Monte and Martha Gurwit:
A Year at WTVT
Monte Gurwit was WTVT's original program director under Walter Tison's Tampa Television Company. Martha Stuart served as Mr. Tison's secretary during the same period. While their employment at WTVT lasted just over 15 months, the Gurwit's marriage lasted 37 years until Monte's death in 1993. Martha Gurwit kindly shares her story of two young people who helped put Channel 13 on the air.
Monte Gurwit, WTVT's first Program Director
Monte Gurwit grew up in St. Petersburg and like other Channel 13 alumni, attended St. Petersburg Junior College. His vocal talents were encouraged by a speech teacher and Gurwit began to consider a career in broadcasting. When his family moved to Miami, Gurwit began an on-and-off career as a free-lance writer. His specialty was documenting unusual, hard-to-solve homicides that involved suspense and drama. Gurwit was also a professional photographer who used his talents to illustrate the crime stories. While in Miami, Gurwit began his broadcasting career with an announcing job at a local radio station and later returned to St. Petersburg and where he took a position in the programming department of WSUN-TV. By 1955, WSUN's monopoly of the Tampa Bay television market ended with the debut of WFLA, Channel 8. WTVT was given final F.C.C. license approval in January, 1955, and Gurwit was hired by Channel 13's owner Walter Tison to become the Program Director of the fledgling CBS affiliate.
Martha Stuart hailed from Northern Florida and attended classes at the University of Florida. She moved to Tampa in early 1955, stayed with an Aunt, and sought work as a secretary. After a brief, unhappy stint as a typist for a Port of Tampa shipping company, Martha was sent by an employment agency to a new business starting up on Memorial Highway. It was going to be Tampa Bay's third television station, WTVT. Martha would be interviewing for the job of secretary to the owner, Walter Tison, and met with the station's newly appointed Program Director, Monte Gurwit. "I think Monte was narrowing down the field of candidates for Mr. Tison," recalls Mrs. Gurwit, who is now living in Southern Florida. "He liked me and my credentials, and I was called back a day or so later by the employment agency and interviewed by Mr. Tison himself. He hired me and I went to work."
By March, 1955, WTVT was only days away from launching as a CBS affiliate. While Monte Gurwit and his secretary Jeri Bunt prepared for the daily schedule of live and filmed programming, Martha had moved into a garret next to Tison's office and shared the room with Jim Kirk, the station's accountant. She was pleased to develop a fast rapport with her new boss. "I thought Mr. Tison was pleasant, while some did not. I did learn that he didn't like dealing with women in a business sense, but that was not unusual at the time. He trusted me and we got along great."
Once Channel 13 began broadcasting, Martha was so busy as Tison's secretary that she could not visit the studio to see any production, and had no way to watch programming --- there was no television set in her area or in Mr. Tison's office. "I was working in television, but I couldn't see television until I went home at night and watched on my own set," recalls Mrs. Gurwit. "It was always on Channel 13 to see who was doing what and if there were problems with commercials that didn't go for one reason or another."
WTVT's 1955 production staff. Monte Gurwit (far right) stands next to his
assistant Jeri Bunt and director Walter Rhoads
Like Jeri Bunt, another 'Year One' employee, Martha Stuart found herself facing the Channel 13 cameras on more than one occasion. "All the Channel 13 people in the back offices appeared on TV. Nobody had any previous experience, and it was scary at first. Later, we didn't think anything of it, and received no extra pay. Monte was program director, but since he had that wonderful announcer's voice and a very nice appearance, he was in many commercials, including ones for a restaurant that delivered steaks during the late-night movie. Monte could be like Arthur Godfrey, and would sometimes kid around with the sponsor. If he cut into that steak and it was tough, he would say 'You can send this back!' And would you believe the restaurant's sales didn't dropthey increased. Monte was an excellent salesperson who knew the market."
Apparently, Monte's salesmanship extended to the personal side of his relationship with Martha, and they were married January 28, 1956. "Tison had a 'marriage' clause that excluded two people who were married from working at the same place, and I resigned" explains Mrs. Gurwit.
Six months later, Tison and his group quietly arranged to sell the 15 month-old station to the WKY Radiophone Company, which was owned by E. K. Gaylord and the Oklahoma Publishing Company. Gaylord's company owned and published Oklahoma City's daily paper, and WKY-TV, an NBC affiliate.
Monte Gurwit was retained for the time being, and Martha was rehired as an assistant to new General Manager Buddy Sugg. "Mr. Sugg was a good looking, affable man who came to our house for cocktails several times," recalled Mrs. Gurwit.
A nervous pall descended over the original WTVT employees as Gaylord people migrated from Oklahoma City to Tampa. "That's when the firings began," says Mrs. Gurwit. "Monte had to let some people go from his department. And then, a few months later, we were both let go on the same day."
Martha went to work for Alcoa Aluminum, but Monte couldn't find another job in local television. He resumed his free-lance writing and started interviewing for another broadcast job at several stations around the country.
It was during this time that Monte, a longtime member of the Lion's Club, attended a meeting where segregation was discussed and widely supported by applause from the attending members everyone, that is, except for Monte, who refused to join in the ruckus. The moment would have been forgotten, had it not been witnessed by the famous writer E.B. White, who was also in attendance. In an essay written later in 1956 and entitled "The Ring of Time," White told of "...the Lions of the Tampa Lions Club, who roared their approval of segregation at a meeting the other day - all except one, a Lion named Monte Gurwit, who declined to roar and thereby got his picture in the paper."
Martha Gurwit was completely unaware of her husband's actions at the time. "We learned about White's essay when Monte's first-cousin in England wrote us about it. He was called "The Lion who Roared" in newspaper accounts. I didn't even know about the incident. He was very modest and didn't support the segregationist movement that was going on at the Lion's Club that day. There was no reaction against Monte from the local community and we considered it a non-occurrence. E.B. White certainly caught a moment that Monte probably meant as just a quiet statement. "
Gurwit's hiatus from the broadcast industry ended when he was hired by KOMU-TV, an NBC affiliate located at the University of Missouri. He stayed there for 29 years as program director and continued to appear on-air in commercials and programming. He died in 1993. Mrs. Gurwit continues an active life and enjoys the company of her two daughters.
BIG 13 thanks Mrs. Martha Gurwit for sharing her story and helping us learn more about Channel 13's first program director, Monte Gurwit.
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