Uses for Crosley Square, listed for $2 million, are limited by having few windows, dangerous asbestos, mazes of offices ringing the huge two-floor studios, and a designation as a historic structure by Cincinnati City Council.

        If the sale falls through, a coalition of nonprofit film, cable TV and arts agencies wants to acquire Crosley Square as a community telecommunications center.

        “The television studios there are beautiful,” says Joyce Miller, executive director of Cincinnati Community Video, which supervises public access programming on Time Warner Cable in Cincinnati.

        She has been looking for funding to obtain the building for her operation and Cincinnati CitiCable, the Greater Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky Film Commission, the Cincinnati Film Society and other groups. The Vladimir family has discussed donating part of the building to her group, she said.

        “That building is the history of Cincinnati radio and television,” Ms. Miller said. “I'd just hate to see them turn it into a parking lot.”

New studios jump Channel 5 from past to future

- This is Crosley Square . . . Signing off
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