Interview Date: June 8, 1998
Interviewer: Jim Keller
Interview Location: Denver, CO USA
Collection: Hauser Collection
KELLER: This is the oral history of James Y. Davidson, no question an early cable television pioneer, perhaps building one of the original systems in the United States, surely the first system in the state of Arkansas. Jim is also an entrepreneur, been involved in the supply business as well as many other aspects of the cable industry and was instrumental as I understand it in helping form the National Cable Television Association and at one time was I believe credited with keeping it on its feet. So at this point we are taping this session at the Headquarter offices of The Cable Center and Museum at 2200 S. Josephine Street in Denver Colorado. Jim would we start off by giving us a little bit of your background, where you grew up, how you got it and the early days before you got involved in cable television.
DAVIDSON: I was born in Little Rock on January 2nd 1922. My mother and dad met at a rural church between Lonoke and Cabot on Easter. My dad at that time had a shop in Lonoke. He was a genius. He was an optometrist. I have papers that indicate that he was practicing optometry before 1915 in Arkansas. He held 18 patents that he got working for RCA Victor on the side in the early development of radio. He was an accomplished musician and owned a Stradivarius violin. He could play any instrument. He was master watchmaker; master jeweler and I have been told that he built the first radio in the city of Little Rock. I used to watch him work, and I always wanted to be like my Dad. I had two little sisters. My mother died in 1929. My dad got killed 11 months later and during that period he lost it. He started doing strange things that were not like him. My grandmother on my mother’s side had always lived with us. And she would awaken me in the middle of the night and we would go to the window and watch him walk around and around the block all night long. We were quite affluent. Many people did not have the things we had. We had indoor plumbing, we had electricity and we had a full time live-in maid. We were rather affluent at that time. But during the 11 month period between mother’s death and his death, he lost everything. It was in the middle of the Great Depression and he just lost his will to live because they were very devoted. But anyhow, my grandmother said “Well we won’t have to worry about anything.” I was eight; I had a sister five and a sister two. My grandmother says “I’ll take care of you three children and said we’ll never have to worry about money because your dad has left us quite wealthy.” Two weeks later we found just the opposite. He left us nothing. He had dropped his insurance premiums, he had practically given away one of his businesses. She drew a twenty dollar a month pension from the government which was a result of one of her sons, my uncle dying in World War I. She was his dependant. So our only income was twenty dollars a month. I had just completed third grade. And she says we can’t live in Little Rock on twenty dollars a month. We must move somewhere. And we moved back to her roots which she was raised on a farm near Cabot which is only 20 minutes north of Little Rock. We rented a house for five dollars a month and the guy that rented us the house was a very nice gentleman, I don’t think in the years we lived there I don’t think we paid the rent more than two or three times. My mother was very innovative. She taught me how to build rabbit traps. There were a lot of rabbits around there. And I caught a lot of rabbits. There were times if I didn’t catch a rabbit, we didn’t eat. She taught me how to skin the rabbit and there was a furrier in town that would buy the fur. I got anywhere from five cents to fifteen cents for the furs. And she showed me how to cut up the rabbit to cook it. For the last half of the five year period of life she was bedfast most of the time. I had to drop out of school in the fourth grade after about 40-45 days to take care of my grandmother and my two little sisters. The teachers were very understanding. We went from electricity to a kerosene lamp. We went from indoor plumbing to a two-holer out back. So we went from water inside the house to a cistern out on the back porch where you drew water up in a bucket. So we just went to absolute poverty. And the teachers were sympathetic and they loaned me all of the books for the twelfth grade, which I read at daytime when I could and by kerosene lamp at night. And I think I finished the twelfth grade in about a year and a half. I continued studying. I read everything I could get my hands on about electricity. The teachers would loan me books from the school library. When she died, it’s sort of sad but there was Dr. Ertley on the other end of town, we lived near the railroad track and so did he. I could tell she was much worse one day, and I ran all the way down the railroad track as fast as I could, I said “Dr. Ertley please come. My grandmother is worse.” And he said “Get out of here boy, you owe me money you’ll never be able to pay. He said Get out of here, I’m not coming.” I said “please, please, please doctor.” He says “I told you to get out of here.” So when I got back, I ran all the way back down the railroad track to our house and she was dead. So anyhow, we stayed for about a week at a time more or less with various families. Most everyone was poor back then. This was a small town. And they finally sent us to live with an aunt and uncle out in Demopolis, Alabama. We stayed there less than a year and they resented us being there and they beat us until we bled. And I ran away with my total belongings in the bottom of a tool sack about the size of a basketball.
KELLER: How old were you then?
DAVIDSON: I was 13. And then I told my sisters “don’t tell them where I’ve gone. I’ll get help and come back and get you.” Two weeks later they ran away and they went into a home nearby and the uncle and aunt ran after them with a shotgun. And they put them in a closet and called the police, and eventually people got enough money to put them on a train and send them back to Arkansas. They entered a Christian orphanage in Morrilton, Arkansas where the lived right up through high school. They wanted me to go to the orphanage and I kept running away. I would sometimes sleep on a roadside in the bushes and sometimes I would hitchhike and I’d go from place to place. I got caught with a truant officer once and she took me out to a farm near Star City. She said these are real nice people and they want to adopt a little boy like you. They didn’t want to adopt me, they wanted a slave. They had me up at three or four o’clock in the morning milking cows, and climbing behind an old mule that I could barely hold up the plow.
KELLER: When did you get your first meaningful job?
DAVIDSON: I worked less than two weeks at that. I lived there and hitchhiked to England, Arkansas where we had lived for a brief time and Dad had a store down there. I passed a radio shop and it had a lot of tubes and parts and chassis and so forth in the window. A man was in a cane bottomed chair leaned up against the building reading a newspaper. I looked at the stuff in the window for awhile and he said “Son are you interested in radio?” and I said “Yes sir, I sure am.” And he said “What’s your name?” I said “James Davidson. He dropped his paper, jumped up out of the chair and started hugging me. Says “your Dad taught me everything I know about radio.” He says “Where do you live.” I said “I don’t have a place to live.” He said “well my wife and I don’t have any children. Why don’t you live with us and work in my shop.” And I did, repairing radios and bicycles. He was also projectionist for the theater and he taught me how to operate the picture machines. Then, I finally left there for various reasons. He sent me out to the country. Back then I started driving a car when I was about 12 years old. And they didn’t check for driver’s licenses like they do today. And he sent me out in the country to repossess a bicycle from a little boy. The little boy cried. And it sort of touched me. And so I didn’t repossess it. I came back, handed him his car keys and said “I quit.” So then I went over to a gas station and lived with them for my room and board. They were very generous, they allowed me time off to do other things. I was repairing radios, I was repairing juke boxes, and I built a small broadcast station in their attic and played records on it.
KELLER: What year was this?
DAVIDSON: I painted signs. I was about 15 then. It would have been ’37.
KELLER: So you were actually broadcasting then as early as 1937.
DAVIDSON: Illegal. The FCC was a very small bureaucracy back then.
KELLER: You were broadcasting from the attic.
DAVIDSON: Right. It just about covered the town. It was a very small transmitter.
KELLER: Were you also receiving from those existing radio stations at that time?
DAVIDSON: There weren’t too many. We had KDKA in Pittsburgh and of course WGN and WLW in Cincinnati and a powerful station in Hot Springs and another one in …
KELLER: And yours.
DAVIDSON: Mine was nothing. It was just a very small transmitter. I was working at a gas station. He was very lenient. I did a lot of odd jobs to make money, and he gave me my room and board for part time work at the gas station. I also acted as chauffeur for a very wealthy lady in town and drove her out of town on trips.
I got a call one day. This was my first pretty good break from a guy named Carl Christian in Des Arc. I don’t know how, I don’t know to this day how he found out about me. But he said “I own a small chain of five theaters, all in Arkansas. He said I’d like for you to come over and work for me. He says I don’t have a projectionist for this theater and he said “Is there any way you could get over today?” He said “you won’t have to work here very long.” By then I was 16. He says you won’t have to work here very long, because I’m building a new theater up in Tuckerman. That’s where my first subscriber comes in. And he says I’ll send you up there to manage that theater. So I got a friend to drive me over to Des Arc and I operated the picture machines that night. And they were the biggest piece of junk I ever saw in my life. I had been accustomed to very, very modern state of the art equipment. This stuff was antique. But anyway I got to show a little. The next day he was sick in bed, the one was told was going to quit. He didn’t even have arc lamps. He had thousand watt, thousand amp mazda lamps with a warm up transformer and the picture on the screen was yellow. He talked me out of it. He says I’ll be sending you up to Tuckerman pretty soon. I went up to Tuckerman and it was a very nice theater. It had modern equipment and cushioned seats and so forth. I had to operate the machines, projectors and manage the theater for awhile while I was training another guy to be projectionist. I finally left him and reopened a radio and sign shop and I started doing some commercial photography and developing film and so forth.
KELLER: At an early age you had already indicated number one your technical ability at this early age and your technical talent as well as a monumental independence.
DAVIDSON: I was very independent. Let me tell you; let’s go back to when we were living on twenty dollars a month. We rarely saw an airplane and when you did see one it would be a World War I jenny and a barnstorming pilot. And I would look up at that airplane and say “That pilot’s a human being. If he can do it, when I grow up, I can do it.” Then I would see a big steamboat paddlewheel on the river. And I’d say “That captain is a human being. If he can do it, when I grow up, I can do it.” And it didn’t take me too long after I grew up to get a commercial pilots license and to get a commercial coast guard captains license. We’ve owned four; Jan and I have owned four ocean class yachts over the years. So along comes December 7, 1941, World War II.
KELLER: You were 17, 18 years old by this time.
DAVIDSON: Yeah, somewhere in there. About 19. The media told up in newspapers, radios told everyone how the draft was working. And it appeared that it would be about a year before I would be drafted. So I just decided to wait until I was drafted rather than volunteer. So that didn’t work. Within a few weeks, two well dressed men with briefcases walked into my radio shop. I was also a partner in an appliance business that was in the same building. Like Bob Tarlton and others, we wanted to sell television sets. I’m jumping ahead with the story. These men introduced themselves, said they were from the War Department and I was a bit frightened or intimidated. And I said “What can I do for you?” They said “We have a job for you as a supervisor of a signal corps facility maintaining aircraft radio and electronic equipment at the Newport Army Air Base.” And I said “Well, tell me about it. How did you find out about me?” and they said “We’re building 26 of these bases and what we do, we go around to a vicinity like here and while we’re having breakfast in the morning, we ask the waitress “if your radio quit, where would you take it?” And we pull into a gas station and we ask the same question of the gas attendant. And he says we will do this for several days, and your name came up every time. So you’re it.
KELLER: So then you did go into the Army Signal Corps?
DAVIDSON: I wore a signal corps uniform but it was called a civilian technical corps, and I hadn’t actually raised my right hand and sworn into the military. I did quite well at it. I got a citation at the end of my tenure that stated no aircraft had been grounded due to radio failure. And I had ten employees. I had four civilian mechanics and myself and eight GI mechanics, so we had nine repair desks. I had a stock clerk and a secretary. Well, I didn’t like the military. I grew up independent and I didn’t like the caste system. I had an officer walk in one time and he said “You having any trouble with any of your people?” I said “no sir, they’re going very smooth.” And he said well I can’t do anything about the civilians, but if your GIs ever give you any trouble, I can handle it, anywhere up to and including a court marshal. I said sir, there’s no point in telling me that. We’re getting along just fine. And I found out later his name was Samuel Joseph Honinghouser and he was from Brooklyn and he was a 90-day wonder. So anyhow, I started trying to get out of it. And I had brought my own test equipment out there, because the War shut down production of almost everything. Like Willow Run couldn’t make any automobiles, they were building airplanes and tanks. So anyhow, I had to take some of my own test equipment out there. And I finally got relieved of duty after 16 months and I had a terrible time getting my equipment off the base, because as far as research going in and out, had an all new truck and all that, I did get out of there. And then, I went and volunteered for the Navy. And they promised me…I was offered a first lieutenant’s commission on a silver platter if I would stay at that base. They said we’ll send you off for less than a week to learn how to wear a uniform and return a salute. I says “No sir, I don’t want any part of it.” So anyhow, I spent two wonderful years in the Navy. Never had to go to sea. It was all on the west coast near San Diego.
KELLER: Still involved in the electronics, radio?
DAVIDSON: Well, I was in charge of a three thousand or twelve seat theater. All of the seats were on one deck. And the presidium march was like a hundred feet wide. And the fly-loft held maybe a dozen sets. I would book in lots of Hollywood stars that would come and perform free. And I even fed some NBC radio networks like the Jack Haley Show, you would be too young to remember, I guess. But anyhow, I was discharged in February of 1946. The War was over in August of 1945, and I was discharged on the point system. I returned immediately to Tuckerman, reopened my radio shop and this is in 1946. And I continued painting signs and developing film and I was doing some writing. I had an Associated Press card. And I would sell pictures of stories. In November of ’47 there was a [?] at WMC radio in Memphis that applied for a permit for a television station in Memphis.
KELLER: You had heard of television?
DAVIDSON: Oh, yes. Of course. I’d never seen it.
KELLER: A lot of people in 1947 had not even heard of it.
DAVIDSON: And so anyhow, it was approved a month later, December. I can’t imagine any bureaucracy approving something that fast. Bureaucracies weren’t as big then as they are now. So I got very excited about it and I had a little, small airplane. I flew it back and forth to Memphis like a yo-yo during……they started construction immediately. And from about January of ’48 up until they started broadcasting, I flew back and forth like a yo-yo to Memphis.
KELLER: Were you also selling appliances including radio sets and other things from your store?
DAVIDSON: Yes, yes.
KELLER: So you were looking also at how to sell televisions.
DAVIDSON: Right. Just like Bob Tarlton and a lot of the others. So anyhow, I was watching, I became very good friends with the chief engineer, very good friends with the station manager. The chief engineer was Ed “Pop” Fraser and the station manager was Henry “Hank” Slavick. I learned a lot, and between my trips to Memphis, all during the spring and summer of 1948, while their tower was going up, I was building my tower.
KELLER: You were building your tower to receive the signal from Memphis at that point?
DAVIDSON: Right. Exactly. I had one helper named Louis French and it’s a wonder we didn’t kill ourselves.
KELLER: Your intent was at that point to receive the signal and then distribute it?
KELLER: So you actually had the idea right at that point putting a cable system in.
DAVIDSON: I had the idea in the spring of 1948, as soon as the station got their permit. It was about 90 miles away.
KELLER: You had mentioned I think in some of the material that I have read that you had had some experience in antenna reception while you were in the Navy. Was that correct?
KELLER: So there’s no long term reception experience at that point at all?
DAVIDSON: No, no. It’s a wonder that Louis and I hadn’t killed our fool selves because neither of us had any experience in building towers. But we got it up. And I put four ten element yagi arrays.
KELLER: Now you use the term Louis.
KELLER: Louis French. That was the chief engineer?
DAVIDSON: No that was my helper in helping build the tower. So anyhow, we got it up, had it working and I bought a Jerrold strip amplifier. Milton was making apartment house amplifiers for use in Philadelphia, New York, places like that.
KELLER: Had you met Milt at that point?
DAVIDSON: No, but I met him soon thereafter. Bought this one strip amplifier and I made some transformers and taps and I put 17 outlets in the store, I put one outlet in the American Legion building and one outlet in the home of Carl Toler, which was about a block away, more or less. All we could get was surplus military cables, which was not very good.
KELLER: Now you had never seen a cable system up to this point? Was your basic idea at this point to distribute….where did you come up with the idea?
DAVIDSON: I just saw a need and wanted to fill it, I guess.
KELLER: And the idea just developed.
DAVIDSON: And then, while I was up in the Fall of ’48, I began seeing news stories about the path in Pennsylvania.
KELLER: But this was after you started, you had the tower built you bringing things down at least into your store.
DAVIDSON: Now as the newspaper articles, some of this stuff that I’ve sent you, albums, there’s a newspaper article that shows that they were…you don’t have those albums?
KELLER: I do not. I’m sure it’s around here somewhere.
DAVIDSON: There’s a newspaper article about the first television being received in Tuckerman and what the editor meant was publicly, the general public. And it was a Tennessee Old Miss football game on Saturday November the 13th. The Tolers said that their living room had standing room only, for this football game. The American Legion building was standing room only. My shop and store were standing room only. And Carl Toler who was the first subscriber, I’ve been saying we hooked him up in October but I think it might have been September. I had no proof of it. He was the local depot agent and telegrapher. He took telegrams for Western Union and for railroad business. And he was a very, very intelligent man. He was extremely interested in television. And he wanted it “as soon as you can hook it up.” He said I don’t care if I’m just looking at a test pattern. And he asked me to call him. Well the chief engineer, Ed Prazel in Memphis, every time he transmitted a test pattern, he would call me and say call me back and tell me how it came in.
KELLER: And you were receiving it on the tower you had?
DAVIDSON: Right. About 350 feet. It was about a hundred and thirty feet above ground level. And actually it was a 100 foot tower on top of a two story building if you can believe that. So anyhow, this one thing establishes ahead of Ed Parsons. And I’m not trying to take anything away from him. God bless him. May he rest in peace. As I’ve said over and over and over and over, I am not claiming to be the first, just one of the first.
KELLER: And were the Tolers at that point, were they paying you for this.
DAVIDSON: Yes, 150 dollars for the installation and three dollars a month. And they stayed connected to it until 1953, after I had moved from there over to Batesville. And they moved to another city then and they stayed connected to it for that one channel. The rhombic antenna at Batesville was a hundred and fourteen air miles west of the station.
KELLER: Batesville was the next system you built. But we’re still in the process of building the Tuckerman system at this point.
DAVIDSON: Well, I stopped right there. I just left it as a small system, because the town was too small to be economically feasible.
KELLER: So you already worked that out that you would not be able to build the system.
DAVIDSON: Not at that time. Planned to come back and finish it which I did. But went to Batesville. I wanted to get into a larger town, and try to get some good cash flow going.
KELLER: How did you know that those amplifiers would be able to extend farther than just the one amplifier?
DAVIDSON: I knew what the gain of the amplifiers.
KELLER: And you thought they could work in series then?
DAVIDSON: Yeah, I knew what the gain of amplifiers were, I knew what the loss of the cable was. I was using RG11 and RG59.
KELLER: You weren’t using open wire then?
DAVIDSON: No, no. I heard about it later. The only open wire I had I figured out I had a lead off the rhombic antenna down to ……
KELLER: And you built the rhombic now in Batesville. Is that correct?
KELLER: And would you describe a rhombic antenna please. I don’t think this has come up too much in the oral history at this point.
DAVIDSON: Rhombic antennas had been around, I think the military. I’ve seen some military installations. And companies that did long distance communications, perhaps like RCA used them for communication. I believe, to the best of my knowledge, that this was the first rhombic ever designed specifically for cable television. And it’s in a rhombus shape. And each leg, I had about seven wavelengths to each leg.
KELLER: And you engineered this?
DAVIDSON: Yes. I went to reference books a lot. I’d never built one before. And I knew I needed something that would suck the signals. And they’re very critical. They just have to be built just so. And they can’t be more than plus or minus one degree off.
KELLER: Was Batesville farther from the station than…
DAVIDSON: It was a hundred and fourteen airline miles.
KELLER: You were about twenty four miles farther than you were originally.
DAVIDSON: Right. So anyhow, for several years that was the only channel we had. In those days I liked a lot of others. We were strapped for cash perhaps. I can’t speak for the others but I know I was. And I know a lot of people in the early days charged a high installation fee and a low monthly fee. And it should be just the reverse.
KELLER: As we finally found out.
DAVIDSON: We finally found out. But I did get a lot of seed money that way. And it enabled me to finish the system. And people were coming out…I was climbing poles. I had one employee in Batesville. And I got the first franchise ever issued. I got the first joint use pole attachment agreement.
KELLER: Excuse me, I’ll state these one at a time. What made you go in and ask for a franchise?
DAVIDSON: Well you can’t occupy the streets, alleys and right of ways without it.
KELLER: Who told you that at that time?
DAVIDSON: I don’t know.
KELLER: I’ve always been interested in where the development of the idea that a franchise is required….
DAVIDSON: I knew that the utilities had to have a permit or a franchise or whatever you want to call it to access the public right of ways. And I guess I just assumed that I had to as well.
KELLER: And so you went before the city council.
DAVIDSON: Absolutely, absolutely.
KELLER: This may be the first franchise ever issued.
DAVIDSON: Were some of them doing it without a franchise?
KELLER: Yes, some of them were, but I couldn’t say specifically which ones were not. But no one has ever said yet that they requested a franchise from the city.
DAVIDSON: I was stringing cable and hooking up people before I got the franchise.
KELLER: But did you have permission from utility companies to use their poles before you got the franchise?
DAVIDSON: I had permission from one of the utilities and the other one took awhile.
KELLER: So you were stringing on the poles of this company that you had permission from. Did they have dual pole system, one power one telephone?
DAVIDSON: No. There was one city, we wired Newport, Arkansas that the two utilities got real greedy and wanted to charge like twelve dollars and a half per pole per year. And I tried to negotiate with them, without success. So I set up my own poles, started to order them by the carload. We had three sets of poles in that town.
KELLER: So now you’re still building the system in Batesville. Now you’ve got a franchise and you’ve got utility agreements with the power company, with the telephone company in Batesville, so you virtually had an amplifier that worked, single channel stripped amplifier that could be worked….
DAVIDSON: I tried everything. I went and visited in Pennsylvania and visited Ike Blonder and I decided to buy some of their amplifiers, probably the sorriest amplifier ever built. And at one time I had I think 22 of them in series every thousand feet apart. And they had little coils in them that would change with temperature changes. But the first good quick one I had was Intro. But I had visitors, just like Bob Tarlton did. I had visitors from all over the country, flying in and driving in. In retrospect, I really wish I’d kept a log, but I didn’t. But most of these visitors ultimately became customers. They started coming to me for equipment. “Where can I get equipment?” So I started manufacturing passive devices, splitters and transformers and taps and so forth. This was Community Antenna Company.
KELLER: What year was this?
DAVIDSON: About ’52 or ’53. So people kept coming and calling and coming and calling. By then I had a better airplane. And so I was flying around to visit people and all of a sudden it got big. Community Antenna was the cable system. So I started building cable systems for myself. Built over thirty for myself, ultimately. And then I saw the need to separate the supply and construction company from the cable systems. DavCo Electronics was short for Davidson Company.
KELLER: What year was DavCo formed?
DAVIDSON: I think about ’52 or ’53.
KELLER: Let’s just back up, just a little bit. Now we’re in ’52. You’re building the system in Batesville, and you now are manufacturing passive devices at that point, transformers and splitters and so on. You were introduced then to some of the people back East who had I think about this time had called a meeting in Pottsville to form an association.
DAVIDSON: At the Necco Allen Hotel. I attended the first meeting.
KELLER: That was in ’52, was that correct?
DAVIDSON: I think so, yeah. I attended the first meeting and I didn’t join. I felt like a total outsider. Everybody else was from Pennsylvania. And to be quite honest I thought hey, this is going to be a local association. And I really did feel intimidated and like an outsider so I left. Went back to the second meeting and joined because by then I could see there was going to be a viable thing and I later worked very hard at NCTA. May I go back to Batesville.
DAVIDSON: Jerrold was telling the world that you couldn’t have more than three channels on a television system. They were very adamant about it. Had a big power supply and three low band strips in it. And you remember that? I didn’t save any of them. But along comes a company called Intron and I don’t remember what year it was. They had absolutely outstanding strip amplifiers for headends and they had the best high Q traps I’ve ever seen in my life. And I was able to put five channels on a system with their equipment, and they made me a national distributor. So then things really started moving. I was building as many as five systems simultaneously in five different states. I had about 2,000 items in stock. Lots of Intron equipment. Intron kept improving their equipment over the years and then I don’t know why they went out of business. I’d like to inject something right here. Most of the people in cable television today started after I retired and they never heard of me. Don’t know who I am. Now before I retired, everybody in cable knew me. I had customers in every state, and we made daily shipments all over the country. One would be a measuring wheel and somebody else would order a model C cable lasher and somebody else would order a bunch of amplifiers and somebody else would order a bunch of taps. I had so much cable in the warehouse and I was having it made to my specs, making sure that it was swept. Cause the early cable as you know, the center conductor was not always in the center and it would make its own trap, at the audio or video frequency of some channels.
KELLER: What is interesting about DavCo is that at that point, most of the manufacturers were distributing directly. Not using distributors, but Intron used you at that point as a distributor. How long did that continue?
DAVIDSON: Up until the mid to the late ’60s, somewhere in there. Intron got greedy. They started selling direct. I had sold a system in a rather large city. Flew down there one day to chat with them, say when are we going to start constructing the system, taking orders for amplifiers and things. “Oh well, Intron’s been down here, we’ll deal directly with them.” And I didn’t know whether to sue them or what. And we didn’t have anything in writing. And I thought well it’ll be he said, I said. And I don’t have time for a lawsuit so I just said to heck with them, I’m doing fine, I’m doing great anyhow. And if you look through those albums you’ll see pictures of me with big Intron amplifiers and I designed a functional design headend and I sold several hundred of those. We would align them in our lab, align all the high Q traps and get the five adjacent channels working with no co-channel interference. Put it in my airplane and fly, one time all the way to Florida. And installing it and flying back home the same day.
KELLER: At that time I was with Bill Daniels and Carl Williams and I remember very well we were buying a lot of your headend equipment and a lot of your Intron equipment at that point. Let’s go back. We digressed. We left Arkansas and went back to the forming of the NCTA. Let’s go back to your completing the system in Batesville and then the other systems you built.
DAVIDSON: I went back to Newport and Tuckerman and Pocahontas and Cave City and Hellman, West Hellman and McGee and Lake Village, Durmont, Dumas and McGee.
KELLER: These are all in Arkansas.
DAVIDSON: By the way those three systems down there were owned by a fellow that had married into a very wealthy family and they sent him to Guatemala. They had 12,000 acres of cotton land down plus a banana plantation, they sent him down to manage that. I flew down there one time and visited with him. And he let his three systems deteriorate. No one was paying their monthly fee. And I said “What will you take for them?” He said “What will you give me.” I said “25,000 dollars.” He says “I’ll take it.” So I started running ads in the newspapers and telling what I planned to do and how fast I would be doing it. We were going to start at the top of the tower, put in new antennas, new headend equipment. Let them take X number of days, and then from there we were going to branch up through the city section by section and you will have good pictures.
KELLER: What town was this?
DAVIDSON: That was McGee, Lake Village and Durmont. I later bought Dumas from Bob Houston. You remember him?
KELLER: Very well.
DAVIDSON: And he had a partner that was over in Kansas, I believe that was the most difficult person to get along with I ever dealt with in my life. This is not for the record, of course.
KELLER: After you continued to build these systems in these smaller systems in Arkansas you’ve got the DavCo distributorship going. You’re involved now with the basis for the NCTA. What was your next big step in the industry itself?
END OF TAPE 1, SIDE A
START OF TAPE 1, SIDE B
DAVIDSON: As far as industry without Congressional authority. I yo-yoed back and forth to Washington National Airport in my airplane many, many, many times. I was very naïve about politics.
KELLER: Were you on the board of the NCTA at that point?
DAVIDSON: I don’t remember.
KELLER: You remember Tubby Flynn from your…
DAVIDSON: Oh yeah.
KELLER: He was probably third or forth chairman of the NCTA. Were you acquainted with him and did you work with him at that point?
DAVIDSON: I worked with everybody. But I did a lot of work on my own, lobbying senators and congressmen, attending meetings, NCTA meetings.
KELLER: The chairman of the Senate communications committee I think was from Arkansas at that time, wasn’t he?
DAVIDSON: Was it Bill Fulbright? Could have been. Not certain. But anyhow I did spend a lot of time and a lot of hard work and you read George Barco’s letter? Polly Dunn sent me that letter. This is page one of it. I cherish that letter. Anyhow, I got tired. The cable had lost its challenge. The big guys were buying up the little guys. The Mom and Pop systems were decreasing in numbers and good equipment was now available and off the shelf from several different manufacturers. City councils were becoming more demanding. I’m talking about the late ’60s, mid to late ’60s. It just wasn’t any fun any more. Everything was going well and I had a son who grew up in the business, doing quite well. I shouldn’t say this, I’ll say it off the record. I had a terrible bad marriage before World War II, created one son and I wanted to get out of that marriage. It degenerated very rapidly right after I got out of the Navy in ’46. And we didn’t live together as man and wife from then on and ultimately divorced. But that’s the best thing that ever came in my life. We’d been together 28 years, wonderful years.
KELLER: I have one of those too.
DAVIDSON: We hope to have 28 more wonderful years.
KELLER: As I do.
DAVIDSON: But at my age I doubt it. But anyhow…
KELLER: You’re still a young man.
DAVIDSON: How old do you think I am?
KELLER: Well, I know how old you are.
DAVIDSON: I’m 76.
KELLER: You’re ten years older than I am.
DAVIDSON: So anyhow, got a property settlement agreement worked out. And I moved to Little Rock. I wanted to get on with my life. I was tired of cable. It was going well enough it was self sufficient and making money and I told my son, I’m leaving your mother. If it’s going to make any difference, about how you feel, then we’ll talk.” He said “No, Dad, I know things are bad. You do what you have to do to get on with your life.” So I moved to Little Rock. I loaded up the car with clothes and stuff, moved into an apartment. I got a friend to fly me back to Batesville, brought my airplane to Little Rock. And then I left an old car at the airport in Batesville. And for about the next year and a half to two years, I flew back and forth to Batesville almost every day. And I got tired of doing that.
KELLER: What distance was this?
DAVIDSON: It was about a 30 minute flight, an hour and a half, two hours driving a car. I’d get in that old car and go to the office and see how things were going and answer the mail, dictate some letters and so forth.
KELLER: Was your son running the business at this point?
DAVIDSON: Sort of. Not in total control. I was still in control of it. Over the years I had given him a lot of stock, a lot of it. In some of the systems, DavCo and so forth. Finally I decided, I asked him one day “Are you ready to take over, I’m tired of yo-yoing back and forth every day.” He said “Yeah, I think so, Dad.” And again this is off the record, it was one of the worst mistakes I ever made. He started building some systems on his own and neglected the business. Our catalogues were three inch thick binders. It took that much space for everything we advertised that we had in stock. And I was sending out monthly mailings oriented to customers in every state, and he stopped doing that as soon as I left. I didn’t find it out till sometime later. I was running full page ads in Stan Searle’s TV Communications and Bob Houston’s Cable News and any other trade magazine that came around. And he stopped doing that. I finally found out about it, and I had already sold four or five systems in Southwest Arkansas to Bob Rogers. And I sold Helena and West Helena to him in another package.
KELLER: Bob was just getting started at this point wasn’t he?
DAVIDSON: No, Bob was a pioneer. He got started about ’52 or ’53.
KELLER: He was starting to put together a global system operation.
DAVIDSON: Yes. And he did quite well. Didn’t book. May he rest in peace. I was in the hospital when he died, so I couldn’t go down there. Bob placed an offer on the remaining systems. We shut down DavCo, we shut it down.
KELLER: What year was this please?
DAVIDSON: Between ’75 and ’80 somewhere along there. My son retired and Jim and I, we started really having fun. We had a big ocean class yacht. We had a nice twin engine airplane and I have had a commercial pilot’s license for many, many years, coast guard captain’s license. So we were having fun. We went out to the islands and anywhere we wanted to.
KELLER: So you in fact had retired.
DAVIDSON: Yes. Soon all of the islands started looking alike. All the beaches started looking alike, all the palm trees started looking alike. And in the interim, I was good with my hands and I had been manufacturing, I had been studying gemologists as a hobby. And I started doing lost wax casting in the basement of our home in West Little Rock. You carve a wax, you invest it and then you put it in the oven and the wax melts out and now you have a cavity. And under pressure you force gold into that cavity. That’s an over simplification. We had been talking about security. I had all kind of gemstones, diamonds and gold and my equipment and everything in this basement. And we had been talking about renting a small place in the Donohue Building. Little Rock had just put a security system and a safe in there built by Pullman only. It didn’t work out that way. I never did do anything halfway. Everything I ever tried to do in my life I was very, very good at it except golf. I was lousy at golf. But we opened up this place. We rented more space than we initially planned to rent and then we expanded. There was more space available adjacent to our space and we expanded three times in the first year. We had the largest inventory of parts and pieces and gemstone and jewelry and things to make jewelry out of in the state. We had two classes of customers, wholesale and retail. Jewelry stores bought from us. We did the repairs for the jewelry stores that didn’t have their own repair shop. Did lots of that. I continued to manufacture custom jewelry for people. We had jewelers coming in there buying stuff like crazy. It was the first time that the state had ever had a place like this. Findings is the word for hardware like in a hardware store. And then there are thousands of different sizes and shapes of little pieces of gold to make earring and rings and necklaces and so forth. And we had a very complete inventory of those things. And they descended upon us like crazy.
KELLER: How did you amass all of this. Just by collecting over the years?
DAVIDSON: No. I knew of a number of manufacturers and I had trade magazines and I went direct to the manufacturers and bought at enough quantity that they would make me a distributor. And Jan, bless her heart– I carried a little plate smaller than that in my shirt pocket that dictated the appraisals and Jan would run back to a foot operated machine and type appraisals and I did tens of thousands of appraisals. It was such a success, that it was about to kill both of us. The busiest time of the year for jewelry is November and December. And you’ll take in more money during those two months than you do the rest of the year put together. So in the first week of December, one day, I fell to the floor about 2 o’clock in the morning. We’d been home and had slept a few hours and I thought I was dying, and I was lying very still. And I talked to myself “So this is how it feels to die.” And then I thought perhaps if I will be very, very still I won’t die. We had a good friend who was a thoracic surgeon. Jan called him. And they got an ambulance and rushed me to the hospital, kept me I think about four days. They ran every conceivable test they could run and said “Jim has got a heart like a teenager.” And they still tell me that, thank God. My back isn’t the best and I have some other problems.
KELLER: After this, did you ever get back into the cable business?
KELLER: So you had already divested of everything, DavCo, all of your systems.
DAVIDSON: Right, right.
KELLER: I’m going to take a little break at this point.
DAVIDSON: Our doctor friend called Janet out of the room, out in the hallway and said “What are you guys doing in that jewelry business?” They knew we had it. And she says “Well, we’re working very, very long hours, especially this time of year. Sometimes as much as eighteen hours a day.” He said “Sell that damn business. You all don’t need it. You’re financially secure and he knew it grew out of a hobby and we knew that we were operating on…vanity’s not the best choice of words, but we were just so pleased with the success of it that we just kept on running on. So we sold it and the man who owns it now is doing very well.