They lined up down the block — more than 5,000 of them — on a New Year’s Day morning to experience the latest development in personal technology. It was likely that none of them had seen anything like it before, certainly not in Milwaukee.
They were hoping to get their first glimpse of color television.
On Jan. 1, 1954, American Appliance & TV agreed to let the public into its store at 2743 N. Teutonia Ave. to view a color telecast of the Tournament of Roses Parade.
The idea behind the promotion was to fuel demand: At the time, according to news reports, there were only two color TV receivers in the Milwaukee area.
Milwaukee’s NBC affiliate, WTMJ-TV, was carrying the network’s color broadcast of the parade. Like NBC, WTMJ was an early adopter of color; it was just the third TV station in the United States to buy a color camera, and it broadcast Milwaukee’s first local live show in color in July 1954. (By fall, the station was pledging to air 40 hours of color programming per month.)
The owners of American Appliance had expected a couple of hundred people to show up for the 90-minute program. But people started lining up hours before the broadcast — just the third show to air in color over Milwaukee’s airwaves.
“It was no crowd, it was a riot,” Carl Dulberger, president of American Appliance, told The Milwaukee Journal, in a story that ran on the front page the next day. Dulberger then called it “the most amazing thing I’ve seen in 28 years in this business.”
Initially, one police officer had been assigned to the scene, but the Journal noted that three more were called in as the crowd’s numbers increased. The police had the job of moving viewers in and out of the store, with most people seeing only a few minutes of the parade, telecast on a 121/2-inch screen.
Initial signal reception was poor, but when the color first came on, the Journal reported, onlookers in the store’s showroom cheered.
The number of color TVs in Milwaukee did increase, although not at lightning speed. In September 1954, the Journal reported that the number of color receivers in use in Milwaukee had climbed to about 100 — “including the sets in dealer showrooms.”
American Appliance later expanded, with Dulberger buying a shopping center at W. Capitol Drive and Highway 100 in 1967 for a new store. Dulberger died in 1972 at age 66, of complications from a stroke. The Teutonia building, listed in later directories at 2741 N. Teutonia Ave., is now the home of the Scott Christian Youth Center.
According to his obituary in the Milwaukee Sentinel, Dulberger marked the 10th anniversary of the first public viewing of color TV in Milwaukee with another open house at his store on Teutonia Ave., giving visitors orchids, records and coffee.