This is the sixth in a series of reminiscences by Fred Barzyk, longtime WGBH producer and director. Watch The Waiting Room, below.
Ah, yes … The Waiting Room. This was my last TV drama production. After almost 60 years of trying to create situations where I could direct dramas, it finally comes to an end. This half-hour show was the only way for me to say “goodbye” to all my actors.
I love actors. I love how they are willing to give of themselves, to be vulnerable to critics, to wrap themselves in personas not their own, and how they love what they do.
It has always been my style to support their work. My job as a director was to protect them from outside noise, let them practice their craft surrounded by people who appreciate what they are doing. I, as the director, would always stand next to the camera and act as their “audience.” I would stifle a laugh when they said a funny line, or get depressed when things were going wrong for the character. I hoped this helped. I tried my best.
The Waiting Room is the most personal drama I have ever done. It came to me in the middle of the night, the whole thing just popped into my head. I got up from bed and wrote the script at 2:00 in the morning. It’s probably why the whole story is a little murky.
With that murky premise, I think I have to give you a little back-story so you can maybe understand the motivations behind the script.
I was this kid on the South Side of Milwaukee, growing up in a blue-collar neighborhood. I was an only child, spoiled rotten. My Dad worked at International Harvester. He worked there for 50 years and was proud of it. He was also proud that he graduated from High School. He was devoted to doing crossword puzzles. His mother had died of Spanish influenza. He and his sister were placed in an orphanage for several years. His father remarried and they joined Grandma Barzyk in her little grocery store.
My Mom ran away from home when she was 13. Her mother died young, her father remarried and soon there were 4 other girls. She never got over the loss of her mother or the entrance of so many other girls in the family! So she ran away in the middle of the night, boarded a train in Clinton, Indiana, and went to an aunt who lived in Milwaukee. Soon she was a “live-in” nanny at a Jewish family’s big house on the East side of Milwaukee. She lied to the family that she was 16; not her real age of 14. That lasted a few years until the boys got measles and she had to leave.
She ended up as a nurse’s aide at Milwaukee Children’s Hospital, feeding kids in the contagious disease ward. During WW2 she worked the night shift at a factory making artillery shells. I can still remember her smelling of copper filings and oil. But her longest job was a sales clerk at Gimbel’s Department Store, downtown Milwaukee. She worked in the men’s dept. but she liked to say she worked in men’s underwear.
My appreciation for the aesthetic seemed to develop around the age of 6. We were renters, the bottom floor of a two-family house. We had concrete walkways to the front porch and alongside the house to the back porch. From the sidewalk you would have to climb up 2 concrete steps. Each of them (like all the others in the neighborhood) were neat, with sharp corners. For some reason, I thought they would look better if they were rounded. So I got a hammer from the basement and attempted to round them off. It wasn’t pretty. My Mom said I had gone too far. The landlord never complained. I went back to see the house a few years ago and the ragged corners are still there.
And then there was my piano playing. For some reason, I thought I could be this great piano player. Hell, my Mom’s cousin had the most popular swing band in Milwaukee. My aunt Frances was a friend with a famous Milwaukee Pianist: Liberace. So I took lessons. I was really bad. Very bad. My father kept saying it must be the teacher so I kept going to other piano teachers.
One time, as I was waiting for my lesson to begin, I heard this kid in one of the rooms reciting a monologue. I wanted to do that instead, and so I began elocution lessons. I even ended up in a play a “walk-on” role with no lines at age 10. But the real moment of truth happened at one of those horrible piano recitals. We kids would sit in the back room, all-nervous, dressed to the nines. And then I realized that if I made some goofy sound I would break the tension. So I did.
Did it ever break the tension. They started to giggle, trying to hold back. I did it again and again, till I had them laughing out loud. This was it. This is what I wanted to do. Entertain a crowd. The teacher came in and yelled at us. She pointed at me and said “Freddy Barzyk, you cut that nonsense out. You are going just too far, do you understand?” Boy, did I ever.
I went to Marquette University in Milwaukee because that is what my parents could afford. I lived at home and the tuition was only $250 per semester. I thought maybe I would be a sports announcer. Soon as I took my first acting class, I was hooked. I realized I wanted to be a stage director.
I mean so many things were happening in the theater. Guthrie had established his regional theater in Minnesota, and then other regional theater started popping up all over the country.
Then there were the plays! My Fair Lady, Long Days Journey into Night, West Side Story … all on Broadway. Off Broadway was happening too. European playwrights were being celebrated: Bertolt Brecht’s “Three Penny Opera,” Eugene Ionesco’s “Bald Soprano,” Luigi Pirandello’s “6 Characters in Search of an Author.”
The theater was happening. And I wanted to be a part of it.
I planned to go to Yale Drama School. The problem was that I had no money. A dear friend of mine insisted that I apply for a scholarship to Boston University for a master’s degree in Communication. The deal was you had to work 3 days a week at a little educational TV station, WGBH. I got in. BU was disappointing. Channel 2 was great. I spent all my time there.
After the scholar year was over, my boss, Greg Harney, offered me a 3-month directing gig to cover for one of the full- timer directors who went off to Saudi Arabia on a special assignment. That happened two more times. Greg knew I still wanted to go to Yale Drama School. He had another plan for me.
I found myself back in Milwaukee, trying to figure out how to raise monies for Yale. I would take strange little jobs. One day, I was working at a Polish Newspaper, “The Novini Polski.” I would do cold calls. I would take the big newspaper in town, use their “Apartments for Rent” section and then pitch the owners to place an ad in “The Polski.” You know, these Polaks are reliable, clean, and would pay their rent on time.
Suddenly the boss yells out to me, “You got a phone call.” Who the hell could have found me here? My mother must have given them the phone number. I was shocked. It was Greg Harney.
“Ok, Fred, this is it. I am offering you a full-time TV director job. $85 a week … but no more talk of Yale and the theater. You have to commit.”
And then it happened.
I paused, looked back at the room full of callers trying to convince people to put an ad in a Polish newspaper, and finally said … “Ok, but you have to let me do a TV drama on my vacation. I would need 4 days in the studio.”
Pause on the other end.
Had I gone too far once again?
Finally … “Ok.”
I was now a TV director who would be allowed to do dramas. It turned out to be the best of both worlds. I had not gone too far.
First thing I did was go to every community theater production I could squeeze in, constantly looking for actors who would volunteer for my plays. My volunteer assistant was Sally Dennison who went on to cast Antonini’s “Zabriski Point.” She also helped cast “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.” I now had an actors group of 20 people.
I was given $10 for the rights to a play I selected, “Five Days.” I had use of the art department, scenic, and TV crew. All props, costumes, any out-of-pocket costs would have to been picked up by me. It worked. Elliot Norton, famed Boston theater critic, agreed to introduce the play. It was a Brechtian anti-war play, done “live on videotape” with black and white cameras. The management liked it. I was given permission to do another.
There was a teacher at MIT who was an aspiring playwright. I took his play and paired it with a French farce and called the show “2 for Laughs.” (WGBH is on Channel 2). Pete Gurney was the playwrights name. Pete has gone on to have a very successful career in the theater. He is now known as A.R. Gurney, author of “Love Letters,” one of the most often performed contemporary plays across America. His TV play was lost in a fire that destroyed WGBH back in 1961. As luck would have it my first TV play survived and is now in the WGBH Archives.
In the new WGBH building, I did an outrageous play called “The Pit.” This time WGBH picked up all the costs. “The Pit” was a surreal play featuring a little girl who has fallen into a pit and an older man, a Good Samaritan, who tries to get her out. Of course, he never does and is finally hauled off to prison as a “subversive.” It didn’t have a lot of good reviews. Except for the one that really mattered. Kurt Vonnegut saw it and laughed.
My dear friend, David Loxton, who worked at WNET, New York’s Public TV station, suggested we approach Vonnegut and see if we could do an original TV movie based on his work. For some reason, he agreed!
It was called “Between Time and Timbuktu.” This time I hired real pro actors but filled out the rest of the bit parts with my coterie of local actors. This was it! The beginning of my long career working with actors.
Here are some of the names I have been fortunate to work with:
Morgan Freeman (Charlie Smith; started on Sesame street, became a huge Hollywood movie star)
John Amos (Listen Up for PBS)
William Conrad (Great Whodunit!; star of Gunsmoke)
Gene Barry (Great Whodunit!; radio, TV stage star, was great in the musical La Cage aux Folles)
Tammy Grimes (“She wanted to me to be her “director” …nope)
Geraldine Fitzgerald (Great Whodunit!)
Tyne Daly (No Room for Opal for Hearst Network; one of the few actors who had trouble with me as director)
Claire Dane (Opal; has become a movie/TV star)
Theresa Wright (featured in a lot of movies, worked with Alfred Hitchcock)
Ben Vereen (song and dance actor; was in Jenny’s Song for Westinghouse Network)
Jean Stapleton (Tender Places; famous for Edith in All in the Family TV series)
Jerry O’Connell (Ollie Hopnoodle’s Haven of Bliss; fresh off film Stand By Me, now in several TV series and movies)
Rosie Perez (Poof! for PBS; made splash in Spike Lee’s first movie)
Ed Asner (Listen Up; lead in The Mary Tyler Moore TV series)
Richard Kiley (Madhouser; star of Broadway musical, Man of La Mancha)
John Goodman (Flashback for HBO; gone on to be Hollywood movie star)
John Houseman (Cable Arts, in many films, worked with Orson Wells)
James Wood (Andrew Silver drama, went to Hollywood and did well)
,Jane Curtin (Pretzels for HBO, original SNL cast )
And now, here in Chelmsford, I returned to my roots. I found great volunteer actors, had the latest video equipment and a dedicated volunteer crew, which allowed me to continue this long love affair I have with actors and my little dramas.
We raised the money for this production by the use of Kickstarter, an Internet fundraiser. We raised over $4,000 to support this production.
Well, we did it. Former WGBH professionals who also volunteered their time and talent joined my trusty group of Chelmsford Volunteers, some in their 70s: Bill Charette, John Osborne, Bob Burns, Debbie Dorsey, and Marcia Hully. God Bless them all.
In many ways, this little movie was a final tribute to the many actors who graced my pictures with their amazing talents. It’s still hard to believe that a kid from Milwaukee actually worked with all these wonderful actors. I must have died and gone to Heaven.
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.
One 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!”
Vanya Tulenko — now an alumna but formerly in charge of the Ralph Lowell Society — reminded me recently of this letter from Alistair Cooke.
In 1987 with encouragement from our Board we decided to create the major giving society named after our founder. The intention was to encourage annual fund donors at the $1,000 level and above with special events and recognition in our annual report.
I don’t recall whose idea it was to solicit some of our on-air stars, but in any event I sent a solicitation letter to Alistair. He replied promptly with this characteristically dry-whitted, tongue-in-cheek response. It was one of those letters that makes one’s day!
The text went as follows:
Easter Monday 1987
Dear Mr. Becton:
I am thrilled to receive your invitation to join the Ralph Lowell Society. I am not a clubman, but I have always yearned to rub shoulders with some of the glamorous starts of television. And even though I dislike champagne almost as much as its frequent accompaniment (caviare), I cannot resist sending you the enclosed in the hope, one day, of meeting such breathtaking celebrities as Vincent Prince and Julia Childs. Do let me know if a Ralph Lowell T-shirt comes with the membership.
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 Chaplinand 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 characteris 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)
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)
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 )
Supreme Court decides blacks do have a right to vote
World War II changed the order of world power; the United States and the USSR become super powers
Cold War begins
Now that the War was over, my Uncle Ed would come home from Germany. My Aunt Frances was going to be so, so happy.
She had this colicky little baby, Edward, and she needed some help. He would cry and cry. You could hear it all over the neighborhood. He was my cousin and I felt sorry for the little kid. For my Aunt, too.
They lived across the street from us. Good old South 7th Street, that was where we lived. We were renters.
On one side of our rented house lived the Getarec’s. Their son, Lawrence, had just formed a Polka band; his friends would come over on weekends to rehearse. They were terrible. Three weeks later, they disbanded. Larry never got to do one of those weddings gigs he wanted to do so badly. Poor Larry.
On the other side of us lived the Nowicki’s. One of their clan was a hunter. Bow and arrow. He and a friend actually took down a 500 lb. Black Bear. They strung it up in their garage. The Milwaukee Journal came and took a picture. He was famous in our neighborhood.
Two young girls lived there, too. Joan and Barbara.
Barbara, lived next door, upstairs.
little kids, we played, making mud pies
under back porches,
digging dirt, all tiny pails and shovels.
Her sister, Joan, older by 4 years, taunted us
“Look! Boyfriend and girlfriend.”
Angrily we denied,
not understanding what it meant anyway,
but knowing nothing good
could come from being
We played movies,
acting out all the parts
in grassy backyards
and concrete alleys
of the Polish South Side.
We had a secret hideout
dark dense bushes
one street over.
Here we could hide.
no one else allowed.
She to Catholic, I to Public. We saw each other
but all was changing
We, evolving, living new adventures,
far from secret hideouts,
mud pies under back porches.
Becoming new people,
Why do we have to grow anew?
Left then with only distant memories
Of a little girl who lived next door,
My Mom had this vision for me. She thought it would be wonderful if I could be in show business.
I mean, her very own cousin, Johnny Davis, had a big dance band that played all the big venues in Milwaukee. His band looked something like this.
She was very proud to be his cousin. Johnny’s band had these two young guys, Dennis Morgan and Jack Carson. They went to Hollywood and became movie stars! One of their movies was called “Two Guys from Milwaukee.” Movie critic, Leonard Maltin, gave it 2 and half stars. Not bad.
And my Aunt Frances, well, she was very good friends with a Polish musician from the South Side of Milwaukee. He played piano at all the fancy dinner restaurants in town. His name was Liberace.
My family was just surrounded by all these talented people.
My mother thought, “Why Not Freddy?”
So, when I was seven, she signed me up for dance lessons.
I think she imagined me to be in a show, dressed in costumes, applauded by the masses.
THE LESSONS (1943)
We climbed 101 wooden steps up
Up, to the very tip top
of the 5th Street viaduct,
Mom and I, my tiny tap shoes in hand.
We paid a nickel each and rode the Hinky Dinky,
Milwaukee’s super small streetcar.
Rattling across the South Side,
past smoke stacks,
heady smells from the yeast factory,
we emerged from the rackety ride
and hurried down Wisconsin Avenue
to the School of Dance!
We climbed 31 wooden steps up
Up, to the very tip top
of the old brick building
Mom and I, my tiny tap shoes in hand.
In the hot, sweaty dance studio,
crammed tight with little kids
tap, tap, tap dancing,
steel cleats clanging wooden floors.
the tall thin dance teacher
trying to train little feet
Click, tap. tap, pat, click. click
Mom, sat, silently, secretly,
Dreams of Show Business,
Dreams through me.
Click, tap, pat, pat, click, click
My feet stomped, banged, kicked,
Hoping to create
Click, tap. Tap, tap, pat, click
Me, a 7 year old kid,
who bought his clothes in
the Sears husky department
Click, pat, tap, click, click, click
those tap shoes took a beating.
Click, pat, tap, click.
After the fourth tap dance lesson,
riding back on the
Jiggling, clankingly, Hinky Dinky,
Breakfast, lunch, snacks
all made a nasty return.
over the hard train seats.
Mom knew the dream was gone.
She put away the tiny tap shoes
way back, in a dark hall closet,
Never to be worn again.
No more click, clack, tap.
Not for those tiny tap shoes.
For that is how dreams die… sometimes.
Without a click or tap,
But I didn’t give up on her dream. I announced that I would become a piano player! Only problem was we didn’t have a piano.
I started taking lessons practicing on a piece of fold out cardboard designed to look like piano keys. They knew eventually, I would need a real piano. I don’t think they could afford one, but somehow they managed to buy a small spinet piano. I still have it today.
I really never could play the piano, even after years of lessons. However, it was known in my neighborhood that I had a piano. This fact alone brought me face to face with a dilemma.
I had forgotten about this incident until I started writing this personal history. I learned a lesson that day: Do not judge a book by its cover.
“I can’t even remember his name”
Like a lingering shadow in my memory bank
Hanging there in the void, frozen, pale, fragile —
Almost brushed aside by other fading images
His freckled face —
His sandy hair —
His wet hazel eyes —
His grimy glasses —
So often I ignored him, thinking nothing of him
And now, I can’t even remember his name
It was the end of summer, hot and dry
He came to my porch and knocked on the door
He had never come to my house before
My God, we hardly even talked
But there he stood —
How could I have ignored him, thinking nothing of him?
And now, I can’t even remember his name
He heard that I played the piano, that I knew music
He was just a 14 year old Polish kid from the South Side
Not polished or trained in music, awkward and shy
He told me his dream and thrust the papers into my hands
Can you play it?
I wrote it myself.
I can’t play the piano, you know —
Can you play my concerto?
He stood, waiting, hoping
And I can’t even remember his name.
Where did he get the blank music paper?
How did he know about D minor?
I stared hard at his hand written notes, bewildered —
How could this be?
But there it was
It looked real,
way too difficult —
I stuttered, swallowed hard, and admitted my failings
It’s too tough,
I’ve only begun to play the piano
Maybe someone else —
He said nothing, smiled and nodded his head
took his papers back, and left
I watched as he walked away down my street
We saw each other on the playground near St. Helen’s
We played basketball and hung around a little
Summers are like that
He never mentioned our meeting
Neither did I
My piano lessons went on and on
Never mounting to much
I stopped thinking of him
I wonder if he ever heard his concerto?
I hope so.
So sad that I can’t even remember his name.
Just a lingering shadow in my memory bank
Ohio Street playground.
Concrete, stark, a battle field where kids become ensnared in the thoughts of winning and losing, fighting through fears and hoping to win, you know, throwing in the winning basket just before the final bell goes off! It doesn’t usually work out that way.
It all began on a hot summer’s day. The two of us waited, standing on the corner, staring hard at the passing cars. We were searching for our ride.
We waited, not quite sure of our new adventure. Not that one, not that one. Tom McGrath and I waited there for what seemed hours, our overstuffed suitcases surrounding us on the hot pavement.
It was 27th street and Oklahoma Avenue in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, just up the street from Leon’s Frozen Custard Stand, an icon of all things dairy in America’s Dairy Land, and right across from Pulaski High School. I had graduated from Pulaski just four years ago. You could tell by its name that this was the South Side, and very Polish. My Aunt Jenny had a sausage shop just a few miles down Oklahoma Avenue; she had all kinds of Polish delights in her white gleaming glass cases. Kiszka, Headcheese, Mettwurst, Kielbasa, and of course, Blood Sausage.
“Hi, guys. Nice to meet you.” As we loaded the suitcases into the car, I wondered if it could actually make it all the way to the East Coast.
A big old black car pulled up and out stepped our fellow traveler, David Nohling. “Hi, guys. Nice to meet you.” As we loaded the suitcases into the car, I wondered if it could actually make it all the way to the East Coast.
Tom sat in front and I in the back, shoved in with everyone’s belongings. We were all to bear the cost of the drive — gas, tolls, etc. — we were all to take turns driving, thus avoiding the cost of having to stop at motels, just drive right on through to Boston. It was going to take 16 plus hours.
And then it hit me. This was a standard shift car! I could only drive automatics! They were kind to me. Don’t worry, we can do all the driving, they reassured me. I felt like a jerk.
On the road
The car lumbered down 27th street toward Chicago. Soon we were on the interstate heading East. Dave had figured out that if we drove at night, the car would be a hell of a lot cooler than it would be driving during the day. His car did not have air conditioning. Dave was a good planner.
Dave had just graduated from the University of Wisconsin, Madison. He was a Communication major, very knowledgeable. Tom and I had just graduated from Marquette University, with degrees in Speech. Yup, that was what they called it.
Why us? God works in mysterious ways. I could understand why Tom was chosen. He had already worked part time at a local commercial TV station, he had experience. I had no experience. I mean, Marquette didn’t even have real TV cameras: we used wooden mock up cameras, faking TV shows. But as I huddled in the back seat, I knew the only reason I was here was because of Bill Heitz.
Bill was finishing up being a BU/WGBH scholar that summer. He had graduated from Marquette the year before. He insisted that I try to get into this scholarship program; he said it was absolutely great. You studied for your graduate degree in communication at Boston University and worked three days a week at the Educational Television station. Free tuition and you got $600 to live on for the year in Boston! Bill said this program would change my life. He was right.
I slept a lot during the trip. Darkness came and went, and we drove on and on. Then Dave gave us his real surprise. He had never been to New York City. Neither had we. He was a good planner.
It was late morning when we drove into the heart of NYC, the big enchilada. We drove through the traffic, staring up at the tall buildings. And then Dave pulled over into a no parking zone, got out of the car, opened the hood and peered at the engine as if the car was having trouble. He told Tom and I to go in first. He had stopped outside Grand Central Station. Tom and I moved though the crowd and into the giant train station.
And there he was.
Just sitting in a chair while the rest of the film crew moved around the cameras and lights. Someone came to him and asked a question. He responded, but never left his chair. Tom said “It is Alfred Hitchcock!”
We had stumbled into the filming of “North by Northwest.” There was Gary Grant and Eva Marie Saint. They were walking towards one of the train tracks.
While they were acting inside the station, Dave was doing a wonderful acting job outside. Tom and I came back and now we stared into the engine while Dave rushed into have a look.
We couldn’t believe our luck as the car headed off toward Boston.
Boston at last
I had left behind Milwaukee’s three B’s: Beer, Baseball and Bowling. And now I was in Boston with its three B’s: Brahms, Beethoven and Bach.
Several hours later, tired, sweaty, thirsty, we drove into the Boston area. We had made it, and it took just over 18 hours.
Dave turned on his radio and searched the dial. And there it was… classical music on the AM dial! Can you believe it? The only classical music station in Milwaukee was on FM and wattage so low hardly anyone could hear it. I had left behind Milwaukee’s three B’s: Beer, Baseball and Bowling. And now I was in Boston with its three B’s: Brahms, Beethoven and Bach. This was going to be some kind of year.
Heitz opened his apartment to us. We showered, had some beers, told about our trip, and went to sleep. The next day Bill took us to what he thought would be the perfect place for us to rent. It was just down the block from Massachusetts Ave., right on Marlboro street.
The 3 scholars from Wisconsin rang the doorbell and the landlady opened the door. Mrs. Gautraux. Her hair was frizzed, her elderly eyes had that crazy look after all these years of renting to college kids. She led us to the basement, to a two-room apartment fashioned around steam pipes and the furnace. “$80 bucks a month.” We took it.
She gave us the key and said we should use the backdoor for coming and going. She opened the door, which led directly to the alley. The alley. What can I say? Here among the garbage cans, cars parked in little spaces, lived some of the largest rats in Boston. Bill told us this was known as Rat Alley. Ah, yes and now it was our home.
That night Bill took us to see the latest WGBH remote. There was a huge arts festival happening in a park called the Boston Public Garden. The three of us stood besides a pond in the middle of the Garden and watched as members of the Boston Symphony Orchestra drifted by in a Swan Boat playing Handel’s Water Music. And our little TV station was broadcasting it live! Wow!
That night as bedtime approached, Tom and I acted like freshman who had just moved into a dorm. Both Tom and I had lived at home while going to Marquette. This was real freedom. Alone at last in our own space. We giggled on about Rat Alley, you know, “Snow White and Seven Rats,” that kind of thing. Stupid stuff.
The big day arrived. The 1958/59 scholars were to assemble at WGBH.We walked down Massachusetts Avenue, over the bridge into Cambridge.
Then the big day. The 1958/59 scholars were to assemble at WGBH.We walked down Massachusetts Avenue, over the bridge into Cambridge. On the bridge were strange markings, Smoots, based on a man named Smoot who was placed end to end in the ’40s by his MIT fraternity.
Finally, we arrived at the address. And there it was, right in the middle of the MIT complex of buildings. It was in a low-slung three story building. It appeared to have some non descript businesses, a drug store that served lunch, not much else. In the middle of the building was a plaque on a pillar announcing that this was the home of the WGBH Educational Foundation.
We climbed the wooden stairs leading us up to the reception area. There sat Rose Buresh, receptionist, the one person who really knew what was going on at WGBH. We were ushered into the studio. It was huge. It was once an old roller skating rink. Its wooden floor proved to be problematical when moving the TV cameras. If you went straight forward, going with the floorboards, you got a pretty smooth ride. But going across the grain, led to some very bumpy dollies. We all took notes.
We met our leader, Bob Moscone: from then on to be known as the King. Bob was once an Arthur Murray Dance teacher; a slender attractive Italian man who carried a little note card on which he kept track of what was going on at the studio. And he also controlled when we were to work at WGBH. He was the man in charge. He was the King.
His second in command was Kenny Anderson. Kenny was a young slender guy with a terrific Boston accent, full of energy. I found out later he was a true lover of women, all women. The King asked him to show us on how to hang and focus a light. Kenny climbed the ladder, moved the light and then to show off, slid down the ladder. The scholars gasped. The King smiled. He hoped we should all be able to do the same in a few days.
Our audio man was Wil Morton. He seemed to be very young but with a keen sense of professionalism. He showed us the mikes, the cables, the endless cables. Eventually we met the TV directors and producers. Jean Brady (The Queen) a sweet, lovely woman with a wonderful southern accent; Gene Nichols (the Court Jester) a quiet man with a great smile; Ted Steinke, a big smiley guy from the mid west; Lou Barlow, who seemed to smoke whenever he directed. I don’t remember him smiling much.
And then there was Paul Noble, who had been a BU scholar in Bill Heitz’s group and had just been hired as a producer/director. It is important to note here that Paul and his crew really set the culture of WGBH scholars. It was family, fun, and camaraderie. His team bonded like no other, still meeting yearly, nearly 55 years later. Paul and his team created a WGBH yellow journalism news rag, The Ille Novi. (Latin for “Here’s the News,” which were the words used by Louis Lyons each night when he opened his news program. Copies of it are in the WGBH archives.) This mimeographed tabloid told all the “real news” for the scholars. Paul once told me his greatest talent was reading memos upside down as they sat on the executives desk. Long live yellow journalism.
There was Whit Thompson, who seemed to do all the music shows. His dad was Randall Thompson, composer of symphonies and other pieces, who taught at Harvard; Lenny Bernstein was one of his students. Whit wore glasses and was very erudite. And then there was Cabot Lyford who had a nasty habit of kicking the wall every once in awhile. He was the director of the Museum of Fine Arts show “Invitation to Art,” a big remote production from one of the country’s great museums. (Not many people know that the museum was internally wired with TV cables in expectation that the MFA and WGBH would be doing shows for a long time. I wonder if they are still there.) The host was Brian O’Doherty, a visiting Doctor from Ireland who had come to Boston to study heart related illness at Harvard University.
Brian became a dear friend. Years later, Brian became head of the National Endowment for the Arts Media Panel. His panels awarded many grant dollars to WGBH. Brian was also the fine arts commentator for NBC’s Today show for 9 years and is a celebrated artist painting under the name Patrick Ireland.
Brian would occasionally invite me to have lunch at Ken’s deli restaurant in Copley Square. I mean, we never even did a show together, but he had somehow become interested in what I thought about TV and art. That was really hard to imagine. I was just a kid from the South Side of Milwaukee. It was very unexpected but complimentary. I really enjoyed the talk and the food.
An aside: the culinary arts
Tom and I existed on peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, pasta and cheap canned tomato sauce, and every once in awhile, a piece of meat.
Yes, the food. Food was a constant concern at our apartment in Rat Alley. Tom and I existed on peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, pasta and cheap canned tomato sauce, and every once in awhile, a piece of meat. Milk, when we felt really rich.
I remember one day, I traded my jelly sandwich with cameraman Don Hallock for his tongue sandwich. Tongue! I wasn’t sure about eating tongue but what the hell, it was meat. After all, I had eaten a lot of weird things in my mother’s Polish kitchen. Czarnina, a black duck blood soup with prunes and raisins; boiled chicken hearts and gizzards over mashed potatoes. I sort of liked the tongue sandwich, even though it was kinda chewy.
Brian, I can still taste those big Reuben sandwiches at Kens. Thanks. It meant a lot. More than you ever knew.
Back to introductions
Russ Morash, who would soon become one the most important producer/directors at WGBH, had just married. He and his wife took an extended honeymoon in France that summer. Russ eventually returned to direct a French Language show for kids called “Parlons Francais.” He had studied acting at BU and his wife had graduated with a degree in set design from BU, fellow theater artists. I ended up using Russ in a number of dramas that I did for PBS. The most memorable is when I cast him as a fellow TV newscaster with actress Lily Tomlin. They were perfect together.
There was also Bob Squier. Talk about energy. He was the quickest, the most animated of our directors. He took more shots in one show than most of us ever thought about. Bob soon moved on to become an independent producer and eventually became the Democrat’s PR spokesman. He appeared often with Roger Ailes, the Republican counterpart (now head of Fox Cable News). Bob passed away a few years ago. Sad.
A reflection: As I now look back at the staff of WGBH in those days, it dawns on me how young we all were. I mean, the average age of the camera people, lighting, audio was 23. Even the engineers were young; Bobby Hall, blond, happy guy; Jerry Adler, FM engineer, the only practicing Jew with a Southern accent I had ever met; Andy Ferguson, the only African American on staff, were all in their late 20’s. And the staff camera people, Don Hallock, a true artist and one of the greatest TV camera operators I have ever known, was not even 20. Bob Valtz, a recent Harvard grad who wore his tie flung over his shoulder while running camera, was 23. Frank Vento, a dark haired, intense camera/lighting person was probably near 30. Even the executives were only in their thirties.
The Executives. The visionaries who helped make WGBH so special. There was Dave Davis,manager of the station. He was a former trumpet player and lover of jazz and good music. In addition to his duties as station manger, he also directed the Boston Symphony Orchestra concerts. His was a tightly run production, which created the most sophisticated music/camera shot list ever.
It was amazing that he could take a bunch of BU Scholars along with this young staff, and make the broadcast seamless and professional. (The BSO and WGBH have paired up to release some of these early TV concerts on DVD, to be released in 2011.)
It is fair to say that Dave was the paternal figure in the organization. He didn’t say much and it was expected of you to present your questions in an exact and quick manner. He would then give a quick answer back.
Dave appreciated hard work and creativity. Once, after a music show that I did, he called and complemented the staff and me. It was really a big moment for us. That didn’t happen too often. We celebrated by going out and having a few beers at the Zebra Lounge.
Aside: The Zebra Lounge
The Zebra Lounge on the corner of Mass Ave. and Beacon Street. The home away from home. (Now, called The Crossroads.) The corner booth covered over with fake Zebra cloth. Our corner booth. A place for the young scholars to relive the day, laugh at what we did and did not do.
Our BU Scholar group broke into three groups. First, there were those who had come back from the war and were going for their master degrees. They were older, married, some with kids. Second, there were the serious scholars who wanted their degree. They studied hard, did their WGBH work and acted like adults. And then there were the rest of us.
We thought all of this was fun and games. A great time to learn, try new things, drink beer, laugh, what me worry? Not many of us finished the degree. We went to class and were responsible students, but spent most of our time at WGBH. I mean, we used to go to the studio after closing hours, crank out the big boom mike into the middle of the studio, and play volleyball. This was fun. The whole thing was fun.
Young ladies came into Tom and my lives. Tom hooked up with a sparkly woman, Peggy. I met Ruth Smith casually at the Zebra lounge. She was from Revere, graduated from Chandlers, and now was a special assistant to some big wig at Bank Boston. After a few dates, we became a number. As a matter of fact I ended up marrying her. As she likes to remind me, we will be married 50 years next March. How time files.
Back to the executives
Three important executives who influenced my life were Mike Ambrosino, Greg Harney, and Bob Larson. Bob was program manager. He had graduated from Harvard and was a practicing Christian Scientist. It was Bob who saw the potential of a TV series for a tall Cambridge woman who had appeared on our weekly book show: her name was Julia Child.
Bob thought I could only be a director since he questioned the kind of education I might have gotten at Marquette. I accepted his opinion then and said, “I will show him that there is more to me than he thinks.” He was my challenge. Years later he accepted me as someone who could become a producer. Bob passed away from stomach cancer, much too young. His religion, which he cherished, did not allow him to see a doctor. His prayers were not answered. Sad.
Mike Ambrosino, though an executive, also produced and directed a number of shows. He was in charge of creating the Eastern Educational Television Network. He also created the 21 Inch Classroom, a coordinated program between WGBH and 35 independent school systems to see if TV could be used in the classroom to enrich the teaching experience. We did a lot of 15 minute shows directed to grade school kids.
Mike did a lot of science shows, especially with Gene Gray, a teacher from Newton. It was during one of Gene’s shows that he poured some acid into a plastic cup only to see it dissolve the cup. (This is still in the archives.)Not much you could do because the show was live. Gene did a great job making the disaster into a teaching moment. Ambrosino later went on to create one of the great staples of PBS: NOVA.
Greg Harney. What can I say? He had arrived from CBS at about the same time as our crew. He was one of the best lighting directors at CBS. However, Greg was ambitious and took the job as production manager at WGBH to expand his choices. He took a hefty pay cut and supplemented his WGBH salary by teaching a grad course at BU,Lighting and Production. This was a class that all of the BU scholars took. His style of directing, lighting and program style was gleaned from his days at CBS and it was soon our style, too.
Greg and I always had an “interesting” relationship. Greg liked to call you into his office after one of your shows and critique your performance. A dear fellow director, Ed Scherer, told me how to handle these sessions. Agree and then go do what you normally do. I did this many times. Many.
Finally, one day Harney confronted me in the hallway, and accused me of not really listening to him. He had me caught. What to do? I blurted out that he was probably right. I should really listen to him. He looked relieved. Of course, I just went back to what I was doing anyway.
Greg was pushing me to be the best I could. Many years later, he said that he had tried to hire me as a director when our scholar year ended. But there wasn’t any money. He kept after me, bringing me back three times to WGBH for short stints as a director.
Then one day, when I was back in Milwaukee doing a silly job working for a Polish Newspaper, he offered me a permanent TV directing job. Somehow, he had found me at this little office where I was doing blind calls for a Polish newspaper, Novini Polski. I would call up people who were trying to rent apartments and suggest that they should rent to good Polish people who were clean and reliable payers of rent. All they had to do is place an ad with the Polish newspaper.
Greg’s offer was exactly what I was needed. I walked up to the office manager and quit. It wasn’t even 10:30.
So, for the next 50 years I did at least one show a year for WGBH. Sometimes, I did as many as 100 TV shows in a year. It became my professional and spiritual home. As I often said to the present executives, this is my station.
I haven’t said much about Hartford Gunn. He was the head of the whole thing. He was the brains behind the operation and soon left to create the whole PBS system. Hartford was there, but we didn’t interact with him on a daily basis. He was gracious to us all as he bustled about his business.
Years later, Hartford and I had an interesting confrontation. In those days, I wore white shirts and ties. Hartford grabbed me by the tie and pushed me up against the wall.
Why? My fellow producer/director Dave Sloss and I had written an internal memo criticizing David Ives for not being adventurous, as we wanted him to be.
The musician’s union had complained about our local folk music show because we didn’t pay anything. David felt we were in danger of being blackballed by the union and we should cancel the show. He said we always get in trouble when we do entertainment. Our memo took Ives to task for this position, in rather brutal language.
Hartford wanted to make a point to me while holding me by tie and up against the wall, that he too wanted the station to venture into entertainment. He warned me that we had to be careful. Go slow. I agreed with him. The folk music show continued. It was my most intimate moment with Hartford.
Fact: Our personal history is not made up by remembering specific days, but by remembering the special moments. There were three special moments during this period.
First, was my birthday party. I turned 22 in October and the gang gathered at our apartment in Rat Alley. Beer flowed, laugher filled the small apartment, there was even food that somebody brought.
And then, Hallock and Vento paraded into the packed place carrying a birthday cake. The crowd sang Happy Birthday. Then they plugged the cake into a wall socket and the whole thing exploded. BOOM! The room filled with smoke. At first, everyone cringed but then, realizing it was a joke, broke into loud laughter. In she came.
In her bathrobe.
She yelled and screamed.
The place cleared out fast.
What a birthday!
Second was Halloween. It had been decided by our crew that Educational Television was dead. It would go nowhere. ETV is dead. It was even chalked on the side of the building in Rat Alley. (I think that was me who did it.)
Anyway, it was decided that WGBH scholars, along with the staff, would join in a Halloween parade that was planned for Boston. Don Hallock, God Bless him, built a wooden coffin. They dressed Nohling up as a cadaver and placed him in the coffin and drove around the city in a convertible. A banner declared that ETV was dead. Probably no one in the crowds ever knew what it meant.
The driver of the convertible had a little too much to drink and I guess it was a pretty harrowing drive. The WGBH crowd ended up at some apartment on the seedy side of Beacon Hill. The next day, Don Hallock and I carried the coffin across town to my apartment. And there the coffin stood, propped up against our wall, open and empty. It stayed that way until I moved out months later.
Picnic in Rat Alley
And finally, the last week in the apartment, we had a picnic in the alley. Everyone brought whatever booze they had and we poured into one of our old pots. We called it a wassel bowl. English phrase I guess. As I sat there thinking about the last days in Boston, I looked over to our open apartment door. A rat quietly walked out of the apartment and into a garbage can next to the building. It was the end. The end of my scholar days. The end of a great year.
Wait! Not yet. I haven’t talked about Henry Morgenthau III.
Henry was a producer at WGBH. He was rumored to be wealthy. I know that he had a man, someone to drive him around, cook his meals. I guess you would call him a butler. But Henry was one of us. He laughed and played just like the rest of us.
But one important fact: Henry knew Eleanor Roosevelt. He convinced her to be part of one of WGBH early important shows, “http://wgbhalumni.org/2007/01/01/prospects-of-mankind-1959%e2%80%9361/Prospect of Mankind.[/intlink]” (This program is also in the archives.) Everyone was on that show; John F. Kennedy, Adlai Stevenson, you name it. And it was all because of Henry.
Henry’s father was Roosevelt’s Secretary of the Treasury, signer of all the nations currency. And here he was, one of our producers. Henry was great. Fun and creative. He and I ended up doing a whole ton of shows together, none more important than “Negro and the American Promise.” (Also is in the archives.)
My Dad was very impressed that I knew a Morgenthau. My Dad was a lifelong Democrat. He was very pleased that I was in good company, especially the son of the man who signed all the nations money.
My Dad always said “follow the money and you’ll find the truth.” All I know is we never had enough of it in those days.
Tom and I had each derived ways of making ends meet. Some of them were not very pretty. Fortunately, Greg Harney and Henry Morgenthau were bringing in big budgeted shows that were shot on weekends. That meant the crew was paid overtime. Tom became one of the regular paid crew members. That money really helped him
However, in some kind of desperation, Tom signed up to be a medical guinea pig. He went to the Mass. General Hospital and was injected with a blood thinner. Then they took out some blood and tested to see how thin it really was. I guess it was pretty thin because of what happened next.
Tom walked home. The Doctor told him not to get hit by a car or he might bleed to death. Ha, ha, I guess this is Doctor humor. Tom told me all about it as he combed his hair in our little bathroom.
In some kind of desperation, Tom signed up to be a medical guinea pig. Tom’s payment … 15 bucks
All of a sudden, the bandage came off and he started squirting blood all over the place. I mean pumping, squirting blood. He held his arm over the tub to catch the blood. I went crazy. I handed him a towel, got the name of the Doctor, raced upstairs to the pay phone in the hallway, dialed MGH and asked for the Tom’s Doctor. As I waited, I wondered if I should have called 911.
The operator came back on and said there was no such Doctor at the hospital. Egads! I rushed downstairs to see if Tom could make it to the street where I could call an ambulance. Fortunately, he had applied enough pressure to the wound that the blood had started to coagulate. Whew! Disaster avoided. Tom’s payment for all this … 15 bucks.
My money problems were solved in other ways. Bill Heitz had told me to try and get the Sunday master control job.
The local CBS station would not carry the networks Sunday morning shows, so WGBH, as a service to its audience, worked out a deal with CBS for Ch. 2 to air the programs from 10:00 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. The station needed an engineer, a booth announcer and a master control operator.
I got the job. My pay was $10 for each Sunday worked. That took care of the rent.
My buddies during these Sunday stints were (usually) engineer Bobby Hall, booth announcer Bob Jones, and Jerry Adler who was right next door to master control running WGBH-FM from a small control room. We were a quiet group, sometimes fighting off hangovers, planning what we would do with the rest of Sunday.
There were talk shows, and then there was Camera Three. Camera Three had been a cultural godsend to me when living at home in Milwaukee. It did segments on the fine arts, the theater, dance, photography. It was up to speed with the NYC art scene and exposed me to ideas and concepts that were beyond my wildest dreams. It helped determine my style and approach to TV.
An aside: Camera Three and Nam June Paik
Many years later I was asked to be a guest producer for Camera Three. And to show what a small world it really is, one of the executive producers was a former BU Scholar from Bill Heitz’ group. I choose video artist Nam June Paik as the star of my Camera Three.
That meant bringing into the CBS union studio all his broken down TV’s, Charlotte Mormon, who would play her cello while wearing Paiks’ Video Bra, an upright piano which Paik would destroy, and lots of his small non-broadcast electronic gear.
It probably was the first time that this kind of electronic equipment had been brought into a studio of CBS. I think every engineer in CBS found some reason to walk through the studio on their way to wherever. And every last one of them had to stop and gaze at what Paik had created.
The show was called “The Strange Music of Nam June Paik.”
CBS never asked me back to do another show. As a matter of fact, this turned out to be their last season, Camera Three was no more.
Still, it was wonderful to see the cycle completed. From an avid viewer as a college kid to a full-fledged TV producer creating something for a show that meant so much to me. Special.
And then, my money problems were solved.
Late in that first summer, I walked across Mass Ave. heading from WGBH to MIT’s indoor pool. We were going to do some kind of remote. As I crossed the street, I was hit by a car. Not really hit, more like bumped.
The problem was that, in those days, cars had hood ornaments. This was a Pontiac, which carried a shiny Indian-face ornament. This sharp little piece of metal pierced my left side, causing a rather deep wound.
Moscone took charge. Somehow, I was in a car racing to Boston City Hospital. They took me to the emergency room. The King kept telling them it was not a knife wound. I don’t know if they ever really believed him. Anyway, they washed out my wound, stitched it up, bandaged it and told me not to lift anything heavy for six weeks. I went home and rested and healed rather quickly.
Bob Moscone took me to see a lawyer … I went to his office and with great fanfare, he presented me the insurance company’s settlement. A check for $600.
But Bob Moscone, being the King, went a step further. He took me to see a lawyer. The lawyer’s office was situated in a back room of a walkup in a seedy part of Boston. The lawyer listened, got the name of the person who hit me, and said he would get back in touch. I didn’t hear from him for over 4 months.
Then I got a message from Moscone. The lawyer wanted to see me right away. I went to his office and with great fanfare, he presented me the insurance company’s settlement. A check for $600.
This money changed my lifestyle. Since I’d dreamed of making the professional theater my career choice, I spent a lot of the money going to plays, Wednesday matinees, in Boston’s theater district. Yes, in those days, there were still plays up and running in one theater or another. It seemed like there was a new one every couple of weeks.
I became a regular in the balcony section. I shared the spot with a group of ladies who were also weekly attendees. We became great friends. They started bringing me sandwiches. They were great. I saw Carol Burnett, Tom Bosley, Tommy Tune, so many great stars. It was heaven.
I decided to celebrate my new wealth by taking Ruth out on a real date. We went to a little French restaurant, which existed on Mass. Ave. (and is no longer there). We had Duck a l’Orange and a glass of wine.
Then we took a bus to Harvard Square and went to see a New Wave French film at the Brattle Theater. The Brattle, whose theater history I knew and appreciated, was not built in the faux-Oriental style that I was used to in Milwaukee. No, the Brattle was a basic box theater with little international flags on the wall, tight hard seats, and a back screen projection system.
It was clear the audience was young, college kids, most likely, intellectuals. Probably Harvard, MIT, Tufts, Brandeis, BU.
As Ruth and I settled into our seats, it was clear the audience was young, college kids, most likely, intellectuals. Probably Harvard, MIT, Tufts, Brandeis, BU. We were early and so sat back to wait for the beginning of the film.
And that’s when it happened. Like a flash of bright white light, the truth bopped me on the head. This was the Eureka moment!
Somewhere in the theater, somebody had turned on some music to keep the customers entertained until the movie began. It was a scratchy, LP record. The audio was slowly turned up until you could finally hear it. It was a harpsichord. Oh no, it was a Scarlatti Sonata.
And right then, at that very exact moment, I knew I was a hopeless stranger in a wildly exotic land. It was as if I had been plunged into some distant planet, a planet filled with flying things, a planet so different from where I had come from that it left me speechless. Clueless. Sitting, watching, not believing — right there in the Brattle Theater!
The recorded music grew more intense, filling the cavernous room with harpsichord music. The young couple in front of us moved closer together. Tighter and tighter.
She looked up at him, lovingly.
“They are playing our song.”
“I know, I know.”
And then they kissed.
About Fred Barzyk
From IMDB: Fred Barzyk is a longtime producer/director at WGBH, the public television station in Boston, Massachusetts. His credits include: Ollie Hopnoodle’s Haven of Bliss (1988), The Star-Crossed Romance of Josephine Cosnowski (1983), The Great American Fourth of July and Other Disasters (1982), The Lathe of Heaven (1980), and Between Time and Timbuktu (1972).
Pete Hoving (camera) and I traveled to New York to work on a documentary about a Boston still photographer, Marie Cosindas. We had received a grant from Polaroid to help defray the cost of doing this “Creative Person” 1/2-hour show for NET.
Peter and I both had experience at the MFA in Boston, where they would never let us roam free without someone from the museum staff being with us. (Probably those restrictions happened after one of our lights melted a painting on exhibit. It was a scoop light that was a little too close to the painting that caused the disaster. Fortunately, the museum experts where able to retouch it and it looked pretty much the same. The MFA kept on doing Museum Open House and WGBH employees knew the rules of engagement.)
But here at the MOMA, we were shocked at what happened to us … free and alone in a gallery with some of the worlds most noted modern masterpieces. Here is a little poem recalling the event.
Museum of Modern Art, 1962
I couldn’t believe it —
We had been left alone —
The top floor of the MOMA
Just me and my cameraman
Left alone by a busy curator
Before any security guards appeared
In the middle of a deserted gallery
We waited, quiet, uncertain
Left alone in the Museum of Modern Art
Pollock, Klee, Kandinsky and all the others
Colors, shapes, demanding us to pay attention
Visual challenges screaming out from the shadows
Paintings, barely lit by the early morning light
We tried to comprehend their messages
but the images just stared back,
providing no other clues
We waited, quiet, uncertain
Left alone in the Museum of Modern Art
Around a corner is where it was hung
Twenty five feet long
Eleven feet high
Black and white,
A screaming woman,
A limp baby
A severed arm clutching a sword
Pablo Picasso’s scream against war and carnage
We looked, quiet, uncertain
Alone in the Museum of Modern Art
Then the Silence stopped
Now an ugly sound filled the space,
a sound so loud and awful
a horrible sound heard only by our eyes
emanating from the massive, black and white canvas:
red, hideous yellow fire bombings,
pink flesh gnashing against brittle bones
hot blood flowing dark purple, crimson;
until nothing but
Horrified, we listened with our eyes
Alone in the Museum of Modern Art
Then it stopped. Gone.
The sound of high heels on cold tile
The gallery lights sputtering on.
The curator returned and the carnage vanished
Replaced by distant city traffic down below
by a car horn, a police siren
by the heaviness of our breathing.
Time now to film our documentary
Time to turn our attention to another artist
We set up our tripod and loaded our camera
Point and shoot, focus and zoom
We try to forget the cries of anguish we saw
While we were alone in the Museum of Modern Art.
I first heard Jean on the radio in Boston. It was 1961. I was babysitting my young son and, while idly scanning radio stations, I heard this person, this intense personal voice, talking to me.
Whoa! Is it possible? Something clicked in me. Had I found a kindred soul?
Jean had grown up in the Midwest, in Hammond, Indiana, the industrial Midwest. Me, too, I grew up just an hour away in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. My father worked in a factory, International Harvester, and my mother worked in a factory during the war, Perfex. My neighborhood was surrounded by all kinds of factories. You could smell them in the air.
Jean was weaving a tale about The Steel Mill, running, delivering the mail. He recalled a horrible accident: a vat had turned over, killing one of the steel men. But he also talked about the beauty of the giant plant. He talked about tapping the heat.
He never played any music, he just talked! Come on! This was a Saturday afternoon, for God sake. Who the Hell is this guy? Right then and there I knew I had to work with him.
I was a young television director (22) working at WGBH-TV, a little Educational Television station housed in a former roller skating rink, above a drugstore at 84 Massachusetts Avenue and right across the street from MIT. There were 45 employees running the TV and FM radio stations.
I was on contract to direct a series of French Language shows aimed at grade school students. But what I really wanted to do was dramas for TV. Maybe this Jean Shepherd person might be the storyteller I was looking for. Maybe.
“How the hell am I going to meet him, or get to work with him?”
Youth is great. I figured I would just write him a letter and offer him a half hour of airtime on our little station. I huddled with Mike Ambrosino (a fan; Mike was responsible for the development of the Eastern Educational Television Network and created NOVA) and John Henning (a fan; John had grown up in New York City listening to Jean on the radio. John became one of Boston’s most distinguished newsmen.)
Here was the problem: WGBH had no money. We were lucky to meet the weekly payroll. I was making $80 a week and trying to support a wife and baby, and I had no money. So we offered an artist the one thing they can’t resist. Free airtime to do anything he wanted to do.
I was directing a series of French Language shows, but what I really wanted to do was dramas for TV. Maybe this Jean Shepherd person might be the storyteller I was looking for.
We couldn’t afford his airfare. He would have to sign a release devised by our financial officer, Jack Hurley. Jack insisted that some hard cash pass between WGBH and the talent, so each person was to receive $1. The chances of Jean Shepherd even responding to this offer were very low. Probably, non-existent.
Boy, was I wrong. He wrote back and agreed! We talked on the phone and decided on a date. Now I had to tell management that I had made this offer and it had been accepted. (No, I never did get permission before I sent the letter. What the hell? I never thought he would respond.)
Bob Larson, programming manager, looked dubious. A comedian? No, I said, a great storyteller. How much will this cost? A one-dollar release. Somehow (don’t remember what I said) Bob agreed to let me go ahead with the show.
Bob had graduated from Harvard and was very erudite. He once told me I would never be a producer because of the school I had gone to, Marquette University in Milwaukee. I shrugged and said OK, time will tell. Bob took a chance on this one and, for me, it started a 30-year working relationship with Jean Shepherd.
There is an important event that I forgot to mention. That little TV station above the drug store — it had burned down to the ground several months before. With an amazing amount of public support from institutions and viewers, a campaign to build a new state of art studio was created. We were offered free space from many institutions while the new studio was being built. WGBH was spread out across the city in 7 different locations.
The TV studio was a small room in the basement of the Museum of Science. There was a window from which the paying visitors could watch us make TV shows: We were an exhibit. The producers, directors, and execs were housed in a small red wooden building behind the Museum, right on the waters of the Charles River.
Bob Larson laid out the rules of the game. I would have a single camera and the show would be a half hour live and recorded on tape. (That original tape exists in the WGBH archives: “JEAN SHEPHERD, AMERICAN HUMORIST.”) I decided we would shoot from the dock behind the building.
I would need a big light to cover the area since the show would air at 10:00 p.m.. The opening and closing credits would be created on a large piece of cardboard perched carefully on an easel. Camera starts on cardboard, pans to Jean, he talks for a half hour, pans back to the cardboard. Done.
The day arrived and so did Jean with a young woman, Leigh Brown. She was introduced as his secretary. She never said much but watched with great interest.
Jean was affable and eager to do his bit. I introduced him to the crew and we headed out to the dock. He had a crew cut, wore a summer jacket and tie. He was fit and seemed to enjoy the opportunity to do this for WGBH. I later found out that it was our connection to Harvard, MIT, the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Brandeis, Tufts, and Boston University which made this gig really appealing. Jean was looking to forge his credentials in the world of academia.
Jean had brought his theme music on audiotape. The time arrived and we were on the air, in living black and white, with the Charles River behind him. He proceeded to tell us two of his classic stories. First came the Ovaltine story and the magic decoder ring. He ended with the blind date story.
The stage manager gave him the one-minute cue, he concluded his bit, and we panned to the cardboard credits. The crew applauded. Egad, this wasn’t like our normal shows. I mean we were doing lectures, piano shows, educational courses for distant learners. And here was this guy entertaining us. Wow! This called for a celebration.
We were doing lectures, piano shows, educational courses for distant learners, and here was this guy entertaining us. Wow! This called for a celebration.
Jean, Leigh, myself, and most of the crew made off to one of our favorite watering holes; this night was going to be on me. (Might blow the family budget, but it was worth it.) I would pick up Jean and Leigh’s drinks. I had assumed that Jean was a beer drinker, like my Dad, but no. He ordered a martini! And just one. The rest of us bought the cheapest beer in the house. We laughed and talked.
And then something amazing happened. Jean asked how WGBH was doing. We said what do you mean? How are the ratings? We all laughed. We never knew if anyone was watching us. Jean asked what kind of shows did we do. At that moment, WGBH was doing a lot of Harvard extension courses for the Navy. Physics, calculus, trig, a series of shows for the crews of atomic subs that stayed submerged for months at a time. The crew could get academic credit for taking this course when they took an exam on returning to base.
Shepherd’s eyes twinkled. He smiled that crooked smile of his, and he created a story right in front of us in the seedy beer-smelling bar. Jean began:
I can see it now. Professor Schmidlap appears at a blackboard and begins to explain calculus to the TV audience. He is amazing, his voice flying out over Boston … talking MATH!
Suddenly, after just two weeks of his little show, the ratings are soaring. The local commercial stations take notice.
“Who the hell is this guy? What’s going on? Maybe it’s that theme music. I mean who the hell can understand calculus?”
Four weeks later, Professor Schmidlap is number one in Boston TV.
The news spreads to New York. They call up and get an air tape. These Big time execs gather in a large conference room and they watch!
The theme music comes up. (They lean forward.) Prof. Schmidlap appears and begins, writing a long equation on the blackboard. (They lean in further.) Professor smiles as he shows us the solution. (They are now standing.)
“Get this guy on the phone. Now!”
Professor Schmidlap is at home when the phone rings. It’s one of the big time New York agents.
“This is _________. Who’s your agent?”
“My insurance agent?”
By months end, the Professor has his own show on NBC. His show is broadcast over the entire nation. And the ratings take off. Before long he has won the coveted 9 p.m. slot NATION WIDE. The other networks respond. Soon there are shows on Physics, Metaphysics, Epistemology.
And what happens to WGBH and educational TV? They start running old Ed Sullivan shows.
It is worth noting that, in the year 2002, WGBH aired several episodes of the Ed Sullivan Show. After exactly 39 years, Jean Shepherd’s prediction came to pass.
“The Club” began on channel 44 as “Club 44.” I think it was around 1977-80.
Studio A was converted into a bar/club where each Friday night we would tape four, half-hour, back to back, “live” 30 minute segments. These featured local bands and musical acts, cooking segments, political editorials from Barney Frank, interviews with local celebs, and a variety of Boston based info segments. It was made more interesting by the audience who was served wine and beer. They roamed about standing, sometimes tripping on camera cables and generally being helpful. As the night wore on the fun increased.
Silvia Davis was the Executive Producer. She and her team did a great job coming up with fresh talent and ideas for the show. I recall Dick Cavett doing a guest host spot, as did Garrett Morris from SNL. We did segments on CB radio (all the rage at the time) and hot tubs (one night we had a 6′ wooden barrel that mostly didn’t leak all over.) There were movie, book and eatery reviews and even the odd pet segment.
Some might remember the unique innovation called “the stick”. This was used to ID guests. During a segment, David Atwood who was the ringmaster and chief would call out, “Okay, give ’em the stick.” At which point a piece of foam core attached to a dowel would be thrust into the frame…usually in a mostly lower third position. The guest’s name was painted on the sign. This all happened in the days before Chyron. You will hardly ever see it done today.
I’m sure others have fond “Club” memories… Care to share?
Sometime my senior year in college I decided that WGBH was the place I wanted to be. I started in the mailroom in 1971 and made it onto the crew about a year later. This I learned later was the time-honored path for many who had gone before me to find job happiness at the foundation. In truth, it was a great place to start… as I soon learned just who was who, where they sat, and what they did.
I loved working on the crew from day one. ‘GBH was such a great place to be in the ’70’s. Every day we worked on a different show. One day I was learning about strawberries from Jim Crockett, the next day speaking ubbie dubbie with the Zoomers. I learned about Itallian food from Franco and Margaret, and Ludvig B from Lenny Bernstein. Where in the world could you be surrounded by so much cool stuff and have the opportunity to meet so many wonderful characters?
When the Ronald Reagan put the squeeze on PBS and CPB in the early ’80’s things began to change. Money got tight, and a number of us were casualties. It worked out well for me as I landed a production spot at Digital Equipment. They were riding high in the ’80’s and seemed to have lots of dough for production. I had the opportunity to develop my craft learning to shoot, edit, direct, and design facilities.
For me, the ’90’s was the decade of Lotus Development. I was fortunate to have the chance to produce hundreds of projects for marketing, corporate communications, etc. In 2001, I started Bordett–MediaWorks, a small production company in Newton. I’m still involved in all kinds of projects for educational, corporate, non-profits, and private clients. My latest venture is making family documentaries to help people preserve their stories and histories. (milestonespictures.com)
I’ll always have a warm spot in my heart for all the wonderful people and experiences that were my WGBH days. I was, we were, very lucky to have shared that place.