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Limitations, Location, and Legacy of The Chicago School of Television

In early television, Chicago innovators took advantage of technical limitations to craft an impressive creative legacy. This was in spite of a business orientation already in place in the 1940s that pointed to both coasts as the source of mass media content. From New York came the polished stage presence of Broadway. From California, there was an ongoing flow of theatrical feature films following precise formulas in drama, adventure, musical, and comedy story telling. These bi-coastal forces had driven much of commercial network radio since the early 1930s and the same was expected to be true in the post-World War II growth of early network television. For Chicago to be recognized, it needed something more.

As television development moved forward in the late 1940s into the early 1950s, the major talent, prestigious producers, and associated production budgets once again operated from the east and west coasts, as expected. And yet, Studs Terkel and a corps of other creative Chicago talent made their mark during that period. They benefitted from two important elements: a distinctive vision and location, location, location.

In part, Chicago talent stood out from everyone else precisely because they knew how to work with far fewer resources. Rather than bemoan the lack of an elaborate set, performers such as Dave Garroway turned bare-bone studio set-ups into an asset. They created television magic with just a few simple props, such as the exposed studio trappings of hanging lights, microphones, and the cameras themselves. To that mix they added an essential ingredient: their own straight-from-the-heart persona. Chicago talent seemed to instinctively understand the unique nature of communicating via television. Be authentic. Genuine. Reach out directly to the viewers at home. And if you’re going to tell a story, put your heart into it.

Studs Terkel and his team brought that attitude to Studs’ Place. Live, not on film. Improvisation over rote script. Settings that were just enough to tell the story on the small screen, but not overwhelming. For a while, this Chicago vision also benefitted from a different kind of limitation. Location.

Chicago occupied a pivotal physical junction point in television transmission. Until September 1951, the entire country was not yet linked for coast-to-coast live network television transmissions. There were no satellite feeds. AT&T was laying down hard wire from the east, expanding ever westward (a project begun in the late 1930s).  Chicago was one key stopping point, a market with owned and operated stations by the major television networks. Sometimes, Chicago even functioned as a convenient program origination and transmission point, west to east versus east to west, dealing with the limitations of the cable system. This early exposure helped Chicago to showcase a distinctive and creditable brand of talent (on screen and behind the scenes), captured by the term “The Chicago School of Television.”

Pioneers such as Dave Garroway and Kukla, Fran, and Ollie and Studs Terkel were among the first to proudly carry that banner, introducing a dynamic Chicago television legacy.

- Copyright 2014 by Walter J. Podrazik, Co-author of Watching TV: Six Decades of American Television, and Television Curator at the Museum of Broadcast Communications.