Tell your ‘GBH story on air

Calling all WGBH alumni!  Auction needs you!

Do you have a fun story about working with ‘GBH?  Perhaps you remember a hilarious gaffe from a live broadcast, or a mishap on a field shoot, or an interaction that still makes you smile?

If you do, then I would love to talk with you!  This is my third season producing WGBH Auction Showcases — a series of six half-hour television episodes that highlight items up for bid.  We have some great talent hosting each episode, and would love to be able to include 30–45 sec clips starring WGBH alumni with great anecdotes to share.

If you are interested, we would do a shoot with you over the next several weeks on one of the sound stages at One Guest Street. We are looking for stories that can be told in 30 –45 seconds and have some kind of still photos or video images to accompany them.

Interested?  Please contact me.

My interview with Andrew Raeburn at Tanglewood

Tanglewood concerts were always an important part of music programming at WGBH.

In the summer of 1970, as Erich Leinsdorf was about to retire as Music Director of the Boston Symphony, he would conduct his final concert at Tanglewood. WGBH General Manager Hartford Gunn commissioned me to travel to Tanglewood, and record a variety of reminiscences about Leinsdorf for a commemorative album, to be presented by WGBH as a farewell gesture to Mr. Leinsdorf.

From the grounds keeper at Tanglewood to the Concert Master of the BSO, many were willing to share their thoughts about Erich Leinsdorf for this project. One of the most pleasant and informative participants was Andrew Raeburn, former program editor for the BSO, and a friend of Mr. Leinsdorf.

This week, I had the pleasure of a correspondence with Andrew who happily agreed to have this interview posted, and was kind enough to provide a photo of himself, with the maestro. The entire interview lasts five minutes.

Update

Sadly, Andrew Raeburn passed away at the age of 77, only a few weeks after this interview was posted.

WGBH Pioneers: Michael Ambrosino – Part 2 (1998)

This entry is part 4 of 11 in the series The Michael Ambrosino Collection

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.

Watch Video — Part 2 (57 minutes)

Transcript — Part 2

INTERVIEWER: June 18, 1998, the second hour of a conversion with Michael Ambrosino.

Michael we were talking about the fire at WGBH in 1961.

Do you remember any great stories about the fire?

MICHAEL AMBROSINO: Well, we were very lucky because several days before the fire, two cameras had been moved into a million mile Greyhound Bus that was sitting out back.

It was going to be the big mobile unit for ‘GBH.

And the day before the fire I think two black and white videotape recorders were moved in and that equipment plus loaned equipment from the Catholic TV Center allowed us to go back on the air the next Monday.

But after the insurance money came in and we bought new equipment and that was put to use,

we still had those two ancient black and white videotape recorders and Hartford had, or I guess the chief engineer had, contacted a company that specialized in the repair of damaged videotape.

And of course, you forget that when you have a fire, there’s water everywhere.

And there was soot, and there was muck, and there were pieces of charred paper and wood and pieces of the roof…

and this was all sitting in sodden masses on all the very delicate electronic gear.

And the company proposed something like $15,000 to repair each recorder and there was no way the station could pay that as well as, but we had the other two recorders and that would be fine.

And they said, oh, you’re the Boston station that burned down, the educational station?

Oh well, that’s different.

We’ll tell you what we do and you do that and you see if it works.

You take all the stuff out of the videotape recorders and you mix one part Vel and one part water, and you paint everything with it.

And then you hose it down and then you plug it in.

If it blows up, you replace it.

And this is what they were going to do for $15,000.

And that’s what the engineers did and most of the stuff had dried out sufficiently in the week with fans and with heaters.

And stuff they plugged in, blew up, and they replaced that.

And so we had four black and white tape recorders.

But if you’ve ever wondered how some commercial companies make their money that’s one of them.

It was no fun for three years operating out of seven or eight different locations.

The inner cohesiveness of the station really fell apart for awhile: management in one place and studios in another.

It meant very long days and great difficulty of moving things back and forth.

It was hard.

INT: So, you had mentioned the Eastern Educational Television Network.

Can you explain it a little bit more?

You had moved from the in-school programming now to the EEN?

MA: I was at home with the flu one day and Hartford Gunn called me at home and said,

I want you to help start a regional network of public educational TV stations in the Northeast.

There were two at the time, New Hampshire and Boston.

And we got together at Mittersill, and we actually planned with what were Boston and a bunch of committee Heads — Vermont ETV Commission, university presidents, League of Women voters — groups that had been for years testifying to committees trying to raise money to do this.

And, step by step, we actually put together a network which transmitted programs off the air to other people’s transmitters and kept relaying these signals from station to station and instituted videotape exchange.

We’d get together every three or four months and figure out what else we could exchange.

We had a huge staff, a secretary and me.

And the first job was to help get stations on the air and to exchange programs with them,

to start to build what eventually became the country’s first interconnected educational TV network …

which ranged from Boston up through Maine and up through Vermont through New Hampshire out to Western Mass, down to New York and Washington.

INT: When was that Michael?

MA: These were in the ’60s.

I joined in ’60 and left in ’64.

In that time, we had not only become an interconnected entity, but had invited places like San Francisco and other stations around the country to join us in the tape network in an informal way.

And that was good because it was the beginning of what has become the American Program Service which is a sort of public television secondary network and is now doing a lot of origination and commissioning rather than just distributing programs.

INT: Just to rehash, when you first came it was a local station broadcasting live for a very few hours a day and then eventually went to kinescope and tape and from then it went to a rotation of tapes and broadcasting on a small regional network.

MA: Remember this was not all the day.

We were signing on at about 5:00 and going off the air at 10:00 everyday, every weekday, and then Saturday was added and then School Broadcasting was added in the morning and then we go dark from 12:00 to 2:00 and School Broadcasting would come back on for an hour or so and then we’d go dark.

It was a lot of what was called test pattern.

You kept your test pattern up because when the man came to your house with the TV set, and he put it in your living room, and he plugged it in and connected to the antenna, he wanted to see a test pattern because that’s what he used to make sure that the tube gave you a real circle.

And the test pattern and music filled much of the air in those days.

And then we expanded to Sunday and then the hours groped up to 11:00 and at 11:00 we all went to bed.

INT: Did we have an audience in those early days?

MA: Yes we had an audience in those days.

It was always more than the little old gray- haired ladies in Cambridge, which we were always accused of broadcasting to.

And even in those days, I remember discovering that people loved to learn — they hate to be taught, but they love to learn — and the proverbial cab driver would, if they knew you were from ‘GBH, would start telling you of programs that they had seen.

It wasn’t a big audience, but it was a very devoted one.

It’s not a big audience now, if you measure it up against the top 20 commercial shows, but I invite everybody to do a little experiment once a year.

If the newspapers ever print not just the top 20 shows, but the next 70 shows so all those programs that get cancelled over a season, that pulls 2’s and 3’s and 4’s, you realize that the programs on public broadcasting outdraw many of the programs that are 30 ranked and 40 ranked and 50 ranked on commercial television.

It’s just that we always hold ourselves up to those shows that are the blockbusters.

The audience is a genuinely connected one.

INT: So up to ’64 you were kind of deeply involved in the setup of the Eastern Educational Network?

MA: I was a suit, yeah.

INT: What happened in’64?

MA: Well, let me tell you one story about what happened before that because it was fun.

Those were the druggie days and Tim Leary was coming to MIT to give a lecture.

It was going to be difficult to film because it was going to be a lecture by candlelight.

A very enterprising Austin Hoyt grabbed Bloyd Estes and they went and shot this lecture and came home and started to edit it and it was going to be a wonderful local program.

The network heard about it and wanted it ready for the network and it was made for the network.

It consisted of Tim Leary with one candle glowing on the stage, sitting cross- legged at MIT’s Kresge Auditorium basically telling the kids they were fools.

They should not go to MIT.

They should dropout.

They should drop acid and they should really learn about themselves.

And for 20 minutes he held the kids spellbound.

And then Jerry Letvin stood up.

Jerry Letvin, Professor Letvin, is a physicist and a psychologist, M.D. doctor.

Not only was he very learned and had done a lot of research, some of it with Tim Leary, but he was the MIT guru.

When you were in trouble you went to Jerry, and Jerry, between smoking all his cigarettes, would tell you how he could help you.

And so he stood up and said to, directly to Tim Leary, who was still seated cross-legged by his feet, “Tim, we’re friends, we’ve done work together.

“Tell me as a clinician, what is it when a person hears smells and sees sounds, two weeks after dropping acid.”

And Tim looked up at him and said, “Oh I’d called him a visionary mystic!”

Oh, and the crowd went wild.

That was a nice put down.

And Letvin said, “Bullshit.

“It’s a … hematoma and you know God damn well it is”.

And for the next 20 minutes he sabotaged Tim Leary and told the kids what happens when they dropped acid to the chemicals in their brain.

This was a wonderful program, it was offered to the network.

In those days, you made 40 tapes, sent it to the top 40 stations, they played them a week, dropped them to the next 40 stations, they played them and on it ran.

And the stations complained.

Not that Tim Leary for 20 minutes was given an audience to tell the kids to drop acid, burn their brains, not that Jerry Letvin had savaged another human being without being chastised for 20 minutes, in the cruelest possible fashion.

But that Jerry Letvin had said, “bullshit.”

And they asked the program to be edited.

‘GBH refused.

So they edited themselves, sent out 40 new tapes to 40 stations.

The stations complained.

Why did they complain? Because Jerry Letvin now said “bullsh…”. because in those days, you edited by taking the tape on the two inch reels and moving it over the sound head.

So, WGBH finally decided it would edit it.

A third set of 40 tapes was sent out to the network.

But as Director of the Eastern Educational Network, I informed my stations that they would have, if they wished, the unexpurgated feed from WGBH.

And of course, they all said yes.

First amendment!We will stand by our rights! We will say the dirty word! And then the telephone calls started coming in.

Well, we’ve had a meeting of our Advisory Committee and we….

so in the end, as with most stupid or brave things, only San Francisco and ‘GBH were going to run the offending word.

That is why my son Jonathan is named for John Rice who was then Program Manager, KQED San Francisco.

And that evening, only those two stations were to broadcast the offense … except the microwave linked north failed about one minute before 9:00.

A very astute transmitter engineer at WENH decided, I know what I’ll do I’ll save the day, I will pick up the off air feed from ‘GBH.

So in the end New Hampshire, Vermont and Maine with their managers knowing full well the offending word would not be there.

It says something about broadcasting then and now that the offense was a word rather than a thought.

It says something about public broadcasting, something about commercial television and I always remember it as sort of a pivotal idea that certain things really bring offense that big ideas don’t and it’s a big shame

INT: Terrific story, terrific story.

MA: It was true.

INT: So at the end of’64 where were you at that particular moment?

MA: Tired of being a suit.

I realized that my future in public broadcasting was probably going to take over the National Association of Educational Broadcasters.

You know that just seemed like more administration, I didn’t want to run a station.

And I told Bob Larson that he was overworked.

What he really needed was an assistant program manager and I knew somebody who could fill the job.

I then left the network and became Assistant Program Manager to Bob Larsen and suggested Don Quayle, who had radio experience and television experience and had been radio manager here at WGBH and he took over as my replacement at EEN and built it into the empire that it is today.

He ran it for four years and then John Porter took over and ran it for 20 years.

INT: Well, what did you do when you were Assistant Program Manager?

What are your great accomplishments?

MA: Oh yes, I scheduled the station.

I decided what programs went where, you know, obviously with Bob’s concurrence and changes.

I helped oversee local programming and national programming and continued doing that up until 1969.

INT: What was in your early years of Assistant Program Manager, what was a day like?

How would a ‘GBH programming day run?

What would you see on the air?

MA: Where’s my list?

INT: Well sort of, I mean, you don’t have to have it exact.

MA: Well it was interesting.

We were then really expanding what we were doing.

There were a lot of arts programs.

It was usually high arts.

I mean if it was music, it was classical music.

Too, there was a jazz program.

But it would be…

instead of the one or two camera with one piano, it would be the symphony broadcast or it would be music in rehearsal, it would be opera.

There would be dance.

There was dance early, even in 84 Mass Avenue, we made the national program “A Time to Dance” that Greg Harney directed, Jac Venza produced, and it had all of the great names of dance.

I mean, it is a treasure trove for the dance historian.

Julia Child had started by then because we had the mobile unit in the post fire days.

Those programs were recorded in Cambridge.

You forget that it was very hard.

Dave Stuart, just did a recent piece in “Current” about Julia and he left out an essential point, I thought.

Hartford could not sell Julia to public broadcasting.

It wasn’t serious enough, it wasn’t high art enough.

There was a meeting of the television stations of the nation in Denver.

We all met in a bar in one of the ghost towns out in the woods in Denver, and Hill Bermont, the program manager of Georgia, Atlanta, Georgia, made a very impassioned speech that it was all too high art and he ended by screaming at Curt Davis, “When, when will we stoop to Swan Lake?”

And the answer was never!

It was only after Curt Davis left as being head of “Culture” did we “stoop” to something that was as prominent a ballet as Swan Lake.

The stations were now starting to do what were real political programs, documentaries about the way the nation worked and about the way the nation didn’t work.

So that “NET Journal” and you know we would try to feed programs into that.

I had seen a fellow called George Page who had done a documentary in Georgia called “Blockbusting Atlanta Style” — a wonderful program about how white real estate operators would try to introduce a black family into certain neighborhoods, the rest of the families would flee, the real estate operators would buy the houses up very cheap, sell them dear to black families.

And Hartford was looking for a documentary producer and I suggested he look at George.

George was working here several weeks later and he and Don Fauser and Austin Hoyt started making many of those early series and programs that tried to analyze the way this country was working at the time.

INT: And George Page then went on to WNET?

MA: WNET did more documentaries and then became the person in charge of “Nature” and ran that series into the great series that it is today.

INT: And George Page’s voice is well associated I think with public television.

What are some of the other important things that you were doing?

MA: “The Reporters”.

I was fascinated with the uproar at this station some years ago when the “Nightly News” went off the air because I had lived through several uproars like that in the past.

An educational station just doesn’t have enough resources to have a real news presence in the community.

The first news programs were basically talk with Louie Lyons and they never really progressed much further than that: a 15-minute reading of AP wire copy.

There were a variety of strikes that went on in the newspaper industry, and KQED, probably the most resourceful of the educational stations at the time, created something called “Newsroom” in which they brought all the reporters in and basically looked as if they were having an editorial meeting and they would say, Fred, what’s the story on your page today?

And Fred would say what the important news happened in his area and then he would be questioned by the other people as they would in an editorial meeting.

WGBH did one of those as well and out of that grew the idea that well maybe we could have a nightly news presence and I forget what the first one was called.

I’ve got it written down here as the “Reporters.”

INT: I think you’re right.

It started from a Globe newspaper strike and then it led to the “Reporters.” Wasn’t Allan Lupo one of the first….

MA: Alan Lupo was on it, Sharon Rivo, Joe Klein who’s now known as the Mr. Anonymous from “Primary Colors.”

These were ‘GBH reporters going out and finding stories.

Howard Spurgle was a member.

Howard was the most professional of the group and he had the education beat and the problem was, was at the editorial meetings, Howard would present five, six, seven, ten stories on education and the executive producer had to be very careful that you know education didn’t carry the whole night, but Howard was right there with his stuff and the rest of the people were running around, trying to found out what was going on.

We also did the conventions, and I remember the convention when Chub Peabody was nominated in the Hines Auditorium.

Sharon Rivo was directing and all the reporters were covering the floor and at 2:30 in the morning Chub Peabody, who had just been nominated by the convention, turned to the reporter who was interviewing him and said, do you think anybody’s really up and listening to us?

And the reporter sort of looked out into this vast empty scene and no, I guess we’d better call it a night.

And that’s how we went off the air.

‘GBH was doing an auction then, of course, and in those days they were a bit less hectic than they are now.

We would stop and dance for a half hour.

I remember Olivia doing jitter bugs on the stage.

We would raise, I guess, a $100,000 a year and think that was great.

I don’t know if auctions are cost efficient these days, but in those days they certainly did bring the community together.

Thousands of men and women, mostly women, went out into the community and scoured things and really found out that people did really feel that they belonged to the station.

INT: Do you think that the fire and the auction were the two major catalysts of really bringing WGBH into predominance in this awesome community or do you think it was the other programming like Julia Child and “The Reporters?”

MA: I think it was the other programs.

I think the fire and the auction just reminded people that we were here.

INT: We were a local station, weren’t we? I mean, when did we become national? When did it really start happening?

MA: From the earliest days it sought national.

I think “Discovery” was distributed nationally.

“Science Reporter” was distributed nationally.

We had one of the first kinescope machines and we would record programs.

In those days, national programming meant local programs that were recorded and sent out. And then you’d get maybe a $100 to do better visuals and then the program facilitators at the Educational Television and Radio Center would make some suggestions and then they would make some suggestions as to the kind of series that they could use looking for a balance in their schedule and then they made the programs themselves.

Stations like WGBH and the rest had to sort of fight to get their nose in.

And they assembled producer staffs in New York to do “NET Journal” and, you know, Fauser and Austin and George Page would have to fight their way into those series.

It’s the natural progression.

INT: The emergence of WNET or NET as it was a division, became kind of an important part of the structure of the network in those days where ‘GBH was a supplier, but it was really a network operation called NET that was really functioning as the kind of major distributor of programming, am I right?

MA: Well there was a station called WNDT, New Dimensions in Television, that went on the air, of course, it was struck by the union and I hate to say this guys, but I and a bunch of people from ‘GBH scabbed, went down, put them on the air, they went off the air right after that opening program, it was with Ed Morrow, and then for two weeks negotiated and it went back on the air with a union contract.

It thought itself the most important station in the world.

It had as its manager, Dick Heffner, a very self-important man.

That station sort of made us all feel as if we were just hicks, but I don’t think they ever came up to the job in terms of doing the really great things.

The Ford Foundation demanded that NET in New York and WNDT merge because they were tired of funding the two groups.

And then of course they became the national producer and it even became harder for other stations, including WGBH, to get in to the documentary area or the cultural series because they had the facilities, they had the staff, they had the commissioners, they had the producers and they became a real necessary and vibrant part of public broadcasting and probably that’s where the more daring programs were made.

INT: Such as’?

MA: “The NET Journals.”

INT: The series the “Dream Machine.”

MA: What was the name of that program?

INT: “Great American Dream Machine.” Did you have anything to do with it?

MA: Minuscule.

Some of the real fun things came too.

A sense of humor was to be brought…

INT: “The American Family”

MA: “The American Family” by Gilbert?

INT: I forget.

MA: “The American Family” was a program about the Loud’s … cameramen living and a husband and wife living with them for months …

Over the objections of the head of documentaries at the time.

Jim Day merely took $80- or $100,000 out of the budget and gave it to these independent producers.

“The Great American Dream Machine” was segmented pieces that allowed a lot of creative people, including somebody who’s sitting on the dias, to make segments for that program.

Mickey Lenley…

INT: Mickey Lenley, oh my.

MA: You …

INT: … and the animator, Fouser’s dear friend…

MA: Yeah.

MA: He did all the openings for the Boston Pops, all the animated openings.

I can’t remember…

INT: It sounded as if the culture in the high arts was now moving into a news program, into documentaries, into coverage of local conventions.

It sounded like the very quality of the kind of programs and the very subject matter of the programs of WGBH was changing radically in the early days of the ’60’s?

MA: Yes, we were moving from the educational TV station to the public television station.

We were moving from seeing ourselves as the extension of the Harvard University extension classes to a station that actually look into how the nation worked.

I was doing a lot of stuff that dealt with the coverage of the UN.

In ’67 the Arab-Israeli war broke out.

We were covering the United Nations when there was no morning programming right up until 5:00 when we would go into our regular stuff.

And in those days you just bumped the schedule.

I mean we never thought that the schedule was filled with such wonderful programs that we couldn’t wipe it out for a moment’s notice for coverage of important events.

There were war and anti-war protests and the station was involved in those.

KQED was doing a lot of stuff out on the streets.

I remember at one point when the students at Harvard took over buildings and President Pusey would not speak to them.

And Studio A was emptied and a huge table built and the students and some of the board of overseers or the Board of Directors of Harvard sat in that room and basically talked to Nathan Pusey via WGBH’s transmitter.

I remember being in this studio, myself on camera, after the bombing of Cambodia and for two or three nights in a row broadcasting what people in the City of Boston could do to protest the bombing in Cambodia.

I remember, in the death of Robert Kennedy, commissioning programs on poetry and music that influenced Robert Kennedy and calling Fred Rogers saying …

“I’ve commissioned two or three half hours.

“If you could do a half hour we’d then have two hours of programming for children … because all they’re going to see is dead bodies going past Capitol steps.”

And Fred said, “Oh, we’re already making that one.”

And so, you know, we used the Eastern Educational Network and the stations had something for children during that time.

PBL was created by the Ford Foundation to be an experiment on Sundays, two and a-half hours of interconnection, you know, a rental of big telephone lines and the whole country was pulled together, a new staff was pulled together.

And again, the fight as to whether WGBH would get into that kind of program.

I remember going to a little play with Greg Harney, in a little theater directed by David Wheeler, watching a very tall guy and a very short guy in a play called “The Dwarfs” by Pinter.

The tall guy turned out to be John Voight, the short guy was Dustin Hoffman and the decision was should we televise that as part of PBL.

Greg directed it.

INT: The acronym was Public Broadcasting Laboratory.

MA: Public Broadcasting Laboratory.

It was to show what we could do if somebody would give us enough money and in those days, of course, the funder was the Ford Foundation, they did everything.

INT: Was Dave Davis at the Ford Foundation at that time?

MA: After ’67 he was.

There was the “James Brown Show.”

Martin Luther King was murdered and the cities burned.

Boston did not burn.

James Brown was doing a concert the day after King died, and the Mayor suddenly realized that 12- or 13,000 black youngsters would be let out of the Boston Garden at about midnight and probably would walk through town on their way to Roxbury because there were no buses or the T wasn’t operating and decided that was not to be done.

He got in touch with WGBH.

I was called into Hartford’s office at 5:30 and asked if we could go on the air from Boston Garden by 8:30 because the Mayor was going to buy the house and every TV station in town was going to tell kids not to come.

An argument ensued among the executives at WGBH whether this was a good idea.

At which point I said, “You continue talking. If you want me on the air by 8:30 I’m now leaving.”

I got in touch with three men, the four men that I knew could get us on the air by 8:30 — Greg Harney, Russ Morash, David Atwood and Al Potter — and we screamed down to the Boston Garden.

We laid out the cameras, and about two hours later I met Mr. Brown and his bodyguards and with an alpaca coat on his shoulders.

I thanked him very much for allowing us to televise the concert and he said, “What television?”

At which point, he and Tom Atkins, the Mayor’s black assistant, got together and talked about it and an hour later they came out and agreed, yes we could televise.

And we broadcast that program once and twice and I think three times that night.

About 1,000 people had come and were allowed in to the concert.

Brown brought Mayor White onto the stage.

The two of them basically said to the City of Boston,

“This city is different from other cities and this city should not burn.”

And the major conflagrations that were happening all over the country did not happen here.

Interesting use of media at the time and interesting that WGBH was asked to do it.

INT: I remember Louis Lyons crying on the air when Martin Luther King died.

MA: No, when Bobby Kennedy.

INT: Was it Bobby?

MA: Yes.

Bobby Kennedy was shot after Martin Luther King.

Louis Lyons arrived.

I arrived at the station, Louis arrived at the station, Fauser arrived at the stage.

Louis demanded to go on the air immediately.

He was in an absolute rage.

I was the only executive at the station.

I cancelled the program at the time.

Louis went into the studio, Fouser directed, and he basically said, “This nation is rotten,” and gave a four or five minute editorial, a statement, about his thoughts of the depths that we had descended to.

We faded to black, came up with reports of the death and then went back into regular program.

All of broadcasting was sort of held in abeyance over the next couple of days except for the funeral.

INT: Quite a moment.

MA: Yes.

MA: Louis Lyons was quite a man.

INT: Well Louis was, by nature, a very, how should we say, conservative journalist.

He was a reader of copy, he did not express in any emotional way of how he felt, his words were always very carefully selected, and in this one he really just was in an outrage.

MA: Not exactly.

Louis was a man of great passion.

He may have read his copy in a mild way, but his idea of the news was to tell you what the news was, and then with his 40, 50 years of knowledge, was to tell you what it meant and it was his own perspective and it was quite strong at times.

He was the news presence of the station for many years.

He and Bob Barram did Regional New England News.

He was head of the Nieman Fellowships and ran that with great distinction for a number of years.

And everyday he would come and the smallest of the trees in front of WGBH — the one that is dying because it gets the least water — would be picked over by him as he walked in.

He never forgot that he started life as a agricultural reporter and would always tell you what was happening in the agricultural fields.

INT: I don’t want to make too short of a period of time up, you know, when you were Assistant Program Manager, but when did you go on camera Michael?

I mean you had your own show there for awhile?

MA: I had been on camera before.

I did a lot of stuff on the auction.

I was the only person I think at WGBH who still had a working actors equity card, I mean, I was professional theater background.

I had interviewed all of the candidates….

I had done a lot of stuff in the ’50s … on-camera interviews.

I had interviewed, in the ’60s, all the people running for Congress.

And in 1969 we were going to do a program that dealt with the high arts and it was to be a critical evaluation of opera, music, dance, theater in Boston.

And I said, gee, we do that all the time.

Why don’t we do something that’s really on the streets.

Let’s get out and do something.

There had been only one series that had ever done that in our lives and what was the name of that program?

It was called “What’s Happening Mr. Silver” produced by you.

I thought we should really be doing that.

That’s where we are, that’s where the studio, but this piece should be out there.

And Michael Rice, who was then Program Manager, said, “Well, what would it be like?” And I said, “I’ll tell you Monday.”

Monday I came in with a proposal, he said, “Oh that’s interesting, who will do it?”

I said, “I’ll do it.”

He said, “But you’re assistant, associate then, director of programs.”

I said, “I’ll do both jobs.”

He said, “Who will appear as host?” because in those days every show had to have a host.

I said, “I will be the host.”

The only person with professional theater training.

We started out to make a series and I forget who the first director was…

The first director was Fred Barzyk and the first couple of shows were shot out the side of the mobile unit because that was as mobile as we could be.

You then designed a rig for the back of the bus and we could shoot 270 degrees off that.

And I remember Greg McDonald, god bless him, driving the truck, no it was on camera, Greg was driving, somebody was on camera …

We were on the Mystic River Bridge at about 8:00 in the morning at the head of rush hour and you were talking in the headsets to the truck driver, to the cameraman, and I was listening in and you said, “Slower, slower, stop”.

And you were then directing, we were doing a program about the environment of the city, you were shooting smoke stacks.

And Greg said, “Fred we’re parked on the Mystic River Bridge in the middle of rush hour”.

And your response was, quote, “We’ve paid our toll.”

INT: That’s true.

We got the shot and moved on.

MA: We paid a Boston policeman with a motorcycle $27.00 and we could go anywhere.

Lee Polk and Jerry Slater from WNET came up to see us do ” Michael Ambrosino’s Show” and they couldn’t believe what we were doing because the City of New York and its regulations and the unions…

There’s no way you could run a cable on the sidewalk.

No way you could stop, as we did, in the middle of Harvard Square and put me on the top of a chair for a half an hour, stopping direct traffic in all directions to do a lead-in.

We quickly discovered in that series that we could either do a studio show with studio segments or we could do exterior segments, but we didn’t have enough money to do both and you, god bless you, said, we’ll do it all outside.

And so we did credits, and everything.

And we did in those days 18 programs in 28 weeks.

About half were videotaped and half were film.

Boy, that’s with just reversal film.

There would be a day for shooting, a morning for videotape editing or a day or a day and a half of film editing.

Dick Bartlett cut most of those.

And it was my attempt to remind myself … a primer of what could be done outside.

Some were interviews, some were little documentaries.

There was a program about Inman Square, there were programs about pollution, there were programs about dawn.

We showed little rock concerts, we showed what autumn was like, we showed what flying was like.

We did a program about Boston Harbor.

And I remember we finally were getting it right, I think Dave Atwood was directing at that time, and we had … you were directing, Inman Square?

INT: Inman Square.

MA: You directed that one, and I remember we came in, the show went out on Tuesday nights so we came in probably on a Monday morning and Ralph Schuetz walked up to us, with tears streaming down his face and holding two, two-inch cans of tape and said …

“I have tapes two and three of ‘Michael Ambrosino’s Show’,” and we said, “Where’s tape number one?”

And he said, “We recorded Governor Furcoloon over it last night.”

So, we made a show of tapes two and three.

Luckily, you had said that the six to eight minute intro that we had shot on tape one was no good and we should do it over and that was on tape three and that was the Inman Square program.

INT: An important factor, at least the Boston history, was that was the first time that a little seafood place had been showcased on camera has gone on to become probably Boston’s number one seafood restaurant, Legal Seafoods.

MA: Legal Seafoods.

George Burkowitz gave me a lesson on how to buy fish.

He stuck a fish in my face and said, “Smell that, smell anything?”

I said, “No I don’t smell anything.”

He said, “Ah, it’s fresh fish.”

INT: We have to get to this point …

You and WGBH went separate ways there for awhile….

MA: Yep.

There had been a putsch in 1967, there was a change in management, and having been told I would be program manager, I wasn’t.

I resigned.

I ran around the country for three months.

San Francisco, Los Angeles, Washington flew me out.

I came back to the station and said, you know I don’t want to go anywhere.

I’m going, the terrible, you know, all the macho stuff is I should quit now, you choose Michael Rice instead of me.

No station around the country for the next five or ten years is going to make the kind of programs that this place can make.

So, I stayed.

In the middle of making that series “Michael Ambrosino’s Show,” I guess I said to myself, you are the programmer you thought you were.

Probably the best thing that ever happened to me was that I was not made the program manager.

I think Michael made a better program manager than me.

I think he gave more freedom to people like you than I would have given you in “What’s Happening Mr. Silver.”

And he gave me that freedom in “Michael Ambrosino’s Show.”

In the middle of that, I told the station to fill my job.

That if I came back, I would come back to do something else and Mark Stevens was made Associate Director of Programs.

It was also a sort of a personal thing.

I was going to be 40 in June and I had literally been working since the age of five, when my mother made my first apron in the store and I felt the 40th year was mine, nobody else could have it.

I quickly discovered that Fulbright gave a pittance and you had to teach somewhere.

Guggenheim gave less and the Ford Foundation was not interested in giving me a grant to sit on my duff in Northern Italy and contemplate what I do next.

And the Corporation for Public Broadcasting had a fellowship, but the previous year it had been at Nippon Hoso Kyoki , NHK in Japan, and although I still spoke some Japanese from 18 months in the service there, I knew that I would go to a foreign network in a fellowship and be an observer and that wasn’t for me.

And about two months later it was announced that the 1970, ’71 fellowship would be in London at the BBC and I said, that’s mine.

And I applied for it and went after it and four days before I was 40, in which I would be ineligible to receive it, I got the grant and that really changed my life and changed my ideas about programming forever.

INT: So, how did it change and what were those ideas?

MA: Well, the BBC said, we have a wonderful plan for you.

We’re going to set you up in nine different divisions, you know, one month at a time.

The first month you’re going to eat with everybody and I said, you know if I were 21 that would be great, but I’m 40.

I didn’t come here to look at all of your different divisions.

I came here to work.

You’ve got a very pugnacious program that goes out 45 minutes every night, BBC One, called “24 Hours” it was news and current affairs, had three production teams that worked in rotation.

If I’m any good and I get assigned to that, I’m going to actually work there and get the kind of experience that I want.

And the BBC being the BBC said, “Oh, you’ve got your own ideas, that’s fine.”

So for the first month, I did eat with everybody from Hugh Whelden to David Attenborough, to the heads of radio, to the heads of all the major divisions, the drama, music, opera, etc.

In radio in overseas and then in television.

And then I went to work.

Monday, I observed.

Tuesday, I was given an assignment.

I was given an assignment which I later learned had been given to two other people and it had been rejected.

A young associate producer on the program had proposed an interview by a well-known British rock star and the executive producer of the program was so entranced in getting to meet him that he directed it himself.

A filmed interview, 45 minutes long, without one cut away, no pictures of the apartment, no pictures of his bedroom, the socks, the books in the bookcase.

And so the other people had cut it and it you know had butchered it.

Coming out of “Michael Ambrosino’s Show,” we had done video editing, snap editing.

We’d done a lot of it and I was not an expert, but certainly was more expert than they were.

I had found a piece of music that this fellow had done, in a recent film, and edited the interview to the beat of the music he had been performing.

So that everything had a cadence and Thursday night of that week, an 18 minute piece on a little known rock star called Mick Jagger went out on BBC One and I was no longer an observer, I was then a member of the staff.

It’s interesting that I owe my whole future in programming to him.

I worked on that program, a dear man left his position as an associate director of the program and allowed me to take over because the American elections were on and so I was directing teams of film makers in America to cover Rockefeller, to cover Bob Drinan’s run for Congressman, the first Jesuit to go to Congress.

We had satellite feeds and that was a rather glorious four or five months.

And I wrote that up hoping that public broadcasting would do something like that instead of the sort of newsroom approach that we were following.

I then spent about four months watching something strange called “Features Group” make documentaries out of programs that we normally would have thought of as educational television or further instruction.

Programs about music, about dance, about the arts, about science and technology and religion and these were very popular documentaries on BBC Two.

At that time in England commercial television had come in and BBC One was reorganized to give them a real fight for their money because BBC One had been losing its ratings and all the educative kinds of shows went to BBC Two.

And about a month before I was to come back to America, Bob Larsen came over and we took a seven hour walk talking about if I came back, what would I come back to do?

And he asked me what I would like to do?

And I said, I want to take over Channel 2.

I think we should separate local and national programming.

Local programming is going to be screwed by the impetuous for national and he said, “No ‘GBH will never separate the two.”

“What else would you like to do?”

I said, “Well I think I would like to start a science series.”

And May the first, 1971, I wrote a five page letter to Michael Rice outlining basically what a science program for public broadcasting would be like.

INT: And of course we all know that’s “NOVA” that came out of that five-page letter.

MA: Yes, I came back to WGBH on a Rockefeller Grant for a couple of months to develop a science project.

Actually Michael’s letter welcoming me back, welcomed me back to do “Michael Ambrosino’s Show” and maybe to create a science series.

I also was developing a project called “Dying” because one of the Michael Ambrosino programs was going to be about leukemia kids at Childrens Hospital.

And another project which failed.

Development took a year, raising the money took another year and a half and we actually went on the air in 1974 in March with the first 13 programs in the “NOVA” series.

INT: And the BBC and all that connection at BBC and WGBH were co-producers, am I right in saying that?

MA: Not co-producers as much as, it would not have happened had we not taken on the strand technique that BBC had created.

INT: The strand technique?

MA: Well there was no way in hell anybody was going to give me the millions necessary to do 13 new science programs and we were not equipped to make 13 new science programs in a series.

If we would make three or four ourselves with BBC producers that I brought over, with American associate producers and PAs who could then be trained to do this, and we co-produced one or two with BBC, and we bought some of their best award winners that they made in the last 10 years.

We could spread that money out and get more programs for a few dollars and actually create a TV series that meant that the programs we made had to come up in quality to the award winners that we were buying because I had 150 programs to choose from for the first series.

So, we were off and running.

INT: In that first year or two of “NOVA,” which of the shows are you most pleased with?

What are the ones that really stand out in your mind?

MA: “Why Do Birds Sing”.

Typical I think of “NOVA” is that it would take a subject that you’ve never even thought you’d be interested in, and show you something that was just so stunning and so beautiful that it made you look at the world a little differently.

Recently, the National Science Foundation gave an award to “NOVA” in its 25th year and I told a little story that I thought the perfect “NOVA” was a film about a lot, a vacant lot, done by a “NOVA” producer in such a way that you would never think of a lot as ever being vacant again.

And I think that is the charm of a series like that.

That, yes, it could deal with things like the “Plutonium Connection” by John Angier, in which we showed that stolen or lost plutonium could be made into a terrorist weapon and had it checked with scientists in Scandinavia.

We dealt with the issues of bombing and whether bombing was effective for the First World War up through Vietnam and showed that indeed it wasn’t effective and did not destroy the morale of any population, it only galvanized it.

Along with the public policy questions of whether there was enough water in the country to feed Los Angeles.

There were these films that took place, you know, infinite delight of beauty, that just looked at a desert and shows what happens in a desert in a course of a year …

That dealt with bird migrations and how they can travel thousands of miles and come back to the same place.

The inner beauty of finding out how the world worked.

It was never meant to be a science series.

I think it is not a science series, it uses science to show how the world works.

Excellent tool, as film-making is an excellent tool.

INT: Well from a viewer whose benefitted much from “NOVA,” thank you for writing that five page memo.

I’m glad you came back.

The end of our second hour.

June 18, 1998 with Michael Ambrosino.

Thank you.

WGBH Pioneers: Michael Ambrosino – Part 1 (1998)

This entry is part 3 of 11 in the series The Michael Ambrosino Collection

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 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?

MA: Yes.

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 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, 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, became the provost of MIT, himself had recorded for Lomax, many of the recordings that are in the Library of Congress of folk singers in the South.

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 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. 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.

two black and white 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, 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 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?

INT: Yes.

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 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.

INT; Yes.

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 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, 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.