Donald Flamm (1899–1998)

Obituary by Malcolm Baird, published in Television, April 1998

Donald Flamm (Overseas Fellow, R.T.S.) died in Palm Beach, Florida on February 15 after a short illness. He was born in Pittsburgh but spent most of his working life in New York. After a few years as press representative of the Shubert Organization on Broadway, in 1927 he became the owner and operator of WMCA, one of New York's most popular radio stations. He was quick to see the potential of television as soon as it was first demonstrated by my father in January 1926.

For the first few years of television history, all systems were mechanical and the television signals could be sent over normal radio wavelengths and picked up on existing domestic radio sets. All that was needed was a "televisor" connected to the radio receiver, to amplify the signal and convert it to a picture. In 1931, Donald Flamm joined the crowd of high-pressure promoters who surged into the Waldorf Astoria Hotel to meet my father on his much-publicized visit to the U.S.A. Donald was a quiet-spoken person with a dry sense of humour and my father found him to be the only person in the crowd who seemed to be talking any sense! An agreement was soon reached for a joint project between WMCA and Baird Television Ltd., to broadcast television experimentally in the New York area. Although this was eventually vetoed by the Federal Radio Commission (on xenophobic grounds) Donald and my father remained firm friends.

As a self-admitted anglophile, Donald Flamm performed many public functions to help the British cause in the difficult years 1939-41, before the U.S.A. came into the war against Germany. He joined the Office of War Information and latterly ran the American Broadcasting Station in Europe, which eventually became the Voice of America. After the war, his main interests moved towards theatrical production. Donald's self-deprecating humour was typified by his anecdote of having declined to support The Mousetrap which he felt was lacking in dramatic appeal.

A video capture from the BBC documentary “I Preferred Madness” shown in 1988. Donald, at age 89, is being interviewed in New York about his recollections of JLB.

In 1976, Donald Flamm resumed his interest in television when he perceived that my father's work was almost unknown in the U.S.A and that his reputation was under attack in Britain. With typical quiet energy, Donald contacted my mother and me and Dr. Peter Waddell at the University of Strathclyde, where an exhibition was being run to mark the 50th anniversary of the first television demonstration. For the next 20 years he was to play a major part in setting the record straight(as he put it) by giving interviews and writing letters and articles in the press, notably in the March 1981 issue of Television. In 1994 the University of Strathclyde, John Logie Baird's alma mater, recognized Donald Flamm's contributions by awarding him an honorary doctorate. Television enabled him to take part in the ceremony by means of a two-way satellite link between Glasgow and his home in Florida.

Donald Flamm is survived by his wife, Elayne Knee Flamm, a brother and two stepsons.