This is the third in a series of reminiscences by Fred Barzyk, longtime WGBH producer and director.
People! for NBC
In 1976, I received a call from a big time talent agent.
I hung up on him because I thought it was a joke. He called again and said that Lily Tomlin and Time magazine had proposed a TV show to NBC called People! Not only was it scheduled; Lily would like me to be the director. I still didn’t believe him and said no thanks.
Several days later I got a call from Jane Wagner. She explained that she and Lily worked together and that she, as the executive producer, wanted me to be the director. I asked why? I was just a TV producer/director working for WGBH in Boston. I had never done a commercial show. Jane told me she saw my “Medium is the Medium” segment on the Public Broadcasting Laboratory show and was impressed. That segment was the first time artists were given control of the TV equipment to create art. It was an important art event and was recognized by a lot of press.
But what did a lot of crazy video images have to do with a commercial TV show? Jane said the “way I thought” was just what she needed for the show. I finally understood that this was a real offer.
We agreed to meet in NYC. At the time, I was a member of the arts panel for the New York State Council on the Arts and it had a meeting a week later. We agreed to meet in a Chinese restaurant that was in the same building. I was still very skeptical. We met in this strange, dark Chinese restaurant and sipped tea. Jane was charming and very complimentary. Finally it sank in that I was going to do an NBC show with Lily Tomlin, a recognized talent. This was never in my plans, but what the hell. I said I would do it.
I did not belong to the directors union, DGA, but since it was being produced out of house by Time, it didn’t matter.
I called my dear friend and fellow producer, David Loxton, to join me in this adventure. He couldn’t believe it either but he joined as co-producer. And so we worked for several months with Jane and Lily.
Jane would arrive with this large bag and pull tons of articles clipped from newspapers and magazines. She and Lily would pick out the ideas that made them excited. David and I divided up the segments to produce. My first one was Loretta Lynn.
In 2015, I sent an e-mail to Lily and Jane describing a book idea. It would tell the history of WGBH, which many consider the best TV station in the country. In the e-mail, I also described the shoot with Loretta Lynn.
Dear Lily and Jane:
One of my pet projects is to somehow develop a WGBH History Book, collecting all the great stories of what many consider the finest TV/Radio station in the country. You were part of a big experiment trying to combine drama and video art. An Experiment that did not work.
But it taught me so many things that it was well worth the gamble. I am hoping you might take a few moments to write a short story about that time. My hope is to gather all these great stories that could one day become a testimony to the adventure that was WGBH. Thanks for considering helping.
But in turn, I owe you a story. I am not sure if I told you all that happened to me on the Loretta Lynn shoot for People. I first went out to meet her agent in Nashville. He took me to a very fancy French Restaurant. He wanted to know what the angle was to our story. I told him we wanted to celebrate her work and career. He agreed and we set a shoot date.
I never talked to Loretta, never met her until the night we were to begin shooting. I arrived at the Grand Old Opry (huge crowd), met my local film crew (husband and wife) and was informed that I could only film Loretta performance from backstage (unions). I still had not met her but was introduced to her dear friend, the Butcher Holler doctor who told her she was pregnant at age 13. A happy man who welcomed us all to the very special world of Loretta.
At the end of the performance, I met Loretta for the first time and she announced we were getting on her bus and heading to Butcher Holler for the shoot. She was “going home!” I turned to my crew and they agreed to the plan. On the bus, before we began the trip, Loretta had to read my palm. After looking at my hand for several minutes, she agreed. Whew!
The bus headed off into the night with Loretta, her agent, a female reporter from Rolling Stone, and her Butcher Holler doctor. Along the way Loretta came to the back of the bus and announced that she has just created a professional name for her sister: she was going to be called Crystal Gayle. Loretta said that was because her sister loved the hamburgers from the fast food restaurants named Crystal Hamburgers.
We traveled all night, making just one stop so the driver could get some biscuits and gravy. Conway Twitty’s bus pulled into the same parking lot. Loretta did not want to see him and sent her agent to say hello.
When we arrived in Butcher Holler it was early morning and none of us had any real sleep. The Doctor invited us to his place and gave us each a pillow. We all ended up on the floor, Loretta, my crew, the reporter from Rolling Stone, and me. As I squinted my eyes at our situation, everything just seemed surreal as we tried to get some shuteye.
Next morning, we headed out to visit the “shack” were Loretta was born and raised. Along the way we visited some of her relatives. Now, I want you to imagine the situation. Loretta had not been back there for many years and now she shows up with the group of strangers holding cameras. The welcome to Loretta by her family was rather cool. We finally made it to the “shack.” She went up alone first, and then allowed us to film inside.
The trip ended up at her mansion back in Tennessee in a small town that survives because of her presence. Her husband was off doing some kind of covered wagon adventure across country. As we drove up toward the mansion there was a burned-out auto sitting on the side of the road. We later found out that it was her son’s car. We filmed her diving into the Olympic size pool. And so ended my trip with Loretta.
The next segment was a live comedy performance by Lily at a university in Boston. Then I was off to California to videotape a conversation with Louise Lasser. Louise was starring in a comedy TV series called “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman.” The segment was going to take place on a beach with these two comedians. The conversation was all over the place in content and ended up with them talking about their shoes.
David and I both worked on the best segment in the show, a documentary segment that juxtaposed a glamorous model and a young blue-collar boxer. They both end up at disco clubs … the model in a chic club in Manhattan and the boxer at a seedy Brooklyn joint.
The night we were shooting at the chic club, Paul Simon wanders over to say hello to Lily. She asks him to be in the show. He agrees. We decide to have him, with Lily on his arm, try to get into this exclusive club. They won’t let him because he is too “short.” Paul is measured against a mark on the wall … but he is too short. Lily creates another plan to get into the club. A young man in a tux enters and he is OK’d to join the crowd. Lily saddles up to him and asks if he would escort her. He agrees and we watch poor Paul is left alone bemoan his fate.
David, Lily, Jane, and I put the show together with editor Dick Bartlett and submitted it to NBC. Lily announced that there were not enough “hugs” in the show. So I got a cameraperson and we ran thru the streets of New York hugging total strangers. What would NBC say?
The network’s man in charge, Dick Ebersol, made the final decision of which segments appeared in the hour show. People! aired in the same time slot as Saturday Night Live right after their first season ended. We only did one show and People! ceased to exist.
And now for the WGBH connection: Since I had befriended Lily and Jane, I offered them a chance to do an experimental drama for the WGBH New Television Workshop. The drama would involve video artists and a dance company. They agreed. Wow! And for minimums!
This wild experimental “thing” was called Collisions.
My idea was based on an assumption that video artists, working on their own, would create personal visions around the “idea” of Collision. Then (somehow) we would put them into the drama to “enrich” the story. Jane would write the drama and Lily would be the main character.
I needed help with this project and so David Loxton joined our merry group. We combined our limited grant monies — David ran the TV Lab at WNET/13 in New York while I was the head of the WGBH New TV Workshop — to fund the project.
The artists were Stan Van Der Beek, Ron Hays, William Wegman, and the Louie Falco Dance Company. These artists were free to create whatever they wanted about collisions. It was up to David and me to figure out how to put them into the drama. This was a huge gamble. David was very dubious. And he was right.
Jane’s script arrived and it was a satiric Sci-Fi romp about an alien spirit (a pulsating light that bounced) arriving on Earth to figure out what life was like. The alien spirit takes over the body of a TV newscaster (Lily) and then sends back her findings to a group of big shot aliens on a planet somewhere in the galaxy. And whom did we cast for them?
Because it was Lily and Jane doing the show, we were able to gather some of the biggest names from NBC’s Saturday Night Live. (As of 2016, that show is still on the air.) Dan Ackroyd and Gilda Radner agreed to appear in the show. I added another wild comic, a non-stop talker who spoke gibberish and eventually goes berserk, running all over the auditorium. His name: Professor Irwin Corey.
A great deal of the production took place in Studio A at WGBH. There was a giant blue screen in which we inserted nighttime stars. The big shot aliens (Ackroyd, Radner, Prof. Corey, and actor Charles White) were seated around a table, which also was a blue screen. Inserted in the table were images of Lily telling them what she found out about Earth people.
The next day’s production involved a typical local commercial news set. Lily was the news anchor, with Russ Morash as co-anchor. After the newscast, we see her body taken over by the alien spirit. This time she reports to the distant planet all the strange things she has found out.
We then took a film crew to shoot sequences around Boston where the alien spirit causes havoc. Then came the last big shoot, one that is very special to me.
Lily was all into the project, and she invited us to her mother’s hometown, Ashtabula, Kentucky, to film the last scenes. Inside her mother’s home, we filmed many of Lily’s relatives as she talks about her strange feelings of being not herself. The show ends with her lying down on a grave in a local graveyard. The story was done, and it was time to figure out how the artist’s works fit.
Needless to say, these artists’ visions were all special and not a natural fit.
- The Louie Falco Dance Company did a dance in a deserted building in the Watertown armory. They used a Nina Simone song.
- Ron Hays created the opening animation depicting the existence of a distant planet. This was the most comfortable fit to the drama.
- William Wegman did a stand up wearing a pair of slinkys as eyeglasses. I am not even sure what it was about.
- Van Der Beek gave us images that were abstract and used as B-roll enhancing the alien spirit taking over Lily’s body.
We edited for months, trying to make this all work. But alas, the show was a bust. Lily, Jane, David and I agreed that it would never air. Lily did allow a University Film Cooperative to play it on campuses across America.
Years later I was given an award from the French Video critics for my work with video artists. I traveled to France for the ceremony. They asked me to play one of my works for the crowd. I chose Collisions.
I warned them it was a total failure and proved a point: unless you are willing to have total failures you can never create meaningful breakthroughs. The crowd of 150 cleared out long before the show ended. Only one person was left and he told me that it was important that I had shown it. He said he understood my choice. And so ended Collisions.
From Bruce Bordett
Some pix I shot during production. As I recall a great time was had by all.