Larry Evans: When the televisions turned on in Fort St. John

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57 Channels (And Nothin’ On) is a song by Bruce Springsteen bewailing the fact that even with this amount of channels nothing was on. I was surfing the television today and lost count at 100, no lie, and there wasn’t anything on that I would care to watch. 

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It wasn’t always like this. I can remember when Fort St. John had no television and the only radio station was Dawson Creek’s CJDC and Grande Prairie’s CFGP. Around 1961, somebody in Dawson Creek decided it would be neat to build a tower atop Bear Mountain that would send the TV signal to Fort St. John and surrounding area. 

Looking in the newspapers prior to this date showed ads for TVs of all sorts and sizes from most every store that could get their hands on them. There was the new Philco Compact 19” on special for $239.95. The top of the line Philco Super 90 also had a record player and radio, AM and FM no less, which sold for the princely sum of $685. This strikes me as being very expensive for 1961.

Bell Radio & TV Ltd. carried the Marconi brand and the TV/hi-fi/radio version cost $659.95. They also offered a free TV antenna and installation with each 23” console purchased. I kept my antenna for nostalgia’s sake and it acts as a pretty good lightning rod. The Marshall-Wells Store sold the Rogers Majestic models and were known to be the Cadillac of TV, which would probably explain why there was no price listed in their ads. Other stores selling TV’s included George’s (Schoenenberger) Electric and the Fort St. John Furniture Store. 

It seemed to me as a kid that everyone had an antenna, so when they threw the switch on December 15, 1961, television entered the homes of Fort St. John for the first time ever, suddenly receiving Channel 5 from Dawson Creek! 

In the beginning, TV came on at 3:30 p.m. most days and stayed on until around 11:30 p.m. except on Friday and Saturday, when you could watch Five Star Theatre and Top Hat Theatre. On Monday evenings, you could watch Don Messer’s Jubilee and other assorted shows, which had no appeal whatsoever for me or my friends, so we usually got our homework done early. 

Tuesdays were far better as we could watch Sea Hunt, Colt 45, and Red Skeleton before Front Page Challenge put us back doing homework. On Wednesdays, we watched The Phil Silvers Show and Peter Gunn with The Nation’s Business, with the Perry Como Show being reserved for homework time. Thursday was the best with Mike Hammer, My Three Sons, The Defenders, and my favourite show, 77 Sunset Strip. 

On Friday nights, I usually wound up going to the show at the Lido with Kenny unless something sappy was on and then we stayed home and watched Wanted Dead Or Alive, Car 54 Where Are You?, Perry Mason, and Five Star Theatre if it was any good, which it usually wasn’t. 

Saturday consisted of Dennis the Menace, Robin Hood, and, of course, Stampede Wrestling. On Sunday, we watched Bonanza — need I say more? Ed Sullivan came on before it so you could usually get your homework done (which should have been done Friday night, according to Mother). There were shows on in the afternoon such as Razzle Dazzle and The Friendly Giant, but nobody admitted to watching these, although we all did at one time or another. 

Some time during 1962, a show came along that became my friends and my favourite, even surpassing 77 Sunset Strip. I remember Kenny and I watching the first episode and for the life of me I cannot remember missing any episode (although I probably did). The show was called The Beverly Hillbillies. This one channel brought us lots of programs over the years. Some memorable and some not. It was our home entertainment until the early 70s.

It was in 1970 when talk first started about a second channel. An article in an October 1970 Alaska Highway News proclaimed the North Peace channel survey got rousing reception. The article said a minimum of 2,000 votes were needed before it would be considered and it was expected that it would exceed this; the greater the demand that could be shown, the more chance there was of getting the second channel.

The next reference to the second channel was on December 2, 1970, which stated the vote had exceeded 5,000 and we might get the second channel in 1972.

The second channel repeater was proposed in early May 1973, with the Fort St. John and District Chamber of Commerce setting the fund drive in motion by initiating the Second Signal Television Society to handle the campaign and the funds collected. By June, $15,323 of the $20,000 had been collected, which continued to grow over the next few months. Snags developed in obtaining equipment for the repeater station and in obtaining permission for use of the CNT tower to mount the antenna. 

It wasn’t until July 19, 1974, that the “second signal” went on stream for the viewers. This brought us two channels we could watch in Fort St. John. Channel 2 was of poor quality and the Second Signal Society went for another $10,000 to bring it up to the same quality as Channel 5. 

So, 12 years after the first TV station came on the air, a second one arrived. Now, cable, satellite dishes, VCRs, DVDs, Netflix, fibre optic, Wi-Fi, the choices are endless. It used to be one TV for every household, but I have been in homes in Fort St. John that have a TV in every room but the bathroom — and I’m sure there are TV’s there now, too!

I will leave you with a poem that was e-mailed to me from Liz in Whitehorse:

 

Black and White

 

You could hardly see for all the snow,

Spread the rabbits ears as far as they’d go.

Pull a chair up to the tv set, 

“Good night, David”, “Good night, Chet”

*

Depending on the channel you tuned,

You got Rob and Laura, or Ward or June.

It felt so good. It felt so right.

Life looked better in black and white.

*

I Love Lucy, The Real McCoys, 

Dennis The Menace, The Cleaver Boys,

Rawhide, Gunsmoke, Wagon Train, 

Superman, Jimmy and Lois Lane.

*

Father Knows Best, Patty Duke, 

Rin Tin Tin and Lassie too. 

Donna Reed on Thursday night!

Life looked better in black and white.

*

I wanna go back to black and white.

Everything always turned out right.

Simple people, simple lives...

Good guys always won the fights.

*

Now nothing is the way it seems.

In living colour on the tv screen.

Too many murders, too many fights.

I want to go back to black and white.

*

In God they trusted, alone they slept.

A promise made was a promise kept.

They never cursed or broke their vows.

They’d never make the network now.

*

But if I could, I’d rather be

in a tv town in ‘63.

It felt so good, it felt so right.

Life looked better in black and white.

*

I’d rather trade all the channels on the satellite, 

If I could just turn back the clock tonight

to when everybody knew wrong from right.

Life was better in black and white!

*

Larry Evans is a former fire chief, city councillor, and lifelong historian living in Fort St. John.

© Copyright Alaska Highway News

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