WABT, Channel 13, and WBRC, Channel 6, went on the air within days of each other in July 1949, but after that point the two stations had radically different methods of filling their program schedules. Channel 13 balanced its filmed offerings and network shows with a healthy amount of local programming from the very beginning. Channel 6, on the other hand, did not do much from its own studio -- because until the autumn of 1952, Channel 6 HAD no studio! It relied totally upon the network feed and film for everything it broadcast; even the local commercials had to be filmed for later showings.
Finally, WBRC converted its former FM radio building atop Red Mountain into a makeshift television studio, even though space was far too limited. With Benny Carle being 13's afternoon star for kids, WBRC decided to enter the market with a show that would air a half hour to an hour before Benny's program began. They chose longtime radio announcer Horace Pumphrey as the first host, and now we will let him tell what came out of that:
"The station had all of the old movie serials they wanted to show. I think the first one was FLASH GORDON, and I thought the name 'Supersonic Sam' might go along with that, bursting through space and all of that. So, for the next 13 broadcast days, I was Supersonic Sam; someone had written SUPERSONIC SAM on a sweatshirt, and that was the extent of my costume! They were originally going to have each one of us staff announcers from WBRC radio do a set, but after those 13 Monday-through-Friday days, it turned out somehow they kept me coming! Apparently there was some favorable response, but I didn't know about that. Nobody talked to me! Then, school classes would be booked to come in; there were some little risers there, and two cameras, and three periods in each half hour during which we would be shown. So I would just talk to the kids and identify the program; I smiled at the kids and the kids smiled at me, and this was called genius! I only had to be interesting for 30 minutes. The serial chapters were cut in half, so I would be on at the top of the hour, about the middle, and about the end of the half hour."
The title Supersonic Sam hung on to the show even after the original movie serial had run its course. Horace says:
"The next one after FLASH GORDON was an Army picture, and I wore a brown Army-looking shirt to go along with it. I guess somehow SUPERSONIC SAM must have gotten on it too. I don't remember all the serials we showed, but I changed outfits for each one and each outfit had SUPERSONIC SAM on it somewhere."
Because the WBRC radio studios were downtown, and it was quite a trek up Red Mountain to the tiny TV studio, Horace had to make the trip with less than supersonic speed, and with some help that was considerably less exotic than Flash Gordon and all his futuristic gadgets:
"Arthur, the janitor at WBRC radio, would take me in his car, along with other materials that had been prepared. He would make a delivery, which included me, but I had to get back home the best way I could. But before I did this TV show, which began in the fall of 1952 and ran until maybe April 1953, I did not know that stations were all for sale. So my brilliant career was short-circuited by the fact that the new owners of WBRC had never heard of me! The new owners, Storer, had probably surveyed the market and knew all about numbers and ground signals and what new investments would be required in the competitive days ahead, so they weren't interested in me or that temporary show. I had the hardest time digesting the fact that I was not going to be rich and famous or known coast to coast, and then when the Storer executives came in, I was sent right back downtown to radio. After that buyout, all of us at the radio station got fired one by one in the following months, and I worked in Atlanta for a short time before coming back home."
With the takeover by Storer Broadcasting, WBRC was able to build a lavish new station headquarters patterned after a Southern mansion. Before that, though, one other children's program was thrown against Benny Carle's Western Theatre, but few people remember it today. Local magician Louis Sudduth appeared as Mr. Magic, carrying on basically the same format that Horace Pumphrey had used. After his show did a disappearing act, WBRC announcer Bob Bandy hosted the original version of Circle Six Ranch, the most blatant attempt yet to copy Benny Carle's success. Finally deciding that if they couldn't counter-program with imitations, they should hire the real thing, WBRC lured Benny himself away from 13 in the fall of 1954, and he remained a Channel 6 fixture for the next ten years, soon erasing anyone's memories of Supersonic Sam and Mr. Magic as if they had been recycled video tapes.
PHOTOS COURTESY OF HORACE PUMPHREY AND ALVIN HUDSON
TEXT AND CAPTIONS BY TIM HOLLIS
Created 05/29/2005 - 126 PM EDT