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Obituary: William G. Beal / Broadcasting pioneer and film producer

Wednesday, March 26, 2003

By Adrian McCoy, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

William G. Beal was both a pioneer in local broadcasting and a devoted preserver of its history.

Mr. Beal, of Edgewood, died Sunday at age 91, following a bout with pneumonia.

He was a native of Evanston, Ill. Once on a train ride through the Pittsburgh area, he noticed a sign for Carnegie Institute of Technology -- now Carnegie Mellon University -- and decided that was where he wanted to go. He majored in theater, graduating in 1934, and ended up making the area his home, his son, Peter, also of Edgewood, recalled.

After graduation, Mr. Beal worked for a film production company and then joined KDKA-AM, where he worked as an announcer, script writer and continuity editor.

In the 1930s, Mr. Beal was the announcer for one of radio's more unusual programs, which was developed by pioneering radio inventor Frank Conrad: "Messages to the Far North" was a weekly show that aired Saturday nights on KDKA. Mr. Beal would read letters with messages from listeners to family or friends who were working and living in remote areas of Alaska and Canada. Through shortwave radio, they could pick up the broadcasts. In 1938, he traveled to Alaska to meet some of the people who tuned in to the broadcasts.

According to "When Radio Was Young," a book about local broadcasting history which Mr. Beal co-authored, the show was dropped during World War II because the Nazis were using it to send messages to a spy network in this country.

Mr. Beal also wrote and produced the well-known "Pitt Parade," one of the earliest television programs to focus on local news. He sold the DuMont TV network on the idea, and the show aired here during the early days of WDTV, now KDKA-TV. Mr. Beal would go around the city with a film camera and shoot news events, have the film processed in the evening, edit it quickly and air it before the station signed off. Years later, KDKA re-aired some of the vintage footage on the noon news.

Mr. Beal left broadcasting and started his own film production company. From the 1950s through the 1990s, he made more than 160 industrial films for clients like PPG, Alcoa and Kennywood. Many of his films were donated to the Senator John Heinz Pittsburgh Regional History Center and are now archived in its collections.

His film work was the subject of "Bill Beal: Pittsburgh Through the Years," a documentary by Pittsburgh filmmaker Kenneth Love, which premiered in 1998 at the history center.

Mr. Beal retired in 1992 but kept active with many interests: writing, literacy tutoring and volunteer work with Meals on Wheels. His writing projects included a biography of the late news anchor Paul Long, who was a close friend, and a series of biographical stories of famous people.

In recent years, he was active in the ongoing effort to establish a broadcasting museum in Pittsburgh, with preservation of the garage Conrad used as a laboratory as its centerpiece.

"He worked so tirelessly for this project," said Rick Harris, chairman of the Conrad Project/ National Museum of Broadcasting.

Just lately, he finished writing "Ode to Pittsburgh," a tribute to the city he loved and a long catalog of the many good things to come out of Pittsburgh:

"You can have your London, Paris, your Tokyo -- I will go with Pittsburgh, the City with a Heart of Gold and the Can Do spirit so brave and bold. We knew all along that Pittsburgh was great, it's time we began to appreciate one of the great cities of the world, and my hometown."

In addition to his son, Mr. Beal is survived by three other children, Terry Beal of Jefferson, Maine, Nancy Mostow of New York City and Jean Burton of Gallupville, N.Y.; seven grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren.

There is no funeral or visitation. Memorial contributions can be made to the Historical Society of Western Pennsylvania, 1212 Smallman St., Pittsburgh 15222.

Adrian McCoy can be reached atamccoy@post-gazette.com .

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