In our sophisticated media age, it seems inconceivable that fewer than 60 years ago, history was made when two presidential candidates faced off in debates for the first time ever on national television. It happened here in Chicago, in the CBS Television Studios then located on East Erie Street, on September 26, 1960.
What made the broadcast so historic was that Senator John F. Kennedy of Massachusetts beat the more seasoned politician, Vice President Richard M. Nixon – not necessarily on substance, but clearly on style. And television, a new factor where politics was concerned, influenced voters for the first time.
Nixon, who had declined makeup and was sporting a 5 o’clock shadow, appeared sweaty and nervous. He kept glancing sideways at the time clock, which caused him to seem shifty.
Kennedy, on the other hand, appeared tanned and rested. He addressed the camera directly and came off as self-assured, calm, and in command of his content.
The differences between the candidates were magnified by the cameras. The debate has become a classic case study in media history; it illustrates Marshall McLuhan’s maxim that the medium is indeed the message.
Political handlers also took note of the exaggerated effects of TV cameras. Thanks to that historic debate, they now routinely coach candidates to adjust their deliveries for televised events.
The CBS Studios building where this debate took place was not originally built as television studios. It was constructed for the Riding Club of Chicago in 1924 as a place for wealthy members to ride horses, view horse shows, and enjoy the good life.
The Riding Club of Chicago didn’t survive the Great Depression, and 12 years later, the building was converted into the Chicago Arena, a place for less elite amusements.
In the 1930s and 1940s, the Arena hosted figure skating championships, Olympic trials, and elaborate “ice carnivals” that brought such international skating stars as Sonja Henie of Norway and Frick and Frack, a comedy skating team from Switzerland.
The popular Ice Capades and Ice Follies shows appeared at the Arena from 1940 until 1953; CBS took over the building in 1954.