Ed: In 2006, WGBH pioneer Michael Ambrosino completed an autobiography for his family. Last month, he made a gracious offer for us to publish some of his early-WGBH stories on this Web site.
In this, the first of three excerpts, Michael describes the early years at WGBH, an era of live and live-on-tape TV productions at the 84 Massachusetts Avenue studio in Cambridge.
Stay tuned for future installments covering the creation of the Eastern Educational Network from 1960-64 and the transformation of WGBH from educational to public television from 1964-70.
The photo, right, is from Michael’s collection. He wrote, “September 1956. The obligatory photo made of new employees in those days. It was run by the Westhampton Beach Chronicle, circulation 3000. My mother loved it.”
WGBH in 1956
WGBH: The Early Years
WGBH was then at 84 Massachusetts Avenue in Cambridge, directly across from the main entrance of MIT in a small, unassuming brick building with shops and a drug store at the street level. The building housed a surprise when you walked upstairs: an ancient roller skating rink, complete with a bumpy wooden floor and a balcony running around three sides. WGBH occupied one half, and a start-up electronics firm the other half.
Fifty years ago, we thought of this make-do facility as state-of-the-art. Studio A, 30×50 feet, occupied the entire floor of the skating rink rented by the station. Three second-hand cameras, with hand-me-down image-orthicon tubes, sat in the studio, along with a microphone boom, a lighting grid, and what few scenery flats were at hand. Under the balcony had been tucked the radio studio and control room for WGBH-FM, Studio A TV control, and the engineering facilities. Also tucked in were simple dressing rooms and a “green room” for talent waiting to go on the air.
Above (via Don Hallock): This is one of the few existing photos of the 84 Massachusetts Avenue building. It was taken in 1958 by Brooks Leffler with his trusty Leica, from just across the street on the sidewalk in front of the steps of MIT. (More photos.)
On the balcony above were three small offices for the top executives, one big open office for the rest of the staff, a radio editing room, and storage.
The scale of operations and the financial picture of WGBH in the ’50s can be illustrated by what happened when the start-up electronics firm next door moved to greener pastures. In the middle of their now empty floor, they left three garbage cans full of partially built circuit boards. This electronic “trash” was taken into the WGBH shop where each resistor and transistor was carefully unsoldered, ends straightened, and placed into storage bins for reuse.
We had little to spend and nothing to spare.
The early days of “educational television”
To think in terms of the “early days of television”, you have to forget about today’s several hundred color channels beaming twenty-four hours a day showing golf from Scotland, war from Afghanistan, typhoon damage from Japan.
Think small. Think live. Think black and white and no money.
WGBH’s transmitter was … almost 40 degrees in another direction . The joke in Cambridge was that, “WGBH is my favorite station, it’s a shame I can’t pick it up.”
WGBH went on the air only a few hours each evening. A test pattern was broadcast in the morning and afternoon so that television installers could adjust sets and aim rooftop antennas. WBZ and WNAC broadcast from towers on the Needham hills and sadly, WGBH’s transmitter was on Great Blue Hill, almost 40 degrees in another direction. The joke in Cambridge was that, “WGBH is my favorite station, it’s a shame I can’t pick it up.”
The day started with a children’s program featuring Tony Saletan. The brief four or five hour schedule usually alternated live programs and films, so a few times each evening we could have a half hour to move things around in the single studio. Producer/directors (we all directed our own shows in those days) rehearsed in the afternoon and our shows went out live that evening. Each show’s scenery occupied various corners of Studio A, and often one cast would sidle out in the one minute break between programs so that another group could sidle in, get into position, and “hit it” on the clock
My first lesson as a new director was how to set one fanny cheek on the director’s chair, as the director of the previous live show slid over to the right. He would finish his show, punch up the WGBH ID, and cue the live announcer in the booth. The silky-voiced Bill Pierce would read the station ID and tell about upcoming programs. I would slide over to take control of the chair and the switcher (we also switched our own shows), settle my coffee on the director’s desk, light up my cigarette, adjust my headset and microphone, give final directions to my floor manager, and, on the clock, switch on the necessary slides or film to introduce my program.
We had one switcher for the entire station. … One night, a director spilled a coke into the switcher and the sugary liquid put us off the air until the engineers could clean all the contacts.
We had one TK5 switcher for the entire station. It had five inputs for cameras, slides and film, a fader for dissolves, and fades to black. One night, a director spilled a coke into the switcher and the sugary liquid put us off the air until the engineers could clean all the contacts.
Our second lesson was to direct “Around the Town.” Every day, Quindara Dodge would type up 3X5 cards describing events around Boston. These were stapled in two rows around a large, cloth-covered, vertical drum. Coordinating the music background, the slow and precise rotation of the drum, and the single camera panning left and right to view the two rows in sequence constituted a 15-minute program.
Not quite a NOVA!
Our third lesson was to plan our show so that our camera movements moved in line with the boards in the wooden floor. To do otherwise meant a camera bumping and jiggling about. We could reposition a camera across the wooden grain, but only when it was not “on line”, or on the air.
One Saturday, the entire male staff came in with hammers to nail down the floor every four inches in an attempt to even out the bumps. We must have been quite a sight; hammer-wielding yuppies, shoulder to shoulder, fannies high, inching our way backwards and pounding specially hardened screw/nails into the hard oak skating rink boards. Don Hallock reminds me that if not hit just right, these nails would shoot out to the side like a bullet, stabbing a yuppie/nailer nearby.
Local programs in the ’50s
Producers rarely got money to spend. We got “services” instead. A show would be assigned so much rehearsal time, and so many crew hours. The art department and the scenery shop would do all we asked until they complained.
Tony Saletan did a daily studio show for pre-school kiddies; mostly Tony, his guitar, and some visuals.
Mary Lela Grimes tried her best to spark interest in “Discovery,” a live nature program that featured stuffed animals and photos from the Audubon Society. A young Harvard grad student, Charlie Walcott, complained that it was a pale substitute for a real outdoor experience and got a sharp reply of, “Oh, yeah. Well, why don’t you do something about it?” Charlie, a nephew of Ralph Lowell, the famous Boston banker, philanthropist, and WGBH Board Chairman, bought an $18,000 Aeriflex camera and built special close-up lenses to shoot outdoor nature footage for the second season. He did something.
Later, I hired Charlie to produce a nature series for the 21” Classroom and he was great. He is the former Chairman of the Department of Ornithology at Cornell and lives in Ithaca on Sapsucker Lane. Really!
I remember Russ … carefully taking apart every one of the kids’ crude attempts to make a birdhouse and hammering them back together correctly. Russ, the son of a contractor, was just too much of a perfectionist to let them be.
Russ Morash, (of Julia Child and “This Old House” fame) produced and directed a children’s program called, “Ruth Ann’s Camp.” On one occasion, I remember Russ and his floor manager carefully taking apart every one of the kids’ crude attempts to make a birdhouse and hammering them back together correctly. Russ, the son of a contractor, was just too much of a perfectionist to let them be.
“Images” appeared every week, produced by The Museum of Fine Arts. Drawing on their vast collection of slides, an art historian from the museum, Thalia Kennedy, would create stories about artists, periods, or styles. She combined music, narration, and pictures to tell an interesting story. The slides were projected on a large screen and our studio cameras would move about on them to increase visual interest. These were the years before zoom lenses. You had four fixed lenses that you could change by rotating a large drum in the center of the camera. If you wanted the effect of a “zoom in”, you had to choose the appropriate lens and move the heavy camera forward. You did this slowly with your left hand while constantly changing focus with your right. If some of these shows looked a bit static, it was because just about everything we did was so damn hard!
Every Friday night, however, we had the joint jumpin’. Father Norman J. O’Connor, a Jesuit priest and jazz enthusiast, would invite the featured band that had come to play that week at “Storyville.” We would have a half hour of jazz mixed with interviews of the key stars and players. Everybody came to “Storyville” and America’s best singers and musicians appeared. The local union let us do this free since it built up publicity for the artists’ weekend gig.
Each producer/director tried to outdo all others in creative camerawork on the show. When Don Hallock was directing, he hit his high point one evening when two of his three cameras died suddenly in the opening minute of the show. Flinging off his headset, Don flew into Studio A, took control of the remaining camera and directed the rest of the show from the floor, covering all the action expertly.
“Louis Lyons and the News” was unique. The news was whatever Louis Lyons thought should be the news. Louis was an old newsman who tended the flock of Nieman Fellows at Harvard. His job was to choose a dozen Fellows each year from the best journalists in the world and help them spend that year at Harvard. He also planned a Wednesday gathering with a thoughtful and often controversial guest and enough beer to keep the conversation flowing.
Scanning the AP “A” wire, Louis would present news stories with the added perspective of forty years of following world events. Guests came in after the “News” for in-depth interviews on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday for “Backgrounds.” They included visiting dignitaries, professors, political figures, and even me on one occasion. David McCord, the genial Cambridge poet who wrote “Every Time I Climb a Tree,” would come every Christmas and read his new poems. Each year Robert Frost would visit as well. Louis’ first question to Frost was always, “Well, what are you working on now?”
Once when given a “speed up” cue, he looked up, stared at the floor manager and said — right on the air —“Young man, I’m sure I have five minutes left.” He did.
Louis licked his lips, rarely looked at the camera, never seemed quite pressed or combed and was very much a law unto himself. Once when given a “speed up” cue, he looked up, stared at the floor manager and said — right on the air — “Young man, I’m sure I have five minutes left.” He did.
“Museum Open House” appeared each week. A gallery at the Museum of Fine Arts would be hung with several dozen specially chosen masterpieces and an MFA TV curator would walk us through this special exhibition of subjects such as, “Van Gogh at Arles” or “Landscapes of the Flemish School” or “Religious paintings of Michaelangelo.” Three cameras would move about the paintings in the gallery while the host or hostess gave the lecture.
Working with genuine masterpieces was a considerable responsibility. All cameras in those days needed lots of light and that meant lots of heat. Months before, WGBH and the MFA had tested just how much heat would cause a fourteenth century oil painting to “run.” I assume a “lesser work” was used as the test painting. It ran. We now knew what temperature to avoid.
One evening a small fourth century BC Egyptian sandstone statue was sitting on a pedestal, just where a quick swinging camera lens would smack it and return it to particles of fine Egyptian sand. In one music program I was producing at the MFA, I heard a large “crack” to see a musician mooning over the back of a Medieval lute she’d just snapped while tightening the strings. Most days, we got by with less excitement.
Of course, taking three cameras to the Museum on Tuesdays meant no cameras for anything else. Few other live shows were planned for Tuesdays, but all of them, including “Louis Lyons and the News” had to originate from the museum!
Each winter, the World Affairs Council and WGBH would produce six discussion programs on the big subjects of world peace and justice. “Decisions” would have a host/moderator and at least four pundits drawn from government and academia. In the days of The Cold War, conflict seemed quite possible and these matters really concerned us.
A little known Harvard professor was a regular. He spoke cogently, if too long, and with a thick European accent. One year we decided that he should be the moderator and he was a disaster, never allowing anyone else to finish sentences and hogging the center of every discussion. We called that hogging syndrome, “The Kissinger Syndrome,” and never invited Henry to moderate again.
“MIT Science Reporter” was a weekly studio show, with Volta Torrey as host. Studio demonstrations were mixed in with interviews about the latest big science happenings. This was the first time I saw a flexible glass rope transmit light even if the rope was tied into a knot. No one on the program proposed any uses for the rope; it was just a clever new invention. Of course, miles of fibre optic cable are being laid each day as you read this.
arly series was “The Facts of Medicine” with Dr. David Rutstein. I remember little about this series except that in one program, Rutstein directly tied smoking to cancer. This was 1956! No one in the media was talking about that. Of course the tobacco companies continued to prosper by saying ”nothing had been proved,” and that “more research was necessary”. Sound familiar?
Professor Boring was best known for explaining the phenomenon that the moon looks larger when close to the horizon. He disproved the notion by bending over and looking at the moon backwards through his arched legs.
Many of our programs were courses such as “Poetry” with Professor A. I. Richards; a thin, pale, intense, squeaky-voiced English import to Harvard. Another was “Psychology One,” by a delightful bustling bundle of flesh with the unfortunate name of Professor Edwin G. Boring. Professor Boring was best known for explaining the phenomenon that the moon looks larger when close to the horizon. He disproved the notion by bending over and looking at the moon backwards through his arched legs. The sight of the distinguished Professor Boring doing this on camera was a delight to us all.
Many of these courses were made and recorded for the United States Navy for submarine sailors who submerged for six months at a time and got quickly bored with magazines and comic books.
We all thought of ourselves as being on a mission to educate and inform our city. Perhaps a bit holier than thou, we earnestly thought that folks enjoyed, or would enjoy, learning neat things if we presented them with style and excitement. A major problem was that we were mostly using the academic model rather the journalistic model for program planning and production. Mostly this was due to our lack of money, and because we were tied to the studio. None of us had seen a clear model to emulate or the money to put it into practice. For me, that would come later when I spent the year at BBC.
We also had a healthy case of inferiority. Daily, we saw program models that were new and vital on the commercial networks. Often the research and the content were shoddy but the forms were impressive. Commercial TV was real TV and it took a few decades and many millions of dollars for that to change. At the time of this writing (2004), nothing on the commercial networks equals NOVA, NATURE, FRONTLINE, GREAT PERFORMANCES and THE AMERICAN EXPERIENCE.
But back to the past.
I was hired as Assistant to the Assistant General Manager and Director of Operations and my first task was to redesign the main office to include four new employees; David Davis, Bill Cavness, Lillian Akel, and me. I moved things around on a paper scale model, and after Hartford’s approval, moved the desks themselves. It’s true that Lillian’s desk was placed next to mine, separated only by a portable partition, but in my truest memory, it was not a plan to get to know her. (She was cute, though)
I often accompanied Hartford in testifying before Legislative committees in New Hampshire, Vermont, and Maine, providing them with helpful information as they were in the act of voting on bills to build ETV stations and networks.
Once, testing some neoprene covered electrical wire, stretched it out on the ice to determine what several months of Antarctic weather would do to it. When he went to find it just before returning home, he discovered … hungry Skua gulls had feasted on it.
In my “spare time,” I produced and directed thirteen programs on Antarctic Exploration with Father Daniel Linehan of the Weston Observatory. Father Dan was a Jesuit geologist with an explorer’s itch. He’d go to various US companies needing things tested in extremely cold climates, take their gear to Antarctica, spend a few hours testing them, and then spend the rest of the summer doing his own research. Once, testing some neoprene covered electrical wire, he stretched it out on the ice to determine what several months of Antarctic weather would do to it. When he went to find it just before returning home, he discovered it wound into a round copper mess with all the neoprene insulation missing. Hungry Skua gulls had feasted on it.
His report said the wire fared well but that the insulation made the product unsuitable for cold climates!
I also produced and hosted a weekly chat show, “Youth Speaks its Mind” dealing with many subjects … except sex and things that really mattered to kids. A group of teachers and I would pick the topics and each week a different school would supply the kids. As host, I would start the ball rolling and ask questions to keep it moving. The show also ran on radio and the radio producer was Lillian Akel.
The Boston Children’s Theater performed four or five plays each year with Adele Thane as Playwright/Director. Whenever they did a good show, Adele would produce a thirty-minute adaptation and I would direct it for TV. We did “Tom Sawyer” quite well, and I still have a mental image of a petite young lady attending all the rehearsals and watching it go out live on the air from the control room. Her name was Lillian Akel.
The 21-inch Classroom
Hartford did not hire me to be his assistant. He hired me to start in-school television for the State of Massachusetts. Parker Wheately, the Manager, however, was not too enthused and so for several months I did other things. In 1957, an eruption in the WGBH staff occurred and Hartford became General Manager.
The eruption consisted of Hartford’s going to Mr. Lowell, the Chairman of the Board, and saying that the top half dozen executives of the station would leave if Parker was not fired. Mr. Lowell gave Parker Wheately a year’s salary and he was gone.
The city of Newton figured largely in the creation of in-school TV. Grace Whitamore, the head of the Newton School Committee, and Bernard Everett, the Director of Curriculum, came to WGBH asking for help to get it started. Hartford and I met with them and he said, “Michael is just the person for you”. Over the next year the three of us spent many hours together as we planned the organization of a voluntary group of school systems in the WGBH coverage area. That meant meetings. And meetings meant speeches. I must have met with, and spoken to, over a hundred PTAs and school committees. I became an expert in the cookies and punch often served at these sessions. Lillian even came to some.
This was also my introduction to Jim Armsey and the world of fund raising. In those days, The Ford Foundation allowed senior program officers to give grants of less than $15,000 on their own signature. In 1957, that was real money. I created a plan for a regional program service to schools run by WGBH and financed by voluntary contributions. We told Jim we intended to use his $15,000 for start-up and showed him how the project would soon be self-supporting. Jim always needed to hear that. He called in his secretary, asked her how much was in a certain account, turned to us and said, “OK, send me a proposal for $14,500 and its yours!”
Future fundraising was rarely that easy.
Just as we were ready to proceed, we discovered a problem that threatened to scuttle the whole venture. A well-meaning fifth grade Cambridge teacher had set in motion a bill in the Massachusetts Legislature to allow cities and towns to voluntarily give money for just such a collective school television project. We thought this was unnecessary. More importantly, if the bill failed, it would be considered that cities and towns did not have the right to do so! I spent most of the summer on Beacon Hill persuading legislators to
back the bill. Cambridge Representative Mary Newman, was a big help, but all the while we kept getting the feeling of the presence of invisible obstacles.
One turned out to be the State Department of Education, jealous that they were not to be involved. Thought to be a lumbering elephant, none of us wanted their bureaucracy to weigh us down. We persuaded them to hold off and they agreed. But still, a resisting fog kept many legislators undecided.
Finally the elephant stuck his trunk out. It turned out that the Boston Archdiocese was opposing the bill unless Catholic schools got the programs FREE! In those days in Boston, the Church got what it wanted. They were written into the bill.
The bill finally passed and we could proceed.
We prepared a short science series in the spring of 1958 to show teachers what our shows might be like. I chose Gene Gray, who had been a star pupil in the class I‘d taught the previous year. The Science Museum’s chief science demonstrator, Norman Harris, was added over my objection. The Museum of Science was a member of WGBH and they insisted. On the first show, Harris spilled acid on his hand, cried out in pain and shouted for the help of his assistant, all live on the air! I insisted that Gene do the rest of the shows solo, and Harris never appeared again!
That week, it so happened that Lillian’s cousin, Tony Khair, was visiting Boston. On the subway to Logan to pick him up, I noticed a headline and familiar picture on the Boston Evening Globe front page being read by a man across the aisle. Our test show had hit the press with a glowing front page review! A nice way to start.
“The 21” Classroom: Hartford Gunn; the author; Bill Kiernan, the Massachusetts Commissioner of Education; Gene Gray, everybody’s favorite science teacher on TV; and Norman Harris, Science Director, Boston Museum of Science.
On the air
The 21” Classroom hit the air in earnest in the fall of 1958 with five series broadcast to about 35 school systems.
Two stories from those first series tell a lot about Boston in the 50s. Tony Saletan had been a musician and children’s performer in the Boston area for years. I had him do a supplemental series teaching songs and dances. We used Paul and Marianne Taylor as the folk dancers and it soon became clear that the slight bulge in Marianne’s figure was an impending new family member. HORRORS!
Teachers from Boston complained that I was showing a pregnant woman on television. What would the kiddies think? It was clear that no one bothered to worry about all these kiddies in large families with mommies walking around the house with expanding bellies.
Teachers from Boston complained that I was showing a pregnant woman on television. What would the kiddies think? It was clear that no one bothered to worry about all these kiddies in large families with mommies walking around the house with expanding bellies.
Boston teachers were women. They were Irish women. They were mostly unmarried Irish women. Boston even had its own teacher’s college, so that they perpetuated the clan of local, Irish, unmarried teachers in the school system. A more conservative group of biddies you have never seen.
They were also angry. Working hard in their crowded classrooms, day after day, they answered to a cadre of younger, less experienced, higher-paid men! In meeting after meeting, I could feel the resentment and since it had nowhere to go, resentment often was manifested upon the easier targets: ergo, my lovely folk dancer, Marianne Taylor.
I kept her on the series into her ninth month!
Eager to get kids reading, we did a storytelling series using new books so we could incorporate living authors. (Yes, I really did get to meet Robert McCloskey, the author of “Make Way for Ducklings”, and yes, he really looked just like that little kid in the book on the tricycle running down the ducklings.)
Interviewing many storytelling-teachers, I finally chose Beryl Robinson, who turned out to be a Newton Corner neighbor. Beryl was short, warm, and wonderfully cuddly. Her rapport was instantaneous with kids and adults alike. An employee of the Boston Public Library, I was surprised that, with her acknowledged excellence, she was not working at the Main Library but at the Egleston Square branch.
In conversations with other librarians, I always sensed a uncertain hesitancy about their support for Beryl. Was there a controversy or a hidden body somewhere? Beryl was an excellent and cooperative talent. Her set was minimal; a comfortable chair, a small bookcase, and a spread of eager kiddies to sit at her feet to hear and respond to her stories. On the small bookcase at her side, I insisted we have a five-dollar bouquet of fresh flowers every week.
There are times when you do something just for the effect on the talent. Silk flowers would have done as well, but Beryl knew that they were fresh! After each taping, the bouquet was given to Beryl and her astonishment that we would buy fresh flowers and then lavish them on her personally, alerted me to the fact that life had not always been easy for her.
Later, when I met her husband, Judge Bruce Robinson, all became clear. Bruce was tall, thin, Republican, and very black! Beryl was light skinned. I guess I expected that she was Italian or Greek.
So, I had a pregnant folk dancer and “Negro” storyteller in my first set of series. I can take credit for keeping on the pregnant dancer, but I chose Beryl simply because she was the best of the bunch. Isn’t that the way America is supposed to work?
Other series included history, French with Madame Anne Slack, and science with Gene Gray.
Dear Gene Gray. That bright spark plug of a man with that quick mind and all the energy of an enthusiast. We became fast friends, spent many weekends with Gene and Ruth at the farm, made pottery, helped build a foundation underneath the house, ate freshly picked corn, and planted hundreds of pine trees.
One weekend we faced a particularly difficult problem. A large elm with three main trunks sat at the corner of their house. One of the trunks arched dangerously over the house itself. With a chain saw, Gene expertly felled two trunks away from the structure. Then tying a stout rope high on the trunk of the third, we ran it out into the field to a pulley system attached to another tree in his little forest. Back and forth the rope ran through the pulleys to give me the leverage that a pulley system is noted for. I pulled four feet, the tree top leaned over one foot. Steadily, I moved the remaining trunk out of danger of falling on the house as Gene, standing precariously on the two stumps, worked on cutting a wedge out of the third so the tree would fall free of the house corner.
Suddenly a scream. “Damn!”
The chain saw went one way, Gene went the other.
I let go of the rope, the tree sprung back into shape, and I rushed up to find out just where he’d injured himself.
“Damn,” he said again. “We should be filming this! Look. Here we are creating advantage of power with pulleys, using angles to help the tree fall properly. It would have made a fine TV lesson!”
That was Gene Gray.
Several more seasons of “The 21” Classroom” went well. Our teachers were happy, and I was learning how to be a boss of a large project and manage the work of other producer-directors. The number of member schools grew steadily from 35 to 150 and I was beginning to travel to regional and national meetings to share our knowledge about school programming and to learn what other
cities were doing.