By Vic Washkevich, in the Boston University alumni magazine, May, 2015
Way back in the summer of 1957, 10 new scholars arrived at BU’s Graduate School of Communications with the mission to attend school by day and become the arms and legs of WGBH-TV by night. Our scholarships were made possible trough the generosity of the Lowell Foundation.
Back then, WGBH-TV was on air from 6 until 11 p.m., Monday through Friday. The station was on Massachusetts Avenue in Cambridge, directly across from MIT and one floor above a luncheonette, in a space that once housed a roller skating rink.
It was the TV equivalent of a garage band. The cameras were atop wooden fixed tripods that we prodded across floors furrowed by time and neglect, directing our tired picture tubes, rescued from the WBZ-TV dumpster, at luminaries from Harvard and MIT who discussed things esoteric. Surely, it was then and there that the phrase “talking heads” was coined and became part of the English lexicon.
In our youth, nothing seemed insurmountable. We approached every challenge with the old Mickey Rooney “Let’s put on a show!” enthusiasm.
All programming was live, back-to-back, and broadcast from a single studio. We raced from the director’s booth to man a camera, then to pull a cable, then to operate a boom mike every night for a year.
And so, with our primitive, fragile equipment, we aired the Boston Symphony Orchestra, the Boston Arts Festival, Father Norman J. O’Connor (known as The Jazz Priest), and much more.
Several of us made it through the entire year, became fast friends, and have remained close over the years via reunions at regular intervals, including John Fusilli (COM ’59), Stew White (COM ’58), Paul Noble (COM ’58), Bob Moscone (DGE ’49), and Don Mallinson (DGE ’56, COM ’57).
Passager Books, a not-for-profit press dedicated to publishing the work of older writers, has just released A Sunday in Purgatory, a book of poems by 99-year old Henry Morgenthau III (he’ll be 100 next January).
Henry was a WGBH staffer from 1955 to 1977. During that time he executive produced a variety of series and documentaries, including “The Negro and the American Promise” (1963) with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., James Baldwin, and others; Focus on Metropolis; and Eleanor Roosevelt: Prospects of Mankind (1959-62). His work won him and WGBH national acclaim, including Emmy, Peabody, UPI, and other awards and nominations.
Henry’s father, Henry Morgenthau, Jr., was FDR’s Treasury Secretary and played a major role in shaping the New Deal and America’s post WWII policies toward Germany; his grandfather, Henry Morgenthau, was ambassador to the Ottoman Empire during WWI and the most prominent American to speak out against the Armenian genocide.
After a long and impressive career as a producer and as an author, Henry III began writing poetry in his 90s.
The poems in A Sunday in Purgatory combine memoir (his father “steadying the trembling hand [of FDR] as he mixed Bourbon Old Fashioneds and nibbled caviar, a gift from the Soviet ambassador,” for example), reflections on aging (“Anticipation of death is like looking for a new job”), and wrestling with the tension that exists between being part of a famous American family and yet knowing that he’s an individual, separate from his family history:
I need to be the person my friends and family believe me to be… I can’t be the person I am, but can’t push him out. Perhaps he will be stillborn After I die…
2016 Pulitzer Prize winner Peter Balakian said, “Henry Morgenthau’s poems are crisp, elegant forays into memory both personal and cultural… His surgical examinations of self and his unflinching stare into mortality define the unique and honest voice of this remarkable first book of poems.”
From Paul Noble: Last night in Washington DC, 35 relatives and friends came together to celebrate Henry’s 100th birthday. Henry read one of his poems, entertained with his usual wit.
WGBH alum Henry Morgenthau III is scheduled to be interviewed tomorrow morning (Sat, 1/14) by Scott Simon on NPR’s Weekend Edition Saturday.
Henry turned 100 on Wednesday and just published his first book of poetry, A Sunday in Purgatory (Passager Books).
On March 11, 2013, WGBH Media Library and Archives’ Archives Manager Keith Luf and Digital Archives Manager Michael Muraszko loaded 7,010 tapes from the WGBH vault onto 12 palettes, which were then shipped via an 18-wheeler to be digitized at Crawford Media Services in Atlanta, Georgia for the American Archive of Public Broadcasting.
Only a few months later would the WGBH MLA in collaboration with the Library of Congress be selected as the permanent home for the American Archive collection, an initiative to identify, preserve, and make accessible as much as possible the historic record of public media in America.
WGBH’s tapes were stored in 306 archives boxes, totaling 459 linear feet (longer than 1 1/2 football fields!) and comprising more than 6,400 hours of content. In many cases, the archives staff knew only the program title of the tapes — they often knew nothing about the recorded participants.
The content dated back as early as March of 1947 and was as recent as 2005. The MLA sent material on 15 different video and audio tape formats, the majority of which had exceeded the manufacturer’s intended lifespan. MLA’s Keith Luf compared the situation to a child’s 18 year old cat, which everyone knew wouldn’t — and couldn’t — be around much longer.
In June of 2014, WGBH’s 6,400 hundred hours of content was returned. In addition to the original 7,010 tapes, the content was delivered as digital files on a second copy — on 17 LTO-6 tapes…. stored in one box!
And with the digitized material came a new ease of accessibility — the MLA staff have been able to easily watch or listen to the digital files and discover content they never knew had been sitting in the vault for all these years.
Among the new discoveries includes a 1967 10-minute monologue by American historian and activist Howard Zinn on the social unrest of the times; a recorded speech given by JFK in either 1962 or 1963 at the Armory in Boston; and a 1975 video recording of a cello class taught by Harvard professor Mstislav Rostropovich, who during the recording asked a graduate student in his class “What kind of a name is Yo-Yo?”
As additional funding has become available, the MLA has recently coordinated with Crawford on the digitization of 800 more hours of 3/4″ videotapes and 1/4″ audiotapes, which will be shipped out next week. Who knows what we’ll find next!?
In the fall of 1959, Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt began her series of monthly discussion programs for National Educational Television. It was called “Prospects of Mankind,” and was a production of WGBH-TV for National Educational Television.
It was made possible because Mrs. Roosevelt’s longtime friend Henry Morgenthau III was able to secure funding from the Ford Foundation for a monthly seminar to be conducted by Mrs. Roosevelt at Brandeis University in Waltham. The monthly programs were produced on Sunday afternoons at Slosberg Music Center on the Brandeis campus (with occasional forays to New York, Washington, London and Paris).
During the first year, the programs were directed by David M. Davis. They were executive produced by Henry Morgenthau, and the two co-producers were Paul Noble and Diana Tead Michaelis. Virginia Kassel and Beatrice Braude rounded out the production team. In the second year, Paul Noble was the director; in the third year, the director was Gene S. Nichols.
The programs were recorded and distributed on videotape.
Most of the programs dealt with political issues. Guests included Governor Nelson Rockefeller of New York, Governor Luis Munoz Marin of Puerto Rico, Dr. Ralph Bunche of the United Nations, economist Barbara Ward, playwright Santha Rama Rau, Richard Crossman, M.P., Chicago educator R. Sargent Shriver, Sen. Hubert Humphrey, Indian ambassador Krishna Menon, Tanzanian president Julius Nyrere, Uganda president Tom Mboya, Gen. James Gavin and Voice Of America chief, Edward R. Murrow.
Mrs. Roosevelt always was partnered with a journalist or specialist on each program, such as Erwin Canham or Saville Davis of the Christian Science Monitor, Dr. Henry Kissinger from Harvard University, Dr. Jerome Weisner from MIT, and others.
Untold stories about the series:
In her later years,Mrs. Roosevelt suffered from a loss of hearing. She also tired easily under the hot lights. To remedy that, our engineering department fitted her with an earpiece giving her program audio. If she seemed to be losing attention, we boosted the sound going into the headset.
One day in Manhattan, while crossing the street, she stepped between two parked cars on Eighth Street in Greenwich Village, and a car backed into her, knocking her down. She said to the stunned driver “I’m fine! Just keep going!” “After all,” she said, “I was the one at fault and I didn’t want to get him into trouble.” She limped to her destination, gave her scheduled speech, then went home (to the house she shared with her doctor and his wife), and was then taken for X-rays. She suffered a sprain, but it meant we had to move the following Sunday’s show to WNEW-TV in New York.
The only time I ever had a fight with a Nobel Prize winner was with Dr. Ralph Bunche, then Under Secretary-General of the United Nations. He refused to wear a “TV Blue” shirt, which I offered him. “I am not a clown!” he shouted.
When Mrs. Roosevelt decided to take a fall holiday in the Dolomites in Europe in September 1960, this interfered with her scheduled tapings in Boston. Henry reached out to his old friend Leonard Miall in London, then Head of Talks at the BBC. Within a few days, arrangements were made to tape two shows in London, which would not only be part of “Prospects of Mankind” but which would air on the BBC. We headed to London on August 8 to prepare for the early September tapings. We were assigned a director for the programs who later became one of the longest-lasting BBC directors, a Welshman named Huw Weldon, whose program “Monitor” was a precursor or model for America’s “60 Minutes.”
One of the key guests was the 88-year-old Lord Bertrand Russell, socialist, atheist, mathematician, and philosopher. I introduced him to Mrs. R. “Madam, I admire your energy!” he said. “What about you, sir?” she responded.After a lunch with a great deal of wit and teasing remarks, Lord Russell asked me if his parent had to sign the standard release form where it said “parent’s signature.” I said, “Yes, where does your parent live?” He responded “That is a question that can only be answered by theologians.”
In 1939, a young reporter for the Boston Globe attended an “off-the-record” press briefing in a Boston hotel with the then-Ambassador to the Court of St. James, the Honorable Joseph P. Kennedy. The Ambassador said that under no circumstances should the U. S. get involved in the war against the Nazis, a war which was then imminent and threatening to Great Britain as well as the rest of the continent.Louis Lyons ignored the “off-the-record” request, printed the story, and it made headlines nationwide. The next morning, Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt read the paper, stormed into Franklin’s bedroom and said “Franklin, fire that man!”Twenty-one years later, Sunday, January 3, 1960, Senator John F. Kennedy was one of Mrs. Roosevelt’s guests on the campus of Brandeis University for her monthly “Prospects of Mankind” program. It was the day JFK announced his decision to run for President. Henry Morgenthau persuaded his friend “Jack” to appear on the show. After the taping, there was an impromptu press conference for JFK on the set. Who asked the first question? You guessed it, Louis Lyons!Did JFK know that Louis had done his father in? We’ll never know.And how did JFK later convince Mrs. Roosevelt to support his candidacy? Was it because she traded that support for his agreement to start the Peace Corps ? Historians will have to answer that question.
When Senator Kennedy arrived at Slosberg Music Center to record Mrs. Roosevelt’s program, he was wearing a J. Press shirt, initialed JFK. I asked him if he wouldn’t mind exchanging it temporarily for a TV Blue shirt. He agreed, and I gave him one from our supply, size 16 1/2 neck, 35 sleeve.Later that week, I had his shirt laundered, and I returned it to him at the Senate Office Building. He kept the WGBH shirt.Years later, I still regret not keeping his shirt as a memento or to wear on special occasions.
One day in August 1958, a giant machine was rolled through the studio and into the new “videotape room.” It was the first Ampex “quad” tape recorder, using the new and revolutionary 2-inch magnetic tape.
After several weeks of tinkering, the first test of the machine was a recording of Jean Brady (later, Moscone) (later, Jolly) playing the piano. But the equipment didn’t have its first on-air use until Tuesday, November 11 (Veterans Day), the day after Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Boston premiere of “Flower Drum Song” in its pre-Broadway tour.
Tuesday evenings at 6:45, traditionally, we presented “Elliot Norton Reviews” his live, weekly, drama review show, which had premiered that September. Broadway shows often opened “out of town” in Boston or Philadelphia. After a Monday evening opening, Elliot would usually ask the author, director and a star or two to join him the next evening on his program.
“They came into the studio and taped a half-hour show with Rodgers at the keyboard and Elliot and Hammerstein standing behind the piano.”
The morning of the 11th, the press agent for “Flower Drum Song” called and said Rodgers and Hammerstein would be unavailable that evening. I immediately suggested that R&H might come in the afternoon, and we would tape the show. I called the engineering department, and Larry Messenger said we would be ready to do an on-air show for the first time.
At 2 o’clock, the limo with Rodgers and Hammerstein pulled up in front of 84 Mass. Ave. We brought them upstairs. I put on their makeup (I was a jack-of-all-trades in those days, as were our entire BU crew staffers and grads). They came into the studio and taped a half-hour show with Rodgers at the keyboard and Elliot and Hammerstein standing behind the piano.
After the taping, we invited the entire staff downstairs for milk and cookies with R & H. While the strains of “Victory at Sea” played over the PA system (courtesy of Wil Morton), the WGBHers mingled and shook hands with our guests.
Then, I asked R & H if they’d like to see the show. “Don’t you have to develop it?” asked Rodgers.
I brought them into the room with the one machine, sat them on the two stools in the room, and Larry pressed the play button. Their jaws dropped! At the end of the showing, Hammerstein said, “You know, Dick, the next time we do ‘Cinderella’, we’ll never have to do it again!”
Reunions in 2000 and 2006, sparked by the inimitable Fred Barzyk, were filled with stories, hugs, and that abiding comradeship of those who were struggling to create public broadcasting in United States.
Too much time had gone by, and too many names added to the list those who left us, to not think of at least getting some of the local folk together in 2012.
Here are the photos taken by Emily Lovering of that happy band.
Stewart Leanny White, age 76, died at his Ann Arbor home on January 25, 2012.
Stewart was born on April 14, 1935 and raised outside of Philadelphia in Media, Pennsylvania. He graduated from Media High School in 1953, from Penn State University in 1957 and from Boston University in 1959. He served in the US Army at Walter Reed Hospital.
At Boston University, Stewart made lifelong friends working at WGBH, where he did a news, sports and weather show. He liked to boast that he had the second highest rated news show in Boston public radio at the time (there were two).
Stewart worked for Smith, Klein and French in video/communications in the 1960s, and was recruited to do similar work at the University of Michigan Dental School in 1969. In 1977 he transitioned to the UM Medical School as director of Biomedical Communications. He retired in 1995…
There will be a celebration of his life, as per his wishes, in mid-March 2012. Those wishing to make a tangible gift in Stewart’s memory can do so by donating to the Penn State Alumni Association/Michigan chapter scholarship fund, or the annual Ann Arbor winter coat drive.
Digital library project will place 40 hours of Hub TV newscasts from 1959-2000 at your fingertips
Poring through the tapes and films stored in the archives vault at WGBH is like taking a tour of Boston history as it was captured on TV news broadcasts: Fidel Castro visits Boston in 1959; Martin Luther King Jr. marches in Roxbury in 1965; Barack Obama protests outside Harvard University in 1990….
Films and tapes deteriorate over time, so WGBH officials have begun ambitiously digitizing not only former newscasts from their Channel 2, but historical news footage from other local TV stations. … The result will be the Boston TV News Digital Library, the first online repository of Boston television news from 1959 to 2000….
WCVB’s Natalie Jacobson, the first female anchor of an evening newscast in Boston … is glad these records will be made public. “For young people who are studying the history of New England and everything that goes with it, this is a great gift,’’ said Jacobson, who added that it also important to see how differently news was reported in years past….
Steven Cohen, a lecturer who teaches an education class at Tufts University, started incorporating the available video clips in his classes when students studied desegregation in Boston in the 1960s and 1970s.
“Having these archives digitized and having the students look at them online is literally eye-opening,’’ said Cohen. “It really does make the history accessible.’’
Supreme Court decides blacks do have a right to vote
World War II changed the order of world power; the United States and the USSR become super powers
Cold War begins
Now that the War was over, my Uncle Ed would come home from Germany. My Aunt Frances was going to be so, so happy.
She had this colicky little baby, Edward, and she needed some help. He would cry and cry. You could hear it all over the neighborhood. He was my cousin and I felt sorry for the little kid. For my Aunt, too.
They lived across the street from us. Good old South 7th Street, that was where we lived. We were renters.
On one side of our rented house lived the Getarec’s. Their son, Lawrence, had just formed a Polka band; his friends would come over on weekends to rehearse. They were terrible. Three weeks later, they disbanded. Larry never got to do one of those weddings gigs he wanted to do so badly. Poor Larry.
On the other side of us lived the Nowicki’s. One of their clan was a hunter. Bow and arrow. He and a friend actually took down a 500 lb. Black Bear. They strung it up in their garage. The Milwaukee Journal came and took a picture. He was famous in our neighborhood.
Two young girls lived there, too. Joan and Barbara.
Barbara, lived next door, upstairs.
little kids, we played, making mud pies
under back porches,
digging dirt, all tiny pails and shovels.
Her sister, Joan, older by 4 years, taunted us
“Look! Boyfriend and girlfriend.”
Angrily we denied,
not understanding what it meant anyway,
but knowing nothing good
could come from being
We played movies,
acting out all the parts
in grassy backyards
and concrete alleys
of the Polish South Side.
We had a secret hideout
dark dense bushes
one street over.
Here we could hide.
no one else allowed.
She to Catholic, I to Public. We saw each other
but all was changing
We, evolving, living new adventures,
far from secret hideouts,
mud pies under back porches.
Becoming new people,
Why do we have to grow anew?
Left then with only distant memories
Of a little girl who lived next door,
My Mom had this vision for me. She thought it would be wonderful if I could be in show business.
I mean, her very own cousin, Johnny Davis, had a big dance band that played all the big venues in Milwaukee. His band looked something like this.
She was very proud to be his cousin. Johnny’s band had these two young guys, Dennis Morgan and Jack Carson. They went to Hollywood and became movie stars! One of their movies was called “Two Guys from Milwaukee.” Movie critic, Leonard Maltin, gave it 2 and half stars. Not bad.
Two Guys From Milwaukee Trailer
And my Aunt Frances, well, she was very good friends with a Polish musician from the South Side of Milwaukee. He played piano at all the fancy dinner restaurants in town. His name was Liberace.
My family was just surrounded by all these talented people.
My mother thought, “Why Not Freddy?”
So, when I was seven, she signed me up for dance lessons.
I think she imagined me to be in a show, dressed in costumes, applauded by the masses.
THE LESSONS (1943)
We climbed 101 wooden steps up
Up, to the very tip top
of the 5th Street viaduct,
Mom and I, my tiny tap shoes in hand.
We paid a nickel each and rode the Hinky Dinky,
Milwaukee’s super small streetcar.
Rattling across the South Side,
past smoke stacks,
heady smells from the yeast factory,
we emerged from the rackety ride
and hurried down Wisconsin Avenue
to the School of Dance!
We climbed 31 wooden steps up
Up, to the very tip top
of the old brick building
Mom and I, my tiny tap shoes in hand.
In the hot, sweaty dance studio,
crammed tight with little kids
tap, tap, tap dancing,
steel cleats clanging wooden floors.
the tall thin dance teacher
trying to train little feet
Click, tap. tap, pat, click. click
Mom, sat, silently, secretly,
Dreams of Show Business,
Dreams through me.
Click, tap, pat, pat, click, click
My feet stomped, banged, kicked,
Hoping to create
Click, tap. Tap, tap, pat, click
Me, a 7 year old kid,
who bought his clothes in
the Sears husky department
Click, pat, tap, click, click, click
those tap shoes took a beating.
Click, pat, tap, click.
After the fourth tap dance lesson,
riding back on the
Jiggling, clankingly, Hinky Dinky,
Breakfast, lunch, snacks
all made a nasty return.
over the hard train seats.
Mom knew the dream was gone.
She put away the tiny tap shoes
way back, in a dark hall closet,
Never to be worn again.
No more click, clack, tap.
Not for those tiny tap shoes.
For that is how dreams die… sometimes.
Without a click or tap,
But I didn’t give up on her dream. I announced that I would become a piano player! Only problem was we didn’t have a piano.
I started taking lessons practicing on a piece of fold out cardboard designed to look like piano keys. They knew eventually, I would need a real piano. I don’t think they could afford one, but somehow they managed to buy a small spinet piano. I still have it today.
I really never could play the piano, even after years of lessons. However, it was known in my neighborhood that I had a piano. This fact alone brought me face to face with a dilemma.
I had forgotten about this incident until I started writing this personal history. I learned a lesson that day: Do not judge a book by its cover.
“I can’t even remember his name”
Like a lingering shadow in my memory bank
Hanging there in the void, frozen, pale, fragile —
Almost brushed aside by other fading images
His freckled face —
His sandy hair —
His wet hazel eyes —
His grimy glasses —
So often I ignored him, thinking nothing of him
And now, I can’t even remember his name
It was the end of summer, hot and dry
He came to my porch and knocked on the door
He had never come to my house before
My God, we hardly even talked
But there he stood —
How could I have ignored him, thinking nothing of him?
And now, I can’t even remember his name
He heard that I played the piano, that I knew music
He was just a 14 year old Polish kid from the South Side
Not polished or trained in music, awkward and shy
He told me his dream and thrust the papers into my hands
Can you play it?
I wrote it myself.
I can’t play the piano, you know —
Can you play my concerto?
He stood, waiting, hoping
And I can’t even remember his name.
Where did he get the blank music paper?
How did he know about D minor?
I stared hard at his hand written notes, bewildered —
How could this be?
But there it was
It looked real,
way too difficult —
I stuttered, swallowed hard, and admitted my failings
It’s too tough,
I’ve only begun to play the piano
Maybe someone else —
He said nothing, smiled and nodded his head
took his papers back, and left
I watched as he walked away down my street
We saw each other on the playground near St. Helen’s
We played basketball and hung around a little
Summers are like that
He never mentioned our meeting
Neither did I
My piano lessons went on and on
Never mounting to much
I stopped thinking of him
I wonder if he ever heard his concerto?
I hope so.
So sad that I can’t even remember his name.
Just a lingering shadow in my memory bank
Ohio Street playground.
Concrete, stark, a battle field where kids become ensnared in the thoughts of winning and losing, fighting through fears and hoping to win, you know, throwing in the winning basket just before the final bell goes off! It doesn’t usually work out that way.
From Don Hallock (with Michael Ambrosino) — 12/18/2010 (updated 1/11/2011)
Many extraordinarily-gifted figures and luminaries of the day — in the arts, science, politics and education — found their ways into the halls and studios of the original WGBH-TV/FM studios at 84 Massachusetts Avenue, which were located just across the street from one of the main entrances to MIT, and close by Eero Saarenen’s beautiful Kresge Auditorium.
WGBH first moved into the building in 1955, and a major expansion was accomplished in the fall of 1956. The fire, which destroyed it all, ending the station’s rather brief six year tenure, took place in October of 1961.
During those short six years though, the place was a veritable hot-bed of talent; many very successful careers were begun here, and much that was revolutionary in broadcasting history took place during WGBH’s time in the building.
Simulcasting (FM and TV) of the Boston Symphony Orchestra was pioneered in this building. The projection room was also home to the very first unit off the assembly line of the Ampex VR1000 2-inch videotape machine (the first videotape machine ever commercially available).
Much broadcast history was laid down at 84 Mass. Ave., and much accomplished which was the genesis of what WGBH has become today.
The Eastern Educational Network was dreamed up here, and eventually proved itself a model for vastly more extensive educational broadcast link-ups.
Even then WGBH was proving itself a production center to rival that of WNET in New York and KQED in San Francisco, the other two major centers supplying programming for NET (the National Educational Network). This was not an easy accomplishment, given that most major talents were located in New York, and had to be brought (lured by superior program ideas) to Boston to perform in WGBH television productions.
A certain reverence accompanies this presentation, as much broadcast history was laid down at 84 Mass. in six short years, and much accomplished which was the genesis of what WGBH has become today.
A space designed for creativity
I’ve taken the time to do this project since there are still a few of us who affectionately remember working in these rather modest, musty, and occasionally ill-fitting spaces, but also because there may also be some alums of more recent vintage with an interest in having some sense of the rather makeshift origins of the station’s facilities.
This journey into the past includes two annotated floor plans of 84 Mass. Ave. during that brief period. Likely this presentation is unique, since I believe none of the original blueprints exist, and as far as I know no one else has attempted such a reconstruction.
There are still a few of us who affectionately remember working in these rather modest, musty, and occasionally ill-fitting spaces.
Please also bear in mind that these drawings are a reconstruction completely from memory, and so there may be unintentional errors or omissions. I apologize for any of these in advance; but the building was configured this way almost 50 years ago, and memory can become a bit vague over time.
Since (I believe) no helpful dimensional information has survived the interim,these plans could not be drawn to scale. The measurements are quite approximate but, I also believe, give a good idea of what the original 84 Mass. Ave. facility looked like.
The slight angle of the rear wall is not a mistake. I had thought I remembered it that way, and made the original drawings to reflect that. Later, though, I doubted my memory and made the building rectangular. In a very helpful email, however, Michael Ambrosino said that he remembered the building tapering toward the north, and so I revised my plan again to show that peculiarity.
I want, also, to offer a second apology here. Since far too many of the WGBH “family” worked in the various parts of the operation at 84 Mass. Ave., I will have forego trying to fit names with the spaces. Instead, I will mention only a few key figures. For those who will inevitably be left out, please don’t be hurt, and please forgive the omissions.
First some notes on the building itself, and the virtues and drawbacks it presented to a new WGBH-TV, and a somewhat more mature WGBH-FM.
From roller rink to educational link
The building was constructed as a roller rink, with the skating surface on the second floor, and balcony spaces for observation and relaxation on the third – as is the custom generally for skating facilities. The street floor was sub-divided into spaces to house several shops, offices and other store-front enterprises. I’d be surprised if it measured much more than 250 feet in length, 70 feet in depth, and about 40 feet in height.
WGBH did not own the building and, initially, the station rented only the south half of the upper two floors (to the left of the photo). The north half of both floors (to the right) housed a company which designed and built highly accurate atomic clocks — probably for MIT.
It was constructed of red brick, and judging by the rather stern and gloomy architecture — which may be seen in Brooks Leffler’s unique photo of the façade from across Mass. Ave. — probably dated from the 1920s or possibly the 1930s. It could possibly have been built in the early 1940s, but I doubt it. Renovations required to make the cavernous edifice fit the station’s needs were very extensive, and must have been quite costly.
Advantages and disadvantages
One advantage of the building — aside from its being located just across the street from MIT, or even in the same city as some of the nation’s most prestigious educational institutions — was that, while obviously not very fire resistant, it was a sturdy monolith, and didn’t need as much sound-proofing as might otherwise have been required.
One very major disadvantage, which plagued production work from the beginning to the end, was the studio floors (the original roller-skating surfaces) which were made of maple boards which had been washed too many times. The boards were all cupped from the moisture, and this made camera-dollying in most directions a horribly lumpy business.
As well, the cameras of the day were very heavy (about 250 pounds for a pedestal unit — God knows how close to a ton when the Fearless Panoram Dolly was used), and the creaking of the boards was heard on countless shows and recordings. We tried many solutions, including hand nailing each and every board down tighter, but all to no avail. For this reason the studios were a sound engineer’s, and camera operator’s, ongoing nightmare.
Other disadvantages included the fact that only the station’s top four or five executives had reserved parking spaces in MIT’s lot behind the building. The school’s parking facilities were even then over-subscribed. And so the rest of the nearly 100 staff had to do countless daily neighborhood drive-bys in order to find awfully scarce (and very frequently illegal) parking.
I don’t know who was responsible for all of the renovations that made the old rink suitable for a radio and television facility, but they do deserve abundant praise.
One notable exception was Bob Moscone, the studio supervisor (affectionately known to the studio minions as “The King”), who managed to convince all and sundry that an illegal spot on the alleyway sidewalk at the front left corner of the building was his (somehow, it was never ticketed). The only person I can remember ever successfully violating this unofficial convention was Al Hinderstein. Such chutzpa Al had!
And a final major disadvantage: there was almost no place nearby serving any kind of decent food. Under most of studio A the street floor did feature Tech Drug, a soda fountain with a large table area in which to eat lunch. Many from WGBH and MIT did so. But the food was — how can I put it diplomatically? — atrocious. Besides, they only served lunch, which is not very helpful to a staff most of which started work at 2 pm, rehearsed for three hours until 5:00pm when we took to the air, and left around 11:00pm.
There was an Italian restaurant about a block further into Cambridge, and the food was reasonably tasty, but that place only served dinner and the kitchen was not very clean (witness the many canker sores one could contract after eating there). Otherwise, we had to travel a bit of a distance to find eats. Bag lunches were by far our most common form of nourishment. Ah, but it all made the pioneering effort somehow more of a commitment, and bound us together the more tightly.
In fairness, I’ll hasten to observe that the two stages of renovations to make the old rink suitable for a radio and television facility were quite well thought out, and with considerable foresight. The layout and facilities were always practical, and served our basic needs quite admirably. I don’t know who was responsible for all that, but they do deserve abundant praise.
The tour begins
Well let’s get to the meat of the thing by bringing on the plans.
As a convention — and to avoid confusion — we will call the street floor of 84 Mass. the “street floor.” But the logic ends there. The second floor of 84 Mass. we will call the “studio floor” (since, obviously, the studios were all located there). The third, following similar reasoning, we will refer to as the “office floor.” Please remember that both floor plans reflect the layout following the occupation of the entire length of the building.
The drawings — one of the “studio floor” (floor 2), and one of the “office floor” (floor 3) — show the configuration of each floor after the expansion from occupancy of one half of the upper 2 floors of the building to filling of the entire upper 2 floors, from one end of the building to the other.
I very much hope you find this “magical mystery tour” enjoyable. If you’re one of the “original crowd,” you might test yourself on the floor plans before consulting the key numbers, just to see how well you remember the place — or if, perhaps, you remember it better than I. Maybe this will even coax a tear or two from a few old eyes.
In the rear alley, the new/used WGBH-TV Greyhound bus resided while it was being converted to a mobile unit. As luck would have it, the outfitting was very nearly complete when the building burned, and the bus became the literal life raft for the TV operation. We did many productions using it, including parking it outside WHDH-TV, and shooting our own productions inside their studios.
What we accomplished here
From this humble home sprang the media colossus that is now WGBH. Sometimes (upstairs, in the heat of summer) we hated the place, but mostly we loved it dearly. What we did there, and who we were with each other, seem to have an ongoing life which can still be felt.
Looking back, it’s amazing what was accomplished in this place.
The fire was a catastrophe from which the public face of the station quickly recovered; the viewing audience barely noticed a hiccup. But we who salvaged what little was salvageable from the charred remains, even while pursuing a commitment to continue, did so in spite of a subtle but persistent state of shock.
It could be speculated that the fire actually catalyzed the station’s growth and rapid maturation, and that without that kick in the pants we might have languished in that old building, and in relative poverty. From adversity often comes strength, and out of ashes….
WGBH has had two more sets of digs since 84 Mass. For younger alums, and those who stayed on past the middle sixties, these newer abodes will form more of the framework of their recollections. Some of us, however, and with justification, will remember this original building fondly, and recall vividly the day of its demise.