Remembering the original WGBH

Art Singer is president of the Massachusetts Broadcasters Hall of Fame.

Fifty years ago this past September, as I began an intensive one-year Masters of Communication Arts program at Boston University, I also was approved for a volunteer internship assignment at Channel 2. And for most of the academic year, on several late afternoons a week, I would take the twenty minute walk from BU across the Charles to the station’s studios on the MIT campus for a night’s work.

Who knew at the time it was to be the very best part of my graduate year and would direct a good part of my career?

84 Massachusetts Avenue

To enter the building that housed the WGBH studios was from the beginning a thrilling experience. The feeling was one of being part of grand experiment (this educational television) and also due in large measure to the fact that most of the programs I was assigned to as “crew” were produced and aired live.

As I recall, we’d begin with the children’s show, underwritten by Hood’s, at 5:30 pm and then jump to the inimitable Louis Lyons and the News at 6:00pm. A distinguished journalist for the Christian Science Monitor, Louis would unabashedly read from his notes with an occasional look up over his spectacles to remind himself and the viewer that was on camera.

At 7 p.m., one night a week, legendary theater critic Elliot Norton held forth for a half hour and his guests would be the elite of Broadway whose shows were trying out in town before opening in New York City. There in the guest chairs would be the likes of Rogers and Hammerstein or Julie Styne, or the directors, producers, and stars of the shows.

And scattered elsewhere on my assignments were tapings of other shows. These ranged from Brandeis President Abe Sachar’s “The Course of Our Times “series to Madame Anne Slack and her “Parlons Francais” French language instruction show (Madame Slack would say “Bonjour mon ami” then wait for the viewer to repeat the phrase while she mouthed the words in support). The same late afternoon or evening Eleanor Roosevelt and other luminaries might be taping shows as well.

Studio A, 84 Massachusetts Avenue

The studios were constantly in use. And with so much of it being live, everything was or seemed to be in continuous motion. The likes of Dave Davis and Greg Harney seemed to be everywhere. The man himself, Hartford Gunn would make an occasional appearance in the halls or on the set . And the atmosphere bubbled over with energy and knowledge, talent and creativity.

This was educational television and we were there at the infancy of what many of us sensed could be a new direction for broadcast television. I may have been learning broadcast history and production theory at BU, but here I was learning what actually was necessary to create a TV program, And to boot, I was getting a bonus education –in current events, theater, language, cooking, and journalism.

And music. My most favorite assignment was being on the crew for the live telecasts of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. At the time, the BSO performed with some regularity at Sanders Theater in Cambridge. And on a number of Tuesday evenings, we were there to capture and broadcast the event. I don’t believe that GBH had permanent cameras and mikes in the hall. I believe everything had to be trucked over and set up anew each time.

The producer responsible for these major productions was Jordan Whitelaw. And I can vividly recall attending, along with the director, the camera operators, the audio guys, the switcher, and others the rehearsals in Jordan’s office.

After personnel assignments were confirmed for each of us in the room (most often mine was as a lowly cameraman assistant), we would do a mock production of the evening’s program, each attendee having been given a “shot sheet” to note which shots were assigned to which camera.

Next to Jordan’s desk was either a phonograph or a tuner-turntable-and speaker arrangement. And ready for play was an LP recording by the BSO in most cases performing the very work(s) on the Sanders program that week. We’d all settle down, pencils and paper in hand and Jordan would begin:

“Camera One ready with wide shot of the orchestra. Take Camera One. Ready for opening credits. Roll credits. Camera Two ready to follow Munch as he enters stage right. Ready Two, take Two. Follow him to the podium. Camera Three on First Violin. Ready Camera Three, Take three.”

This continued through the playing of the entire piece. To me it seemed brilliant, but now I suspect that he was mimicking the pre production approach used by the NBC Symphony or the New York Philharmonic on network TV. Yet it could be that he was breaking new ground. Who knows?

Truth is we were all breaking new ground. That ‘GBH experience made a convert of me and I remained hooked for more than 35 years in what became the public broadcasting business.

Yet through all those years, no coverage of an event, development of a series, no dramatically successful nights of on air pitching, gave me more insight and purpose and pleasure than my intern days at this offbeat, eclectic, determined operation known as WGBH-TV Boston.

The BU Scholars program (1957-58)

From Vic Washkevich

From on high

The Boston Symphony Orchestra was one of the highlights of WGBH programming back in 1957–58. Hey, anything was better than Words, the one-camera show on which I earned my credit as a director.

If you recall, symphony rehearsal performances were open to the public. We shot that show with three cameras, #1 on the left, #3 on the right, and #2 at high center — the nose-bleed portion of the balcony.

The orchestra played, shots were rehearsed, and finally, the music stopped. As the #2 cameraman was shutting down his camera, he encountered an elderly gent sitting up there in the higher regions of the theater.

Being friendly, our cameraman asked the old man, “How’d you like the performance?”

“It was great,” the man shot back, “but where’s your beam of light.”

We had a more demanding audience back then.

(This incident really did happen, in Sanders Theatre at Harvard; but does anyone remember who the mystery cameraman was?)

… When I’m finished

Speaking of anecdotes, remember this.

One of the break-in shows for the new WGBH scholars was to work the Louis Lyons news show. He sat behind a desk, reading his commentary to a tabletop mike in his glass enclosed soundproof room (the FM studio, actually). The camera, outside the room, shot through a glass partition, but there was a “stage manager,” lying on the floor, out of camera range next to Louie to tell him when he was on the air.

Being neophytes, we did everything we were told. And on this particular night, when the director told the state manager to give Louie the sign to wrap up his news report, Louie turned to the trembling scholar and, in a testy voice said, “Young man, don’t tell me to get off the air. I’ll get off when I’m finished and not before, understand?” That one got a howl from everyone — except the kid on the floor, who wished for nothing more than to be able to tunnel his way out of the building.

Jazz contamination

A story from yore. One night we were rehearsing a violin and piano duo who frequently played the high classics on Performance. Fuchs and Balsam were a somewhat self-impressed pair who had become known fondly around the studio as ‘Screws and Hemlock.’

Joseph Fuchs and Artur Balsam with recital series host Jules Wolffers

After rehearsing their pieces, they and the crew took a break, about 20 minutes before going live. During the break, one of the crew (who’s name we can’t recall) sat down at the piano and played a few contemporary songs.

When the concert musicians returned from their break, Fuchs, the violin virtuoso, ran some cat gut across the strings without incident. And Balsam, the pianist, danced his fingers across the ivories to limber up. After a few seconds, though, Balsam rose from his bench, aghast, and declared, ashen faced…. ‘Someone has been playing jazz on my piano!’

Uncanny!