The foundations of WGBH: 84 Mass. Ave.

This entry is part 9 of 12 in the series The Don Hallock Collection

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.

84 Massachusetts Avenue, Cambridge

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.

Possibly the only surviving image of the front of the building, looking approximately north from across Mass. Ave. at the MIT entrance — by Brooks Leffler.

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.

Studio A, during construction - looking south-east toward the control room. Personnel (according to Michael Ambrosino): Hartford Gunn, Parker Wheatly, an unknown participant, and Ted Sherbourne.

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.

Studio A panorama, looking south, from the cyclorama area toward the control room. FM studio and studio A entrance is to the left. Photo by Brooks Leffler.

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.

Jerry Adler in video control, with TV master control at far end of console.

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.

Click thumbnail to download floor 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.

Most of the mobile unit: The Boston Globe TV Week, April 20, 1962 (From Al Hinderstein's memorabilia collection - and that's Hindy, topside, behind the camera. From the right: Greg Harney, Dave Davis and a collection of the WBZ-TV staff) Fred Barzyk adds, "The second from the right is Mel Bernstein. He was on my crew and soon became program manager at WBZ."

Behind 84 Mass. Ave.

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.

With warmest regards,
Don Hallock

Press and People

This entry is part 8 of 12 in the series The Don Hallock Collection

Here, dear friends, is a small collection of images from a series of programs which few will remember, though it was, indeed, quite memorable. WGBH produced Press and People for what was then NET (National Educational Television) in what I believe was 1959 or ’60.

I found this episode — a kinescope recording of the interview with Edward R. Murrow — on You Tube some years ago, and grabbed stills from the salient parts. The video seems to have been taken down since.

The program featured Louis M. Lyons — distinguished journalist, WGBH-TV’s nightly newscaster, and curator of the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard — talking with important print and photo-journalists of the time about their work and philosophies. The guest list was truly impressive.

This series was decidedly over-produced, using the entire of studio A for a simple one-on-one interview format.

Extreme camera angles and distances were employed, and boom microphones purposely hung in the shots, all for dramatic effect. A rear projection screen can be seen behind Louis, which I don’t remember ever seeing used (and I ran Louis’ camera). In fact, as I recall, it was placed so close to the studio wall that there would have been no room for a projector behind it. A steno-typist, as you can also see, was included in the background of the wider shots of Louis — why? Only for more drama.

Louis was seated about 35 feet away from his guest, necessitating the practice of voicing his questions at what was for Louis an unusual volume. The guests also had to project their answers, which gave a somewhat artificial feel to the proceedings.

Furthermore, Louis and guest were never seen in juxtaposition; there were no two-shots from either direction. They might as well have been as far apart as Boston and New York. Empty drama.

This was the era in which we were trying anything and everything to make our shows interesting, and some of it, such as this approach, simply didn’t make much sense. (It should be said that the director was not one of ours. He was imported from Canadian Broadcasting, and was possibly trying to make an impression.)

At the close of the show, the program title was shown with “and 30,” “-30-” (or, in this case, just “30-“), an expression traditionally used by journalists to indicate the end of a story. The camera then a dollied in through the “0” of “thirty” (a hokey technique used before we had keying known as a “gobo shot”) to a card showing the steno-typist once again, and the address where one could write for a printed copy of the interview. The repeated typist would have been for emphasis, no doubt. A transcript could much more easily have been struck from the audio tapes we were quite capable of making — even then.

This slightly irreverent commemoration demonstrates how primitive even our national productions could be, and is further intended to redress, however modestly, the relative scarcity of images of Louis who was, in himself, a WGBH-TV institution.

Oh, yes, those are old fashioned, hot-pressed flip cards you see in the credits. And they are clearly crooked, as was so often the case in those days.

Press and People

Click any image to view slideshow.

Historic BSO broadcasts being reissued on DVD

Symphony Hall by Rawhead Rex via Flickr Creative Commons

The Boston Symphony Orchestra and Boston public broadcaster WGBH have partnered with International Classical Artists and their new audio and audiovisual label, ICA Classics, to release 32 BSO historic DVDs over the next four seasons.

The first set of these new BSO archival DVD releases will feature Boston Symphony Orchestra performances that took place at Harvard University’s Sanders Theatre between February 4, 1958 and October 31, 1961, under the direction of Charles Munch (BSO Music Director 1949-1962).

These DVDs — featuring music of Debussy, Ravel, Wagner, Fauré, Franck, and Beethoven — represent some of the earliest televised concerts with the Boston Symphony Orchestra … Originally broadcast on WGBH television and distributed … to educational television stations nationwide, these BSO/Charles Munch performances are being made available on DVD for the first time commercially…

Image by Rawhead Rex via Flickr Creative Commons

Ted Sherburne, 91, science television pioneer

In 1955, when WGBH-TV, Boston went on air, Ted Sherburne was program manager, framing the first schedule for the station, and influencing national standards of educational TV. Numerous awards were made to WGBH in news and science coverage, including a Sylvania award for Discovery, a science program hosted by his future wife. He was also a Program Manager for the Public Broadcasting Service, and coordinated an educational TV network for the University of California campuses.

Donations to the Archives

The WGBH Archives acquires materials that help document the history of the Foundation.  As such, the Archives is very interested in acquiring any paper, film, video, or audio materials alums may have relating to their work at WGBH. Contact Keith Luf if you would like to learn more.

Here are a few items of note that have been donated to the WGBH Archives this year by WGBH Alums.

Larry Creshkoff papers

Larry Creshkoff’s staff card came to us among Larry’s personal papers that his daughters donated to the Archives.  Faced with the unwanted prospect of disposing of Larry’s (and portions of Nancy Creshkoff’s) papers and audio recordings, the daughters contacted me and we arranged for them to donate the material to the Archives.  We are thrilled to have it and look forward to ensuring it has a good home here in the WGBH Archival Collection.

The papers are fascinating as they document his professional career from his days at Harvard, onto LICBC and WGBH, to his time after he left WGBH in 1957.  Also of note were over 100 audiotape recordings of Nancy’s early work on Children’s Circle from 1951 and 1952.

Fundraiser to help WGBH rebuild

The fundraising poster is something we took out of storage and put on display here in the Archives department recently.

It came to us from Suzanne Morse back in 1996, and as you can see from the caption documents just one of the many small, but wonderful efforts that went into helping get WGBH back on its feet following the October 1961 fire.

This poster was made by me in October ’61 for the girls at Nashoba Country Day School in Concord, MA, who are pictured in their gym uniforms. A large jar was placed beside it & the students soon filled it with coins. Their contribution was sent to WGBH in 12/61 (I think).

I thought you might enjoy having this bit of memorabilia for your archives — in celebration of your fortieth anniversary! Congratulations!!

Suzanne R. Morse (Mrs. Thomas R. Morse, Jr.) 3/96

Innovative casting process from Science Reporter

The horses were given to us recently by Ted Steinke (Class of 1956-57). Ted recounts that the horses were the result of an episode of Science Reporter he directed circa 1958-1960.

The program involved the studies of an MIT professor whose work involved a method of rapidly casting metals by utilizing a Styrofoam model.  A figure would be carved out of Styrofoam, packed in sand, and molten metal would be poured onto the model, taking the shape of the pre-carved figure.  The goal was to devise a way of speeding up the more common “lost wax” process of casting.

The darker horse, made of bronze, is an example the professor created in his lab, while the lighter horse, made of aluminum, was made live on the air during Science Reporter.  You’ll note that the aluminum example only has three legs (the missing fourth can be seen as part of the base), this was due to the fact that the sculpture was not given enough time to properly set and dry.

In each of these cases I cannot stress enough the importance the WGBH Archives places in acquiring materials that help to document the history of the Foundation.  Contact me if you would like to donate any paper, film, video, or audio materials you may have relating to your work at WGBH.

Remembering the original WGBH

Art Singer is president of the Massachusetts Broadcasters Hall of Fame.

Fifty years ago this past September, as I began an intensive one-year Masters of Communication Arts program at Boston University, I also was approved for a volunteer internship assignment at Channel 2. And for most of the academic year, on several late afternoons a week, I would take the twenty minute walk from BU across the Charles to the station’s studios on the MIT campus for a night’s work.

Who knew at the time it was to be the very best part of my graduate year and would direct a good part of my career?

84 Massachusetts Avenue

To enter the building that housed the WGBH studios was from the beginning a thrilling experience. The feeling was one of being part of grand experiment (this educational television) and also due in large measure to the fact that most of the programs I was assigned to as “crew” were produced and aired live.

As I recall, we’d begin with the children’s show, underwritten by Hood’s, at 5:30 pm and then jump to the inimitable Louis Lyons and the News at 6:00pm. A distinguished journalist for the Christian Science Monitor, Louis would unabashedly read from his notes with an occasional look up over his spectacles to remind himself and the viewer that was on camera.

At 7 p.m., one night a week, legendary theater critic Elliot Norton held forth for a half hour and his guests would be the elite of Broadway whose shows were trying out in town before opening in New York City. There in the guest chairs would be the likes of Rogers and Hammerstein or Julie Styne, or the directors, producers, and stars of the shows.

And scattered elsewhere on my assignments were tapings of other shows. These ranged from Brandeis President Abe Sachar’s “The Course of Our Times “series to Madame Anne Slack and her “Parlons Francais” French language instruction show (Madame Slack would say “Bonjour mon ami” then wait for the viewer to repeat the phrase while she mouthed the words in support). The same late afternoon or evening Eleanor Roosevelt and other luminaries might be taping shows as well.

Studio A, 84 Massachusetts Avenue

The studios were constantly in use. And with so much of it being live, everything was or seemed to be in continuous motion. The likes of Dave Davis and Greg Harney seemed to be everywhere. The man himself, Hartford Gunn would make an occasional appearance in the halls or on the set . And the atmosphere bubbled over with energy and knowledge, talent and creativity.

This was educational television and we were there at the infancy of what many of us sensed could be a new direction for broadcast television. I may have been learning broadcast history and production theory at BU, but here I was learning what actually was necessary to create a TV program, And to boot, I was getting a bonus education –in current events, theater, language, cooking, and journalism.

And music. My most favorite assignment was being on the crew for the live telecasts of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. At the time, the BSO performed with some regularity at Sanders Theater in Cambridge. And on a number of Tuesday evenings, we were there to capture and broadcast the event. I don’t believe that GBH had permanent cameras and mikes in the hall. I believe everything had to be trucked over and set up anew each time.

The producer responsible for these major productions was Jordan Whitelaw. And I can vividly recall attending, along with the director, the camera operators, the audio guys, the switcher, and others the rehearsals in Jordan’s office.

After personnel assignments were confirmed for each of us in the room (most often mine was as a lowly cameraman assistant), we would do a mock production of the evening’s program, each attendee having been given a “shot sheet” to note which shots were assigned to which camera.

Next to Jordan’s desk was either a phonograph or a tuner-turntable-and speaker arrangement. And ready for play was an LP recording by the BSO in most cases performing the very work(s) on the Sanders program that week. We’d all settle down, pencils and paper in hand and Jordan would begin:

“Camera One ready with wide shot of the orchestra. Take Camera One. Ready for opening credits. Roll credits. Camera Two ready to follow Munch as he enters stage right. Ready Two, take Two. Follow him to the podium. Camera Three on First Violin. Ready Camera Three, Take three.”

This continued through the playing of the entire piece. To me it seemed brilliant, but now I suspect that he was mimicking the pre production approach used by the NBC Symphony or the New York Philharmonic on network TV. Yet it could be that he was breaking new ground. Who knows?

Truth is we were all breaking new ground. That ‘GBH experience made a convert of me and I remained hooked for more than 35 years in what became the public broadcasting business.

Yet through all those years, no coverage of an event, development of a series, no dramatically successful nights of on air pitching, gave me more insight and purpose and pleasure than my intern days at this offbeat, eclectic, determined operation known as WGBH-TV Boston.

Recollections of a WGBH-FM Volunteer (1951-52)

Russ ButlerFrom Russ Butler

A small announcement in The Boston Globe caught my attention.

It was 1951, and I was a 17-year old junior in a Boston high school and fascinated with radio broadcasting. The one column-inch notice read that a new FM radio station would begin broadcasting from studios in Symphony Hall. Next day, I road the streetcar from Jamaica Plain to the Symphony MTA station, then to the Stage Entrance, up to the second floor to find WGBH.

The room was all open, it was originally a rehearsal room with hard wood floors, donated space to start the radio station. Some desks and filing cabinets were here and there but no enclosed offices. Only two or three people were in sight, one of them was the late Hartford Gunn who greeted me sitting from behind his desk in the open space. He was cordial, I told him that I wanted to do something to learn about radio at the new station and he asked if I’d like to volunteer to help after school. I replied with an immediate Yes, thank you! I was ready to do anything for WGBH.

In the last year, I had been on a quest to visit all of the Boston area radio studios to see where the programs came from and how the deejays did their shows. My tour took me to see everyone on the air: Norm Prescott at WORL, Bob Clayton at WHDH, Billy Dale at WTAO and dozens of others at these stations and at WVDA, WMEX, WNAC, WCOP, WJDA, WVOM, WCRB, including Carl Moore’s live variety show Beantown Varieties at WEEI and the legendary Bob and Ray live Matinees at WHDH.

I wanted to do something to learn about radio at the new station and he asked if I’d like to volunteer to help after school. I replied with an immediate Yes, thank you!

Like many kids with a passion and a hobby, I built a phono-oscillator transmitter in my bedroom a year earlier to start my own AM station playing 78rpm records after school to my Jamaica Plain neighborhood on Centre Street. And now, to actually be with a new FM station from the ground up was a dream come true! I was on my way to actually be in radio!

Hartford Gunn took me back to the newly built studios with that fresh, plaster and paint smell, double slanted glass windows, sound proof panels on the walls and a control room with indirect spotlights on the equipment console with blinking lights creating a mystical, electronic visual when you entered the broadcast center. Behind the control board was Bill Busiek, the Chief (the first and perhaps the only) Engineer who was setting up for the broadcast day from five to eleven o clock in the evening. He was moving the dials and knobs like he was playing his instrument (and he was).

Bill Busiek, the Chief (the first and perhaps the only) Engineer was moving the dials and knobs like he was playing his instrument (and he was).

There was a small announce studio where Bill Cavness was going to do his daily, Reading Aloud program with a producer settling in the control room to give him his cue. How great and innovative is that? Someone actually reading a book, chapter by chapter on the radio (this was before there were audio books and audio broadcasts read for the blind on FM sub channels). WGBH-FM would be different.

I befriended Bill Busiek to learn from him more about audio engineering. He identified what G-B-H stood for, and that’s where he installed the FM transmitter donated by Edwin Armstrong, the inventor of FM Radio. Bill found clever ways to suspend inconspicuous microphones in Symphony Hall for BSO broadcasts in that perfect audio venue. As well, he hung a mic in the art gallery for intermission, ambient noise of the audience mingling and enjoying conversations so that the listeners at home actually could feel like they were attending the concert in person. Innovative programming and all before digital stereo audio!

Across from Bill Busiek’s console was the large studio with boom mics, a grand piano for live performances and an announcer, Alden Stevens, who would begin the broadcast day with a sign on. Alden was the only staff announcer, the late William Pierce was the BSO concert announcer from the little observation booth above the stage. His announce booth window is still there on the stage-left wall. The first broadcast in 1951 was a complete, live BSO evening concert, then sign off. No commercials, just wonderful music in FM!

When I met the late Larry Creshkoff, Hartford introduced me as the new volunteer who needed an assignment and he put me to work delivering the microphone to the studios of WHRB for the news broadcasts with Louis M. Lyons. After a technical orientation of what to do from Bill, I rode the MTA bus across the Charles River on the Mass Ave. bridge to Harvard Square.

The Harvard radio station then was carrier-current AM, broadcasting only to the dorm students with impressive studios in a Harvard building basement. Every wall at WHRB was in various shades of green paint (isn’t it Harvard Crimson?), but they had the necessary equipment for me to plug in the mic and run the board for Louis Lyons And The News to be broadcast by a telephone line to the Symphony Hall studio and Bill Busiek’s control room.

Two minutes before airtime, Mr. Lyons arrives with a long trail of yellow paper from the AP news wire machine behind him. “Well, here’s the news! ”

Everything was ready for Mr. Lyons (I found out later he was Curator of The Neiman Fellowship for Journalism at Harvard). I established line contact with WGBH control. The clock on the wall indicated just three minutes to airtime, no Louis Lyons. Two minutes before airtime, Mr. Lyons arrives with a long trail of yellow paper from the AP news wire machine behind him. He takes off his fedora hat (a la Walter Winchell’s image in photos), rips and sorts the news stories, 30-seconds to go, Alden Stevens introduces the show down the line, Louis sits at the mic, takes my cue to begin, a little rustling paper noise and he starts, Well, here’s the news!

Fifteen minutes of a rapid delivery style (a la Winchell) and Mr. Lyons is finished reading, abruptly ending with Well, that’s the news! Without giving me a cue, he quickly rises from the table screeching the chair, rustles the paper on the air, I turn off the mic, and he s out the studio door down the hall. No thank you, no Good Night but, well, that’s Louis Lyons. I learned a lot from him doing a remote broadcast.

When I arrived at Symphony Hall to volunteer after school, there was always some filing, or cleaning up, organizing, or taking messages somewhere, go-for things to do that made me feel special with this young organization. If I had a few free minutes, I d go into the Symphony Hall side balcony to observe Charles Munch conducting rehearsals of the BSO. Occasionally, RCA Victor would have a recording session of the famous orchestra with their large, state of the art technical and transcription equipment installation on the second floor lounge. They would often use the WGBH mics that Bill Busiek suspended from the ceiling to capture perfect fidelity.

My WGBH-FM volunteering ended with my 1952 high school graduation. I had a great Summer job opportunity at WDEV Radio Vermont in Waterbury which began my 40+ year career in broadcasting. When I enlisted into the Army Security Agency after that, I stopped to see Hartford Gunn before I left to tell him and he offered that I could always return for possible work at WGBH. A nice thank you gesture, I thought.

After the Army Security Agency years, which also included some Armed Forces Radio work, I attended Northwestern University School of Speech (radio was still my infatuation) and did shows on WNUR, then a ten-watt FM student station. I was an NBC Page and Tour Guide on the NBC 19th floor of The Merchandise Mart in Chicago; I interned at WTTW-TV Chicago Public Television; did on-air commercial work at WEAW and WNMP in Evanston, later at WEBH-FM in The Edgewater Beach Hotel fishbowl studio in their hotel lobby and then joined an investor group to start WFMQ 107.5FM in Chicago.

My WGBH-FM introduction to public broadcasting prepared me for 12 years at Vermont Public Radio in the 1970s and four years at Vermont Public Television (ETV) as Director of Development, Fundraising, and Auction Producer as well as an on-air / on-camera program host.

In Vermont, I was offered a position with The Knight Quality Stations of Boston to develop tourism promotion and manage sales marketing initiatives while living in Montreal for six years. Relocating to Newport, Rhode Island, later to Los Angeles still in the media for several years retiring in 1992. Now at age 76, we live in The Pacific Northwest.

It s been (and still is) a terrific ride being with this theater of the mind business. Online, terrestrial, analog or digital — the signals still reach my emotional core and the melodies linger on!

My enthusiasm for radio continues with an Internet radio program, SONGBOOK AMERICA at www.bostonpete.com/russ with music from my personal collection of American standards, jazz and legendary songbook composers and performers that I record in my home studio (Bill Busiek would be proud!). Listeners email me worldwide and when they read my bio on my web page, a few have identified hearing the original WGBH-FM in Boston.

It’s been (and still is) a terrific ride being with this theater of the mind business called radio! Online, terrestrial, analog or digital — the signals still reach my emotional core and the melodies linger on!

I’d enjoy hearing from you if you feel the same. Thanks.

WGBH Pioneers: Michael Ambrosino – Part 1 (1998)

This entry is part 3 of 11 in the series The Michael Ambrosino Collection

Michael Ambrosino — the creator of NOVA — describes his early years at WGBH, an era of live and live-on-tape TV productions at the 84 Massachusetts Avenue studio in Cambridge.

This series presents authorized interviews with early producers and directors for Boston’s innovative public television and radio stations. He was interviewed on June 19, 1998 by Fred Barzyk.

Watch Video — Part 1 (56 minutes)

Transcript — Part 1

INTERVIEWER: This is June 18, 1998 and I’m having a conversation with Michael Ambrosino. Thank you Michael for joining us.

Can you give us a little bit of your personal history, where you were born and where you went to school and how you came to television?

MICHAEL AMBROSINO: I was born in Brooklyn, spent half the year there, half the year in West Hampton Beach where Dad had another store.

[I] grew up being fascinated with science and did a lot of theater, music.

I was a jazz musician when I was 14, had the nicest set of drums on Long Island, and because the war was going on, I got mickey gigs and played every gin mill and polka palace on Long Island.

I changed majors the first day at the university.

I had been admitted as a BS in physics and changed to a BS in drama, because I didn’t want to wake up being an old man of 35 not having had given that creative side of me a chance.

It was a very romantic death wish because, in those days, there was one regional theater east of the Mississippi — it was called the Brattle Theater.

Of course in 1949, when I was a freshman it became a movie theater, so I was preparing myself for a profession that didn’t exist.

After the service I came back and did a Masters in television and that was very helpful because in those days commercial radio stations never thought they wanted to go into TV … it was 20, 30 times the capital.

At Syracuse, we produced directed a whole bunch of programs that went on the commercial station.

As a graduate student I did a series of 13 half-hour shows myself.

A tremendous kind of experience that you can’t get today, but today you can pick up a little camera and make a video all by yourself and edit it on your Macintosh.

The second job was for the Ford Foundation doing a research project in Schenectady, New York.

It was one of the first high schools in the United States to use closed circuit television to expand teaching.

In those days, there was a tremendous teaching shortage: they had 27 physics classes and 1 physics teacher and we would try to multiply his use to see if we could work out, technically, question and answering sessions from multiple classrooms.

We did French with Madam Ann Slack and we did Social Studies and we did a bunch of things.

I was invited along with a bunch of other people from Ford cities to come to Harvard and give a speech and somebody from WGBH heard this speech and I was working here two weeks later.

INT: Had you heard of WGBH?

MA: Yes. While at my first job at the University of Connecticut, I’d actually taken the tour of the station.

I couldn’t find it, drove up Mass Avenue looking for a TV station, drove right past it, and didn’t realize that it was a defunct roller skating rink above a drug store.

I had to work my way all the way back from Harvard to finally find it.

INT: Who was the person that heard your speech?

MA: Hartford Gunn. He was then the Controller of WGBH. He was in charge of money, dispersing it — we never raised money in those days — and he asked me to come and start school broadcasting for the state of Massachusetts.

INT: So, you were in charge of developing school broadcasting for the station?

MA: Yes.

INT: Based upon your experience with your in-school experience?

MA: Based on six months experience, because I was an “expert”.

INT: I see. This was educational television….

MA: Yes it was. It was very educational.

In those days, programs consisted of a series of things. It was an extension of the educational system of Massachusetts.

If you remember, people came back from the Army — Navy and the Marines — and told Conant that Harvard should start a radio station.

Conant, being very wise, said that [it would] always be a Harvard station, we shouldn’t do that.

So, he got Ralph Lowell to get a bunch of other institutions in Boston together and they formed the nascent Lowell Institute Cooperative Broadcasting Council.

For the most part, they made radio series on poetry, on music, on everything except art, I guess, it’s non-visual, and put those on commercial stations around town.

It quickly became a real pain in the neck to get bumped off every time the commercial station really sold something, or to be allotted Saturday mornings at 7:00 or 6:00 time.

In ’51, the LICBC put on its own FM station. In those days, there were no FM receivers.

Later on, became the provost of MIT, himself had recorded for Lomax, many of the recordings that are in the Library of Congress of folk singers in the South.

went to General Armstrong and had him give WGBH its first transmitter, which was the prototype Armstrong frequency modulation transmitter. I think it probably had a number one on it.

INT: LICBC, what is that?

MA: Lowell Institute Cooperative Broadcasting Council. I think everyday on WGBH David Ives talks about it turn the station on at 6:00 am.

INT: What was it exactly? What was the function?

MA: It was a coop. First of all, they charged themselves money. I mean the major budget for the station came from Harvard, MIT, the Museum of Fine Arts, the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and second from these groups came programs.

So that Edwin G. Boring would do a series of 15 programs on psychology. The Museum of Fine Arts would do programs about art.

There were no children’s programs, or news and current affairs. It was an extension of the educational process of adult education.

The Lowell Institute was created by the Lowells for those people who had interest, but no cash, to further their education.

They could take courses at night at Harvard and if they worked long enough get an Associate Arts degree.

If you go to the Harvard Commencement, at any year as I did this year, because a friend was getting a PhD., the loudest applause are for the Associate Arts because they know that these people worked long and hard to get their degrees.

INT: When you first came to WGBH, can you kind of describe the place? How many people were employed there and what was the place like?

MA: Dinky. You walked in the door with two dark columns on either side and strapped to one of them was a big bronze plaque, that is in the front of this building today, announcing the Lowell Institute Cooperative Broadcasting Council.

You went up a flight of dark green stairs, turned left, and realized that there was a telephone operator next to a big telephone answering machine.

It was one-half of a defunct roller skating rink. Under the balcony were the radio studios and what was .. Control A for A studio, there was only one studio. and a telecine room, engineering offices.

Above the balcony were the offices for the radio and television staff and audio editing for the radio producers.

The floor was made of wood. And one day all the males at WGBH were invited in on a Saturday to nail the studio floor down, because it squeaked and if you dollied a certain way the cameras kept bumping up and down and you couldn’t move.

There was in the other half of the roller skating rink an engineering company.

When it went out of business it donated to WGBH three brand new galvanized garbage cans full of old bread boards.

WGBH enjoyed that so much, the engineers unsoldered every resistor from those bread boards and straightened out the prongs and put them in the proper cabinet.

It was a different world.

It had two cameras. old tubes that had been donated from commercial stations so that if you sat anywhere very long you burn in a shot.

You could do anything with two cameras that you could do with two cameras.

When we got the third camera everything was really great.

On Thursday night, we did a live half-hour program from the Museum of Fine Arts.

All three cameras went there which meant that any other program that night had to also originate from the Museum of Fine Arts.

Programs consisted of relatively small things.

We ran from something called “What’s Going on Around Boston” which was a drum on which were listed, on little three-by-four cards pinned to the drum, events coming up.

You played music and roll the drum and then pan left to the other card, and then they would roll the drum and then you pan right, and this was one of the first directing jobs that you had to do.

On the other hand, from the beginning days, the station did children’s programming.

Tony Saletan did music, natural history programs with Mary Lela Grimes, programs that dealt with world affairs, politics— but, for the most part, long series of programs on poetry, music, psychology, science. “Science Reporter” was one of the first programs.

But these were interview programs. Basically staged as we doing this little bit right now. Not inconsequential though.

In 1955, the first mention, in television that I know of, of the effect of tobacco and cigarettes on cancer was done by a doctor in a series called “The Facts of Medicine,” which is tremendous when you think of it and that’s what it was like.

INT: How many people Michael?

MA: I remember about 30 or 35.

I remember, I kept thinking I was the 35th or the 36th employee and we all had to cram into one office on the second floor.

INT: I take it money for shows was scarce and hard to come by?

MA: You didn’t get money for shows, you got things.

You got so many hours of studio time.

You got whatever the scenery people could build, whatever the art department could draw.

We all would rehearse our programs in the afternoon and then do them live.

One of the first jobs that you were taught was how to replace the director of the previous live programs.

There were film and kinescope and live and that was it, with one switcher and one control room. This was a juggling act.

INT: So when we started off we were almost like radio shows being put on camera.

two black and white and then we got a third camera which then opened up the horizon.

All the shows were live at that particular moment.

MA: Yes, with the exception of those programs that had been made from other places, and kinescoped and sent to us, or actual half-hour or 15 minute films.

But not all just discussion. The children’s programs were quite active. Children in the studio, dancing, music, etc.

The natural history program was quite active itself. A young Harvard senior, however, complained to Mary Lela Grimes that she had no film.

Mary Leia said, stop bitching and do something about it.

And the senior went out and bought himself an Aeroflex in 1956 for $9,000, bought lenses and designed his own lenses and shot, free of charge for her, for an entire year, beavers and butterflies and all kinds of the most marvelous film.

Suddenly the second year of “Discovery” directed by Bob Larsen was an amazing program because it had the natural history captured, instead of bringing a beaver into a studio and hoping it didn’t eat up all the scenery.

Charlie went onto produce children’s programs here, got his PhD. and he now is in charge of Ornithology, Cornell University, which is the big job for anybody who knows anything about birds. He’s a specialist in bird navigation.

INT: And his full name is?

MA: Charles Wolcott. He was either the grandnephew or great-grandnephew or had some relation to — Ralph Lowell, himself.

So, Charlie, although he had many frayed shirts, had a Mercedes and could well afford to buy an Aeroflex, but he decided to do it. He was an amazing human being.

INT. You started mentioning some names, I think we should go into them a little bit from your prospective.

Robert Larsen, Bob Larson as we called him.

Can you tell us a little bit of what he did, what his influence was on the station, his contribution?

MA: I think he was the only person from Boston who worked at WGBH, he was the local boy.

He worked at the Christian Science Monitor, came to WGBH as a producer. In 1957, when there was a major shakeout, he became Program Manager of the station.

He moved up through the ranks as Program Manager, became, I think, Vice President, when Dave Ives took over as President in ’70.

He was a gentleman, a learned man, a person who, like many of the staff, would spend days attending courses at Harvard, looking for good talent to be on programs.

He had a profound effect on me, on the future of the station.

INT: What would you say was his most lasting –?

MA: The sense that WGBH did things in an honorable manner. That ideas mattered.

This is a great town for an idea. People don’t laugh at you if you’re serious.

And he allowed many of us to do things over the last forty years that had some fun about them because they went deeply into the substance of ideas.

INT: Dave Davis?

MA: Dave Davis came two or three days before I did in 1956.

He’d been teaching at Temple. He had a sense of expertise because he’d worked in commercial television.

He was one of the guys like yourself or Potter, Al Potter, Russ Morash, David Atwood, who can just do anything.

You go into a stadium and you say, “Okay we put the cameras here, there, there, get the lines, do this,” and be on the air in a couple of hours.

Dave had done sports and music and all kinds of stuff. He was a trumpet player and he had his own fake book. He played in jazz bands.

He did a lot of the music programs. He directed the first symphonies before Bill Cosel did. In the I guess you’d call it a putsch in… 1957, he was asked to take over television .

Bob was his Program Manager and they were the two people who formed the station from then until 1967.

They were the two minds that moved the station forward in terms of television.

INT. Hartford Gunn?

MA: Hartford Gunn. Probably the first real strategic mind in public broadcasting. Always thinking ahead.

The story I often use about him whenever giving a talk is that my first task at WGBH, in which I spent two weeks at a drafting board, was to design the University of New Hampshire Television Studio.

Because Hartford was trying to help stations start all over New England, because he knew that ‘GBH would never survive alone, and that public television had to become more than local, had to become regional, and then national.

We’re talking about a time when there was 12 public stations on the air, when the closest one was Pittsburgh and the next closest was Iowa or Georgia or Houston, Texas, or Denver.

There was no station in Los Angeles, none in Washington, none in New York … this was a different time of life.

Hartford wanted me to design that so he could bring that design to the University of New Hampshire’s President …

so that if and when they ever raised enough money to put up an educational TV station, the President, that week, could be persuaded to excavate the cellar of a student union that was under construction …

so that there would be a place that the money could go.

He was thinking seven steps — I hope he played chess, I never knew if he did play chess —but he had that kind of a mind.

Whereas the rest of us would possibly decry the ability of New Hampshire to set [up] a station for itself.

He was working all the angles, trying to figure out how to actual help them.

In the end WGBH offered all of its programming live to WENH to help them get on the air . They built that station in that basement much the way it was designed.

There was no stronger strategic voice for many years than Hartford Gunn. He hired me on a ruse to be his assistant controller, but really it was to start school broadcasting for the State of Massachusetts.

He knew that that was not in the cards, and so, this was the way — either persuading Mr. Lowell or the-then manager to do it.

INT: Now, Michael I know that not only were you planning, but you also had other responsibilities — with only 35 people there — to also produce and direct, correct?

Tell us about some of your shows, the early shows, that Michael Ambrosino did

MA: Well we did some talk shows, some that went out on radio and television simultaneously.

“Youth Speaks Its Mind” was a weekly program which kids would come in and talk about everything except sex, thank god, because the teachers would not want them to talk about such things as sex.

We did a series called “The Ends of the Earth,” which was an Antarctic research with Father Dan Linahan, who was called the “Arctic Priest.”

He was out at the Weston Observatory in Weston, he was a seismologist.

Dan — Father Dan I guess I should call him — would get thousands of dollars from companies to test their equipment on the South Pole.

He’d get some wire from some wire company and he would stretch out the wire and he’d work, do his seismology, and or when his time was up he’d come look for the wire, bend it to see if it was okay, and write a report for the company and that money could pay for his seismological work.

One day, he did not find the wire. All he found was a ball of copper.

It seems that the Skua gulls had eaten whatever neoprene lining was on the wire and he reported that, true it was very flexible after a month in the Arctic, but that they should find some less palatable substance to put around the wire.

We did a lot of plays. A wonderful woman named Adele Thane — who’s probably now known as the person who taught Julie Taymor of “Lion King” fame how to be a good child actress — she ran the Boston Children’s Theater.

and every time they would do a play, Adele and I would adapt it for television and bring it in to do a half-hour version of “Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn” and a variety of things. Some of those guys are in Hollywood, Michael Tiger .

In those days you could do whatever you wanted as long as you didn’t spend money. You were doing plays by Brecht … as long as you could get volunteers and paint the sets yourself and do all that other stuff. It was a different world.

People said, you know, wasn’t it the golden times, and the answer is no.

I’ve been poor and I’ve been rich, and let me tell you, I prefer having money to do research and proper television and film technique.

INT: You also did a lot of science shows even in the early days, didn’t you Michael?

MA: When school broadcasting started.

INT: When was that’?

MA: That was in March the 4th in 1958.

I had to make a couple of hundred speeches and persuaded about 35 school systems to voluntarily contribute money and we did a series with Gene Nichols called “Science Six.”

INT: Gene Gray.

MA: I’m sorry, right. Gene Gray, Gene Nichols directed.

We did a music program with Tony Saletan, a social studies program, and a French program with Anne Slack.

That was the first year.

Then we hired a larger staff and did programs that were complimentary to the curriculum to the schools, broadcasting to a significantly enlarged number of schools each year.

When I left in 1960 there were 135 school systems that had voluntarily come together.

That system is no more.

It’s now called Massachusetts Educational Television and they do satellite programs with their own facilities.

They don’t do that in cooperation with ‘GBH anymore.

INT: A major event took place at WGBH when videotape arrived.

Can you kind of tell us what was the difference at WGBH from the live black and white broadcast to that of when videotape arrived?

MA: Not much. Hartford Gunn would go to all the national meetings . He came back from an NAB meeting and he said to us all, two things.

“I have seen the future and it is videotape,” and the second thing he said was, “Buy Ampex.”

He was paying us our salaries out of public broadcasting salaries, none of us could buy Ampex except Henry Morgenthau and he bought Ampex.

INT: Basically tape meant that instead of rehearsing six or seven programs in an afternoon and doing six or seven programs in an evening, you would rehearse a program in the morning and tape it, and rehearse a program in the afternoon and tape it, and that evening there would be some live programs and some pretaped programs.

All school broadcast programs were pretaped and allowed repeats.

The word editing was not something that we knew about. You made a half-hour program and you shot it all the way through and if there was a glitch you had to live with it.

Even much later there was no such thing as redoing.

I’m talking about ’58, ’59.

Hartford had persuaded someone to give WGBH its first Ampex and he was always the crusader and then demanded that public television, or educational television in those days, get off the kinescope routine and make videotape programs because the quality was so significantly better.

The Ford Foundation finally was persuaded to give all public television stations — not already equipped — a videotape recorder .

Hartford screamed bloody murder and eventually he won and so, WGBH was the first station that had two videotape recorders.

Both of them were badly hit by the famous fire.

INT: I do remember one show in which you were doing a science show and Gene Gray was taking some hydrochloric acid I believe, may be you might recall it….

MA: It wasn’t Gene Gray it was . …the Chief Scientist at the Museum of Science, who he was doing the program with, spilled acid on himself.

INT: It wasn’t that, I was thinking about there was a Styrofoam cup.

MA: Oh, oh, oh, no, that was not acid, I think that was carbon tetrachloride.

INT: Why don’t you give us a little background because that exists on tape.

MA: Oh it does?

INT: Yes.

MA: Oh wonderful. Cut it in …

Gene was pouring carbon tetrachloride in a Styrofoam cup that was on a scale to do some very special weighing — not knowing obviously that carbon tetrachloride dissolves Styrofoam cups — and it just all, you know, started….

INT: … In a live show…

MA: Yeah, in a live show … to spill all over the place.

But the famous stories of live television were there.

Mary Lela Grimes did let some bats loose in her 5:30 children’s program and they were still flying around the studio at 6:30 when Louie Lyons was doing his news program and they were going in and out of the shot.

We just did things like that. Things fell down or cameras fell over, or you heard strange noises and you just went right ahead.

INT: You want to recall the jingling johnny for me?

MA: You know the jingling johnny story better than I.

INT: You were doing a music show and I think it was a school show, it was about various instruments of various. ..

MA: 13 programs, one included a symphonic orchestra….

INT: And your stage manager was….

MA: … John Henning who is now the newsman, senior newsman at WBZ .

I instructed John to hand in the jingling johnny quietly.

This is a brass pole with about 9,000 bells on it that jingled.

It was an ancient instrument. We were doing a program on ancient instruments with the Museum of Fine Arts instruments, something called a … serpent, a very deep bass horn.

At the rehearsal, several nights before, someone was tightening .. the strings of a 14th century lute and the back broke in two.

I’m just glad that didn’t happen on camera.

It wasn’t that you were particularly attuned to things going awry, but you knew that they would and you dealt with them just like Johnny Carson does and all of the live talk shows do now.

INT: Do you remember the famous incident at the MFA when the scoop was placed a little bit too closely to the…

MA: Well ,WGBH had done previous research, quite literally, to see how much light would destroy a painting.

Some fakes and maybe even some paintings of lesser known artists were used for these tests.

We were talking about three and four hundred foot candles and then when color came in it was five-, six-, seven-hundred foot candles to get a shot and the paint would just slowly drip off the canvas.

INT: It was a Renoir.

MA: It was a Renoir. I don’t remember that…

I do remember — because the cameras had relatively long single lenses — the camera sort of panning across and hitting a priceless Egyptian statute, which ended up as a bunch of sandstone on the studio floor.

INT: The MFA had a department of television for awhile I think that ceased to exist.

MA: They did many wonderful programs. They’d bring a whole bunch of art into a studio and a variety of different MFA people — producer/writer/talent — would do “The Age of Cezanne” or “Van Gogh’s Early Days” and use all of the paintings to illustrate these things.

INT: My favorite story was Brian O’Doherty who was one of the very first of the on-camera hosts and actually in many ways public television’s first star, because it was his kinescopes that got shown on many stations.

He would have everything that he had to say on little pieces of paper hidden everywhere inside the Museum of Fine Arts, so as he walked from one to the next, his eyes would scan to read the next section.

Of course, those were all live.

And another thing that’s not known that the MFA is totally wired for television then and not a lot of people know that.

MA: The Museum of Fine Arts was wired for television.

Kresge Auditorium in back of WGBH was wired for television.

Sanders Theater was wired for television and had a microwave dish in its tower which burned down, I think, two nights after I came to WGBH.

We used to use these as adjunct studios.

There was no place big enough to do a symphony orchestra, so the first time I used a symphony orchestra I put it in Kresge and had Dave Davis direct it for me that day.

INT: So we had a Studio A and then when this other company went out there was actually a Studio B and then we had a bus which had the remote equipment in it.

MA: That was rather late in our life.

That was in 1961. It was a million-mile Greyhound Bus that new brakes, new tires, and they were equipping it.

They put the cameras in on, I think, a Tuesday and put the two tape recorders in on a Wednesday and, I think, Thursday we burned to the ground.

INT; Yes.

MA: October 14, 1961.1 have charred papers in my archive file at home.

INT: Where were you?

MA: I was in Chicago. I was giving a speech for the Ford Foundation.

You may not remember, but in those days ,every year or so, there were national air alerts in which all flights would be suspended for 24 hours and the Air Force would play war games.

I got a call from Dave Davis saying that we burned to the ground.

This was about 11 o’clock and about 12 o’clock the air alert went on.

I had to sit for 24 hours in Chicago without being able to get home, worried to death whether or not the tapes from the 21-inch classroom had been saved or not. Indeed they had.

They were thrown out of a window by Bob Mascone and were caught by firemen and volunteers .

At least we could go on the air with school broadcasting.

INT: Before we go beyond the fire, let me go back to … What was the atmosphere like at WGBH in those days, before the fire?

What would you say … the 35 probably grew to what 75 by the time the fire happened? 50? 60?

MA: We thought we were doing pioneering work. I think we thought we were doing God’s work.

Nobody was watching us, but by god, we were doing good work. We were trying very hard.

Most of us had backgrounds that thought ideas were fun.

Most of us would rather attend a good lecture than a bad movie .

Maybe we were a little smug that the rest of the world who would think that was fun, too, because what we were basically doing was presenting lectures on television and radio.

We were trying to advance the medium, but we had such damn few aids to help us. The equipment was old and outmoded.

We were bound into the studio.

You could do anything you wanted as long as you brought it to the studio.

Garden programs were done with a huge vat of dirt You would plant in that and then you had to clean the studio.

You had to make sure you didn’t it up because there was a program coming later and the dirt would have to be picked up.

It was a nice place to be. We all would eat lunch together.

I had one of the few cars so we’d all pile in and go swimming on the North Shore.

After awhile I stopped inviting everybody except for one person.

INT: You mean there was a significant other in the early days at WGBH?

MA: Lillian Akel was a marvelous .. former journalist who was working as a radio producer at the station .

When I reorganized the office plan, I accidentally put her desk next to mine.

We, and many people at the station, did a lot of things together and we became fast friends and the next thing you know we became man and wife.

INT: Terrific. That’s a happy story.

MA: Yes it is. We had almost 40 wonderful years.

INT: I remember that it was sometimes hard to tell the difference between work and play in the early days at WGBH.

MA: It’s interesting because, after Lillian died, I went through a lot other diaries.

We were here on Saturdays and Sundays, we would be doing desk work and editing and rehearsing and doing all kinds of things.

We were all, for the most part, single and we had no children and we had nowhere else to go and we just were here.

Most of us lived fairly close-by. We lived on Marlborough Street. We just walked across the river and be here.

INT: There was some interesting people that wondered through WGBH at that time.

Bob Squire was one of them,. Maybe you can give us a little history of Mr. Squire?

MA: Bob was a torrent. He was a BU scholar.

He produced and directed, stayed on after that, did some programs.

He did some consulting in Saudi Arabia, came back and did programs here.

He’s now one of the country’s best political consultants.

Just a torrent, he moved very quickly.

INT: Added a certain kind of significance to the editorial staff of WGBH.

I remember he was the one that really established the snappy, the snapping of the fingers.

Somebody else who had an impact I think in the directing part was Paul Noble.

MA: Yes, Paul did a lot of the Mrs. Roosevelt programs, did all of them with Henry Morgenthau.

INT: Paul was also part of the BU scholars, wasn’t he?

MA: In those days the crew — the people who ran camera and did the lights and stage managed — were graduate students at BU who were on a two year rather than a one year program.

They’d go to school a semester and come work for us a semester.

So ,there were two groups: those in school would then be replaced.

That lasted a number of years until the complexity of the programs made it necessary for us to have full time people, so that we were teaching them camera work while we were trying to do very complicated programs.

That’s when we went to a full crew, and then the second crew, and I remember the possibilities of a third crew, because everything was studio-based film.

WGBH was doing a film project in the earliest days and the first one was an absolute disaster in 1957 because — except for Paul Rader, who was brought in to do the project — all of us grew up in live-TV terms.

We knew that you did all of your research, and you did all your work, and you did it Thursday night and it either went on tape or it went out.

But with film, you could always play a little bit, a little bit, a little bit and you could never finish.

‘GBH got a contract — in hindsight, a very silly contract — to make programs about existing scientific projects going on around the world in the International Geophysical Year 1957.

You can’t make a film about something that’s going on, because you go out with a group of scientists, into the ocean, and you watch them drop things into the ocean, and that’s exciting, …

and then you watch them look at dials, and that’s very exciting.

Then they say to you, “We won’t know what the results were for about another six months. If you can come back and interview us then we can tell you some more.”

And so, WGBH had been given money for three programs, had finished one and the other two were relative shambles.

The money came for the second three and Hartford wisely at that point said, “We really don’t know the film business.”

He had a meeting with the entire film staff.

This was the first time that I’ve come across a situation in which honorable people can leave a meeting thinking that two different things occurred.

The head of the film department and his assistant came out and said to Jack Hurley,

“Hartford is such a thoughtful man He’s so concerned about our problems. He really appreciates the trouble we’re having.”

And Jack Hurley had to say to them, “Excuse me, don’t you realize that you’ve just been fired?

The film department is being closed. The money is being given back to the National Science Foundation and this place will never do another film.”

That’s not the story they took out of the meeting. It really was a “Rashomon”.

This building, that we’re sitting in, was built without any film facilities in it at all because we didn’t know film.

It was a long time before we did film again.

INT: We snuck it in. MA: We snuck it in.

INT: If there was one moment out of that early period before the fire which really kind of sticks in your mind as being one of the happier moments for you — be it at work and not Lillian— but is there one kind of moment that really kind of said to you, this is why I got involved in television in the first place?

MA: During one of these programs — “Music for Grade Six” that I was directing myself — the folk dancers were late and I couldn’t understand why they were late.

They finally all arrived and they told me that they had met the nicest man on the steps of MIT and folk danced with him for 20 or 30 minutes.

When they described him, it was clear that this was the world’s leading mathematician of the time, who frequented the steps of MIT and the soda joint downstairs — and I’m blanking on his name, Norbert Weiner — who lived in Belmont, I guess, with his mother….

INT: Lived in another world.

MA: Yeah, lived in another world, and was folk dancing with my students.

I guess that would be one of the joyful things. We were doing things with our hands. We were involved in everything that we did.

We produced, directed, wrote, whatever we did.

We built the scenery, determined where the basic lighting patterns would be. It was in our hands.

It was not as much fun as I think we all came to do later when we actually had huge resources at our command.

Then, we were working up to the level of our incompetency — where we were not curtailed by outside influences, but only our own knowledge, creativity, and persistence.

INT: Was there one major disappointment in those early years that you wished you could have changed or something that could have happened that would have made everything….

MA: Not in those… that came later.

INT: All right, so the fire, WGBH and Boston kind of got married pretty tight together at the time of the fire because we went off the air, we were on the air very shortly after that.

Maybe you might kind of recall, after you’ve returned from Chicago, what you found.

What was going on in Boston as WGBH had been burned to the ground?

MA: Well I walk up those stairs into my office and I suddenly realized…. INT: This is at 84 Mass Ave., after the fire….

MA: Yes, I suddenly realized I was not walking on the floor of my office, I was walking on what was left of the ceiling.

The roof of the station had collapsed. I, with a shovel, dug away enough stuff to find what was left of my desk.

The telephone had melted over an uncancelled check that had come in, good gracious, for school broadcasting, no, for the Eastern Educational Network that we were creating at the time.

I had left WGBH and was the founding director of the Eastern Educational Network with offices at WGBH.

I had in the back of my office a huge oak table that had been built into the wall — it was the former dressing green room table — and it had charred underneath and the water hit it and it bent over.

As I lifted it up, that portion was attached to the wall.

The entire wall of my office fell into what was the remaining of Studio B and I thought I’d better back up and get the hell out of here.

There were a few documents, but everything — all of the research that I had amassed on School of Broadcasting, all of the work that we had put together in developing the Eastern Educational Network — was gone.

The first thing I did was to sit down and try to reconstitute my telephone list because I had to call foundations and stations and tell them that we were still in business, that the development of the network would go ahead.

Two days after the fire Hartford Gund and I left Boston and drove to Maine to testify before the legislature of Maine as to whether or not they should start educational television.

Coming from a station whose fire had been in the front pages of every Maine paper, we had to tell them that we were still in business.

The third day after the fire, I flew to Washington D.C., to do the same thing to government agencies that we were looking for grants.

But we all survived — we are the station, the human beings involved. We’ll be back in business.

We were fairly soon in seven different locations around Boston.

A live TV studio was at the Museum of Science.

You paid a quarter and watch the animals make television.

The Roman Catholic Television Center had a little studio with a chandelier in the middle, so that if you pulled back too far the chandelier came in every shot.

The scenery was built for us at Northeastern University.

There was what was called the Red Shack or the Red Building at the Museum of Science where there was staff.

Management was in Kendall Square in the Eastern Educational Network, we moved the headquarters there.

Headquarters of the Eastern Education Network was two desks, two 1930s-style desks given to us by the Christian Science Monitor.

I think the Christian Science Monitor took every piece of old furniture they had — I think this looks like some of them — and gave it to us and that’s what we used.

Old Underwood typewriters, etc. And we survived like that.

I immediately started designing the place to use for fundraising. That design never got built, but later a group went up to Dartmouth and really designed this place.

This place I think was designed with nine or 10 live TV studios.

Not one film editing room, because the whole idea of live TV and needing many places to make it was still very much in our minds.

INT: That’s some change though and ended up I think with three studios. Studio A, Studio B and little Studio C.

MA: A little Studio C which is a radio studio that parroted the studio we had at 84 Mass Avenue.

A radio studio with glass sides in certain places so that Louie Lyons and the news could come out of there and we could shot through the glass.

INT: We were on the air, very shortly after the fire, broadcasting.

MA: Yes I think the School Broadcasting went on the next Monday. TV was off maybe a night or two.

The Junior League of Boston marshaled every woman with a car. Dave Davis got every commercial station in town, both of them — this was ’61, so maybe there were three…

INT: There were three.

MA: Channel 5 had gone on the air and the engineers brought the schedule of when they needed their own tape recorders for their own programs .

School Broadcasting went on the air with tapes being shuttled from station to station to station where a tape recorder was available at 8:30, at 9:00, at 9:30, at 10:00, etc., and Dave Davis organized all of that.

Sometimes tapes would have to be transferred back two or three times. The stations were wonderful.

An immediate cry went up as to how we would need a million or so dollars to put ‘GBH back on the air.

It’s necessary to talk about Ralph Lowell because I think his beautiful picture down in Cahners makes us think of him as a nice, cuddly man who had the money, and that’s what he gave to ‘GBH.

Ralph Lowell had guts.

I remember many occasions when WGBH was about to risk editorially, or with cash, and it was Ralph Lowell who always gave the support to Hartford to do it.

Many of us have been in many positions where we’ve had board of directors or presidents of corporations over us and it is not inconsiderable to have somebody who stands behind you and says,

“Yeah, do it. You’ve presented the case well. Go ahead and do it.”

And that’s what Ralph gave to this station.

Second, he had command of the names and the bodies of this town. So if he asked you to do something it was hard to say no. He had that much respect.

It was more than just raising money. It was ideas and people, a significant guy.

INT: I remember for a period of time, I was one of the BU scholars who was asked to go down to his bank on payday because Jack Hurley, who was then head of finance, was having trouble making the payroll and Daddy Lowell, as we called him, always able to come forward to make sure that we all got paid.

MA: We had a drawing account at the bank.

On the second day I was at WGBH in 1956 I, too, was asked to present myself to Ralph Lowell.

At the same time, I been reading John Marquand’s book — and I forget the title of it now — but he was about a Lowell type person.

He described how you walk in the bank and there was all the marble and then there were people behind the cages and then there were people behind the balustrade and some of them had desks and some didn’t.

And some had desks on rugs and some didn’t and then some had offices and then there was the office.

I walked into the Boston Safe Deposit and Trust Company, and I saw John P. Marquand’s bank and I was ushered into meet “The Mr. Lowell” in the office as he had so described.

I’m certain he had known Ralph Lowell and had been to the bank many times.

INT: Is there anybody else that was as significant to the ‘GBH and who it is now in those days?

MA: Dozens of people at the universities. The people who gave of their time.

The Boston Symphony Orchestra. Ralph Lowell sat down and had a meeting with Petrillo and got us the permission to do the Boston Symphony Orchestra live .

If any money ever came about it would go to the pension funds, but we never paid them a penny to do concerts.

The idea of a live TV concert of this an entire symphony was just unknown in those days.

INT: The history that exists on those tapes downstairs in archives is quite amazing.

MA: Yeah, Charles Munch…Leinsdorf

I remember we did concerts … one of the last concerts Stravinsky came and conducted himself and now it is a history.

INT: MIT’s “Science Reporter,” just as we end off this hour, maybe you should give us just a little bit more history of that….

MA: It was a studio program that was basically a lot of talk and a little showing.

T hen it became a little talk and a lot of showing.

It then found resourcefulness in a man named Russ Morash, in which it became a lot of showing and on the road, so that you didn’t have to bring things into the studio.

It started out with Volta Torrey as the MIT on-camera host, and then John Fitch did that.

I think those programs were instrumental in reminding us that the studio was out there in the world. Russ and Al Potter and Pete Downey just took us everywhere that we could move.

It was one of the first programs that I distributed to the rest of the stations as the founding director of the Eastern Educational Network .

It was one of the proofs we used that programs that we made locally could be distributed by our network by videotape — because we were not interconnected in those days — and that the Eastern Educational Network had a useful thing to do in addition to the national network, which didn’t want “Science Reporter” at the time and later, of course, picked it up and it became a big national show.

INT: Thank you. End of first hour.

Skating Around the Rink (1956-60)

This entry is part 6 of 11 in the series The Michael Ambrosino Collection

Michael Ambrosino 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.

84 Mass. Ave.

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.

Another e

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.

And so?

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.

My job

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

“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.

In a World All Its Own (1955)

When we did simulcasts on radio and TV, my station break announcement sounded like this: “This is the Lowell Institute Cooperative Broadcasting Council…WGBH-FM at 89.7 megacycles and WGBH-TV, channel 2, in Boston.”

I joined the staff of WGBH-FM-TV in 1955. The two stations identified themselves as “noncommercial and educational” because those were the days when the dream of educating the public through radio and television was still alive. Yes, there was “alternative” programming, such as string quartet broadcasts, opera telecasts, and the like, but the emphasis was on instruction and education, ranging from “The Crust of the Earth,” a geology course on radio, to “The Romagnolis’ Table,” a cooking show on television.

Those were the days when the dream of educating the public through radio and television was still alive.

Because film for kinescope recordings was expensive and videotape was just coming into use —and because neither National Public Radio nor the corporation for Public Broadcasting had formed as yet to provide network programming — both WGBH-FM and its sister station WGBH-TV had to manufacture almost all their own shows, which went on the air “live” from studios converted from a roller skating rink at 84 Massachusetts Avenue in Cambridge.

The facility was right across the street from MIT. The radio station signed on at 3:30 in the afternoon, the television station two hours later. Both stations were off the air by 11 in the evening. Years later, the TV operation evolved into a powerhouse PBS production center, but even in its horse-and-buggy days it commanded a great deal of respect. Jack Gould, an influential critic with the New York Times, spent several days at both stations, then wrote a glowing review for his newspaper.

My assignment was to serve as staff announcer for about fifteen to twenty hours a week while I was working toward degrees at Emerson College and then at Harvard. That meant working every weekend and one or two evenings a week for the radio station during the academic year, then filling in for a month or so on both radio and television during the summer while full-time staff members were on vacation. Compared to what I had done to keep a small station in my hometown on the air, the workload at WGBH was light. Technicians handled all the control room procedures. A staff of producers developed all the programs. The announcer was supposed to concentrate on what he was saying, which was fine by me.

Besides handling all the station breaks, the openings and closings of programs, and continuity for the live and taped classical music broadcasts, I had a newscast to prepare and deliver each Saturday. At that point I came under the jurisdiction of one Louis M. Lyons, a veteran of Boston newspapers before becoming curator of the Nieman Fellowships, the journalism fellowships, at Harvard.

On television Lyons looked like a slightly buffed-up Will Rogers, an individual who wouldn’t spend much money on clothing because, after all, there are far more important concerns in life. His newscasts aired on every weekday evening at 6:30. He always signed on with, “Well, here’s the news.”  Approximately 15 minutes later, he would sign off with, “Well, that’s the news.”

He won numerous Peabody Awards, broadcasting’s most prestigious honor, for local newscasts. Part of his appeal, I think, was that he was the antithesis of the smooth, polished television anchor. One time, on camera he told the young intern who was the floor director, “Young man, don’t give me that warning sign. Unless station policy has changed, I can expand this newscast if I want to. Now, you check that out.” When he finished his report, he again looked up at the floor manager, who was thoroughly embarrassed, and said,  “Did you check that out, young man?” and followed with his, “Well, that’s the news.”

The depth and intelligence of commentaries far exceeded those of Huntley and Brinkley or Walter Cronkite, the network news stars of the time.

He was the stereotype of the crusty, taciturn Yankee, never greeting anyone, never engaging in small talk, never smiling or revealing a trace of warmth. He was the unfriendliest person I had ever met. But, oh my, he was a journalist’s journalist. He would report and analyze news events concisely and incisively. A skilled interviewer, he had some great guests, including Z. K. Brezinski, then at the Russian Research Center at Harvard, who went on to advise President Carter on Soviet matters. When national political conventions came around, Lyons was something to behold. The depth and intelligence of his commentaries far exceeded those of Huntley and Brinkley or Walter Cronkite, the network news stars of the time.

So Louis M. Lyons was my boss whenever I did national or international news on radio. He didn’t make the task easy. Refusing to subscribe to the Associated Press or United Press radio and TV wire services, which offered scripts prepared in the broadcast manner, Lyons insisted on the newspaper wires, necessitating a complete rewrite on every story because newspaper-style sentences were too long and ungainly for the air. A salutary result was that the WGBH newscasts sounded like no other Boston station’s.

“Why did you start with that story?’ or  “You buried the lead three paragraphs into the story!” or  “Watch your spelling! Don’t you have a dictionary?”  Yes, he corrected my spelling even though the audience could not detect a spelling mistake. Lyons would listen to the newscast, then give me my report card —   usually by way of a quickly typed memo. When I stopped getting these nasty notes from him, I assumed my skills were improving. His only problem was that, as a newspaper veteran,  he never caught on to the fact that stories intended for the ear, not the eye, often had to be structured differently. I wasn’t about to educate him.

Lyons wasn’t the only eccentric on board. The station manager at the time, for both radio and television, was James Parker Wheatley. In the late 40s, Wheatley helped spearhead the Lowell Institute Cooperative Broadcasting Council, a consortium of about a dozen institutions that included Harvard, MIT, Boston University, the Boston Symphony, and the Museum of Fine Arts, among others. However, the major force was Ralph Lowell, scion of one of Boston’s most distinguished families, chairman of the State Street Bank and Trust, and head of the Lowell Institute, one of the city’s oldest educational philanthropies.

Wheatley started producing programs with topics like “Great Books of Our Century” and begging commercial radio stations to give him airtime. A station like WEEI, then the CBS affiliate, would typically give him 5:30 Sunday morning or some other time it couldn’t sell.

After a few years, he followed Ralph Lowell’s lead in launching an FM station with members of the education consortium chipping in to produce and air programs. At the outset, studios were in Symphony Hall, home of the Boston Symphony, which might sound impressive, but the first time I auditioned I had to dodge rats scurrying in the alley that led to the station entrance.

One Boston newspaper critic said to his readers, “Be sure to get an FM radio and tune into WGBH. It’s in a world all its own.”

Much of the early programming was esoteric, to say the least. One Sunday evening, the station broadcast a BBC production of a tragedy by Sophocles in the original classical Greek — with flute interludes. Probably, in the entire listening area there were three professors of Greek listening to that one. Anthony LaCamera, a Boston newspaper critic, said to his readers, “Be sure to get an FM radio and tune into WGBH. It’s in a world all its own.”

About five years later, in the early’50s, Wheatley went on to run WGBH-TV, which shared facilities with the FM station, relocated to the converted roller skating rink. That arrangement may sound makeshift and, by today’s standards, it certainly was primitive. However, both stations had good studios for the time and some of the best equipment in Boston. The production staff was talented, hard working, and resourceful.

Staff producer Lou Barlow had a weekly program, “Performance,” on every Monday night at eight o’clock. He would produce a recital one week, an opera the next, and a drama the week after that. Everything was live and in black and white. There was no videotape to enable repeat telecasts. How he maintained such a schedule week after week I do not know.

Wheatley was able to recruit a capable staff, drawn largely from other Boston stations, who were fed up with the idiocy of commercial television, even though WGBH paid just the average Boston salaries — or so we were told. Although no one discussed this topic, I think almost everyone was dedicated to providing better programming that you could find in television’s “vast wasteland,” to use a phrase of an FCC commissioner at that time. However, it wasn’t the Garden of Eden. Wheatley was abusive of his staff and rarely kept a secretary more than six months.

Old Parker was one of a kind, though. During the winter he walked around Boston  wearing a football helmet. (Well, he wasn’t going to slip on the ice, fall, and hurt his head was he?) He had a phobia about germs. At a banquet, before using his silverware, he would dip it into the water glass and wipe the knife, fork, and spoon on his napkin. He had a couple of dogs, bloodhounds I think, that would sometimes accompany him to work. One time, when he was conducting a live interview on the radio station, the dogs wrapped themselves around the microphone cable and pulled the mic off the table. Wheatley simply picked up the mic and continued the interview with no explanation to the listeners.

During the Boston Symphony’s regular season, he announced the Saturday evening concerts from Symphony Hall. At the end of one broadcast, Wheatley announced, “The time is now seven minutes past ten. Good night.” Dead air and then Parker’s voice came back on. “This is Parker Wheatley once again. Mr. William Busiek, our superb Symphony engineer …” (and then he launched into a five-minute biography of Bill Busiek) “…Mr. William Busiek has just informed me that the time is not seven minutes past ten, it is twelve minutes past ten. Once again, good night.”  Jordan Whitelaw, another Peabody Award winner, produced the Symphony broadcasts. He told Wheatley that, if he weren’t the station manager, he would have been fired as the announcer long ago.

I did some of the Boston Symphony’s broadcasts myself, the highlight of my announcing career. For three summers, I announced all the concerts from Tanglewood, the orchestra’s summer home in the Berkshires, in the western part of Massachusetts. Only I wasn’t at Tanglewood. WGBH-FM sent Whitelaw, the chief music producer, and a technician to Tanglewood, where they recorded the weekend concerts all summer long and sent the edited tapes with accompanying continuity via Greyhound bus back to Boston. Fred Gardner, the office boy, would pick up the tapes at the Greyhound terminal, and that evening the station would broadcast “another concert from the Berkshire Music Festival.” The announcer’s voice, my voice, was superimposed live.

Though the programs were scripted, I had to learn something about classical music to sound as if I knew what I was talking about. I took college courses and read voraciously. To deal with titles plus the names of composers and artists, I had to learn to pronounce various foreign languages: French, German, Italian, Russian, and Spanish through classroom instruction and phonograph records, Church Latin through the kindness of a neighborhood priest.

Sometimes, I would be looking through the records on sale at the Krey Music Company on Tremont Street when I would come across a performer’s name I did not know how to pronounce. Typically, it would be some obscure Eastern European conductor or soloist whose last name had eight consonants and one vowel. (The first name would invariably be “Eggy.”) I would panic, because I knew for sure that this name would appear in continuity within a week.

Later on, the Boston Symphony concerts were recorded and syndicated for greater distribution. Radio stations throughout this country and the world carried the orchestra’s broadcasts. For decades Bill Pierce, WGBH’s chief announcer, was the host.

During the regular concert season, I moved to weeknight performances at the New England Conservatory of Music, where I announced concerts and recitals by advanced students and faculty members. At times, these programs were heavy going, featuring whole evenings of Schoenberg lieder, for example, that presumably showcased the young singers’ talent. Sometimes, on a snowy evening in February, there would be only a handful of audience members in an auditorium that seated about 400.

For each broadcast the technician, producer, and I set up a remote “studio” in a cage that was off stage right. I had to use a strongly directional microphone because the artists, after their performances, would call to their friends in the wings, “Hey, I’ll meet you at the Lobster Claw!” a favorite watering hole just down the street. I enjoyed these performances by so many talented young people. It is hard not to think about what may have happened to them in a cultural marketplace that rewards only “greatness,” not mere competence.

Wheatley put together a unique broadcasting organization, which he told me twenty years later, he had wanted to be a “model for the world.”

So James Parker Wheatley put together a unique broadcasting organization, which he told me twenty years later, he had wanted to be a “model for the world.”

In 1957 Ralph Lowell fired him, and no one was quite sure why. He may have run into philosophical problems when the board of directors decided to transform WGBH into a production center. Or Wheatley’s haphazard administrative style may have done him in. Or perhaps his nonconformist behavior finally proved too much for Ralph Lowell, the staid Boston banker, who was ultimately in charge. Or who knows?

Whatever the reason, Wheatley did not seem bitter about events when a mutual acquaintance brought us together in St. Louis in the mid ‘70s. Of course, by then he had plenty of time to recover. He was something of a celebrity in St. Louis and worked past the usual retirement age at KMOX-TV until new owners acquired the station. He was well into his nineties when he died in a nursing home in St. Louis. Years ago, he had been married and then divorced, but I noticed in the obituary there were no survivors.

He was one-of-a-kind and so was his brainchild. Yes, he did attract an eclectic group of eccentrics, and these people could be hard to know and harder to like, but they were all bright, talented, and dedicated. They all made their contribution to one of the most stimulating environments in which I’ve worked.

The intelligence and the creativity that pervaded the operation, and its outstanding reputation as a broadcasting pioneer, made me proud to be part of it. My nearly three years at WGBH stand as a meaningful chapter early in my career, and I am grateful for that.