For three decades and counting, Studio A at KARE 11 has been the launching pad for more fun and information than just about any other room in Minnesota.
The studio was created in 1972, the year the then Minneapolis-based station broke ground for new digs in Golden Valley.
The man who presided over the biggest move in the television station's history was General Manager Robert Bob Fransen. The National-Television-Academy-Gold-Circle-Award winner reminisced about that historic time. "I bought this land when the station was owned by Chris-Craft."
Fransen remembers that the original plan was for a modern but modest facility.
"Then the station was sold to Metro Media," Fransen said, noting that the new owners wanted a much bigger building. "And so nothing was stinted on. I think it still is one of the finest broadcast facilities in the country."
MetroMedia wanted a stellar broadcast palace on the vacant lot at Olson Memorial Highway and Boone Avenue (later renamed General Mills Boulevard).
Thus, in 1974, Channel 11 packed up from the old Calhoun Beach Club Hotel in Minneapolis and packed into the first building in the Twin Cities designed and built to be a television station. Before that, TV outlets were shoe-horned into older buildings erected for other purposes.
Former WTCN-TV director and later Programming Vice President Art Ludwig recalled, "When it came up, it was magnificent, but it was also, the first television station, I think in the country that was completely automated and computerized."
The gleaming new station had the luxury of two fully equipped studios. The larger Studio A was the crown jewel. Ludwig points out, "A lot of the thought that went into Studio A was as a premier production facility."
MetroMedia correctly predicted that the Twin Cities would welcome a first-class commercial and program production studio.
The grand opening featured TV and political celebrities including Governor Wendell Anderson and MetroMedia syndicated star Merv Griffin.
"It was very strange," Fransen mused, "because, at that time, Merv was getting a lot of sort of hate letters from some woman in Minneapolis and he was afraid to come here. In the long run, we had to hire two FBI agents to guard him all the time he was here and the next morning, he was on a plane and out of here!"
A later guest brought his own bodyguards. President Gerald Ford is just one of a long list of celebrities to stand in Studio A.
Early newscasts by the then independent station's small news staff were mostly in the smaller Studio B. Studio A was busy hosting all manner of shows in WTCN's day-long menu of local and live programs.
Information shows like Probe with Stuart A. Lindeman to matinee and evening movies hosted by Twin Cities media icon Mel Jass. Fransen chuckled at the memory of the late and lamented TV personality. "Mel Jass could adlib his way out of an Al Quaida camp!"
All of it in Studio A at a time when most stations functioned with just one studio, WTCN had two. Ludwig is still proud of the facility. "This was really a big studio for the average television station."
Perhaps the biggest programs of that early Golden Valley era were the Saturday night bouts of professional wrestling from a big ring set up in the middle of what is now the news set. Bob Fransen remembers that, no matter what the status of the competition in the ring, wrestling always ended "on time." The director would give a cue and the wrestlers would simply "end" the match.
So powerful was the identity of Studio A with those sweaty competitions that a quarter of a century after the last grappler had been hung up in the ring ropes, Announcer Al DeRusha's ring microphone still hangs from the studio rafters.
In 1983, The Gannett Company bought WTCN, ushering in a new era. "They wanted to do something different," Ludwig recalls, "and I think the concept of doing the weather outside was different in this market."
Gannett executives eyed the green space of lawn outside the north wall of Studio A and promptly cut a 12 by 20 hole through the soundproof wall. That was when the newscasts moved from Studio B permanently into Studio A, so that the weather reporters could walk outside during the broadcasts.
So, in August of 1983, the Back Yard was born. Now, 23-years-old and still the coolest or hottest source of weather information in the Twin Cities. Snow, winds, rain and mosquitoes, Minnesotans saw the weather as it really was at that moment, falling all over the meteorologists.
Through two call letter changes — WUSA in 1985 and KARE in 1986 — Studio A has weathered it all as the main news studio.
Of course there was that one day when Studio A pretended to be in Fargo, but that was just "Hollywood." The film makers who produced the 1996 film Fargo used a set in the studio as a set for Fargo show hosts. It was actually a kitchen set from the KARE 11 Today show.
Through the years, set builder Jim Worthing has made minor changes to the news set.
"We had these blue pillars with red rings on them and we changed them over for earth-tone pillars with lights on them and had to redo the skyline because there were new buildings in them. They were 10 or 12 years old at the time."
But this April, the Studio is undergoing its biggest makeover since the north wall was penetrated. The original grey linoleum floor has been ripped up and replaced with mirror-clear blue acrylic. It is all in preparation for a new two-story news set and the hyper clear broadcasts in High Definition beginning April 27th.
By Allen Costantini, KARE 11 News
.(Copyright 2006 by KARE. All Rights Reserved.)