Michael Ambrosino — the creator of NOVA — describes his early years at WGBH, an era of live and live-on-tape TV productions at the 84 Massachusetts Avenue studio in Cambridge.
This series presents authorized interviews with early producers and directors for Boston’s innovative public television and radio stations. He was interviewed on June 19, 1998 by Fred Barzyk.
Watch Video — Part 1 (56 minutes)
Transcript — Part 1
INTERVIEWER: This is June 18, 1998 and I’m having a conversation with Michael Ambrosino. Thank you Michael for joining us.
Can you give us a little bit of your personal history, where you were born and where you went to school and how you came to television?
MICHAEL AMBROSINO: I was born in Brooklyn, spent half the year there, half the year in West Hampton Beach where Dad had another store.
[I] grew up being fascinated with science and did a lot of theater, music.
I was a jazz musician when I was 14, had the nicest set of drums on Long Island, and because the war was going on, I got mickey gigs and played every gin mill and polka palace on Long Island.
I changed majors the first day at the university.
I had been admitted as a BS in physics and changed to a BS in drama, because I didn’t want to wake up being an old man of 35 not having had given that creative side of me a chance.
It was a very romantic death wish because, in those days, there was one regional theater east of the Mississippi — it was called the Brattle Theater.
Of course in 1949, when I was a freshman it became a movie theater, so I was preparing myself for a profession that didn’t exist.
After the service I came back and did a Masters in television and that was very helpful because in those days commercial radio stations never thought they wanted to go into TV … it was 20, 30 times the capital.
At Syracuse, we produced [and] directed a whole bunch of programs that went on the commercial station.
As a graduate student I did a series of 13 half-hour shows myself.
A tremendous kind of experience that you can’t get today, but today you can pick up a little camera and make a video all by yourself and edit it on your Macintosh.
The second job was for the Ford Foundation doing a research project in Schenectady, New York.
It was one of the first high schools in the United States to use closed circuit television to expand teaching.
In those days, there was a tremendous teaching shortage: they had 27 physics classes and 1 physics teacher and we would try to multiply his use to see if we could work out, technically, question and answering sessions from multiple classrooms.
We did French with Madam Ann Slack and we did Social Studies and we did a bunch of things.
I was invited along with a bunch of other people from Ford cities to come to Harvard and give a speech and somebody from WGBH heard this speech and I was working here two weeks later.
INT: Had you heard of WGBH?
MA: Yes. While at my first job at the University of Connecticut, I’d actually taken the tour of the station.
I couldn’t find it, drove up Mass Avenue looking for a TV station, drove right past it, and didn’t realize that it was a defunct roller skating rink above a drug store.
I had to work my way all the way back from Harvard to finally find it.
INT: Who was the person that heard your speech?
MA: Hartford Gunn. He was then the Controller of WGBH. He was in charge of money, dispersing it — we never raised money in those days — and he asked me to come and start school broadcasting for the state of Massachusetts.
INT: So, you were in charge of developing school broadcasting for the station?
INT: Based upon your experience with your in-school experience?
MA: Based on six months experience, because I was an “expert”.
INT: I see. This was educational television….
MA: Yes it was. It was very educational.
In those days, programs consisted of a series of things. It was an extension of the educational system of Massachusetts.
If you remember, people came back from the Army — Navy and the Marines — and told Conant that Harvard should start a radio station.
Conant, being very wise, said that [it would] always be [just] a Harvard station, we shouldn’t do that.
So, he got Ralph Lowell to get a bunch of other institutions in Boston together and they formed the nascent Lowell Institute Cooperative Broadcasting Council.
For the most part, they made radio series on poetry, on music, on everything except art, I guess, [since] it’s non-visual, and put those on commercial stations around town.
It quickly became a real pain in the neck to get bumped off every time the commercial station really sold something, or to be allotted Saturday mornings at 7:00 or 6:00 time.
In ’51, the LICBC put on its own FM station. In those days, there were no FM receivers.
Later on, [Jerry Weisner] became the provost of MIT, [and he] himself had recorded for Lomax, many of the recordings that are in the Library of Congress of folk singers in the South.
[Weisner] went to General Armstrong and had him give WGBH its first transmitter, which was the prototype Armstrong frequency modulation transmitter. I think it probably had a number one on it.
INT: LICBC, what is that?
MA: Lowell Institute Cooperative Broadcasting Council. I think everyday on WGBH David Ives talks about it [when they] turn the station on at 6:00 am.
INT: What was it exactly? What was the function?
MA: It was a coop. First of all, they charged themselves money. I mean the major budget for the station came from Harvard, MIT, the Museum of Fine Arts, the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and second from these groups came programs.
So that Edwin G. Boring would do a series of 15 programs on psychology. The Museum of Fine Arts would do programs about art.
There were no children’s programs, or news and current affairs. It was an extension of the educational process of adult education.
The Lowell Institute was created by the Lowells for those people who had interest, but no cash, to further their education.
They could take courses at night at Harvard and if they worked long enough get an Associate Arts degree.
If you go to the Harvard Commencement, at any year as I did this year, because a friend was getting a PhD., the loudest applause are for the Associate Arts because they know that these people worked long and hard to get their degrees.
INT: When you first came to WGBH, can you kind of describe the place? How many people were employed there and what was the place like?
MA: Dinky. You walked in the door with two dark columns on either side and strapped to one of them was a big bronze plaque, that is in the front of this building today, announcing the Lowell Institute Cooperative Broadcasting Council.
You went up a flight of dark green stairs, turned left, and realized that there was a telephone operator next to a big telephone answering machine.
It was one-half of a defunct roller skating rink. Under the balcony were the radio studios and what was .. Control A for A studio, there was only one studio. and a telecine room, engineering offices.
Above the balcony were the offices for the radio and television staff and audio editing for the radio producers.
The floor was made of wood. And one day all the males at WGBH were invited in on a Saturday to nail the studio floor down, because it squeaked and if you dollied a certain way the cameras kept bumping up and down and you couldn’t move.
There was in the other half of the roller skating rink an engineering company.
When it went out of business it donated to WGBH three brand new galvanized garbage cans full of old bread boards.
WGBH enjoyed that so much, the engineers unsoldered every resistor from those bread boards and straightened out the prongs and put them in the proper cabinet.
It was a different world.
It had two cameras. [with] old tubes that had been donated from commercial stations so that if you sat anywhere very long you burn in a shot.
You could do anything with two cameras that you could do with two cameras.
When we got the third camera everything was really great.
On Thursday night, we did a live half-hour program from the Museum of Fine Arts.
All three cameras went there which meant that any other program that night had to also originate from the Museum of Fine Arts.
Programs consisted of relatively small things.
We ran from something called “What’s Going on Around Boston” which was a drum on which were listed, on little three-by-four cards pinned to the drum, events coming up.
You played music and roll the drum and then pan left to the other card, and then they would roll the drum and then you pan right, and this was one of the first directing jobs that you had to do.
On the other hand, from the beginning days, the station did children’s programming.
Tony Saletan did music, natural history programs with Mary Lela Grimes, programs that dealt with world affairs, politics— but, for the most part, long series of programs on poetry, music, psychology, science. “Science Reporter” was one of the first programs.
But these were interview programs. Basically staged as we doing this little bit right now. Not inconsequential though.
In 1955, the first mention, in television that I know of, of the effect of tobacco and cigarettes on cancer was done by a doctor in a series called “The Facts of Medicine,” which is tremendous when you think of it and that’s what it was like.
INT: How many people Michael?
MA: I remember about 30 or 35.
I remember, I kept thinking I was the 35th or the 36th employee and we all had to cram into one office on the second floor.
INT: I take it money for shows was scarce and hard to come by?
MA: You didn’t get money for shows, you got things.
You got so many hours of studio time.
You got whatever the scenery people could build, whatever the art department could draw.
We all would rehearse our programs in the afternoon and then do them live.
One of the first jobs that you were taught was how to replace the director of the previous live programs.
There were film and kinescope and live and that was it, with one switcher and one control room. This was a juggling act.
INT: So when we started off we were almost like radio shows being put on camera.
[There were] two black and white [cameras] and then we got a third camera which then opened up the horizon.
All the shows were live at that particular moment.
MA: Yes, with the exception of those programs that had been made from other places, and kinescoped and sent to us, or actual half-hour or 15 minute films.
But not all just discussion. The children’s programs were quite active. Children in the studio, dancing, music, etc.
The natural history program was quite active itself. A young Harvard senior, however, complained to Mary Lela Grimes that she had no film.
Mary Leia said, stop bitching and do something about it.
And the senior went out and bought himself an Aeroflex in 1956 for $9,000, bought lenses and designed his own lenses and shot, free of charge for her, for an entire year, beavers and butterflies and all kinds of the most marvelous film.
Suddenly the second year of “Discovery” directed by Bob Larsen was an amazing program because it had the natural history captured, instead of bringing a beaver into a studio and hoping it didn’t eat up all the scenery.
Charlie went onto produce children’s programs here, got his PhD. and he now is in charge of Ornithology, Cornell University, which is the big job for anybody who knows anything about birds. He’s a specialist in bird navigation.
INT: And his full name is?
MA: Charles Wolcott. He was either the grandnephew or great-grandnephew or had some relation to — Ralph Lowell, himself.
So, Charlie, although he had many frayed shirts, had a Mercedes and could well afford to buy an Aeroflex, but he decided to do it. He was an amazing human being.
INT. You started mentioning some names, I think we should go into them a little bit from your prospective.
Robert Larsen, Bob Larson as we called him.
Can you tell us a little bit of what he did, what his influence was on the station, his contribution?
MA: I think he was the only person from Boston who worked at WGBH, he was the local boy.
He worked at the Christian Science Monitor, came to WGBH as a producer. In 1957, when there was a major shakeout, he became Program Manager of the station.
He moved up through the ranks as Program Manager, became, I think, Vice President, when Dave Ives took over as President in ’70.
He was a gentleman, a learned man, a person who, like many of the staff, would spend days attending courses at Harvard, looking for good talent to be on programs.
He had a profound effect on me, on the future of the station.
INT: What would you say was his most lasting –?
MA: The sense that WGBH did things in an honorable manner. That ideas mattered.
This is a great town for an idea. People don’t laugh at you if you’re serious.
And he allowed many of us to do things over the last forty years that had some fun about them because they went deeply into the substance of ideas.
INT: Dave Davis?
MA: Dave Davis came two or three days before I did in 1956.
He’d been teaching at Temple. He had a sense of expertise because he’d worked in commercial television.
He was one of the guys like yourself or Potter, Al Potter, Russ Morash, David Atwood, who can just do anything.
You go into a stadium and you say, “Okay we put the cameras here, there, there, get the lines, do this,” and be on the air in a couple of hours.
Dave had done sports and music and all kinds of stuff. He was a trumpet player and he had his own fake book. He played in jazz bands.
He did a lot of the music programs. He directed the first symphonies before Bill Cosel did. In the I guess you’d call it a putsch in… 1957, he was asked to take over television .
Bob was his Program Manager and they were the two people who formed the station from then until 1967.
They were the two minds that moved the station forward in terms of television.
INT. Hartford Gunn?
MA: Hartford Gunn. Probably the first real strategic mind in public broadcasting. Always thinking ahead.
The story I often use about him whenever giving a talk is that my first task at WGBH, in which I spent two weeks at a drafting board, was to design the University of New Hampshire Television Studio.
Because Hartford was trying to help stations start all over New England, because he knew that ‘GBH would never survive alone, and that public television had to become more than local, had to become regional, and then national.
We’re talking about a time when there was 12 public stations on the air, when the closest one was Pittsburgh and the next closest was Iowa or Georgia or Houston, Texas, or Denver.
There was no station in Los Angeles, none in Washington, none in New York … this was a different time of life.
Hartford wanted me to design that so he could bring that design to the University of New Hampshire’s President …
so that if and when they ever raised enough money to put up an educational TV station, the President, that week, could be persuaded to excavate the cellar of a student union that was under construction …
so that there would be a place that the money could go.
He was thinking seven steps — I hope he played chess, I never knew if he did play chess —but he had that kind of a mind.
Whereas the rest of us would possibly decry the ability of New Hampshire to set [up] a station for itself.
He was working all the angles, trying to figure out how to actual help them.
In the end WGBH offered all of its programming live to WENH to help them get on the air . They built that station in that basement much the way it was designed.
There was no stronger strategic voice for many years than Hartford Gunn. He hired me on a ruse to be his assistant controller, but really it was to start school broadcasting for the State of Massachusetts.
He knew that that was not in the cards, and so, this was the way — either persuading Mr. Lowell or the-then manager to do it.
INT: Now, Michael I know that not only were you planning, but you also had other responsibilities — with only 35 people there — to also produce and direct, correct?
Tell us about some of your shows, the early shows, that Michael Ambrosino did
MA: Well we did some talk shows, some that went out on radio and television simultaneously.
“Youth Speaks Its Mind” was a weekly program which kids would come in and talk about everything except sex, thank god, because the teachers would not want them to talk about such things as sex.
We did a series called “The Ends of the Earth,” which was an Antarctic research with Father Dan Linahan, who was called the “Arctic Priest.”
He was out at the Weston Observatory in Weston, he was a seismologist.
Dan — Father Dan I guess I should call him — would get thousands of dollars from companies to test their equipment on the South Pole.
He’d get some wire from some wire company and he would stretch out the wire and he’d work, do his seismology, and or when his time was up he’d come look for the wire, bend it to see if it was okay, and write a report for the company and that money could pay for his seismological work.
One day, he did not find the wire. All he found was a ball of copper.
It seems that the Skua gulls had eaten whatever neoprene lining was on the wire and he reported that, true it was very flexible after a month in the Arctic, but that they should find some less palatable substance to put around the wire.
We did a lot of plays. A wonderful woman named Adele Thane — who’s probably now known as the person who taught Julie Taymor of “Lion King” fame how to be a good child actress — she ran the Boston Children’s Theater.
and every time they would do a play, Adele and I would adapt it for television and bring it in to do a half-hour version of “Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn” and a variety of things. Some of those guys are in Hollywood, [like] Michael Tiger .
In those days you could do whatever you wanted as long as you didn’t spend money. You were doing plays by Brecht … as long as you could get volunteers and paint the sets yourself and do all that other stuff. It was a different world.
People said, you know, wasn’t it the golden times, and the answer is no.
I’ve been poor and I’ve been rich, and let me tell you, I prefer having money to do research and proper television and film technique.
INT: You also did a lot of science shows even in the early days, didn’t you Michael?
MA: When school broadcasting started.
INT: When was that’?
MA: That was in March the 4th in 1958.
I had to make a couple of hundred speeches and persuaded about 35 school systems to voluntarily contribute money and we did a series with Gene Nichols called “Science Six.”
INT: Gene Gray.
MA: I’m sorry, right. Gene Gray, Gene Nichols directed.
We did a music program with Tony Saletan, a social studies program, and a French program with Anne Slack.
That was the first year.
Then we hired a larger staff and did programs that were complimentary to the curriculum to the schools, broadcasting to a significantly enlarged number of schools each year.
When I left in 1960 there were 135 school systems that had voluntarily come together.
That system is no more.
It’s now called Massachusetts Educational Television and they do satellite programs with their own facilities.
They don’t do that in cooperation with ‘GBH anymore.
INT: A major event took place at WGBH when videotape arrived.
Can you kind of tell us what was the difference at WGBH from the live black and white broadcast to that of when videotape arrived?
MA: Not much. Hartford Gunn would go to all the national meetings . He came back from an NAB meeting and he said to us all, two things.
“I have seen the future and it is videotape,” and the second thing he said was, “Buy Ampex.”
He was paying us our salaries out of public broadcasting salaries, none of us could buy Ampex except Henry Morgenthau and he bought Ampex.
INT: Basically tape meant that instead of rehearsing six or seven programs in an afternoon and doing six or seven programs in an evening, you would rehearse a program in the morning and tape it, and rehearse a program in the afternoon and tape it, and that evening there would be some live programs and some pretaped programs.
All school broadcast programs were pretaped and [that] allowed repeats.
The word editing was not something that we knew about. You made a half-hour program and you shot it all the way through and if there was a glitch you had to live with it.
Even much later there was no such thing as redoing.
I’m talking about ’58, ’59.
Hartford had persuaded someone to give WGBH its first Ampex and he was always the crusader and then demanded that public television, or educational television in those days, get off the kinescope routine and make videotape programs because the quality was so significantly better.
The Ford Foundation finally was persuaded to give all public television stations — not already equipped — a videotape recorder .
Hartford screamed bloody murder and eventually he won and so, WGBH was the first station that had two videotape recorders.
Both of them were badly hit by the famous fire.
INT: I do remember one show in which you were doing a science show and Gene Gray was taking some hydrochloric acid I believe, may be you might recall it….
MA: It wasn’t Gene Gray it was . …the Chief Scientist at the Museum of Science, who he was doing the program with, spilled acid on himself.
INT: It wasn’t that, I was thinking about there was a Styrofoam cup.
MA: Oh, oh, oh, no, that was not acid, I think that was carbon tetrachloride.
INT: Why don’t you give us a little background because that exists on tape.
MA: Oh it does?
MA: Oh wonderful. Cut it in …
Gene was pouring carbon tetrachloride in a Styrofoam cup that was on a scale to do some very special weighing — not knowing obviously that carbon tetrachloride dissolves Styrofoam cups — and it just all, you know, started….
INT: … In a live show…
MA: Yeah, in a live show … to spill all over the place.
But the famous stories of live television were there.
Mary Lela Grimes did let some bats loose in her 5:30 children’s program and they were still flying around the studio at 6:30 when Louie Lyons was doing his news program and they were going in and out of the shot.
We just did things like that. Things fell down or cameras fell over, or you heard strange noises and you just went right ahead.
INT: You want to recall the jingling johnny for me?
MA: You know the jingling johnny story better than I.
INT: You were doing a music show and I think it was a school show, it was about various instruments of various. ..
MA: 13 programs, one included a symphonic orchestra….
INT: And your stage manager was….
MA: … John Henning who is now the newsman, senior newsman at WBZ .
I instructed John to hand in the jingling johnny quietly.
This is a brass pole with about 9,000 bells on it that jingled.
It was an ancient instrument. We were doing a program on ancient instruments with the Museum of Fine Arts instruments, something called a … serpent, a very deep bass horn.
At the rehearsal, several nights before, someone was tightening .. the strings of a 14th century lute and the back broke in two.
I’m just glad that didn’t happen on camera.
It wasn’t that you were particularly attuned to things going awry, but you knew that they would and you dealt with them just like Johnny Carson does and all of the live talk shows do now.
INT: Do you remember the famous incident at the MFA when the scoop was placed a little bit too closely to the…
MA: Well ,WGBH had done previous research, quite literally, to see how much light would destroy a painting.
Some fakes and maybe even some paintings of lesser known artists were used for these tests.
We were talking about three and four hundred foot candles and then when color came in it was five-, six-, seven-hundred foot candles to get a shot and the paint would just slowly drip off the canvas.
INT: It was a Renoir.
MA: It was a Renoir. I don’t remember that…
I do remember — because the cameras had relatively long single lenses — the camera sort of panning across and hitting a priceless Egyptian statute, which ended up as a bunch of sandstone on the studio floor.
INT: The MFA had a department of television for awhile I think that ceased to exist.
MA: They did many wonderful programs. They’d bring a whole bunch of art into a studio and a variety of different MFA people — producer/writer/talent — would do “The Age of Cezanne” or “Van Gogh’s Early Days” and use all of the paintings to illustrate these things.
INT: My favorite story was Brian O’Doherty who was one of the very first of the on-camera hosts and actually in many ways public television’s first star, because it was his kinescopes that got shown on many stations.
He would have everything that he had to say on little pieces of paper hidden everywhere inside the Museum of Fine Arts, so as he walked from one to the next, his eyes would scan to read the next section.
Of course, those were all live.
And another thing that’s not known that the MFA is totally wired for television then and not a lot of people know that.
MA: The Museum of Fine Arts was wired for television.
Kresge Auditorium in back of WGBH was wired for television.
Sanders Theater was wired for television and had a microwave dish in its tower which burned down, I think, two nights after I came to WGBH.
We used to use these as adjunct studios.
There was no place big enough to do a symphony orchestra, so the first time I used a symphony orchestra I put it in Kresge and had Dave Davis direct it for me that day.
INT: So we had a Studio A and then when this other company went out there was actually a Studio B and then we had a bus which had the remote equipment in it.
MA: That was rather late in our life.
That was in 1961. It was a million-mile Greyhound Bus that [had] new brakes, new tires, and they were equipping it.
They put the cameras in on, I think, a Tuesday and put the two tape recorders in on a Wednesday and, I think, Thursday we burned to the ground.
MA: October 14, 1961.1 have charred papers in my archive file at home.
INT: Where were you?
MA: I was in Chicago. I was giving a speech for the Ford Foundation.
You may not remember, but in those days ,every year or so, there were national air alerts in which all flights would be suspended for 24 hours and the Air Force would play war games.
I got a call from Dave Davis saying that we burned to the ground.
This was about 11 o’clock and about 12 o’clock the air alert went on.
I had to sit for 24 hours in Chicago without being able to get home, worried to death whether or not the tapes from the 21-inch classroom had been saved or not. Indeed they had.
They were thrown out of a window by Bob Mascone and were caught by firemen and volunteers .
At least we could go on the air with school broadcasting.
INT: Before we go beyond the fire, let me go back to … What was the atmosphere like at WGBH in those days, before the fire?
What would you say … the 35 probably grew to what 75 by the time the fire happened? 50? 60?
MA: We thought we were doing pioneering work. I think we thought we were doing God’s work.
Nobody was watching us, but by god, we were doing good work. We were trying very hard.
Most of us had backgrounds that thought ideas were fun.
Most of us would rather attend a good lecture than a bad movie .
Maybe we were a little smug that the rest of the world who would think that was fun, too, because what we were basically doing was presenting lectures on television and radio.
We were trying to advance the medium, but we had such damn few aids to help us. The equipment was old and outmoded.
We were bound into the studio.
You could do anything you wanted as long as you brought it to the studio.
Garden programs were done with a huge vat of dirt You would plant in that and then you had to clean the studio.
You had to make sure you didn’t [mess] it up because there was a program coming later and the dirt would have to be picked up.
It was a nice place to be. We all would eat lunch together.
I had one of the few cars so we’d all pile in and go swimming on the North Shore.
After awhile I stopped inviting everybody except for one person.
INT: You mean there was a significant other in the early days at WGBH?
MA: Lillian Akel was a marvelous .. former journalist who was working as a radio producer at the station .
When I reorganized the office plan, I accidentally put her desk next to mine.
We, and many people at the station, did a lot of things together and we became fast friends and the next thing you know we became man and wife.
INT: Terrific. That’s a happy story.
MA: Yes it is. We had almost 40 wonderful years.
INT: I remember that it was sometimes hard to tell the difference between work and play in the early days at WGBH.
MA: It’s interesting because, after Lillian died, I went through a lot other diaries.
We were here on Saturdays and Sundays, we would be doing desk work and editing and rehearsing and doing all kinds of things.
We were all, for the most part, single and we had no children and we had nowhere else to go and we just were here.
Most of us lived fairly close-by. We lived on Marlborough Street. We just walked across the river and be here.
INT: There was some interesting people that wondered through WGBH at that time.
Bob Squire was one of them,. Maybe you can give us a little history of Mr. Squire?
MA: Bob was a torrent. He was a BU scholar.
He produced and directed, stayed on after that, did some programs.
He did some consulting in Saudi Arabia, [then] came back and did programs here.
He’s now one of the country’s best political consultants.
Just a torrent, he moved very quickly.
INT: Added a certain kind of significance to the editorial staff of WGBH.
I remember he was the one that really established the snappy, the snapping of the fingers.
Somebody else who had an impact I think in the directing part was Paul Noble.
MA: Yes, Paul did a lot of the Mrs. Roosevelt programs, did all of them with Henry Morgenthau.
INT: Paul was also part of the BU scholars, wasn’t he?
MA: In those days the crew — the people who ran camera and did the lights and stage managed — were graduate students at BU who were on a two year rather than a one year program.
They’d go to school a semester and come work for us a semester.
So ,there were two groups: those in school would then be replaced.
That lasted a number of years until the complexity of the programs made it necessary for us to have full time people, so that we were teaching them camera work while we were trying to do very complicated programs.
That’s when we went to a full crew, and then the second crew, and I remember the possibilities of a third crew, because everything was studio-based film.
WGBH was doing a film project in the earliest days and the first one was an absolute disaster in 1957 because — except for Paul Rader, who was brought in to do the project — all of us grew up in live-TV terms.
We knew that you did all of your research, and you did all your work, and you did it Thursday night and it either went on tape or it went out.
But with film, you could always play a little bit, a little bit, a little bit and you could never finish.
‘GBH got a contract — in hindsight, a very silly contract — to make programs about existing scientific projects going on around the world in the International Geophysical Year 1957.
You can’t make a film about something that’s going on, because you go out with a group of scientists, into the ocean, and you watch them drop things into the ocean, and that’s exciting, …
and then you watch them look at dials, and that’s very exciting.
Then they say to you, “We won’t know what the results were for about another six months. If you can come back and interview us then we can tell you some more.”
And so, WGBH had been given money for three programs, had finished one and the other two were relative shambles.
The money came for the second three and Hartford wisely at that point said, “We really don’t know the film business.”
He had a meeting with the entire film staff.
This was the first time that I’ve come across a situation in which honorable people can leave a meeting thinking that two different things occurred.
The head of the film department and his assistant came out and said to Jack Hurley,
“Hartford is such a thoughtful man He’s so concerned about our problems. He really appreciates the trouble we’re having.”
And Jack Hurley had to say to them, “Excuse me, don’t you realize that you’ve just been fired?
The film department is being closed. The money is being given back to the National Science Foundation and this place will never do another film.”
That’s not the story they took out of the meeting. It really was a “Rashomon”.
This building, that we’re sitting in, was built without any film facilities in it at all because we didn’t know film.
It was a long time before we did film again.
INT: We snuck it in. MA: We snuck it in.
INT: If there was one moment out of that early period before the fire which really kind of sticks in your mind as being one of the happier moments for you — be it at work and not Lillian— but is there one kind of moment that really kind of said to you, this is why I got involved in television in the first place?
MA: During one of these programs — “Music for Grade Six” that I was directing myself — the folk dancers were late and I couldn’t understand why they were late.
They finally all arrived and they told me that they had met the nicest man on the steps of MIT and folk danced with him for 20 or 30 minutes.
When they described him, it was clear that this was the world’s leading mathematician of the time, who frequented the steps of MIT and the soda joint downstairs — and I’m blanking on his name, Norbert Weiner — who lived in Belmont, I guess, with his mother….
INT: Lived in another world.
MA: Yeah, lived in another world, and was folk dancing with my students.
I guess that would be one of the joyful things. We were doing things with our hands. We were involved in everything that we did.
We produced, directed, wrote, whatever we did.
We built the scenery, determined where the basic lighting patterns would be. It was in our hands.
It was not as much fun as I think we all came to do later when we actually had huge resources at our command.
Then, we were working up to the level of our incompetency — where we were not curtailed by outside influences, but only our own knowledge, creativity, and persistence.
INT: Was there one major disappointment in those early years that you wished you could have changed or something that could have happened that would have made everything….
MA: Not in those… that came later.
INT: All right, so the fire, WGBH and Boston kind of got married pretty tight together at the time of the fire because we went off the air, we were on the air very shortly after that.
Maybe you might kind of recall, after you’ve returned from Chicago, what you found.
What was going on in Boston as WGBH had been burned to the ground?
MA: Well I walk up those stairs into my office and I suddenly realized…. INT: This is at 84 Mass Ave., after the fire….
MA: Yes, I suddenly realized I was not walking on the floor of my office, I was walking on what was left of the ceiling.
The roof of the station had collapsed. I, with a shovel, dug away enough stuff to find what was left of my desk.
The telephone had melted over an uncancelled check that had come in, good gracious, for school broadcasting, no, for the Eastern Educational Network that we were creating at the time.
I had left WGBH and was the founding director of the Eastern Educational Network with offices at WGBH.
I had in the back of my office a huge oak table that had been built into the wall — it was the former dressing green room table — and it had charred underneath and the water hit it and it bent over.
As I lifted it up, that portion was attached to the wall.
The entire wall of my office fell into what was the remaining of Studio B and I thought I’d better back up and get the hell out of here.
There were a few documents, but everything — all of the research that I had amassed on School of Broadcasting, all of the work that we had put together in developing the Eastern Educational Network — was gone.
The first thing I did was to sit down and try to reconstitute my telephone list because I had to call foundations and stations and tell them that we were still in business, that the development of the network would go ahead.
Two days after the fire Hartford Gund and I left Boston and drove to Maine to testify before the legislature of Maine as to whether or not they should start educational television.
Coming from a station whose fire had been in the front pages of every Maine paper, we had to tell them that we were still in business.
The third day after the fire, I flew to Washington D.C., to do the same thing to government agencies that we were looking for grants.
But we all survived — we are the station, the human beings involved. We’ll be back in business.
We were fairly soon in seven different locations around Boston.
A live TV studio was at the Museum of Science.
You paid a quarter and watch the animals make television.
The Roman Catholic Television Center had a little studio with a chandelier in the middle, so that if you pulled back too far the chandelier came in every shot.
The scenery was built for us at Northeastern University.
There was what was called the Red Shack or the Red Building at the Museum of Science where there was staff.
Management was in Kendall Square in the Eastern Educational Network, we moved the headquarters there.
Headquarters of the Eastern Education Network was two desks, two 1930s-style desks given to us by the Christian Science Monitor.
I think the Christian Science Monitor took every piece of old furniture they had — I think this looks like some of them — and gave it to us and that’s what we used.
Old Underwood typewriters, etc. And we survived like that.
I immediately started designing the place to use for fundraising. That design never got built, but later a group went up to Dartmouth and really designed this place.
This place I think was designed with nine or 10 live TV studios.
Not one film editing room, because the whole idea of live TV and needing many places to make it was still very much in our minds.
INT: That’s some change though and ended up I think with three studios. Studio A, Studio B and little Studio C.
MA: A little Studio C which is a radio studio that parroted the studio we had at 84 Mass Avenue.
A radio studio with glass sides in certain places so that Louie Lyons and the news could come out of there and we could shot through the glass.
INT: We were on the air, very shortly after the fire, broadcasting.
MA: Yes I think the School Broadcasting went on the next Monday. TV was off maybe a night or two.
The Junior League of Boston marshaled every woman with a car. Dave Davis got every commercial station in town, both of them — this was ’61, so maybe there were three…
INT: There were three.
MA: Channel 5 had gone on the air and the engineers brought the schedule of when they needed their own tape recorders for their own programs .
School Broadcasting went on the air with tapes being shuttled from station to station to station where a tape recorder was available at 8:30, at 9:00, at 9:30, at 10:00, etc., and Dave Davis organized all of that.
Sometimes tapes would have to be transferred back two or three times. The stations were wonderful.
An immediate cry went up as to how we would need a million or so dollars to put ‘GBH back on the air.
It’s necessary to talk about Ralph Lowell because I think his beautiful picture down in Cahners makes us think of him as a nice, cuddly man who had the money, and that’s what he gave to ‘GBH.
Ralph Lowell had guts.
I remember many occasions when WGBH was about to risk editorially, or with cash, and it was Ralph Lowell who always gave the support to Hartford to do it.
Many of us have been in many positions where we’ve had board of directors or presidents of corporations over us and it is not inconsiderable to have somebody who stands behind you and says,
“Yeah, do it. You’ve presented the case well. Go ahead and do it.”
And that’s what Ralph gave to this station.
Second, he had command of the names and the bodies of this town. So if he asked you to do something it was hard to say no. He had that much respect.
It was more than just raising money. It was ideas and people, a significant guy.
INT: I remember for a period of time, I was one of the BU scholars who was asked to go down to his bank on payday because Jack Hurley, who was then head of finance, was having trouble making the payroll and Daddy Lowell, as we called him, always able to come forward to make sure that we all got paid.
MA: We had a drawing account at the bank.
On the second day I was at WGBH in 1956 I, too, was asked to present myself to Ralph Lowell.
At the same time, I been reading John Marquand’s book — and I forget the title of it now — but he was about a Lowell type person.
He described how you walk in the bank and there was all the marble and then there were people behind the cages and then there were people behind the balustrade and some of them had desks and some didn’t.
And some had desks on rugs and some didn’t and then some had offices and then there was the office.
I walked into the Boston Safe Deposit and Trust Company, and I saw John P. Marquand’s bank and I was ushered into meet “The Mr. Lowell” in the office as he had so described.
I’m certain he had known Ralph Lowell and had been to the bank many times.
INT: Is there anybody else that was as significant to the ‘GBH and who it is now in those days?
MA: Dozens of people at the universities. The people who gave of their time.
The Boston Symphony Orchestra. Ralph Lowell sat down and had a meeting with Petrillo and got us the permission to do the Boston Symphony Orchestra live .
If any money ever came about it would go to the pension funds, but we never paid them a penny to do concerts.
The idea of a live TV concert of this an entire symphony was just unknown in those days.
INT: The history that exists on those tapes downstairs in archives is quite amazing.
MA: Yeah, Charles Munch…Leinsdorf
I remember we did concerts … one of the last concerts Stravinsky came and conducted himself and now it is a history.
INT: MIT’s “Science Reporter,” just as we end off this hour, maybe you should give us just a little bit more history of that….
MA: It was a studio program that was basically a lot of talk and a little showing.
T hen it became a little talk and a lot of showing.
It then found resourcefulness in a man named Russ Morash, in which it became a lot of showing and on the road, so that you didn’t have to bring things into the studio.
It started out with Volta Torrey as the MIT on-camera host, and then John Fitch did that.
I think those programs were instrumental in reminding us that the studio was out there in the world. Russ and Al Potter and Pete Downey just took us everywhere that we could move.
It was one of the first programs that I distributed to the rest of the stations as the founding director of the Eastern Educational Network .
It was one of the proofs we used that programs that we made locally could be distributed by our network by videotape — because we were not interconnected in those days — and that the Eastern Educational Network had a useful thing to do in addition to the national network, which didn’t want “Science Reporter” at the time and later, of course, picked it up and it became a big national show.
INT: Thank you. End of first hour.