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Prompting may not be the oldest profession, but it’s been around for a long time. It’s believed that there were prompters in classic Greek theater – people who whispered lines to actors who had a momentary lapse of memory. From the early days of theater in ancient Greece through Shakespeare’s plays at The Globe Theatre to modern times, one of the constant elements has always been the prompter or the prompt corner. There is a whole genre of single-frame print cartoons depicting guys in the prompting booth making cracks about the Wagnerian soprano in her Viking helmet. Through our research we found that the original ‘prompt box’ in theater was located stage left, and it varied from a small table in the wings, to a complete installation of a booth. And in today’s times, often includes a communications intercom, red and green cue lights for the actors, telephone communications to the front of the house, and controls for the safety curtain or other emergency equipment.
The inspiration of the electronic teleprompter came in the late 1940s from a Broadway actor, Fred Barton, who wanted a device that could help him remember his lines, He ended up pitching his idea to 20th Century Fox’s VP for radio and television, Irving Kahn at the time.And Kahn, in turn, sought the expertise of Hubert Schlafly, a broadcast engineer and director of television research at Fox, who actually developed the very first paper scroll prompter. Its début was in 1950 on The Tonight Show, The Ed Sullivan Show, and a soap opera called “The First Hundred Years”.
Barton, Kahn and Schlafly, convinced that there was a big potential market for their invention, started a new company, named TelePrompTer® Corp.
The company’s first big break outside the studio came when former president Herbert Hoover introduced the TelePrompTer as a political speaker tool in a speech before the 1952 Republican National Convention.
At the same time the “I Love Lucy,” producer Jess Oppenheimer, also claims credit for the invention of the teleprompter and applied and was awarded a “U.S. patent” for such a device, and his version of the invention was used for Lucille Ball’s commercial productions.
Aside from that dispute, President Dwight D. Eisenhower was the first president to use a teleprompter for his State of the Union address.
Also in 1954, Eisenhower wanted to give a TV version of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “Fireside Chats”. Two teleprompters were used to give "the living-room television audiences” the impression that he was talking informally and looking directly at them," according to Anthony Leviero of the New York Times.
A few years down the road, in 1975, the Chicago Tribune featured an article about Gerald Ford's preparations for his State of the Union address. The article noted that an aide suggested "he drag up the old teleprompter system from the White House’s basement, unused since the days of Lyndon Johnson."
It is rumored that Ford, who was nearsighted, had trouble reading the dated teleprompter equipment and ended up purchasing a new ones. According to the article, the White House staffers tried to control Ford's delivery of his speech by having the technician slow down the scroll speed so Ford would speak more slowly – a practice that we at Advanced Prompting frown upon because it places additional stress on the speaker.
Many presidents have used the teleprompter as a tool for speech delivery from Eisenhower days to Clinton to Obama today.
An exception to this is former president Nixon always preferred to use note cards rather than a teleprompter.
Outside of the political circle, news networks, television shows, and corporate events, nowadays, Teleprompters are even used in live concerts to assist performers with their lyrics.
Some notable artists who have regularly used Teleprompters during concerts include the late Frank Sinatra, Bruce Springsteen , Elton John, Diana Ross, Liza Minnelli, and more.
From ancient Greek Theater to today, what we call modern times – the job of the teleprompter will remain listening in the wings of the stage.
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