The History of WICS, Channel 20, Springfield, IL

1953 - 1965

In 1953, across the prairie of mid-Illinois, brand new television sets began to flicker with pictures from St. Louis, Peoria, Decatur, Springfield, Champaign, Bloomington, and Danville. Local entrepreneurs invested their lives and fortunes in a new industry hoping to attract advertisers and capture viewers in each of those cities and rural areas to the images and sounds they would broadcast. 

Each new television station owner had different obstacles to overcome, some achieved success, while others failed. Competition brought on many legal challenges between stations and owners. Television careers began, on-air personalities became local celebrities while other broadcasters worked behind the scenes. 

This book is the story of those entrepreneurs, managers, sales representatives, studio engineers, on-air personalities along with politicians, the FCC, even the legal system all the way to the Supreme Court. It's a detailed story of a budding local industry during television's golden years, the first years we saw “Pictures on the Prairie.”

Lee Ruwitch could have built a TV powerhouse in Springfield with WMAY-TV on Channel 2. He certainly would have been one of central Illinois' more influential broadcasting executives. Read more about him here from a 1952 Broadcasting Magazine by clicking on the button above.

SUPPLEMENTAL MATERIAL: This is explained in much, much greater detail in my book "Pictures on the Prairie: The First Ten Years of Mid-Illinois Television."

 

The groups of applicants for channel 2 in Springfield, included all of the Springfield radio companies represented by WMAY, WTAX, and WCVS. In a nutshell, here's the story. WCVS dropped out of the competition and formed an alliance with WICS furnishing studio space and a broadcast tower for the antenna and transmitter for WICS.

Meanwhile, the competition for channel 2 continued between WMAY and WTAX. Later the FCC granted a favored status to the WMAY-TV group, although the company could not begin to build the facility for Channel 2.  WMAY-TV did build a staff, including the hiring of a distinguished general manager from Florida, Lee Ruwitch.

 

If Mr. Ruwitch would have had the opportunity to build WMAY-TV, there's a pretty good chance it would have been a successful operation. He would have built WMAY-TV into something similar to what he built at WTVJ (TV) in Miami, Florida. WMAY studios would be a notable landmark on Springfield's southside, along Stevenson Drive, about a quarter-mile west of Shepard Road (the location of the Hardees). The transmitter/tower would have been located near the current WMAY Radio station and tower farm just northeast of Springfield along Illinois Route 54 (then US-54). It would have easily been under contract as an NBC affiliate, and quite possibly still an NBC station. WICS would be just a memory having succumbed to a much stronger VHF facility.

 

Based on the information available on Mr. and Mrs. Ruwitch from Miami, Florida, Springfield could be a much different place. Miami benefited from the charitable efforts of the couple with the establishment of the Francien and Lee Ruwitch Charitable Foundation. He was a community leader with many speaking engagements in front of community groups and support to several organizations from the YMCA to the local Mental Health Society. He was also a board member of the National Conference of Christian and Jews and was vice-president of the Dade County Citizens Committee for Educational Television. Mr. Ruwitch also awarded journalism scholarships to college students pursuing a career in television news.

The lack of love for WICS from the community at large along with the local government, state government, and political community was obvious. The support that was given to either local group, WMAY-TV or WTAX was strong, along with the prestige of having a VHF TV station in the Capitol City. It just so happened that the ownership of WICS had no vested interest in the community, and was even referred to in at least one newspaper story as a group of "carpet baggers." The FCC was quite possibly illegally bribed by one of the benefactors of having the allocation of channel 2 changed to St. Louis, but also lobbied by WICS, WTVP, ABC, and others.

 

WMAY-TV had disbanded by the time the FCC pulled its "favored status" and awarded the group channel 36 instead of channel 2, but it was too late, and the group wouldn't have been interested in channel 36. WTAX or Sangamon Valley Broadcasting, however, continued to pursue the channel 2 allocation, even after it was awarded to KTVI in St. Louis. In fact, it would go all the way to the SCOTUS, where it was sent back to the Washington D.C. Appellate court.  The courts sent it back to the FCC for investigation, accepted the fact that officially channel 2 did belong to Springfield, but admitted that KTVI would continue to hold on to Channel 2. This case would be called "The Sangamon Valley Case" after a slightly reorganized company that I would work for beginning in the Mid 1970s. 
 

The many details of the first 10 years of WICS are omitted here and told in great detail in "Pictures on the Prairie: The First Ten Years of Mid-Illinois Television."  Order your copy today!

At left is the former WICS broadcast tower from recent years well after it was shared with WCVS Radio in 1953-1958. The arrangement was to the sacrifice of a Springfield heritage FM radio station. The details are in "Pictures on the Prairie: The First Ten Years of Mid-Illinois Television Broadcasting." The tower remains and serves as the transmitting and studio location of Neuhoff Broadcastings, WFMB-AM/FM. 

The middle picture was the local newspaper insert from the Illinois State Journal-Register's supplement welcoming the new Springfield television station to the capital city.

(top): This hazy photo was part of the newspaper coverage of the construction of WICS.  The self-supporting tower is visible along with the antenna of Channel 20 which would broadcast WICS.

 

 

(bottom upper): "First in Springfield," assuming there would be another station... WICS signed on the air with regular programming on October 1, 1953.

(images from WICS)

Click on the button to see the program schedule from the dates indicated left.

WICS Staff 1953
WICS Staff 1953

Jack Bowers with an RCA studio camera

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WICS Staff 1953
WICS Staff 1953

Bette Muller and Jack Hoskins at the film editor

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WICS Staff 1953
WICS Staff 1953

Malden Jones with James Herelson

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WICS Staff 1953
WICS Staff 1953

Jack Bowers with an RCA studio camera

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A Selection of NBC
Shows from 1953-65

John Begue with an advertising card about the new TV station in Springfield, WICS, Channel 20. Notice the network affiliation shows all available TV networks at the time

(picture from WICS)

The Sports director (editor) Bernie Waterman was the first WICS staff member on the air with a pre-game show before the first telecast of the 1953 World Series between the New York Yankees and the Brooklyn Dodgers.  That would occur before the "official" first broadcast the following day, October 1, 1953

(picture from WICS)

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A Selection of Syndicated
Shows 1953-1964

The NBC logo from the first years of WICS beginning in 1953. 

(YouTube)

This edition of the "Buick Berle Show" aired on NBC and WICS on December 1, 1953.  The guest star includes Jack Webb of "Dragnet."

(YouTube)

CBS had Lucy, NBC had Joan Davis and "I Married Joan" also starring Jim Bacus which aired on NBC and WICS from 1952-1955.  It was one of the original NBC shows which aired on WICS during the fall of 1953. This episode was broadcast on NBC and WICS on January 12, 1955.
(YouTube) 

"You Bet Your Life" also known as "The Groucho Show" aired on NBC from 1950 to 1961 and was one of the original NBC shows which popped up in the schedule for WICS in the very early days. This particular show aired on February 18, 1954

(YouTube)

In May of 1956, WICS did a remote broadcast from the Armory in downtown Springfield. The event is not clear, but the pictures of the WICS camera crew are quite good. 

The pictures were taken by long-time central Illinois broadcaster and journalist Ben Kiningham and contributed to Central Illinois On-Line Broadcast Museum.

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WICS Channel 20 Springfield
WICS Channel 20 Springfield

1950s view of Leland Hotel, home of the original studios of WICS

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WICS, Channel 20 Springfield
WICS, Channel 20 Springfield

Milton Friedland, WICS GM/VP from 1953-1986

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WICS Channel 20 Springfield
WICS Channel 20 Springfield

1964 Closer look at studio cameras. Camera 1 had a teleprompter, Camera 2 did not.

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WICS Channel 20 Springfield
WICS Channel 20 Springfield

1950s view of Leland Hotel, home of the original studios of WICS

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"Howdy Doody Show" was one of the pioneering children's shows which aired on NBC from 1947 to 1960. Although it was on the air in 1953, it wasn't seen on WICS until a few years later when the broadcast day expanded to include Saturday morning TV.  This edition was broadcast on November 16, 1958, on NBC and WICS.

(YouTube)

By 1958, WICS had the ability to pass network programming in color, although there were just a few households that were able to view any color broadcast.  This video is a short excerpt of a very rare color kinescope (filmed) recording of a live broadcast from NBC from April 12, 1958, and shown in color on WICS. 

(YouTube)

Everyone thinks of Bob Barker as the only host of "The Price is Right," but the long time game show originated on NBC with host Bill Cullen. The game was much different in the early days. This episode is from May 31, 1957.  Note the announcer, Don Pardo who was the announcer for "Saturday Night Live" some 50 years later! 
(YouTube)

By January 10, 1960 "The Dinah Shore Chevy Show" was broadcast in color and videotaped for posterity. It's unfortunate that the original commercials have been removed, but having a portion of the show is better than have none of it. 

(YouTube)

"Riverboat" aired on NBC from 1959-1961 and starred Darren McGaven and Burt Reynolds.  This episode is from October 25, 1959 and called "Escape to Memphis"

(YouTube)

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Pegwill Ranch and Pegwill Circus

Pegwill Ranch and Pegwill Circus entertained Springfield area kids for nearly 10 years beginning in 1955. This weekday afternoon children's show was sponsored by the Pegwill Packing Company which was owned by Bill Wingerter.  Mr. Wingerter was one of the founders of WFMB radio and WBHW(TV), now WRSP, Channel 55 in Springfield. 
(pictures above from Randy Miller)

 

The color pictures above right are both sides of a Happy Birthday postcard which was sent to viewers of Pegwill Circus.

(picture from Katheryn Dinardo)

Read more about Pegwill Pete and the various children's shows broadcast on WICS, Channel 20 in my book "Pictures on the Prairie: The First Ten Years of Mid-Illinois Television" available from the link at the top of the page.

The cartoons shown during Pegwill Ranch and Pegwill Circus was the standard issue Warner Brothers cartoons

Pegwill Circus with Pegwill Pete
Pegwill Circus with Pegwill Pete

1956 July, Pegwill Pete and Margie plan to perform at the Illinois State Fair as well as on WICS

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Pegwill Circus with Pegwill Pete
Pegwill Circus with Pegwill Pete

1955, Pegwill Pete announces the winner of a contest to name two twin cows.

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Pegwill Circus with Pegwill Pete
Pegwill Circus with Pegwill Pete

Ann Marshall on the Pegwill Circus. She would go on to be an olympic swimmer, TV anchor and actor in throughout the 1960s. Courtesy of Ann Marshall

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Pegwill Circus with Pegwill Pete
Pegwill Circus with Pegwill Pete

1956 July, Pegwill Pete and Margie plan to perform at the Illinois State Fair as well as on WICS

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Go to Ann Marshall's website by clicking here.

The Jerry Lewis Show was one of the rotation variety shows featured during 1957. It was a way to sell RCA color TV's to the masses. This was the first in the series having aired January 19, 1957, 8pm ET. This was also Lewis' firts solo TV effort. Guests(not included in this intro/outro aircheck) were a very young Eydie Gorme, Rowan and Martin and Jerry's dad Danny and son Gary(of Gary Lewis and the Playboy-60's top 40 fame). It is a kinescope of a color broadcast-in black and white and features a black and white peacock. Listen for the announcer to stumble as he says, "The following program is brought to you in living color on NBC."

(from Doug Quick and YouTube)

This is  1959 daytime edition of "Concentration" which was normally hosted by Hugh Downs. He was replaced on this one by Art James, another game show host of the era. 
(from Chris Bryant and YouTube)

Medical dramas were becoming popular replacing the western genre in the early 1960s.  Along with ABC's Ben Casey, NBC had "Dr. Kildare" based on the old radio and movie series of the 1940s-50s. This is a preview from Warner Archives, as no complete episodes are available on YouTube
(from Warner Archive Instant and YouTube)

Here are two of the recorded peacock color intros used to designate color programming broadcast  on NBC and your local station. It was done to create a sense of "missing out" by those watching in black and white.  After all, NBC was in the business of selling of RCA color TVs. The announcer is Mel Brandt. The peacock was designed by John J. Grahm and the music by Jack Easton. Even though WICS could pass NBC color programming to those few viewers where were able to watch, it would be another 10 years before local color would be a reality for central Illinois.

(left: from nickelodeon Deutschland, right: from terrence mcclinton and YouTube)

Three of WICS news directors/anchors after Malden Jones, are pictured above. (left): is G.B. Gordon who served through 1958. (center) is former WTVP news editor, Dale Coleman who was named in 1960 as news director.  (right) is Wayne Cox who would report/anchor from the early to late 1960s.  He was a former employee at WBLN in Bloomington in 1958.

 

(from WICS and Randy Miller)

Click on the button to see the program schedule from the dates indicated above.

WICS Pepsi Dance Party
WICS Pepsi Dance Party

1965 from WICS

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WICS Pepsi Dance Party
WICS Pepsi Dance Party

1965 from WICS

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WICS New Studio 1964
WICS New Studio 1964

from WICS

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WICS Pepsi Dance Party
WICS Pepsi Dance Party

1965 from WICS

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Kim Wilson

Kim Wilson actually started at WTVP in Decatur before making the move to WICS in the late 1950s.  This extremely versatile local performer was popular with women as well as the kids. Find out more about the Ms.Wilson and WICS in my book "Pictures on the Prairie: The First Ten Years of Mid-Illinois Television" available at the link at the top of this page.

photos: top left-from Teresa Wilson Ericson

left: with Rory Calhoun from WICS ; top: from WICS;

mid right: with Virginia Graham from WICS
above: TV Guide® ad from J.R. Evans

Clicka T. Clack (William R. Miller)

WICS Clicka T. Clack Show
WICS Clicka T. Clack Show

1960s Clicka T. Clack, played by Bill Miller, WICS

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WICS Clicka T. Clack Show
WICS Clicka T. Clack Show

1964 WICS hosts a part for staff members kids, from Lincoln Library, Randy Miller

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WICS Clicka T. Clack Show
WICS Clicka T. Clack Show

1960s Clicka T. Clack, played by Bill Miller, Lincoln Library, Randy Miller

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WICS Clicka T. Clack Show
WICS Clicka T. Clack Show

1960s Clicka T. Clack, played by Bill Miller, WICS

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Clicka T. Clack was another of WICS children's show hosts of the late 1950s into the mid-1960s. His initial show featured him as a train conductor and used a clip from a Warner Brothers cartoon of a train coming into the station.  The sound effects ushered in another installment of games, interviews with local kids (which I never had the opportunity to be a part of) but I was a loyal viewer anyway. The children's panel show also featured those Warner Brothers cartoons with Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck. Read more about Mr. William R. Miller and the shows he hosted at WICS in "Pictures on the Prairie: The First Ten Years of Mid-Illinois Television" by clicking on the link above to order your copy.

WICS Expands its Reach

Beginning in the late 1950s, WICS was seeking to find a way to compete with WCIA in its multi-market campaign to attract advertising revenue.  In those days of the 50s and early 60s, Springfield, Decatur, Champaign-Urbana/Danville and Bloomington-Normal were all different markets. The UHF TV stations in each of those cities were not able to technically send a signal to the neighboring cities because of the restrictions of low powered transmitters and short broadcast towers.

WCIA was the only station which was able to reach all of the cities listed above with one VHF signal. Plains Television saw the only way to challenge WCIA was to fight it with filings before the FCC.  After the FCC refused to change the VHF to UHF placement of WCIA, the only other way would be to place a second signal to cover the Champaign-Urbana area....and another to cover Danville and a third to cover Mattoon, Illinois. 

Ultimately there we were major mistakes made which would do damage to the effort for years to place a major TV competitor to WCIA in east central Illinois. That story is told in length in my book "Pictures on the Prairie: The First Ten Years of Mid-Illinois Television."  To get your own copy click on the graphic at the top of the page.

Click on the button to see the program schedule from the dates indicated above.

WICS Channel 20 Springfield
WICS Channel 20 Springfield

1964 NBC Andy Williams Show, TV Guide Doug Quick Collection

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WICS Channel 20 Springfield
WICS Channel 20 Springfield

1963-0909 Huntley-Brinkley Report ad, Decatur Herald

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WICS Channel 20 Springfield
WICS Channel 20 Springfield

1965 NBC Andy Williams Show, TV Guide from Doug Quick Collection

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WICS Channel 20 Springfield
WICS Channel 20 Springfield

1964 NBC Andy Williams Show, TV Guide Doug Quick Collection

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Here presented in no particular order are those
who have served at WICS, job descriptions/title,
dates

Milton D. Friedland-v-president/general manager 53-
Jame "Jack" Harelson-program manager 53-54
Bazil O-Hagen-chief engineer 53-56
Jack Hoskins-film director/program director 53-
John Begue-sales/promotion/weathercaster 53-60
Carroll W. Neeld-sales 53-
Ken Spengler-sales 53-
Frank Harbauer-sales 53-
Dick Ashenfelter-engineer 53-
Helen Kimmer-executive secretary of the general mgr 53-
Bob Margan-announcer 55-
Bill "Clickety Clack" Miller 60-

Malden Jones-news editor 53-54

Edwin Pool-engineer 53-

Jack Bowers-engineer 53-

Gerald "Jerry" Merritt-engineer/chief engineer 53-

Bernice Warner-community director 53-

Bernie Waterman-sports editor 53-

Bette Muller-asst to film director 53-

Frank Martin-weathercaster 54-

Marty Roberts-talent host 55-56

Julie Craig-talent host 54-56

Bob Wilson-talent/engineering 55-

G.B. Gordon-news editor 55-59

Mariam "Mari-Ann" Ellis -talent host 54-

Pete Wetzel-talent/Pegwill Shows 55-

Larry Spiller-continuity editor 55-

Phil Young-sales 56-

Bryan S. Halter Jr.-continuity asst/announcer 56-

Marion Leimbeck-continuity/traffic assist 56-

Bernie Johnson-talent/host 54-60
Wally Gair-sportscaster, talent/host 58-
Bob Warren-weathercaster/news editor/anchor 58-59
Dale Coleman-news editor/anchor 60
Wayne Cox-news reporter/anchor 60
Nick Alexander-weathercaster/news reporter/anchor 60-
Alan Crane-news reporter/anchor 1962
Charles Bauman-farm director 1954-55
Bill "Pegwill Pete" Wingerter-talent/host 55-
Marge ????-talent with "Pegwill" programs 55-
Ann Marshall-talent with "Pegwill" programs, 1950's
Bill Shaw-photographer 57-
Warren King-sales mgr 57-
Robert B. Farrow-sales 60-
Lorene Brown-announcer 62-
Kim Wilson-talent/host 59-
Doug Kimball-1962

 

* a contributor to this site
This list is by no means complete....  if you are or know a WICS employee, sales, administration, programming, news or creative services...drop me an e-mail.
Include that person name, title or job description and approximate dates of employees, if you know.

 

 

Sources:

Network screen grabs were from the collection of Bob Lee

WICS for the studio talent pictures

Les Vann 

Jo Warfield for sharing her recollections

YouTube videos are the property of the individual copyright holders and only posted for their historical significance. They are subject to removal by the contributors and YouTube.

WICD-TV

Randy Miller for his picture contributions
Broadcasting-Telecasting Magazine
The Illinois State Journal-Register
The Urbana Courier Newspaper
The News-Gazette
The Decatur Herald-Review Newspaper
The Bloomington Pantagraph
TV Guide (1954-1959) from the Doug Quick Collection
Lincoln Library-Springfield
Danville Public Library
Champaign Public Library
Decatur Public Library
Urbana Free Library

The Complete Directory to Prime Time Network Shows
   by Tim Brooks and Earle Marsh
Total Television by Alex McNeil

Contributors:
Bob Lee for the vast majority of program titles screengrabs
WICS, Channel 20, Springfield, Rick Lipps
Cindy Larson and others at WICS
Randy Miller and his Facebook Photo Collection
Teresa Wilson Ericson
Ann Marshall
J.R. Evans
Ben Kiningham
Neuhoff Broadcasting-Danville
James Isley
Kathryn Dinardo
Dave Heller (who produced the 40th Anniversary of WICS and a number of screengrabs were taken)
Creative Services at WICS during the 60th Anniversary of WICS from which the recreation of the WICS logo (1st in Springfield) was included as the first graphic of this page


YouTube videos are the property of the individual copyright holders and are only posted for their historical significance. 
They are subject to removal by the contributors and YouTube.

Click on the image at the left to continue with
the story of WICS from 1966 to 2020