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Passaic, NJ, The DuMont Network, and Upper New York Bay
I was talking to a member of my family, and they mentioned Passaic, NJ. If you are not from New Jersey, you might have never heard of this city of about seventy thousand people, but it is actually the 15th largest municipality in New Jersey. It is a small but densely packed place with 22,000 people per square mile living within its borders.
Located on the banks of the river of the same name, Passaic is derived from the Lenape word “pahsayèk.” Which is a word that could mean “valley” or “place where the land splits.”
While various industries and companies would call the city home over the years. Only one would give the city the nickname of “The Birthplace of Television.” How did this happen?
The DuMont Network
In 1931, DuMont Laboratories was founded in Montclair, NJ, and set up its headquarters in Clifton, NJ. In 1938, DuMont began manufacturing televisions in nearby Passaic.
Shortly after selling their first television set, they decided to get into the broadcast business and opened their own experimental television station, W2XVT, in Passaic. Two years later they would move their facilities to Manhattan and eventually become WABD.
On June 28, 1942, the DuMont Network hit the airwaves and for over a decade fought hard to claim its place as a major TV network.
It would become a network of firsts, releasing the first TV sitcom in 1947, Mary Kay and Johnny, and the first televised soap opera in 1946, the short-lived, Faraway Hill. It also gave Jackie Gleason a show, Cavalcade of Stars, where his famous creation The Honeymooners got its start.
Despite all this, the network just couldn’t get its structural and financial issues straightened out. So sometime on or about August 6, 1956, the Dumont Network ceased broadcasting.
How can a network that existed for nearly 15 years and produced more than 20,000 episodes of TV disappear from our collective memory? The answer is perhaps sitting somewhere off the coast of Manhattan.
Upper New York Bay
DuMont was launched and gone before the creation of Ampex‘s videotape recorder in 1956. So for rebroadcasting the show and to a lesser extent, archiving it, they used kinescope. This is when a recording is made of a television program on motion picture film by using a lens that is focused on a video monitor.
DuMont’s library was stored on 35mm and 16mm film. This library was bulky and when they wound up in the hands of the ABC network they reputedly decided it was time for them to go.
One of the lawyers doing the bargaining said that he could “take care of it” in a “fair manner,” and he did take care of it. At 2 a.m., the next morning, he had three huge semis back up to the loading dock at ABC, filled them all with stored kinescopes and 2″ videotapes, drove them to a waiting barge in New Jersey, took them out on the water, made a right at the Statue of Liberty and dumped them in the Upper New York Bay. Very neat. No problem.
While it seems unlikely that a treasure trove of entertainment is sitting off the coast waiting to be recovered, other tales of strange disposals have turned out to be true.
DuMont programming has turned up from time to time in weird places, but the vast majority of it is gone. Perhaps waiting for an intrepid and determined treasure hunter to recover it.
If you are wondering if a film that has been underwater for that long is recoverable, the answer is, somewhat. Part of the 1915 lost silent film, The Carpet from Bagdad was recovered in a 1982 salvage operation done on the RMS Lusitania. They were able to restore and identify images from several feet of film, but not enough material to restore it to projectable condition.
Maybe we won’t get the entire DuMont library back, but at least by finding the film we can help to identify the 19,500 episodes that have been lost.