6 On The Move: 'Helen Of Tulsa,' First Female Chief Executive In TV

Monday, January 14th 2013, 9:19 pm
By: News On 6

As News On 6 makes the move to the new Griffin Communications Media Center in the Brady Arts District, we look back at our history - 63 years of reporting news to the people of Oklahoma. 

Joshua Brakhage, News On 6

TULSA, Oklahoma -- Maria Helen Alvarez brought television to Tulsa, 63 years ago, while breaking barriers and establishing the foundation KOTV builds upon to this day.

No one knew just how TV worked in 1940s Tulsa, but one woman had the ambition to figure it out.

A pioneer in the true "Oklahoma" spirit of the word, Maria Helen Alvarez had spent seven years in radio, and was persuaded by wealthy oilman George Cameron to take a chance on TV.

At just 27-years-old, she led the charge to bring her hometown into the age of television.

No article about Alvarez fails to mention her beauty.

A published story reports Alvarez climbing a 400-foot ladder in shorts to inspect the station's broadcast tower. A stunned workman lost his grip on a wrench and let it fall to the street below, killing a pedestrian from Sapulpa.

Another story recalls engineers so in awe of Alvarez, they finished three months' worth of work in three weeks.

1/14/2013 Related Story: 6 On The Move: Cy Tuma, The Voice Oklahoma Trusted For News

Construction was finished and KOTV had its transmitter up and running before her competitors knew Alvarez had even filed for a license.

KOTV's headquarters was a converted tractor shop. Alvarez turned the International Harvester dealership into the nation's largest TV broadcast center at the time.

She personally designed the studios, with 22-foot ceilings and doors wide enough to welcome parade floats and elephants.

In the golden age of television, Alvarez lived up to the name, sparing no expense in bringing in the best from New York and Hollywood to launch Tulsa's first television station.

But the station's first weatherman remembers viewers wanting her to open her pocketbook a little wider.

"A woman was angry when she heard I was leaving," said Harry Volkman. "She said, ‘If Helen Alvarez wouldn't spend so much money on her boyfriends and more on the talent, we might keep some good people in this town!'"

Watch Videos From The KOTV Vault

Her effort to get KOTV on the air put Helen Alvarez on the map.

She earned a profile in "Life Magazine," where they dubbed her "Helen of Tulsa."

The face that launched a thousand shows, Alvarez not only served as a writer and producer, but as KOTV's initial general manager, making her the first female chief executive in television.

Alvarez was a millionaire by age 29.

She found her next challenge in San Diego, where she started new television stations and bailed out Hollywood icon Walt Disney, who had run out of money to finish his Disneyland Hotel. Alvarez bankrolled construction and was there to cut the ribbon in 1955.

The Mother of Tulsa TV retired in Southern California and died in January 2010, at the age of 88.

We're moving on from that old tractor shop, but the station she gave birth to is still on the air, still reaping the rewards sown by a dazzling and daring television pioneer.