From Don Hallock (with Michael Ambrosino) — 12/18/2010 (updated 1/11/2011)
Many extraordinarily-gifted figures and luminaries of the day — in the arts, science, politics and education — found their ways into the halls and studios of the original WGBH-TV/FM studios at 84 Massachusetts Avenue, which were located just across the street from one of the main entrances to MIT, and close by Eero Saarenen’s beautiful Kresge Auditorium.
WGBH first moved into the building in 1955, and a major expansion was accomplished in the fall of 1956. The fire, which destroyed it all, ending the station’s rather brief six year tenure, took place in October of 1961.
During those short six years though, the place was a veritable hot-bed of talent; many very successful careers were begun here, and much that was revolutionary in broadcasting history took place during WGBH’s time in the building.
Simulcasting (FM and TV) of the Boston Symphony Orchestra was pioneered in this building. The projection room was also home to the very first unit off the assembly line of the Ampex VR1000 2-inch videotape machine (the first videotape machine ever commercially available).
Much broadcast history was laid down at 84 Mass. Ave., and much accomplished which was the genesis of what WGBH has become today.
The Eastern Educational Network was dreamed up here, and eventually proved itself a model for vastly more extensive educational broadcast link-ups.
Even then WGBH was proving itself a production center to rival that of WNET in New York and KQED in San Francisco, the other two major centers supplying programming for NET (the National Educational Network). This was not an easy accomplishment, given that most major talents were located in New York, and had to be brought (lured by superior program ideas) to Boston to perform in WGBH television productions.
A certain reverence accompanies this presentation, as much broadcast history was laid down at 84 Mass. in six short years, and much accomplished which was the genesis of what WGBH has become today.
A space designed for creativity
I’ve taken the time to do this project since there are still a few of us who affectionately remember working in these rather modest, musty, and occasionally ill-fitting spaces, but also because there may also be some alums of more recent vintage with an interest in having some sense of the rather makeshift origins of the station’s facilities.
This journey into the past includes two annotated floor plans of 84 Mass. Ave. during that brief period. Likely this presentation is unique, since I believe none of the original blueprints exist, and as far as I know no one else has attempted such a reconstruction.
There are still a few of us who affectionately remember working in these rather modest, musty, and occasionally ill-fitting spaces.
Please also bear in mind that these drawings are a reconstruction completely from memory, and so there may be unintentional errors or omissions. I apologize for any of these in advance; but the building was configured this way almost 50 years ago, and memory can become a bit vague over time.
Since (I believe) no helpful dimensional information has survived the interim,these plans could not be drawn to scale. The measurements are quite approximate but, I also believe, give a good idea of what the original 84 Mass. Ave. facility looked like.
The slight angle of the rear wall is not a mistake. I had thought I remembered it that way, and made the original drawings to reflect that. Later, though, I doubted my memory and made the building rectangular. In a very helpful email, however, Michael Ambrosino said that he remembered the building tapering toward the north, and so I revised my plan again to show that peculiarity.
I want, also, to offer a second apology here. Since far too many of the WGBH “family” worked in the various parts of the operation at 84 Mass. Ave., I will have forego trying to fit names with the spaces. Instead, I will mention only a few key figures. For those who will inevitably be left out, please don’t be hurt, and please forgive the omissions.
First some notes on the building itself, and the virtues and drawbacks it presented to a new WGBH-TV, and a somewhat more mature WGBH-FM.
From roller rink to educational link
The building was constructed as a roller rink, with the skating surface on the second floor, and balcony spaces for observation and relaxation on the third – as is the custom generally for skating facilities. The street floor was sub-divided into spaces to house several shops, offices and other store-front enterprises. I’d be surprised if it measured much more than 250 feet in length, 70 feet in depth, and about 40 feet in height.
WGBH did not own the building and, initially, the station rented only the south half of the upper two floors (to the left of the photo). The north half of both floors (to the right) housed a company which designed and built highly accurate atomic clocks — probably for MIT.
It was constructed of red brick, and judging by the rather stern and gloomy architecture — which may be seen in Brooks Leffler’s unique photo of the façade from across Mass. Ave. — probably dated from the 1920s or possibly the 1930s. It could possibly have been built in the early 1940s, but I doubt it. Renovations required to make the cavernous edifice fit the station’s needs were very extensive, and must have been quite costly.
Advantages and disadvantages
One advantage of the building — aside from its being located just across the street from MIT, or even in the same city as some of the nation’s most prestigious educational institutions — was that, while obviously not very fire resistant, it was a sturdy monolith, and didn’t need as much sound-proofing as might otherwise have been required.
One very major disadvantage, which plagued production work from the beginning to the end, was the studio floors (the original roller-skating surfaces) which were made of maple boards which had been washed too many times. The boards were all cupped from the moisture, and this made camera-dollying in most directions a horribly lumpy business.
As well, the cameras of the day were very heavy (about 250 pounds for a pedestal unit — God knows how close to a ton when the Fearless Panoram Dolly was used), and the creaking of the boards was heard on countless shows and recordings. We tried many solutions, including hand nailing each and every board down tighter, but all to no avail. For this reason the studios were a sound engineer’s, and camera operator’s, ongoing nightmare.
Other disadvantages included the fact that only the station’s top four or five executives had reserved parking spaces in MIT’s lot behind the building. The school’s parking facilities were even then over-subscribed. And so the rest of the nearly 100 staff had to do countless daily neighborhood drive-bys in order to find awfully scarce (and very frequently illegal) parking.
I don’t know who was responsible for all of the renovations that made the old rink suitable for a radio and television facility, but they do deserve abundant praise.
One notable exception was Bob Moscone, the studio supervisor (affectionately known to the studio minions as “The King”), who managed to convince all and sundry that an illegal spot on the alleyway sidewalk at the front left corner of the building was his (somehow, it was never ticketed). The only person I can remember ever successfully violating this unofficial convention was Al Hinderstein. Such chutzpa Al had!
And a final major disadvantage: there was almost no place nearby serving any kind of decent food. Under most of studio A the street floor did feature Tech Drug, a soda fountain with a large table area in which to eat lunch. Many from WGBH and MIT did so. But the food was — how can I put it diplomatically? — atrocious. Besides, they only served lunch, which is not very helpful to a staff most of which started work at 2 pm, rehearsed for three hours until 5:00pm when we took to the air, and left around 11:00pm.
There was an Italian restaurant about a block further into Cambridge, and the food was reasonably tasty, but that place only served dinner and the kitchen was not very clean (witness the many canker sores one could contract after eating there). Otherwise, we had to travel a bit of a distance to find eats. Bag lunches were by far our most common form of nourishment. Ah, but it all made the pioneering effort somehow more of a commitment, and bound us together the more tightly.
In fairness, I’ll hasten to observe that the two stages of renovations to make the old rink suitable for a radio and television facility were quite well thought out, and with considerable foresight. The layout and facilities were always practical, and served our basic needs quite admirably. I don’t know who was responsible for all that, but they do deserve abundant praise.
The tour begins
Well let’s get to the meat of the thing by bringing on the plans.
As a convention — and to avoid confusion — we will call the street floor of 84 Mass. the “street floor.” But the logic ends there. The second floor of 84 Mass. we will call the “studio floor” (since, obviously, the studios were all located there). The third, following similar reasoning, we will refer to as the “office floor.” Please remember that both floor plans reflect the layout following the occupation of the entire length of the building.
The drawings — one of the “studio floor” (floor 2), and one of the “office floor” (floor 3) — show the configuration of each floor after the expansion from occupancy of one half of the upper 2 floors of the building to filling of the entire upper 2 floors, from one end of the building to the other.
I very much hope you find this “magical mystery tour” enjoyable. If you’re one of the “original crowd,” you might test yourself on the floor plans before consulting the key numbers, just to see how well you remember the place — or if, perhaps, you remember it better than I. Maybe this will even coax a tear or two from a few old eyes.
In the rear alley, the new/used WGBH-TV Greyhound bus resided while it was being converted to a mobile unit. As luck would have it, the outfitting was very nearly complete when the building burned, and the bus became the literal life raft for the TV operation. We did many productions using it, including parking it outside WHDH-TV, and shooting our own productions inside their studios.
What we accomplished here
From this humble home sprang the media colossus that is now WGBH. Sometimes (upstairs, in the heat of summer) we hated the place, but mostly we loved it dearly. What we did there, and who we were with each other, seem to have an ongoing life which can still be felt.
Looking back, it’s amazing what was accomplished in this place.
The fire was a catastrophe from which the public face of the station quickly recovered; the viewing audience barely noticed a hiccup. But we who salvaged what little was salvageable from the charred remains, even while pursuing a commitment to continue, did so in spite of a subtle but persistent state of shock.
It could be speculated that the fire actually catalyzed the station’s growth and rapid maturation, and that without that kick in the pants we might have languished in that old building, and in relative poverty. From adversity often comes strength, and out of ashes….
WGBH has had two more sets of digs since 84 Mass. For younger alums, and those who stayed on past the middle sixties, these newer abodes will form more of the framework of their recollections. Some of us, however, and with justification, will remember this original building fondly, and recall vividly the day of its demise.
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).
The following are excerpts from the Ille Novi collection. These “underground” newsletters were circulated from mid-1958 to mid-1961, and edited by the Queen (Jean Brady) and Paul Noble.
September 1, 1958 (from Vol. 1, No. 2)
On Tuesday, July 29th, Jean Brady’s image was recorded on videotape at WGBH-TV, making the first use of the Ampex VTR machine. The picture and sound quality of VTR is almost idential with that of the live signal.
The first actual on-the-air use of VTR was Friday, August 1st, when an ETRC program kinescoped that morning in our studio was simulatenously taped and then aired that night at 10:30 PM (“Middle East — US Disaster?”).
Further use of the instrument was made on August 8th, when “Recreation Review” was pre-taped at 5:15 PM at the MIT Boathouse and the Charles River, and was presented at 7:30 PM during a violent thunderstorm.
October 1, 1958 (from Vol. I, No. 3)
Crew to Start Directing
Better late than never. “Louis Lyons,” “Backgrounds,” “Weather and Sports,” and “The Film Critic” have been assigned to various crew members. Lew Yaeger, Brooks Leffler, Don Knox, Jim Hennes, and John Engel are the lucky chaps with the Louis slot, and Tom McGrath fell into the Norm Holland directing job. Directing will begin this week, with supervision by the producers of the programs.
November 1, 1958 (From Vol. I No. 4)
Huntley-Brinkley at 6:45
For the past three weeks, WGBH-TV has been carrying the Huntley-Brinkley NBC News Report nightly at 6:45 PM. It seems that Channel 5 — which had formerly telecast the program — dropped it in favor of half-hour telefilms at 6:30.
Channel 2 is picking up the program through the courtesy of NBC. Sponsor identification is eliminated throughout (causing some deft maneuvers at Master Control by supervisor Ted Steinke).
Of course, the major problem involved was in shortening Louis Lyons to 15 minutes for News and 15 minutes for Backgrounds, now aired Monday and Wednesday, with “Weather for You” on Friday for 15 minutes.
Believe it or not, Louis is taking his time cues beautifully, and is a pro at getting off at the right moment. Our 6:30-7:15 time slot is now termed “Three Views of the News.” The Tuesday and Thursday slots at 7 PM are “Elliot Norton Reviews” and “The Film Critic.”
Boston Symphony Uses Zoomar
Sanders Theatre, October 28, 1958 (Harvard).
The use of the Zoomar lens on the central camera, improved shot sheets, and excellent lighting, plus Debussy’s “La Mer” and Beethoven’s “Pastoral” Symphony made for a magnificent BSO concert this past Tuesday evening. Messrs. Valtz and Leffler, in addition to the inimitable Don Hallock were masters of the cameras.
From Brooks Leffler
I think this holds up pretty well over 40 years!
From the Ille Novi:
It’s a lousy afternoon;
Someone’s standing on my cable
While I lump into a table.
I could spit, but I ain’t able, you see —
It’s hot in B.
It’s a ghastly afternoon,
On the air the lenses flipping
And my panning handle’s dripping
And my friction head is tipping towards me —
No camera key . . .
A big black cloud hangs over the room
And darkens as it grows.
I try to smile my way through the gloom,
And the Fearless rolls over my toes.
It’s a grisly afternoon,
And the headsets all are hummy
And my panhead drag is gummy
And my framing’s kinda crummy — Oh me!
Come spend this lousy afternoon with me.
It’s a grisly, ghastly, lousy afternoon!
Lyrics by D. Hallock and B. Leffler
Inspired by Lucy Reed’s lovely rendition of “Lazy Afternoon.”
As of June 29, 2000, Brooks Leffler — supplier of our excellent reunion sportswear — sadly informs us that the last orders probably cannot be met. Quoth he:
I regret to tell you after all this time that there won’t be any more WGBH Reunion shirts. My screen printer has dropped the ball, and it’s just more hassle than it’s worth to get 8 shirts printed elsewhere. Prices would have to about triple, new screens would need to be made, and so on.
So I have concluded that canceling the order is the best option. If you have sent money to me, I’ll send you a refund check shortly.
Thanks, Brooks, for your efforts on our behalf and for the great shirts you made available to us.