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Get Turned On

Of all the inventions that have shaped our lives over the last century, none has had such a profound cultural impact as television. TV has become such an integral part of modern living that a 1993 TV Guide poll revealed one in four Americans wouldn’t give it up, even for $1 million.

Strange then that, for something so ubiquitous, very little is known about television’s past. Who invented it? When? What is it, exactly? These are the questions that the MZTV Museum and Archive seeks to answer.

Originally a travelling showcase for Citytv president and co-founder Moses Znaimer’s private collection of antique sets, the MZTV Museum has since settled into a permanent location above the ChumCity Store, and has quickly established itself as one of Toronto’s most unique attractions.

“So far, the response has been very positive,” says Michael Adams, the administrator of the museum. “We get up to three tour groups a day. We have also arranged private tours for such celebrities as Bryan Adams and Jason Priestley.” The exhibit begins the moment you step into the stairwell leading up to the main showroom, where visitors are greeted with a lavish mural depicting a timeline of television’s history. Memorable moments, such as Paul Henderson’s game-winning goal in the 1972 Canada-Soviet series, are portrayed as transmission signals travelling through space.

Inside the museum proper, lining the perimeter of the 1,700-square-foot space, a cache of television treasures depict the evolution of the medium, from prewar, mechanical prototypes, to the spherical, space-aged wonders of the ’70s. At 300 sets strong, the MZTV Museum is home to the world’s largest collection of historically significant televisions.

“Our goal is to explore the history of this medium,” says Adams. “At any time we’ll have 35 to 40 sets on display, depending on the story we’re trying to tell our visitors.”

One of its most popular sets, according to Adams, is the fully restored RCA Phantom Teleceiver. With an outer casing made entirely of clear plastic Lucite, the Phantom was originally displayed at the 1939 World’s Fair. In these early days the general public was still skeptical; RCA chose the transparent design to assure them of the legitimacy of this new technology. Another fascinating relic is the Baird Televisor. Engineered and designed by television pioneer John Logie Baird, the Televisor (circa 1930) was the most popular ready-made mechanical set in Britain and is one of the most rare, and valuable sets in the collection. “There’s a two per cent survival rate on prewar televisions,” offers Adams, “which is why they are more rare than Stradivarius violins.”

By the mid-1940s television sets had gone into mass production. While still a luxury most households couldn’t afford, an estimated one million viewers in the United States had access to TV programming. The first postwar set available to the public, the RCA 630TS, sits in the museum, alongside several clones spawned in its wake. With sets representing close to 70 manufacturers, the crux of the collection dates from 1945 to 1955.

To complement the televisions, the museum has amassed an extensive assortment of TV-related books, magazines, videos, photographs and memorabilia. The main attraction in this department is the subject of RCA’s very first broadcast from atop the Empire State Building in 1931, cartoon character Felix the Cat. Insured for $1 million, he sits inside a thick glass case, greeting visitors as they enter the building. “Actually, this is just a replica,” confides Adams. “The original figure is locked away in our vault. We only bring him out for special occasions.”

Trial and error is a theme prevalent throughout the exhibit, and a perfect example is an original print advertisement for an early version of the modern remote control-literally a flashlight that the user shines into panels located on each corner of the TV. Need to turn down the volume? Aim the beam to the bottom-left. Feel like watching something else? Aim it top-right. “The problem with this device,” said museum art director Richard Lumsden, “is that the sensors respond to other light sources, such as the sun.”

While laughable now, such innovations were essential to the growth and development of the medium. If it wasn’t for Sony’s 1965 entry into the portable television stakes-a six-pound contraption worn around the viewer’s neck on a long leather shoulder strap-the world wouldn’t have the palm-sized sets of today. “TV was, and still is, constantly redefining itself,” said Adams, standing before a brand-new, $20,000 Panasonic flat-screen plasma set.

It’s this juxtaposition of new and old, using modern technology to tell its own history, that makes the MZTV museum more than just a kitschy display of counter-culture exuberance. As Adams points out, the history of television reflects that of other mediums, and, in a way, it offers a reflection of ourselves, of the human spirit and its accomplishments.—Paul Landini is a freelance writer from Toronto

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