Quo vadis WGBH (1946-2000)

This entry is part 4 of 12 in the series The Don Hallock Collection

From Don Hallock

Where, in Boston, has WGBH been?

It may surprise you to know how many places the station has called home.

A converted skating rink on the second floor of this building, and the office spaces on the third, were the home of WGBH from 1955 to 1961. The television operation was launched here and, because of that, many have thought of 84 Mass. Ave. as the place of WGBH’s origins….

….but the adventure actually began here, less than a block uptown of the Boston Public Garden.

The Lowell Institute

The first offices of the Lowell Institute Cooperative Broadcasting Council (LICBC) were housed in small, cluttered rooms on the top floor at 28 Newbury St. The FM station had not yet materialized. LICBC educational radio programming, originated and taped here, was broadcast on various commercial stations in the Greater Boston area.

A couple of years after the LICBC vacated 28 Newbury Street, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (who’s brass lettering still tops the doorway), sold the building to Elizabeth Arden. Today [2000], it is occupied by a Banana Republic store.

Symphony Hall

With the launching of WGBH-FM, the LICBC offices were moved to Symphony Hall at the corner of Massachusetts and Huntington Avenues. The station’s first radio studio was built here, and WGBH went on the air in 1951 with an evening broadcast of the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s season opener.

The facade on Huntington Avenue.

The marquee and box offices on Massachusetts Avenue (looking toward Cambridge).

The north side (or rear) of the building facing on Westland Avenue.

Excerpts from One Way to Run a Railroad by Ray Wilding White:

“The station’s new quarters were in the northwest corner of Symphony Hall . Two utility rooms in the basement under the musicians’ room were Parker’s office and the business office… Hartford’s executive desk was a door and two iron-rod saw-horses…

“Two floors up, over the musicians’ room, the orchestra’s museum was vacated and turned over to the station. In one corner of the old museum space, a small studio big enough for , a seldom used spinet, a couple of chairs, and a mike boom, together with a cramped control room and a minuscule announcer’s booth, had been built.”

84 Mass. Ave.

This is one of the few existing photos of the 84 Massachusetts Avenue building. It was taken in 1958 by Brooks Leffler with his trusty Leica, from just across the street on the sidewalk in front of the steps of MIT.

Today the 84 Massachusetts Avenue lot is a grassy park occupying almost exactly the former building footprint. It might be read, by some, as a kind of unintended memorial.

The alley which ran behind 84 Mass. — and on which we all struggled daily to find parking— is a cement walkway. Hardly a trace of the old building can be found — unless you know where to look, and what to look for….

Our serious young guide points to “where we are”….

….and to the airy space which studio A once occupied.

Kresge Auditorium, behind the old WGBH building, and from which the first BSO telecasts originated, still stands, little having changed but the roof — newly copper clad (in response, no doubt, to the chronic leakiness of the old cement one).

The notorious Frank Lloyd Wright lecture, Handel’s Messiah, and Menotti’s The Gorgon, The Unicorn And the Manticore were televised from here as well.

And the MIT Chapel (round brick building on the right) is there as well. This view looks back toward 84 Mass. from Kresge Auditorium.

And here it is — the original alleyway, replete with sunken curb stones….

….the very ones over which one used to drive to the the Robert Moscone “Executive” Parking Space (up on the sidewalk), in which no one else dared park (except Al Hinderstien, when he was young and brash).

Fire!

From the Official History of WGBH

October 14, 1961: A fire in the early morning at 84 Massachusetts Avenue completely destroys WGBH facilities. Channel 2 is off the air for all of Sunday, October 15, but, by dint of herculean efforts by staff, and superb cooperation from the community, manages to sign on at the regular time on Monday the 16th.

Emergency control room is set up in Catholic Television Center (WIHS), which also lends use of its limited studio space.

For the next seven months WGBH-TV functions as the “diffuse organization:” control rooms at Catholic Center, large-studio facilities provided late at night and on weekends by WHDH-TV on Morrissey Boulevard, films and tapes (some of which have been salvaged from the fire) originated, via network, at Channel 11 in Durham, as well as other Boston stations.

Scenic department finds home at Northeastern, arts department at B.U., programming and production offices at Kendall Square, Cambridge. Full schedule of programs maintained.

Kendall Square

Dawn first broke on “the new WGBH” in this imposing example of textile-mill architecture bordering the west edge of Kendall Square in Cambridge.

As part of a series of lightning moves to recover our footing as quickly as possible, Rose Buresh and a new telephone switchboard had been installed within days in a vacant fourth floor office space, along with dozens of very obviously pre-owned desks, chairs, filing cabinets and typewriters.

FM was given space on the fifth floor (and was the last department to leave the location, ultimately moving directly from here into the new building at 125 Western Avenue).

Life was extremely hectic and work, frustratingly difficult to organize, but the time was characterized by a heady sense of the heroic. Until its next move, to the Museum of Science, the entire station was administered from these offices, and programming originated from a maddening patchwork of disparate locations.

The fire refugees take hold in their new digs.

“Kendall” today, viewed from either end of Kendall square.

As seen from the rear of the building, the offices of WGBH were behind the circled windows.

Bay State Road at Kenmore Square (WIHS)

In a decidedly somber old home on the corner of Grabby Street and Bay State Road, just off Kenmore Square, and not far from the Zebra Lounge, the Archdiocese of Boston maintained a 3 camera, black and white television facility to create Catholic religious programming.

It bore the call-letters WIHS (In Hoc Signum), even though it included no transmitter, and therefore had no broadcast presence. WIHS made itself visible to the community, much as WGBH had in the early years, through local commercial stations.

Following the fire, use of their “studio A,” a large, second floor, mahogany paneled, living room with a tiny music room connected, was immediately given over to WGBH during the weekdays. A small, walled-in yard in the rear of the building was roofed and turned into a master control, tape and telecine room.

At the outset, most WGBH programming originated here, while a deal was soon struck with WHDH-TV to use their large and well equipped South Boston color studios on weekends and evenings for large-scale production work.

According to a recent contribution [1/06] from Phil Luttrell, WIHS/Granby Street was itself consumed by fire in the early 1970s. The building burned to the ground. The Catholic Television Center is now located in Newton.

Clearly, “Granby” is no longer standing, but the spot on which Al Hinderstein stands in the photo would have been just between the white post and the park bench. (Al Hinderstein in the control room at Granby Street: courtesy of Al Hinderstein.)

Here Norm Gagnon (GGN Information Systems) has once again come to the rescue. His apparently voluminous archives contained materials showing Granby Street in its heyday, which he has very generously forwarded to us.

So, here it is. The Granby Street headquarters building of WIHS as it looked in what appears to be the early spring of 1956. Our back is to Kenmore Square, and we are facing the Charles River.

From RCA Broadcast News we have a photo of Sunday Mass as televised from inside the WIHS studio. That may well be Cardinal Richard Cuushing celebrating. WGBH-TV used that same space and equipment for several months until the facility at WHDH and our own remote truck became available. (RCA Broadcast News pictures of the WIHS television facility were made available by Norm Gagnon; GGN Information Systems.)

And here’s the plan of the second floor. If you’re like me, you may remember it differently. Either the actual construction didn’t match this drawing – or my memory may be faulty.

Morrissey Boulevard (WHDH)

The cars roar by here, even in the late afternoon, headed south from the Route 93 off-ramp. We’re standing beside Morrissey Boulevard in Dorchester, just opposite the former location of the WHDH-TV studios.

Amazingly (to me at least) the building has been torn down and replaced by a bank and insurance company offices. It had been a very expensive facility, and could not have been in use for long as it hadn’t been occupied for many years before the fire, when WGBH began to use it for larger scale, taped productions. Few people in the neighborhood even remember it.

The WHDH building housed two color-equipped studios, probably the largest in New England at the time. The cameras were RCA’s first color models (TK-41), and will be remembered as about the size, and weight, of a baby grand piano.

At first we used WHDH’s mobile unit which was equipped with black and white cameras. As soon as possible, WGBH completed and pressed into service it’s own half-constructed Greyhound bus mobile unit using three nearly retired black and white field cameras obtained from CBS in New York. They had just come back from the Olympics in Europe. All the labels had been covered over with tape, and the names were written in German.

We were the “back door gang,” parking the bus behind the building, entering and exiting through the loading doors, rehearsing and taping on weekends and often far into the night. Orchestral and choral programs; Music for White Alice, a series on film-scoring with Daniel Pinkham; Tony Saletan’s first NET children’s music series, Sing, Children, Sing; the Dynamics of Leadership series; Epitaph for Jim Crow, a series with Tom Pettigrew on the history of segregation, and quite a few other productions were shot there.

We have no pictures of the building’s exterior. This, however, is a shot typifying the (familiar to us oldsters) programming use WHDH made of it. (Photo from RCA Broadcast News of April 1961; Courtesy of Norm Gagnon, GGN)

Now here, in lieu of the WHDH building itself, we have some photos from a little film clip of mysterious origin. Conversations with Al Hinderstein suggest that these are scenes from several productions shot at WHDH studios soon after the fire.

That’s Frank Vento in picture number one (above) setting up a camera bearing their call letters. Hindy remembers: “When we first went to WHDH we used their B&W mobile unit. The series with Daniel Pinkham was shot using the mobile unit except for one show that was done in color so could chroma key the film clips behind . I remember the title of the program was Music for White Alice. It was the first time Bill Harri
s and I ran the RCA TK 41s.”

Picture number two (above) includes Al Hinderstein, an unnamed Boston University student (background), a foreground man who we still cannot identify, Bob Hall, probably Ginny Kassel, Greg Harney and, in the background, Bill “Woozy” Harris. The production is unknown, but could (Hindy thinks) be Epitaph for Jim Crow.

The last four shots are, according to Hindy, from The Dynamics of Leadership series directed by Russ Morash. The host was Malcolm Knowles from Boston University.

The photo above may show Ken Anderson doing lighting, and the same unidentified BU student. And who’s that running prompter?

Please, if you have any more information on these photos, help us with our research by sending the information to us so that it can be entered here.

Public Garden — Boston Arts

Here, it’s comparatively quiet, even though we’re in the middle of Boston at the Public Garden. For many years WGBH camped out on this location for about two weeks each spring to televise the Boston Arts Festival.

Though the weather could occasionally be chilly and rainy, the talent and presentations were world-class and hugely exciting to shoot (with little to no rehearsal). For the largely studio-confined WGBH crew, the Arts Festival was a sweet ritual of renewal in more ways than one.

From the stage (constructed each year completely from scratch), ballet, opera, orchestral and jazz music was broadcast. The open-air theater sat here, straddling the walkway, right next to the Swan Boat pond. The audience area trailed back behind us into the grassy areas shown in the pictures above.

Museum of Science

In May, 1962 — 7 months after the fire, and countless cab rides and automobile expense sheets later — a consolidation of operations and a semi-permanent home was arranged in an agreement with the Boston Museum of Science. The win-win arrangement had WGBH-TV functioning both as itself, and as one of the museum’s exhibits.

A sizable space was allotted on the bottom floor in the rear of the museum building (which was, at that time, only about a third of its present size). A well traveled hallway ran along side the studio space, and large windows were cut in the studio and control room walls so that visitors to the museum could watch the station’s ongoing operations.

The staff eventually got used to working “in a zoo,” and things went on this way for 2 years and 3 months.

Offices were located refreshingly close to the studio, in what was known as the “Red Frame Building.” This wooden, one story structure had been used as office and workshop space during construction of the museum itself.

Cool enough in the summer, but frigid-windy in the winter, it was located by the Charles River just across a parking lot (now obliterated by expansion of the museum itself). Memory suggests that the “Red Frame” may actually have occupied a pier, similar to the one shown, as it seemed that going to work each day required walking on (or at least over) water.

The station’s new studios had been in planning during this whole time and anticipation became reality in August 29, 1964 (2 months short of 3 years after the fire).

125 Western Avenue

The station’s present home [2000], 125 Western Avenue, was a daring, one-and-one-quarter million dollar project made possible through the imagination and persistence of station management and impressive community, academic and corporate support.

And it was here that the potential, generated by the creativity, drive and resilience of the early staff, took hold, in the form of a very fine production plant, and making of WGBH possibly the most successful Public Broadcasting enterprise in the history of the medium.

Having begun in tiny offices on Newbury Street, and in Symphony Hall, the station has, in recent years, vastly extended its domain, occupying extensive real estate in the neighborhood around “125.”

A huge and labarynthine extension to its space, has been built and connected to the main building by an elevated walkway over Western Avenue.

Having begun in 1946 with a staff of less than a dozen and, in the “84 Mass. Ave.” era, expanded to something under 100, the present operation reputedly employs about 1,500 staff and boasts turn-of-the-century annual budgeting roughly 100 times greater than its 1960 level of $450,000.

Other locations

Unfortunately, we have no pictures just now showing other locations more-or-less regularly used by the station.

We refer here to places like The Boston Museum of Fine Arts (Museum Open House), Sanders Theater (BSO concerts), the showroom of the Boston Gas Company (The French Chef) and the Northeastern University Scene Shop.

Perhaps these omissions can be remedied in the future.