Daniel Haygood delves into the forgotten history of Tel Ra Productions, a prolific producer of U.S. sports films

The professor of strategic communications examined the story behind the Philadelphia-based company that emerged as the leading producer of syndicated sports programming in the years following World War II.

Black and white photo of Louis W. Kellman
News Reel Laboratory’s founder Louis W. Kellman (standing on Chrysler) filming the “1948 Baseball Preview with Stan Baumgartner,” which was Tel Ra Productions’ first sports production. Photo credit: Brian Kellman.

After more than a decade of research, Daniel Haygood, professor of strategic communications, recently published an article in American Journalism delving into the history of Tel Ra Productions, a prolific sports production firm that has long fallen off the radar of public awareness.

Headshot of Daniel Haygood
Daniel Haygood

Titled “Tel Ra Productions: The Unknown Story of a Philadelphia Production Company That Captured Americans’s Passion for Sports on Film in the Post-WWII Era,” the article concentrates on the company’s premier program, “TeleSports Digest,” which Haygood considers to be a forerunner of ABC’s “Wide World of Sports.”

Tel Ra Productions filmed thousands of sports segments for its portfolio of syndicated television programs from the late 1940s through the mid-1960s. This collection of filmed sporting events, contained primarily in Tel Ra’s premier program “TeleSports Digest,” represented a visual history of American sports during the post-World War II era.

But Tel Ra’s story has been lost to time. According to Haygood, few are aware of the small Philadelphia company or its programs that ran each week, capturing Americans’ passion for sports on the relatively new medium of television.

“I find it astonishing that such a small company was able to produce, film and distribute such a significant number and vast array of sporting events over its history,” Haygood said. “The story of Tel Ra Productions was truly a lost treasure of sports broadcasting history.”

William Wallace (Wally) Orr was founder and president of Tel Ra Productions in Philadelphia. Photo credit: William Wallace (Bill) Orr, Jr.

At a time when sports on television was limited, Tel Ra produced an array of programs, highlighting major and minors sports. “National Pro Highlights,” “Touchdown,” and “TeleSports Digest” were Tel Ra’s initial anchor programs, which then quickly grew to six programs by 1953.

“TeleSports Digest” was Tel Ra’s premier program and featured from four to six different sports segments per weekly program, depending on the season. The program covered 59 different sports through its 18-year run highlighted by major sporting events, such as the Kentucky Derby, NBA championship, PGA tournaments, World Series, NFL football, and the NCAA tournament.

Alongside these major sports, “TeleSports Digest” also included filmed segments of less prominent sports and competitive activities, such as swimming, sled dog racing, ice fishing, and even marbles and keg hurdling. Broadcasted international sporting events also included the Monaco Grand Prix, the Open Championship, the Queen’s Plate (horse racing), among others.

To accomplish this feat on a weekly basis, Tel Ra Productions worked with Kellman Studios as its filming and editing partner. Depending on the time of the year, 12-15 camera operators would leave Philadelphia for destinations around the country to film sporting events. The cannisters containing the film were rushed back to Philadelphia for processing and editing prior to distribution.

By the late 1940s, Tel Ra Productions had three syndicated sports highlight programs anchoring its portfolio: “TeleSports Digest,” “Touchdown” and “National Pro Highlights.” Pictured is the company’s official logo.

Haygood unearthed Tel Ra’s history through in-depth interviews with Bill Orr, son of Tel Ra’s founder W. Wallace Orr, and Brian Kellman, son of Louis W. Kellman, founder of Kellman Studios. But Haygood’s initial research focus started elsewhere.

“Actually, I was conducting research on the history of producing and televising Atlantic Coast Conference basketball,” Haygood said. “Tel Ra had produced and distributed ACC Tournament highlight reels during the 1970s. It was after several of my earlier conversations with Bill that I realized the larger, more significant sports production story of Tel Ra. The company had just kept turning out sports content in the years following WWII. The company continued to produce and film different types of sporting events even after ‘TeleSports Digest’ went off the air in September 1966.”

Haygood interviewed Orr more than 10 times, including several conversations in his office in Pennsylvania. The Elon professor specializes in digging up lost or forgotten parts of sports broadcasting history and bringing them to life for current readers.

“Much of what Tel Ra Productions did in that earlier era set the stage for current sports broadcasters,” Haygood said.

American Journalism

American Journalism is the official publication of the American Journalism Historians Association. Peer reviewed and published quarterly, the journal concerns itself with media history in all national and transnational contexts. It publishes articles, essays, book reviews, and reviews of digital media. American Journalism welcomes articles that treat the history of communication in general; the history of journalism; the history of broadcasting, advertising and public relations; the history of media outside the United States; and theoretical issues in the literature or methods of media history. The journal intends to provide its readers with new knowledge about media history and to foster innovative approaches to the study of media history.