G REENFIELD — Greenfield-Central High School television teacher Bill McKenna pumped a clenched fist in the air, smiled and exclaimed to no one in particular, “That’s money in the bank.”
The money pitch, as it were, had just been thrown in the studio on the other side of the G-C production room glass by 85-year-old David Smith, a member of the Indiana Broadcast Pioneers Hall of Fame. He was at the high school to reprise his role as host of “When Movies Were Movies” for NineStar Connect’s local Channel 9. Smith first was host of the show on local television 43 years ago, introducing movies and offering commentary years before Siskel and Ebert became famous.
After nearly 25 years as a broadcaster followed by another 23 years as a professor of telecommunications at Ball State University, Smith’s voice resonates over the control room monitors, modulating effortlessly through the teleprompter’s rolling script.
“Hello, and welcome to NineStar Connect’s ‘When Movies Were Movies.’ I’m Dave Smith,” he said, sounding much as he did four decades earlier, when the program director and movie buff first began introducing old films to viewers of WISH-TV (Channel 8).
Four segments later, two each for “The Most Dangerous Game,” a 1932 adventure starring Fay Wray; and Alfred Hitchcock’s final London-shot film, “The Lady Vanishes,” the money was in the bank – one take each.
Just another day in front of the camera.
“When I started, we didn’t have teleprompters,” Smith said. “We taped these large rolls of butcher paper to the front of the camera, and if it was a long commercial, the paper would rattle and make all sorts of noise when the camera moved.”
To make matters more interesting, the commercials were read live in those days, he said.
The new movie screenings are part of NineStar’s continuing local programming expansion on NineStar TV, a partnership forged with G-C late last year, when the company signed a three-year agreement with the school corporation to help fund its broadcasting program and promote hyper-local sports and community programming for NineStar’s cable subscribers.
“Our partnership has been growing with Greenfield-Central as we look for more and more unique programming on our channel,” said David Spencer, NineStar’s director of marketing.
McKenna, who worked in television in Indianapolis before becoming a teacher at G-C, contacted Smith through mutual acquaintances, and Smith was more than happy to help out, Spencer said.
“Bill connected the dots on this, and this will be another offering that hopefully will resonate with our customers.”
The company’s other local broadcasts include “One on One Sports” with Brian Harmon, sports editor of the Daily Reporter; golf programming from Hawks Tail of Greenfield; and high school football.
The new show, a run of movies from the 1930s and ’40s, is a reprise of a 1971 series Smith started when he was program manager at WISH. The show ran for 10 years at a time when viewers had only four channels to choose from.
For a kid who grew up going to movie houses at the dawn of Hollywood’s Golden Era, playing host to a movie series from that time was a nice perk.
As program manager, Smith booked and bought movies for the station.
“We had a bunch of ’30s and ’40s movies our sales department didn’t want us to run,” Smith said.
About to lose the run rights, Smith convinced the front office to let him air his series, which the boss was happy about as long as it didn’t cost him any money.
In lieu of extra cash on payday, Smith, the movie buff, persuaded the station to purchase a library of cinema books for “research.”
He continues to reap the benefit of that deal 40 years later.
“All four walls are filled with those books, floor to ceiling in my office,” he said with a laugh.
The world of early television where Smith cut his teeth was a universe away from the now cookie-cutter, homogenous, copy-cat broadcast landscape where one success breeds clones like Model-Ts off an assembly line.
“Television stations made a lot of money back then,” Smith recalls. “And we all had our autonomy, even with corporate ownership. That’s the way it should be. Each market is different.”
But eventually, local stations were bought and run by big corporations with decisions made by someone behind a desk far away, ending the days when TV pioneers did everything from write scripts to read copy in front of the camera.
For Smith, who started his career in 1951 while majoring in speech and theater at Indiana University, it was time to get out and go back to school, where he became a tenured professor at Ball State.
This week, with the recording done in short order, Smith lifted his tall, slim frame out of the director’s chair in the G-C studio and began disconnecting himself from the control room, a wide, relaxed smile creasing his face.
He’s happy, and the money’s in the bank.
“It’s fun,” he said.
Helping Smith remove his microphone, McKenna was equally happy, maybe more so given the chance to work with one of broadcasting’s original barnstormers from a day when TV was something special.
“These guys are the best,” McKenna said. “I want people to remember TV the way I remember TV.
“The reason I got into television is because of guys like him,” he said, nodding toward Smith. “It was great then, and it’s still great now.”