A few brief lines about Utah history to set the stage, then on to the Church story: The first demonstration of television in Utah took place in 1939, in The Paris, a downtown Salt Lake City department store. Radio enthusiast Sid Fox had purchased a demonstration unit from NBC consisting of a single camera, a central unit (think of it as the CPU of your desktop computer), six receivers (primitive television sets), and a small closed-circuit transmitter. The receivers were set up in different parts of the store where shoppers could watch a pale black and white image of a man addressing them from some makeshift studio in another part of the store. The unit was moved to the State Fair Grounds where visitors could experience the same kind of primitive “reality show,” including occasional talks by church president Heber J. Grant. But until 1948, television was an experimental gimmick, broadcasting nothing but test patterns and music.
On April 19, 1948, KDYL (now Salt Lake’s ABC affiliate on Channel 4) went on the air with regular programming, the first television station between St. Louis and the West Coast, and the only independently operated (that is, not affiliated with the movie industry, an established newspaper, or experimental industry facility).
One month later – one short month later, on May 14, 1948 – the Primary Association of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints began live broadcasting a regular weekly program for children, believed to be the first children’s programming regularly broadcast anywhere in the world. Called “Junior Council,” the program ran for 15 minutes, soon expanded to 30 minutes on a regular basis, with 60-minute programs on special occasions. Unlike most of the early television shows, time for “Junior Council” was donated by the station, so the broadcasts cost the Church very little.
The program was the inspiration of Annie Wells Cannon, general Primary president, who appeared on the show from time to time. After her death, new general president LaVern W. Parmley enthusiastically continued the tradition. Olive Milner wrote and produced the program, with occasional help from young professionals in the new industry – including frequent help from Bob Welti, who went on to be Channel 4′s weatherman for decades and would probably be familiar to Keepa readers who attended BYU in the 1990s or earlier.
Broadcast on Wednesday evenings at 6:30, “Junior Council” had a regular cast of children ages 6-12. Sitting as a “junior council,” this cast quizzed each other concerning material that appeared in the Primary’s magazine for children, The Children’s Friend, reported on the hobbies of Mormon children who had written to them, and asked questions of the guests who appeared on their show. Best of all, they acted in original plays and skits written for the program.
Every year on the show’s anniversary, the general leaders of the Primary and sometimes General Authorities would appear on the show as special guests, and a huge, multi-layers birthday cake would be cut and served. Sometimes the cake was prepared by the pastry chef of the Hotel Utah. As the original cast grew older, they were replaced by other regulars – but the early casts remained a part of “the family” in the sense that they were invited to each year’s anniversary program, and their school advancements, missions, and marriages were announced on air.
One of the most successful shows of 1950 was a program demonstrating how The Children’s Friend was produced. Associate Editor Mary R. Jack showed the children manuscripts received from authors, explained galley proofs, showed how mock pages were dummied up and how the cover was produced. The Council members then demonstrated how much fun it could be to work the puzzles, cut out the paper dolls, and play the other games described in each issue.
On another occasion, the children were treated to a demonstration of a winning roadshow recently produced in one of the Salt Lake wards, as a sample of the fun they could look forward to when they joined their older brothers and sisters in the MIA program.
A model Cub Scout meeting was demonstrated on one program. Kindness to animals was adopted as a recurring theme, with children bringing their pets to show, and to tell about how best to care for them. Good manners, and safety tips for children, were other featured segments.
Local children with musical or dancing or other performance skills sometimes appeared on the program. When guests from other parts of the world visited Salt Lake, they visited “Junior Council” and described their local cultures. And once the Primary undertook to build the then-new Primary Children’s Hospital, “Junior Council” reported on fund-raising efforts, encouraged Primary children to donate their birthday pennies, and displayed the gifts of quilts and robes made for the hospitalized children by Primaries throughout the Church.
I have not yet located any comprehensive history of “Junior Council” – so far, my only sources are newspaper articles – so I cannot yet say how long the program was aired. I do know it was still running past its 12th birthday, when my own Salt Lake ward Primary (ah! those were the days when the Avenues wards actually had Primaries – we miss them), dressed in long gowns and western shirts performed two square dances. Knowing that “Junior Council” did not last forever, I kind of hope it went off the air soon after that dance – It would be fitting for a program that showcased the best of Primary to “graduate” that year, when it was the same age as the children who graduated from Primary.