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CBS and New York’s Grand Central Terminal

Home to the network from 1937 to 1964

When I was in elementary school I occasionally suffered from childhood ailments that kept me home from school. If I felt well enough to come downstairs I would take my usual position on the sofa so I could watch whatever was on television during the daytime hours.

I can remember an announcer at the end of some shows telling me to write for tickets or enter some contest by sending my “stamped self addressed envelope” to CBS, Grand Central Station, New York, NY. No matter that a seven year old from the midwest wasn’t aware there were several grand centrals in New York. To me, it meant the Grand Central Terminal (GCT) even though the announcer was no doubt referring to the post office (Many thanks to Dennis Degan for correcting me on this. See his comments below the article). As time went on, I learned CBS was using the upper area above the train station’s magnificent waiting room for its production headquarters.

Grand Central Terminal, 1954. From untappedcities.com

Everything from dramas to Edward R. Murrow (hosting both Person to Person and See It Now) to the election returns originated from those two studios. In fact, the whole technical facility was built in that area. Until 1964, the signals from all the CBS game, entertainment and variety shows (Ed Sullivan, I’ve Got a Secret, As the World Turns) were funneled through Grand Central. It was the location where Murrow showed us with the push of button we could look live at a shot of the Golden Gate Bridge then instantaneously switch to a live shot of the Statue of Liberty. It is also where he took on Senator Joseph McCarthy. From master control on the seventh floor of a train station, programming fed the entire CBS Television network.

CBS began in January, 1927. A group had just formed a new radio network to challenge RCA/NBC’s monopoly of having two networks (NBC Red and NBC Blue) and leaving newcomer stations no prospect for network affiliation. In her book about William S. Paley, “In All His Glory,” Sally Bedell Smith traces CBS from the beginnings of “United Independent Broadcasting” network, created by a couple of New York agency types. A few months later, they began to run out of money and were rescued in April of 1927 by the Columbia Phonograph Company.

In September, the new company was renamed the “Columbia Phonograph Broadcasting Company.” Columbia’s involvement lasted only a few months before it wanted out due to the high payments to AT&T for the lease of their land-lines to interconnect the fledgling network’s affiliates. In early 1928 the network was sold to brothers Isaac and Leon Levy, owners of WCAU, the Philadelphia affiliate, and their partner Jerome Louchenheim.

None of the three had any interest in the day to day operations of the network and installed an in-law of the Levy’s, William Paley, as president. By September of 1928, Paley streamlined the name to “Columbia Broadcasting System” and bought out Louchenheim giving himself a 51% majority ownership.

The new network upgraded a small Brooklyn station, WABC (no relation to the current WABC owned by the American Broadcasting Company), to a better frequency on the radio dial and a better physical plant in Steinway Hall in Manhattan, New York City. By the beginning of 1929, the network had forty seven affiliates and was originating programming from West 57th Street in Manhattan.

In a deal Paley struck with Adolph Zukor of Paramount Pictures, the network would also be on firm financial ground and, in spite of the 1929 stock market crash, Paley moved forward and relocated CBS Radio and the corporate offices to the new 485 Madison Avenue in the “heart of the advertising community, right where Paley wanted his company to be.”

Beginning in 1937, CBS made a commitment to television. There were some briars on the rose and it was not smooth sailing all the way. The ill-fated CBS field sequential color system comes to mind as well as CBS Chairman William Paley’s continuing devotion to radio, leaving the development of television in the hands of his lieutenants, notably Frank Stanton. But beginning in the summer of that year, the stage had been set.

The September 1st edition of Broadcasting published that on August 20th CBS had announced the appointment of Gilbert Seldes, a writer and critic, as experimental television program director. It also announced a television program production center to be established in the space above Grand Central Terminal. Here’s Seldes speaking from the first incarnation of the Grand Central studios in a promotional piece for servicemen looking for careers to take up when they returned from the war.

The third floor of the building was just above the iconic waiting room where 700,000 New York office workers and tourists pass though on a daily basis either on their way to work or going home. The waiting room has appeared in many movies and television shows including having been reproduced in miniature as “home base” on NBC’s Saturday Night Live since it’s beginning. You can see it in the opening seconds of the SNL clip.

The initial reason for CBS choosing the Grand Central space was its proximity to the experimental W2XAB television transmitter (later WCBW and ultimately WCBS-TV) at the top of the Chrysler building a block away (The Empire State Building was taken by NBC’s facilities). According to Mike Conway’s book “The Origins of Television News in America,” by installing a direct coaxial cable run out of Grand Central, under the street and up the Chrysler building’s elevator shaft to the top floor, they were able to access the transmitter and the antennae just a few feet beyond. But “before leasing the space, engineers had to measure the area and compare it to RCA’s studio.” CBS wasted no time boasting in press releases it had the biggest studio space in the city.

It would take two years for CBS engineers to install the studio equipment. Television equipment was hard to get. The primary source of broadcast television equipment was RCA who was already busy creating the NBC television network. Compounding the competitive edge RCA had over CBS were the war clouds that were building that would eventually become World War II. CBS was strictly behind the eight ball when it came to ordering the latest in cameras, video processing equipment, mobile units and almost every other piece of gear RCA owned the patent on.

The allotted space CBS had leased in Grand Central was 40 feet high, 230 feet long and 60 feet wide, roughly the size of six (6) tennis courts. The previous tenant, Credit Clearing House, had to move out before the floor buckled under the weight of the company’s many file cabinets.

The website Eyes of a Generation from Bobby Ellerbee provides much detail of the construction at Grand Central Terminal, especially Bobby’s unique 125 page “History of The CBS New York Studios.” The production studios were broken down into 45×76 (Studio 42) and 44×60 (Studio 41). Initially, CBS Grand Central had four studios. Two for the production of the shows and two that were control rooms Studios 43 and 44. The control rooms were assigned as studios as many feeds were delivered from film or from off site (more on that later). If the program was a major production, like the “US Steel Hour,” “Studio One,”  or the election returns, the partition between the two rooms was opened to make more space.

One of the major productions from CBS’s Grand Central Terminal Studios making in necessary to open the partition.

Producer Gil Fates remembers working in GCT in 1941. In his book “What’s My Line? TV’s Most Famous Panel Show,” he says converting this space into a television broadcast center was no mean feat. The floor was some kind of concrete. The problems of putting up standard scenery were similar to those one would obtain if they blacktopped the stage of the Broadhurst Theater (a legitimate theater on Broadway).

Fates tells the story about a stagehand trying to drill a hole in the floor to anchor some sort of permanent stanchion. “All of a sudden the star drill on which he was hanging slipped through his fist and almost out of sight. He beckoned to me to look through the hole – right down onto the heads of people waiting on benches some fifty feet below for their trains to be announced.”

In 1948, CBS remodeled their facility at Grand Central. Again reinforcing their earlier claims, press releases went out (as if RCA needed reminding) announcing the facility will be “the largest and most modern television studios in the world…” They were now operating a full network of stations and were growing daily. According to Robert Slater’s book “This… is CBS,” Douglas Edwards would open the show by welcoming them [the new stations] to the broadcast. Finally, “by the end of 1951, when the West Coast was tied into the coaxial cable, he opened with these words, “Good evening, from coast to coast,” a greeting that continued through his stewardship of the program.

When productions took over both studios by opening the partition between the two rooms, broadcasts like the aforementioned election night coverage had to share space with other program sets.

Beginning in the forties, through the fifties and into the sixties, CBS could be found all over midtown Manhattan. In the thirties, (before television came along) it was the golden age of radio and the company filled vacant theaters with radio programs and recording studios. Later, some of these venues were remodeled into television studios. At one point, CBS had leases on fourteen theaters scattered around the island.

Sitcoms and game shows were either broadcast or televised in front of a live studio audience. Soap operas were in that mix as well but weren’t publicized as much since they didn’t need the support of an audience reaction. Like the trains down below, the signals arrived at the Grand Central Terminal master control and were sent out over the CBS Television Network, arriving and departing on schedule.

Most well known among the general public is The Ed Sullivan Theater known only in the early days as Studio 50. The building, in addition to the Stephen Colbert and David Letterman shows was also home of the theater’s namesake, Ed Sullivan. The Sullivan show went on the air as “Toast of the Town” in June of 1948. The name changed to “The Ed Sullivan Show” in September of 1955 and continued running until June of 1971 (Prior to “Toast of the Town, the building was one of CBS’s radio theaters going back to 1936). Selected clips of the shows continue to play on the “Decades” television channel.

CBS Studio 50. The name changed to the Ed Sullivan Theater in honor of his long running Sunday night program. Later it became home to David Letterman and Stephen Colbert. Currently it is one of the last Broadway theaters in CBS’s list of external facilities. Photo courtesy of Bobby Ellerbee.

Thinking about the massive expanse that had to be wired together in a short amount of time, I wondered who did the infrastructure linking all the sites to Grand Central? It had to be coax and audio pairs. Did the telephone company do it for them? Or was it maintenance crews from CBS engineering? Sub-contractor perhaps? A combination of all of them? There was no fiber yet and embedded audio was far off in the future. Those connections had to run beneath the streets of New York intersecting all kinds of other city services in the process. Bobby Ellerbee tells me it was all three of them but mostly from Ma Bell which makes sense. After all, who else would know all those terminal points like the telephone company?

The embedded listing shows how much activity was going on at the venues under CBS control. And each program was live. Videotape didn’t come along until 1956. There wasn’t much room for an audience in Grand Central for the audience involved shows. However, occasionally there were times an audience would be present. The premiere episode of the long running game show “What’s My Line” emanated live from GCT on February 2nd, 1950. A kinescope of that premiere broadcast survives. According to Fates, “I’ve watched that 16mm kine recording of that first broadcast a dozen times in search of some possible clue as to why CBS encouraged us to do a second. John Daly was uncomfortable, the panel was inept and unfunny, the direction was uncertain and the set was lighted like a police line-up.”

With the 1948 announcement of the upgrade to the Grand Central facility, another floor in GCT was tapped. It had been used as rehearsal space on the seventh floor but became necessary for it to become part of the technical facility. The network’s Master Control was established there. When Ampex Corporation invented Videotape in 1956, fourteen VR-1000 units were purchased and set up in the facility (A note to be clear – initially, videotape for delayed broadcasts to other time zones was recorded at Television City in Hollywood). New York had many reasons to have the additional machines available. Considering every program was backed up in recording and playing back, those fourteen machines were reduced to a set of seven pairs.

In addition to the beginnings of all live programs switching to tape, the news division was recording everything coming in from all over the globe onto tape as well as recording the finished program.

Grand Central would remain an active hub of CBS television operations – news and entertainment – until 1964 when control was moved to the west side of Manhattan.

Speaking of news…

CBS Radio news had made its mark thanks to the team of correspondents covering World War II lead by Edward R. Murrow. The radio correspondents treated television as a passing fad not worth putting any time into. The famous radio correspondents avoided it, still riding high on their successes all over the world (however, they fell to public pressure and starting their own television careers). But in 1948, CBS had to respond to the competition and added news to television in response to NBC’s introduction of “The Camel News Caravan” with John Cameron Swayze.

As a result, Douglas Edwards was tapped to do the network’s first foray into video news. “The Evening News with Douglas Edwards” had its debut on May 3rd, 1948.

News had their radio headquarters at 485 Madison Avenue alongside the rest of the corporation. When CBS introduced the fifteen minute evening television newscast, it originated from a small corner of the radio newsroom. The newscast only differed from it’s audio counterpart in that you could see Douglas Edwards’ expression as he read the script. Newsreel services (Telenews) provided some visual relief but no one was happy with them.

Eventually, the studio for the news was moved to one of the leased facilities CBS had taken on. Moving the news studio to Liederkranz Hall at 58th Street was probably to find extra space! However, the newsroom stayed in that small corner of the radio newsrooms. This made the TV news people nervous. According to first president of CBS News, Sig Mickelson, “The TV news area was still located in a corner office of the the radio news department at 485 Madison Avenue. [Now] The studio was eight blocks away…” They had to trust cab drivers to get the personnel and their scripts and other materials to the studio in time for the broadcast. As Bobby Ellerbee comments, “not good on a rainy day.”

Eventually, “The Evening News” was moved to Grand Central. In his book “The Decade That Shaped Television News”, Mickelson says the newsroom and offices were moved to a wing on the third floor of GCT on East 45th Street. At the same time, the news studio was moved from Liederkranz hall to studios located on the Forty Second Street side of GCT. There were no taxicab runs but the staff still had a gauntlet to run. They had two choices to get to from one side of the terminal to the other.

Fifth floor catwalk at Grand Central Terminal (credit: Evan Bindelglass / CBSNewYork) and courtesy Bobby Ellerbee.

Mickelson adds, “They either had to travel through the crowded terminal’s main waiting room or cross over the waiting room by way of a narrow catwalk, high above the main floor where commuters were milling around waiting for outbound suburban trains. It was not unusual to see the entire team, Edwards, Hewitt, writers, film editors and graphic artists, rushing across the catwalk single file a few minutes before air time, carrying film cans, scripts and program graphics.”

In the July 11th, 1960, Broadcasting, a small announcement made it known that CBS had leased the entire 29th floor and a portion of the 28th floor of the Graybar Building next to GCT.  Dennis Degan pointed this fact to me in his comment (below). Park Avenue runs between the east side of GCT and the back of the Graybar Building. In fact, “so adjacent to GCT that there is literally no space between the two and are connected on several floors,” explains Degan.

Take note how Grand Central Terminal extends out on both sides to accommodate Park Avenue elevated roadway. From American-Rails.com

Again, from Sig Mickelson’s book, “The new news headquarters [in] the Graybar Building at Forty–third and Lexington, though adjacent to Grand Central, offered only a marginal improvement. The new space required a [lengthy] elevator ride, a walk through the same crowded Grand Central lobby, and another elevator ride to the third floor studio. There was not even a catwalk alternative.” Gradually, they were getting closer but there were still issues with communicating between the newsroom and the studio.

On April 16, 1962 Walter Cronkite was assigned to replace Edwards as anchor and managing editor of the Evening News. Sometime after October 24, 1962 (the Cuban Missile Crisis) but before the expansion from 15 to 30 minutes of the evening news broadcast on September 2, 1963, studio and newsroom came together as one. In the broadcast story observing the fiftieth anniversary of expansion of the “CBS Evening News” from fifteen minutes to thirty minutes, the cameras were set up in front of Cronkite’s desk shortly before the format change. Finally, they were broadcasting from the working newsroom in the Graybar Bldg. and switched from a control room in GCT.

For everyone in the Grand Central Terminal, there was one more move coming. The new CBS Broadcast Center on West 57th Street on the northern edge of the Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood opened as the CBS Production Center in the late 1950’s. But the facility was now ready to take on more of the corporation’s production tasks. That happened over a short period from July through December of 1964 beginning with CBS radio moving in July from 485 Madison Avenue. The facilities at the train station were gradually converted over and the television network’s master control moved in late in 1964.

One of several high definition control rooms at the CBS Broadcast Center in New York City. From cbsbroadcastcenter.com/

It occupies 1,000,000 square feet, has six column-free studios ranging in size from 3200 square feed to 8256 square feet. Each of the studios has its own high definition control room.

In recognition of the time spent in Grand Central Terminal, there are four control rooms numbered 41 through 44.

My thanks go out to Bobby Ellerbee and his great research on all the major networks including the CBS Grand Central Terminal facility.




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