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Dixon Then and Now: Tall Towers and Television's Early Days in Dixon

TV spelled the demise of Dixon's movie theater

The year was 1950. After World War II, servicemen had returned to regular jobs, gotten married, and were raising families. Manufacturing had changed from mass-producing tanks, airplanes and jeeps to automobiles. In Dixon, the Rossi company was selling Oldsmobile Rocket 88 cars for around $2,700. Ground beef was selling for 49 cents per pound at the Pardi Market and deluxe new homes were selling for $17,000.

Polio was a concern because vaccines to curtail its spread weren’t yet available, and over at Dixon’s movie theater, stars like John Wayne, Marilyn Monroe, Doris Day, Gary Cooper and Joan Crawford entertained in full color on the big screen.

Movies and Hollywood were in their prime, but only a few realized the threat to theaters like Dixon’s from the puny new guy on the block – black and white television.

After radio, and movies with sound, television was the next big thing. Television had actually been invented in the 1920s, and gradually improved since then. The first TV screens were small and round, but gradually the shape changed into something more rectangular and the screens became larger.

Locally, television arrived on the scene with three TV stations in San Francisco going on the air in 1948 and 1949 (KPIX, KGO and KRON). National network programming had begun in 1948 as NBC and CBS expanded from their radio networks. San Francisco was only 57 miles from Dixon as the crow flies, so their signals were strong enough to be picked up here, if one erected a tower with an antenna on top, or used a tall mast mounted on a rooftop. Down from the antenna came a ribbon-like double wire which ran directly to the TV set, which was box-like and used warm, glowing vacuum tubes inside.

At first, the antenna could be left pointed toward San Francisco (the antennas were designed to pick up signals best in one direction). Later, TV stations in Sacramento (KXTV and KCRA) began broadcasting from the opposite direction. So, many TV owners had to use electric motors at the top of their towers to turn their antennas one way or the other. These towers, motors and TV antennas are still evident in all but the newest sections of Dixon to this day even though most aren’t being used.

Occasionally, lightning would strike one of these tall antenna systems and fry the TV.

The first mention of TV in Dixon is found in a dated September, 1948: “William Osburn of NBC will go into Dixon history as having brought the first television receiver into the city. It is one from surplus at McClellan Field where it was used to get pictures of plane flights. He (was) unable to get regular reception until about December, when KGO and the Chronicle (installed) commercial transmitters (in San Francisco).”

Bill Southwell had one of the first TVs in Dixon around 1951. Because Southwell was a knowledgeable electronics man who worked at the nearby Voice of America station, he built his own TV set. The screen was only about eight inches across, and the picture was fuzzy, but many townspeople responded to his invitations to come over and see this new wonder. Southwell’s wife was Dixon’s mayor for a while.

Ardeth Sievers Riedel thought her family’s first TV was purchased around 1950, and that it was “in a big case with a little screen.” Her father’s motivation for getting it was watching baseball. She remembers watching coverage of the 1952 presidential election on it, when former general Dwight Eisenhower handily beat Democrat Adlai Stevenson.

Although I didn’t grow up in Dixon, I can contribute a bit of lore about early television. In the Wisconsin town I grew up in, the first TV stations were over 100 miles way, and even with towers and big antennas, TV reception was a hit-or-miss proposition. My father ran a radio and TV shop, and I can remember many days of climbing ladders and gingerly scrambling around on high rooftops to install or repair TV antennas with him. He used to pay me for checking the small TV tubes used inside those early TVs, before the introduction of transistors (later, some large stores offered machines where anyone could come in to check their TV tubes).

My dad got started in the business when there was no one in our small town who knew much about adjusting and repairing TVs. In those days, at least in our town, the only one selling TVs was a furniture store.

This seems to also have been the case in Dixon. In looking at issues of the Dixon Tribune from 1950 and ’54, only the E. R. Carpenter appliance store was advertising TVs – at first the Admiral brand, then later the Hoffman and Zenith brands. The store was located at the corner of ‘A’ and Adams streets.

In those days, all the TV sets commonly sold in the U.S. were American-made, and I can remember my older brother working at a TV factory in Illinois as a young man. Later, most of the TVs were made in Asia.

In the early days of television, there were only several channels to choose from (but of course, the thrill of having your own miniature theater was still exciting). TV broadcasting wasn’t on 24 hours per day (perhaps ending at midnight) and news usually consisted of a serious man sitting at a desk reading from a stack of paper. In a word, programming was primitive and sometimes experimental.

However, born-on-TV stars such as Milton Berle, Sid Caesar and Dave Garroway began to emerge, and more and more quality national programming began to take hold. Classic black-and-white TV shows such as Twilight Zone and Gunsmoke drew large audiences.

Screens gradually became larger and larger, and color TV finally became affordable for average Americans in the 1960s. New TV sets and home antennas had to be designed and installed when a whole new series of channels were introduced in the ultra-high-frequency range (the original channels were two through 13 – the new channels extended from 14 through 83).   

I can remember hearing about cable TV back when it was first being introduced, and wondering why anyone would want to pay for TV programming when it was free with an antenna. I just didn’t foresee the profusion of unique channels and HBO-like offerings that would become available via cable or satellite. Today, around 60 percent of American homes pay for cable service, meaning they no longer need an antenna. Also, in 2003, about one in every five homes in the U.S. used a satellite TV provider such as DirecTV or Dish Network, which requires a small antenna.

In Dixon, 25 percent of all homes now receive cable TV programing from Wave Broadband, which also offers bundled telephone and Internet. AT&T is also offering cable TV service into at least some portions of Dixon.   

Needless to say, over the years television put most small-city movie theaters out of business, including Dixon’s. Television began to play an even more important role in the formation of children’s thinking and values than books, newspapers and movies. Advertising moved to television in a big way, just as advertising is now moving more and more to the Internet. Larger and larger TV screens and high-definition digital programming have now matched the quality of movie screens.

To harken back to the early days of television, when my father used to be called out to farms to repair TVs, there’s one story he liked to tell. When he entered a farmhouse to check on a malfunctioning television, he noticed the family was all dressed up.

What was the occasion, he asked? Going out somewhere? No, was the reply. The popular Lawrence Welk polka-and-music program was coming on that evening, they said, and they always dressed up for it because they wanted Lawrence to see them in their finest.

Diane Wilson July 27, 2011 at 05:11 PM
I love the history you are putting out about Dixon. Thanks
Bil Paul July 28, 2011 at 12:51 AM
Hi Diane, you're welcome and I'm glad you find Dixon history interesting.
Pete Basofin July 29, 2011 at 05:33 PM
Boy this brings back memories. My family's first TV had a tiny screen that couldn't have been bigger than five inches diagonal. Later we got a Motorola housed in a furniture casing. It broke down about every other month. TV repair man came often to replace tubes. Yes he actually made house calls, like our doctor!

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