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.

Otto Piene, 85, New Television Workshop Video Artist

From the New York Times

piene-obit-1-superJumboOtto Piene, a German painter and sculptor known for his experiments in kinetic art and for working at the junction of art, nature and technology, died on Thursday in Berlin, where he was attending the opening of a retrospective of his work. He was 86 and had homes in Düsseldorf and Groton, Mass…

In 1957, along with Heinz Mack, Mr. Piene (pronounced PEEN-uh) founded the Zero Group, a collection of artists dedicated to redefining art in the aftermath of World War II. Through the mid-1960s the group attracted adherents from Japan and the Americas as well as Europe. Their work — to be celebrated in an exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum in New York this fall — anticipated developments in land art, Minimalism, Conceptual art and performance art.

From “The Medium is the Medium: the Convergence of Video, Art, and Television at WGBH (1969)

On March 23rd 1969 Boston’s public television station WGBH broadcast a program titled The Medium is the Medium. The program was a half-hour long compilation of short videos by six artists. The six pieces ranged from electronically manipulated imagery set to the music of the Beatles to an attempt at communication between four separate locations through audio-visual technology…

The Medium is the Medium was the result of the pairing of artists with engineers. This pairing was the brainchild of the Rockefeller Foundation, which decided to bring these two together in what was the Artists-in-Television program. Founded in 1967 it gave seed grants to two public broadcasting stations, WGBH in Boston and KQED in San Francisco. These grants enabled the stations to begin residency programs matching artists with members oftheir production staffs. Several of the artists in the program had made films but most were coming to this type of time-based art work for the first time…

The six artists in The Medium is the Medium came to the technology with varied degrees of experience. Some of them had a background in electronics such as Thomas Tadlock and Nam June Paik. Others had a history of making kinetic sculptures and multi- media pieces such as James Seawright, Aldo Tambellini and Otto Piene…

Of all the artists involved Piene was the one to see the potential of televising art. He saw the ability of broadcasting to bring art to a larger group of people. His video Black Gate Cologne (made with Aldo Tambellini) stands as the very first broadcast of video art in the world. Like the WGBH video it was also a event that took place live in the studio and recorded in its entirety for future broadcast…

Following the show’s broadcast, the six artists continued working, most of them leaving video technology behind. Paik alone continued to experiment and push the boundaries of the medium in both televisual and the sculptural directions… Piene continued teaching at MIT and became the director of the Center for Advanced Visual Studies in 1974.

Otto Piene: “The greatest service technology could do for art would be to enable the artist to reach a proliferating audience, perhaps through TV, or to create tools for some new monumental art that would bring art to as many men today as in the middle ages.”

 

 

Morash to receive Lifetime Achievement Emmy

Russ MorashFrom NATAS via BuzzworthyRadioCast.com

The National Academy of Television Arts & Sciences (NATAS) announced that Russ Morash, the producer and director of the historic, “The French Chef,” with Julia Child and the creator of “This Old House” and many other iconic public television programs will be honored at the 41st Annual Daytime Creative Arts Emmy® Awards with the prestigious Lifetime Achievement Award.

“Fifty-four years of combined programming, 13 Emmy® Awards, and one groundbreaking career later, the father of how-to TV most emphatically deserves a lifetime achievement award,” said Malachy Wienges, Chairman, NATAS. “I am thrilled that Russ has been chosen as this year’s Lifetime Achievement honoree,” said David Michaels, Senior Executive Producer of the Daytime Emmy® Awards. “This is part of our conscious effort to acknowledge the career contribution of those people who work in the Creative Arts. We couldn’t be happier for him and we’re very excited to be presenting this honor at the Daytime Creative Arts Emmy® Award gala surrounded by all his peers!

“When I first moved from New Zealand to the US almost 30 years ago, the Daytime TV shows that caught my attention were created by Russ Morash,” said Brent Stanton, Executive Director, Daytime Emmy® Awards. “His innovation of using specialists in the role of hosts on such shows as “This Old House,” “The Victory Garden” and “The New Yankee Workshop” helped to pave the way for the proliferation of the Lifestyle genres on television and the internet.”

“As a brilliant creator/producer/director, Russ Morash used his personal passion and love for well prepared food, gardening, home improvement/repair and woodworking to develop a whole new genre of television programs,” said Norm Abram, Master Carpenter, This Old House and Host, The New Yankee Workshop. “Russ always wanted to learn more himself, but more importantly he wanted to share knowledge with others. The experts and craftsmen he featured on the shows he created did just 2 that. Generations have been and will continue learning “how to” thanks to Russ who started it all over 50 years ago with Julia Child.”

Russ Morash

Russ Morash was fresh out of college when he entered the young world of television in 1957. At the time, his employer, Boston’s WGBH, had been on the air for only two years. He immediately put the theater training he’d received at Boston University to work mounting productions and dealing with talent. He knew talent when he saw it, and when he began working with a “strange woman with this strange accent” named, Julia Child, “The French Chef” — and “how-to television” — were born. Over time, Russ’s personal enthusiasms — cooking, gardening, home repair, woodworking — would become, through his choice of talent, tone, and content, America’s first foray into “reality television.”

In 1975, he dragged two huge studio cameras outside to record the first episode of “Crockett’s Victory Garden” in raised beds set up in the station’s parking lot. Three years later, he convinced his bosses to buy a dilapidated Victorian home so that he could document its rehabilitation under the hammer of Norm Abram and the showmanship of Bob Vila. “This Old House” has been running for 35 years and counting!

Part of Russ’s “mad genius,” according to his Emmy® Award-winning cameraman Dick Holden, was to free the TV-making process from as many technical encumbrances as possible, pushing portable cameras and wireless microphones into new areas. “For electronic field camera use, everything we were used to seeing before changed with those shows,” says Holden, “and most of what we see today began then.”

His remarkable success continued with the launch of “The New Yankee Workshop” in 1989 and “Ask This Old House” in 2002. All of Russ’s programs are all based on a simple and revolutionary idea: authentic information, presently clearly by experts themselves. Often, through sheer force of will, he brought these programs into being. He taught and inspired a generation of TV producers who follow in his footsteps. Ultimately, his legacy is generations of TV viewers who value the expertise, work ethic, and skill of craftsmen and women and who know the true value of a job well done.

A stranger in a strange land

This entry is part 6 of 22 in the series The Fred Barzyk Collection
Fred Barzyk (2007)

The story of a BU/WGBH scholar, 1958-59

It all began on a hot summer’s day. The two of us waited, standing on the corner, staring hard at the passing cars. We were searching for our ride.

We waited, not quite sure of our new adventure. Not that one, not that one. Tom McGrath and I waited there for what seemed hours, our overstuffed suitcases surrounding us on the hot pavement.

It was 27th street and Oklahoma Avenue in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, just up the street from Leon’s Frozen Custard Stand, an icon of all things dairy in America’s Dairy Land, and right across from Pulaski High School. I had graduated from Pulaski just four years ago. You could tell by its name that this was the South Side, and very Polish. My Aunt Jenny had a sausage shop just a few miles down Oklahoma Avenue; she had all kinds of Polish delights in her white gleaming glass cases. Kiszka, Headcheese, Mettwurst, Kielbasa, and of course, Blood Sausage.

“Hi, guys. Nice to meet you.” As we loaded the suitcases into the car, I wondered if it could actually make it all the way to the East Coast.

A big old black car pulled up and out stepped our fellow traveler, David Nohling. “Hi, guys. Nice to meet you.” As we loaded the suitcases into the car, I wondered if it could actually make it all the way to the East Coast.

Tom sat in front and I in the back, shoved in with everyone’s belongings. We were all to bear the cost of the drive — gas, tolls, etc. — we were all to take turns driving, thus avoiding the cost of having to stop at motels, just drive right on through to Boston. It was going to take 16 plus hours.

And then it hit me. This was a standard shift car! I could only drive automatics! They were kind to me. Don’t worry, we can do all the driving, they reassured me. I felt like a jerk.

On the road

The car lumbered down 27th street toward Chicago. Soon we were on the interstate heading East. Dave had figured out that if we drove at night, the car would be a hell of a lot cooler than it would be driving during the day. His car did not have air conditioning. Dave was a good planner.

Dave had just graduated from the University of Wisconsin, Madison. He was a Communication major, very knowledgeable. Tom and I had just graduated from Marquette University, with degrees in Speech. Yup, that was what they called it.

Why us? God works in mysterious ways. I could understand why Tom was chosen. He had already worked part time at a local commercial TV station, he had experience. I had no experience. I mean, Marquette didn’t even have real TV cameras: we used wooden mock up cameras, faking TV shows. But as I huddled in the back seat, I knew the only reason I was here was because of Bill Heitz.

Paul Noble and Bill Heitz

Bill was finishing up being a BU/WGBH scholar that summer. He had graduated from Marquette the year before. He insisted that I try to get into this scholarship program; he said it was absolutely great. You studied for your graduate degree in communication at Boston University and worked three days a week at the Educational Television station. Free tuition and you got $600 to live on for the year in Boston! Bill said this program would change my life. He was right.

I slept a lot during the trip. Darkness came and went, and we drove on and on. Then Dave gave us his real surprise. He had never been to New York City. Neither had we. He was a good planner.

It was late morning when we drove into the heart of NYC, the big enchilada. We drove through the traffic, staring up at the tall buildings. And then Dave pulled over into a no parking zone, got out of the car, opened the hood and peered at the engine as if the car was having trouble. He told Tom and I to go in first. He had stopped outside Grand Central Station. Tom and I moved though the crowd and into the giant train station.

Alfred Hitchcock, from Wikipedia

And there he was.

Just sitting in a chair while the rest of the film crew moved around the cameras and lights. Someone came to him and asked a question. He responded, but never left his chair. Tom said “It is Alfred Hitchcock!”

We had stumbled into the filming of “North by Northwest.” There was Gary Grant and Eva Marie Saint. They were walking towards one of the train tracks.

While they were acting inside the station, Dave was doing a wonderful acting job outside. Tom and I came back and now we stared into the engine while Dave rushed into have a look.

We couldn’t believe our luck as the car headed off toward Boston.

Boston at last

I had left behind Milwaukee’s three B’s: Beer, Baseball and Bowling. And now I was in Boston with its three B’s: Brahms, Beethoven and Bach.

Several hours later, tired, sweaty, thirsty, we drove into the Boston area. We had made it, and it took just over 18 hours.

Dave turned on his radio and searched the dial. And there it was… classical music on the AM dial! Can you believe it? The only classical music station in Milwaukee was on FM and wattage so low hardly anyone could hear it. I had left behind Milwaukee’s three B’s: Beer, Baseball and Bowling. And now I was in Boston with its three B’s: Brahms, Beethoven and Bach. This was going to be some kind of year.

Heitz opened his apartment to us. We showered, had some beers, told about our trip, and went to sleep. The next day Bill took us to what he thought would be the perfect place for us to rent. It was just down the block from Massachusetts Ave., right on Marlboro street.

The entrance to Fred Barzyk's and Tom McGrath's little hovel in "Rat Alley," 1959. Photo by Brooks Leffler.

The 3 scholars from Wisconsin rang the doorbell and the landlady opened the door. Mrs. Gautraux. Her hair was frizzed, her elderly eyes had that crazy look after all these years of renting to college kids. She led us to the basement, to a two-room apartment fashioned around steam pipes and the furnace. “$80 bucks a month.” We took it.

She gave us the key and said we should use the backdoor for coming and going. She opened the door, which led directly to the alley. The alley. What can I say? Here among the garbage cans, cars parked in little spaces, lived some of the largest rats in Boston. Bill told us this was known as Rat Alley. Ah, yes and now it was our home.

Getting oriented

That night Bill took us to see the latest WGBH remote. There was a huge arts festival happening in a park called the Boston Public Garden. The three of us stood besides a pond in the middle of the Garden and watched as members of the Boston Symphony Orchestra drifted by in a Swan Boat playing Handel’s Water Music. And our little TV station was broadcasting it live! Wow!

That night as bedtime approached, Tom and I acted like freshman who had just moved into a dorm. Both Tom and I had lived at home while going to Marquette. This was real freedom. Alone at last in our own space. We giggled on about Rat Alley, you know, “Snow White and Seven Rats,” that kind of thing. Stupid stuff.

The big day arrived. The 1958/59 scholars were to assemble at WGBH. We walked down Massachusetts Avenue, over the bridge into Cambridge.

Dave soon made arrangements to move in with another scholar, Brooks Leffler. Now it was up to Tom and myself to make the $80 monthly rent.

Then the big day. The 1958/59 scholars were to assemble at WGBH. We walked down Massachusetts Avenue, over the bridge into Cambridge. On the bridge were strange markings, Smoots, based on a man named Smoot who was placed end to end in the ’40s by his MIT fraternity.

Finally, we arrived at the address. And there it was, right in the middle of the MIT complex of buildings. It was in a low-slung three story building. It appeared to have some non descript businesses, a drug store that served lunch, not much else. In the middle of the building was a plaque on a pillar announcing that this was the home of the WGBH Educational Foundation.

84 Massachusetts Avenue

We climbed the wooden stairs leading us up to the reception area. There sat Rose Buresh, receptionist, the one person who really knew what was going on at WGBH. We were ushered into the studio. It was huge. It was once an old roller skating rink. Its wooden floor proved to be problematical when moving the TV cameras. If you went straight forward, going with the floorboards, you got a pretty smooth ride. But going across the grain, led to some very bumpy dollies. We all took notes.

The notorious Boston University Scholars "Crew of '59." Top left to right: Al Kelman, Phil Fields, Tom McGrath, Fred Barzyk, Don Knox, Bert Bell, Sue Dietrich, Dave Nohling, Jim Hennes, John Sunier, John Engel. Bottom left to right: Lew Yeager, Joe (Mark) Mobius, Brooks Leffler, Mel Bernstein. Not present: Hiromichi Matsui. Caption by Al Boyns.

Introductions

We met our leader, Bob Moscone: from then on to be known as the King. Bob was once an Arthur Murray Dance teacher; a slender attractive Italian man who carried a little note card on which he kept track of what was going on at the studio. And he also controlled when we were to work at WGBH. He was the man in charge. He was the King.

"Prospects of Mankind." Left to right, Bob Moscone, Dave Davis, Virginia Kassel (behind Dave), Paul Noble, and Eleanor Roosevelt, fall 1959.

His second in command was Kenny Anderson. Kenny was a young slender guy with a terrific Boston accent, full of energy. I found out later he was a true lover of women, all women. The King asked him to show us on how to hang and focus a light. Kenny climbed the ladder, moved the light and then to show off, slid down the ladder. The scholars gasped. The King smiled. He hoped we should all be able to do the same in a few days.

Our audio man was Wil Morton. He seemed to be very young but with a keen sense of professionalism. He showed us the mikes, the cables, the endless cables. Eventually we met the TV directors and producers. Jean Brady (The Queen) a sweet, lovely woman with a wonderful southern accent; Gene Nichols (the Court Jester) a quiet man with a great smile; Ted Steinke, a big smiley guy from the mid west; Lou Barlow, who seemed to smoke whenever he directed. I don’t remember him smiling much.

And then there was Paul Noble, who had been a BU scholar in Bill Heitz’s group and had just been hired as a producer/director. It is important to note here that Paul and his crew really set the culture of WGBH scholars. It was family, fun, and camaraderie. His team bonded like no other, still meeting yearly, nearly 55 years later. Paul and his team created a WGBH yellow journalism news rag, The Ille Novi. (Latin for “Here’s the News,” which were the words used by Louis Lyons each night when he opened his news program. Copies of it are in the WGBH archives.) This mimeographed tabloid told all the “real news” for the scholars. Paul once told me his greatest talent was reading memos upside down as they sat on the executives desk. Long live yellow journalism.

Sitting front row: Vic Washkevich, Paul Noble and Ed Donlon.

There was Whit Thompson, who seemed to do all the music shows. His dad was Randall Thompson, composer of symphonies and other pieces, who taught at Harvard; Lenny Bernstein was one of his students. Whit wore glasses and was very erudite. And then there was Cabot Lyford who had a nasty habit of kicking the wall every once in awhile. He was the director of the Museum of Fine Arts show “Invitation to Art,” a big remote production from one of the country’s great museums. (Not many people know that the museum was internally wired with TV cables in expectation that the MFA and WGBH would be doing shows for a long time. I wonder if they are still there.) The host was Brian O’Doherty, a visiting Doctor from Ireland who had come to Boston to study heart related illness at Harvard University.

Brian became a dear friend. Years later, Brian became head of the National Endowment for the Arts Media Panel. His panels awarded many grant dollars to WGBH. Brian was also the fine arts commentator for NBC’s Today show for 9 years and is a celebrated artist painting under the name Patrick Ireland.

Brian would occasionally invite me to have lunch at Ken’s deli restaurant in Copley Square. I mean, we never even did a show together, but he had somehow become interested in what I thought about TV and art. That was really hard to imagine. I was just a kid from the South Side of Milwaukee. It was very unexpected but complimentary. I really enjoyed the talk and the food.

An aside: the culinary arts

Tom and I existed on peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, pasta and cheap canned tomato sauce, and every once in awhile, a piece of meat.

Yes, the food. Food was a constant concern at our apartment in Rat Alley. Tom and I existed on peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, pasta and cheap canned tomato sauce, and every once in awhile, a piece of meat. Milk, when we felt really rich.

I remember one day, I traded my jelly sandwich with cameraman Don Hallock for his tongue sandwich. Tongue! I wasn’t sure about eating tongue but what the hell, it was meat. After all, I had eaten a lot of weird things in my mother’s Polish kitchen. Czarnina, a black duck blood soup with prunes and raisins; boiled chicken hearts and gizzards over mashed potatoes. I sort of liked the tongue sandwich, even though it was kinda chewy.

Brian, I can still taste those big Reuben sandwiches at Kens. Thanks. It meant a lot. More than you ever knew.

Back to introductions

Russ Morash, who would soon become one the most important producer/directors at WGBH, had just married. He and his wife took an extended honeymoon in France that summer. Russ eventually returned to direct a French Language show for kids called “Parlons Francais.” He had studied acting at BU and his wife had graduated with a degree in set design from BU,  fellow theater artists. I ended up using Russ in a number of dramas that I did for PBS. The most memorable is when I cast him as a fellow TV newscaster with actress Lily Tomlin. They were perfect together.

There was also Bob Squier. Talk about energy. He was the quickest, the most animated of our directors. He took more shots in one show than most of us ever thought about. Bob soon moved on to become an independent producer and eventually became the Democrat’s PR spokesman. He appeared often with Roger Ailes, the Republican counterpart (now head of Fox Cable News). Bob passed away a few years ago. Sad.

Don Hallock, Al Kelman, and Tom McGrath

A reflection: As I now look back at the staff of WGBH in those days, it dawns on me how young we all were. I mean, the average age of the camera people, lighting, audio was 23. Even the engineers were young; Bobby Hall, blond, happy guy; Jerry Adler, FM engineer, the only practicing Jew with a Southern accent I had ever met; Andy Ferguson, the only African American on staff, were all in their late 20’s. And the staff camera people, Don Hallock, a true artist and one of the greatest TV camera operators I have ever known, was not even 20. Bob Valtz, a recent Harvard grad who wore his tie flung over his shoulder while running camera, was 23. Frank Vento, a dark haired, intense camera/lighting person was probably near 30. Even the executives were only in their thirties.

Frank Vento and Mary Lela Grimes

The executives

The Executives. The visionaries who helped make WGBH so special. There was Dave Davis, manager of the station. He was a former trumpet player and lover of jazz and good music. In addition to his duties as station manger, he also directed the Boston Symphony Orchestra concerts. His was a tightly run production, which created the most sophisticated music/camera shot list ever.

It was amazing that he could take a bunch of BU Scholars along with this young staff, and make the broadcast seamless and professional. (The BSO and WGBH have paired up to release some of these early TV concerts on DVD, to be released in 2011.)

It is fair to say that Dave was the paternal figure in the organization. He didn’t say much and it was expected of you to present your questions in an exact and quick manner. He would then give a quick answer back.

Dave appreciated hard work and creativity. Once, after a music show that I did, he called and complemented the staff and me. It was really a big moment for us. That didn’t happen too often. We celebrated by going out and having a few beers at the Zebra Lounge.

Aside: The Zebra Lounge

The Zebra Lounge on the corner of Mass Ave. and Beacon Street. The home away from home. (Now, called The Crossroads.) The corner booth covered over with fake Zebra cloth. Our corner booth. A place for the young scholars to relive the day, laugh at what we did and did not do.

Our BU Scholar group broke into three groups. First, there were those who had come back from the war and were going for their master degrees. They were older, married, some with kids. Second, there were the serious scholars who wanted their degree. They studied hard, did their WGBH work and acted like adults. And then there were the rest of us.

We thought all of this was fun and games. A great time to learn, try new things, drink beer, laugh, what me worry? Not many of us finished the degree. We went to class and were responsible students, but spent most of our time at WGBH. I mean, we used to go to the studio after closing hours, crank out the big boom mike into the middle of the studio, and play volleyball. This was fun. The whole thing was fun.

Young ladies came into Tom and my lives. Tom hooked up with a sparkly woman, Peggy. I met Ruth Smith casually at the Zebra lounge. She was from Revere, graduated from Chandlers, and now was a special assistant to some big wig at Bank Boston. After a few dates, we became a number. As a matter of fact I ended up marrying her. As she likes to remind me, we will be married 50 years next March. How time files.

Back to the executives

Three important executives who influenced my life were Mike Ambrosino, Greg Harney, and Bob Larson. Bob was program manager. He had graduated from Harvard and was a practicing Christian Scientist. It was Bob who saw the potential of a TV series for a tall Cambridge woman who had appeared on our weekly book show: her name was Julia Child.

Bob thought I could only be a director since he questioned the kind of education I might have gotten at Marquette. I accepted his opinion then and said, “I will show him that there is more to me than he thinks.” He was my challenge. Years later he accepted me as someone who could become a producer. Bob passed away from stomach cancer, much too young. His religion, which he cherished, did not allow him to see a doctor. His prayers were not answered. Sad.

Michael Ambrosino
Michael Ambrosino, September 1956.

Mike Ambrosino, though an executive, also produced and directed a number of shows. He was in charge of creating the Eastern Educational Television Network. He also created the 21 Inch Classroom, a coordinated program between WGBH and 35 independent school systems to see if TV could be used in the classroom to enrich the teaching experience. We did a lot of 15 minute shows directed to grade school kids.

Mike did a lot of science shows, especially with Gene Gray, a teacher from Newton. It was during one of Gene’s shows that he poured some acid into a plastic cup only to see it dissolve the cup. (This is still in the archives.) Not much you could do because the show was live. Gene did a great job making the disaster into a teaching moment. Ambrosino later went on to create one of the great staples of PBS: NOVA.

Greg Harney. What can I say? He had arrived from CBS at about the same time as our crew. He was one of the best lighting directors at CBS. However, Greg was ambitious and took the job as production manager at WGBH to expand his choices. He took a hefty pay cut and supplemented his WGBH salary by teaching a grad course at BU,Lighting and Production. This was a class that all of the BU scholars took. His style of directing, lighting and program style was gleaned from his days at CBS and it was soon our style, too.

Script Conference, A Time to Dance, 1959. Left to right: Paul Noble, AD; Jac Venza, Producer; Martha Meyers, host; and Greg Harney, Director.

Greg and I always had an “interesting” relationship. Greg liked to call you into his office after one of your shows and critique your performance. A dear fellow director, Ed Scherer, told me how to handle these sessions. Agree and then go do what you normally do. I did this many times. Many.

Finally, one day Harney confronted me in the hallway, and accused me of not really listening to him. He had me caught. What to do? I blurted out that he was probably right. I should really listen to him. He looked relieved. Of course, I just went back to what I was doing anyway.

Greg was pushing me to be the best I could. Many years later, he said that he had tried to hire me as a director when our scholar year ended. But there wasn’t any money. He kept after me, bringing me back three times to WGBH for short stints as a director.

Then one day, when I was back in Milwaukee doing a silly job working for a Polish Newspaper, he offered me a permanent TV directing job. Somehow, he had found me at this little office where I was doing blind calls for a Polish newspaper, Novini Polski. I would call up people who were trying to rent apartments and suggest that they should rent to good Polish people who were clean and reliable payers of rent. All they had to do is place an ad with the Polish newspaper.

Greg’s offer was exactly what I was needed. I walked up to the office manager and quit. It wasn’t even 10:30.

So, for the next 50 years I did at least one show a year for WGBH. Sometimes, I did as many as 100 TV shows in a year. It became my professional and spiritual home. As I often said to the present executives, this is my station.

I haven’t said much about Hartford Gunn. He was the head of the whole thing. He was the brains behind the operation and soon left to create the whole PBS system. Hartford was there, but we didn’t interact with him on a daily basis. He was gracious to us all as he bustled about his business.

Hartford Gunn

Years later, Hartford and I had an interesting confrontation. In those days, I wore white shirts and ties. Hartford grabbed me by the tie and pushed me up against the wall.

Why? My fellow producer/director Dave Sloss and I had written an internal memo criticizing David Ives for not being adventurous, as we wanted him to be.

The musician’s union had complained about our local folk music show because we didn’t pay anything. David felt we were in danger of being blackballed by the union and we should cancel the show. He said we always get in trouble when we do entertainment. Our memo took Ives to task for this position, in rather brutal language.

Hartford wanted to make a point to me while holding me by tie and up against the wall, that he too wanted the station to venture into entertainment. He warned me that we had to be careful. Go slow. I agreed with him. The folk music show continued. It was my most intimate moment with Hartford.

Special moments

Left to right: Fred Barzyk, Barbara Goble, Libby Alford, Al Reese, Don Hallock, and Ruth (now) Barzyk with her back to the camera.

Fact: Our personal history is not made up by remembering specific days, but by remembering the special moments. There were three special moments during this period.

Birthday party

First, was my birthday party. I turned 22 in October and the gang gathered at our apartment in Rat Alley. Beer flowed, laugher filled the small apartment, there was even food that somebody brought.

And then, Hallock and Vento paraded into the packed place carrying a birthday cake. The crowd sang Happy Birthday. Then they plugged the cake into a wall socket and the whole thing exploded. BOOM! The room filled with smoke. At first, everyone cringed but then, realizing it was a joke, broke into loud laughter. In she came.

Mrs. Gautraux.
In her bathrobe.
She yelled and screamed.
The place cleared out fast.

What a birthday!

Halloween

Second was Halloween. It had been decided by our crew that Educational Television was dead. It would go nowhere. ETV is dead. It was even chalked on the side of the building in Rat Alley. (I think that was me who did it.)

Anyway, it was decided that WGBH scholars, along with the staff, would join in a Halloween parade that was planned for Boston. Don Hallock, God Bless him, built a wooden coffin. They dressed Nohling up as a cadaver and placed him in the coffin and drove around the city in a convertible. A banner declared that ETV was dead. Probably no one in the crowds ever knew what it meant.

The driver of the convertible had a little too much to drink and I guess it was a pretty harrowing drive. The WGBH crowd ended up at some apartment on the seedy side of Beacon Hill. The next day, Don Hallock and I carried the coffin across town to my apartment. And there the coffin stood, propped up against our wall, open and empty. It stayed that way until I moved out months later.

Picnic in Rat Alley

And finally, the last week in the apartment, we had a picnic in the alley. Everyone brought whatever booze they had and we poured into one of our old pots. We called it a wassel bowl. English phrase I guess. As I sat there thinking about the last days in Boston, I looked over to our open apartment door. A rat quietly walked out of the apartment and into a garbage can next to the building. It was the end. The end of my scholar days. The end of a great year.

Henry Morgenthau

Wait! Not yet. I haven’t talked about Henry Morgenthau III.

Mrs. Roosevelt and her staff. Henry Morgenthau, Eleanor Roosevelt, Paul Noble, and Diana Tead Michaelis, fall 1959.

Henry was a producer at WGBH. He was rumored to be wealthy. I know that he had a man, someone to drive him around, cook his meals. I guess you would call him a butler. But Henry was one of us. He laughed and played just like the rest of us.

But one important fact: Henry knew Eleanor Roosevelt. He convinced her to be part of one of WGBH early important shows, “http://wgbhalumni.org/2007/01/01/prospects-of-mankind-1959%e2%80%9361/Prospect of Mankind.[/intlink]” (This program is also in the archives.) Everyone was on that show; John F. Kennedy, Adlai Stevenson, you name it. And it was all because of Henry.

Henry’s father was Roosevelt’s Secretary of the Treasury, signer of all the nations currency. And here he was, one of our producers. Henry was great. Fun and creative. He and I ended up doing a whole ton of shows together, none more important than “Negro and the American Promise.” (Also is in the archives.)

My Dad was very impressed that I knew a Morgenthau. My Dad was a lifelong Democrat. He was very pleased that I was in good company, especially the son of the man who signed all the nations money.

Money

My Dad always said “follow the money and you’ll find the truth.” All I know is we never had enough of it in those days.

Tom and I had each derived ways of making ends meet. Some of them were not very pretty. Fortunately, Greg Harney and Henry Morgenthau were bringing in big budgeted shows that were shot on weekends. That meant the crew was paid overtime. Tom became one of the regular paid crew members. That money really helped him

Guinea pigs

However, in some kind of desperation, Tom signed up to be a medical guinea pig. He went to the Mass. General Hospital and was injected with a blood thinner. Then they took out some blood and tested to see how thin it really was. I guess it was pretty thin because of what happened next.

Tom walked home. The Doctor told him not to get hit by a car or he might bleed to death. Ha, ha, I guess this is Doctor humor. Tom told me all about it as he combed his hair in our little bathroom.

In some kind of desperation, Tom signed up to be a medical guinea pig. Tom’s payment … 15 bucks

All of a sudden, the bandage came off and he started squirting blood all over the place. I mean pumping, squirting blood. He held his arm over the tub to catch the blood. I went crazy. I handed him a towel, got the name of the Doctor, raced upstairs to the pay phone in the hallway, dialed MGH and asked for the Tom’s Doctor. As I waited, I wondered if I should have called 911.

The operator came back on and said there was no such Doctor at the hospital. Egads! I rushed downstairs to see if Tom could make it to the street where I could call an ambulance. Fortunately, he had applied enough pressure to the wound that the blood had started to coagulate. Whew! Disaster avoided. Tom’s payment for all this … 15 bucks.

Sundays

Jerry Adler

My money problems were solved in other ways. Bill Heitz had told me to try and get the Sunday master control job.

The local CBS station would not carry the networks Sunday morning shows, so WGBH, as a service to its audience, worked out a deal with CBS for Ch. 2 to air the programs from 10:00 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. The station needed an engineer, a booth announcer and a master control operator.

I got the job. My pay was $10 for each Sunday worked. That took care of the rent.

My buddies during these Sunday stints were (usually) engineer Bobby Hall, booth announcer Bob Jones, and Jerry Adler who was right next door to master control running WGBH-FM from a small control room. We were a quiet group, sometimes fighting off hangovers, planning what we would do with the rest of Sunday.

There were talk shows, and then there was Camera Three. Camera Three had been a cultural godsend to me when living at home in Milwaukee. It did segments on the fine arts, the theater, dance, photography. It was up to speed with the NYC art scene and exposed me to ideas and concepts that were beyond my wildest dreams. It helped determine my style and approach to TV.

An aside: Camera Three and Nam June Paik

Many years later I was asked to be a guest producer for Camera Three. And to show what a small world it really is, one of the executive producers was a former BU Scholar from Bill Heitz’ group. I choose video artist Nam June Paik as the star of my Camera Three.

Nam June Paik

That meant bringing into the CBS union studio all his broken down TV’s, Charlotte Mormon, who would play her cello while wearing Paiks’ Video Bra, an upright piano which Paik would destroy, and lots of his small non-broadcast electronic gear.

It probably was the first time that this kind of electronic equipment had been brought into a studio of CBS. I think every engineer in CBS found some reason to walk through the studio on their way to wherever. And every last one of them had to stop and gaze at what Paik had created.

The show was called “The Strange Music of Nam June Paik.”

CBS never asked me back to do another show. As a matter of fact, this turned out to be their last season, Camera Three was no more.

Still, it was wonderful to see the cycle completed. From an avid viewer as a college kid to a full-fledged TV producer creating something for a show that meant so much to me. Special.

Accidental solution

And then, my money problems were solved.

Late in that first summer, I walked across Mass Ave. heading from WGBH to MIT’s indoor pool. We were going to do some kind of remote. As I crossed the street, I was hit by a car. Not really hit, more like bumped.

The problem was that, in those days, cars had hood ornaments. This was a Pontiac, which carried a shiny Indian-face ornament. This sharp little piece of metal pierced my left side, causing a rather deep wound.

Moscone took charge. Somehow, I was in a car racing to Boston City Hospital. They took me to the emergency room. The King kept telling them it was not a knife wound. I don’t know if they ever really believed him. Anyway, they washed out my wound, stitched it up, bandaged it and told me not to lift anything heavy for six weeks. I went home and rested and healed rather quickly.

Bob Moscone took me to see a lawyer … I went to his office and with great fanfare, he presented me the insurance company’s settlement. A check for $600.

But Bob Moscone, being the King, went a step further. He took me to see a lawyer. The lawyer’s office was situated in a back room of a walkup in a seedy part of Boston. The lawyer listened, got the name of the person who hit me, and said he would get back in touch. I didn’t hear from him for over 4 months.

Then I got a message from Moscone. The lawyer wanted to see me right away. I went to his office and with great fanfare, he presented me the insurance company’s settlement. A check for $600.

This money changed my lifestyle. Since I’d dreamed of making the professional theater my career choice, I spent a lot of the money going to plays, Wednesday matinees, in Boston’s theater district. Yes, in those days, there were still plays up and running in one theater or another. It seemed like there was a new one every couple of weeks.

I became a regular in the balcony section. I shared the spot with a group of ladies who were also weekly attendees. We became great friends. They started bringing me sandwiches. They were great. I saw Carol Burnett, Tom Bosley, Tommy Tune, so many great stars. It was heaven.

I decided to celebrate my new wealth by taking Ruth out on a real date. We went to a little French restaurant, which existed on Mass. Ave. (and is no longer there). We had Duck a l’Orange and a glass of wine.

Then we took a bus to Harvard Square and went to see a New Wave French film at the Brattle Theater. The Brattle, whose theater history I knew and appreciated, was not built in the faux-Oriental style that I was used to in Milwaukee. No, the Brattle was a basic box theater with little international flags on the wall, tight hard seats, and a back screen projection system.

It was clear the audience was young, college kids, most likely, intellectuals. Probably Harvard, MIT, Tufts, Brandeis, BU.

As Ruth and I settled into our seats, it was clear the audience was young, college kids, most likely, intellectuals. Probably Harvard, MIT, Tufts, Brandeis, BU. We were early and so sat back to wait for the beginning of the film.

And that’s when it happened. Like a flash of bright white light, the truth bopped me on the head. This was the Eureka moment!

Somewhere in the theater, somebody had turned on some music to keep the customers entertained until the movie began. It was a scratchy, LP record. The audio was slowly turned up until you could finally hear it. It was a harpsichord. Oh no, it was a Scarlatti Sonata.

And right then, at that very exact moment, I knew I was a hopeless stranger in a wildly exotic land. It was as if I had been plunged into some distant planet, a planet filled with flying things, a planet so different from where I had come from that it left me speechless. Clueless. Sitting, watching, not believing — right there in the Brattle Theater!

The recorded music grew more intense, filling the cavernous room with harpsichord music. The young couple in front of us moved closer together. Tighter and tighter.

She looked up at him, lovingly.

“They are playing our song.”

“I know, I know.”

And then they kissed.

About Fred Barzyk

From IMDB: Fred Barzyk is a longtime producer/director at WGBH, the public television station in Boston, Massachusetts. His credits include: Ollie Hopnoodle’s Haven of Bliss (1988), The Star-Crossed Romance of Josephine Cosnowski (1983), The Great American Fourth of July and Other Disasters (1982), The Lathe of Heaven (1980), and Between Time and Timbuktu (1972).

Paik and the Video Synthesizer

This entry is part 5 of 22 in the series The Fred Barzyk Collection
Fred Barzyk (2007)

WGBH New Television Workshop existed mainly because artists didn’t have access to TV cameras. These were the days before Portapaks.

I was doing a local show, What’s Happening, Mr. Silver?, which had been brought to the attention of a NET show, Public Broadcasting Laboratory.

Dean Opennheimer, executive producer of culture, asked David Atwood, Olivia Tappan and myself to come to NY and show off our little experimental shows. After watching our stuff, the artists and the exec. producer decided that we might be the best TV types to help give artists control of television.

This little story is about the day I worked with Nam June for the First Time and how he came to create his video synthesizer.

Paik and the Video Synthesizer

Fred Barzyk, TV Producer/Director
Boston, Massachusetts 1969

I always remember Nam June Paik standing in a television studio, in big old rubber boots, his hands somewhere inside an old TV set, telling me to stand back since TV sets sometime explode when he does this. I backed off. The TV did not explode but gave forth a dazzling array of colors, buzzed and slowly died, never to live again.

“Don’t worry. I got more TV sets,” said Paik.

And more he did. That day, in the television studios of WGBH-TV, the flagship station of America’s Public Television network, Paik burned out more than 12 TV sets. Fortunately, this time their dazzling images were captured on 2 inch videotape.

These “visual moments” became part of a six minute video piece which was included in a half hour program called Medium is the Medium. This was the first time that artists where allowed to control the professional TV cameras, producing their own unique vision for a network show. And quite a show it was.

Paik was one of five artists who created video pieces for this segment of Public Broadcasting Laboratory, a weekly two hour show supported by the Ford Foundation. The artist’s had been selected from a 1969 gallery show, TV as a Creative Medium, at the Howard Wise Gallery, New York.

For his video piece, I had to deliver Paik a videotape of a Richard Nixon speech and a woman dancer in a bikini bottom and pasties for her nipples. He did all the rest, to the great delight of the TV crew. This was not the normal PTV show!

This program began my long association with Nam June, along with my partner Olivia Tappan and colleague, Dave Atwood. The three of us became the supporters, defenders and co conspirators in the creation of the Paik/Abe Video Synthesizer.

Why did it happen at WGBH? with me? I had been interested in using television in a more “artistic” way for a long time. My background was theater and art and I was longing to find a way of expressing it. I got into an aesthetic argument with our senior producer/director about WGBH’s coverage of the Boston Symphony concerts. Why couldn’t the cameras paint pictures instead of showing old men blowing horns and bowing violin strings? Not possible, not at WGBH.

I finally convinced a group of engineers and camera people to stay late a couple of nights and we created what is suppose to be the first video experiments, Jazz Images (1963). You must remember, we were like a closed society. No one had TV cameras except TV stations. They were just too big and too expensive. We were like a fortress surrounded by a moat, and no artist was allowed to cross over. So we, those on the inside, had to put a break in the structure.

This kind of experimentation gave the three of us (Barzyk, Tappan, Atwood) a reputation for being “far out.” We were bringing this kind of “experimental” look to a local jazz show and a local series called, What’s Happening Mr. Silver? This kind of continued experimentation within the system was what brought Paik and us together. The producers had heard of our work and we lugged heavy 2 inch tape to New York to show to the artists. Fortunately, they liked our work. We agreed to collaborate.

Howard Klein of the Rockerfeller Foundation became the next major player in the creation of the video synthesizer. Klein offered an artist-in-residence grant to WGBH. I was asked to head up the project. Paik was one of my first choices.

He was brought to Boston for an extended stay as a Rockerfeller Artist in Residence. We tried small little video experiments, but Paik was frustrated because using WGBH’s TV studios, crews, etc. were very expensive. He saw his small grant disappearing without any major creations. He looked for ways to make his work “as inexpensive as Xeroxing.”

One day he presented me with a most complicated looking diagram. I am not an engineer and sometimes had trouble understanding what Paik is saying, and was totally unsure that day of what he was describing to me.

What I was able to fathom, was that he wanted to go to Japan and work with a Japanese engineer (Abe) to create a low cost video machine. This machine would cost $10,000 and give Nam June the ability to create constantly without worrying about costs. He further explained that the $10,000 would include his travel, the engineers time, all the electronic equipment, and bring the machine and engineer from Japan to Boston to set up its operation. Was this possible? He insisted he could do it. And he did.

Paik and I had a lunch with the head of WGBH, Michael Rice, to try and sell him on the expenditure of the grant money to create this video machine. Michael sat there and listened as Paik went on and on about the beauty of the synthesizer and the images it would create. We laid out the diagram on the lunch table, and Paik gave his best presentation yet. To his credit, Michael Rice agreed there, on the spot.

Nam June would soon be on his way to Japan.

“That’s the easiest $10,000 grant I ever got!” said Paik.

For the next three months, I heard from Nam June every once in awhile. Back here in Boston, I had convinced the station to give over a very small studio to house the synthesizer. Finally, passing through customs, Paik and Abe arrived with boxes and boxes of equipment. Paik had also purchased an old record turntable on which he would construct objects and spin them at either 33rpm or 78rpm. This was the focus of the synthesizers black and white cameras as the two men set up their video machine.

I knew the day it was working, when Nam June showed me a mound of shaving cream whirling around on the turntable, which was being transformed into a mélange of color and images on his color TV sets. The Video Synthesizer lived.

The first broadcast of the synthesizer was a video marathon, broadcast live from 10:00 pm to 1:00 AM. Paik called it “Beatles, from beginning to end.”

That night he played every Beatle tune that had been recorded (some several times) and created abstract image after another. People, friends showed up to help.

The costs of this three hour television broadcast, including shaving cream, tin foil, and assorted objects plus supper for Paik and Abe was $100. He had done it. He broke the back of expensive broadcast TV.

The only problem with that evening’s broadcast was that he blew out the TV transmitter. The chroma level coming out of the synthesizer was much too high and destroyed a component. It had to be replaced and it was very expensive.

“What’s television coming to?” said WGBH’s head engineer.

“I can’t believe what’s happening on my TV,” said a TV viewer

“Beautiful. Like video wall paper,” said Nam June Paik.