It was 10:30 on a Sunday morning and Jack Horner was getting ready for church when his phone rang 70 years ago. The fourth of his six sons had just been born and now the 35-year-old radio sportscaster’s Sunday plans were about to change.
And so was Minnesota broadcasting history that Dec. 7, 1947 — precisely six years after Japan attacked Pearl Harbor and pulled America into World War II.
“December 7 may be a ‘day that will live in infamy’ in the history of the United States,” Horner wrote in 1962, “but it’s the day of TV’s first big milestone in the Twin Cities and Minnesota.”
The telephone caller that morning was Jack Fricker, the chief engineer at KSTP-AM. Horner had been announcing the station’s football broadcasts for three years. Fricker called to say that their boss, station owner Stanley Hubbard, wanted him to scoot down to the studio by noon.
Hubbard had purchased 20 Philco television sets — seven-inch contraptions with lift-up tops and primitive built-in projectors. He’d scattered the sets in homes across the Twin Cities — trying to get his prominent pals to embrace this embryonic new media.
Now it was time to test the technology with a local broadcast, scheduled to air at 8 p.m. It would be the first TV program produced in Minnesota.
“We knew darn well what station they would be watching,” Horner recalled, “but the concern was how well was the signal received in various Twin City sections.”
They had eight hours to get ready, but that time wasn’t spent writing scripts or rehearsing. The small staff, summoned on a Sunday, focused on makeup.
Horner was slated to be the only person on camera, so “the whole brunt of the cosmetic experimentation was to hit me smack in the face,” he said.
“We tried all shades of powder from light tans to dark browns — blue eye makeup — various colored lipsticks and every other conceivable type makeup that would make me somewhat presentable to the big eyed monster.”
Looking “hardly recognizable,” Horner opened the 25-minute program with a brief explanation of what they were going to do. Then they showed highlights from the Army-Navy football game played the previous Saturday.
After a brief discussion of the Gophers’ season-ending, 21-0 upset of Wisconsin, they showed scenes from the royal wedding of the day: the Nov. 20, 1947, union of England’s soon-to-be Queen Elizabeth and Philip Mountbatten.
“And so as the rice blended in with the snow on the screen, I thanked our faithful audience for having been with us,” said Horner, who encouraged those virgin viewers to enjoy “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
“The accompanying live visual was a small American flag kept fluttering by an off stage electric fan,” according to a 1994 story in the Minnesota Broadcasters Association newsletter.
The second local TV show came 12 days later — broadcast to one of those Philco sets placed inside the Town and County Club for the KSTP employee Christmas party. They again showed the royal wedding clips, but this time added a St. Paul police detective solving a “who-dun-it.”
As the crew cued up the national anthem, “we signed off and then raced to the Town and County club in hope of getting some food before it got too cold,” Horner said.
Hustling was nothing new for Horner, who was born May 18, 1912, in Staples — 150 miles northwest of the St. Paul warehouse where they shot that first TV program. Horner attended grade school in Brainerd before moving in 1927 to Fargo, N.D. — where he graduated from Central High School and North Dakota State University.
“Like most broadcast journalists, my dad moved from station to station early in his career before landing at KSTP,” said Tom Horner, Jack’s fifth son, a local public relations executive and Independence Party candidate for governor in 2010.
His father not only landed his first sports gig in Moorhead — announcing high school basketball there in 1936 — he married fellow Fargoan Celenire “Cel” Lucier that year.
From Moorhead, Horner enjoyed radio stints in Wausau, Wis., Milwaukee and Grand Forks, N.D., before landing in the Twin Cities.
Regular, daily TV programs waited months after those first two Horner-hosted shows as TV set distributors created dealerships and learned installation.
By 1948, Horner was behind the camera for early televised wrestling and boxing matches, along with baseball and basketball games.
Before long, Milton Berle’s variety show was airing on Tuesday nights in the Twin Cities and restaurant owners were complaining about hourlong dips in business.
“It didn’t take TV very long to move from the cradle to adult stature,” Horner wrote in that 1962 article in the Minneapolis Chamber of Commerce magazine. “It was more than a national craze — the picture tube was well on its way to becoming a most potent fixture.”
Horner died in 2005 at 92 — four years after his wife of 55 years. All six of their sons are still alive — three in Minnesota and others in Vermont, Utah and Oregon. They had 17 grandchildren.
“I will always be grateful,” Horner said, “that it was my good fortune to have a share in the birth of Twin City television.”
Curt Brown’s tales about Minnesota’s history appear each Sunday. Readers can send him ideas and suggestions at email@example.com. A collection of his columns is available as the e-book “Frozen in History” at startribune.com/ebooks.