When fire roared through the old KNTV building in San Jose on Sunday, it demolished more than an aging and empty structure. It destroyed the last remnants of an early era of local television -- more improvisational, more fun and less calculated than today's broadcasts.
From the weekday "Record Hop," which drew its inspiration from "American Bandstand," to a kids' show called "Hocus Pocus," to the used-car ads late at night, the KNTV building served as host for shows that marked a generation in San Jose.
The fire's cause is still under investigation, although fire officials say they are looking at the homeless who camped inside the building. In that news lies a core of irony, because the KNTV studios were home for a legion of television producers and reporters over a half-century.
"It was a little like the Winchester Mystery House, in the sense that we kept having additions over the years," said former news anchor Maggi Scura. "Basically, it was a lot of creative, emotional funny characters in a small space, making something happen every day."
In a sense, the story begins with bread trucks and conservative bankers. The Gilliland family, which owned the next-door Sunlite Bakery (a building later used by AT&T), saw an opportunity in television in the early 1950s, no bad call for any entrepreneur.
Station lore has it that when the Gillilands asked their banker for a loan to build a television studio, the banker asked what seemed like a logical question: What if television is just a passing fancy?
To parry that doubt, the building was constructed so that it could be a parking garage for bread trucks if television didn't work out. The ceilings were never really high enough for the new medium.
After its first broadcast on Sept. 12, 1955 as an independent station, KNTV did so well that the Gillilands got out of the bakery business several years later. The station was sold to Allen T. Gilliland, who also started San Jose's cable company, Gill Cable.
The early days were, well, funky. At the corner of Park Avenue and Montgomery Street stood an old house, left in place by the Gillilands, that became the station's first newsroom. Things were so crowded that one of the editors sat on a commode with a plywood board on her lap to edit the day's film (The house was eventually torn down and replaced by a corporate lobby).
"There are a lot of happy memories," says Stew Park, who joined the station as a 19-year-old in the early 1960s and later became its general manager. "It was really the golden era of television. It was not nearly as calculating and automatic as it is now."
An older brand of technology forced station managers to be nimble. Because used-car commercials were shot live -- there was no videotape -- someone had to drive the cars in and out of the studio each time. "The dented side was parked away from the camera," jokes Park now.
From 1960 to 1965, one of the most popular shows was the 5:30 p.m. "Record Hop," which showed teens dancing to the latest music -- the Flamingos, Ricky Nelson, Chubby Checker. The main host for the program was Frank Darien, although Park himself handled the last duties as master of ceremonies.
Because the show was live, occasional emergencies arose. When a school bus driver couldn't find the station in time, word would go out to employees in the station to come to the studio and start dancing until the kids arrived.
In all its improvisation, KNTV sought a local audience. In 1978, the Gillilands sold the station, by then an ABC affiliate to Landmark Communications, which continued to emphasize San Jose in its reporting. The popular anchors between 1982 and 2000, an eon in television, were Scura and Doug Moore.
Eventually, corporate restructuring spelled the doom of the building at 645 Park Ave. NBC bought the station in late 2001, and in 2004, the station moved its headquarters to North First Street, rebranding itself as NBC Bay Area News ("We investigate," say their ads).
In recent years, the old building has been owned by the Successor Agency to the Redevelopment Agency (SARA), which had little incentive and less money to fix it up. In March, a sweep by the San Jose police found eight homeless people living inside. The hope, ever fainter, is that the land will be part of a ballpark for the A's.
Now the work of demolition largely has been done. "I spent probably 100,000 hours of my life in that building, and it bothered me to drive by and seeing the creeping decrepitude," Park told me. "It's been kind of put out of its misery now."