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).
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?
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.
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.
At the age of 81 Dave passed away on May 23, 2007, in the kitchen of his home in Guyana. He and his wife Joyce had been retired and playing Jazz around the islands since 1993.
From WGBH QuickNooz (by permission) — 8/20/2007
Sad news from the Caribbean: Former WGBH Station Manager David MacFarland Davis passed away 5/23 in his home in Guyana at 81. Dave and his wife Joyce had been retired and playing jazz around the islands since 1993.
During Dave’s tenure at ‘GBH (1956-67), he produced and directed several TV productions, including Robert Frost: A Lover’s Quarrel with the World (theatrical release of which earned the film an Oscar in 1963), Aaron Copland: Music of the ’20s, and Lotte Lenya: World of Kurt Weill.
Dave’s first wife, Sylvia, headed up Creative Services and Communications in the ’70s and their son, Scott, was part of the technical crew (and later, headed up production for the MTV network).
Dave went on to become director of Programming Instruction at the Television Trust in Tel Aviv, Israel. In the late ’60s, he returned to the US to work for the Ford Foundation’s Office of Public Broadcasting (where VP Margaret Drain was on his staff), moving on to become president of Public Television Playhouse, Inc. and president and CEO of The American Documentary Inc., which launched, respectively, American Playhouse and P.O.V. (both the result of production consortia involving WGBH).
Tributes to Dave, including a 1958 memo to WGBH TV staff on creativity, are being posted on the WGBH alumni site.
“Dave was one of the people who built and shaped the public TV system as we know it,” says WGBH President Henry Becton. “He was a trusted manager with multiple talents, who in the last phase of his life followed his own creative muse as a jazz musician.”
From THE BOCA (Trinidad and Tobago) — 7/2007
Mood Indigo David, a lover of Jazz
Eulogy by Marion of s/v Passe Partou
I first met Joyce and David on Hog Island, Grenada. They were on their yacht Mood Indigo and they had organised the Yachtie Jazz Band. I and 100 other yachties drove off in our dinghies into the dark windy night to hear some live music. What a treat! Cruisers sang, cruisers played musical instruments and of course David played his trumpet and Joyce sang her blues.
That was 1995, 14 years ago. I have known Joyce and David as musical cruisers and great organisers.
But when Army and I sailed to Guyana last September on our yacht Passe Partou, Joyce and David were now homeowners. We had spent many a dinner on their front porch listening to frogs and watching the moon to rise.
Here I asked David to describe his greatest achievement. He told how he pioneered “Public Television” in the USA and how this fledgling Public TV got contributions to produce very high quality cultural and educational programs; one such program was Sesame Street.
Then he watched Public TV expand from New York City to Boston, then ever so slowly to another city and then another city until it finally crossed the USA. Public TV became established.
Kit Nascimento of Guyana, who knew David during his professional broadcasting days, said that David was very highly regarded in broadcasting and an icon in Public TV Broadcasting. Even Google on the Internet describe the number of linear feet of paper David wrote during his career at the Ford Foundation.
Only in his death have I learned so much about David Davis. He was truly a man of many facets: An icon in television broadcasting; a horn playing musician and a lover of Jazz; a cruiser on his sailboat Mood Indigo; and a man happy in his home on the Essquibo River in Guyana.
I am pleased to have known such a special soul and am sorry to say goodbye but I know his spirit will always be nearby.
David Davis s/v Mood Indigo, passed away at his home in Guyana on May 23, 2007
As I remember, a 30 year old Dave Davis came to us at WGBH-TV from the University of North Carolina campus TV in 1957. That was the same year I, at 19, began in the scene shop as assistant to Peter Prodan.
Dave was a musician and veteran television Producer-Director. He succeeded John “Rocky” Coe as Production Manager, as I recall, and first occupied a tiny cubicle at the far end of the upstairs TV production office area where there was, quite appropriately, a little window looking down into Studio-A.
I very much loved working as cameraman for Dave. His precision, expertise and intelligence were absolutely inspiring.
I didn’t see or know much of Dave for several months following his arrival. I think that was because David MacFarland Davis was Scottish to the core — a distinctly quiet and private person who in time, though, proved pivotal to the future development of my entire later life.
My very first acquaintance with Dave happened one morning when I nervously approached his desk to say that I might have to quit working at the station as I was having a terribly painful and difficult time working under Peter. I really don’t know how Dave had any knowledge of who I was, or what my talents or enthusiasms might be (I aspired at that time, more than anything else in the world, to be a television cameraman). His reply, however, nearly knocked me off my seat — and profoundly changed the course of my life — forever.
He told me that in June and November respectively the station was going to be hiring two full-time cameramen. Frank Vento, who was already assistant Studio Manager under Bob Moscone, was to be the first, and that, if I could stick it out in the shop until November, I could be the second one. In the mean time, he said, I could be the station’s title-slide photographer after hours, and run microphone boom on a weekend science series he was directing for NET.
I was nothing short of astounded because, although I had as a teen, done some unofficial assisting in the TV studios at WBZ-TV on weekends, and had several years of theater experience, I had never run a boom or camera before in my life. But I accepted, and with so much excitement I could barely get any words of appreciation out of my mouth. Obviously, I stuck it out.
Dave was as good as his word (he always was). And so, subsequently, I found myself working for him, I believe to our mutual satisfaction, and definitely to my great pleasure, for nearly seven years thereafter. I ran camera on most of his directing stints and after he became Assistant General Manager for Television and didn’t direct further, it was he who powerfully changed my life yet again, by agreeing — on the prompting of Greg Harney — to promote me to Producer-Director. And again I was awed by this show of faith on his part (I was also, I must admit, perfectly terrified).
You see, the station rule, formerly strictly adhered to, was that all Producer-Directors must have college degrees, and I was only a high school graduate. I wish I could say I knew it at the time, but it only gradually seeped into my consciousness that, though incredibly detail-conscious and formal, Dave’s softer jazz musician side would sometimes very quietly reveal itself, and that he actually navigated a surprising amount on intuition.
I very much loved working as cameraman for Dave. His precision, expertise and intelligence were absolutely inspiring. I respected his work greatly, and we probably disagreed, rather humorously in the long run, on only a couple of very minor issues. Actually, our differings stemmed from my having been an impassioned student of television since I got my first TV set at age 14, and by age 16 having read every book on television in the Boston Public Library.
The romance of the medium absolutely enchanted me from the beginning. I watched TV constantly through high school, and had probably seen every one of all the great network programs of the time (Wide Wide World, Studio One, Goodyear Playhouse, Kraft theater, Omnibus — all the shows that were breaking ground and breaking rules). I absolutely loved the excitement of “live TV,” the constant innovation in a very new medium, and especially the rule-breaking (I have always been something of a rule-breaker).
As a director, Dave went, I found, somewhat by-the-book. I was not at all disappointed in him for that. Dave just “had his ways,” and I respected him for those. They worked well for him, and for me also as a hands-on student of TV technique. I did find some of them amusing, though, and our accords as well as our divergences later helped me, of course, form my own styles of directing.
In the category of divergences, for instance, “Takes” were Dave’s rule of thumb for virtually all music shows, including the Boston Symphony broadcasts. I, on the other hand, have always loved dissolves. I don’t remember Dave ever using a dissolve, even on the slowest, softest and sweetest of music. While cameraman on Dave’s music shows, my heart yearned so much to have a dissolve or two that, after I started directing music programs myself, I probably used a few too many for a while. In those later times when I was directing, Dave was likely in frequent disagreement about my choices of transitions. But always the fair-minded Scotsman, he never once objected.
In those later times when I was directing, Dave was likely in frequent disagreement about my choices of transitions. But always the fair-minded Scotsman, he never once objected.
Dave also seemed to feel that the cyclorama, drapes or black curtains were the only proper backgrounds for music programs — and cameras were never to be seen. Being a jazz musician himself, and “THE jazz director” of the station, that was Dave’s convention for jazz as well. Lew Barlow dutifully continued that tradition when he became director of Jazz with Father O’Connor.
Well, about the time I inherited that program from Lew, I happened to see kinescopes of two CBS programs that Jack Sameth had recently done with Miles Davis, Gil Evans and combo. They blew my mind! Unlike the usual TV setting, Sameth had set the musicians in a loose horseshoe with Gil Evans conducting his arrangements from the horseshoe’s opening. All were thusly facing each other – more like a recording session. Furthermore, there was no set, only dimly lighted studio walls, and the cameras were allowed to dolly into and out of the backgrounds of each other’s shots. So powerfully beautiful was the music and the presentation (they both broke so many rules so elegantly) I thought immediately, THAT was the way jazz should be shot! And THAT’S the way I will do it!
Well, needless to say, I was distinctly nervous on the night of my first show as nobody but the people in the studio, the cameramen who just loved the impending freedom, and Father O’Connor, who not only couldn’t have cared less, but thought it was an interesting idea, knew my plan. We now got every shot we wanted, moved anywhere we wanted to move, saw lights, booms and cameras, and used takes, dissolves and supers as much as we felt was evocative of the real spirit of jazz.
All responses to the program were decidedly positive (thank you, Jack Sameth). And Dave, who’s opinion most worried me, never uttered a word of disparagement. I don’t know if he objected to the approach or not, but I do believe he felt it was creative (creativity was a concern of paramount importance to Dave), and that it was only right that he respect my aesthetic decisions as much as I had respected his. I gained much greater confidence as a director in this particular adventure (thank you, Dave).
One rather amusing note: After I left the station in 1963 I did see one Boston Symphony broadcast where Dave slowly and beautifully dissolved into and out of a very wide shot of the whole hall from the Symphony Hall balcony. I do believe that Jordan Whitelaw, the Boston Symphony producer who, when I directed music programs, had liked my choices of dissolves and takes — and was much more of an open romantic than Dave — finally got to him on that occasion. Nevertheless, it was Dave who taught us all how to properly televise music, and if that had been Dave’s only gift we would all owe him a huge debt of gratitude.
There was really only one other, rather humorous, area I remember where Dave and I differed frequently, and that was where the choice of lenses was concerned. This may not mean very much technically to present day camera operators who use only zooms, and not fixed lenses as we had to do then, but Dave had an absolute phobia about (against) the use of any lens of a focal length shorter than the normal (50mm) — and that lens only for the widest of cover shots. He felt that, on anything closer than a waist-shot, even a normal lens introduced an intolerable depth of perspective, which Dave saw and denounced as “distortion.”
Therefore, on shows he was directing at least, he insisted on the use of a 90mm or longer for almost all shooting, including cover shots. This, of course, made smooth dollying, especially on 84 Mass. Ave’s. washboard studio floors simply impossible, and was absolutely infuriating to camera operators, as it made them feel terribly incompetent. In all fairness, I must observe that the wider lenses did make the use of a tele-prompter, which was then mounted below the lens turret, more obvious. But even when a prompter was not being used Dave had his fairly strict preferences, and held to them firmly.
To the best of my memory, he never ever used the station’s one 35mm lens, barely tolerated the 75mm when we got it, and, I believe, abhorred the 28mm lens we eventually bought (super-wide for the day) that I simply loved. He staunchly stood by the perspective flattening that the longest usable lens would give.
I, on the other hand, loved the feeling of depth, perspective and dynamic camera movement that the wider angle lenses gave. I knew that long lenses had their place, and never resisted their appropriate use. I always strove to use the right lens for the right shot, and tailor the use of lenses to the show and the director.
But I was also an avid enthusiast of John Frankenheimer’s television drama technique, namely that of invariably using the widest lens possible. He made abundant use of crane shots, and rarely used a lens shorter than 35mm (wide angle) even for close-ups. I found those image dynamics absolutely exhilarating — something like flying. So, I frequently tried to slip one over on Dave by using a wider angle lens than I knew he would want. Often he caught me at it, and a few times he didn’t. But he never did get rasty about it. He just invoked the dreaded “D” word, and we made the change to the lens he preferred. Because he very much liked me to add my contributions to what he was directing, and to “sell him shots,” I think he secretly enjoyed our little “lens-joustings.”
In truth, I believe the lens issue went deeper than the merely technical — to the level of personality. Longer focal length lenses give a subtle feeling of “viewing subjects from a safe distance,” which better suited Dave’s preference for interpersonal relating. The wide angle lenses, in contrast, made one feel “inside the action” — more of a participant in the drama — which, in my youth at least, felt very exciting.
It would probably be impossible to enumerate all that Dave Davis gave and meant to us while at WGBH. He constantly and insistently emphasized — and through that gift we all learned — “creativity” and “quality.”
One area where Dave and I were in perfect agreement was in shot calling. That directing technique was almost as important to cameramen as to switchers. Ask any old-time ‘GBH director (and probably some of the younger ones too) about “1-1-1-take!” and “ready 2…dissolve.” Dave brought those camera calls to us when he joined the station.
The method was both elegant and precise. The repeated number always meant to the switcher that a cut was next, while the “ready” always signified an impending dissolve. At first some directors found the new calls annoying, and preferred to stay with the old ones (they were the “ready 2….take 2” crew with whom you, as switcher, never knew if the “ready 2” preceded a cut or a dissolve. When switching, you therefore had to try — too often unsuccessfully — to be ready for both).
But eventually, when their almost fool-proof effectiveness in preventing “mis”-takes were appreciated, (and, it should be said, on Dave’s fully justified insistence) the new calls were universally adopted. In fact, I believe that those camera calls of Dave’s are still being used, at least by some. (Bill Francis knew them as TD when I employed them while directing the Summer Symphony in Montana in 2002.)
Dave’s shot call system only failed once that I know of. That was on a performance program where Dave Nohling was switching, and a novice Whitney Thompson was directing. Nohling was known for having a very peculiar sense of humor. So when Whitney became flustered, lost his place in the score, and called out 3……2……1……take! Dave simply accepted the call literally and punched those buttons one after the other in quick succession – 3,2,1. Needless to say that didn’t look any too good going out live.
It would probably be impossible to enumerate all that Dave Davis gave and meant to us while at WGBH. He constantly and insistently emphasized — and through that gift we all learned — “creativity” and “quality.”
Dave really taught us pretty much all we knew about good music work, in all genres — especially classical and jazz. He brought much significant childrens’ programming to the station. And, of even greater importance, he modernized and stabilized many of our key production methods, initiating many of the essential innovations that first carried us out of the more primitive realms of production technique and into national prominence (a work-in-progress that Greg Harney ably continued).
Directly or indirectly Dave Davis “fathered” all of us in TV in the very best of ways. He knew well that to have creativity, space must be made available for individuality …
Dave’s role in the station’s spectacular recovery from the fire at 84 Mass., in the emergency use of the Cathholic TV Center, in the successful move to the Museum of Science, and in the planning of 125 the Western Ave. plant, are un-erasable as memorials to his wonderful resilience, determination, dedication, and savvy. Dave was, as we all know (or should know), one of the major forces behind the preeminence that WGBH eventually achieved. Directly or indirectly Dave Davis “fathered” all of us in TV in the very best of ways. He knew well that to have creativity, space must be made available for individuality — he never expected us to go about like a bunch of “little Daves.”
In my experience, Dave was a remarkably complex, and even at times enigmatic, person. He was a rather terse, emotionally somewhat remote, always impressive, clearly ingenious, unswervingly purposeful, occasionally humorous, at times intimidating, but always a gentle, fair and kind human being, who should, I feel, remain a justifiably revered figure in the history of
Finally: and I wish to say this to you personally, Dave, wherever you may be: I have long suspected that the man who dramatically changed my young life in unforeseeably beautiful and lasting ways; who introduced me to an appreciation and knowledge of music which has stayed with me my whole life; who gave me chances I would almost certainly never have gotten from anyone else; who helped me to get a foothold doing what I dearly wanted to do and loved doing, with people I came to love, in Public Broadcasting — a field which you were steadfast in supporting, and which I continue hold in the highest esteem as indispensable to our society … that that man was still alive, somewhere in the Caribbean making the music he so loved making. I’m deeply happy to hear that that was indeed true. It’s what I would have wished for you, Dave.
And this knowledge ameliorates, just a tiny bit, the tears I can’t seem to hold back, right now, as I write this, in deep respect of your wonderfully admirable service, and in profound mourning of your passing … because, Dave, I have so very much to love you for.
One of the first things Dave Davis undertook when he came from the University of North Carolina in 1956 as production manager, was to begin revamping our rather sloppy production procedures. Dave was a man who (to put it mildly) valued precision.
Irritating as it seemed at the time to us (relative neophytes), his efforts were all to the good — even, in fact, critical to much of the eventual success of WGBH as a production organization. The standard-setting quality of the Boston Symphony broadcasts, and WGBH’s other music programming, was a direct result of Dave’s efforts.
A pet concern of his was the way directors called shots to their switchers. In order to plant a cut exactly where it ought to go, Dave instructed directors to word their command to cut to camera 1 as, "one….one….one….take!" The switcher was thereby warned of the next camera number, and that the transition was to be a cut and not a dissolve.
The word "take" determined exactly where the cut was to happen. In the case of a dissolve (the only other transition we could accomplish in those days) the command was "Ready one….d-i-s-s-o-l-v-e one" (usually accompanied with a wave of the hand to describe to the switcher the relative speed of the change). Onerous to remember at first, but highly effective.
Now, there was a Boston University intern who, for our purpses will remain nameless. The fellow was known for his waggish and quirky sense of humor (he would, for instance, leave a ladder in the corner of the studio, as he described it, "idling").
On one particular evening, during the process of shooting a fairly complex music show live on three cameras, the director became a bit flustered. Having lost his place in the score, and stuck with a shot of a musician who whas no longer playing, he had no idea what to do next. In his growing anxiety he bagan to bark commands.
What came out was, "Where the hell are we? Oh, God damn! Three . . . two . . . . one . . . . . . . . . . . Take!"
Yoeman to the end, our student followed his instructions to the letter. His index finger stabbed the buttons for cameras 3, 2 and 1, in quick succession.
No one in the control room could quite believe their eyes and ears. The director — who had begun, and now completed, his journey on camera 1 — was in just as deep trouble as before. And the home audience probably thought we had suddenly gone avante garde.
Click on the images to see the original memo. Read the text, below.
Memorandum July 23, 1958
To: Tv producer-directors
From: David M. Davis
I have a great concern that we are not all utilizing the creative imagination that we have to make our programs interesting, stimulating, and even exciting. It seems to me that many of us are in a rather deep rut on stock format types of programs, and that real attempt at creation is not taking place.
I think that the lifestyle series which will be assigned to each producer on a rotating basis during the coming season will be very helpful in this regard since each producer will have an opportunity to develop his own program in the direction in which he wishes to go. However, on our standard programs and general regular assignments I think we have much to be desired. Also, I don’t believe this is purely a matter of time, personnel, facilities, and money; I think it is a matter of the way you approach the problem. Think of your new assignments this way: You have a given program and a given time slot. Our decision on scheduling this program and putting it in the time slot is based on an audience need for the program, that it is worthwhile to put on the air, that it has the potential to attract and hold an audience, that we have (we hope) the right talent for the program, and that all in all it should be done. The thing that the producer must now do, taking the above elements into account, is to determine in his own mind exactly what the purpose of the program is. Think it through yourself and then talk that point over with Bob Larsen or myself. Talk it over with your colleagues, too: utilize their thoughts and ideas. Then make a basic decision: decide that this will not be just another television program, but that it will be a unique experience for the viewer and that this will be the best television program that you are capable of producing and directing under the conditions under which you will be working. To make the point very obvious, please stop automatically deciding that this program should be done with a man in front of a demonstration table with a blackboard. Utilize the creative talent that is available to you.
Decide that this will … be a unique experience for the viewer and that this will be the best television program that you are capable of producing and directing …
I feel that we are certainly not utilizing the talents available in matters of setting, staging, and art work. Peter Prodan is more than available to help on the creative aspects of set, design, and construction. We will also be using David Robertson, who is essentially employed as a lighting man, but is a qualified designer to help with this work. On art work, instead of deciding precisely what you want in terms of a camera card or slide or what-have-you, go to the art department and discuss with these visual experts the concept that you are going to try to present. We have highly talented people in these departments and they can contribute much to your total production if you make an effort to utilize their talents. Think carefully about the competitive aspects of the medium that we are in. We are presenting good programs, but we are not in many cases delivering those programs to the people who really want them because of the way in which we are presenting them. Even though we are programming for special audiences in all cases, we are still in a highly competitive medium, and we must successfully get the person who wants our kind of program to look at it. We must remember that one of our basic public responsibilities is to provide programs that will attract ever increasing numbers of those people who will benefit most from the programs that we offer.
I have mentioned certain creative people who are available to you in terms of art and design, but I also suggest to y ou that you have bull sessions with people like Moscone, Vento, Hallock, and Valtz on yor programs themselves. What ideas do these people who are also creative artists have about what you are doing or what you plan to do? Make every effort to stop is from being dull and pedestrian and to make us exciting.
On the content side, you have certain responsibilities unique to educational television. In almost all cases, you are working with an educator (or group) who is the content expert and talent for your show. However, this degree of expertness does not make this man an expert in the field of television. He must be guided, produced and directed in a way which will guarantee the presentation of his material, in this medium, in a successful way. Remember that you, as a producer, are responsible for all of the show, and that no amount of a great setting, lighting, staging, etc., will make a good show unless the content itself, and the delivery of the content, is good. Therefore, you must take charge much more than many of you have been doing. You must also give the talent sufficient and proper direction. This can not be done during camera rehearsal; you must schedule dry rehearsals for this purpose. If you make clear to the performer in the right way that pre-planning and rehearsals are for his benefit, to help him to look good and to be good, he will cooperate.
All of us involved … are interested in but one thing: delivering to the home receivers programs which are going to successfully achieve their aim.
All of us involved, station staff and performers, are interested in but one thing: delivering to the home receivers programs which are going to successfully achieve their aim. You, as the producer-director, are the key man in meeting this objective.
My first visit to WGBH was in the fall of 1955, just after TV had gone on the air at 84 Mass Ave. in Cambridge. I was at work developing a TV master plan for the University of Connecticut at the time, and wanted a tour of one of the few (12) “educational” stations on the air.
Several drives up and down Mass Ave. from the river to Harvard Square showed nothing remotely resembling a TV station. Finally locating an oddly shaped small brick building, with a row of stores and a soda fountain on the street, I entered a small doorway between two round pillars.
A dark green flight of stairs led up to one of the smallest reception rooms ever seen, mostly taken up by the huge telephone switchboard. Behind it sat, at lunch time, one of the WGBH secretaries affording the regular operator a lunch break. On this day, it turned out to be a beautiful and familiar face, a former classmate from Syracuse University, Bernice Goldberg. Many of you will remember her in later life as “Bunny” Chesler, the gifted author and one of the spark plugs of the ZOOM staff.
While waiting for my tour, three identically clad men, all in charcoal gray suits, white button-down shirts and black knit ties left for lunch. “Gracious,” I thought. “They’ve all brought their Harvard uniforms with them!” I suspect that was my first view of Hartford Gunn, Larry Creshkoff, and Ted Sherburne. In such a way are first memories born.
In the Spring of ‘56, I gave a short talk at Harvard, describing the Ford Foundation school TV project I was then directing in Schenectady, New York. Hartford heard it and a few weeks later asked me to start in-school TV for Massachusetts. Arriving at WGBH the same week as Dave Davis, Bill Cavness, and Lillian Akel, my first job was to redesign the small office to make room for all the new bodies. I “accidentally” moved Lillian Akel’s desk next to mine.
My second task was to design a TV production facility to fit into the yet unexcavated basement of the University of New Hampshire. This was Hartford Gunn at his best, part visionary, part schemer, but all action. Give the President of UNH the plan, ask him to excavate the space so that when money is raised for such a facility, there will be someplace to put it! Working with Hartford was an experience to remember.
The 21’ Classroom went on the air in 1958 with series in French, Music, Literature, Social Studies, and Science. Gene Nichols, Jean Brady, and I produced and directed and I remember John Henning as my floor manager. (I called him Mr. Henning in those days)
I left in 1960 to help Hartford create the Eastern Educational Network. It’s hard to think of a time when so few stations were on the air, but Hartford knew that if the educational communities did not activate their licenses they would get swallowed up by the commercial interests. He also knew that many stations would ensure our success as we grew and shared our resources.
I helped groups plan facilities and budget for them. I testified before Legislatures. WGBH offered free programs. All these steps were necessary to insure new stations in New England and the East. The EEN began with an off-air interconnection between WGBH and WUNH, became a useful adjunct to NET, and soon, under Don Quayle’s effective guidance, became the nations first interconnected public television network.
I returned to WGBH in 1964 as Assistant and then Associate Program Manager to Bob Larsen and then Michael Rice. In 1969-70 I also produced and appeared in an 18-program local documentary series immodestly titled Michael Ambrosino’s Show with Freddie Barzyk, Dave Atwood, and Peter Downey as my directors. More and more I realized that making programs was where I wished to be and told Michael to fill my job for I was taking my 40th year off! If I came back to WGBH it would be to do something else.
That 40th year was spent at the BBC as CPB’s “American Fellow Abroad” working on a nightly BBC1 news and current affairs program, 24 Hours. The whole family enjoyed our year in London. I strongly recommend taking time for everyone. Time is our most precious commodity and we seem to squander it or leave it to others to manage.
I did return to WGBH in 1971, and developed and was the Executive Producer for the first three seasons of NOVA.
Leaving again in 1976, I developed and executive produced two seasons of Odyssey, which was meant to be a continuing series like NOVA, but this time about human beings as seen in the past (archaeology) and present (anthropology). Nixon cut the PTV funding 40%. The stations bought 40% fewer series in the SPC choosing NOVA rather than Odyssey. So went my first experience as a freelance production company.
A side venture caught me up about this time as well. In the late 60’s, The Unitarian Church asked me to help a new black production company that had just started and assist with their efforts as I could. That began a 30 year professional and personal relationship with Henry Hampton and his company, Blackside. I went on to help Henry turn his dream Eyes on the Prize into a reality for PBS and was the Consulting Executive Producer for series I and II. (Henry and I also flew together for 20 years and owned a plane together for 10.)
In the mid 80s, Phil Morrison of MIT, the first NOVA consultant, came to me with his idea for a series on the nature of scientific evidence. The next years were spent developing and Executive Producing, The Ring of Truth, broadcast in 1987. It was a great chance to bring together many of the NOVA and Odyssey staff again. Working with Terry Rockefeller, Ann Peck, Sam Low, Marian White, Boyd Estus, Eric Handley, etc., has always made filmmaking in Boston such a rich experience.
As a natural arc of my life, I ended my career in the early 90s as writer/producer/on-camera correspondent for a 90-minute Frontline called “Journey to the Occupied Lands,” an investigation of the issues of land and justice in the 27th year of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. It was good to be intimately involved in production again after years of supervising.
All this time was spent in a marriage to the woman some of you knew as Lillian Akel. One of the worlds great romances, our life together ended sadly after an 8-year battle with cancer in 1995. Lillian was a reporter, a radio producer, a teacher, and spent her last and most happy years as an attorney with a clientele that included many of the independent film producers of Boston. Evelyn Sarson, Judy Chalfen, Peggy Charren and Lillian were the founders of Action for Children’s Television.
I am now pleasantly retired having discovered the joys of reading American History (1740-1820), helping to build a post and beam barn in Vermont, blue water sailing and white water rafting.
“BFB” Big F’ing Barn, designed by Bob Slattery and built by Bob, several paid Vermonters and several volunteers. I spent 55 days over the summer and fall of ’98 to work through bereavement and bang home the joy of creating something that big and complex. What is it for? Well, Marian White of the news staff and NOVA now raises prize Churro sheep in Vermont and they need a home.
Another way to deal with grief is white water rafting and kayaking. It is very hard to think of anything else except survival in good company miles from the nearest phone in the Idaho wilderness.
Daughter Julie, after life in TV in Boston and LA, is a happy mommy for a while in Los Angeles. Michael, after years of college and cooking, designed, built and runs the art and animation computer labs for the Pacific Northwest College of Art in Portland, Oregon. Jonathan, who has been restoring and building organs here and on the coast, is living in Philadelphia, but can be found on the road most months voicing organs and writing about them. We will all get together with the grandkiddies for a sailing trip in the BVI to celebrate my 70th this summer.
I’m looking forward to the reunion and introducing you to my new love and best friend Lynn Cooper. Lynn is a clinical Psychologist who has heard about some of you and not heard all your stories about the “goode olde days.” She is a good listener and we hope to have a grand time.
We’ve moved five blocks away from the busy Centre Street home in Newton the family had lived in for 37 years. The new house is on a cliff side overlooking a 70 acre back yard called the Newton Commonwealth Golf Course. Our companions are ducks, geese, one swan, many song birds, a red fox and just last Saturday, a wild turkey.