October 14, 1961: That Fateful Day

By Alan W. Potter (WGBH: 1955-85)

Imagine

It’s October 13th 1961. About 11:00 p.m. Work is over for the day. But, before we can leave, we have to finish what remains of our daily cleanup: sweep and mop the studio floors. Cleanup the studio and the control room. Shut down all electronics. Pull the cameras back into their corral and neatly figure eight all camera cables. Then – Days end! Lights out! Head home!

By 11:30 p.m. give or take a few minutes, I am in my car on the way home, except for one quick stop at the Zebra Lounge, the favorite end of the day nightly stop. Shortly after one a.m. (closing time), I am heading down Storrow Drive. By 2:00 a.m. I am placing my ear gently against the pillow looking forward to a peaceful end of the week and then sleep.

Reality

Little did I know, nor could I have ever imagined the events that were about to unfold and how my life was about to change. About three hours into my reverie, I was unmercifully poked awake. Someone was yelling in my ear: “Wake up, wake up!” “Channel two is on fire and has just burnt to the ground.” I really didn’t want to face the day at 7:00 a.m.

I struggled to bring myself out of sleep. I was trying hard to find my way out of that middle distance between asleep and awake when nothing that is going on around you makes any sense. The radio was turned up and I began to focus on the news through the remaining haze of sleep. As I focused, I heard, “Early this morning at approximately 4:30 a.m. a devastating fire occurred at the Channel Two Studios on Massachusetts Avenue in Cambridge. The building is a total loss. More news about this fire in our next newscast in fifteen minutes.”

As I sat on the edge of my bed trying to clear my head, I was really hoping that sleep would come again. The haze lifted. I pulled on the clothes I’d left the station just a short three hours ago as all sorts of things raced through my mind: was it a carelessly discarded cigarette, arson, bad electrical wiring, a forgotten soldering iron that wasn’t unplugged, a discontent listener reacting to a program? What the hell happened? Was it something I did!? What?

Little did I know, nor could I have ever imagined that the three hours of sleep I got that morning of October 14th 1961 would be the longest hours I spent in bed for months – maybe years!

The aftermath

I lurched out of bed dressed just enough to be decent, but not shaved or showered as I usually did at the start of the day, and not dressed in my usual clean starched blue oxford button down shirt and chinos. I was too preoccupied with the morning news and still reacting to the news broadcast I heard while still in “the middle distance.” Body moving – mind trying to catch up – running on automatic.

As I opened the car door and turned the ignition key, the only thought I had was to get to the station to see for myself that this was no joke!

The trip that morning is a blur. I was almost at the intersection of Mem. Drive and Mass. Ave. when I saw a parking spot. What luck! I started running the remaining few feet to Mass. Ave. and turned facing the burning remains that were Channel Two. What a shock!

Screen Shot 2016-09-05 at 8.24.54 AM

I kept running. I passed the steps at the front entrance of MIT, which was directly opposite the Channel Two Studio building. After turning onto Mass. Ave., my legs went into overdrive. If I had been running the Boston Marathon I would be on record pace! I heard applause. But even though I was pretty jacked-up and still a little hazy from my rude awakening, the applause brought me finally into reality mode.

They were all there, and they had all arrived before I did. Who? The whole gang. Bob Moscone dressed to the nines as usual. Ken Anderson, Jack Kean – smoking his.5¢ cigar. Bob Hall. Fran Abramowicz and others including my pal Al Hinderstein, Hindy, who joined me for lunch on those step from time to time when the weather was just right.

They had been watching the Cambridge Fire Department for a while and observing the progress of extinguishing the fire so they all knew the status of things. I ran up the steps – raised my hands in wonder and managed to let out a question: “So?” Silence.

The building was still smoldering. The fire department continued to pump water into the second and third floors of the building to completely douse the fire. It took a while. But, when they were satisfied that the fire was completely out, we were allowed to go into certain parts of the building which were deemed to be safe. The building had been a lot of things over the years before the Channel Two Studios were located there. (The exact location of the building has been memorialized with a plaque, which can be seen by visiting the space once occupied by WGBH at that time.)

The fire gutted the middle of the building. And destroyed the West end. The West end was the most flammable: scenery, wood, and sawdust accumulated in the scene shop. There was also an antique freight elevator. This area was also badly destroyed in the fire.

Fortunately, the East end of the building was spared total destruction and it was from the technical areas there that we were able to salvage some valuable technical equipment, which was stored at MIT’s Kresge Auditorium located on MIT property behind the Channel Two Studio building. Between the building and the Kresge Auditorium there was an alley: our parking area, if you got lucky and arrived early. At the time the fire struck, we were converting an old Greyhound Bus to a TV Mobile Unit to handle location production demand which was growing by leaps and bounds. Between the salvaged and repaired equipment rescued from the fire and generous donations from many other sources to numerous to mention, the “new” mobile unit was operable within weeks.

The most memorable vision I often recall that occurred during the few days that surrounded the conflagration that took our studios on that fateful night was of a Cambridge Firefighter during the cleanup of the remains of the fire.

It was on the day of or the day after the fire when we were told it was safe enough to enter the East end of the building to start saving whatever we could. I was working breaking down equipment in the Telecine area and the Studio “A” control Room, disconnecting miles and miles of wiring and moving salvageable gear to the storage location at Kresge Auditorium.

These areas (Telecine and the Studio A control room) were separated from the studio by glass walls so we were able to look out into the studio and see, by eye, the physical action taking place there during studio production.

I had already made several trips in and out of the building. I had just climbed the rear fire escape – again, to start more salvage – and as I cautiously prepared to remove more electronics from the telecine room, I happened to look out into the remains of the Studio and there in the middle of this burned and blackened void was a lone Firefighter standing almost up to his knees in water and other detritus left over from when the fire was at its worst. In his grasp: a huge hand auger – standard fire truck gear. Twisting it a half a turn at a time in an effort to drill a drain hole to let the heavy water collected in the second level of the building to drain out to avoid the possibility of a building collapse seemed to me to be a herculean task.

Little did he know, nor would he ever have imagined that a roller skating rink occupied that space years before and the floor was under laid with cork making a more gentle floor for falling roller skaters. When he pulled the auger, the hole closed up the way a wine cork closes around a cork screw. I couldn’t help but chuckle. He didn’t know, but I thought I had found a kindred soul.

We were both engaged in hopeless tasks. I was engaged in salvaging soaked, blackened electronics, which I could not imagine would ever work again. He too, was attempting the seemingly impossible. Years later after we had been long out of the Mass. Ave. Building, I would find water stained, blackened pieces of electronics that I was sure I personally salvaged from the fire and I would think of that Fireman. I have no idea whether he ever managed to drill through that studio floor. The building eventually had to be destroyed. All that is left now is a pleasant grassy, green patch along Massachusetts Avenue opposite the Main Entrance of MIT. And a plaque.

The lesson of the day: you have to keep trying no matter how impossible a task my seem, and I am glad I learned that lesson that day. Years later, I was still working at Channel Two. Who would have ever thought it? I often thought back to that Fireman’s hopeless effort whenever I was faced with a seemingly hopeless task of my own.

What was next?

I was not the only one who wondered about the future of WGBH TV.

Did we dare think that like the beautiful Phoenix Bird, it would rise again from its ashes to become more wondrous than ever before. Would Channel Two emerge from the disastrous fire that destroyed it to become even more extraordinary than it had been since its beginning just a few years earlier. The answer already exists in WGBH’s illustrious history.

Mystery is a wonderful motivator. What next? That was the question on everyone’s mind back then. Channel Two had auspicious beginnings. All of the member institutions were great success stories themselves going back many, many years. The staff at that time (1961) were all goal driven, well educated, and focused on accomplishment and becoming pioneers in television broadcasting. Television was still in its very early years. After the fire, I don’t know of a single staff member who threw in the towel and walked away to find another future.

Imagine: as I write this it is now July of 2016, 55 years and 5 months after that fateful day: October 14, 1961.

Or, was it a fateful day? I suppose any day one looses his place of business – where you have a job and income doing things you love to do with people you love to work with — can be called a fateful day. But this was a different fateful day.

Looking back over the last 55 plus years, it’s easy to relive moments, circumstances, people, places, activities and the many, many challenges that have been cast before me and how that contributed to my personal and professional growth. That fateful day placed many WGBHers on a path to accomplishment and success. There weren’t many of those original WGBH staff and those who followed shortly after the fire, who didn’t make Channel Two a career.

The spirit of those early staffers seemed to become imbued in others as they joined our ranks. The spirit was infectious. The prospects of a future now etched in history.

There is no doubt that Channel Two’s history plays one of the most significant roles in the Public Television Story. I am certain that all those who lived through the destruction of the Station in 1961 stayed on and others came because there was something magical about working here and it was patently clear that as our programming evolved, television technology improved and our ability to experiment was encouraged. The opportunity for personal growth was boundless.

Who could have ever imagined?

“What’s going on here?” – Louis Lyons and the News

From David Sloss

Louis Lyons used to do a 15-minute newscast every night. Louis was a salty old New Englander who said whatever was on his mind. His show was as simple as could be – just one camera on Louis. All the director had to do was cue the opening slide and announcer, and then dissolve to the camera on Louis. Novice directors were given the show as a first assignment.

05-P-P-Louis-Lyons-1One night a newbie was directing for the first time. Everything was ready to go; camera 2 was set up on Louis. Then, just before they went on the air, the engineers decided something wasn’t right with camera 2, and substituted camera 3. The director didn’t notice the change, and said, “dissolve to 2”. The switcher dutifully did as he was told, and what went on the air was a lens cap.

Louis started to talk, and then he noticed that the little red light on his camera wasn’t on. He knew very little about the technical stuff, but he knew that wasn’t right. He stopped in mid-sentence, not sure if he was on the air or not. In the control room, people are screaming “Three! Three!” at the novice director, who’s paralyzed. Finally someone reaches over and punches the button for 3. Louis appears on the air, just as he’s saying, “What the hell is going on here?”

Two days later we got a note from a viewer, who said “Thanks for the refreshing start to the news. I’m a farmer. We’ve been asking that question for years!”

David Silver on Bud Collins, Julia Child, Fred Barzyk, and more

By David Silver

silverI always looked forward to hanging with Bud Collins. He genuinely liked our show, “What’s Happening Mr. Silver?” and told me so. Bud’s passion, his camaraderie, his warmth and wit were irresistible to me, and I was ecstatic that he enjoyed what we were doing.

Obviously, I savored spending any time with him. One day he called me and told me that his guest in the upcoming taping was Muhammed Ali. This in itself was exciting to me, and everybody else. But the cream in the coffee for me was that Bud asked me if I’d like to meet the amazing champion. After the taping, I went on to the studio floor and Bud introduced me to Ali. I distinctly remember the size of the legend’s hand, when we shook hands. It utterly enveloped mine and yet somehow expressed goodwill to me in its firmness and enthusiasm.

We talked for about twenty minutes, and it was quite clear to me how much respect and liking Ali had for Bud. Who didn’t, truthfully? Bud’s effervescent energy is unique and very pleasing to be around.

Another example for me of the great “casting” taste of the station was the bright crew of TV personalities, from Bud to Julia Child, all having enough brio and TV feel to change the quality of how to be on television.

Julia often did her show in Studio B when we were doing “What’s Happening Mr. Silver?” in Studio A. One of my fondest (and most delicious) memories is of eating leftovers from her show along with our two studio crews.

Question: What could be more wonderful than that? The answer: Well, it’s having dinner cooked by her at the Child house and eating with Julia and Paul, her gentle, witty, knowledgeable husband, not only dining on the obviously supremely tasty food, but hearing from the two of them a series of juicy, hysterical anecdotes about their learning curve on French cooking early in their marriage.

As a 23 year old on-camera TV neophyte, watching Julia’s completely honest and wonderfully natural television presentations, actually helped me in my own slightly panicky weekly approach to hosting a television show.

Conspiracy/televisual anarchy without anger or agenda. That was basically the underlying urge in the work we did on “What’s Happening Mr. Silver?” way back in 1967 and 1968. Fred Barzyk’s vision was never static, never ideological, never even self-consciously artistic. He consistently utilized and manifested his muscular mischievous side as a way of creating TV. This irreverence was effortlessly coupled with a remarkably liberated intellectual and visceral vision of what TV could be.

Everyone working on our show thoroughly enjoyed production meetings, shoots, and post. Fred fused a little Ernie Kovacs into a Boston-imaged Fellini-esque caricature and then threw in the already ongoing madcap everyday gestalt of the later sixties and voila – you had television without the usual and sometimes tedious cadences of both spoken word and visual presentation.

60s Love In Festival: Love Revolution :: Short Documentary :: Whats happening Mr. Silver ?

I remember with glee the repeated trick of shooting the live show on a Thursday night, usually with me more or less alone in the studio, while multiple film chains, often controlled by the brilliant mind of David Atwood, sort of spluttered into the ongoing show, be that an interview or a monologue or a purely visual piece of madness.

The mix of absurdist stock footage and locally-captured 16mm weirdness never allowed the show, or the staff, to settle. So I never knew what was about to happen, which made for an attack on the clichés of broadcast television. It didn’t always work, but it pushed the media envelope, when almost all the other envelopes were being relentlessly pushed by the wild spirit of those days – in politics, music, civil rights, protest, movies, fashion, culture, design, etc.

Fred and Olivia Tappan and David Atwood et. al. dropped the conventional wisdom plan of attack, as it were, and came up with a very potent, if eccentric, TV display of total spontaneity, in a sixties zeitgeist, and did it trusting all the participants to be somehow revolutionary and, simply put, different.

The two 16mm cameramen on our show were Peter Hoving and Boyd Estus. How magically fortuitous was that? It was a constant source of humor and skill, in entirely different ways, from both of them. It simply made their film inserts in the show an art form all unto itself.

I was always magnetized during filming (occasionally in obscenely early morning hours) because of the wonderfully lethal mix of Fred’s endless creativity and their usually spontaneous expansion upon that. And I was amazed that we always had access to these two highly dexterous professionals working a couple of times a week usually on a myriad of remote films for us.

They had completely different personalities and attitudes towards the art of Arriflex/Éclair/Aaton shooting: Boyd, the consummately calm camera operator, quietly taking in every detail of a scene (whether it was a head shop in Cambridge or a political be-in on the Common) while, in marked contrast, Peter Hoving hovering intensely over all he surveyed, guiding his lens rapidly to the expected shots that we basically needed for any given show, and also to the unexpected and explosive.

These days, all is video it seems, but I maintain that the texture and visual resonance of 16mm film added a very special feel to the show we did, where the audience was triggered by the film segments to sense yet another dimension to the Barzykian vision. But even more than that, I have to say, the sheer fun of working with these two totally WGBH-level-of-excellence operators was a once-in-a-career gift to me as well as a consistent delight for our viewers.

Thalassa Cruso was my English pal and compatriot at WGBH. Her gardening show “Making Things Grow” was almost a sister show of Julia’s. Thalassa was equally idiosyncratic, yet, just like Mrs. Child, was a clear and no-BS articulator/teacher.

WGBH presented three women-hosted TV series in just a few years, with three groundbreaking female TV hosts. Thalassa’s show along with “The French Chef” and, just a bit later, Maggie Lettvin’s “Maggie and the Beautiful Machine” put WGBH-TV years ahead of the Food Channel and workout videos.

Thalassa could be quite pugnacious, always audacious and horticulturally very sagacious! Maggie was married to the late, lamented MIT scion, Jerome Lettvin (also a terrific guest on “What’s Happening Mr. Silver?”) Her verve and brio and knowledge was a joy to watch and she was and is a joy to be around.

We once did a “What’s Happening Mr. Silver?” show when we invited soldiers (who were still in uniform and had been in Vietnam) to a Studio A party where the other invitees were draft resisters and antiwar activists.

Fred had the studio decorated with military objects – guns, swords, footlockers, medals, and I was frankly kind of anxious that when these two diametrically opposing groups came together, a mini-war might ensue!

Well, we lubricated everyone with beer and spirits and before long, a remarkable confluence occurred, rather easily. Everyone started talking together, and there was a completely counter-intuitive thing happening. Everyone got along famously. There were disagreements obviously, given the roles of the men in the studio, but there was almost no anger.

I wafted around chatting ad lib with everyone, and I remember vividly the good vibes generated and a subtle truth emerging quietly. Civility prevailed, cordiality grew and even though there was the crucial element of the demon alcohol in the mix, it was a truly lovely evening.

Unfortunately, this show was wiped. Two-inch high band videotape was very expensive and it didn’t even seem weird at the tine that this show amongst quite a few others from the series had to go bye-bye. After all, NBC wiped many tapes of Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show, so who am I to complain?

Stereo Television: Origins

By Jack Caldwell

Screen Shot 2016-03-05 at 11.44.13 AM“OK RCA, if you build a stereo television transmitter and TV sets, we will prove to you that you need to.”

I can take no credit for this. Credit goes to Hartford Gunn, the visionary in whose shadow many of us have built our careers.

He believed, and I concurred, that, back in the late 1960’s, the absence of stereo sound for television was not a feature WGBH management, staff, listeners, or viewers would wish to endure for a very long time. Indeed, WGBH-FM was already attracting listeners who cared about the quality of sound. Why just radio? Why not television?

“Why not” became a buzzphrase that Hartford passed on to me … and I have embraced it ever since.

Back then, all TV sets had mono sound.

All TV transmitters transmitted mono sound.

TV set makers and transmitter manufacturers pointed fingers at each other. If the transmitters only delivered mono sound, why build TV sets that could deliver stereo … and vice versa?

So, Hartford, with me in tow, went to Hollywood to observe and learn — in a few days — how the recording of stereo was being accomplished in the film and LP recording businesses. (I did my thesis research on AMPEX — another story of how the video recorder came into being)

When we returned to Boston, I reorganized part of our engineering department to create a sound department. Bill Busick, engineering leader for WGBH FM was a reluctant player in this new undefined pursuit to establish WGBH as the leader in sound production for any media. Tom Keller was the EIC (Engineer-in-Charge) and welcomed the challenge.

Why wait to follow? Get out and forge new ground. That was WGBH. That is WGBH. We had two TV stations, a film department, and a radio station. Where would this pursuit of stereo sound for television take us? We didn’t know. We had bright people on staff, and Boston was rich with talented new companies that were focused on sound. KLH was founded by Henry Kloss in the late 1950’s. He came in to help. As did others.

24NETI came to WGBH from Ann Arbor where the-then NET (National Educational Television network) had the largest videotape duplication center in the world. I managed the national distribution to all public (then educational TV stations) of all kinescope, film and videotapes. And I managed the duplication of all film and kinescopes.

There were various processes to put sound on film products. And key producers of video programs would often come to Ann Arbor to edit sound and pictures. So, I had some background in putting sound with pictures for television distribution. But I was not the engineer/tech guru. That was Howard Town. He and I were the two VPs of NET, based in New York, that oversaw the Ann Arbor based duplication and distribution center. (On any given day we had 10,000 program units bicycling through the system)

Shortly after I left to join WGBH, my old buddy and colleague Howard Town left NET for AMPEX. (Back then, an AMPEX quarter inch tape recorder was the best there was.) Howard’s assignment was to develop a 24-track audio recorder using two-inch tape. All the “mechanics” for the VCR were in place. Why not use the concept for audio — where multiple tracks could be edited down to mono, stereo and four-track composites for the recording industry?

Naturally, Tom Keller, WGBH chief engineer, Howard Town, and myself (and Bill Busick, I think) started a conversation about syncing the AMPEX device (finally, I believe, named an MM1000) with a two-inch VCR. That took us to New York to talk to the folks who used the Selsyn Interlock system for syncing sound and pictures for motion pictures. Was there something we could learn?

While the technology development was underway, the creation of program material — and ultimate delivery of same — was front and center. The Boston Pops quickly became the lead contender for the experiment.

With all of “players” working as a team, we reached out to England to purchase a Neve audio board. We bought a truck to house it as a mobile sound recording facility. And we arranged with Howard Town at AMPEX to acquire an early MM1000. Serial number two, I believe, and that, too, went into the truck with the Neve board.

Someone, probably Bill Cosel and Hartford, worked with the Pops, Fiedler, the union and stage hands, et. al., to allow us to put cameras and lights and staging on the stage of the Pops. I remember Fran Mahard creating flats that would help us with the sound and the pictures. Back then, the lights were bright and hot. We needed the musicians to wear blue tucks instead of black, and we had to dig up the street in front of Symphony Hall to put in special transformers to handle the power we needed for lighting.

Yes, we had our big mobile television truck already in hand. Think Tennis.

A genius gentleman — Bill Pierce — produced the mix. We saved a track for mono TV, two tracks for stereo, a rehearsal track or two, and the rest of the 24 tracks were dedicated to the various sections of the orchestra. I’m sure Bill Cosel has a lot of memory and details to fill in.

After a concert by the Pops, the video came back separately (with a mono track) and the sound came back to WGBH in the sound truck. In post production, even a single note could be corrected — and was. The sound was edited to perfection. Then the video was edited to match. Now, remember, back then, editing video was done with a razor blade and a very expensive “splicer” where the cut two-inch tape was joined with aluminum adhesive tape. And the splice mark pulse was revealed by applying stainless steel “dust” in an alcohol base to the tape. (That’s another story!)

With some trial and error, we learned that we could place the video tape on machine A and the take up reel on machine B — some 20 feet or so to the right — in order to get the MM1000 and the VCR in sync. I don’t remember what it was we developed to sync the VCR and MM1000. It was a “black box.”

The broadcast, finally, was mono to channel 2 and stereo to WGBH FM. Viewers were taught to put their stereo speakers on each side of their TV set, turn off the TV sound and turn up their stereo FM amps. And the press in Boston was encouraged to watch and listen. They did … and they liked it. The new clippings were then delivered to RCA — who made both TV sets and transmitters. They “got it.” And, you know the rest of the story.

Hartford Gunn was the one who dreamed about what isn’t happening — and could or should be — and then made it happen. And that took a team of folks who had no experience of failure. Indeed, all we had was the thrill of inventing a then better “tomorrow” in the evolution of our chosen career of television.

Among the manny lessons taught to me by Hartford — from almost my first day at WGBH — was a critically important message on leadership. The first principle was, without reservation, to have no interest in WGBH being a follower or a second place player. Then, secure the most advanced technology the world has to offer, let the world know you have it, and the most talented will beat down your door to gain access to it. Hire the most creative who come forth, give them objectives and goals to be met, give them the necessary financial resources, give them encouragement and mentoring, — and get the hell out of the way!

Why is WGBH what it is today? Look around WGBH, then and now, and consider pioneering stories like this one. That’s why.

Do you have other memories of stereo television at WGBH? If so, send them to jay.collier@thecompass.com or post below.

The Making of “The Lathe of Heaven”

This entry is part 15 of 22 in the series The Fred Barzyk Collection

By Fred Barzyk — 12/2015

FredIt is still amazing to me how many people of a certain age remember watching this TV movie. I mean it was 1979 when it aired! It was on PBS, whose ratings were nowhere near the networks audience numbers. That’s a long time for a TV movie to stick in someone’s memory bank. It is very gratifying and wondrous. A tribute to Ursula Le Guin and David Loxton.

Let me begin at the beginning. David Loxton, an ambitious young Englishman was working for Jac Venza at WNET New York. Jac was head of cultural programs and David was one of his main assistants. I was working at WGBH Boston doing a show called “What’s Happening, Mr Silver?” David Silver, also a young Englishman, was teaching literature at Tufts University in Boston. Silver and I got together to create an experimental show, “What’s Happening, Mr. Silver?”

mrsilverThe year? 1968. The summer of The Love Revolution! Hippies! Drugs! Don’t trust anyone over 30! Free Love! Love-ins! I was asked to produce and direct a series reflecting the Cultural Revolution and David Silver became the on camera host. He was in his early 20’s, English and looked a lot like Mick Jagger. And he was teaching at a University! Perfect for our audience. The two Davids knew each other from school in England. David Loxton came to watch one of our productions. He couldn’t believe what we were doing. Sometimes we couldn’t either. I almost got fired … twice.

The show lasted almost a year and tested the very boundaries of television. We were the first to do a double TV broadcast. The show asked the audience to take two TV sets and place them six feet apart, turn one TV to Ch. 2 and the other to Ch. 44 (both owned and operated by WGBH). The audience was presented a show that was in stereo, both in picture and sound. The images and sounds were different on each channel. They were responding to each other while the audience tried to relate the happenings on the two screens.

loxton-crop2David Loxton and I became partners in doing television shows together. We produced “People” for NBC starring Lily Tomlin; “American Pie” for ABC with Joe Namath; “Flashback” hosted by Eric Severeid and “Countdown to Looking Glass” for HBO; “Phantom of the Open Hearth” a drama by Jean Shepherd for PBS; “Between Time and Timbuktu” a crazy mix of the writings of Kurt Vonnegut for PBS.

I was also instrumental in getting David the directorship of WNET’s TV Lab, an experimental project similar to the WGBH New Television Workshop that I ran for 10 years. Each of us had different strengths but usually assumed a shared producer/director credit. In practice, David was the producer and I was the director. We ended up doing many shows for HBO, a special for NBC with Lily Tomlin, and many dramas for PBS.

leguinDavid had a vision for doing sci-fi dramas for PBS. However, the label of “sci-fi” sounded a little too pedestrian for PBS. So David began calling his proposed dramas “speculative fiction.” He raised enough money to do one drama and he selected the novel “Lathe of Heaven” by Ursula Le Guin.
He traveled to Portland, Oregon and convinced her that he could do a creditable interpretation of her book. She agreed and David went out and cobbled together a budget of $750,000. (To be honest, David and I both used cash from our respective Experimental Labs to defray over-run costs)

A description of The Lathe of Heaven from its DVD release in 2000:

For George Orr, sleep is not a respite.
For Dr. William Haber, dreams are tools.
For sci-fi fans, the wait is over.

dvd2Praised as ‘rare and powerful’ by The New York Times, Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Lathe of Heaven is one of the most celebrated science fiction novels ever written. This innovative adaptation-never before released on DVD-brings the towering vision of Le Guin’s masterpiece to life.

George Orr is haunted by dreams that become reality. In a world where pollution has destroyed the ice caps and plagues rage unchecked, a psychiatrist sees Orr’s power as a way for humanity to escape its bleak fate. But as each attempt to direct Orr’s dreaming ends in failure, the doctor’s obsession with playing God grows stronger… a chilling fable of power uncontrolled and uncontrollable.

And so we began.

David was the Executive Producer and we shared the Director credit. David hired a writer, Roger Swaybill, to write the treatment. His work was adequate but it lacked a special vision that we wanted. David, myself and a young writer, Diane English, holed up in a New York office for 4 weeks rewriting the script. (Diane went on to Hollywood and became a star producer, creating a hit TV series “Murphy Brown. She and her husband helped fund the Broadcast Museum in NYC.)

The most difficult part of the script to realize was when the lead character, George Orr, has an “effective dream” in which he dreams up the plague reducing the world population by millions of people. How the hell do we create such a disaster, and especially before computer magic as we know it today? And with as little cash as possible? I turned to two influences. First, the British film, Great Expectations. It was the scene of the scorned bride who still sits in her dust filled castle room, now old and wrinkled, left only with her dreams that gave me the emotional foundation. The other was a video artist, Peter Campus, who created a video art piece where he wraps plastic wrap around his face, over and over again. My vision took all of George Orr’s friends and relatives, sat them at a large banquet table, lit large English style candelabra’s and had the camera truck around the table over and over again. Each time it went around, the people’s heads became covered with dark scrim, until they slowly slumped into the table. Geroge Orr, Dr. Haber and the woman psychologist watched but did not expire.

Cobwebs, dust, and darkened lighting of the scene culminated when George stands and gives an inhuman scream, while a door opens, again and again, the constantly dolling in of the camera revealing a blazing white screen.

The white screen became the sky outside Haber’s lab finding George Orr standing in the window, devastated by what he had just witnessed.

The first order of business was to find the right actors. David and I viewed a number of films that our casting director asked us to watch. We were impressed with Bruce Davidson’s work in “Short Eyes”. He had the vulnerability and soft demeanor, but with a flash of anger and combativeness that was needed for the part of George Orr. We made him and offer and he accepted.

haber2Kevin Conway had appeared in a WGBH production of “Scarlet Letter.” David and I went to see him in a New York stage performance and were impressed. He had a crispness of speech, the breath of deep and grand voice, a smaller man who could embody the Napoleon complex of Dr. Haber.

We offered him the role and he accepted.

The role of the psychiatrist went to Margaret Avery. Her bio includes the following:

heather-crop“Avery scored a major success with her role as the sultry and spirited blues singer, Shug Avery, in Spielberg’s The Color Purple (1985) opposite Whoopi Goldberg and Danny Glover. Her performance in this screen adaptation of Alice Walker’s prize-winning novel of the same title earned Avery an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress in a Supporting Role.”

The production was shot in Texas, with a few exterior cutaways in Portland and a scene on the shore of the Pacific Ocean. It was the first time that we had worked with a Hollywood based Director of Photography, Robbie Greenberg. He brought his people along and they did a professional job. Our audio person was Dennis Maitland, one of the best audio people I have worked with on a film shoot.

An example: during one of the opening scene, I had George Orr walk through a crowded hallway. I asked that as he passed by groups of people, we could hear their conversations. I set up the camera dolly and tried the move a couple of times. In a very short time, we were ready to shoot. However, I didn’t see Dennis or his boom person setup for the shot. I asked if he heard the various groups as Orr walked past.

“Oh, yes” he said.

“Really?”

“Heard them all”

“How’s that possible with no boom mic?”

“I have a wireless mic on every group.”

I never saw him do it. He never once asked for a rehearsal. He just did these quick and perfect setups, time and time again. It was amazing. Dennis has retired but his son has followed in his footsteps.

The costume person, Laura Crow, created magic working closely with David. Especially her design for the “future” costumes the characters wore. Not too far out, and yet somehow special and reflective of a dysfunctional world. And when the world turns “grey” and all characters, black or white, became grey, she outdid herself in look and budget. No small feat.

all-gray

I want to take this moment to express my great respect to the set designer, John Wright Stevens, and his staff for their ability to work with the smallest budget ever, to create such unbelievable locations and settings.

He helped us find the great locations: Haber’s most expansive lab at the new City Hall in Dallas, Texas (the mayor had not even moved in at the time of our shooting!) and the glass exterior of Haber’s final lab at the Hyatt hotel in Dallas. We used both the inside and interior with the complete cooperation of the hotel management.

future-set3

John found great locations in Fort Worth: the Tandy Center and its mirrored elevator, the abandoned Oil Company building, and the bombed out exterior of the opening scene. He even convinced city officials to let us set off special effects — fire, coloring the fountain red and bubbling with dry ice, a 30-foot explosion on the base of the memorial site — in one of its prized monument plazas. Explosion, fire, smoke and the city let us do it. Thanks Ft. Worth!

Small back-story: As we setting up for the big scene which had to happen at night, the local police told us to move out for a while. When asked why, they said a drunken cowboy was walking down the street toward us, shooting as he walked along. We moved out for about a half hour and then the police said the coast was clear. That’s shooting in Texas in more ways than one.

One of the most difficult of all was trying to create special effects with a limited budget. Since David and I both had been working with video artists in our respective labs, we knew people who could create some effects for little money. Ed Emschwiller, a prolific video artist who also created works for sci-fi magazines helped with several difficult images, including flying saucers.

laserThe most inspired effect was a laser creation as the two leads fight out in the cosmos. David had located a laser company and we descended on them with our two lead actors and no knowledge of how to make this work. The owners of the company showed us what smoke and sprayed water looks like when added to the laser beams. What followed was a total free for all as we improvised actions that we thought might help the movie. It worked way beyond what we had hoped for. A fitting look for a sci-fi movie with a very low budget.

Now comes time for the biggest thanks. The editor, Dick Bartlett, a long time collaborator on my projects, created a marvelous product. The cameraperson hated it because the editor did what he does, mix and match. The DP wanted his long and complicated shots. But Dick was right. He spent along time in NYC working with David. The most daring part of the show was the opening 2 minutes, were nothing happens at all. Just shots of a peaceful world, until the bomb. That kind of opening would never have made it through a commercial network. Only on PBS could that of happened.

It made the show special right at the beginning. Today, cable networks would accept this as normal, but those were different times.

Only three times in my professional career did I ever have original music.

Lathe was one of them. Michael Small and an orchestra of 20 created a wonderful musical score. Michael worked for scale because he liked the project. We were very lucky.

“Michael Small (May 30, 1939 – November 24, 2003) was an American film score composer best known for his scores to thriller movies such as The Parallax View, Marathon Man, and The Star Chamber. Relatively few of his scores are available on compact disc. Michael Small died at the age of 64.”

The TV movie was released on PBS nation wide. Its reviews were good.

More importantly, Ursula liked what we did. The buzz lasted for a while and then died away. That was until a group of sci-fi groupies started pestering WNET to release the show on DVD. The cost of step up fees to actors, writers, musicians, etc. was considered too costly. But the noise reached new levels as sci-fi writers started writing articles about the lost masterpiece. Against many objections, WNET did finally break out the cash for a DVD release. WNET said they have never had as many requests for a DVD of one of their shows ever. I thank them for their commitment.

People still tell me how important that film was to them when growing up.

Some are real fanatics, able to recall scenes, shots, even dialogue. This has never happened to any other show I have ever created. It is a tribute to all who made this happen, no one more important than David Loxton.


New York Times, 1989

loxtonDavid R. Loxton, a producer of documentaries and other programs for public television, died of pancreatic cancer on Wednesday morning at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in Manhattan. He was 46 years old and lived in Manhattan.

Mr. Loxton joined the production staff of WNET, the major New York public-television affiliate, in 1966. In 1972, he created the Television Lab, which presented the work of independent film makers like Nam June Paik and of the choreographer Twyla Tharp, who has worked with video.

In addition to serving as the director of the Television Lab from 1972 through 1984, Mr. Loxton developed the Nonfiction TV series, which presented such works as ”Paul Jacobs and the Nuclear Gang,” ”I Remember Harlem” and ”The Times of Harvey Milk.” Mr. Loxton was the executive producer of Nonfiction TV from 1978 through 1983.

Mr. Loxton was the executive producer of programs for the ”Great Performances,” ”NET Playhouse” and ”American Playhouse” series.

He received many honors, including an Academy Award for ”The Times of Harvey Milk” (1985), Emmy Awards for that documentary as well as for ”The Police Tapes” (1977), ”Paul Jacobs and the Nuclear Gang” (1979) and ”Third Avenue: Only the Strong Survive” (1980), and Du Pont/Columbia Awards for ”Lord of the Universe” (1974), ”The Police Tapes” (1977), ”I Remember Harlem” (1982) and ”Pesticide and Pills” (1982).

In 1985, he won an ACE. award, cable television’s equivalent of an Emmy, for best original drama, for ”Countdown to Looking Glass,” about a United States-Soviet confrontation in the Middle East. He was co-executive producer, with Frederick Barzyk, of the program.

”It’s very hard to put together projects in public television, and he had the resources and drive to put them together and the skill to produce them,” Arnold Labaton, a senior vice president of WNET and director of the station’s production center, said yesterday. ”He also had a great talent for working with others. He did it with immense tact and judgment.”

Most recently, Mr. Loxton was director of drama for the ”Great Performances” series and senior executive producer for specials, both at WNET. He was executive producer of ”Tales From the Hollywood Hills,” a critically acclaimed series shown under the auspices of ”Great Performances.” When he became ill, he had just begun production of ”Childhood,” a six-part documentary for the Public Broadcasting Service.

Mr. Loxton, a British citizen, was born in Kingston, Ontario, and grew up in England. He is survived by his wife, Pamela, and two sons William and Charles, all of Manhattan; his father, William, of Ruscombe, Berkshire, and a brother, Peter, of London.

The Spirit of the Spirit: A WGBH remembrance

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

By Don Hallock — 8/8/2015

In 2000 I was hired by Montana Public Television to direct a PBS production of the Montana Summer Symphony. It was a sizable piece (outdoors, 13 cameras, and seven regional symphony orchestras – yes 7, in Montana!).

DH - CUThe Montana program manager/producer and I hit it off from the get-go. I had directed nothing for 24 years previously, and it had been a whole 37 years since leaving ‘GBH. I was immediately forthcoming about that, but probably because they’d had good experiences with David Atwood the previous two years, added to the superlative reputation of WGBH, the Montana PM was game to collaborate with this broadcasting antique.

The folks in Montana and I (in Hawaii) worked on the production plans for two or three months by phone, Internet and email. Luckily the scheduling worked out so that I could hire Bill Frances as TD. (I tried to get Chas Norton for lighting as well but, unfortunately, the timing was wrong.) Still, as I expected, Bill was superb, and the Montana people were hugely impressed by his easy way and mastery of the production.

On site, the Montana PBS staff, it turned out, were very professional, capable, immensely cooperative, cordial and wonderfully easy to work with. There was a warm atmosphere of smooth camaraderie among their staff. Working with these folks felt in some subliminal way like ‘coming home.’ And eventually I came to understand that the whole experience was wonderfully, and touchingly for me, reminiscent of my years at ‘GBH.

But here’s the thing: The day after I arrived in Bozeman, several of the local staff and I met for lunch, and got to know each other in person. We spoke about our plans, our histories in broadcasting, and our philosophies. I reminisced on the family atmosphere I remembered at ‘GBH, and how much I valued that. In response, the Montana people remarked on having earlier attended an NAB convention, specifically noting that, in contrast to most of the other Public Broadcasting groups, the ‘GBH people seemed remarkably amiable, close-knit, and mutually supportive.

———

Once upon a moment of magic (during the ‘Golden Age of Television’ – 1957) there was a lower middle class kid with only a high school education, and a burning passion for the medium, who was taken on at ‘GBH as a scenic carpenter, soon brought into the studio as cameraman and, eventually, promoted to producer/director (for all of which he’s still hugely grateful). There were organizational restrictions in place at the station which should have made that trajectory formally impossible. But bending those rules in favor of who people actually were, and in respect of each individual’s intrinsic value, was actually the unspoken rule of the house.

People, and the talents they brought to the workplace, were always ‘coin of the realm.’

I don’t remember anyone really worrying about losing their job; ability and team effort seemed the most important measures of a person’s worth.

During my time at the station many folks came and went but, by way of testimonial, many stayed for very, very long times. And, though my memory may be faulty, I can recall, during that period at least, only one person who ever earned dismissal.

Certainly there were some frictions – all organizations suffer at least a few of those. There were also, however, times of wonderful fun, impressive loyalties, abundant kindnesses, and very genuine friendships. Internecine politics — while not entirely absent — never seemed to compromise commitment to the greater endeavor. That commitment was a quality within, and between, the people who worked there. It was palpable inside the station and, I believe, made itself felt through ‘GBH’s output, not only outside in the Boston community, but at distances which could only be imagined.

Being part of Educational Television was an education in itself; we were daily rubbing elbows with the finest the world’s cultures had to offer. And I believe we all knew, at one level or another, that we were involved in something noble and admirable. It was that spirit which undergirded the beginnings of ‘Educational Television,’ and with time would build the enormous force for good that is now Public Broadcasting. The philosophy which grounded the functioning of the station was omnipresent. A whole litany of words would be needed to describe what the station stood for: integrity, insight, intelligence, ingenuity, honesty, sensitivity, inventiveness, professionalism, scholarship, idealism, co-cooperativeness, community, creativity, perseverance and team spirit …. just for starters. Of course we didn’t always make it to the tops of those mountains.

Financially, technically and practically the obstacles were often daunting. But pride in overcoming was frequent, and shortfalls were not due to a lack of desire or commitment. These qualities were embodied, day to day, by the people who were WGBH.

Apparently, they still are.

In the early days, one of our Boston University interns coined the phrase, “We don’t say much, but we don’t offend anyone.” If that was ever true, much certainly has changed. A glance at the line-up of the station’s output (particularly in the realm of documentary) shows a great deal of grown-up risk-taking. The maturing of WGBH is something to be proud of, and it must be observed that, if one is proud to be (or have been) part of WGBH, it is automatically true that one is also proud of everyone else who has given their talents to make the station what it is.

Past, present, future, WGBH is us …. all of us. The continuity of the alumni web site and the recurring alumni reunions attest to this fact.

So, pardon me for gushing (just a bit more), but there has always been something magical about the ‘GBH cachet, growing I believe from the station’s spoken, unspoken, and lived, philosophy, and from those who have striven to express it. The WGBH logo inspires, immediately, well deserved respect, not only throughout the industry, but among audiences worldwide.

———

The kid I referenced earlier is now almost 80. He’s run through quite a few personal and professional incarnations since his 6 years tenure at ‘GBH, but each of those eras have been informed and influenced by what he learned there — not only about broadcasting, but about the spirit at the heart of intelligent living.

He’s invariably moved when, during its station breaks, our local PBS station here in Honolulu intones its two slogans, “It’s not just TV. It’s a relationship,” and “Home is here.”

50 Years of the WGBH Auction in Stories, Videos, and Pictures

Videos from the First WGBH Auction in 1966

Part 1: Where An Unruly Puppy is Auctioned Off

WGBH Auction Classics (Part 1)

Part 2: Where David Ives Introduces Julia Child

WGBH Auction Classics (Part 2) with Julia Child

Part 3: Where Russ Morash Introduces Bud Collins and Bob Cousy

WGBH Auction Classics (Part 3) with Bud Collins, Bob Cousy, and Russ Morash

Part 4: Where a Ghoulish Choir Sings the Auction Number: 868-2500 

WGBH Auction Classics (part 4) 868-2500

Stories and Images

Screen Shot 2015-07-09 at 5.38.47 PM Screen Shot 2015-07-09 at 5.38.36 PM

 

Paul Noble Remembers: Eleanor Roosevelt

By Paul Noble

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

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

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

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

The programs were recorded and distributed on videotape.

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

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

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

Untold stories about the series:

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

 

Barzyk’s new film, The Waiting Room, now online

This entry is part 14 of 22 in the series The Fred Barzyk Collection

The Waiting RoomFrom FredBarzyk.com

Fred Barzyk’s TV drama, The Waiting Room, explores the lives of seven characters who find themselves at the end of their dramatic lives. Based on Fred’s constant fear of loosing the ability to continue creating TV drama because of old age, this drama slowly dissects the dramatic conflicts he has faced in 40 years of directing TV dramas. It is also a thank you to all the great actors who have graced his movies.

The Waiting Room

Fred Barzyk: A Life in Television

From Fred to Kickstarter supporters

Well, we did it. The trusty group of Chelmsford Volunteers, some in their 70’s and others between jobs, were joined by former WGBH professionals who also volunteered their time and talent. Bill Charette, John Osborne, Bob Burns, Debbie Dorsey, and Marcia Hully. God Bless them all.

In many ways, this little movie is a final tribute to the many actors who graced my pictures with their amazing talents. I include at the end of this letter a list of some actors I worked with.

Yes, the Man in the show really did work in the criminal justice system; Woman #1 works at National Grid; the Conductor (Frank Dolan) and I have been working together since 1961. The Girl is someone I found in the Chelmsford school system. And Woman #2 works at the Kennedy Library as a researcher. And the Producer really is a volunteer who used to be an optometrist. The Doctor, who really was my podiatrist, told me he wanted to be an actor so I put him in 2 of my dramas. Since then he has sold his practice and has started his own Voice Over career, known as Doctor Voice Over.

This is probably the most personal drama I have ever made. I hope it will translate to others. Since I began my career, theater was very important. So I had to include Shakespeare and Oscar Wilde. I have always been told that I go too far, too wild, too off the wall. Those words find their way into the drama once again: “Sometimes you just go too far, Fred.”

In my professional life, I have only had 4 occasions where I had music composed for one of my dramas. They were great moments, especially Michael Small’s music for Lathe of Heaven. But the cost!!!! Unbelievable!! And now, working in the little town of Chelmsford, I have had the fortune to have my last three dramas scored with original music. Composed by the Town’s Community Band leader, Paul Berler, who had never scored a movie before. We gathered friends, students and created some pretty remarkable music. The cost… lunch and $1 each. I include a docu of one of those recordings. The Waiting Room had 30 singers and 30 musicians.

I don’t want to bore you with my musings, however, something struck me as I worked on this project that had never raised its head before. I am hung up on death. Yes, and on loss and never being. How could I go all these years without realizing it? But I did.

Fact: While in college and studying the poetry of Gerard Manly Hopkins and his use of alliteration, I wrote poem.

A soft cold hand soothes, smoothes, smothers.

That was 56 years ago. And when I did my first local access drama, that poem was the dramatic thrust of The Journey. (Included on DVD)

Fact: First film done in senior year of college, The Music Box, starred a theatrical character that looked like a dirty version of Charlie Chaplin and a young boy. In this silent film the Character disappears on a foggy beach and the boy runs for his life thru the dense fog, lost.

Fact: My first TV movie was 5 Days, produced live on tape at WGBH’s 84 Mass Ave. studio in 1961. All the actors were volunteers and the plays rights cost me $10. The story… two soldiers have to travel back from the front, one a prisoner and other the guard. By the end of the 5th day, the war has changed hands. And now the prisoner was the guard. And their side didn’t keep prisoners. He had to shoot the soldier who he had bonded with during that treacherous 5 day march. (2” tape in the Archives)

Fact: Two of my major movies are based on the idea that the lead character is dead. In Kurt Vonnegut’s “Between Time and Timbuktu” the lead character is a poet, Stony Stevenson, who wins a jingle contest and is shot into the Chrono-Synclastic Infundibulum  (outer space). Stony eventually finds himself in Heaven (abandoned NY World Fair grounds)  face to face with his greatest fear, Adolph Hitler. He and Hitler fight it out, with Stony winning because he uses his secret weapon. His imagination. It was Vonnegut’s clearest voicing of his art, “imagination over death

Lathe of Heaven is the same. The lead character, George Orr, is seen at the beginning of the drama, struggling, injured by an atomic bomb. He falls to the ground and utters the word Antwerp. For next hour and a half he lives and dreams his way through a series of adventures, until finally, in the last scene, George realizes he has created all this, his imagination, to protect him from his own death.

Thanks again for your help. I am humbled by your generosity.

Some Actors/comics/narrators I have worked with

  • Lily Tomlin  (Collisions for PBS)
  • Professor Irwin Corey (Collisions)
  • Dan Ackroyd (Collisions)
  • Gilda Radner (Collisions)
  • Jane Alexander (Letters of Calamity Jane for CBS Cable)
  • Matt Dillon ( Great American 4th of July, & Other Disasters, PBS)
  • Christian Slater (Secrets for Hearst Network)
  •  Barbara Feldon (Secrets-  was Agent 99 on Get Smart)
  • Christopher Reeve (Last Ferry Home for Hearst)
  • Ashley Judd (Ryan Interview by Arthur Miller; Kentucky Public TV)
  • Eddie Bracken (Ryan Interview  stage actor and movie star 1940’s))
  • Bob and Ray (Between Time and Timbuktu, PBS)           
  • Kevin McCarthy (Between Time and Timbuktu, PBS)
  • Bill Hickey (Between Time and Timbuktu, PBS)
  • Bruce “Juicy Bruce” Morrow (big time DJ NYC radio)
  • Morgan Freeman (Charlie Smith)
  • John Amos (Listen Up for PBS)
  • William Conrad (Great Whodunit! for PBS)
  • Gene Barry (Great Whodunit!  Radio, TV stage, was great in  the Broadway musical La Cage aux Folles)
  • Tammy Grimes
  • Geraldine Fitzgerald
  • Howard Duff ( was radio star Sam Spade detective)
  • Loretta Switt (Matter of Principal for Hearst Network – TV’s Mash)
  • Tyne Daly (No Room for Opal for Hearst Network)
  • Daniel J. Travanti, Jr. ( star of TV series Hill Street Blues)
  • Claire Dane
  • Ben Vereen (Jenny’s Song for Westinghouse Network)
  • Jean Stapleton (Tender Places-was Edith in All in the Family ) series)
  • James Broderick (Phantom of the Open Hearth for PBS- father of Mathew Broderick)
  • Barbara Bolton (Phantom  wife of composer Norman Dello Rio)
  • Roberta Wallach (Phantom, – daughter of the actor Eli Wallach)
  • Jerry O’Connell (Ollie – fresh off film Stand By Me)
  • Rosie Perez (Poof! For PBS )
  • Geoffrey Holder (What If I Am Home Alone for PBS great dancer)
  • Jonathan Taylor Thomas (“ was star on TV Home Improvements and voice of Lion King in Disney movie)
  • Ed Asner (Listen Up… lead in TV Mary Tyler Moore TV series)
  • Jason Robards, Jr. (Madhousers for Westinghouse)
  • Richard Kiley (Madhouser star of Broadway musical, Man of La Mancha)
  • John Goodman (Flashback for HBO)
  • Eric Severeid (Countdown to Looking Glass, HBO
  • Newt Gingrich (Countdown – used as Congressman, which he is was, Led the Republican take over of Congress in the 90’s)
  • John Houseman (Cable Arts, worked with Orson Wells)
  • James Wood (Andrew Silver drama, went to Hollywood and did well)
  • Mary Kay Place (People, Mary Hartman TV series)
  • Jane Curtin (Pretzels for HBO, original SNL cast )
  • Paul Simon
  • And many others……..

Hope you enjoy the show.

Best, Fred

 

 

Mary Feldhaus-Weber: Her theatre, films, and graphic work

Mary Feldhaus-Weber — she of the soft, light voice, twinkling, teasing eyes and mischievous smile — is no more. She passed away at dusk, as Magic Hour drew to a close, on Sunday, October 6, 2013.

Mary had a distinguished history in theater, film and, most recently, the graphic arts.

Mary hailed from South Dakota. Her dramatic work first was published in Arthur Ballet’s “Playwrights for Tomorrow”. She shared the volume with Megan Terry and Jean-Claude van Italie, forerunners along with her in the avant-garde theatre of 20th-century America. Her play, The Virgin, the Lizard and the Lamb — unlikely, whimsical combination, no? — was a meditative tone-poem about belief and Presence — Incarnation, perhaps, would be a better word. Deborah Jowitt, the noted dance critic for The Village VOICE, danced the part of the Virgin at its New York première.

Watch Mary Feldhaus-Weber’s
I Wish I May I Wish I Might at
WGBH Open Vault.

It was only natural that her works with their inherent movement—coruscating, vaporous conceptions floating about an idiosyncratic center—would find their way to the medium of film. Michael Rice, inspired WGBH Program Manager, shared childhood memories with Mary and it was he who invited her to WGBH, Boston’s vanguard television station, as a Rockefeller Artist-in-Residence. Her assignment was simple — to expose herself to TV, to drink it all in and to create challenging works for the new medium.

That she surely did.

Film was her natural medium — and she loved to experiment. She gravitated to the experimental edge of video/broadcast television. She created, with Rick Hauser, John Morris, gus solomons jr and Peter Downey a two-screen stereo color (new, for the time) dancework for broadcast television called CITY/motion/space/game. Mary took some 16.5 hours of interviews with Gus and crafted his words, taped in numerous sessions throughout the city in drastically varying venues, into a poem that was interspersed with John’s fabulous musical score — itself made of fragments of some 14 hours of sounds from the city — clanging metal of junkyards, traffic sounds, bird song, patterned footsteps on stairs at brutalist Prudential Center and along the damped-down allées of a leafy Boston Garden.

Screen Shot 2013-10-21 at 4.10.20 PMThe program received the very first PBS Broadcast Award for Excellence. Team members became the stunned possessors of a little black box sealed in reflective plastic and inhabited by a tiny flashing red light (that eventually dimmed as the battery languished.). Not so, the piece — it still is riveting, insistent, clamorous.

Before C/m/s/g, Mary collaborated with Rick Hauser on Nine Heroes, a lovely documentary piece on remarkable ordinary people who just happened to have risked their lives with no strings attached to save others. It was Mary who said, “Heroism is a brass band.” So Mary and Rick got permission from the Salvation Army to use their recordings for the score for the piece. It received the Gabriel Award and was nominated for a national Emmy.

Mary was inspired. Her other programs were fearless–she chronicled a dying woman’s last months of life in JOAN ROBINSON: One Woman’s Story. The film was harrowing, unrelenting and indescribably touching. For this, she received that year’s highly respected Columbia DuPont Award for Excellence in Broadcast Television.

She was able also to adapt her fairy tales — retellings of the classics, BLUE, RED, GOLD — into lovely filmic tone-poems. She instigated a quirky, two-screen adaptation of the Oedipus myth, ROYAL FLESH — totally improvised, and recorded in over-driven fragmented video as a two-screen TV drama. She did an Annie Oakley biography, too, as part of an ambitious projected series on formidable women.

After Mary’s brain injury from a car accident in late 1979, (the car in which she was riding was struck by a drunk driver), she came to write a chapter in Willard & Spackman’s Occupational Therapy text book. The 10th Edition has Mary’s painting on the cover (publication February, 2003). The most recent Update is in the 11th Edition (published March 1, 2008). Her chapter is called “Excerpts from the Book of Sorrows, Book of Dreams,” in which she describes her process of living with brain injury.

Since there were no at-home services for people in her situation in the year after her injury, the head of Occupational Therapy at Boston University, Anna Dean Scott, volunteered to help. She also guided her OT students to visit Mary and take dictation, since at the time, Mary couldn’t write. The early part of Mary’s chapter is from this time. As a result of this ground-breaking work of OT for the brain-injured, the field moved forward. Mary’s chapter includes color plates of her powerful paintings, which she created to help her make sense of what happened to her.

A unique vision.

We bear her homage.