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The Buzz: Pioneers of television in Pittsburgh gather for a 50-year reunion

Saturday, June 19, 1999

By Barbara Vancheri, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Al Gore can claim he invented the Internet, but these folks invented television in Pittsburgh. Really. And yesterday, they threw themselves a golden anniversary party to celebrate WDTV, which debuted Jan. 11, 1949, and their time there. Owned by the DuMont Television Network, it was the city's first TV station (located at Channel 3) and the forerunner of KDKA.

  Joe Negri: Got his start with "The Buzz 'N' Bill Show."

Anyone who wandered into the Holiday Inn in Oakland would have seen a veritable who's who of Pittsburgh TV, from Jean Connelly and Bill Brant and Josie Carey Franz to Nick Perry and Eleanor Schano and Joe Negri, and they were just the early arrivals. In addition to the recognizable faces, there were cameramen, engineers and other people who got the picture (black and white, of course) from their studio to your living room. Roughly 115 people, including some from as far away as California, Nevada and Florida, were due.

Like a well-organized high school reunion, there were name tags to jog the memory, enough vintage photographs for a yearbook and party favors. A page from The Pittsburgh Press, declaring "Network Television to Reach City" was reduced, reproduced and tied with a golden sliver of ribbon. And one-time WDTV office manager Lou Kieran, with Connelly one of the reunion organizers, provided everyone with a memento of their old general manager. At each place setting: "Don Stewart's Money Bag," complete with a few gold-foiled chocolate coins, in honor of the real money bag Stewart carried -- and opened after lunch to dole out his tip, to the penny.

Nick Perry: Recalls peril of doing live commercials. 

Most of all, though, the room was abuzz with memories, updates, handshakes and hugs. Negri, seen in a vintage photo with Bob Hope, got his start with a musical trio on "The Buzz 'N' Bill Show," which aired weekdays at 6 p.m. He earned $90 a week and learned to be a quick study.

Brant, who is retired but still does a couple of national commercials, was a veteran of radio when he joined WDTV, where he hosted shows with guests such as Ella Fitzgerald, Nat King Cole, Tony Bennett and newcomer Diahann Carroll, whom he told (correctly) she would be a big star. He got arrested on camera after accumulating 40 parking tickets and proved a former boss wrong that he was taking a chance by moving to this untested medium. "Those were great days," he said, in a sentiment echoed by others.

Before she became a popular children's host on WQED, Carey was an associate producer on "Ask the Girls," which fielded questions about etiquette and fashion and interviewed the stars who were appearing at the old Nixon Theater up the street. She took to heart the example of host Florence Sando, who enjoyed television but always came to the set well prepared.

Perry, who is now retired, recalled the perils of live TV, especially when doing commercials. He remembers trying to open a jar of coffee and discovering his director had switched the props and it wouldn't budge. So what did he do? "I moved to the next line."

Schano started at WDTV as a college student and is one of the few alums to still be on the air. She recalled being told that "Women can't speak on television" when she first did commercials. Only men could pitch products. She proved that thinking wrong.

Like Perry, she has her live TV tales -- tripping up steps and, during a beer ad, missing the glass but hitting colleague Bill Hinds. "When you think about it, television was a baby, and we were there."

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