Story by DANNY MOGLE // Photos by SCHUYLER WICK // March/April 2017
On Nov. 24, 1963, authorities were leading Lee Harvey Oswald, the man accused of assassinating President John Kennedy two days earlier, through the basement of the Dallas police headquarters when nightclub owner Jack Ruby quickly stepped forward, pulled out a .38-revolver and fired a single, fatal shot into Oswald’s stomach.
The shocking turn of events was carried live on television as much of the nation looked on.
One of the TV cameras that captured the now famous grainy, black-and-white footage is one of the attractions at the new Texas Museum of Broadcasting and Communications in Kilgore, Texas.
The camera originally was used by KRLD-TV in Dallas, which had been granted access to film the transfer of Oswald from police headquarters to the Dallas County Jail.
“It certainly has one of the most interesting provenances of all the objects here,” Chuck Conrad, the museum’s founder, says of the item that recorded an unforgettable moment in history.
Conrad has collected, repaired and operated broadcast equipment all his life. As a kid he took radios apart just to see if he could put them back together.
He has worked as an engineer and behind the scenes at radio and television stations and had an audio production company. Eventually Conrad acquired East Texas radio stations KZQX, KDOK and KEBE.
After more than 30 years, his collection of artifacts had come to include more than 50 large TV cameras, an early radio automation system, boxes and boxes of microphones, audio consoles and reel-to-reel recorders.
Some of the hard-to-find artifacts in his collection have been used as props in movies and television shows. Conrad’s microphones from the 1960s are seen in the movie “JFK.”
For years, Conrad stored the equipment in a crowded building that also housed his radio stations. To share his collection with others, he purchased a building in downtown Kilgore that once housed a car dealership. He opened the museum in September.
The museum has a TV studio set with working cameras and a radio station control room. Dozens of radios and television sets spanning many decades and a several radio transmitters, all donated by by two other longtime collectors, also are on display.
“Everything here comes with a story,” Conrad says.
More donations arrive every week. Conrad is considering creating a section devoted to old photographic equipment. He says that the Texas Radio Hall of Fame is interesting in contributing a display.
The item on view that Conrad really gets excited about is called the Golden Cruiser — one of the first mobile TV production units ever made. The 28-foot bus housed a control room and carried the cameras, microphones and other equipment to cover news from the scene.
The bus was commissioned in 1948 by Tom Potter, who opened KBTV as one of the first TV stations in Dallas. A year later, he sold the station and it became WFAA, Channel 8.
WFAA used the bus to cover breaking news and special events until the early 1970s.
When Conrad learned that the telecruiser was rusting in a field, he bought it from the woman who owned it. She said her late husband ripped out the expensive broadcasting equipment to convert the bus into a travel home but never completed the project.
Conrad used photos of the telecruiser from 1949 to restore its original appearance complete with station call letters. It took Conrad more than 10 years to locate and install the period transmission equipment.
“We got some equipment with the bus and a lot was donated as well,” he shares on the museum’s website. “The intent was to make this a working black-and-white TV mobile unit of the era. It wasn’t possible to return it to the way DuMont delivered it but it was possible to make it more or less like it was in the 1960s.”
Conrad says there are very few fully-equipped, 1940s-era telecruisers in the world. “This is where the director would have sat,” Conrad says of a seat in front of a panel filled with screens and switches. “And over there would have been the engineer. This was all state of the art in its day.”
The goal of the museum is to make radio and television history come to life by showing the equipment that made it all possible.
“Everybody has a connection to radio and television in some way, shape or form,” Conrad says. “Unless you have been living in a cave, there is something here that will interest you.”
He says it’s important that children of the digital era, who have never known a time without the internet or smartphone, see the objects of yesteryear communication.
“They think to shoot video all you’ve ever had to do is take your phone out. Things were so much different then. Children have no idea how things used to be.”
Located at 416 E. Main in Kilgore, the museum is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays and other times by appointment. Admission is $6 for adults, $3 for children 3 to 11 and $5 for seniors, students, military personnel and first responders.