“The Negro and The American Promise” (1963)

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

From Fred Barzyk (7/20/2016):

Here are my memories of an important civil rights program produced by WGBH in 1963, “The Negro and The American Promise.”

640px-Henry_Morgenthau_IIII was assigned to direct, working with executive producer, Henry Morgenthau III, who also produced Prospects of Mankind with Eleanor Roosevelt (1959), Conversation with Svetlana Alliluyeva (1967), and many local WGBH shows such as Where to Get Off in Boston.

Henry and I go back a long way working together at WGBH, and this was our most memorable program.  (As of this writing, Henry is 99 years old. Congratulations, Henry!)

Henry’s guests featured then-new and controversial leaders: Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, and writer James Baldwin.

One of his most brilliant choices was to bring in physiologist Dr. Kenneth Clark to do the interviews.

Clark’s soft, probing questions allowed each person a chance to create their own dynamic while still leaving room for their reflections and emotions.

Psychology professor at the City College of New York, Dr. Kenneth Clark, introduced the segment “The Negro and the American Promise” from Boston public television producer Henry Morgenthau III…

The program aired in a climate of racial conflict, just months after Alabama governor George Wallace’s defiant support of “segregation forever,” and before the March on Washington. [Source]

Here is Dr. Clark’s introduction from the program:

Introduction: Video

Dr. Kenneth Clark: James Baldwin, Martin Luther King, and Malcolm X are, in different ways, symbols and spokesmen for the Negro crying out for his full rights as an American citizen. And now, if one dares to look for the common denominator of such seemingly different forms of Negro protest, one sees in each of these men a dramatic response to America’s attempt to deny to its Negro citizens the fulfillment of the American promise.

By all meaningful indices, the Negro is still, and unquestionably, the downtrodden, disparaged group, and for a long time was systematically deprived of his dignity as a human being. The major indictment of our democracy is that this is being done with the knowledge, and at times with the connivance, of responsible, moderate people who are not overtly bigots or segregationists.

We have now come to the point where there are only two ways that America can avoid continued racial explosions. One would be total oppression. The other, total equality. There is no compromise.

I believe, I hope, that we are on the threshold of a truly democratic America. It is not going to be easy to cross that threshold. But the achievement of the goals of justice, equality, and democracy for all American citizens involves the very destiny of our nation.

Here’s how this landmark program can to be.

Henry and I surveyed a small studio that operated by NET, across the street from the UN building used by diplomats and others for quickie news stories. The rental price was right and just large enough for our two-person interviews. We agreed to three interview dates.

I believe our first interview was with Martin Luther King, Jr. I had the studio crew set up black curtains and use a lot of backlight to separate participants from the dark background. There were the obligatory comfortable chairs and table, with water for each person.

The day arrived and Dr. King came to the studio with a few members of his cadre. He knew Dr. Clark and the atmosphere was friendly and professional. The interview was adequate but not filled with the kind of passion we had seen Dr. King give from the pulpit.

Dr. King spoke about his non-violent philosophy and talked about the politics of change.

Screen Shot 2016-08-28 at 4.46.22 PM

Here are a few excerpts from King’s interview:

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr: There’s a great deal of difference between non-resistance to evil and non-violent resistance. Non-resistance leaves you in a state of stagnant passivity and dead-end complacency. Wherein non-violent resistance means you do resist in a very strong and determined manner. And I think some of the criticisms of non-violence, or some of the critics, fail to realize that we are talking about something very strong, and they confuse non-resistance with non-violent resistance.

Next to be interviewed was Malcolm X. A tall, lean man, he arrived in the studio with several members of the Black Muslims. All were dressed in suits, white shirts and ties. They were silent and seemed to view us with suspicion. Dr. Clark was nonplussed and posed his questions with a soft intensity. Malcolm X was strong and passionate.

Hon. Malcolm X: "Negro and the American Promise."

From the transcript:

Malcolm X: History is not hatred. We are Muslims because we believe in the religion of Islam. We believe in one God. We believe in Muhammad as the apostle of God. We practice the principles of the religion of Islam, which mean prayer, charity, fasting, brotherhood.

And the Honorable Elijah Muhammad teaches us that since the Western society is deteriorating — it has become overrun with immorality — that God is going to judge it, and destroy it, and the only way black people who are in this society can be saved is to not integrate into this corrupt society but separate ourselves from it, reform ourselves, lift up our moral standards, and try and be godly, instead of trying… try and integrate with God, instead of trying to integrate with the white man, or try and imitate God, instead of trying to imitate the white man.

James_Baldwin_37_Allan_WarrenThen it was James Baldwin. He and Dr. Clark arrived very, very late for the interview. I knew something was really wrong. Baldwin looked terrible and Dr. Clark used every “psychiatric” tool to calm him down. Finally, he was able to get Baldwin to sit in our set. Baldwin lit up a cigarette and stared out into space, obviously angry and upset.

Later we learned why. Bobby Kennedy, then Attorney General, had called Baldwin a day earlier and asked him to gather a group of black friends to his luxury apartment in NYC to discuss the civil rights problem. Baldwin quickly gathered artist friends, actors, writers and a young man who had been beaten during one of the freedom rides.

This is how the meeting was recalled in Larry Tye’s new book, “Bobby Kennedy, The Making of a Liberal Icon” (Random House, 2016):

Screen Shot 2016-08-28 at 5.05.09 PMBlack novelist James Baldwin had pulled the group together, at Bobby’s request, to talk about why a volcano of rage was building up in the Northern ghetto and why mainstream civil right leaders couldn’t or wouldn’t quell it as summer approached…

Martin Luther King Jr. wasn’t welcome, nor were the top people from the NAACP and the Urban league, because Bobby wanted a no-holds-barred critique of their leadership. He also hoped for a sober discussion of what the Kennedy administration should do, with Negroes who knew what it already was doing. Having a serious conversation without the serious players would have been difficult enough, but Bobby made it even harder: what he really wanted was gratitude, not candor. Baldwin did his best given those constraints and one day’s notice…

Kenneth Clark, the black America’s preeminent psychologist, came prepared to lay out studies and statistics to document that corrosive racial divide, but he never got the chance. Jerome Smith, a young activist who had held back as long as he could, suddenly shattered the calm, his stammer underlining his anger.

“Mr. Kennedy, I want you to understand I don’t care anything about you and your brother,” he began. “I don’t know what I’m doing here, listening to all this cocktail-party patter.” The real threat to white America wasn’t the Black Muslims, Smith insisted, it was when nonviolence advocates like him lost hope. The 24-year-old made his words resonate. He had suffered as many savage beatings as any civil rights protester of the era, including one for which he was now getting medical care in New York.

But his patience and his pacifism were wearing thin, he warned his rapt audience. If the police came at him with more guns, dogs, and hoses, he would answer with a weapon of his own. “When I pull a trigger,” he said, “kiss it good-bye.”…

Bobby was shocked, but Smith wasn’t through. Not only wouldn’t young blacks like him fight to protect their rights at home, he said, but they would refuse to fight for American in Cuba, Vietnam or any other places the Kennedys saw threats. “Never! Never! Never!” This was unfathomable to Bobby.

Others chimed in, demanding to know why the government couldn’t get tougher in taking on racist laws and ghetto blight….

Three hours into the evening the dialogue had become a brawl, with the tone set by Smith…. Bobby had heard enough. His tone let everyone know the welcome mat had been taken up. His flushed face showed how incensed he was.

This is what caused the delay and the desperation in both Dr. Clark and Baldwin. Somehow they did manage to conduct the very intense interview. It was an unbelievable moment as Baldwin, near tears, spews out his frustrations, despair and hopeless anguish.

James Baldwin

Henry knew we had filmed an important moment. He released the interview that night to a local commercial station in NYC. He could do that because WNET, based in New Jersey, did not have a New York City channel. The New York Times picked up the story and ran it on the front page the next morning. “Negro and the American Promise” was soon published as a book.

Henry had also carved out monies to shoot some film related to each of the guests. It was a way of bringing a visual aspect to a traditional talking head show. Staff cameraperson Stan Hirson and I plotted out the locations.

Stan Hirson started his professional career as a documentary filmmaker in Boston. He covered the civil rights movement in the South and made film portraits of James Baldwin, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X. Hirson joined the documentarians Maysles brothers and was involved in films such as The Beatles in America, Gimme ShelterGrey Gardens and numerous other documentaries.

The budget was tight. All we had was a silent film 16-millimeter camera and limited reels of black and white film.

We decided to introduce Malcolm X by filming at and around the Black Muslim Mosque in Harlem. Then, we would travel to Martin Luther King’s church in Atlanta to capture his religious persona.

One other plan was hatched. Stan agreed to a special assignment, one that turned out to be dangerous for him.

James_L_Farmer_JrStan agreed to join the black civil rights group, Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), which was led by James Farmer. He would travel with them in a car traveling across Mississippi to capture footage.

“Although the United States Supreme Court… had ruled that segregated interstate bus travel was unconstitutional, such buses enforced segregation below the Mason–Dixon line in southern states. Gordon Carey proposed the idea of a second Journey of Reconciliation and Farmer jumped at the idea. This time the group planned to journey through the Deep South. Farmer coined a new name for the trip: the Freedom Ride. [From Wikipedia]

Stan flew to Mississippi to join the Freedom Rides. I had an agreement with CORE that their people would drive Stan back to King’s church in Atlanta to meet me for the next shoot.

It turned out to be his most frightening drive: one white guy with a camera and three African Americans in an old black car driving across America at night.

Stan was to meet me at our hotel in Atlanta by 8:00 pm on a Thursday. That afternoon, I flew from Boston to Atlanta and planned to check into one of Atlanta’s oldest and grand hotels, the Dinkler-Tutwiler Hotel.

Tutwiler_Hotel_1914As I walked from the plane to the terminal, an older man wearing a hat and long coat approached me.

“Are you from Educational Television”

“Yes, I am.”

I reached out my hand to this person who was welcoming me to Atlanta. He leaned in and whispered menacingly.

“Get back on that plane. We don’t want you here.”

I was taken aback, shocked, really. Then I thought it was a dumb joke. But he wasn’t kidding. I laughed, shaking my head in disbelief, shrugged my shoulders and headed on my way. I never did see him again.

I took a cab to the hotel and checked in. I asked if Stan Hirson had left a message for me. The clerk said there was no message. He pointed me to the elevators and handed me a key to the 7th floor. He said my luggage would be up shortly.

I walked to the elevator and the door opened. Inside was a young black girl in a quaint hotel costume. She ran the elevator. I stepped in, mentioned my floor and we took off.

On the way up, I asked her how long it would take to get to Dr. King’s church via cab. She moved closer to the elevator doors and said nothing. I got the message. She had to be careful and wanted no contact with hotel guests. Who knows what had happened in the past. I backed off right away.

I got off the elevator and headed to my room. It was nice, big and a bit old fashioned. There came a knock on the door. It was the bellboy with my bags. He was an older black man with a great smile. He put my bags down and I gave him a good tip. He asked if I wished to have any beverages brought to the room. So, being a kid from Milwaukee, I ordered two beers. He left and I unpacked, turning on the TV. Nothing special on the local station.

Soon, another knock at the door. It was the older gentleman bringing me my two beers and a frosty beer glass. I gave him another good tip. He turned to me and said:

“Your friend will be here in two hours.”

“What? How do you know that?”

He smiled and left. My God, this was the second person that knew I was in town. It seemed everybody knew what I was doing. It was clear that a series of networks had been created to survive the tribulations of the civil rights conflict. I sipped my beers … actually downed them pretty fast.

After an hour, I decided to get a bit of fresh air and do a walk around the hotel. I went to the elevator, rang the bell, and soon the doors opened. It was the same girl. I entered and moved way back in the elevator so as not to alarm her. As the elevator headed to the main lobby, she turned to me and smiled.

“It will take about an hour to get to Dr. King’s church”

“Oh … thanks.”

Stan finally arrived, safe and sound. He told me he had hidden on the floor of the car as he rode back from Mississippi in that car with the Freedom Riders. I bought him a couple of beers, too. We went to bed, wondering what the next day would bring.

Morning arrived and we headed out the front doors of the hotel to the cabstand. The driver got out and opened the trunk to house Stan’s equipment. He asked where we were going. When I said King’s church, he slammed the trunk shut and told us to use the cabs across the street. “They’ll take you there” he said, as he climbed into his cab.

Stunned, Stan and I went over to the “black” cabstand. No problem for the black driver when we mentioned were we wanted to go. As Stan and I drove to the church, we tried to process all that had happened over the last couple of days. It felt really unreal. I felt like a stranger in my own country. As I looked out the window to see the streets of Atlanta, I wondered how the people of city adjusted to the civil unrest.

Our cab came to a stop at a red light. A white, middle age woman drove up next to us in a large American sedan. She looked over at us; two white guys in the back seat of a black cab and gave us the most frightening hate glare I had ever encountered. We were nothing but despicable interlopers in her town.

That look has stayed with me my whole life. I will never forget it.

Fred Barzyk’s Snapshots: Scene 6 – The Waiting Room

This entry is part 21 of 22 in the series The Fred Barzyk Collection

barzykThis is the sixth in a series of reminiscences by Fred Barzyk, longtime WGBH producer and director. Watch The Waiting Room, below.

Ah, yes … The Waiting Room. This was my last TV drama production. After almost 60 years of trying to create situations where I could direct dramas, it finally comes to an end. This half-hour show was the only way for me to say “goodbye” to all my actors.

I love actors. I love how they are willing to give of themselves, to be vulnerable to critics, to wrap themselves in personas not their own, and how they love what they do.

It has always been my style to support their work. My job as a director was to protect them from outside noise, let them practice their craft surrounded by people who appreciate what they are doing. I, as the director, would always stand next to the camera and act as their “audience.” I would stifle a laugh when they said a funny line, or get depressed when things were going wrong for the character. I hoped this helped. I tried my best.

The Waiting Room is the most personal drama I have ever done. It came to me in the middle of the night, the whole thing just popped into my head. I got up from bed and wrote the script at 2:00 in the morning. It’s probably why the whole story is a little murky.

With that murky premise, I think I have to give you a little back-story so you can maybe understand the motivations behind the script.

I was this kid on the South Side of Milwaukee, growing up in a blue-collar neighborhood. I was an only child, spoiled rotten. My Dad worked at International Harvester. He worked there for 50 years and was proud of it. He was also proud that he graduated from High School. He was devoted to doing crossword puzzles. His mother had died of Spanish influenza. He and his sister were placed in an orphanage for several years. His father remarried and they joined Grandma Barzyk in her little grocery store.

My Mom ran away from home when she was 13. Her mother died young, her father remarried and soon there were 4 other girls. She never got over the loss of her mother or the entrance of so many other girls in the family! So she ran away in the middle of the night, boarded a train in Clinton, Indiana, and went to an aunt who lived in Milwaukee. Soon she was a “live-in” nanny at a Jewish family’s big house on the East side of Milwaukee. She lied to the family that she was 16; not her real age of 14. That lasted a few years until the boys got measles and she had to leave.

She ended up as a nurse’s aide at Milwaukee Children’s Hospital, feeding kids in the contagious disease ward. During WW2 she worked the night shift at a factory making artillery shells. I can still remember her smelling of copper filings and oil. But her longest job was a sales clerk at Gimbel’s Department Store, downtown Milwaukee. She worked in the men’s dept. but she liked to say she worked in men’s underwear.

My appreciation for the aesthetic seemed to develop around the age of 6. We were renters, the bottom floor of a two-family house. We had concrete walkways to the front porch and alongside the house to the back porch. From the sidewalk you would have to climb up 2 concrete steps. Each of them (like all the others in the neighborhood) were neat, with sharp corners. For some reason, I thought they would look better if they were rounded. So I got a hammer from the basement and attempted to round them off. It wasn’t pretty. My Mom said I had gone too far. The landlord never complained. I went back to see the house a few years ago and the ragged corners are still there.

And then there was my piano playing. For some reason, I thought I could be this great piano player. Hell, my Mom’s cousin had the most popular swing band in Milwaukee. My aunt Frances was a friend with a famous Milwaukee Pianist: Liberace. So I took lessons. I was really bad. Very bad. My father kept saying it must be the teacher so I kept going to other piano teachers.

One time, as I was waiting for my lesson to begin, I heard this kid in one of the rooms reciting a monologue. I wanted to do that instead, and so I began elocution lessons. I even ended up in a play a “walk-on” role with no lines at age 10. But the real moment of truth happened at one of those horrible piano recitals. We kids would sit in the back room, all-nervous, dressed to the nines. And then I realized that if I made some goofy sound I would break the tension. So I did.

Did it ever break the tension. They started to giggle, trying to hold back. I did it again and again, till I had them laughing out loud. This was it. This is what I wanted to do. Entertain a crowd. The teacher came in and yelled at us. She pointed at me and said “Freddy Barzyk, you cut that nonsense out. You are going just too far, do you understand?” Boy, did I ever.

I went to Marquette University in Milwaukee because that is what my parents could afford. I lived at home and the tuition was only $250 per semester. I thought maybe I would be a sports announcer. Soon as I took my first acting class, I was hooked. I realized I wanted to be a stage director.

I mean so many things were happening in the theater. Guthrie had established his regional theater in Minnesota, and then other regional theater started popping up all over the country.

Then there were the plays! My Fair Lady, Long Days Journey into Night, West Side Story … all on Broadway. Off Broadway was happening too. European playwrights were being celebrated: Bertolt Brecht’s “Three Penny Opera,” Eugene Ionesco’s “Bald Soprano,” Luigi Pirandello’s “6 Characters in Search of an Author.”

The theater was happening. And I wanted to be a part of it.

I planned to go to Yale Drama School. The problem was that I had no money. A dear friend of mine insisted that I apply for a scholarship to Boston University for a master’s degree in Communication. The deal was you had to work 3 days a week at a little educational TV station, WGBH. I got in. BU was disappointing. Channel 2 was great. I spent all my time there.

After the scholar year was over, my boss, Greg Harney, offered me a 3-month directing gig to cover for one of the full- timer directors who went off to Saudi Arabia on a special assignment. That happened two more times. Greg knew I still wanted to go to Yale Drama School. He had another plan for me.

I found myself back in Milwaukee, trying to figure out how to raise monies for Yale. I would take strange little jobs. One day, I was working at a Polish Newspaper, “The Novini Polski.” I would do cold calls. I would take the big newspaper in town, use their “Apartments for Rent” section and then pitch the owners to place an ad in “The Polski.” You know, these Polaks are reliable, clean, and would pay their rent on time.

Suddenly the boss yells out to me, “You got a phone call.” Who the hell could have found me here? My mother must have given them the phone number. I was shocked. It was Greg Harney.

“Ok, Fred, this is it. I am offering you a full-time TV director job. $85 a week … but no more talk of Yale and the theater. You have to commit.”

And then it happened.

I paused, looked back at the room full of callers trying to convince people to put an ad in a Polish newspaper, and finally said … “Ok, but you have to let me do a TV drama on my vacation. I would need 4 days in the studio.”

Pause on the other end.

Had I gone too far once again?

Finally … “Ok.”

I was now a TV director who would be allowed to do dramas. It turned out to be the best of both worlds. I had not gone too far.

First thing I did was go to every community theater production I could squeeze in, constantly looking for actors who would volunteer for my plays. My volunteer assistant was Sally Dennison who went on to cast Antonini’s “Zabriski Point.” She also helped cast “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.” I now had an actors group of 20 people.

I was given $10 for the rights to a play I selected, “Five Days.” I had use of the art department, scenic, and TV crew. All props, costumes, any out-of-pocket costs would have to been picked up by me. It worked. Elliot Norton, famed Boston theater critic, agreed to introduce the play. It was a Brechtian anti-war play, done “live on videotape” with black and white cameras. The management liked it. I was given permission to do another.

There was a teacher at MIT who was an aspiring playwright. I took his play and paired it with a French farce and called the show “2 for Laughs.” (WGBH is on Channel 2). Pete Gurney was the playwrights name. Pete has gone on to have a very successful career in the theater. He is now known as A.R. Gurney, author of “Love Letters,” one of the most often performed contemporary plays across America. His TV play was lost in a fire that destroyed WGBH back in 1961. As luck would have it my first TV play survived and is now in the WGBH Archives.

In the new WGBH building, I did an outrageous play called “The Pit.” This time WGBH picked up all the costs. “The Pit” was a surreal play featuring a little girl who has fallen into a pit and an older man, a Good Samaritan, who tries to get her out. Of course, he never does and is finally hauled off to prison as a “subversive.” It didn’t have a lot of good reviews. Except for the one that really mattered. Kurt Vonnegut saw it and laughed.

My dear friend, David Loxton, who worked at WNET, New York’s Public TV station, suggested we approach Vonnegut and see if we could do an original TV movie based on his work. For some reason, he agreed!

It was called “Between Time and Timbuktu.” This time I hired real pro actors but filled out the rest of the bit parts with my coterie of local actors. This was it! The beginning of my long career working with actors.

Here are some of the names I have been fortunate to work with:

  • Lily Tomlin
  • Dan Ackroyd (Collisions)
  • Gilda Radner (Collisions)
  • Jane Alexander (Letters of Calamity Jane for CBS Cable)
  • Matt Dillon (Great American 4th of July & Other Disasters for PBS)
  • Christian Slater (Secrets for Hearst Network)
  • Barbara Feldon (Secrets; she was Agent 99 on Get Smart)
  • Christopher Reeve (Last Ferry Home for Hearst)
  • Ashley Judd (Ryan Interview by Arthur Miller for Kentucky Public TV)
  • Eddie Bracken (Ryan Interview; stage actor and movie star 1940’s)
  • Bob and Ray (Between Time and Timbuktu for PBS, + Double Channel show)
  • Kevin McCarthy (Between Time and Timbuktu for PBS)
  • Bruce Davison (Lathe of Heaven for PBS)
  • Kevin Conway (Lathe of Heaven)
  • Morgan Freeman (Charlie Smith; started on Sesame street, became a huge Hollywood movie star)
  • John Amos (Listen Up for PBS)
  • William Conrad (Great Whodunit!; star of Gunsmoke)
  • Gene Barry (Great Whodunit!; radio, TV stage star, was great in the musical La Cage aux Folles)
  • Tammy Grimes (“She wanted to me to be her “director” …nope)
  • Geraldine Fitzgerald (Great Whodunit!)
  • Tyne Daly (No Room for Opal for Hearst Network; one of the few actors who had trouble with me as director)
  • Claire Dane (Opal; has become a movie/TV star)
  • Theresa Wright (featured in a lot of movies, worked with Alfred Hitchcock)
  • Ben Vereen (song and dance actor; was in Jenny’s Song for Westinghouse Network)
  • Jean Stapleton (Tender Places; famous for Edith in All in the Family TV series)
  • Jerry O’Connell (Ollie Hopnoodle’s Haven of Bliss; fresh off film Stand By Me, now in several TV series and movies)
  • Rosie Perez (Poof! for PBS; made splash in Spike Lee’s first movie)
  • Ed Asner (Listen Up; lead in The Mary Tyler Moore TV series)
  • Richard Kiley (Madhouser; star of Broadway musical, Man of La Mancha)
  • John Goodman (Flashback for HBO; gone on to be Hollywood movie star)
  • John Houseman (Cable Arts, in many films, worked with Orson Wells)
  • James Wood (Andrew Silver drama, went to Hollywood and did well)
  • ,Jane Curtin (Pretzels for HBO, original SNL cast )

And now, here in Chelmsford, I returned to my roots. I found great volunteer actors, had the latest video equipment and a dedicated volunteer crew, which allowed me to continue this long love affair I have with actors and my little dramas.

We raised the money for this production by the use of Kickstarter, an Internet fundraiser. We raised over $4,000 to support this production.

Well, we did it. Former WGBH professionals who also volunteered their time and talent joined my trusty group of Chelmsford Volunteers, some in their 70s: Bill Charette, John Osborne, Bob Burns, Debbie Dorsey, and Marcia Hully. God Bless them all.

In many ways, this little movie was a final tribute to the many actors who graced my pictures with their amazing talents. It’s still hard to believe that a kid from Milwaukee actually worked with all these wonderful actors. I must have died and gone to Heaven.

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.

“Really?”

“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.

all-gray

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.

future-set3

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.

Paul Noble Remembers: Eleanor Roosevelt

By Paul Noble

In the fall of 1959, Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt began her series of monthly discussion programs for National Educational Television. It was called “Prospects of Mankind,” and was a production of WGBH-TV for National Educational Television.

eleanor-jfk
From Eleanor vs JFK: The Back Story. From WGBH.

It was made possible because Mrs. Roosevelt’s longtime friend Henry Morgenthau III was able to secure funding from the Ford Foundation for a monthly seminar to be conducted by Mrs. Roosevelt at Brandeis University in Waltham. The monthly programs were produced on Sunday afternoons at Slosberg Music Center on the Brandeis campus (with occasional forays to New York, Washington, London and Paris).

During the first year, the programs were directed by David M. Davis. They were executive produced by Henry Morgenthau, and the two co-producers were Paul Noble and Diana Tead Michaelis. Virginia Kassel and Beatrice Braude rounded out the production team. In the second year, Paul Noble was the director; in the third year, the director was Gene S. Nichols.

The programs were recorded and distributed on videotape.

Most of the programs dealt with political issues. Guests included Governor Nelson Rockefeller of New York, Governor Luis Munoz Marin of Puerto Rico, Dr. Ralph Bunche of the United Nations, economist Barbara Ward, playwright Santha Rama Rau, Richard Crossman, M.P., Chicago educator R. Sargent Shriver, Sen. Hubert Humphrey, Indian ambassador Krishna Menon, Tanzanian president Julius Nyrere, Uganda president Tom Mboya, Gen. James Gavin and Voice Of America chief, Edward R. Murrow.

Eleanor_Roosevelt,_Sargent_Shriver,_and_Hubert_Humphrey_on_Prospects_of_Mankind_-_NARA_-_196501
Eleanor Roosevelt, Sargent Shriver, and Hubert Humphrey on Prospects of Mankind from Wikimedia Commons.

Mrs. Roosevelt always was partnered with a journalist or specialist on each program, such as Erwin Canham or Saville Davis of the Christian Science Monitor, Dr. Henry Kissinger from Harvard University, Dr. Jerome Weisner from MIT, and others.

Untold stories about the series:

  • In her later years,Mrs. Roosevelt suffered from a loss of hearing. She also tired easily under the hot lights. To remedy that, our engineering department fitted her with an earpiece giving her program audio. If she seemed to be losing attention, we boosted the sound going into the headset.
  • One day in Manhattan, while crossing the street, she stepped between two parked cars on Eighth Street in Greenwich Village, and a car backed into her, knocking her down. She said to the stunned driver “I’m fine! Just keep going!” “After all,” she said, “I was the one at fault and I didn’t want to get him into trouble.” She limped to her destination, gave her scheduled speech, then went home (to the house she shared with her doctor and his wife), and was then taken for X-rays. She suffered a sprain, but it meant we had to move the following Sunday’s show to WNEW-TV in New York.
  • The only time I ever had a fight with a Nobel Prize winner was with Dr. Ralph Bunche, then Under Secretary-General of the United Nations. He refused to wear a “TV Blue” shirt, which I offered him. “I am not a clown!” he shouted.
  • When Mrs. Roosevelt decided to take a fall holiday in the Dolomites in Europe in September 1960, this interfered with her scheduled tapings in Boston. Henry reached out to his old friend Leonard Miall in London, then Head of Talks at the BBC. Within a few days, arrangements were made to tape two shows in London, which would not only be part of “Prospects of Mankind” but which would air on the BBC. We headed to London on August 8 to prepare for the early September tapings. We were assigned a director for the programs who later became one of the longest-lasting BBC directors, a Welshman named Huw Weldon, whose program “Monitor” was a precursor or model for America’s “60 Minutes.”
  • One of the key guests was the 88-year-old Lord Bertrand Russell, socialist, atheist, mathematician, and philosopher. I introduced him to Mrs. R. “Madam, I admire your energy!” he said. “What about you, sir?” she responded.After a lunch with a great deal of wit and teasing remarks, Lord Russell asked me if his parent had to sign the standard release form where it said “parent’s signature.” I said, “Yes, where does your parent live?” He responded “That is a question that can only be answered by theologians.”
  • In 1939, a young reporter for the Boston Globe attended an “off-the-record” press briefing in a Boston hotel with the then-Ambassador to the Court of St. James, the Honorable Joseph P. Kennedy. The Ambassador said that under no circumstances should the U. S. get involved in the war against the Nazis, a war which was then imminent and threatening to Great Britain as well as the rest of the continent.Louis Lyons ignored the “off-the-record” request, printed the story, and it made headlines nationwide. The next morning, Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt read the paper, stormed into Franklin’s bedroom and said “Franklin, fire that man!”Twenty-one years later, Sunday, January 3, 1960, Senator John F. Kennedy was one of Mrs. Roosevelt’s guests on the campus of Brandeis University for her monthly “Prospects of Mankind” program. It was the day JFK announced his decision to run for President. Henry Morgenthau persuaded his friend “Jack” to appear on the show. After the taping, there was an impromptu press conference for JFK on the set. Who asked the first question? You guessed it, Louis Lyons!Did JFK know that Louis had done his father in? We’ll never know.And how did JFK later convince Mrs. Roosevelt to support his candidacy? Was it because she traded that support for his agreement to start the Peace Corps ? Historians will have to answer that question.
  • When Senator Kennedy arrived at Slosberg Music Center to record Mrs. Roosevelt’s program, he was wearing a J. Press shirt, initialed JFK.  I asked him if he wouldn’t mind exchanging it temporarily for a TV Blue shirt.  He agreed, and I gave him one from our supply, size 16 1/2 neck, 35 sleeve.Later that week, I had his shirt laundered, and I returned it to him at the Senate Office Building.  He kept the WGBH shirt.Years later, I still regret not keeping his shirt as a memento or to wear on special occasions.

 

Paul Noble Remembers: Elliot Norton and Rodgers and Hammerstein

By Paul Noble

Norton1735mini
Eliot Norton. From WGBH Open Vault.

One day in August 1958, a giant machine was rolled through the studio and into the new “videotape room.” It was the first Ampex “quad” tape recorder, using the new and revolutionary 2-inch magnetic tape.

After several weeks of tinkering, the first test of the machine was a recording of Jean Brady (later, Moscone) (later, Jolly) playing the piano. But the equipment didn’t have its first on-air use until Tuesday, November 11 (Veterans Day), the day after Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Boston premiere of “Flower Drum Song” in its pre-Broadway tour.

Tuesday evenings at 6:45, traditionally, we presented “Elliot Norton Reviews” his live, weekly, drama review show, which had premiered that September. Broadway shows often opened “out of town” in Boston or Philadelphia. After a Monday evening opening, Elliot would usually ask the author, director and a star or two to join him the next evening on his program.

“They came into the studio and taped a half-hour show with Rodgers at the keyboard and Elliot and Hammerstein standing behind the piano.”

The morning of the 11th, the press agent for “Flower Drum Song” called and said Rodgers and Hammerstein would be unavailable that evening. I immediately suggested that R&H might come in the afternoon, and we would tape the show. I called the engineering department, and Larry Messenger said we would be ready to do an on-air show for the first time.

At 2 o’clock, the limo with Rodgers and Hammerstein pulled up in front of 84 Mass. Ave. We brought them upstairs. I put on their makeup (I was a jack-of-all-trades in those days, as were our entire BU crew staffers and grads). They came into the studio and taped a half-hour show with Rodgers at the keyboard and Elliot and Hammerstein standing behind the piano.

After the taping, we invited the entire staff downstairs for milk and cookies with R & H. While the strains of “Victory at Sea” played over the PA system (courtesy of Wil Morton), the WGBHers mingled and shook hands with our guests.

Then, I asked R & H if they’d like to see the show. “Don’t you have to develop it?” asked Rodgers.

I brought them into the room with the one machine, sat them on the two stools in the room, and Larry pressed the play button. Their jaws dropped! At the end of the showing, Hammerstein said, “You know, Dick, the next time we do ‘Cinderella’, we’ll never have to do it again!”

Jean Shepherd tells his first WGBH story

This entry is part 7 of 22 in the series The Fred Barzyk Collection
Jean Shepherd (1970)

I first heard Jean on the radio in Boston. It was 1961. I was babysitting my young son and, while idly scanning radio stations, I heard this person, this intense personal voice, talking to me.

Whoa! Is it possible? Something clicked in me. Had I found a kindred soul?

Jean had grown up in the Midwest, in Hammond, Indiana, the industrial Midwest. Me, too, I grew up just an hour away in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. My father worked in a factory, International Harvester, and my mother worked in a factory during the war, Perfex. My neighborhood was surrounded by all kinds of factories. You could smell them in the air.

Jean was weaving a tale about The Steel Mill, running, delivering the mail. He recalled a horrible accident: a vat had turned over, killing one of the steel men. But he also talked about the beauty of the giant plant. He talked about tapping the heat.

He never played any music, he just talked! Come on! This was a Saturday afternoon, for God sake. Who the Hell is this guy? Right then and there I knew I had to work with him.

Fred Barzyk (2007)

I was a young television director (22) working at WGBH-TV, a little Educational Television station housed in a former roller skating rink, above a drugstore at 84 Massachusetts Avenue and right across the street from MIT. There were 45 employees running the TV and FM radio stations.

I was on contract to direct a series of French Language shows aimed at grade school students. But what I really wanted to do was dramas for TV. Maybe this Jean Shepherd person might be the storyteller I was looking for. Maybe.

“How the hell am I going to meet him, or get to work with him?”

Youth is great. I figured I would just write him a letter and offer him a half hour of airtime on our little station. I huddled with Mike Ambrosino (a fan; Mike was responsible for the development of the Eastern Educational Television Network and created NOVA) and John Henning (a fan; John had grown up in New York City listening to Jean on the radio. John became one of Boston’s most distinguished newsmen.)

Here was the problem: WGBH had no money. We were lucky to meet the weekly payroll. I was making $80 a week and trying to support a wife and baby, and I had no money. So we offered an artist the one thing they can’t resist. Free airtime to do anything he wanted to do.

I was directing a series of French Language shows, but what I really wanted to do was dramas for TV. Maybe this Jean Shepherd person might be the storyteller I was looking for.

We couldn’t afford his airfare. He would have to sign a release devised by our financial officer, Jack Hurley. Jack insisted that some hard cash pass between WGBH and the talent, so each person was to receive $1. The chances of Jean Shepherd even responding to this offer were very low. Probably, non-existent.

Boy, was I wrong. He wrote back and agreed! We talked on the phone and decided on a date. Now I had to tell management that I had made this offer and it had been accepted. (No, I never did get permission before I sent the letter. What the hell? I never thought he would respond.)

Bob Larson, programming manager, looked dubious. A comedian? No, I said, a great storyteller. How much will this cost? A one-dollar release. Somehow (don’t remember what I said) Bob agreed to let me go ahead with the show.

Bob had graduated from Harvard and was very erudite. He once told me I would never be a producer because of the school I had gone to, Marquette University in Milwaukee. I shrugged and said OK, time will tell. Bob took a chance on this one and, for me, it started a 30-year working relationship with Jean Shepherd.

There is an important event that I forgot to mention. That little TV station above the drug store — it had burned down to the ground several months before. With an amazing amount of public support from institutions and viewers, a campaign to build a new state of art studio was created. We were offered free space from many institutions while the new studio was being built. WGBH was spread out across the city in 7 different locations.

Museum of Science (2000) by Don Hallock

The TV studio was a small room in the basement of the Museum of Science. There was a window from which the paying visitors could watch us make TV shows: We were an exhibit. The producers, directors, and execs were housed in a small red wooden building behind the Museum, right on the waters of the Charles River.

Bob Larson laid out the rules of the game. I would have a single camera and the show would be a half hour live and recorded on tape. (That original tape exists in the WGBH archives: “JEAN SHEPHERD, AMERICAN HUMORIST.”) I decided we would shoot from the dock behind the building.

I would need a big light to cover the area since the show would air at 10:00 p.m.. The opening and closing credits would be created on a large piece of cardboard perched carefully on an easel. Camera starts on cardboard, pans to Jean, he talks for a half hour, pans back to the cardboard. Done.

The day arrived and so did Jean with a young woman, Leigh Brown. She was introduced as his secretary. She never said much but watched with great interest.

Jean was affable and eager to do his bit. I introduced him to the crew and we headed out to the dock. He had a crew cut, wore a summer jacket and tie. He was fit and seemed to enjoy the opportunity to do this for WGBH. I later found out that it was our connection to Harvard, MIT, the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Brandeis, Tufts, and Boston University which made this gig really appealing. Jean was looking to forge his credentials in the world of academia.

Jean Shepherd
Jean Shepherd on the dock behind the Museum of Science for his first TV show with Fred Barzyk. With him is Margy Pacsu, a “GBH Staffer. By Dan Beach.

Jean had brought his theme music on audiotape. The time arrived and we were on the air, in living black and white, with the Charles River behind him. He proceeded to tell us two of his classic stories. First came the Ovaltine story and the magic decoder ring. He ended with the blind date story.

The stage manager gave him the one-minute cue, he concluded his bit, and we panned to the cardboard credits. The crew applauded. Egad, this wasn’t like our normal shows. I mean we were doing lectures, piano shows, educational courses for distant learners. And here was this guy entertaining us. Wow! This called for a celebration.

We were doing lectures, piano shows, educational courses for distant learners, and here was this guy entertaining us. Wow! This called for a celebration.

Jean, Leigh, myself, and most of the crew made off to one of our favorite watering holes; this night was going to be on me. (Might blow the family budget, but it was worth it.) I would pick up Jean and Leigh’s drinks. I had assumed that Jean was a beer drinker, like my Dad, but no. He ordered a martini! And just one. The rest of us bought the cheapest beer in the house. We laughed and talked.

And then something amazing happened. Jean asked how WGBH was doing. We said what do you mean? How are the ratings? We all laughed. We never knew if anyone was watching us. Jean asked what kind of shows did we do. At that moment, WGBH was doing a lot of Harvard extension courses for the Navy. Physics, calculus, trig, a series of shows for the crews of atomic subs that stayed submerged for months at a time. The crew could get academic credit for taking this course when they took an exam on returning to base.

Shepherd’s eyes twinkled. He smiled that crooked smile of his, and he created a story right in front of us in the seedy beer-smelling bar. Jean began:

I can see it now. Professor Schmidlap appears at a blackboard and begins to explain calculus to the TV audience. He is amazing, his voice flying out over Boston … talking MATH!

Suddenly, after just two weeks of his little show, the ratings are soaring. The local commercial stations take notice.

“Who the hell is this guy? What’s going on? Maybe it’s that theme music. I mean who the hell can understand calculus?”

Four weeks later, Professor Schmidlap is number one in Boston TV.

The news spreads to New York. They call up and get an air tape. These Big time execs gather in a large conference room and they watch!

The theme music comes up. (They lean forward.) Prof. Schmidlap appears and begins, writing a long equation on the blackboard. (They lean in further.) Professor smiles as he shows us the solution. (They are now standing.)

“Get this guy on the phone. Now!”

Professor Schmidlap is at home when the phone rings. It’s one of the big time New York agents.

“Professor Schmidlap?”

“Yes?”

“This is _________. Who’s your agent?”

“My insurance agent?”

By months end, the Professor has his own show on NBC. His show is broadcast over the entire nation. And the ratings take off. Before long he has won the coveted 9 p.m. slot NATION WIDE. The other networks respond. Soon there are shows on Physics, Metaphysics, Epistemology.

And what happens to WGBH and educational TV? They start running old Ed Sullivan shows.

It is worth noting that, in the year 2002, WGBH aired several episodes of the Ed Sullivan Show. After exactly 39 years, Jean Shepherd’s prediction came to pass.

We’re in the “understanding business”

Vice President for Branding and Visual Design Chris Pullman retired in October 2008, after 35 years of skillfully defining and shaping the visual persona of WGBH across an expanding array of media platforms.

The chance invitation to work here at WGBH placed me in an environment that was a perfect fit for my temperament and aspirations as a professional and as just a plain person. Once here, I recognized, gradually, why it felt so right as a place to work and associate. I’d like to take this opportunity to share:

10 lessons I learned (or at least had confirmed) at WGBH

1. Work on things that matter

If you possibly can, use you skills and your time to make a difference.

Long before I came here I had developed a preference for non-profit projects. In my free lance work and in my years at the office of George Nelson, the projects that interested me most were the ones for non-profit, pro-social clients.

By the time the opportunity to work here, I had already made the decision that I wanted to work someplace that made a positive difference for people, and that affected a lot of people, not some boutique studio doing design for other designers.

Frankly, when the phone rang and it was Ivan Chermayeff saying that there was an opportunity to work at a TV station in Boston, my first reaction was “definitely not.” This was because my teachers and mentors at Yale had made it clear that the only way to squander a good education faster than going into advertising, was to go into television.

But I was vaguely curious to see what a TV studio was like, so after a while Esther and I decided to just go up and scope the place out. After about 20 minutes with the then General Manager, Michael Rice, it became clear to me that what WGBH was up to was very different from what television in general was up to. So I said “yes,” and have found myself for the past 35 years in the ideal environment to do the kind of work I had hoped to do.

In this first lesson I may be preaching to the choir, since here we all are. But I think it is particularly pertinent for the younger people at ‘GBH for whom this may be a first way-station on a longer professional journey. Given all the ways you could use your skills and your valuable time, pick something that serves the greater good.

2. Work with people you like and respect

Birds of a feather flock together. That is a natural thing. Most of the people here are here (or certainly stay here) because of our mission. Certainly, my long tenure has been largely because of the people in this room, who together and individually have shared with me such personal and heart-warming recollections of our time together.

Since April, when I first announced my intentions to leave WGBH, the private expression of these feelings has been so gratifying, both personally and professionally, that I recently suggested to Jon and Henry that maybe we should institute the policy of encouraging individuals to make periodic “mock retirement” announcements, with the goal of releasing more regularly the flow of kind remarks for the nourishment of the individual, since we are otherwise so reticent to praise or encourage others in our busy, self centered daily lives.

Which leads me to:

3. Be nice

And be positive. And be respectful of the work of others. Strive to understand each others professional contributions and then respect them (as you would want them to respect you) with your actions and your comments. Remember: we are all applying our own particular skills towards a shared objective.

4. Have high standards

High standards are something that has set this place apart. Even in hard times, it is important to keep hold of this core distinction

Don’t settle for “whatever.” The corrosive Dilbert mind-set is depressing and demeaning. Don’t give it a foothold here. I prefer the “see you and raise you one” escalation of good ideas, even crazy ideas.

High standards is something that has set this place apart. Even in hard times, it is important to keep hold of this core distinction, whatever it costs.

5. Have a sense of humor

Humor is the grease of communications. Wit not only engages your head, it engages the other guy’s. Be serious, but don’t take yourself too seriously. As an institution, don’t loose sight of the potential to use sly humor to make connections and put people at their ease.

6. Design is not the narrow application of formal skills, it is a way of thinking

I knew this before I came here, but my time here has reinforced this idea.

My position, first established in 1973, and unusually high up in the org chart, allowed me (and I should say: expected me) to attend to all aspects of the way this organization expressed itself.

My job, and that of scores of designers I have worked with in my area, has been to help define and then express through our work, a consistent, honest and engaging persona for WGBH. (Today’s name for this, by the way, is branding, but it is a process as old as the profession.)

This role has led me into a weird soup of assignments, many of which you have seen here today:

  • wacko projects like the 2-mobile and the Julia Child pre-stained dish towel
  • important projects like a capital campaign case statement or the first proposal for the American Experience
  • inspiring projects like the informational graphics for Vietnam: a Television History or four different title sequences over the years for Masterpiece, and
  • gnarly projects like how to help frame the long-term strategic goals for this company

Each of these projects was a puzzle to figure out within the constraints of budgets and timelines, and with respect for the unique context of that particular problem. Whether it was how to draw a dog with low self-esteem or how to convince a company to underwrite a project, all of it was design to me.

Ultimately this led to the biggest project of all: the design and construction of this new building. It was an honor and an incredible 5-year high to work on this project. It threw me into intense relationships: with our architects, who understood our mission and our culture and came up with a building that works for us; with our trustees, whose guidance and enthusiasm was so helpful; and with my partner-in-crime, Dave Norton, whose contribution to this project on so many levels has earned my greatest respect. This was the project that for the first time gave us an opportunity to apply the same high standards we insist on for our programming to the physical environment in which we all work and in which we welcome the public.

The practice of design — dare I call it “intelligent design”?? — has helped WGBH achieve a distinction among broadcasters and public media publishers. It is my hope that he next person to hold this responsi- bility for the foundation will have as much fun and have as expansive a mandate as I have had.

7. Variety is the spice of life

When I came here in the early 70’ s the trend was toward monolithic design programs governed by a thick and sacred style manual.

As I got to understand the business, this strategy seemed to me to make no sense for WGBH. With programming as diverse as The French Chef, NOVA and ZOOM, no one mode of visual expression could logically suite this range of content. It occurred to me that in fact variety itself can be a kind of consistency.

But when the visual expressions of a company are always and rightfully different, you have to have some other constant that binds the work together, something that lets individual expressions be different, but makes them recognizable as a family of related materials. The goal in this game is to strive for the smallest number of constants and the largest number of variables. And you have to turn to non-visual sources of consistency.

So, soon after I got here, I proposed to Doug and the rest of the designers that we adopt a set of non-visual criteria to define “good design.” Without resorting to the normal formal jargon, if you and your client could answer “yes” to the following questions then it probably is a good piece of design.

  • is it clear? (can I understand what it is, can I read it, can I sense it’s purpose)
  • is it accessible? (does it engage me, does it invite me in, is it easy and intuitive to use)
  • is it appropriate? (to its budget, to the amount of time available to make it, to the language style and level of the audience, to the medium, to the objectives of the project, and to the family of materials it will join, etc.)

“Of the highest quality” does not mean expensive. It means thoughtful and well-executed in its genre.

A final measure, and perhaps the key measure in a business where variety is the norm, is quality. “Of the highest quality” does not mean expensive. It means thoughtful and well-executed in its genre. If all these things are present in a project, then it is likely to be successful, from a design point of view, and otherwise.

8. Institutions have a character, just like people do

In fact it is impossible to NOT have an institutional character or image. It is the sum total of a person’s experience of our staff, our physical plant, our programming and services, our communications — everything we say and do. Every person out there experiences a different assortment of these expressions, but they average out to define our institutional character or persona.

This character cannot be contrived. If it is contrived it will only fool people for a little while. Like a person you know who says he is one thing but whose daily behavior suggests another.

But a person’s character inevitably shifts as they mature. The same thing happens to companies like ours. Over the years I have observed that our own institutional character has shifted as our own self-image has shifted.

  • In the 70’s: we identified ourselves as a local public broadcasting stationAnd we acted locally. We were know by our channel brand: Channel 2. We had two mascots: the digit, which Chermayeff and Geismar had proposed could be treated anthropomorphically, a device we delighted in taking to extremes (the 2-mobile being the most ridiculous variant); and our zany, self-deprecating President, David O. Ives. These devices, plus our size, and our self-image as an upstart local broadcaster willing to make a lot out of a little, encouraged a kind of smart-alecky attitude in our local persona.
  • In the 80’s: we identified ourselves as a national producerBy the early 80’s WGBH had grown out of its local-centric persona, having established its lineup of key national strands, producing “1/3 of all prime time on PBS,” a percentage that remains constant to today. Now the focus shifted our national, institutional, WGBH identity. Staff increased dramatically and we became more of a big business.
  • In the 90’s: we identified ourselves as an educational publisherAt the end of the 80’s and into the 90’s the media options began to proliferate. We were major publishers of program related books. We had a catalog and product division. The whole place became computerized. We began to dabble in new media, publishing video-discs and CD’s and producing content for new on-line services like Prodigy. In the early 90’s as “new media” opportunities emerged we created the Interactive Department, and then came the World Wide Web. In the 90’s we began to see ourselves as a “content company,” down-playing the “broadcaster” moniker and focusing on our role nationally and internationally as a high quality educational publisher.
  • In the 2000’s: we identify ourselves as a major public media producer and distributorWe began to do “deals” with the cable companies and produce programming for other channels. We established a Commercial Policies subcommittee of our board. We built a new and more sophisticated headquarters that could welcome the public.As we became the most reliable and most prolific producer for public television, we first struggled with PBS over policy and ownership issues and then, finally, found ourselves in a role of “most trusted supplier” and the key innovator (and partner) in issues like cable carriage, rights and aftermarket sales, that would affect all of pubic media. In this environment, we became more “business-like” and saw our need to be a major driver of public media policy in the future. We recognized that as technology and user behavior changed, we were now both a producer and a distributor in all media.

Each of these shifts in self-perception, required a slight shift in expression for our work, ideally without changing the underlying DNA of the place. We are now approaching the end of this decade. What will our self-perception be in 2010? How will we express it? How can we respond to these natural and gradual shifts while still maintaining our core character, a character that people, both locally and nationally, know and respect (and willingly support)?

9. We’re all in the “understanding business”

No matter what we call ourselves, what we all do here is ultimately about helping people understand the world and their own life.

This term was first coined by the architect Richard Saul Wurman to define the design profession but it strikes me that, no matter what we call ourselves, what we all do here is ultimately about helping people understand the world and their own life.

This is the idea that our mission statement (now part of our building so it will be harder to change!) reflects, and is at the heart of our institutional character. And it is what has attracted me to this work all this time.

10. You are what you eat

We are all the result of a lifetime of experiences, some good, some not so good. My 32 years of experiences before I came here prepared me to be useful to a place like this. My 35 years here have enriched me and allowed me to grow in ways I never would have imagined. Now I’m going to see how that diet has prepared me for my next life. I will miss you all.

Bye.

The original dream factory — Mass Ave. Studio A (1950s)

This entry is part 3 of 12 in the series The Don Hallock Collection

How best to explain the extraordinary reverence with which studio A is remembered by so many of its former denizens?

This is a deeper and more difficult subject than it might seen at first glance.

Photo from From Brooks Leffler: Studio A, 84 Mass Ave, 1959. Visible are Don Knox, Bob Moscone, Fred Barzyk, Mel Bernstein, possibly Al Kelman, and Lew Yeager. [It was shot] by me — three exposures with my old trusty Leica III (long gone, alas), pasted together with tape and tweaked a bit in photoshop. (Upon looking at it again, I think that’s Dave Nohling coming through the door to the control room.)

Oh, you might begin by thinking of the place, perhaps, as a homely seed pod … housing an almost primal urge to produce a kind of life peculiar to its spirit. Or imagine, maybe, a dry, dim, dusty womb. Anything like that will do.

For years, from the time of it’s construction as a roller skating rink, until the fire collapsed it’s roof, studio A was literally a place where the sun never shone. But was it ever full of light! The bright scoops and fresnels that television production of the era demanded notwithstanding, the light of shared vision, creative endeavor and a remarkable group spirit illuminated the place in very special ways.

So many careers were launched, or at least nurtured, its environment. None, to the best of my knowledge, ended there.

The studio was a rather shabby place, with little character of its own, a chameleon space, created to mimic other environments than itself. (Film, television and radio studios tend to be like that: Selfless in a sense. But studio A had a ‘self’ that those who worked there knew with a loving intimacy.)

It was, for its brief time, a truly magic place.

For many, the place has been strongly emblematic of its time. And if anything, it’s magic blossomed from the power of paradigm, having had so much to do with the drive to produce programming that one could feel pride in, with the ongoing and exhilarating drive to overcome obstacles, with the almost mythic experience of being forced by necessity to achieve the impossible through sheer persistence and ingenuity. This creatively aggressive attitude seems, in a broader sense, to have characterized the entire station’s approach to its place in the world (and is probably, to a significant measure, responsible for its ultimate successes).

WGBH has always been a multifaceted entity, its activities extending to an ever widening range of enterprises and venues — and its human element possessed of a remarkable spirit and sense of mission. That spirit showed itself dramatically in the studios (FM and TV) at 84 Mass. Ave.

The FM Studio

The life of the FM operation and studio (you’d find it just through the window to the left of the photo, behind the microphone boom) was somewhat of a mystery to us, in television. There were, after all, no sets or props or costumes to dramatize the content of the radio programming.

Though we knew all the folks in FM, and that they were doing just as challenging programming as we were in TV (though probably of a higher production quality), we were somewhat in the dark about their undertakings and their output.

Beyond the low partitions, over on the radio side of the big third floor office space, were collected some of the sharpest intellects one could hope to find in the aural tradition. Throughout their work day, they could be heard periodically bursting into gales of laughter, playing word association games so clever, erudite and abstruse that we, the cretins over in TV, could barely follow them, much less participate.

And a dedicated bunch they were too: Bill Cavness and Tom Conley, particularly, could be found prowling the station at almost any hour of the day or night. They were frighteningly bright, seemed to love deeply what they did, and were both a challenge and a pleasure to work around.

Sometime in the late 1950s I attended a tiny get-together at Bill Cavness’ home. At one point Tom Conley insisted that Bill play for us a little project he (Bill) had been working on for a couple of years. It was a work in progress, on audio tape, consisting of various sized music fragments drawn from probably a hundred classical works. Bill had painstakingly assembled them so that the key signatures matched, the transitional notes and instrumentation were continuous, and the whole had a strange and beautiful non-sensical sense to it. It was a full-fledged musical work in it’s own right, alternately comic and touching, grand and intimate. Brahms was suddenly and seamlessly Hovannes; Corelli, became Barber, and just as unexpectedly, Satie and Schostakovich.

I’ve never heard anything like it since. It was a work of genius, and to call it a pastiche would have been an insult. It was a righteous collage in the finest artistic sense.

The TV studio

In television, too, the spirit was alive — or, more appropriately, ‘live.’

For years, before the advent of tape, the vast majority of the production to emerge from studio A was live. And lots of production emerged from that room. Anywhere from one to four hours of television was pumped daily through that control room and directly out onto the air waves.

Anyone who hasn’t done abundant ‘live’ television will have at least a little difficulty imagining how it would have been to do almost nothing but.

Here’s a little of what that was like. In the early days of the station, there was, as I’ve said, no video tape. The existence of such stuff was only a tantalizing rumor (though, in the long run, the station actually procured one of the very first Ampex 2″ machines).

There was ‘kinescoping’ (recording through a modified 16 millimeter film camera, live and live-style programs from a television image on a tiny, very intense, black and white monitor tube, the entirety of which machine was constantly hovered over by Frank Harvey, Arthur Richardson, and Larry Messenger during every second of it’s operation). The results of our kinescoping were, compared to the rest of the industry, of a very high quality — though by modern standards the product would be considered awful.

There was film (and its production, as you know, bears no resemblance whatever to ‘live’).

Live and back-to-back

And then there was ‘live’ itself, the closest thing to which would be classic theater performance, with, given the primitive state of the television art, dozens of times the chances for disaster. Anyone who has done much live television knows that, while the obvious goal is to produce a good piece of TV, the deeper imperative is to avoid, if at all possible, embarrassing one’s self to death. In the days of live television, potential disaster skulked within every vacuum tube, behind each tick of the clock, and sat silently perched, like Poe’s raven, on every shoulder.

As a director, for instance, you would be on the studio floor cleaning up a few (hopefully final) details with the crew. Bill Pierce would elegantly announce his way through the station break and promos. From the control room speaker the switcher would call out “1 minute to air.” And that was it. Did you forget anything — and , if so, what?

There’s now time only to run to the control room sit down, take a breath, and listen to the master control operator on the intercom intone, “You’ve got it!” From that moment the ball is irrevocably yours, the master control operator leaves for a soda, and absolutely anything you do, right or wrong, the audience at home will witness.

Now let’s up the ante. At WGBH, in those years, all programming was broadcast in the evening, and it was not uncommon for a couple of hours of productions to emanate from the studio “back-to-back.” (“The studio,” because for the first three or four years, though it was affectionately known as “A,” there was no studio B to relieve the intense usage of that space. Studio B was an afterthought — but an important one, and extremely well advised.)

Now on any given evening there might, typically, be an hour-long children’s’ program, a half hour news show, a program on famous art works, and a jazz show, one after another, with nothing but a station break separating each of them. That meant that all the rehearsals for those shows were done, also one after another, in the afternoon; and hopefully those hundreds of shots and camera moves, audio cues, lighting changes and talent directions would be correctly remembered hours later, on the air. One director would finish a show, vacate the chair, and the director of the next one would slip in and, one minute later, start theirs.

And some days in each week things got worse, yet. In the ’50s the station owned only 3 cameras and no mobile unit! If there was a field pickup (every Monday, for instance, the Museum of Fine Arts program Museum Open House), two of those cameras were out of the building — only one being left in the studio to do those three or four back-to-back shows we mentioned earlier.

Sets and lenses

The choice of lenses for a given show, for instance, became critical (because, as you may remember, there were no ZOOMs). Lenses could not be changed at any time during a one-camera program. A 50 millimeter lens enabled a cameraman to dolly reasonably smoothly, but approaching a subject for much of a close-up was impossible. A 90 millimeter lens (closer to a telephoto) enabled dollying to a close-up, but dollying smoothly, especially across its seriously flawed floor surface (more on that below), required intense concentration and unusually fine coordination. Emergency maintenance to a malfunctioning on-the-air camera (especially if it was the only one in the studio) often consisted of a swift fist to the side-panel.

Much of what was done in studio A was “stuck-together” television. Few shows had a budget that would buy more than a few phone calls. Materials were constantly and chronically in short supply. There was one roll of gaffer’s tape, for instance, which lasted a year or more, and was measured out by Bob Moscone by the inch. You almost had to sign for each piece. Cheaper tape (something like 1 inch wide plastic stuff, in red and blue and black) lived locked in the desk drawer of Bob’s mobile office. (In truth, Bob had no office; only a wooden desk on casters which was never to be found in the same place two days in a row.) Spike marking with masking tape was more freely permissible — the tape was cheaper.

Sets were mostly of the reusable type. You, as director, might have got a little initial budget for set and design, but then you were almost always stuck with that for the run of the series (frequently several years). Otherwise, you, as director, designed your own sets, and probably built them as well.

They might be made of standard (and ubiquitous) studio drapes, occasionally swagged; ugly but useful modular risers; a variety of chairs (almost all ugly also); literally anything you might find by rooting through the scene dock (like those endlessly reusable, always in fashion, 7-foot high Corinthian columns — yes, or even cannibalizations of sets from someone else’s show, turned upside down, sideways, or cleverly redecorated with books, Books, BOOKS!).

Very strange materials were pressed into service such as used audio tape strung between light poles, or stuffed baby elephants (we almost had one, and by God we would have used it!). In short, giving your show any kind of distinctive look was a chronically desperate undertaking.

But talk to anyone who worked in that space in those days and fondness is what you will hear.

A workaday atmosphere? Hardly. Starting in the morning we were up in the offices scripting (when there were scripts — mostly there were run-down sheets, if there was anything on paper at all) and preparing the programming, in the afternoon, rehearsing, and until 10:30 or 11 pm, shooting, striking and setting up for the next days shows.

On weekends, when no special projects like A Time to Dance were on the boards, Ginny Kassel, John Henning, myself, and often others would hang out in the conference/guest/dressing room (just off the studio) and do what? … watch television, of course! In those days weekend TV was rich with Omnibus, Camera Three, Wide, Wide World, and our favorite piece of trash, Whirlybirds. At Christmas the whole staff would come in after hours and all night long to tape a holiday show consisting of send-ups of the regular programming.

Frank and the crane

One night, on a live presentation of Performance,” I was running camera 1, on a pedestal, and Frank was operating camera 2 — the Fearless crane. (This contrarily named machine was a large dolly supporting an 8-foot crane upon which a 100-pound camera was mounted. Since there was no accommodation whatever for the camera operator, the possession of some simian talents became a virtual necessity.)

Now, somewhere around the middle of the show, Frank was doing a slow dolly-in with the crane extended all the way up to maximum camera height — a position which obliged him to balance precariously on a couple of the top rungs of the crane arm, and hang on for dear life.

While repositioning my camera, I heard a zip-clank-BANG-CRASH and, glancing at the studio monitor, saw the picture from Frank’s on-the-air camera which was now pointing almost straight upward. Swinging wildly from side to side, the camera was panning the light grid, the microphone boom, and virtually all of the studio except the performers.

About six feet behind the dolly, lying flat on his back on the floor was poor Frank, his face reflecting an odd combination of stark amazement and something like beatific rapture (I think the fall nearly knocked him out).

His headset was dangling from the camera, which was, at this point, exercising a completely deranged mind of its own. Apparently the crane had begun to swivel. In trying to shift his weight to regain control, Frank had lost his grip, and tumbled helplessly out into mid-air, narrowly missing the person pushing the dolly.

I fumbled up a usable shot, and the director quickly cut to it. Frank got up from the floor, brushed himself off, checked for injuries, and finding none, remounted his unruly steed to finish the program.

Not too fancy

Studio A was in no way perfect. It wasn’t really spacious (measuring only about 50 by 80 feet). And in the early days, since there was no scene dock, and the set shop was housed in a tiny office measuring about 10 by 15 feet, sets were constructed, and even stored in the studio itself.

A converted skating rink, Studio-A’s floor was made of maple boards which had been washed so many times they’d ‘cupped,’ transforming the surface into something resembling a washboard. Dollying a camera along the grain produced an even enough effect, but trucking smoothly across the grain was almost impossible (though, to be fair, the blessing was mixed; it was a wonderful floor for dancers, and the studio crew never got shin splints).

The facility was a second-story affair, its only large-scale access to the outside world being nothing like a loading dock door, but only an 8 by 8 foot freight elevator through which everything of any size at all came and went (often in a disassembled form).

The studio was definitely not sumptuously equipped. Three camera
s and one microphone boom were minimal amenities. All varieties of equipment were in short supply, and in that environment technical problems posed a continuous threat to the station’s production capability. Every resource had to be stretched for the maximum effect it could provide.

Yet, for all that, literally thousands of hours of often remarkable and impressive (for the time) television emanated from that space, and it was from here that WGBH first put itself on the national map, becoming known for quality concept, high-powered talent, and excellence in production.

In this studio, for a short span of time, a few young professionals, eager groups of college students and starry-eyed volunteers worked together to achieve a quality of broadcast output which, in time, compared favorably to that of New York.

Visitors to the dream factory

The élan, and body of skills, generated in Studio A set the philosophical tone, and established the resources of craftsmanship, for all the struggles which followed the fire. Throughout the post-inferno diaspora of production facilities borrowed from the Boston Archdiocese, WHDH-TV and the Museum of Science, that spirit has probably carried over into the station’s permanent home.

Here are only a few of society’s heavy hitters who’s talent passed steadily through Studio A.

  • Dimitri Shostakovich
  • Aaron Copeland
  • Richard Rogers and Oscar Hammerstein
  • artist, Marc Chagall
  • Max Lerner
  • Henry Kissinger
  • Arthur Schlesinger and Herman Kahn
  • Norbert Wiener (the father of cybernetics)
  • Isaac Asimov
  • psychologist B. F. Skinner
  • photographers Ansel Adams and W. Eugene Smith
  • Buster Keaton
  • Marcel Marceau
  • playwright Harold Pinter
  • MGM production chief Dore Schary
  • Jazz greats like George Shearing, Dave Brubeck, a very young Gary Burton and Cannonball Aderly
  • Choreographers and dancers Jose Limon, Jose Greco, Alwin Nikolais, Maria Tallchief, Andre Eglevsky and Geoffrey Holder

Those who worked there were consistently exposed to some of the best that culture had to offer.

In the ’50s, the romance of WGBH was heavily influenced by what took place inside Studio A. The personality of the station became indelibly colored by the atmosphere emanating from within its television operation, and from within the walls of its only (at the time) studio facility.

As an organization, the station never paid extravagant attention to the intentional creation of team spirit and group synergy. That was never really necessary because the station community was, from the very beginning, galvanized and unified by an innate and remarkable passion for the medium, for the love of creativity, and for the “spin” of high ideals.

For some inexplicable reason, the station’s ‘family’ has in general been comprised of uniquely agreeable people who’s shared vision made working together memorable as an exhilarating, challenging and rewarding experience. And the origin of that tradition can be traced directly back to the early days of “Studio A.”

Inasmuch as the history of WGBH has been synonymous with the history of National Educational Television and its successor the Public Broadcasting Service (and the evolution of “educational television” into “public television”), Studio A and those who worked there made, in their time, a seminal contribution to the creation and nourishment of that endangered species, intelligent television.

Finally, with all due respect, if these sentiments have sounded a little overblown, don’t bother voicing your objections in earshot of those who worked at the station in the days of ‘Studio A.’ You’ll find it a hard sell. The experience had a deep personal meaning for them which seems persistent, even to this day.