The First Lady of Television
Raised in a boarding house and a millionaire by 30, Maria Helen Alvarez was profiled in the book 4th & Boston: Heart of the Magic Empire because of her historical contribution to Tulsa’s development.
In the post-World War II era, modernity became a global trend. As in other American cities, businesses in Tulsa, Oklahoma, competed for customers by presenting themselves as the most forward-looking. And nowhere was the race to tomorrow more competitive than in the modernization of Tulsa’s two largest banks.
The mark of modernization.
In 1948, Tulsa’s second-largest bank, First National Bank of Tulsa, started construction on the first skyscraper to be built in the city since the start of the Great Depression. The building was an ultra-modern twenty-story tower that promised to be unlike anything the city had ever seen. For the previous twenty years, the region’s largest bank, the National Bank of Tulsa, (known as “NBT” at the time, and Bank of Oklahoma today), had maintained the upper hand in office space. Housed in Tulsa’s most celebrated and venerable edifice, NBT had no interest in proving its forward-thinking mindset by moving its headquarters. Still, the bank’s president, A.E. Bradshaw, needed to show the public that NBT was looking even farther into the future than his competition at First National—new building or not.
Bradshaw’s key to the future arrived, quite unexpectedly, in the form of a brazen and beautiful 26-year-old phenom named Helen Alvarez, who approached NBT's management with a risky proposition that—if it worked—would make the NBT Building Tulsa’s indisputable icon of the future.
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By any means necessary
At just over five feet tall, Alvarez had a seemingly endless endowment of physical beauty, high energy, and persuasive charisma. Her parents said she was reading whole sentences at the age other children were sounding out individual words. And years later, her daughter-in-law, Lisa Alvarez, would say, “She was drop-dead gorgeous, attracted attention, and was terribly ambitious—some would say to a fault.”
“She was drop-dead gorgeous, attracted attention, and was terribly ambitious—some would say to a fault.” —Lisa Alvarez, Helen's daughter-in-law
Two years before Alvarez approached Bradshaw, she was a divorced single mother and a college dropout still living with her parents. She had taken a secretarial position with local radio station KTUL where she was occasionally asked to read the news on air. That limited taste of broadcasting led Alvarez to a fascination with the latest broadcasting trend storming the nation—television.
Alvarez boldly pitched to her bosses at KTUL a plan for bringing the new technology to the Tulsa market. When they failed to take her or her recommendations seriously, she decided to put her considerable talents to use and prove them wrong.
Alvarez thoroughly researched the television industry by reading every book and periodical available, touring other television stations, and taking correspondence courses to teach herself electrical engineering and corporate management.
To fund her operation, she convinced Mid-Continent oil tycoon George Cameron Jr. to invest $400,000 in her business plan. The rest of Tulsa’s male-dominated business community branded Alvarez and her vision of KOTV “Cameron’s Folly.” But where other businessmen had failed to take Alvarez seriously, Cameron gave her unlimited autonomy.
After months of hiking the surrounding hills with an altimeter strapped to her leg in search of the optimum site for a transmitter, Alvarez concluded that mounting a 40-foot antenna to the top of the NBT Building’s graceful cupola—the highest point in Tulsa at the time—was her last, best, and only option.
It took Alvarez more than a year to convince Bradshaw to associate NBT with television and let her build KOTV's first transmitter on top of his 1928 Beaux-Arts masterpiece.
Most of Tulsa’s business leaders knew nothing about television or considered it a poor investment in a passing fad. But in the same spirit with which NBT secured Tulsa’s future as Oil Capital of the World by trusting the intuition of similarly ambitious wildcatters, Bradshaw signed the deal, trusting Alvarez’s wildcatting faith in television.
On October 15, 1949, despite howls of opposition from competitors and the jeers of an unbelieving business community, KOTV flickered to life on more than 3,000 television sets Alvarez had strategically placed in restaurants, bars, store windows, and even on sidewalks throughout the anticipated viewing area. Within days, Tulsans were buying their own television sets, and the once skeptical Bradshaw was proudly boasting that KOTV's antenna “symbolizes another of the bank’s associations with new developments.”
And she didn't stop there
So positive was the public’s reception of television that Bradshaw immediately installed a $40,000 lighting package with alternating colors to advertise NBT's connection with the most popular investment in modernization in Northeastern Oklahoma. Although KOTV only broadcasted from the NBT Building until 1954, the antenna remained, and the bank prominently featured it in its branding and advertising for the next twenty years.
Alvarez further silenced her detractors and solidified her reputation as a maverick, master negotiator, and corporate gamesmen by getting KOTV's broadcasting license approved just before the FCC put a five-year moratorium on new television stations. Adding insult to the injury of being locked out of the exploding television market, Tulsa’s existing radio stations were livid that she won the prestigious NBT broadcast position that had been denied them for years.
After becoming American television’s first female general manager and a millionaire before she was 30, Helen Alvarez left Tulsa in 1958 to conquer San Diego. She would go on to buy and sell several successful television stations; manage her interests in oil, real estate, and fine art; operate her own airline; invest in launching the Disneyland Hotel; and raise, train, and race thoroughbreds. She passed away near La Jolla, California, in 2010 at age 88.