Accomplishments and Records

TV’s Historic and Forgotten ‘The Television Ghost’

It is August 17, 1931, and you are one of the very few who are sufficiently fortunate and wealthy to own the latest technological gizmo. It is a radio that allows you to see pictures as well as hear voices. Some are calling this newfangled doodad a “television,” but you’re not sure that name will stick.

It was hard enough getting your hands on one of these state-of-the-art contraptions. Even more difficult is finding something to watch. No one is sure the television concept is here to stay, after all.

A publicity photograph of George Kelting in costume. Click image to expand.

Fortunately, you live in New York City, close enough to the transmitter for station W2XAB. You turn on your television set, wait several minutes for it to warm up, and watch in wonder as the screen changes from random dots of black and white to a ghostly image.

You start to fiddle with the knobs and buttons when you realize there is nothing wrong with your receiver. The image on the screen is supposed to appear ghostly. Unbeknownst to you, you have become an eye witness to history: the premiere of the first dramatic television anthology for the television medium. You are watching the inaugural broadcast of The Television Ghost.

The Television Ghost ran for a year and a half with George Kelting in the title role. The 15-minute episodes consisted of Kelting telling stories about murders. The stories were from the perspective of the spirit of the individual who had assumed room temperature through the misdeeds of others.

It should go without saying that this was decades before CGI technology. Even for the day, however, Kelting’s costume was less elaborate than that employed on Halloween by your typical 10-year-old. It was nothing more than white makeup for his face and a white towel around his head. For publicity shots, he also made use of a white sheet for his body. During the shows, however, the camera remained focused on his face.

A publicity photo for the program in a surviving newspaper mention of The Television Ghost. (Click image to expand)

The technology of the day did little to improve the quality of the special effects. The primitive broadcasting and reception mechanisms would have made even the most-horrifying ghost difficult to discern. As it was, viewers were subjected to eye strain as they stared at their devices, trying to see the mysterious specter of the screen.

The program ran on W2XAB, a precursor to WCBS-TV. It was an experimental branch of the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS). The medium was still trying to figure out what it was going to be. The primary home entertainment industry at the time was radio, so The Television Ghost was written and performed as if it were a radio show. The only added element was the visual aspect of Kelting’s face, which moved very little as he spoke. The audio portion of the show was, in fact, simulcast on New York’s W2XE and WABC radio stations.

The final episode of The Television Ghost aired on February 13, 1933. One week later, W2XAB suspended operations because of the Great Depression. When the station returned to the air in 1939, it was without The Television Ghost.

Sadly, although The Television Ghost made history, it has also been lost to history. It was aired live without a studio audience. The station did not make any recordings. Few people owned television sets to be able to watch the program, let alone record it. For this reason, no copies — video or audio — of any of the programs exist. The Television Ghost may have been the first of its kind, but it also became the first televised dramatic anthology to be completely lost, with no chance of any recordings being discovered. The only elements of the series that exist are two photographs of Kelting in costume and a couple of newspaper mentions from the time.

The Television Ghost was premised upon stories of people whose lives were snuffed out, existing only in the stories told by an eerie phantom on a barely-visible screen. When the final episode concluded, The Television Ghost joined the victims of those stories, becoming just as amorphous and intangible, now to be found only in memories and tales.

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