The Making of “The Lathe of Heaven”

This entry is part 15 of 22 in the series The Fred Barzyk Collection

By Fred Barzyk — 12/2015

FredIt is still amazing to me how many people of a certain age remember watching this TV movie. I mean it was 1979 when it aired! It was on PBS, whose ratings were nowhere near the networks audience numbers. That’s a long time for a TV movie to stick in someone’s memory bank. It is very gratifying and wondrous. A tribute to Ursula Le Guin and David Loxton.

Let me begin at the beginning. David Loxton, an ambitious young Englishman was working for Jac Venza at WNET New York. Jac was head of cultural programs and David was one of his main assistants. I was working at WGBH Boston doing a show called “What’s Happening, Mr Silver?” David Silver, also a young Englishman, was teaching literature at Tufts University in Boston. Silver and I got together to create an experimental show, “What’s Happening, Mr. Silver?”

mrsilverThe year? 1968. The summer of The Love Revolution! Hippies! Drugs! Don’t trust anyone over 30! Free Love! Love-ins! I was asked to produce and direct a series reflecting the Cultural Revolution and David Silver became the on camera host. He was in his early 20’s, English and looked a lot like Mick Jagger. And he was teaching at a University! Perfect for our audience. The two Davids knew each other from school in England. David Loxton came to watch one of our productions. He couldn’t believe what we were doing. Sometimes we couldn’t either. I almost got fired … twice.

The show lasted almost a year and tested the very boundaries of television. We were the first to do a double TV broadcast. The show asked the audience to take two TV sets and place them six feet apart, turn one TV to Ch. 2 and the other to Ch. 44 (both owned and operated by WGBH). The audience was presented a show that was in stereo, both in picture and sound. The images and sounds were different on each channel. They were responding to each other while the audience tried to relate the happenings on the two screens.

loxton-crop2David Loxton and I became partners in doing television shows together. We produced “People” for NBC starring Lily Tomlin; “American Pie” for ABC with Joe Namath; “Flashback” hosted by Eric Severeid and “Countdown to Looking Glass” for HBO; “Phantom of the Open Hearth” a drama by Jean Shepherd for PBS; “Between Time and Timbuktu” a crazy mix of the writings of Kurt Vonnegut for PBS.

I was also instrumental in getting David the directorship of WNET’s TV Lab, an experimental project similar to the WGBH New Television Workshop that I ran for 10 years. Each of us had different strengths but usually assumed a shared producer/director credit. In practice, David was the producer and I was the director. We ended up doing many shows for HBO, a special for NBC with Lily Tomlin, and many dramas for PBS.

leguinDavid had a vision for doing sci-fi dramas for PBS. However, the label of “sci-fi” sounded a little too pedestrian for PBS. So David began calling his proposed dramas “speculative fiction.” He raised enough money to do one drama and he selected the novel “Lathe of Heaven” by Ursula Le Guin.
He traveled to Portland, Oregon and convinced her that he could do a creditable interpretation of her book. She agreed and David went out and cobbled together a budget of $750,000. (To be honest, David and I both used cash from our respective Experimental Labs to defray over-run costs)

A description of The Lathe of Heaven from its DVD release in 2000:

For George Orr, sleep is not a respite.
For Dr. William Haber, dreams are tools.
For sci-fi fans, the wait is over.

dvd2Praised as ‘rare and powerful’ by The New York Times, Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Lathe of Heaven is one of the most celebrated science fiction novels ever written. This innovative adaptation-never before released on DVD-brings the towering vision of Le Guin’s masterpiece to life.

George Orr is haunted by dreams that become reality. In a world where pollution has destroyed the ice caps and plagues rage unchecked, a psychiatrist sees Orr’s power as a way for humanity to escape its bleak fate. But as each attempt to direct Orr’s dreaming ends in failure, the doctor’s obsession with playing God grows stronger… a chilling fable of power uncontrolled and uncontrollable.

And so we began.

David was the Executive Producer and we shared the Director credit. David hired a writer, Roger Swaybill, to write the treatment. His work was adequate but it lacked a special vision that we wanted. David, myself and a young writer, Diane English, holed up in a New York office for 4 weeks rewriting the script. (Diane went on to Hollywood and became a star producer, creating a hit TV series “Murphy Brown. She and her husband helped fund the Broadcast Museum in NYC.)

The most difficult part of the script to realize was when the lead character, George Orr, has an “effective dream” in which he dreams up the plague reducing the world population by millions of people. How the hell do we create such a disaster, and especially before computer magic as we know it today? And with as little cash as possible? I turned to two influences. First, the British film, Great Expectations. It was the scene of the scorned bride who still sits in her dust filled castle room, now old and wrinkled, left only with her dreams that gave me the emotional foundation. The other was a video artist, Peter Campus, who created a video art piece where he wraps plastic wrap around his face, over and over again. My vision took all of George Orr’s friends and relatives, sat them at a large banquet table, lit large English style candelabra’s and had the camera truck around the table over and over again. Each time it went around, the people’s heads became covered with dark scrim, until they slowly slumped into the table. Geroge Orr, Dr. Haber and the woman psychologist watched but did not expire.

Cobwebs, dust, and darkened lighting of the scene culminated when George stands and gives an inhuman scream, while a door opens, again and again, the constantly dolling in of the camera revealing a blazing white screen.

The white screen became the sky outside Haber’s lab finding George Orr standing in the window, devastated by what he had just witnessed.

The first order of business was to find the right actors. David and I viewed a number of films that our casting director asked us to watch. We were impressed with Bruce Davidson’s work in “Short Eyes”. He had the vulnerability and soft demeanor, but with a flash of anger and combativeness that was needed for the part of George Orr. We made him and offer and he accepted.

haber2Kevin Conway had appeared in a WGBH production of “Scarlet Letter.” David and I went to see him in a New York stage performance and were impressed. He had a crispness of speech, the breath of deep and grand voice, a smaller man who could embody the Napoleon complex of Dr. Haber.

We offered him the role and he accepted.

The role of the psychiatrist went to Margaret Avery. Her bio includes the following:

heather-crop“Avery scored a major success with her role as the sultry and spirited blues singer, Shug Avery, in Spielberg’s The Color Purple (1985) opposite Whoopi Goldberg and Danny Glover. Her performance in this screen adaptation of Alice Walker’s prize-winning novel of the same title earned Avery an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress in a Supporting Role.”

The production was shot in Texas, with a few exterior cutaways in Portland and a scene on the shore of the Pacific Ocean. It was the first time that we had worked with a Hollywood based Director of Photography, Robbie Greenberg. He brought his people along and they did a professional job. Our audio person was Dennis Maitland, one of the best audio people I have worked with on a film shoot.

An example: during one of the opening scene, I had George Orr walk through a crowded hallway. I asked that as he passed by groups of people, we could hear their conversations. I set up the camera dolly and tried the move a couple of times. In a very short time, we were ready to shoot. However, I didn’t see Dennis or his boom person setup for the shot. I asked if he heard the various groups as Orr walked past.

“Oh, yes” he said.


“Heard them all”

“How’s that possible with no boom mic?”

“I have a wireless mic on every group.”

I never saw him do it. He never once asked for a rehearsal. He just did these quick and perfect setups, time and time again. It was amazing. Dennis has retired but his son has followed in his footsteps.

The costume person, Laura Crow, created magic working closely with David. Especially her design for the “future” costumes the characters wore. Not too far out, and yet somehow special and reflective of a dysfunctional world. And when the world turns “grey” and all characters, black or white, became grey, she outdid herself in look and budget. No small feat.


I want to take this moment to express my great respect to the set designer, John Wright Stevens, and his staff for their ability to work with the smallest budget ever, to create such unbelievable locations and settings.

He helped us find the great locations: Haber’s most expansive lab at the new City Hall in Dallas, Texas (the mayor had not even moved in at the time of our shooting!) and the glass exterior of Haber’s final lab at the Hyatt hotel in Dallas. We used both the inside and interior with the complete cooperation of the hotel management.


John found great locations in Fort Worth: the Tandy Center and its mirrored elevator, the abandoned Oil Company building, and the bombed out exterior of the opening scene. He even convinced city officials to let us set off special effects — fire, coloring the fountain red and bubbling with dry ice, a 30-foot explosion on the base of the memorial site — in one of its prized monument plazas. Explosion, fire, smoke and the city let us do it. Thanks Ft. Worth!

Small back-story: As we setting up for the big scene which had to happen at night, the local police told us to move out for a while. When asked why, they said a drunken cowboy was walking down the street toward us, shooting as he walked along. We moved out for about a half hour and then the police said the coast was clear. That’s shooting in Texas in more ways than one.

One of the most difficult of all was trying to create special effects with a limited budget. Since David and I both had been working with video artists in our respective labs, we knew people who could create some effects for little money. Ed Emschwiller, a prolific video artist who also created works for sci-fi magazines helped with several difficult images, including flying saucers.

laserThe most inspired effect was a laser creation as the two leads fight out in the cosmos. David had located a laser company and we descended on them with our two lead actors and no knowledge of how to make this work. The owners of the company showed us what smoke and sprayed water looks like when added to the laser beams. What followed was a total free for all as we improvised actions that we thought might help the movie. It worked way beyond what we had hoped for. A fitting look for a sci-fi movie with a very low budget.

Now comes time for the biggest thanks. The editor, Dick Bartlett, a long time collaborator on my projects, created a marvelous product. The cameraperson hated it because the editor did what he does, mix and match. The DP wanted his long and complicated shots. But Dick was right. He spent along time in NYC working with David. The most daring part of the show was the opening 2 minutes, were nothing happens at all. Just shots of a peaceful world, until the bomb. That kind of opening would never have made it through a commercial network. Only on PBS could that of happened.

It made the show special right at the beginning. Today, cable networks would accept this as normal, but those were different times.

Only three times in my professional career did I ever have original music.

Lathe was one of them. Michael Small and an orchestra of 20 created a wonderful musical score. Michael worked for scale because he liked the project. We were very lucky.

“Michael Small (May 30, 1939 – November 24, 2003) was an American film score composer best known for his scores to thriller movies such as The Parallax View, Marathon Man, and The Star Chamber. Relatively few of his scores are available on compact disc. Michael Small died at the age of 64.”

The TV movie was released on PBS nation wide. Its reviews were good.

More importantly, Ursula liked what we did. The buzz lasted for a while and then died away. That was until a group of sci-fi groupies started pestering WNET to release the show on DVD. The cost of step up fees to actors, writers, musicians, etc. was considered too costly. But the noise reached new levels as sci-fi writers started writing articles about the lost masterpiece. Against many objections, WNET did finally break out the cash for a DVD release. WNET said they have never had as many requests for a DVD of one of their shows ever. I thank them for their commitment.

People still tell me how important that film was to them when growing up.

Some are real fanatics, able to recall scenes, shots, even dialogue. This has never happened to any other show I have ever created. It is a tribute to all who made this happen, no one more important than David Loxton.

New York Times, 1989

loxtonDavid R. Loxton, a producer of documentaries and other programs for public television, died of pancreatic cancer on Wednesday morning at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in Manhattan. He was 46 years old and lived in Manhattan.

Mr. Loxton joined the production staff of WNET, the major New York public-television affiliate, in 1966. In 1972, he created the Television Lab, which presented the work of independent film makers like Nam June Paik and of the choreographer Twyla Tharp, who has worked with video.

In addition to serving as the director of the Television Lab from 1972 through 1984, Mr. Loxton developed the Nonfiction TV series, which presented such works as ”Paul Jacobs and the Nuclear Gang,” ”I Remember Harlem” and ”The Times of Harvey Milk.” Mr. Loxton was the executive producer of Nonfiction TV from 1978 through 1983.

Mr. Loxton was the executive producer of programs for the ”Great Performances,” ”NET Playhouse” and ”American Playhouse” series.

He received many honors, including an Academy Award for ”The Times of Harvey Milk” (1985), Emmy Awards for that documentary as well as for ”The Police Tapes” (1977), ”Paul Jacobs and the Nuclear Gang” (1979) and ”Third Avenue: Only the Strong Survive” (1980), and Du Pont/Columbia Awards for ”Lord of the Universe” (1974), ”The Police Tapes” (1977), ”I Remember Harlem” (1982) and ”Pesticide and Pills” (1982).

In 1985, he won an ACE. award, cable television’s equivalent of an Emmy, for best original drama, for ”Countdown to Looking Glass,” about a United States-Soviet confrontation in the Middle East. He was co-executive producer, with Frederick Barzyk, of the program.

”It’s very hard to put together projects in public television, and he had the resources and drive to put them together and the skill to produce them,” Arnold Labaton, a senior vice president of WNET and director of the station’s production center, said yesterday. ”He also had a great talent for working with others. He did it with immense tact and judgment.”

Most recently, Mr. Loxton was director of drama for the ”Great Performances” series and senior executive producer for specials, both at WNET. He was executive producer of ”Tales From the Hollywood Hills,” a critically acclaimed series shown under the auspices of ”Great Performances.” When he became ill, he had just begun production of ”Childhood,” a six-part documentary for the Public Broadcasting Service.

Mr. Loxton, a British citizen, was born in Kingston, Ontario, and grew up in England. He is survived by his wife, Pamela, and two sons William and Charles, all of Manhattan; his father, William, of Ruscombe, Berkshire, and a brother, Peter, of London.

AAPB Makes Historical Public Media Content Available to the Public

From the American Archive of Public Broadcasting — 10/27/2015

In conjunction with UNESCO World Day for Audiovisual Heritage, WGBH and the Library of Congress are pleased to announce the launch of the American Archive of Public Broadcasting (AAPB) Online Reading Room.

Screen Shot 2015-11-29 at 12.31.53 PMWith contributions from more than 100 public media organizations across the country, programs that for decades have gathered dust on shelves are now available to stream on the AAPB website. This rich collection of programs dating from the 1940s to the 2010s will help tell the stories of local communities throughout the nation in the last half of the 20th century and first decade of the 21st.

Initially launched in April 2015 with 2.5 million inventory records, the AAPB website has added nearly 7,000 audiovisual streaming files of historical content from public media stations across the country.  The Library of Congress, WGBH Boston and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting have embarked on an unprecedented initiative to preserve historical public television and radio programs of the past 70 years. This extraordinary material includes national and local news and public affairs programs, local history productions that document the heritage of our varied regions and communities, and programs dealing with education, environmental issues, music, art, literature, dance, poetry, religion and even filmmaking on a local level. The project ensures that this valuable source of American social, cultural and political history and creativity will be saved and made accessible for current and future generations.

Nearly 40,000 hours comprising 68,000 digital files of historic public broadcasting content have been preserved. On the website, nearly 7,000 of these American public radio and television programs dating back to the 1940s are now accessible to the public. These audio and video materials, contributed by more than 100 public broadcasting organizations across the country, are an exciting new resource to uncover ways that common concerns over the past half century have played out on the local scene. Users are encouraged to check back often as AAPB staff continue to add more content to the website. The entire collection of 40,000 hours is available for research on location at WGBH and the Library of Congress.

“The collective archives of public media contain an unparalleled audio and video record of the second half of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st,” said WGBH Vice Chairman Henry Becton. “These treasures of our times aren’t available elsewhere and it’s essential that we preserve them and make them available as widely as possible.”

The Spirit of the Spirit: A WGBH remembrance

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

By Don Hallock — 8/8/2015

In 2000 I was hired by Montana Public Television to direct a PBS production of the Montana Summer Symphony. It was a sizable piece (outdoors, 13 cameras, and seven regional symphony orchestras – yes 7, in Montana!).

DH - CUThe Montana program manager/producer and I hit it off from the get-go. I had directed nothing for 24 years previously, and it had been a whole 37 years since leaving ‘GBH. I was immediately forthcoming about that, but probably because they’d had good experiences with David Atwood the previous two years, added to the superlative reputation of WGBH, the Montana PM was game to collaborate with this broadcasting antique.

The folks in Montana and I (in Hawaii) worked on the production plans for two or three months by phone, Internet and email. Luckily the scheduling worked out so that I could hire Bill Frances as TD. (I tried to get Chas Norton for lighting as well but, unfortunately, the timing was wrong.) Still, as I expected, Bill was superb, and the Montana people were hugely impressed by his easy way and mastery of the production.

On site, the Montana PBS staff, it turned out, were very professional, capable, immensely cooperative, cordial and wonderfully easy to work with. There was a warm atmosphere of smooth camaraderie among their staff. Working with these folks felt in some subliminal way like ‘coming home.’ And eventually I came to understand that the whole experience was wonderfully, and touchingly for me, reminiscent of my years at ‘GBH.

But here’s the thing: The day after I arrived in Bozeman, several of the local staff and I met for lunch, and got to know each other in person. We spoke about our plans, our histories in broadcasting, and our philosophies. I reminisced on the family atmosphere I remembered at ‘GBH, and how much I valued that. In response, the Montana people remarked on having earlier attended an NAB convention, specifically noting that, in contrast to most of the other Public Broadcasting groups, the ‘GBH people seemed remarkably amiable, close-knit, and mutually supportive.


Once upon a moment of magic (during the ‘Golden Age of Television’ – 1957) there was a lower middle class kid with only a high school education, and a burning passion for the medium, who was taken on at ‘GBH as a scenic carpenter, soon brought into the studio as cameraman and, eventually, promoted to producer/director (for all of which he’s still hugely grateful). There were organizational restrictions in place at the station which should have made that trajectory formally impossible. But bending those rules in favor of who people actually were, and in respect of each individual’s intrinsic value, was actually the unspoken rule of the house.

People, and the talents they brought to the workplace, were always ‘coin of the realm.’

I don’t remember anyone really worrying about losing their job; ability and team effort seemed the most important measures of a person’s worth.

During my time at the station many folks came and went but, by way of testimonial, many stayed for very, very long times. And, though my memory may be faulty, I can recall, during that period at least, only one person who ever earned dismissal.

Certainly there were some frictions – all organizations suffer at least a few of those. There were also, however, times of wonderful fun, impressive loyalties, abundant kindnesses, and very genuine friendships. Internecine politics — while not entirely absent — never seemed to compromise commitment to the greater endeavor. That commitment was a quality within, and between, the people who worked there. It was palpable inside the station and, I believe, made itself felt through ‘GBH’s output, not only outside in the Boston community, but at distances which could only be imagined.

Being part of Educational Television was an education in itself; we were daily rubbing elbows with the finest the world’s cultures had to offer. And I believe we all knew, at one level or another, that we were involved in something noble and admirable. It was that spirit which undergirded the beginnings of ‘Educational Television,’ and with time would build the enormous force for good that is now Public Broadcasting. The philosophy which grounded the functioning of the station was omnipresent. A whole litany of words would be needed to describe what the station stood for: integrity, insight, intelligence, ingenuity, honesty, sensitivity, inventiveness, professionalism, scholarship, idealism, co-cooperativeness, community, creativity, perseverance and team spirit …. just for starters. Of course we didn’t always make it to the tops of those mountains.

Financially, technically and practically the obstacles were often daunting. But pride in overcoming was frequent, and shortfalls were not due to a lack of desire or commitment. These qualities were embodied, day to day, by the people who were WGBH.

Apparently, they still are.

In the early days, one of our Boston University interns coined the phrase, “We don’t say much, but we don’t offend anyone.” If that was ever true, much certainly has changed. A glance at the line-up of the station’s output (particularly in the realm of documentary) shows a great deal of grown-up risk-taking. The maturing of WGBH is something to be proud of, and it must be observed that, if one is proud to be (or have been) part of WGBH, it is automatically true that one is also proud of everyone else who has given their talents to make the station what it is.

Past, present, future, WGBH is us …. all of us. The continuity of the alumni web site and the recurring alumni reunions attest to this fact.

So, pardon me for gushing (just a bit more), but there has always been something magical about the ‘GBH cachet, growing I believe from the station’s spoken, unspoken, and lived, philosophy, and from those who have striven to express it. The WGBH logo inspires, immediately, well deserved respect, not only throughout the industry, but among audiences worldwide.


The kid I referenced earlier is now almost 80. He’s run through quite a few personal and professional incarnations since his 6 years tenure at ‘GBH, but each of those eras have been informed and influenced by what he learned there — not only about broadcasting, but about the spirit at the heart of intelligent living.

He’s invariably moved when, during its station breaks, our local PBS station here in Honolulu intones its two slogans, “It’s not just TV. It’s a relationship,” and “Home is here.”

50 Years of the WGBH Auction in Stories, Videos, and Pictures

Videos from the First WGBH Auction in 1966

Part 1: Where An Unruly Puppy is Auctioned Off

WGBH Auction Classics (Part 1)

Part 2: Where David Ives Introduces Julia Child

WGBH Auction Classics (Part 2) with Julia Child

Part 3: Where Russ Morash Introduces Bud Collins and Bob Cousy

WGBH Auction Classics (Part 3) with Bud Collins, Bob Cousy, and Russ Morash

Part 4: Where a Ghoulish Choir Sings the Auction Number: 868-2500 

WGBH Auction Classics (part 4) 868-2500

Stories and Images

Screen Shot 2015-07-09 at 5.38.47 PM Screen Shot 2015-07-09 at 5.38.36 PM


Seven thousand video tapes transferred to digital

From WGBH Archives — July 2014

On March 11, 2013, WGBH Media Library and Archives’ Archives Manager Keith Luf and Digital Archives Manager Michael Muraszko loaded 7,010 tapes from the WGBH vault onto 12 palettes, which were then shipped via an 18-wheeler to be digitized at Crawford Media Services in Atlanta, Georgia for the American Archive of Public Broadcasting.

Only a few months later would the WGBH MLA in collaboration with the Library of Congress be selected as the permanent home for the American Archive collection, an initiative to identify, preserve, and make accessible as much as possible the historic record of public media in America.


WGBH’s tapes were stored in 306 archives boxes, totaling 459 linear feet (longer than 1 1/2 football fields!) and comprising more than 6,400 hours of content. In many cases, the archives staff knew only the program title of the tapes — they often knew nothing about the recorded participants.

The content dated back as early as March of 1947 and was as recent as 2005. The MLA sent material on 15 different video and audio tape formats, the majority of which had exceeded the manufacturer’s intended lifespan. MLA’s Keith Luf compared the situation to a child’s 18 year old cat, which everyone knew wouldn’t — and couldn’t — be around much longer.

In June of 2014, WGBH’s 6,400 hundred hours of content was returned. In addition to the original 7,010 tapes, the content was delivered as digital files on a second copy — on 17 LTO-6 tapes…. stored in one box!


And with the digitized material came a new ease of accessibility — the MLA staff have been able to easily watch or listen to the digital files and discover content they never knew had been sitting in the vault for all these years.

Among the new discoveries includes a 1967 10-minute monologue by American historian and activist Howard Zinn on the social unrest of the times; a recorded speech given by JFK in either 1962 or 1963 at the Armory in Boston; and a 1975 video recording of a cello class taught by Harvard professor Mstislav Rostropovich, who during the recording asked a graduate student in his class “What kind of a name is Yo-Yo?”

As additional funding has become available, the MLA has recently coordinated with Crawford on the digitization of 800 more hours of 3/4″ videotapes and 1/4″ audiotapes, which will be shipped out next week.  Who knows what we’ll find next!?

Frank Lane, 74, Cameraman and Studio Engineer

From the Boston Globe

Francis X. Lane of Hyannis, formerly of Norwood, passed away peacefully at home on June 28 at the age of 74.

lane-BWBeloved husband of Nancy E. Lane. Devoted and loving father of his son Ryan C. Lane of Natick and adoring daughter Elizabeth B. Lane of Norwood. Francis was the youngest of eleven children born to the late Thomas M. and Nora (Cunningham) Lane of West Roxbury and the son-in-law of the late Patricia (Brown) Wolley of Norwood and Francis W. Cooney of TN. He is also survived by his sister-in-law, Ronnie Lane of Braintree, and many nieces and nephews.

Francis (aka Franny, Frank and Fran) was a cameraman and studio engineer for WGBH TV (Channel 2) for 35 years until his retirement in 2003. He was the former president of NABET-CWA Local 18 and the former treasurer of the Barnstable Newcomers Bowling League. In addition to bowling, he loved the beach and playing cribbage, but his greatest joy came from spending time with his family and many friends.

A funeral service will be held on Friday, July 3 at 11 AM at the Kraw-Kornack Funeral Home (1248 Washington St. in NORWOOD) immediately following a visiting hour at 10 AM. Burial will be at Highland Cemetery in Norwood. The family is especially grateful to his dedicated nurse, Diane Munsell.

In lieu of flowers, donations can be made to VNA of Cape Cod Hospice, 434 Route 134, S. Dennis, MA 02660.



Elizabeth Lane

My dear father, known as Frank to his ‘GBH family, passed away over the weekend. I always loved hearing his work stories (Zoom, the news, the Pops on the Esplanade, the BSO, The French Chef with Julia Child, This Old House, The Victory Garden…the list goes on), visiting him at the station, watching the Auction in hopes of catching a shot of him behind the camera, his days in Master Control, and his many escapades with his best friend, Greg Macdonald. He retired in 2003 after 35 years. Feel free to share your memories of my father!
Elizabeth Lane’s photo.
June 30 at 11:40am

Bob Manosky

I’m very sorry to hear this. Frank and I worked together on many many WGBH programs. He was a great guy.
June 30 at 11:50am

Ben Mayerson

Frank was such a character. He was a leader, a master of his craft, a Teddy Bear, and just an all around super great guy. To you my friend!!
June 30 at 11:51am

Tonia Magras

My deepest condolences! He was a dear friend and father figure to me. Always with a great big smile and bear hug! My thoughts and prayers are with you and your family during this time. I will miss him dearly!
June 30 at 12:16pm

Jack Comeau

I’m so sorry to hear this. There was always something that seemed indestructible about him. At first look he could seem intimidating. I remember thinking, “Who’s this leg breaker?” It took only minutes to discovery his kind, sensitive sense of humor and intelligent. I love working with him on many of the shows that you mentioned above. The world will miss him.
July 1 at 12:17pm

Ilene Fischer

Truly one of a kind. Frank made every shoot that much more fun.
June 30 at 12:20pm

Emily Yacus

Frank was wonderful. I worked with him from 1998-2001 or 02, sitting as an admin assistant behind Master Control. Thanks for sharing these pics of him- I’m smiling and teary at the same time.
June 30 at 12:29pm

Chas Norton

Frank was perhaps one of the brightest persons I ever met; his insightful and trenchant words were always right on.

May he rest in peace!
June 30 at 1:41pm

Dick Heller

Back in the old everybody-does-everything days of the Auction, Frank took over as Director. After a few minutes he handed the headset back to me saying, “I’ll never talk back to you, ever again.” Wonderful guy, always a pleasure to work with.
June 30 at 1:51pm

Cathy Page

Oh no…. I’m so sorry to hear this. Frank was a wonderful guy.
June 30 at 1:56pm

Emily Norman

I’m so sorry for your loss. I loved seeing his friendly face around the hallowed halls of GBH.
June 30 at 2:04pm

Kevin Kalunian

I’m deeply saddened by this news about Frank , but happy that I got to know him on a few rare overnight trips for La Plaza, Say Brother, or other programs that we worked on for The Foundation. He spoke very highly of his colleagues, some who have posted here, and others that left us already for another journey elsewhere. Frank also often mentioned his family while we waited for some event to happen, or while at lunch. He will be missed dearly.
June 30 at 2:14pm

Nancy Walker

I’m so sorry for your loss….Frank was a gentle giant to an 8 year old Zoomer…after College I came back to work with your Father in the field …I was a Production Assistant for Local Programming…what a wonderful person..RIP Frank
June 30 at 2:17pm

Mark Helton

Frank was a true pioneer at Wgbh and the broadcast nation. I learned a lot from both he and Greg. It was a honor to work with your father. Although only a freelancer for gbh all these years, Frank always made me feel welcome at the station and with the union. A pleasure to work with. Peace to Frank, and to his whole family.
June 30 at 2:42pm

Scot Osterweil

Frank was a wonderful guy to work with. On Pops shows he was always Camera 2, the camera at the far back of the hall, getting the widest shots.
June 30 at 2:54pm

Scot Osterweil

In ’85 When Pops played the Lincoln Memorial, camera 2 was at the top of the Washington Monument. But more memorably, he was just a kind, thoughtful person.
June 30 at 2:56pm

John M. Sullivan

So sad to hear this. Frank was warm and wonderful man!
June 30 at 2:59pm

Kathy Gleason

I am so very sorry for you and your family,
June 30 at 3:25pm

Joe Forte

My condolences. Franky was a lot of fun to work with. Sad day.
June 30 at 3:33pm

Mark Helman

I don’t think I’ve ever worked with anybody as well-liked as Frank. My best to you and your family.
June 30 at 3:42pm

Courtnay Malcolm

Frank was one of the first people I met when I started at WGBH in 1991. When I directed the auction Frank and Greg would always play pranks on me and sometimes I would laugh so hard I nearly fell out of my chair. My thoughts are with you and your family.
June 30 at 5:10pm

Maria Agui Carter

Frank was lovely and shot some of the first things I worked on at WGBH. So, so sorry to hear of his passing. Sincere condolences.
June 30 at 6:34pm

Mike Wilkins

We were happy to have Frank at the NABET 18 picnic last fall!
June 30 at 6:37pm

Hilary Finkel Buxton

Sending sincere condolences… Frank was always kind, and wonderful to work with!
June 30 at 7:59pm

Alison Bassett

So sorry to hear this news, thinking of your family, and what a great and talented man your father was…
June 30 at 9:14pm

Frank Coakley

Frank was one of the first people I met when I came to work at WGBH in 1981. He was tough, smart, funny and most importantly a good friend with a heart of gold. RIP brother, my thoughts go out to his family and his many friends and admirers.
June 30 at 9:17pm

Amy Tonkonogy

I am so sorry to hear this. Frank always made me smile. He had such dedication to Gbh and taught me so much. My thoughts to your entire family.
June 30 at 9:21pm

Sharon Corey Sleicher

My time at WGBH was a few years ago but I remember your father because he was always friendly, kind and fun to be around.
June 30 at 9:24pm

Bruce Bordett

Such sad news. Many happy memories of working with Frank and Greg. He is, and will be missed. This shot from the day the Pope came to Boston… Late 70’s
June 30 at 11:25pm

Marcia Hulley

So sad. Frank was a great friend and mentor to me — like so many others at wgbh. It was a delight working with him over the years. An amazing cameraman, an amazing man. My heartfelt condolences to his family.
July 1 at 12:17am

Sherylle Linton

Jones Frank was just awesome. I worked with him frequently back in my Say Brother days. I am profoundly sorry for your loss. May he rest in peace.
July 1 at 12:38am

Lo Hartnett

Whenever I saw frank behind the camera for pledge, I knew things were in good hands. He always made me smile.
July 1 at 5:38am

Russ Fortier

I’m so sad to hear about Frank. He was a wonderful professional. Attentive and pleasant, he was, as I recall, virtually error free as a cameraman on the shows I directed. Most notably, as others have mentioned was his camera (2) at Symphony Hall; a deceptively challenging position. I recall one broadcast in which Frank had to zoom back from a single shot of the concertmaster (first violin) to a cover shot of the entire orchestra over 32 (slow) measures of music; a devilishly long move. Perfectly done. So normal and routine for Frank to deliver that way.
July 1 at 7:56am

Jennifer Jordan

Love the shot of him shooting at the Kennedy School Forum! I remember him well from my days both at WGBH and directing the Forum. Class act and all around great guy.
July 1 at 9:28am

Elizabeth Lane

Thank you all so much for sharing your beautiful memories of my dad. It’s bringing us so much comfort hearing from people who loved my dad as much as we do.
July 1 at 9:56am

Syrl Silberman

I worked with Frank for 12 years at WGBH. He was truly one of the kindest people I’ve ever known and more often than not made difficult times in the studio less so. I could always count on him to do whatever was needed and do it well. I can honestly say that I loved him and fully understand how much you will miss him. I wish you comfort.
July 1 at 10:04am

Anne Sweeney

God bless your family. May Frank rest in peace.
July 1 at 10:23am

Jane Arsham

I had the pleasure of working with Frank in the “early” years 1968-80. He started a year after me and we had a great friendship. Frank laughed a lot (I can still hear him) and enjoyed both work and play. He loved to sing Irish songs and we joined him often at a pub in Norwood I think it was!! He was a talented camera man and always willing to pitch in and help out in anyway he could. I don’t remember him ever saying no when I asked (which was often). Although we lost touch after I left GBH, he remains in my heart. My thoughts and prayers are with you.
July 1 at 10:36am

Edye Baker

The auction volunteers loved Frank and the way he made them feel like stars!! MANY memories of him. Sincere condolences to you and your family.
July 1 at 12:14pm

Vladimir Stefanovic

My deepest condolences. Frank was really an awesome guy. RIP Frank.
July 1 at 1:45pm

Nora Sinclair

So sorry to hear! My sincere condolences. I loved working with Frank in the studio, always a pleasure.
July 1 at 2:00pm

Ben Mayerson

Literally on this day, I quoted one of the lessons Frank taught me. “I only move at one speed, and this is it.”

It wasn’t a statement of non cooperation. It was a declaration of pacing, proficiency, and calm. I recall that mantra often, from my teacher Frank Lane.
July 1 at 4:53pm

Susan Dangel

In my brain and heart, when I think of WGBH, I think Greg and Frank. Your father was one of a kind. All those Pops shows and how he made us laugh. So sorry for your loss.
July 1 at 11:46pm

Larry Lecain

I loved Frank. Kind, generous , welcoming,quick to share a good story. He seemed immune to the pressures of long lens camera work at Symphony Hall. Frank was willing to share his insight on the ironies of life, work and people he knew. I miss him.
July 2 at 7:03am

Christy George

I loved Frank, too. One moment at the Ten O’Clock News stands out: I covered John Lakian’s libel trial against the Boston Globe, and for five weeks GBH was the pool camera – a rarity to be so well staffed. So all the Boston TV stations were using video shot by Frank and Greg. And their reporters were blown away. Years of shooting the Pops had taught Greg and Frank how to follow the action seamlessly and gracefully. Their camerawork made the trial seem like a Hollywood movie. And when a much-lauded commercial station shooter filled in one day, all the reporters grumbled. They wanted Frank and Greg back! I was delighted our guys got the respect they deserved.
July 2 at 2:46pm

Elizabeth Lane

Love these stories!
July 2 at 2:48pm

Nancy Walker

The dynamic duo!!!
July 2 at 2:53pm

Mary Helen Doyle

Frank was always a bright light bouncing (in his big way!) through the engineering tape room downstairs at GBH. He always welcomed a quick fun chat, never really grouchy as I remember, despite whatever the day had been. I’m so sorry to hear that he has passed, I’ll never forget him.
July 2 at 9:49pm

Bernadette Yao

I am deeply sorry for your loss, Elizabeth. I send my sincere condolences to you and your family. I remember your father with great affection and I am so sad to hear of his passing. I always looked forward to seeing him since my childhood days on ZOOM, and through the years after college when I sang with the TFC, BSO & Pops at Symphony Hall, and during live pledge drives and auctions when I worked behind the scenes at WGBH. Years later, whenever I visited WGBH, he would greet me with that familiar grin, and share what was going on in the moment as if no time had passed. I will remember Frank and his kindness always.
21 hrs · Like ·

Don Quayle, 84, NPR’s first president

From Current — 4/23/2015

Don Quayle, NPR’s first president, dies at 84

Don QuayleDon Quayle, who got NPR off the ground as its first president in 1970, died April 17 of complications from brain surgery at a hospital in Silver Spring, Md., according to the Washington Post. He was 84.

Quayle kick-started NPR at a time when television was the innovative medium of the day, not radio. At the time, the presidency of NPR was a job “nobody particularly wanted,” said Jack Mitchell, Quayle’s first hire at NPR and a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Quayle’s vision for NPR was to provide “excellence and diversity to noncommercial radio,” he said in a 1971 Billboard article.

He did that, in part, Mitchell said, by acting as the “adult figure” at the network, hiring a “highly creative group of young people” that would shape the direction of NPR and go on to create All Things Considered under his tenure, which lasted until 1973.

“He had no great vision of what the programming should be . . . became a highly creative and fluid organization,” Mitchell said. “In the beginning, it could have been almost anything. He didn’t dictate anything. He allowed people to try things.”

“He provided the structure within which we could work effectively,” said Bill Siemering, who worked under Quayle as NPR’s first programming director, in an email. “He was patient during the first rocky months of starting All Things Considered and his trust that it would get better was invaluable.”

“He got going,” Mitchell said. “And given the very weak state of educational radio [at the time], just getting it going was amazing.”

NPR was “very fortunate that we had him as the first president,” Mitchell said.

Before getting tapped to lead NPR, Quayle worked for CPB not long after it was established by the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967. Before that, he helped establish what would later become Utah Public Radio as a student at Utah State University in Logan. He then went on to be a program manager at WOSU in Columbus, Ohio, and station manager at WGBH in Boston, according to the Herald Journal. Before working at NPR, he also worked at the Eastern Educational Network.

After leaving NPR in 1973, he rejoined CPB as a senior vice present and went on to become vice president for administration at WETA in Arlington, Va., before retiring in 1989, according to the Post.

Mitchell described Quayle as “quite thoughtful and very warm.” “I always said, if you ever have a flat tire on the Pennsylvania Turnpike at night in the rain, give him a call,” he said. “He’ll come fix it.”

Quayle is preceded in death by his wife Yvonne Rich, the Post said, and is survived by five children: Sharla Hellie, Debra Quayle, Karen Hall, Kathleen Specht and Bryce Quayle; a sister; 13 grandchildren; and 10 great-grandchildren.

From Susan Stamberg/NPR — 4/17/2015

The first president of National Public Radio has died. Don Quayle was 84 years old. He had a long career in public broadcasting — both television and radio. NPR’s Susan Stamberg reflects on his impact.

Don Quayle gave me my first radio job. It was the early ’60s and he was head of the Educational Radio Network — the precursor of NPR — a skinny little network of 12 East Coast stations that developed a daily drive-time news show. He hired me to help produce it. When this national network arose, he was an obvious choice to run it.

Don was principled, decent and astute. In the euphoric tumult of our first years, he navigated the choppy seas of building a public radio system. He knew NPR had to serve you, our listeners, above the competing needs of stations, boards and funders.

Putting the network’s first program, All Things Considered, on the air in 1971, he presided over a dedicated and scrappy staff, and always said his job was to build a structure in which creative people could flourish.

Today’s NPR goes far beyond the structure that Don worked to establish from 1970 to 1973. It’s now grown to 900-plus member stations — a giant leap from the original handful. And All Things Considered is the first of many programs NPR now produces. But the systems and sensibility he put in place (and yes, even some of the people) continue to flourish, thanks to his initial guidance.

Five years ago, Utah State University, his alma mater, presented Don with an honorary doctorate of humane letters for his “significant contributions” to public broadcasting. He was as thrilled about that as he was when he first saw the snazzy new Washington, D.C., headquarters in which we now work.

He was warm and kind in his enthusiasms. At the heart of them, in addition to his family, was his belief in the work you hear, here, every day.

Joe Day, 78, tenacious reporter

From the Boston Globe — March 15, 2015

After leaving the Providence Journal in 1970 to be a moderator and editor at WGBH-TV in Boston, Joe Day immediately earned respect for his insight and tenacity.

As a member of Channel 2’s “The Reporters” team, Mr. Day refused to take no for an answer that December when the Massachusetts Consumer Protection Division announced that several gasoline stations were selling the identical fuel at varying prices, but would not reveal which ones.

“I thought, ‘What the hell kind of consumer protection is that?’ ” Mr. Day told the Globe in 1971. In the month that followed, he called 18 gasoline companies, twice each, to ask if they were the offenders, and repeatedly asked the state when the names would be released.

“I, for one, intend to follow this story to the end,” Mr. Day told his viewers, and his persistence paid off when the state attorney general’s office announced the names.

Joe Day

Mr. Day, who later was a chief political and citizen affairs correspondent and editor at Boston’s WCVB-TV and WHDH-TV from 1973 to 1992, died March 8 after a heart attack in his winter home in Princeville, Kauai, in Hawaii. He was 78 and had lived in Santa Fe since leaving Boston.

“Joe was inspirational as a person and as a journalist, and there was a calm sense of mission about him,” said David Ropeik, one of Mr. Day’s former colleagues at Channel 5. “He wanted the most competitive beat at the time — politics and government — and he deserved it.”

Former WCVB-TV Channel 5 reporter and commentator Clark Booth called Mr. Day “a damn good newsman who was great meeting deadlines and a superb writer. He had an instinct for the soft underbelly of a story. There was a fundamental decency about him, and although he may have been the quietest guy in the room, he was most likely the smartest.”

The recipient of several awards, including New England Emmys for coverage of the Massachusetts Democratic Convention and the funeral of Connecticut Governor Ella Grasso, Mr. Day was the son of Alice (Alexander) and Price Day, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist at the Baltimore Sun.

“Joe had a curiosity about the people he covered, whether it was a presidential candidate or, later after moving to Santa Fe, telling the story of a parking lot attendant,” said his wife, Nancy. “He was still reporting until his death for our radio station in Kauai about the opening of a biofuel plant.”

Born in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., Joseph Day grew up in Baltimore and graduated from Princeton University in 1958 with a bachelor’s degree in English.

His three brothers also worked as journalists, including his late sibling, Tony, an editorial page editor at the Los Angeles Times.

Mr. Day’s entry into newspaper work began with a bus ticket. “Joe had just returned from Army service in Germany,” his wife said, “and he wrote a letter to the editor of the Milwaukee Journal, who told him if he was ever in the area to drop in, with no promise of a job.”

When Mr. Day sent the letter, he was two years out of Princeton and back in Baltimore. He immediately hopped a bus to Milwaukee and was hired in 1960. Then, from 1963 to 1970, he was assistant state editor and a reporter at the Providence Journal.

“I think his family was surprised he made the move to television,” his wife said, “but it was something he wanted to try.” She added that he “felt that he would have an even stronger connection with the public.”

Mr. Day met Nancy Crichton, an artist, on the beach in Ocean City, Md., when she was a student at Ohio Wesleyan University. They married on Sept. 20, 1961. The couple and their children lived in a Colonial-era farmhouse in Marlborough when he worked in Boston.

“Joe was pensive and thoughtful in his interviewing, which was more conversational than confrontational,” recalled Massachusetts Secretary of State William Galvin. “It wasn’t show biz with him, but he made his point and never let you off the hook.”

Mr. Day’s award-winning reports ranged from documentaries on the deaths of asbestos workers in Massachusetts to safety concerns at Logan Airport, the return of a slain soldier from Vietnam, and the New England fisheries crisis.

Globe columnist Scot Lehigh was on the political beat for the Boston Phoenix when Mr. Day was covering the 1988 presidential campaign of Michael Dukakis for Channel 7.

“On the night of the returns, Joe went on the air and reported that Ohio had gone to George Bush and that there was no real path to the White House for Dukakis at that point,” Lehigh recalled. “He was the first local reporter to make the call, and that was Joe, way ahead of the pack.

“No matter what his assignment, he was persistent and fair and asked the tough questions when he had to, but never in an egotistical manner.”

Mr. Day left Boston and moved to Santa Fe to change his lifestyle, according to his son Matthew of Harvard.

“He felt the nature of the business was changing, and his brother Tom lived and worked there as a journalist, but what did not change was dad’s overriding interest in people from all walks of life,” Matthew said. “That defined his career and how he viewed the world.”

From 1993 through 1998, Mr. Day was an adjunct professor at the College of Santa Fe, where he advised the student newspaper. He also taught at the University of New Mexico from 1993 to 2000. He was a moderator and producer for KNME-TV, a PBS affiliate in Albuquerque, from 1994 to 2000, and he formed his own company, Daylight Productions, for which he was a documentary producer, writer, and narrator.

In addition to his wife, son Matthew, and brother, Mr. Day leaves another son, Peter of Corvallis, Ore.; a daughter, Sarah of Longmont, Colo.; another brother, James of Berkeley, Calif.; and seven grandchildren.

This summer, Mr. Day’s ashes will be spread off Block Island, R.I., one of his family’s favorite vacation destinations. A celebration of his life in Santa Fe will be announced.

In an interview last June with the Princeton Alumni Weekly, Mr. Day said that “journalism is good for my brain. I’m still curious.” Although his career at one point included getting to eat meals prepared by celebrity chef Julia Child when both were at Channel 2, he said that “what I’ve tried to do all along is to report about real people. I don’t call them ‘ordinary’ because nobody’s ordinary.”

More than a half-century after landing his first reporting job, he could still stay “I love this work,” and retained his belief in the profession.

“We need reporters — people to go out and try to find out what’s going on as best they can, so they can tell other people.”

Postal Service Releases Julia Child and Joyce Chen Stamps

From Boston Magazine – September 25, 2014

‘Celebrity Chefs Forever’ stamp features two Cambridge culinary icons

This Friday (September 26), in a ceremony in Chicago, the United States Postal Service will release its “Celebrity Chefs Forever” series featuring James Beard, Edna Lewis, Felipe Rojas-Lombardi, and two Cambridge culinary icons: Julia Child and Joyce Chen.

Child’s and Chen’s portraits were provided to the Postal Service by the Julia Child Foundation and the Chen family. The stamps were designed by art director Greg Breeding and feature digital illustrations by Jason Seiler, depicting the chefs in a style intended to resemble oil paintings.

CelebrityChefs-Forever-strip5-singles-BGv1-06Julia Child

Child is best known for demystifying French cuisine for an American audience through her two-volume book set, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, and extremely popular television shows, The French Chef, Dinner at Julia’s, and the Emmy-winning In Julia’s Kitchen with Master Chefs.

Child filmed episodes of The French Chef through 1966, which earned a Peabody Award and a 1966 Primetime Emmy. In 1981, she co-founded the American Institute of Wine and Food, and a decade later she and Jacques Pépin worked with Boston University to help create a graduate program in gastronomy. In 1996, TV Guide named Child one of the 50 greatest TV stars of all time.

CelebrityChefs-Forever-strip5-singles-BGv1-04Joyce Chen

Joyce Chen might not receive the same attention as Child, but was just as influential, promoting northern-style Chinese cuisine at a time when soy sauce was considered exotic. From her landmark Joyce Chen Restaurant, which opened on Concord Avenue in Cambridge in 1958, to her cookbooks and trailblazing PBS television show, Chen introduced unfamiliar dishes such as Peking duck, moo shu pork, and hot-and-sour soup.

At her restaurant, Chen popularized the now ubiquitous buffet-style dinner service. Through her popular cooking classes and her Joyce Chen Cook Book, she taught hundreds of recipes and as well as tips on proper chopstick usage, the importance of tea, and the preparation of perfect rice. In the decade following, Chen’s cookbook sold more than 70,000 copies.

WGBH eventually asked Chen to host her own show, Joyce Chen Cooks. Filmed in the late 1960s, the show is credited with greatly expanding America’s interest in and knowledge of Chinese food and culture. Chen died of Alzheimer’s disease in Lexington in 1994 and was posthumously included in the James Beard Foundation Hall of Fame.


Ambrosino and Nova: making stories that go ‘bang’

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

From Current, May 4, 1998

By David Stewart

MichaelAmbrosino-1998interview-by-BarzykOn the first of May in 1971, Michael Ambrosino sat at his desk at 25 Wetherby Gardens in London writing a six-page, single-spaced letter to Michael Rice, vice president for programs at WGBH, Boston.

“This project in science,” he wrote, “would begin to fill an appalling gap in PBS service. It would attempt to explain and relate science to a public that must be aware of its impact.

“The strand would be broad enough to cover all of science and . . . beyond its normal confines . . . biology, chemistry, physics, astrophysics, sociology, psychology, medicine, anthropology could all provide program topics.”

The letter, filled with detailed explanations of production team schedules, content of programs, coordination with the BBC and financial requirements, is a remarkably accurate description of Nova, the series that Ambrosino named and ushered onto the air March 3, 1974. Even more remarkably, the 1971 plan still resembles what has become, 25 years later, the longest-running documentary series in America.

When Ambrosino proposed the series, he was on leave from WGBH and near the end of a year-long fellowship provided by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB). The fellowship had sent him to work with the BBC and to observe its production procedures. He was 40 and an experienced producer. In 1957 he had joined WGBH, where one of his first producer-director assignments was “The Ends of the Earth — Explorations of Antarctica.” Two years later he was producing a series entitled Science Six, featuring elementary science experiments. In the ’60s he produced, directed and conducted TV interviews for programs that ranged from politics and election coverage to discussions of sex and drugs and music performance. By 1969 he was producer of Michael Ambrosino’s Show, described by WGBH as “a cultural magazine that aims at putting Boston viewers in first-hand contact with their city.”

In London he observed the BBC’s Features Group and a production unit that was creating a strand of diverse, internationally acclaimed documentaries under the title Horizon. (Writing to Rice, Ambrosino described a “strand” as “a continuous run of broadcasts that a unit presents and administers. Some are freshly produced, some are coproduced, some purchased and some repeated. This method allows flexibility, lowers costs, increases quality, enhances communications with foreign broadcasters and spreads the responsibility of administration.”) Nova became the first of many WGBH strands.

Remarkably, the 1971 plan still resembles what has become, 25 years later, the longest-running documentary series in America.

Horizon had been established by a talented and extremely energetic program executive, Aubrey Singer (who later served briefly as the BBC’s deputy director general). The Horizon unit had been formed within the new BBC-2 channel in the early 1960s. It soon attracted prestigious film producers who were given considerable independence in making single-subject, all-on-film documentaries.

Viewer reception to these programs — many rooted in scientific exploration — surprised everyone, not least the BBC itself. According to John Mansfield, Nova‘s fifth executive producer, “When BBC-2 arrived, it was agreed that science with a capital “S” must be given a special chance. There was little hope that it would be popular, but it was generally agreed that a dose of science television would do the country good.” From the beginning, Horizon programs — such as “The Making of a Natural History Film,” which later led off the Nova series — were popular in the U.K. and throughout the world.

For many years they set the standard for TV documentaries, winning every international prize available. When Ambrosino left England in the fall of 1971 he was determined to establish an American version of Horizon at WGBH.

In a “welcome back” press release in mid-September, the station described its delight at the prospect of resuming Michael Ambrosino’s Show and, almost as a footnote: “In addition, he is working on the design of a project to make WGBH a major source of science programming on PBS.”

Ambrosino could not have urged the creation of Nova on a more receptive program executive than Michael Rice, who was familiar with the U.K. from his days as a Rhodes scholar and could appreciate the value of strong program ties to the BBC. Rice, who died at age 47 in 1989, is still regarded as one of the most intelligent and creative program managers in public broadcasting’s short history. When Ambrosino went to England to begin his fellowship, Rice was immersed in choosing the first BBC dramatic productions for what would become Masterpiece Theatre.

I wanted to examine how the world worked, to use the scientific process of discovery as a narrative device to tell good stories.

“I never thought of Nova as a science series,” said Ambrosino recently. “I wanted to examine how the world worked, to use the scientific process of discovery as a narrative device to tell good stories. . . . We also wanted to use some of the talented scientists that were all around, at Harvard, MIT and along Route 128 . This was going to be an active series. We had very few limits on what we could or should do.”

“Eureka!” was not to be

A long list of what Ambrosino calls “worthy” titles for the series was drawn up, including the public relations department favorite, “Eureka!” In the end he selected the title himself. “A supernova is something big, bright, new and bold, something to which you had to pay attention,” he explained.

Nova-opening-redAs fundraising began, he was frequently reminded of another and equally accurate, description of a Nova, i.e., making a big splash but then burning out quickly. “It was our little joke on the way public TV was funded in those days,” says Ambrosino. “You could find money to start things but after a year or two the funders wanted to put their money into the next new thing, and your series would be left out in the cold and dark.”

While he had hoped for a 1972 start, most agreed that finding the required funds (to say nothing of producing and acquiring programs) for a beginning in March 1974 represented a considerable achievement. In addition to a development grant from the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), the newly established WGBH Science Program Group found first-season support from the Carnegie Corporation of New York, CPB, the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the Polaroid Corp.

In his initial proposal, Ambrosino had projected a budget of $1,178,000 for 30 hour-long programs — 12 of them would be WGBH productions, four coproductions, eight acquisitions and six rebroadcasts. The budget earmarked $60,000 for a group editor and staff, and $100,000 for publicity. In the end, the first season’s 13 programs cost about $1.5 million. By the third season the budget had doubled. (By contrast, Nova‘s recent 1990s seasons — 20 new hour-long programs a year — cost between $10 million and $12 million. As Alan Ritsko, Nova‘s managing director, explains, “About 10 of these are original productions. Most of the others are mini-coproductions that Nova controls from start to completion, sharing ownership and distribution rights with its coproducers.”)

Fortunately for purposes of recruiting a skilled production staff, NSF and Polaroid committed funding for two seasons. When the word went out that there would be openings for three production teams, Ambrosino received 170 resumes. Interviews were conducted in New York, London, Los Angeles and Boston. Robert Reid, former head of the Science and Features Department of BBC, became Nova‘s chief consultant. Not surprisingly the three production team leaders were British, two of whom had worked for the BBC. One of them, John Angier, subsequently became Nova‘s second executive producer. Many who helped produce some of the early programs became major producers at WGBH and elsewhere — including Paula Apsell, Nova‘s present executive producer.

The teams eventually moved into new quarters at 475 Western Avenue overlooking the Charles River. Channel 2’s new film facility, with its nine editing rooms, a small studio and a viewing room, also was home of two other WGBH series, The Advocates and Religious America. Before Nova had aired its first program, an additional production team was added to the Ambrosino’s responsibility. Its assignment was to produce a lengthy program on death and dying in America, funded by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH). The program was produced and directed by Michael Roemer; he was assisted by David Grubin, who later produced film portraits of Presidents Roosevelt (Theodore and Franklin), Truman and Johnson for the American Experience series.

By December 1973, Team One, under Simon Campbell-Jones, had completed “Where Did the Colorado Go?” — an examination of water management in the Southwest. It was the series’ first original production and the second program aired. Angier and his team were finishing “The Search for Life” (origins of life on Earth), while former Horizon producer Francis Gladstone was in the midst of an ambitious dramatized version of the discovery of anesthesia, featuring Boston doctors in the leading roles. The series premier program, “The Making of a Natural History Film,” was an extraordinary film-within-a-film tour de force, demonstrating techniques used by the Oxford scientific film laboratory, a production organization making nature sequences for the BBC. The first season also included programs on dolphin intelligence, nomadic tribes in the Amazon, bird navigation, nuclear fusion, and chimps learning sign language.

“Producers are a naturally curious lot,” he says, “and good documentaries are made out of that curiosity. They hear a new idea from a scientist, read a journal, attend a lecture, and ‘bang,’ they want to find out more. The topic chooses you. We were after good stories that could be told visually, and good storytellers. Some shows were assigned but most of the ideas came from the producers themselves. I just had to make sure the season had a flow and variety.”Such disparate subjects, a hallmark of Nova from the start, have in common an emphasis upon beginning-middle-and-end stories. Storytelling was a major theme in Ambrosino’s initial proposal to Rice, his subsequent memoranda to PBS stations, and his recent responses to my questions about his work.

Producers are a naturally curious lot and good documentaries are made out of that curiosity.

From the start, Ambrosino promised the stations that “science will be interpreted in its broadest context.” Still, there were to be three areas of major interest: “basic science, science and technology’s affect on society, and science’s impact on public policy.”

Nova will aim at having audiences feel: ‘I can understand how science works. I can make sense of the world. I have an insight I didn’t have before.’”

Prepared for the accidents of life

Both storytelling and drama informed most of Nova‘s programs in the first years, as they had influenced Ambrosino’s early life. Born in Brooklyn, his family settled in Westhampton Beach on Long Island when he began high school in 1945. His father managed upper-income grocery stores in New York and owned his own specialty food store in Westhampton. “I took advanced math in a class of four,” he recalls, “and physics with seven. There were 28 in our graduating class.” He played drums in a jazz band and was an enthusiastic member of the school’s “spectacular drama club.” At 15 he was a dance band drummer: “I think I played every bar, senior prom and Polish hall on eastern Long Island.” With four others he also played in a volunteer fire department band, the Sons of the Beach.

He was accepted at Syracuse University to study physics, but switched to drama on the day of registration. “It was very romantic,” he says now. “The only rep company on the East Coast, the Brattle Theatre in Harvard Square, went belly-up that same year.” Still, he worked three seasons in summer stock. When he returned to Syracuse for a masters of science degree, after a hitch in the army overseas, he began to make TV programs. “In starting Nova, I finally put my two loves together. I was lucky to find a road for my interests.”

Ambrosino says he believes in “preparing for the accidents of life.” An important one occurred in 1956 when he was invited to talk about closed circuit TV in the schools at a Harvard conference. (He had had six months experience.) Hartford Gunn, then president of WGBH happened to be there. “Three weeks later,” says Ambrosino, I was working at WGBH, developing school television for the State of Massachusetts. I was prepared. But it was an accident.

“Sitting at the next desk was the smartest and prettiest radio producer I had ever met. Lillian and I were married a year later and had three children.” The Ambrosinos were married for almost 40 years, until Lillian’s death from cancer in 1995. In addition to producing radio programs, Lillian Ambrosino was a reporter, one of the four founding members of Action for Children’s Television, a government consultant in Washington and a lawyer whose clients numbered many independent film producers.

“Making good films and making them on time and on budget is tough,” Ambrosino reflected recently. “We began production in ’73 and there were few folks in Boston or the U.S. who knew . The series premiered in the spring of ’74 with 13 programs, and we returned with 17 more in the fall. That’s a killer pace, but I knew we had only one chance to take our message to the stations for in the Station Program Cooperative, and I wanted us to survive.”

In 1972 and 1973, each Nova team spent seven to nine weeks on research. Much was done in the field, as the one-page outline grew into a full film treatment. The camera and sound crew then joined the team for four weeks of shooting — traveling about the country by plane, car, truck and helicopter. This was followed by two months of editing by some team members while others began again on a new topic. As Ambrosino wrote in a memorandum to stations in 1976, “As with all science, the end of one story is the beginning of another.” “I think the producer’s job is to find the power within the content, to have it grow out of the meat of the subject, not added on like sugar. All the pretty music and helicopter zooms finding that small seed and building a story around it.

“We tried to have the narration lag the awareness. Hopefully, the viewer will put the answer together just before the narrator’s golden tones give it all away. In this way, the viewers are empowered and will seek out more on their own. That really is the task of public broadcasting, to set the audience out on its own search. The viewers are then on the road to self-education for the rest of their lives. Folks hate to be taught, but they love to learn.”

That really is really the task of public broadcasting, to set the audience on its own search. Folks hate to be taught, but they love to learn

The first 13 programs were, of course, all new to the audience. In the next year, Nova presented 24 programs, of which five were repeats. In 1976, there were 26 programs, of which six were repeats. Boys and their toys During these years, the Nova staff worried about fulfilling its promise of basic science and science-related public policy — an objective never fully resolved. Popular programs about sleep and the sense of smell — great crowd-pleasers — tended to nudge out “important issues.”

Worries over the proper balance of programs — and Nova‘s general direction — have continued. In a paper reprinted in Current in 1992, Paula Apsell, then and now executive producer of Nova, describes her concern, in 1990, for the series’ diminishing audience and her reappraisal of program content.

“More than 250 past programs were divided into four categories and the average Nielsen rating was computed for each category,” she wrote. Some of what they learned surprised the staff: “Challenging programs did not seem much of a deterrent to viewers,” Apsell reported, ” … clearly the decisive factor was topic choice.”

Topic preference groups were ranked from “death and destruction” (most popular) to pop-science (e.g., ESP and UFOs) to “bones and bodies” (dinosaurs and origins) to “boys and their toys” (aviation and military technology).

“Slowly and cautiously, we began to rethink the way we commissioned and scheduled programs . . . developing a wider variety of storytelling devices to match the broad array of content. “After two years we have reversed the erosion of ratings and we are building audience.”

Of Nova‘s first 50 programs, 19 were made by WGBH, nine coproduced and 27 acquired through purchase. The number of original productions had advanced annually from four to six to eight. The operation had been partly based, of course, upon the advantages of cooperation with the BBC and other production sources. The number of WGBH productions represented 36 percent of the total. It was more than the station had ever attempted or completed before. As Ambrosino noted ruefully in his third-season report: “As hard as it is, raising money is still easier than making good programs about serious subjects. Although more U.S. productions than we promised, it was still less than we hoped. Novas are hard to make.”

In the first three years Nova‘s staff looked at 150 foreign-produced documentaries to purchase 22. They were drawn from four BBC documentary series, from the British companies Yorkshire TV and Granada, and producers in Sweden, Yugoslavia, Switzerland, Germany and Canada. A mid-’70s screening session in London confirmed that fewer British films would be on the market as the country’s economic pressures increased — further reason to explore the tentative contacts that had been made with the Australian Broadcasting Corp., which eventually became a major source of program material.

Ambrosino’s objective of developing long-term relations with producers outside the U.S. was taking shape. It would prove to be an immensely valuable asset to Nova, to WGBH, and to U.S. public TV at large.

Three treatments were evaluated in these days for every program that Nova agreed to coproduce. In some cases cooperation was largely financial. But in any case it meant more broadcast rights, a cheaper price and, frequently, considerable influence upon a program’s direction. Nova opened its first PBS season on March 3, 1974 with, for those days, considerable advance publicity.

Journalistic response was cordial: enthusiasm tempered by a certain dignity — perhaps befitting the scientific nature of the programs as the news media saw them. Time called attention to Nova “filling the gap between deadly-dull ‘educational’ lecturing and pop-science trivia.” Many papers, such as the Portland’s Oregonian were content with references to “high production values with intellectual curiosity” and the like. Some national publications, TV Guide among them, dodged the problem of writing critiques of what apparently seemed esoteric subjects by hiring writers such as Carl Sagan and Isaac Asimov to create essays. Sagan wrote about “Life on Mars” in May, when PBS carried Nova‘s “The Search for Life on Earth.” Asimov constructed an essay on chimpanzees (“They’re smart but not smart enough”) to supplement Nova‘s program on attempts to teach primates to communicate. Variety, after a nod to “some magnificent …. breathtaking film moments,” took the it’s-good-for-you approach: “All with an interest in science should watch your TV schedule for Nova.” Of one thing in its review of Nova‘s first program Variety was entirely accurate: “With its scope, Nova should be good for seasons to come.”

Most programs in the initial season seemed to offer journalists more opportunities for rather bland and graceful acceptance than energetic response. One exception was the program “Strange Sleep,” a drama describing the discovery of anesthesia. It brought the Boston Globe to full alert with a piece headlined, “Boston doctors star in Ch. 2 medical film.”

Despite tepid reviews, Nova found its audience. And it grew. At the end of the third season, the Nielsen rating service reported a national average of 2.8 million households, and an audience range of 4 to 7 million viewers for each program.

Ambrosino moves on

“I left Nova in exhaustion,” says Ambrosino. “I never anticipated leaving WGBH for good.”

John Angier became Nova‘s new executive producer while Ambrosino began designing a new series — Odyssey, 27 programs with an emphasis upon anthropology and archeology that was aired on PBS in 1980-81.

Having raised the funds for Odyssey (from the National Endowment for the Humanities), Ambrosino offered to bring it into WGBH. But the station rejected his stipulation that he control the hiring and firing of personnel and the publicity, so he established his own nonprofit production company, Public Broadcasting Associates (PBA), to produce the new series. As Ambrosino describes it, “We built a kitchen right in the center of our production company and never had staff meetings. We just ate together. I put in a shower for the joggers, and we all got healthier and could create an entirely different mood for work and play on the job.” Two-thirds of the Odyssey programs were made by PBA.

After two years, the company was ready to seek support, as Nova had, through the Station Program Cooperative. But the Reagan Administration had cut federal funding for public broadcasting by 40 percent and the stations reduced their cooperative purchasing proportionately. Ironically, Odyssey was forced to compete directly with Nova and, as Ambrosino explains, “Odyssey went down in flames.”

Henry Hampton, president of Blackside, Inc., and producer of the two celebrated Eyes on the Prize series, a history of the civil rights movement in America, is one of Ambrosino’s closest friends. They share a love of flying and for years have co-owned a plane, a Beechcraft Sierra. After Odyssey, Ambrosino worked closely with Hampton on all aspects of Eyes on the Prize, as consulting executive producer. “Eyes is one of my proudest credits,” he says. “Nova was important but Eyes was essential.”

Eyes on the Prize – 01- Awakenings, 1954-1956

Eyes is one of my proudest credits. Nova was important, but Eyes was essential.

This was followed in the mid-’80s by The Ring of Truth, concerning the nature of scientific evidence. These were made with Phillip Morrison, perhaps America’s most famous teacher of science (at MIT). For these productions Ambrosino reassembled some of the Nova and Odyssey production people. “[My production friends] are a very important part of my life. We keep in touch, have reunions, critique each other’s proposals . . . it’s an extended family of gifted men and women — and now lots of kids!”

His last production found him back on camera after 20 years: a 90-minute special produced with Gillian Barnes, “Journey to the Occupied Lands” for WGBH’s Frontline series. The controversial program, revealing life under occupation in the West Bank and Gaza, was, he says, “an unforgettable experience; a long research period, difficult filming, endless editing, a very favorable response to the broadcast, and . . . organized attacks from the far-right Israeli supporters in the U.S.”

Journey To The Occupied Lands

Ambrosino, now 67, is closing his production company and, after 42 years in public television, trying to design a new life without TV and film and Lillian, who occupied an office next to his for four decades. He has been helping build a post-and-beam barn in Vermont, walking in the Tetons, sailing in the Virgin Islands, white-water rafting and kayaking, attending open rehearsals of the Boston Symphony, taking courses in music theory and, as always, doing a lot of reading.

Michael Ambrosino is one of a growing number of persons whose professional lives have been spent almost entirely within public television, people whose careers began soon after the first channels were assigned for noncommercial use in 1952. In some sense their talents have advanced in parallel with public television itself. “I am very fortunate that my professional life and the early days of public broadcasting came along together,” he says. “There were opportunities to create programs . . . and institutions that had a real staying power. I am delighted that Nova is having its 25th year and that public broadcasting has become a staple in the intellectual life of Americans.” I recently asked him if he would name some public TV producers he particularly admired.

His response: “I admire Fred Rogers’ honor, Bill Moyers’ sense of mission, Jack Willis’ (The Great American Dream Machine) sense of news and humor, Russ Morash’s (This Old House) competency, David Fanning’s fairness, Fred Barzyk’s (What’s Happening, Mr. Silver?) daring, Jac Venza’s taste, Henry Hampton’s guts, Jonathan Rice’s (KQED’s Newsroom) and Judy Crichton’s (The American Experience) nose for good programs who have put out an astonishing lot of good programs against all odds.” In such company the inventor of Nova would no doubt find a warm welcome.

David Stewart is a contributing editor of Current and a longtime public broadcasting program executive. This article appeared in Current and later in Stewart’s 1999 book The PBS Companion: A History of Public Television.