Mark Byrnes is a former senior associate editor at CityLab who writes about design and architecture.
Where have all the puppets gone?
Decades of progress in satellite and computer technology make it pretty easy for today’s meteorologists to track weather patterns. Our smartphones make it easy to know the latest forecast in two seconds. It’s all quite impressive, but it’s nowhere near as entertaining as the handmade maps, personalities, and puppets that defined local television weather reports of the 20th century.
Less important than news, more important than sports, weather presenters have long walked the line of comedian and scientist. With limited tools at their disposal before the 1970s, many stations saw it as a chance to experiment.
Wooly Lamb, an animated cartoon character for New York’s WNBT (now WNBC), played a role in one of the first ever local TV weather reports in the early 1940s. Before an unfortunate rape joke ended his career in 1976, Tex Antoine delighted New Yorkers for decades with his charming presentation style and drawing ability. Footage can be hard to find, but a dog food commercial he starred in demonstrates the technique well. Around the same time in Savannah, “Captain Sandy” presented the forecast with his friend Wilbur (a bird) and nemesis, Calamity Clam (a clam).
In the 1960s, Baltimoreans were treated to the juxtaposition of extremely serious newscaster Rolf Hertsgaard and the weather duo of Rhea Feiken and hand puppet, JP. “We loved to break him up. It was just our favorite thing to do," Feiken remembered in Hertsgaard’s obituary.
Very few weathermen (and they were mostly men) were experimenting with satellite imagery at the time. Such efforts, according to a 1996 New York Times look back on the history of televised weather reporting, “were usually fuzzy photos or laboriously contrived and jerky animations.” That would change the following decade.
While local news became more about banter in the 1970s in an effort to connect with viewers, weather segments managed to become more complex. Technological advances like the launching of GOES-1, the first geostationary satellite, in 1975, allowed forecasters to assemble satellite loops and show full color National Weather Service maps. As station affiliates acquired new technologies, maps built in-house began to disappear while stations like Channel 13 in Greenville, South Carolina, showed off their new toys to viewers.
Several war veterans with outgoing personalities and meteorological experience took jobs as TV weathermen in the medium’s early years. George Fischbeck was one of the most entertaining. After a decade in Albuquerque, the man known on air as Dr. Fischbeck presented must-see segments for KABC and KCBS in Los Angeles from the 1970s into the 1990s. Filled with an infectious excitement for the subject, Fischbeck used a variety of hand drawn and computer displays to guide him through often unscripted reports.
The Weather Channel launched in 1982, giving anyone with a cable box non-stop access to weather updates. As the internet gained steam in the 1990s, scrolling information— weather included—became a standard viewing feature. The era of station art departments building their own maps and icons for weather anchors was truly over.
Before precise data could be obtained and presented as quickly and clearly as today, seemingly anyone with enough charm could present the weather on air. Tom Jolls of WKBW in Buffalo was a great example. Jolls never earned so much as a certificate in meteorology but he presented the weather for over 30 years. The transition from writing on a blackboard to pointing at a screen came easily for him, but Jolls may have been even more popular in his role as “Commander Tom” on the station’s children’s show. A cultural staple, Jolls was given a special newscast on his last day at the station which included a proclamation from the mayor’s office and a teary, long goodbye after his final forecast.
Today’s affiliates wrestle with lower budgets and produce less of their own programming. The corporations that own stations around the U.S. institute identical graphics packages and their business formulas leave little room for experimentation, including on-air hires.
The idea of waiting to find out the weather forecast from the local news doesn’t make much sense anymore. In a time when there were few alternatives, viewers were “rewarded” with a forecast that was also a show.