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It's, Like, Totally Tubular

A writer-producer's vintage TV sets, on view at a Hollywood museum, tune in to couch culture.


Television was in its infancy when the first television set, priced less than $100, was put on the market in 1947. The Pilot-Radio TV was economical, but the screen was so small that people had to sit right next to the set to watch. The following year, Pilot-Radio offered magnifying lenses with the set so that people wouldn't go blind watching TV.

The Pilot-Radio TV is one of the 44 TV sets on long-term display at the Hollywood Entertainment Museum.

The sets, which date from 1946 through the late '90s, are from the private collection of TV writer-producer Phil Savenick. Savenick co-curated the exhibit (with museum curator Chris Horak) and has mounted "Televisionary Art," a lighthearted exhibit of his mixed media, sculptures and photographs depicting TV's impact on society. "Televisionary Art" is on display through May 30.

Savenick, who spent the first quarter of his life watching TV and the past 25 creating such compilation documentaries as "ABC's 40th Anniversary Show"' and "The Mary Tyler Moore Show 20th Anniversary," began collecting vintage and unique TV sets in 1989 as a result of making the CBS documentary "50 Years of Television: A Golden Celebration."

"We rented all of these vintage TV sets and they let me pick out the ones that looked best," he says. "If I wanted to collect Renoir paintings, how many could I afford? But black-and-white TV sets, pretty much the sky is the limit."

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Friday April 13, 2001 Home Edition Calendar Part F Page 2 Entertainment Desk 1 inches; 31 words Type of Material: Correction
Television set--The 1947 Pilot-Radio TV was the first television set priced less than $100. Misplaced punctuation in a story in Thursday's Calendar Weekend made it appear that the Pilot-Radio was the first television set.

The first set Savenick acquired was the Philco Predicta with a tube that was not encased but "floated" on top of the receiver. The Predicta, he adds, also introduced an early concept for remote control.

Before the rise of Internet auction sites, Savenick says, it was nearly impossible to track down vintage sets. "The whole collection came from EBay," he says.

Savenick says only a few of his sets cost him more than $1,000; most are valued in the $100s.

Sets Pulled in Signals

From the Space Age

Among his favorites are the Japanese-made portable sets from the 1970s, which he describes as "Space Age."

"JVC made one called the Videosphere that is completely round," he says. "You can hang it from the ceiling like a ball of television. Panasonic made one they called the Flying Saucer, which is elliptical in shape. There are no right angles on the whole set. It looks like the TV set from 'The Jetsons.' "

Another portable set with the Space Age look was the Video Capsule from JVC. "It had a hideaway screen, so if you didn't want people to know it was a television set, you could close it," Savenick explains. "When it was closed it sort of looked like the lunar modular that landed on the moon."

Other offbeat sets include the 1946 RCA 630, which was the first mass-produced TV. Its screen was slightly larger than the Pilot-Radio TV--a whopping 5 inches. "There were a lot of them sold," Savenick says.

The exhibit includes a coin-operated TV set, the kind installed at bus stations and airports. "You get 15 minutes for a quarter," Savenick says. "As a producer, I love to run that one for my clients because if they want to see something again, it costs them another quarter."

Savenick also has the very first portable TV, the Sentinel 400, produced in 1948. "They put a luggage handle on the top, so it was actually like a suitcase," says Savenick.

The first battery-operated portable, the Philco Safari, was introduced in 1959. "It was sort of beige and had a hood on it," he says. "It looked like a transistor radio on steroids."

The following year, Sony jumped into the portable market. "It's a beautiful design, compact and has a little sun visor like a baseball cap in case you are outside. It worked on your car and a regular battery--so that really was the one that revolutionized the whole market."

The rarest TV set in the exhibit is the 1957 Teleavia, which was produced in France. "The reason it was so rare is that it never ran on American electricity, so it was not a TV that was commercially available in this country. But the design is so eccentric and wonderful. It most resembles an Imax screen. There are no more than a dozen in this country."

Savenick hopes that people who come to the exhibit appreciate the artistic value of a lot of these sets.

"TV is a disposal medium," he explains. "The programming that's on it is quickly forgotten, and the box that delivered it is soon discarded for a new one. When color came in, people threw out the black-and-white sets. When stereo and cable came in, people threw out the color ones that required an antenna."

He has discovered that patrons at the museum have had personal connections with a lot of the sets. "They walk in and say, 'This is the first set my parents had.' TV in general is something that is enormously personal to all of us. There is a collective imagery and a collective memory, but there is also the very personal memory."

* The TV set exhibit and "Televisionary Art" are on view Thursdays-Tuesdays, 11 a.m.-6 p.m., at the Hollywood Entertainment Museum, 7021 Hollywood Blvd. Admission is $7.50 for adults; $4.50 for seniors and students (I.D. required); $4 for children 5-12; and free to museum members and children under 5. For information, (323) 960-4833.

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