WINDER, Ga. (AP) — What does Bobby Ellerbee see when he looks at his antique TV cameras? He sees a bit of what they’ve seen since the birth of television.
His cameras are now dormant, decommissioned from performing any on-air service. But those 15 cameras arranged in, fittingly, his family room in Winder, Georgia., have been cosmetically restored to mint condition and they teem with history.
Here’s his RCA model TK-10, his oldest, which hails from 1946. It is trimmed with a jaunty red stripe and name plates designating its long-ago owner: Chicago station WGN-TV.
“It’s one of the original eight cameras they bought when they put the station on the air,” Ellerbee says.
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Nearby is his Mark VII, a color camera built by the Marconi company whose no-nonsense design belies its fanciful role in the early 1970s: It is one of six then owned by New York’s Tele-Tape Productions, where “Sesame Street” first came to life.
Ellerbee’s pride-and-joy is his half-century-old RCA TK-41C, a slightly modified version of the industry’s first widely used (and, for some years, only) color camera, which was introduced in 1953. It’s a silver beast, weighing in at more than 300 pounds but with a swept-back, streamlined profile.
“No other camera looks like that,” says Ellerbee.
One of only a couple hundred ever built, this behemoth saw duty at NBC’s Burbank, California, studios, home to “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson,” ”Laugh-In” and dozens of other shows aired, per the network’s famous peacock, “in living color.”
In the current era of pocket-sized minicams available to anyone, this camera, which new cost more than $400,000 in today’s money, stands as a monument to TV’s early challenges and promise.
That promise enthralled Ellerbee, now 66 (and a distant cousin of TV journalist Linda Ellerbee), from a tender age.
As a child in the studio audience of “The Popeye Club,” a wildly popular 1950s kids’ show hosted by “Officer Don” Kennedy on Atlanta’s WSB-TV, young Bobby was as much captivated by the cameras (RCA black-and-white TK-30s, a model he owns one of today) as by encountering Officer Don in the flesh.
In high school he took a detour — radio announcing — from his planned path of becoming a TV director.
“I had to train myself,” he recalls in his seasoned baritone. “At first, I sounded pretty much like, ‘Hiiii, how y’allll?’ and I had a high voice. But I got it down. Smoking cigarettes and drinking liquor helped a lot.”
When he entered the University of Georgia, his career as a deejay was flowering on local Athens radio, and after college he landed jobs in Atlanta, Dallas, San Francisco and Miami, among other major markets, before forging a lucrative career as a commercial announcer.
More recently, he landed a dream gig voicing the Sheriff on the Adult Swim cartoon show “Squidbillies,” now in its 10th season.
“But I always had a thing about TV cameras,” he says, and from childhood he made it his mission to learn all about them, even sending off requests for product manuals from manufacturers like RCA, General Electric and Norelco.
“I always thought to myself, one of these days I’m gonna have a camera of my own,” he says.
That took a while.
“Being in radio, you have to move every few years and you can’t drag along a lot of stuff. But when I left Miami and came back to Georgia a dozen years ago, I thought, ‘It’s time to get a bigger place and get one television camera — at least.'”
Getting started was easier than he expected. He called an Atlanta TV station, asked for the chief engineer and left a message: “I’m looking for TV cameras. If you got any, call me.”
In a flash he was the owner of nine scrapped TK-44s and 45s (RCA color cameras from the late 1960s) that once were based at NBC Burbank before landing in a Peachtree Street junk bin.
His collection now totals more than two dozen, each a glorious totem of TV’s past.
It’s a past Ellerbee has curated with stories, photo archives and technical lore for his website, whose name — eyesofageneration.com — seems to him a no-brainer: “What’s another name for television cameras, in the broader sense? They were the eyes of a generation — us baby boomers, the first generation to grow up with TV.”
Though, strictly speaking, his cameras don’t work, they operate for Ellerbee exactly as he wants them to. They evoke warm memories of past eras they served and programs they beheld. His burly TK-41 speaks of countless nights when Johnny Carson laughed it up with Ed and Doc. His slick Norelco PC-60, emblazoned with “CBS COLOR,” sparks recollections of CBS’ variety shows of the 1960s and ’70s like those of Carol Burnett and the Smothers Brothers.
“The cameras are where it all starts,” says Ellerbee. “They’re kind of like a vortex, because they bring that whole outside world” — he makes a broad, gathering sweep with his arms — “to MY house.
“They have seen a lot of people up close and personal that I watched on TV,” he observes.
That, finally, is what his cameras mean to him.
“They’re like old friends, in a way,” he says. “We have something in common.”
EDITOR’S NOTE — Frazier Moore is a national television columnist for The Associated Press. He can be reached at email@example.com and at http://www.twitter.com/tvfrazier. Past stories are available at http://bigstory.ap.org/content/frazier-moore