The foundations of WGBH: 84 Mass. Ave.

This entry is part 9 of 12 in the series The Don Hallock Collection

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.

84 Massachusetts Avenue, Cambridge

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.

Possibly the only surviving image of the front of the building, looking approximately north from across Mass. Ave. at the MIT entrance — by Brooks Leffler.

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.

Studio A, during construction - looking south-east toward the control room. Personnel (according to Michael Ambrosino): Hartford Gunn, Parker Wheatly, an unknown participant, and Ted Sherbourne.

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.

Studio A panorama, looking south, from the cyclorama area toward the control room. FM studio and studio A entrance is to the left. Photo by Brooks Leffler.

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.

Jerry Adler in video control, with TV master control at far end of console.

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.

Click thumbnail to download floor 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.

Most of the mobile unit: The Boston Globe TV Week, April 20, 1962 (From Al Hinderstein's memorabilia collection - and that's Hindy, topside, behind the camera. From the right: Greg Harney, Dave Davis and a collection of the WBZ-TV staff) Fred Barzyk adds, "The second from the right is Mel Bernstein. He was on my crew and soon became program manager at WBZ."

Behind 84 Mass. Ave.

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.

With warmest regards,
Don Hallock

WGBH Timeline (1946-1978)

From “The first 24 years: A somewhat random compendium of milestones along the way”

1836

John Lowell Jr., leaves a bequest creating free “public lectures for the benefit of the citizens of Boston.”

1946

The Lowell Institute forms a cooperative venture with six Boston colleges (spearheaded by Ralph Lowell) to broadcast educational programs on commercial stations. Original offices are housed at 28 Newbury Street.

1951

April

WGBH Educational Foundation is incorporated. Parker Wheatley is first station manager.

October 6

WGBH-FM is on the air with a live concert by the Boston Symphony orchestra under conductor Charles Munch.

1955

May 2

WGBH-TV begins regularly scheduled broadcasting on Channel 2, 5:30 p.m. to 9 p.m., Monday through Friday. Studio and offices are located at 84 Massachusetts Avenue, Cambridge, with remote cables and lighting at MIT’s Kresge Auditorium (next door) and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

First program: Come and See, “a progra.m. for young children” with Tony Saletan and Mary Lou Adams, from Tufts Nursery Training School. At 6:30 p.m., Louis Lyons, who has been a fixture on WGBH-FM, reads the news before a TV camera for the first time. Transmitter is located (as is FM transmitter) on Great Blue Hill in Milton; thus the call letters.

October

First BSO simulcast (FM/TV) originates from Kresge Auditorium, MIT, beginning a tradition of musical broadcasts unique in the U.S.

1957

February

Sunday programming begins, 2:30 to 6:30 p.m.; in May, Sunday hours are extended by moving sign-on to 11:00 am.

May

Hartford Gunn becomes WGBH station manager.

June

First “Boston Pops” telecast (from Kresge).

In the Sylvania Television Awards for 1957, WGBH’s Discovery is honored as the outstanding children’s educational series created by a local station. And Louis Lyons wins a Peabody Award for local TV and radio news.

1958

March

In-school instructional television service commences with eight weekly 6th grade science programs shown “in some 48 separate school systems in and around the Boston area.” In the fall, The 21″ Classroom is formally set in operation.

Summer

WGBH acquires its first videotape machine (one of the very first to be sold by Ampex).

September

Elliot Norton Reviews begins lengthy run.

November

A high power transmitter (a gift from Westinghouse) doubles Channel 2 signal to 100,000 watts maximum.

1959

June

WGBH helps set up WENH-TV, Channel 11, in Durham, NH, and the interconnection between the two stations represents the first “network” of educational stations; the Boston-Durham link will become the basis for the Eastern Educational Network.

October

Eleanor Roosevelt’s Prospects of Mankind, a WGBH monthly series carried on educational and commercial stations around the country, begins with V. K. Krishna Menon of India as first guest.

A Peabody Award goes to WGBH’s Decisions series.

1960

WGBH programs win six Ohio State Awards, more than any other station or network in the U.S.

1961

October 14

A fire in the early morning at 84 Massachusetts Avenue completely destroys WGBH facilities. Channel 2 is off the air for all of Sunday, October 15, but, by dint of herculean efforts by staff, and superb cooperation from the community, manages to sign on at the regular time on Monday the 16th. Emergency control room is set up in Catholic Television Center (WIHS), which also lends use of its limited studio space.

For the next seven months WGBH-TV functions as the “diffuse organization” — control rooms at Catholic Center, large-studio facilities provided late at night and on weekends by WHDH-TV on Morrissey Boulevard, films and tapes (some of which have been salvaged from the fire) originated, via network, at Channel 11 in Durham, as well as other Boston stations. Scenic department finds home at Northeastern, arts department at B.U., programming and production offices at Kendall Square, Cambridge. Full schedule of programs maintained.

1962

February

A film on the poet Robert Frost is begun by WGBH, encouraged by Secretary of the Interior Stuart Udall.

May

In a major consolidation, programming, production and engineering move to the Museum of Science, occupying the “red frame building” that had been used for construction offices when the Museum was built; space for a studio is found in the Museum itself. FM and some offices remain in Kendall Square.

August

Three programs on French cooking are produced in a special kitchen constructed in the Boston Gas Company’s auditorium; as a result of their instant success, a full series is decided upon, to begin in 1963. Within a year after that, Julia Child is being seen regularly in New York, Washington DC, San Francisco, Pittsburgh and many other cities, as educational TV’s first nation-wide “hit.” She is also the first in the distinctive WGBH series of “how-to” personalities that will in time include Thalassa Cruso, Joyce Chen, Erica Wilson, Maggie Lettvin, Theonie Mark, the Romagnolis, and many, many others. History is made!

October 14

By the first anniversary of the fire, over $1,700,000 has been raised to construct new studios for WGBH; a half million dollar matching grant from the Ford Foundation is the key contribution. Construction to begin in spring, 1963.

1963

August

National Doubles televised from Longwood Cricket Club in Brookline for first time; obscure Boston newspaperman becomes TV star. [Ed.: This reference begs for clarification. Bud Collins? Please help us.]

October

Symphony Hall is cabled and lit properly. Henceforth, all BSO and Pops telecasts originate there.

1964

March

Louis Lyons receives Dupont Award “in recognition of the nation’s outstanding news commentator of 1963.”

April

Louis Lyons retires as Curator of Nieman Fellowships, joins WGBH staff after a dozen years of news on FM and TV.

The Robert Frost film, A Lover’s Quarrel with the World, wins an Oscar for WGBH.

August 29

WGBH-TV signs on from new studios at 125 Western Avenue, Allston. Building is only partly finished, but functional. FM to move in by April, 1965.

November

Saturday programming begins with the support of the Boston Globe and Record American.

Late Fall

In order to film the two-part South African Essay series, a clandestine organization is set up with money laundered through Texas, a dummy corporation, and a specially trained African photographer, who mails exposed film back to the U.S. as “Zulu beads.” Cover never blown. [Ed.: This reference begs for clarification. Please help us.]

1965

April

Julia Child receives Peabody Award.

May 1

On WGBH-TV’s tenth anniversary, the new building, work complete, is formally dedicated as the Ralph Lowell Studios. In the course of a live anniversary broadcast, Louis Lyons tells a story: Lady from Boston meets a new faculty wife, who identifies herself as from Iowa, and tells her, “My dear, we say ‘Ohio.'” [Ed.: This reference begs for clarification. Please help us.]

October

Hamilton Osgood comes to offer his talents to WGBH, and is instantly pressed into service planning first Channel 2 Auction, scheduled for June 1966.

1966

Spring

Julia receives Emmy; South African Essay receives UPI Tom Phillips Award and is one reason for a special Peabody Award to NET.

May 31

First Channel 2 Auction begins. It raises more than $130,000, plays to biggest audiences in station’s history.

June 17 – 18

Channel 2 transmitter is moved to Needham.

1967

March

Vietnam View-In, a four-and-a-half hour special produced in WGBH studios, includes propaganda films, panelists of all persuasions, a studio audience asking questions, and open telephone lines. Well over six thousand phone calls are counted.

June

What’s Happening Mr. Silver? begins a year’s run.

September

WGBX, Channel 44, signs on. The first color cameras arrive: four by the end of the year, two more on order.

October

Public Broadcasting Laboratory (PBL) begins two-year run on Sunday nights, demonstrating potential of national public TV network.

November

Following Carnegie Commission Report, congress passes the Public Broadcasting Act, establishing the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which will lead to the creation of the Public Broadcasting Service (and National Public Radio). Within three years, public TV will have its own coast-to-coast interconnection and simultaneous national programming.

MIT’s Dr. Jerome Lettvin takes on Timothy Leary in debate about drugs and “dropping out.” Filmed by WGBH and broadcast four times in one week, the debate becomes topic number one throughout Greater Boston.

1968

April 5

The night after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., a concert at Boston Garden starring James Brown is televised live by WGBH on roughly six hours notice. Worried that the concert might provide the critical mass to set off a riot, and certain that cancellation would be even worse, Mayor White gets the WGBH commitment and then urges people (via commercial radio stations) to stay home and enjoy the show for free. WGBH broadcasts the entire show, and then immediately begins showing it again on video tape, staying on the air until 1:45 a.m. It is shown twice more over the weekend. The Mayor writes that this “contributed as much as any other event to the atmosphere of conciliation which prevailed in Boston this past week.”

July

Premier of Say Brother, the first regular program by, for and about Boston’s black community.

September

After a controversial play — designed to help students understand black frustration in white America — has all but rips Wellesley High School apart, WGBH re-stages it (with some 11 words “blipped” to stay within the law) and follows it up with a lengthy discussion among parents, teachers and students dealing with its propriety and meaning. It is front-page news for two days running.

1969

April

In the aftermath of the University Hall bust at Harvard and the subsequent strike that paralyzed the school, WGBH places 16 chairs around a table in studio A and invites any and all members of the Harvard community to come in and speak their piece. And for five solid hours in the evening, students, faculty, neighbors, and other people keep coming in and sitting down and talking to each other … and all of Greater Boston. [Ed.: This reference begs for clarification. Please help us.]

October

The Forsyte Saga arrives in the United States. Public TV has an unprecedented success: telephone calls go unanswered, social engagements are rescheduled and life is generally disrupted throughout the country. To cushion the shock in Boston, channel 2 runs each weekly episode three times, Channel 44 an additional five times. Thanks to various repeats of the entire series, the final episode will be seen in Boston for the last time in August, 1972 … nearly three years later. If nothing else, the Forsytes give American television viewers a case of galloping Anglophilia (also known as BBC fever) that soon leads to other things.

The Advocates, produced on alternative weeks by WGBH and Los Angeles’ KCET, makes its debut via a national interconnection of public TV stations. Its even-handed debates on pressing national issues ellicit considerable mail (an early show on abortion brings over 11 thousand pieces), and in the first of its five seasons it wins a Peabody Award.

November

The voice of the Cookie Monster is heard in the land: Sesame Street, easily the most important children’s program in the history of American television, makes its debut. Shortly thereafter, every kid in the neighborhood can identify can identify the letter R.

1970

February

Hartford Gunn resigns as General Manager of WGBH to assume the presidency of the new Public Broadcasting Service in Washington. Later in the year, David Ives becomes President and Robert Larsen General Manager.

July

Evening at Pops’ first summer series brings Arthur Fiedler and WGBH’s Symphony Hall savvy to the whole country.

October

PBS’ first season begins, with a network of 198 public TV stations coast to coast. WGBH contributes The Advocates, The Nader Report, and a brand new French Chef (in color). Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation dazzles the eye.

Locally, more excitement: The Reporters, expanding the definition of “television news” five nights a week; Catch 44, the first public access TV program in the United States; Dr. Sachar’s The Course of Our Times.

1971

January

John, meet Sarah. The First Churchills inaugurates Masterpiece Theater, and Alistair Cooke becomes a regular Sunday night visitor.

April

Jean Shepherd’s America shows what the PCP-90 portable TV camera can do.

October

WGBY, Channel 57, signs on the air from its studios in Springfield, bringing public television to western Massachusetts. The microwave link between WGBH and WGBY establishes the first state-wide TV network, reaching over 90% of Mass. homes.

November

The Electric Company arrives to take on the task of reaching problem readers. And reaches them.

1972

January

ZOOM, WGBH’s revolutionary program for and by kids, makes its PBS debut and the first requests for ZOOMcards come in from all over the country. Within ZOOM’s first two years on the air, more than a million ZOOMcards will be mailed out.

October

The Advocates, now entirely a WGBH production, moves to Faneuil Hall for its Boston shows (and goes on the road for others).

1973

January

Are you ready for Lance Loud? An American Family startles the nation.

April

Death of Robert Larsen.

May

ZOOM and The Advocates are awarded Emmys.

June

For the first time, the Channel 2 Auction breaks the half-million-dollar barrier.

November

The mammoth BBC production of War and Peace marches onto American TV screens (introduction by WGBH).

December

With the cooperation of the American Broadcasting Company and its affiliates, WGBH’s Captioning Center begins nightly broadcasts of ABC Captioned Evening News for the hearing-impaired.

1974

January

Philip Garvin’s films of Religious America, produced at WGBH, begin on PBS.

On Masterpiece Theater, Upstairs, Downstairs brings back the bad old days and makes them look good.

March

Science adventures for curious grownups, some from WGBH, some from the BBC, and some joint efforts, give NOVA a breadth previously unknown on American TV.

May

Upstairs, Downstairs wins an Emmy as the best dramatic series of the season. And ZOOM receives its second Emmy in two years.

October

Evening At Symphony demonstrates nationally on PBS what Boston has known for years: orchestral music, even without special guests, makes for exciting television. (Also, Seiji Ozawa wears a turtleneck with his tails.)

November

A former Advocates moderator, Michael Dukakis, is elected governor of Massachusetts.

1975

January

The Ascent of Man, Jacob Bronowski’s brilliant bequest, is presented to U.S. audiences with introductions and epilogues by WGBH.

February

After over a year of preparation and six months of production under conditions that verge on impossible, the WGBH series Arabs and Israelis gets under way on public television.

March

NOVA receives a Peabody award, with special praise going to the programs produced by WGBH.

Michael Rice, head of programming and Vice President of WGBH since 1973 becomes General Manager.

1976

Channel 2 News moves out of early evening for the first time in 21 years, and The Ten O’clock News is born.

April

Dying, a cinema verite’ visit with terminally ill cancer patients, moves local audiences, and later the nation.

Club 44 brings live TV back to Boston. The two hour show happens in a pub set in studio A, with live audience and scads of local talent and talk.

November

Say Brother Salutes Webster Lewis With A Night On The Town, to rave reviews.

Channel 44 cuts the apron strings from Channel 2; within the year, 74% of its programming is unique to it — meaning we nearly double the public TV programs available to local viewers.

The WGBH Declaration of Independence — a major capital drive for equipment and programming funds — goes public. PrimeTime becomes a magazine again after a year as a calendar. ‘GBH radio sponsors the first Boston appearance of legendary Soviet pianist, Lazar Berman; Louis Lyons continues a stellar ‘GBH radio career by launching Pantechnicon, a magazine-format show with Elinore Stout and Frank Fitzmaurice.

Kudos: Upstairs, Downstairs wins its third Emmy in a row — and sixth over all. ‘GBH radio’s The Spider’s Web increases the number of NPR stations carrying it to nearly 100, while wining the Action For Children’s Television Award as “the most positive alternative to television.”

The New York Times is moved to ask, in an August feature article, “what makes WGBH Crackle with Creativity?”

1977

Christopher Lydon takes over The Ten O’clock News; the Boston Phoenix says viewers can now “expect to see lengthier and more professionally produced pieces as the Channel 2 news show moves away from heavy coverage of spot news.”

Ben Wattenberg begins his search for The Real America on Channel 2, and we find the ancient Mid-East at the Museum of Fine Arts and bring it home in Thracian Gold.

WGBH presents tennis for the 15th year in a row and World Tennis magazine says, “For the discerning viewer of this sport PBS is the only game in town.”

Crockett’s Victory Garden maven Jim Crockett’s book of the same title hits the best seller list.

‘GBH radio launches Evening Pro Musica, and a Live Performance series in its own studios – and sponsors another live event in Jordan Hall: Daniel Shafran is the visiting artist.

“Stereo television” takes a giant step forward with improved technology: a new kind of video tape is invented which has a stereo audio track right on it, making the vastly superior sound of FM-TV simulcast an affordable luxury, at long last.

Milestones: Upstairs, Downstairs ends May 1 with a Boston cast party which nets PBS stations nearly $2 million in viewer contributions; and, the series gets its seventh Emmy — making the total to date for Masterpiece Theater an even dozen. Emmy also goes to “ballet shoes” from the Piccadilly Circus series, ZOOM (for the third time!), and a Women’s Special: Rape, by ‘GBH’s own Nancy Porter.

1978

Ralph Lowell dies in May at the age of 87. He founded the Lowell Institute Co-operative Broadcasting Council in 1941, the parent organization of WGBH radio in 1951 and WGBH-TV in 1955.

Awards: Upstairs, Downstairs adds the prestigious Peabody Award to its long list of kudos. Ten O’clock News’ Mike Kolowich captures a Local Emmy for “outstanding news reporting” in his Logan Airport pieces — as the program celebrates its 2nd birthday.

People: Michael Rice departs for the Aspen Institute after a 13-year WGBH career. Henry Becton, Program Manager for Cultural Affairs since 1974 and an 8-year WGBH veteran, moves up to the Vice President and General Manager spot.

At CPB, Henry Loomis steps down and Robben Flemming is appointed to the President’s post. Newton Minow is elected Chair Person of PBS.

Milestones: Public television celebrates its 25th year in March, and, in November, becomes the first network in the country to be linked by satellite.

Two old friends return to WGBH studios: Julia Child to make her first new shows in 5 years, titled Julia Child and Company, and The Advocates returns after a 4-year hiatus to continue the debate tradition begun in 1969.

I, Claudius on Masterpiece Theater earns rave revues; James Lardner, in The New Republic, calls it “probably the best historical drama ever mounted on television.”

After a 2-year run on Channel 44, The Club books its exuberant act on Channel 2.

WGBH provides national and local TV audiences with a feast of new productions, among them World, Solzhenitsyn at Harvard, Mr. Speaker – A Portrait of Tip O’Neill, and three lush specials on exhibits at the Museum of Fine Arts: Thracian Gold, Pompeii – Frozen in Fire, and Treasures of Early Irish Art.

Local debuts include Dancing Disco (a Local Emmy winner), The Photo Show, Sports Weekly, At Home, and the fund raising extravaganza, Disco Dazzler.

‘GBH radio adds new local productions: Mostly Musicals, Folk Festival USA, Artists in the Night with Eric Jackson, MusicAmerica, and Poetry in Massachusetts.

Morning Pro Musica extends its reach to the Big Apple itself where it is heard on WNYC radio.

A fiscal-year fundraising gap is narrowed in a month-long on-air “Race To The Finish,” which includes the second biggest pledge night in WGBH history as the regular schedule is scrapped for a marathon effort — viewers call in with contributions totaling $92,000 in just one night.

Dr. Virginia Biggy Passes On

Dr. Virginia Biggy was a consultant to the 21″ Classroom, in-school programs broadcast to schools in Eastern Massachusetts in the 1950s and 1960s. She also was a staff member of the Eastern Educational Network for several years in the mid 60s as we created special school programming for the communities served by the network.

“Ginny” was influential in this area for her work in the development of curriculum to teach reading in the elementary classroom. It was her specialty and her delight.

Note: For several years, Lillian worked for her developing and writing that curriculum.

40 years with ‘GBH

This entry is part 2 of 11 in the series The Michael Ambrosino Collection
September 1956. The obligatory photo made of new employees in those days. It was run by the Westhampton Beach Chronicle, circulation 3000. My mother loved it.

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)

"The 21" Classroom: Hartford Gunn; the author; Bill Kiernan, the Massachusetts Commissioner of Education; Gene Gray, everybody's favorite science teacher on TV; and Norman Harris, Science Director, Boston Museum of Science.

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.)

Lillian and MJA in front of Sierra 162, the Beechcraft owned by Michael and Henry Hampton.

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.