Director Fred Barzyk began his career at Boston’s WGBH, experimenting with television and the emerging form of video.
He produced dramas for iconic series NET Playhouse and American Playhouse, as well as a cult-hit sci-fi thriller for PBS, The Lathe of Heaven. From there, his cutting-edge documentaries, dramas and educational programs ran on HBO, NBC, ABC and CBS. He directed an array of stars the likes of Morgan Freeman, Christian Slater, Dan Aykroyd, Rosie Perez, Matt Dillon, Claire Danes and Lily Tomlin.
Barzyk, who says he never retired from WGBH, he just lost interest in its slate of productions, is having fun — a lot of fun.
He brags that he persuaded TeleMedia’s programmers to run the opening installment of the trilogy, The Journey, his 2011 tribute to Rod Serling of Twilight Zone fame, one Saturday in May, from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Or, as he says, “over and over and over and over.”
The Kickstarter campaign backs filming of The Waiting Room, a tale of seven fictional characters who come to realize that they don’t actually exist. As with the two previous films, everyone involved in the production — the cast, crew, composer, musicians, technicians, prop wranglers, set dressers — are volunteers, many retirees. The first two installments had been funded by the Chelmsford Cultural Council, TeleMedia and Barzyk himself, but new backing was needed to green-light the closing drama.
If the Kickstarter campaign meets its goal, Barzyk says, part of the funding will allow him to stage a dramatic closing shot involving the release of “1,000 black balloons filled with helium” at the Nashua Municipal Airport in nearby New Hampshire.
But the biggest budget items cover the cost of gas to transport the actors to town, and food for everyone participating in the production.
“He feeds us well,” says Stephen Mann, the cameraman on Barzyk’s first two films. It was Mann who helped Barzyk set up the Kickstarter campaign; Barzyk had never heard of the crowd-funding site until Mann suggested that he try it.
As he writes in an email, Barzyk views the project with a sense of nostalgia: “An Old Timer tries to create the Early Days of ETV!!!!!”
Freedom to experiment
He began working for the Boston pubcaster in 1958, just three years after it went on the air; a massive fire there in 1961 destroyed some of his early pieces. By 1968 he was heading up the station’s experimental unit, later called the New Television Workshop.
The workshop created video art before the genre even existed, and its projects were fueled by “the freedom to do what could be done only by a TV station just finding out what it could really do,” he says. Among his innovative productions was “the first double-channel broadcast,” which presented a single story through simultaneous broadcasts on both of WGBH’s TV channels. One showed comedians Bob Elliott and Ray Goulding appearing to walk between TV sets tuned to channels 2 and 44, trying to find their scripts.
In 1979, he directed The Lathe of Heaven for WNET’s Television Laboratory, a critically acclaimed, surrealistic science fiction film that drew a 10 rating in New York and an 8 in Chicago, according to Nielsen. Twenty years later, its still-rabid fan base persuaded WNET to digitally remaster and repackage the film with additional material for rebroadcast on pubTV stations (Current, May 1, 2000). “I can’t tell you how many people tell me how important that film was to them when they watched as teenagers,” Barzyk says.
Even Barzyk’s mainstream work embodied that early, edgy spirit of public television: He executive-produced Puzzlemania, a live, two-hour, interactive children’s program from New York’s WNYC-TV in 1987 and ’88. He was executive producer and director of Destinos, a 56-episode drama-based Spanish language telecourse that ran on PBS from 1988–92, receiving six academic and production awards; it remains a top-selling Annenberg Media learning series. In 1994, he produced and directed Breast Care Test, hosted by Jane Pauley, which showed women how to examine their bodies for cancer. And The Ryan Interview, an Arthur Miller play starring Ashley Judd that he directed, was the first high-definition drama to run on PBS, in August 2000.
Retrospectives of his work ran in 1997 at the deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum in Lincoln, Mass., and in 2000 at the Haggerty Museum of Art at his alma mater, Marquette University, in his hometown of Milwaukee.
Barzyk remained active with WGBH until 2001. “I didn’t really retire,” he says, “I just wasn’t interested in the shows they were doing anymore.”
“Hell, I want to do drama”
Although Barzyk had lived in Chelmsford since 1971, town leaders “didn’t know who I was,” he says, “and I liked that.”
But by 2004, they discovered that a television pioneer lived in their midst and approached Barzyk about working at their public access television station, located in the basement of Parker Middle School. “I walked up to the school, rang the bell, signed in and had to work my way through all these kids to get to the studio.”
He discovered a subterranean treasure trove of TV gear. “High-def equipment, Final Cut Pro — I could do more shows than at WGBH.” Barzyk started out by producing a behind-the-scenes documentary on the town’s big Independence Day parade. He shot features on the senior center and restaurants. “Finally, I said, ‘Hell, I want to do drama.’”
And so he did. Treasure Hunt, the second short film in the series, premiered in May at the Chelmsford Center for the Arts. In it a soldier returns from World War II and gives local kids a treasure map that leads them to toys. “He disappears, and then they discover he’s already dead,” Barzyk says. “That one was written by a guy across the street from me.”
That’s the magic behind Barzyk’s work with TeleMedia, says Mann, his cameraman. “It’s all pretty much just people from town. Out in the field, it’s not unusual to see 12 or 18 of them, with more behind the scenes.”
Mann says Barzyk’s deep belief that art belongs to the people springs from his many years in public broadcasting. “Nobody actually owns the piece,” Mann says. “Fred grew up professionally at PBS, and ‘public’ is their main emphasis.”
Mann also worked in the system, at KTEH in San Jose, Calif., now part of KQED, some 20 years ago. He runs his own company, MannMade Digital Video, from the nearby town of Westford.
Collaborating with Barzyk “is certainly not what I thought it would be,” Mann adds. “For somebody with his resume, I expected a no-nonsense attitude, someone who wouldn’t tolerate mistakes. It’s exactly the opposite. I’m constantly amazed at how he overlooks screw-ups by the crew — and that happens often, with all the untrained volunteers.”
As Pete Pedulla, a staff producer at TeleMedia, says, “Most volunteers we have to train, but here was one who could train us, in a way.”
Barzyk loves the creative process. “What I have is total freedom,” he says. “And I have all the equipment I need. Most of the volunteers are retired, so I have to make sure they don’t have heart attacks — I can’t push them too hard. And volunteer actors, just like when I started at WGBH.”
Barzyk, Mann and all the volunteers plan to shoot The Waiting Room one weekend in September. The characters “are coming to the end of their fictional lives. They’re all in a waiting room. They all realize they’re not people; they only exist as characters. They eventually go out to catch a plane to God knows where.”
Barzyk is already excited about the trilogy’s closing scene. “Steve built a helicopter camera, and it will take off and fly up into the clouds” as the cast and crew and the volunteers, all dressed in black, release the black helium balloons, he says.
That shot is characteristic of Barzyk’s style, Mann notes. “He loves to end movies with the whole crew in the picture.”
“I have fun,” Barzyk says. “Why do anything, if not for fun?”
One of the pleasures of travel is being able to speak the language of the place you’re visiting — or at least say “hello” and “where’s the bathroom?” Whether your trip is in two weeks or two months, there’s no excuse for not broadening your vocabulary. But how?
With so many methods — CDs, videos, apps, podcasts — picking one can feel more overwhelming than learning a language. The systems below have been used by tourists, college students and F.B.I. agents…
French in Action (Learner.org; type “French in Action” in the search box) This 1980s instructional television series produced by Yale University and WGBH Boston with Wellesley College is a kooky romp through Paris and environs in which an American man and a fetching French blonde exchange basic phrases. Performed in French without subtitles, it is supposed to prevent students from translating words in their heads, so that they will learn the language in context.
Neither of us is old enough to have been fooled by the Trojan Horse (see Wikipedia). But we each have been working in public television decades enough to remember the days when distribution was handled by physically transporting bulky 2-inch videotapes from station to station — “bicycled” was the word —and much of the broadcast day and night was devoted to blackboard lectures, string quartets and lessons in Japanese brush painting: The old educational television versions of reality TV.
Yet it also was a time of innovation and creativity. As the system evolved we saw bold experiments like PBL – the Public Broadcasting Laboratory and Al Perlmutter’s The Great American Dream Machine, each a predecessor to the commercial TV magazine shows 60 Minutes and 20/20. The TV Lab, jointly run by David Loxton at WNET in New York and Fred Barzyk at WGBH in Boston, nurtured and encouraged the first generation of video artists — Nam June Paik, Bill Viola and William Wegman among others…
Most of both our careers have been in public television. Our affection and gratitude for it abideth, but we are not blind to the problems. Public broadcasting’s ever-tenuous funding places it in a perpetual dilemma and forces it into a delicate balancing act. PBS provides programming like Independent Lens and P.O.V.that may not garner the most viewers but helps fulfill its essential mission of public service —and, candidly, attracts grants from kindred spirits who believe in a robust mix of ideas and visions.
But to lure a wider audience, it also airs what our neighborhood diner calls “lighter fare” — whether entertaining, upscale imports like Downton Abbey, home-grown, how-to programs like This Old House or (during pledge drives) nostalgic reruns of folk musicians, pop crooners, and financial and spiritual gurus — aimed at older viewers with, presumably, more disposable income.
Again another Holiday season is upon us. Dani Baptista sent this holiday card from the station:
And as we think of gifts for our love ones and friends, please remember Santa’s media helper, Jay Collier. Jay has been running and redesigning our website for years as a professional volunteer. To honor his work and to thank him for his unending service you might consider making a donation to the site. I have.
It is more than just a thank you to Jay but also honors our memories of WGBH and all the great people we have met there. Keep well and may the New Year bring you joy and happiness.
Using grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, The Rockefeller Foundation, and The Massschusetts Council on the Arts, hundreds of artists streamed through the studios of the WGBH New Television Workshop.
Ros and Harris were two of the earliest artists, along with fellow artist Allen Finneran who had banded together into a group called ZONE.
These were exciting moments as we allowed artists to take control of the television equipment and broadcast to an audience who were just beginning to hear the phrase “video art.” Ros Barron worked closely with David Atwood, a very talented producer/director at WGBH, producing some amazing videos.
A new website celebrates the work of these two artists who I met while running the WGBH New Television Workshop. It was a real pleasure working with such talented and serious artists as Ros and Harris.
By John Minkowsky — for the Museum of Fine Arts Boston (excerpts)
Over the past four decades, Ros Barron has created a remarkable body of video works that evolve gracefully around a consistent corpus of themes, images, and personal stylistic motifs. Time, self-deﬁnition, and the nature of consciousness itself — these are among her central concerns. She has often made use of the mannerisms and attributes of surrealism as well as elements of the occult to accomplish these ends.
Among her 18 video works there is a notable quartet in homage to Rene Magritte, some of whose characteristic images and strategies she has embraced and built upon to her own ends. The Artist speaks to the Artist who speaks to Art as it pertains to the Life of the Mind, and the results are an impressive achievement.
The video works she has produced at the New Television Workshop at WGBH, Boston, as a Rockefeller Artist-in-Television, and independently have not been in wide commercial distribution, but instead in visual art contexts: The Museum of Modern Art; Mobius; the Helen Schlien Gallery; and the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston, as well as in university Visiting Artist Programs …
After meeting Harris Barron at the Massachusetts College of Art in 1953, her marriage to him (she was 18; he was 25) was life-changing.
Her painting and Harris’s sculpture, growing larger, more complex and simpler — shown in Boston and New York galleries, along with his large-scale works commissioned for architecture — preceded the 1968 development of a unique visual theater, ZONE, an intense collaboration with Harris Marron and Allan Finneran — Harris’s former studio assistant.
After ZONE’s initial and very successful 1968 sold-out performances at Brandeis’ Spingold Theater, WGBH producers offered the three ZONE directors Rockefeller Artists-in-Television grants to work at the station’s studios. Ros’s video focus began there with a major work, Headgame. Barron’s involvement with video process and a developed philosophy has deepened considerably with the 18 video works made over the years since Headgame.
The ZONE group went on to tour 13 New York State SUNY campuses with complex visual theater programs. In 1971 they were commissioned by the Guggenheim Museum to design and realize a major performance work based on the existing 1909 notes for Kandinsky’s never realized Der Gelbe Klange for the museum’s 1972 Kandinsky retrospective.
In 1967, Ros and Harris Barron and Alan Finneran — a former assistant in Harris’ sculpture studio — began talking about widening the sphere of their works to include elements of new technologies, to collaborate on what they saw as integrated “visual theater performance works.” This sample footage of ZONE productions was filmed in 1970.
Emmy Award winning TV producer and a long-time resident of Ipswich Donald B. “Don” Fouser died July 3rd after a gallant battle with melanoma. He was 83 years old.
Don’s career was varied and his interests universal and passionate. He built harpsichords and reported for three major New England newspapers but is most noted for a number of public affairs programs produced for WGBH that addressed significant emerging issues.
His programs had an edge. For example, his program on Vietnam, made in 1961 as part of a series on Foreign Aid, was the first to be critical of the growing American involvement. Another on the “New Conservatives” featured interviews with people such as Milton Friedman and others when they were still relatively unknown.
He made his most famous program, V-D Blues, for Channel 13, New York, in 1971. Don’s approach was revolutionary. The program aimed at reversing the pandemic of venereal diseases then raging. It didn’t follow the usual, dull, sex-education approach larded with interludes of heavy-handed preaching. It was mostly a comedy program with Dick Cavett serving as MC and with songs and skits around the diseases. One skit featured Zero Mostel, made up to look like a germ, enjoying the comfortable environment of the human body until hit with an antibiotic.
The program was groundbreaking in that Don had arranged with TV stations as well as federal and state health agencies to be standing by all over the country with open lines and operators prepared to provide information about all aspects of venereal diseases to callers, no questions asked. On top of that, Don had thousands of copies of the program printed in comic book format for distribution at places that young people and other vulnerable groups were apt to gather.
The response was overwhelming and demonstrated that the impact of TV programs upon behavior could be dramatically enhanced when viewers were able to quickly contact local agencies that provided follow-up services. The success of VD Blues begs the question as to why the same approach was not tried in the early days of the AIDS epidemic.
In connection with the 200th Anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, Don produced a number of programs titled “Ourstory” for use in schools. Again, Don innovated. Instead of yet another set of “audio-visual aids” that told students the story of America, the programs provided students with evidence that illuminated key episodes in our nation’s history and then asked them to create their versions of “Ourstory.”
Ever active, Don, in his later years turned his hand to building and refurbishing homes. His most notable accomplishment as a builder is what he did with his own property in Ipswich. When he purchased it in the 1960’s, it consisted of a run down Federalist period house on a piece of land that was more dumping ground than yard. Don set about restoring the house with authentic moldings and a curved veranda overlooking the garden. He then built a barn in keeping with the style of the house. A tasteful three-unit town-house complex and a sculpture garden connecting all the buildings rounded out his vision. Over the years he transformed a neglected wasteland into an island of beauty gracing the heart of town. Like everything else that Don did it exemplifies high standards and good taste.
Don often said that his work called for him to be a “nay sayer” to people who questioned his vision. When it came to living, however, he was a “yea sayer.” He had a passion for the things in life that extend and enhance our humanity and he pursued them with great gusto. He read constantly and greedily (often three or four books at a time) and amassed a library that speaks to his many and varied interests and enthusiasms. He loved music and listened to it as seriously as he read books. His extensive collection of records, tapes, and CD’s like his library, is far ranging and extends from ragtime and Cole Porter to his favorite, Johann Sebastian Bach.
Don was a master cook. He spared no effort to prepare dishes the right way even if it meant sending to Canada to obtain the specified variety of oyster. But the true reason he cooked was to share his accomplishments with friends at dinner parties over which he presided. Don would nudge the discussions that ranged over the arts, politics, and public affairs but always allowed for gales of laughter that he hoped, “…would knock the paint off the ceiling.”
Having grown up on the shore of Long Island Sound, Don loved the sea and sailing. He bought a large Skipjack, the Daisy B. It was a working Chesapeake Bay oyster boat. Don sailed her to Ipswich. The next season, when the 55-foot mast broke, he went to Vermont, selected a tree, and had it cut down. After getting it to Ipswich, he handcrafted it into a perfect replica of the original mast. For a number of summers the Daisy B plied the water off Ipswich.
Don served in the Navy in World War II and upon discharge enrolled at Brown University where he graduated with honors in English in 1951. He immediately returned to the navy to serve during the Korean War. After his second navy stint, he studied for a year at Boston University Law School.
He enjoyed another university experience while working for public television in New York. He was awarded a prestigious journalism fellowship at Columbia University that gave him access to seminars and lectures, with leading national and world scholars as well as to meetings with noted figures from the worlds of politics, business and the media.
He was a man who threw himself into life with gusto, forever seeking and accepting new challenges. He was working on a novel and his memoirs at the time of his death. He was a true Renaissance man.
Don is survived by his wife, Judith; his two sons Joshua and Jason, both of Ipswich, and his daughter, Rebekah, of Florida and by eight grandchildren. Don was the son of the late George J. and Margaret Whitaker Fouser of Branford, Connecticut and is also survived by his older brother George, of Branford, his sister-in-law, Rosie and six nephews and nieces. A private memorial service will be held at his home at a later date.
From Henry Becton
Don was the exec producer of “The Nader Report” and other seminal shows in the late ’60s and early ’70s. I believe he went on to be the exec producer of the early CBS Cable series which interviewed artists and celebs without an interviewer on camera; it received lots of critical attention while not enough audience.
From Fred Barzyk
I hooked up with Don Fouser as his director on one of the early docu shows called Dollar Diplomacy. It was a 6-part series on America’s Vietnam experience. This is when we had “advisors only” in the country. Don traveled with a 16 mil. Bolex film camera and shot all the material himself. There was no sound recordings. We later created all the sounds to cover the silent footage. The editor was Danny Williams who later went on to work with Andy Warhol. Danny took his life. A very sad story. His sister has written a book about this event.
Anyway, Don, Danny and myself would work on the series in the back film editing rooms (where the 125 Conference room existed) until the wee hours of the morning. There was a rule not allowing alcohol into the building because of an earlier instance that caused some trouble. However, since we were there so late no exec’s were around so we ate pizza and drank beers to keep us going.
What to do with the empties? Well, they had these ceilings where you could move a panel aside. And that is where the beer cans went. When the station moved the editing rooms so they could create the Cahners Conference room, the construction workers tore out the ceiling and down came crashing beer cans and all.
Don as producer declared in the docu series that the USA could not possibly win a war with the Vietnamese. This infuriated the people in Washington who had arrange for Don to travel to Vietnam. Don never stepped away from a fight.
Don’s fight with Michael Rice over the Nader show actually caused the creation of the WGBH union. Fouser would not change the show demanded by Rice. Nader refused also. The only solution was to take Don off the show. He fought a good battle but so irritated Rice that he was fired. Don wrote a letter to the staff of WGBH. They all gathered in Studio B and I read the letter. It was clear we had to protect ourselves and our programs. It was just two weeks after Don left that the union was created.
There was one night when Don had put in his money to get a sandwich from our then vending machines. The sandwich would not come out. So Don smashed the glass and took his sandwich. Unfortunately he broke his hand.
Don eventually went to work for WNET. And then on to CBS Cable, the arts-orientated experiment. He produced a show that was shot in the WGBH studio called “Calamity Jane’s Diary” starring Jane Alexander. I was the co director and was able to get CBS to pay WGBH studio costs. This was just before Jane became head of the NEA.
Don’s wife is a great painter. They have lived in Ipswich for most of their married life. Don was a delight to be around. Argumentative but with a great sense of humor. I will miss him greatly.
With 1972’s decline in bold-spirited shows, VD Blues qualified as the aberration of the year. From its opening moments—a funky rock band strolling the Sausalito waterfront while belting out the lyrics to “Don’t Give a Dose to the One You Love Most”—Don Fouser’s candid and forthright look at venereal disease turned the conventions of television upside down. He planned to target teenagers, who formed the center of a resurgent epidemic of venereal disease, and yet resisted the blandishments of public TV. Fouser’s strategy was to bring outrageous humor and irreverence to the discussion of a topic normally treated only in hushed tones. Its message was simple and direct: VD is detectable and curable. NET liked the idea and format and agreed to let Fouser produce it. More surprisingly, the 3M Corporation courageously agreed to underwrite the show’s production costs. But that was before they saw the script. (How they saw the script remains a mystery; corporate underwriters are ostensibly barred from becoming involved in program content.) While reading the script, the eyes of the 3M executives fell on a mildly funny sketch by Jules Feiffer in which a woman patient, infected by VD and forced by her doctor to reveal her sexual liaisons, names the doctor as her sole contact. A call came immediately from 3M’s offices in St. Paul to tell me that the sketch had to be deleted. The PR people were apparently concerned lest 3M’s name be associated with a program that implied that doctors committed indiscretions with their patients. (And doctors, I later learned, are big 3M customers.) Reluctant to allow an underwriter to have a voice in the producer’s plans, I politely declined. They just as politely declined to have 3M’s name on the show.
Once the show was completed, VD Blues was previewed for station programmers on a closed-circuit system a week prior to its scheduled airing. We were surprised to learn that 3M executives, accompanied by several doctors and a public-health official, were present for the preview in the St. Paul station. We were even more surprised when they called me to ask if the 3M name could be restored to the show. It could. Fearful, however, that “a great many reasonable viewers would feel that this program openly condones promiscuity,” 3M requested that the show open and close with an announcement that NET was “solely responsible for the content and method of presentation.”
VD Blues aired on October 9, 1972. Only two stations refused it: one in Jackson, Mississippi, and one in Little Rock, Arkansas. Most not only ran it but mounted local follow-up shows with experts responding to viewers’ inquiries. The New York station’s follow-up show, hosted by Geraldo Rivera, had to be extended from one to three-and-a-half hours to accommodate more than 15,000 telephone calls. Other cities experienced similar results. The VD Blues story had an O. Henry-style finish: 3M was presented later in the year with the American Medical Association’s 1972 Journalism Award for its courage in underwriting such a high-risk show. The story of the award, wrote Variety ‘s Bill Greeley, was “one of those marvelous ironies which only a gimp of a medium public television could supply.”
Back in 1961, when Greg Harney offered me a permanent job as a director at WGBH, I agreed but only if I could do a drama. I promised him it wouldn’t cost the station a penny, that I would beg, borrow and steal the props, find volunteer actors, and find a play that would be acceptable to Bob Larsen. He agreed.
I went to many amatuer theater performances with my volunteer assistant, Sally Dennison. (Sally went on to become a casting director in Hollywood, working for Otto Preminger, Antononi, and helped cast “Close Encounters of a Third Kind.”) I got free costumes from MIT, Martin Block painted the floor, and Peter Prodan provided the minimal set pieces. I paid $10 for the rights to the Play, “Five Days.”
I was able to save the only 2″ black and white videotape of drama from the fire, and it now resides in the WGBH archives.
What comes around, comes around again. The little drama you are about to see was my attempt to take 20 volunteers, some in their 60’s and 70’s, and mold them into a movie crew. The local access station provided the gear (4 HD cameras, audio equipment, lights, final cut pro, Photoshop, etc.)
I convinced the New England Institute of Art to let me have students intern for the movie. They were the young ones on the crew and handled the lighting assignment. I found amateur actors in the greater Boston area: a former probation officer; a lawyer working at the Kennedy Center; an older actress who had appeared in JAWS as the mayor’s wife; and a gentleman who works at the Chelmsford Access Station. He just happened to have been a professional actor in Estonia before he moved to the states.
I convinced the music director of the Chelmsford Community Band to write an original music score. He had never done one before. He and I put together an orchestra of 30 musicians at no cost. They came from the Community Band, the High School Orchestra, the University of Massachusetts Lowell music department. I was able to get U. Mass. Lowell to provide me with a recording theater and graduate students to run the 16-track recording system.
The entire out of pocket for this production was $500. This was an experiment that could have easily been a bomb. Yes, we did make mistakes, but none so bad that the story was destroyed.
It all began on a hot summer’s day. The two of us waited, standing on the corner, staring hard at the passing cars. We were searching for our ride.
We waited, not quite sure of our new adventure. Not that one, not that one. Tom McGrath and I waited there for what seemed hours, our overstuffed suitcases surrounding us on the hot pavement.
It was 27th street and Oklahoma Avenue in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, just up the street from Leon’s Frozen Custard Stand, an icon of all things dairy in America’s Dairy Land, and right across from Pulaski High School. I had graduated from Pulaski just four years ago. You could tell by its name that this was the South Side, and very Polish. My Aunt Jenny had a sausage shop just a few miles down Oklahoma Avenue; she had all kinds of Polish delights in her white gleaming glass cases. Kiszka, Headcheese, Mettwurst, Kielbasa, and of course, Blood Sausage.
“Hi, guys. Nice to meet you.” As we loaded the suitcases into the car, I wondered if it could actually make it all the way to the East Coast.
A big old black car pulled up and out stepped our fellow traveler, David Nohling. “Hi, guys. Nice to meet you.” As we loaded the suitcases into the car, I wondered if it could actually make it all the way to the East Coast.
Tom sat in front and I in the back, shoved in with everyone’s belongings. We were all to bear the cost of the drive — gas, tolls, etc. — we were all to take turns driving, thus avoiding the cost of having to stop at motels, just drive right on through to Boston. It was going to take 16 plus hours.
And then it hit me. This was a standard shift car! I could only drive automatics! They were kind to me. Don’t worry, we can do all the driving, they reassured me. I felt like a jerk.
On the road
The car lumbered down 27th street toward Chicago. Soon we were on the interstate heading East. Dave had figured out that if we drove at night, the car would be a hell of a lot cooler than it would be driving during the day. His car did not have air conditioning. Dave was a good planner.
Dave had just graduated from the University of Wisconsin, Madison. He was a Communication major, very knowledgeable. Tom and I had just graduated from Marquette University, with degrees in Speech. Yup, that was what they called it.
Why us? God works in mysterious ways. I could understand why Tom was chosen. He had already worked part time at a local commercial TV station, he had experience. I had no experience. I mean, Marquette didn’t even have real TV cameras: we used wooden mock up cameras, faking TV shows. But as I huddled in the back seat, I knew the only reason I was here was because of Bill Heitz.
Bill was finishing up being a BU/WGBH scholar that summer. He had graduated from Marquette the year before. He insisted that I try to get into this scholarship program; he said it was absolutely great. You studied for your graduate degree in communication at Boston University and worked three days a week at the Educational Television station. Free tuition and you got $600 to live on for the year in Boston! Bill said this program would change my life. He was right.
I slept a lot during the trip. Darkness came and went, and we drove on and on. Then Dave gave us his real surprise. He had never been to New York City. Neither had we. He was a good planner.
It was late morning when we drove into the heart of NYC, the big enchilada. We drove through the traffic, staring up at the tall buildings. And then Dave pulled over into a no parking zone, got out of the car, opened the hood and peered at the engine as if the car was having trouble. He told Tom and I to go in first. He had stopped outside Grand Central Station. Tom and I moved though the crowd and into the giant train station.
And there he was.
Just sitting in a chair while the rest of the film crew moved around the cameras and lights. Someone came to him and asked a question. He responded, but never left his chair. Tom said “It is Alfred Hitchcock!”
We had stumbled into the filming of “North by Northwest.” There was Gary Grant and Eva Marie Saint. They were walking towards one of the train tracks.
While they were acting inside the station, Dave was doing a wonderful acting job outside. Tom and I came back and now we stared into the engine while Dave rushed into have a look.
We couldn’t believe our luck as the car headed off toward Boston.
Boston at last
I had left behind Milwaukee’s three B’s: Beer, Baseball and Bowling. And now I was in Boston with its three B’s: Brahms, Beethoven and Bach.
Several hours later, tired, sweaty, thirsty, we drove into the Boston area. We had made it, and it took just over 18 hours.
Dave turned on his radio and searched the dial. And there it was… classical music on the AM dial! Can you believe it? The only classical music station in Milwaukee was on FM and wattage so low hardly anyone could hear it. I had left behind Milwaukee’s three B’s: Beer, Baseball and Bowling. And now I was in Boston with its three B’s: Brahms, Beethoven and Bach. This was going to be some kind of year.
Heitz opened his apartment to us. We showered, had some beers, told about our trip, and went to sleep. The next day Bill took us to what he thought would be the perfect place for us to rent. It was just down the block from Massachusetts Ave., right on Marlboro street.
The 3 scholars from Wisconsin rang the doorbell and the landlady opened the door. Mrs. Gautraux. Her hair was frizzed, her elderly eyes had that crazy look after all these years of renting to college kids. She led us to the basement, to a two-room apartment fashioned around steam pipes and the furnace. “$80 bucks a month.” We took it.
She gave us the key and said we should use the backdoor for coming and going. She opened the door, which led directly to the alley. The alley. What can I say? Here among the garbage cans, cars parked in little spaces, lived some of the largest rats in Boston. Bill told us this was known as Rat Alley. Ah, yes and now it was our home.
That night Bill took us to see the latest WGBH remote. There was a huge arts festival happening in a park called the Boston Public Garden. The three of us stood besides a pond in the middle of the Garden and watched as members of the Boston Symphony Orchestra drifted by in a Swan Boat playing Handel’s Water Music. And our little TV station was broadcasting it live! Wow!
That night as bedtime approached, Tom and I acted like freshman who had just moved into a dorm. Both Tom and I had lived at home while going to Marquette. This was real freedom. Alone at last in our own space. We giggled on about Rat Alley, you know, “Snow White and Seven Rats,” that kind of thing. Stupid stuff.
The big day arrived. The 1958/59 scholars were to assemble at WGBH.We walked down Massachusetts Avenue, over the bridge into Cambridge.
Then the big day. The 1958/59 scholars were to assemble at WGBH.We walked down Massachusetts Avenue, over the bridge into Cambridge. On the bridge were strange markings, Smoots, based on a man named Smoot who was placed end to end in the ’40s by his MIT fraternity.
Finally, we arrived at the address. And there it was, right in the middle of the MIT complex of buildings. It was in a low-slung three story building. It appeared to have some non descript businesses, a drug store that served lunch, not much else. In the middle of the building was a plaque on a pillar announcing that this was the home of the WGBH Educational Foundation.
We climbed the wooden stairs leading us up to the reception area. There sat Rose Buresh, receptionist, the one person who really knew what was going on at WGBH. We were ushered into the studio. It was huge. It was once an old roller skating rink. Its wooden floor proved to be problematical when moving the TV cameras. If you went straight forward, going with the floorboards, you got a pretty smooth ride. But going across the grain, led to some very bumpy dollies. We all took notes.
We met our leader, Bob Moscone: from then on to be known as the King. Bob was once an Arthur Murray Dance teacher; a slender attractive Italian man who carried a little note card on which he kept track of what was going on at the studio. And he also controlled when we were to work at WGBH. He was the man in charge. He was the King.
His second in command was Kenny Anderson. Kenny was a young slender guy with a terrific Boston accent, full of energy. I found out later he was a true lover of women, all women. The King asked him to show us on how to hang and focus a light. Kenny climbed the ladder, moved the light and then to show off, slid down the ladder. The scholars gasped. The King smiled. He hoped we should all be able to do the same in a few days.
Our audio man was Wil Morton. He seemed to be very young but with a keen sense of professionalism. He showed us the mikes, the cables, the endless cables. Eventually we met the TV directors and producers. Jean Brady (The Queen) a sweet, lovely woman with a wonderful southern accent; Gene Nichols (the Court Jester) a quiet man with a great smile; Ted Steinke, a big smiley guy from the mid west; Lou Barlow, who seemed to smoke whenever he directed. I don’t remember him smiling much.
And then there was Paul Noble, who had been a BU scholar in Bill Heitz’s group and had just been hired as a producer/director. It is important to note here that Paul and his crew really set the culture of WGBH scholars. It was family, fun, and camaraderie. His team bonded like no other, still meeting yearly, nearly 55 years later. Paul and his team created a WGBH yellow journalism news rag, The Ille Novi. (Latin for “Here’s the News,” which were the words used by Louis Lyons each night when he opened his news program. Copies of it are in the WGBH archives.) This mimeographed tabloid told all the “real news” for the scholars. Paul once told me his greatest talent was reading memos upside down as they sat on the executives desk. Long live yellow journalism.
There was Whit Thompson, who seemed to do all the music shows. His dad was Randall Thompson, composer of symphonies and other pieces, who taught at Harvard; Lenny Bernstein was one of his students. Whit wore glasses and was very erudite. And then there was Cabot Lyford who had a nasty habit of kicking the wall every once in awhile. He was the director of the Museum of Fine Arts show “Invitation to Art,” a big remote production from one of the country’s great museums. (Not many people know that the museum was internally wired with TV cables in expectation that the MFA and WGBH would be doing shows for a long time. I wonder if they are still there.) The host was Brian O’Doherty, a visiting Doctor from Ireland who had come to Boston to study heart related illness at Harvard University.
Brian became a dear friend. Years later, Brian became head of the National Endowment for the Arts Media Panel. His panels awarded many grant dollars to WGBH. Brian was also the fine arts commentator for NBC’s Today show for 9 years and is a celebrated artist painting under the name Patrick Ireland.
Brian would occasionally invite me to have lunch at Ken’s deli restaurant in Copley Square. I mean, we never even did a show together, but he had somehow become interested in what I thought about TV and art. That was really hard to imagine. I was just a kid from the South Side of Milwaukee. It was very unexpected but complimentary. I really enjoyed the talk and the food.
An aside: the culinary arts
Tom and I existed on peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, pasta and cheap canned tomato sauce, and every once in awhile, a piece of meat.
Yes, the food. Food was a constant concern at our apartment in Rat Alley. Tom and I existed on peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, pasta and cheap canned tomato sauce, and every once in awhile, a piece of meat. Milk, when we felt really rich.
I remember one day, I traded my jelly sandwich with cameraman Don Hallock for his tongue sandwich. Tongue! I wasn’t sure about eating tongue but what the hell, it was meat. After all, I had eaten a lot of weird things in my mother’s Polish kitchen. Czarnina, a black duck blood soup with prunes and raisins; boiled chicken hearts and gizzards over mashed potatoes. I sort of liked the tongue sandwich, even though it was kinda chewy.
Brian, I can still taste those big Reuben sandwiches at Kens. Thanks. It meant a lot. More than you ever knew.
Back to introductions
Russ Morash, who would soon become one the most important producer/directors at WGBH, had just married. He and his wife took an extended honeymoon in France that summer. Russ eventually returned to direct a French Language show for kids called “Parlons Francais.” He had studied acting at BU and his wife had graduated with a degree in set design from BU, fellow theater artists. I ended up using Russ in a number of dramas that I did for PBS. The most memorable is when I cast him as a fellow TV newscaster with actress Lily Tomlin. They were perfect together.
There was also Bob Squier. Talk about energy. He was the quickest, the most animated of our directors. He took more shots in one show than most of us ever thought about. Bob soon moved on to become an independent producer and eventually became the Democrat’s PR spokesman. He appeared often with Roger Ailes, the Republican counterpart (now head of Fox Cable News). Bob passed away a few years ago. Sad.
A reflection: As I now look back at the staff of WGBH in those days, it dawns on me how young we all were. I mean, the average age of the camera people, lighting, audio was 23. Even the engineers were young; Bobby Hall, blond, happy guy; Jerry Adler, FM engineer, the only practicing Jew with a Southern accent I had ever met; Andy Ferguson, the only African American on staff, were all in their late 20’s. And the staff camera people, Don Hallock, a true artist and one of the greatest TV camera operators I have ever known, was not even 20. Bob Valtz, a recent Harvard grad who wore his tie flung over his shoulder while running camera, was 23. Frank Vento, a dark haired, intense camera/lighting person was probably near 30. Even the executives were only in their thirties.
The Executives. The visionaries who helped make WGBH so special. There was Dave Davis,manager of the station. He was a former trumpet player and lover of jazz and good music. In addition to his duties as station manger, he also directed the Boston Symphony Orchestra concerts. His was a tightly run production, which created the most sophisticated music/camera shot list ever.
It was amazing that he could take a bunch of BU Scholars along with this young staff, and make the broadcast seamless and professional. (The BSO and WGBH have paired up to release some of these early TV concerts on DVD, to be released in 2011.)
It is fair to say that Dave was the paternal figure in the organization. He didn’t say much and it was expected of you to present your questions in an exact and quick manner. He would then give a quick answer back.
Dave appreciated hard work and creativity. Once, after a music show that I did, he called and complemented the staff and me. It was really a big moment for us. That didn’t happen too often. We celebrated by going out and having a few beers at the Zebra Lounge.
Aside: The Zebra Lounge
The Zebra Lounge on the corner of Mass Ave. and Beacon Street. The home away from home. (Now, called The Crossroads.) The corner booth covered over with fake Zebra cloth. Our corner booth. A place for the young scholars to relive the day, laugh at what we did and did not do.
Our BU Scholar group broke into three groups. First, there were those who had come back from the war and were going for their master degrees. They were older, married, some with kids. Second, there were the serious scholars who wanted their degree. They studied hard, did their WGBH work and acted like adults. And then there were the rest of us.
We thought all of this was fun and games. A great time to learn, try new things, drink beer, laugh, what me worry? Not many of us finished the degree. We went to class and were responsible students, but spent most of our time at WGBH. I mean, we used to go to the studio after closing hours, crank out the big boom mike into the middle of the studio, and play volleyball. This was fun. The whole thing was fun.
Young ladies came into Tom and my lives. Tom hooked up with a sparkly woman, Peggy. I met Ruth Smith casually at the Zebra lounge. She was from Revere, graduated from Chandlers, and now was a special assistant to some big wig at Bank Boston. After a few dates, we became a number. As a matter of fact I ended up marrying her. As she likes to remind me, we will be married 50 years next March. How time files.
Back to the executives
Three important executives who influenced my life were Mike Ambrosino, Greg Harney, and Bob Larson. Bob was program manager. He had graduated from Harvard and was a practicing Christian Scientist. It was Bob who saw the potential of a TV series for a tall Cambridge woman who had appeared on our weekly book show: her name was Julia Child.
Bob thought I could only be a director since he questioned the kind of education I might have gotten at Marquette. I accepted his opinion then and said, “I will show him that there is more to me than he thinks.” He was my challenge. Years later he accepted me as someone who could become a producer. Bob passed away from stomach cancer, much too young. His religion, which he cherished, did not allow him to see a doctor. His prayers were not answered. Sad.
Mike Ambrosino, though an executive, also produced and directed a number of shows. He was in charge of creating the Eastern Educational Television Network. He also created the 21 Inch Classroom, a coordinated program between WGBH and 35 independent school systems to see if TV could be used in the classroom to enrich the teaching experience. We did a lot of 15 minute shows directed to grade school kids.
Mike did a lot of science shows, especially with Gene Gray, a teacher from Newton. It was during one of Gene’s shows that he poured some acid into a plastic cup only to see it dissolve the cup. (This is still in the archives.)Not much you could do because the show was live. Gene did a great job making the disaster into a teaching moment. Ambrosino later went on to create one of the great staples of PBS: NOVA.
Greg Harney. What can I say? He had arrived from CBS at about the same time as our crew. He was one of the best lighting directors at CBS. However, Greg was ambitious and took the job as production manager at WGBH to expand his choices. He took a hefty pay cut and supplemented his WGBH salary by teaching a grad course at BU,Lighting and Production. This was a class that all of the BU scholars took. His style of directing, lighting and program style was gleaned from his days at CBS and it was soon our style, too.
Greg and I always had an “interesting” relationship. Greg liked to call you into his office after one of your shows and critique your performance. A dear fellow director, Ed Scherer, told me how to handle these sessions. Agree and then go do what you normally do. I did this many times. Many.
Finally, one day Harney confronted me in the hallway, and accused me of not really listening to him. He had me caught. What to do? I blurted out that he was probably right. I should really listen to him. He looked relieved. Of course, I just went back to what I was doing anyway.
Greg was pushing me to be the best I could. Many years later, he said that he had tried to hire me as a director when our scholar year ended. But there wasn’t any money. He kept after me, bringing me back three times to WGBH for short stints as a director.
Then one day, when I was back in Milwaukee doing a silly job working for a Polish Newspaper, he offered me a permanent TV directing job. Somehow, he had found me at this little office where I was doing blind calls for a Polish newspaper, Novini Polski. I would call up people who were trying to rent apartments and suggest that they should rent to good Polish people who were clean and reliable payers of rent. All they had to do is place an ad with the Polish newspaper.
Greg’s offer was exactly what I was needed. I walked up to the office manager and quit. It wasn’t even 10:30.
So, for the next 50 years I did at least one show a year for WGBH. Sometimes, I did as many as 100 TV shows in a year. It became my professional and spiritual home. As I often said to the present executives, this is my station.
I haven’t said much about Hartford Gunn. He was the head of the whole thing. He was the brains behind the operation and soon left to create the whole PBS system. Hartford was there, but we didn’t interact with him on a daily basis. He was gracious to us all as he bustled about his business.
Years later, Hartford and I had an interesting confrontation. In those days, I wore white shirts and ties. Hartford grabbed me by the tie and pushed me up against the wall.
Why? My fellow producer/director Dave Sloss and I had written an internal memo criticizing David Ives for not being adventurous, as we wanted him to be.
The musician’s union had complained about our local folk music show because we didn’t pay anything. David felt we were in danger of being blackballed by the union and we should cancel the show. He said we always get in trouble when we do entertainment. Our memo took Ives to task for this position, in rather brutal language.
Hartford wanted to make a point to me while holding me by tie and up against the wall, that he too wanted the station to venture into entertainment. He warned me that we had to be careful. Go slow. I agreed with him. The folk music show continued. It was my most intimate moment with Hartford.
Fact: Our personal history is not made up by remembering specific days, but by remembering the special moments. There were three special moments during this period.
First, was my birthday party. I turned 22 in October and the gang gathered at our apartment in Rat Alley. Beer flowed, laugher filled the small apartment, there was even food that somebody brought.
And then, Hallock and Vento paraded into the packed place carrying a birthday cake. The crowd sang Happy Birthday. Then they plugged the cake into a wall socket and the whole thing exploded. BOOM! The room filled with smoke. At first, everyone cringed but then, realizing it was a joke, broke into loud laughter. In she came.
In her bathrobe.
She yelled and screamed.
The place cleared out fast.
What a birthday!
Second was Halloween. It had been decided by our crew that Educational Television was dead. It would go nowhere. ETV is dead. It was even chalked on the side of the building in Rat Alley. (I think that was me who did it.)
Anyway, it was decided that WGBH scholars, along with the staff, would join in a Halloween parade that was planned for Boston. Don Hallock, God Bless him, built a wooden coffin. They dressed Nohling up as a cadaver and placed him in the coffin and drove around the city in a convertible. A banner declared that ETV was dead. Probably no one in the crowds ever knew what it meant.
The driver of the convertible had a little too much to drink and I guess it was a pretty harrowing drive. The WGBH crowd ended up at some apartment on the seedy side of Beacon Hill. The next day, Don Hallock and I carried the coffin across town to my apartment. And there the coffin stood, propped up against our wall, open and empty. It stayed that way until I moved out months later.
Picnic in Rat Alley
And finally, the last week in the apartment, we had a picnic in the alley. Everyone brought whatever booze they had and we poured into one of our old pots. We called it a wassel bowl. English phrase I guess. As I sat there thinking about the last days in Boston, I looked over to our open apartment door. A rat quietly walked out of the apartment and into a garbage can next to the building. It was the end. The end of my scholar days. The end of a great year.
Wait! Not yet. I haven’t talked about Henry Morgenthau III.
Henry was a producer at WGBH. He was rumored to be wealthy. I know that he had a man, someone to drive him around, cook his meals. I guess you would call him a butler. But Henry was one of us. He laughed and played just like the rest of us.
But one important fact: Henry knew Eleanor Roosevelt. He convinced her to be part of one of WGBH early important shows, “http://wgbhalumni.org/2007/01/01/prospects-of-mankind-1959%e2%80%9361/Prospect of Mankind.[/intlink]” (This program is also in the archives.) Everyone was on that show; John F. Kennedy, Adlai Stevenson, you name it. And it was all because of Henry.
Henry’s father was Roosevelt’s Secretary of the Treasury, signer of all the nations currency. And here he was, one of our producers. Henry was great. Fun and creative. He and I ended up doing a whole ton of shows together, none more important than “Negro and the American Promise.” (Also is in the archives.)
My Dad was very impressed that I knew a Morgenthau. My Dad was a lifelong Democrat. He was very pleased that I was in good company, especially the son of the man who signed all the nations money.
My Dad always said “follow the money and you’ll find the truth.” All I know is we never had enough of it in those days.
Tom and I had each derived ways of making ends meet. Some of them were not very pretty. Fortunately, Greg Harney and Henry Morgenthau were bringing in big budgeted shows that were shot on weekends. That meant the crew was paid overtime. Tom became one of the regular paid crew members. That money really helped him
However, in some kind of desperation, Tom signed up to be a medical guinea pig. He went to the Mass. General Hospital and was injected with a blood thinner. Then they took out some blood and tested to see how thin it really was. I guess it was pretty thin because of what happened next.
Tom walked home. The Doctor told him not to get hit by a car or he might bleed to death. Ha, ha, I guess this is Doctor humor. Tom told me all about it as he combed his hair in our little bathroom.
In some kind of desperation, Tom signed up to be a medical guinea pig. Tom’s payment … 15 bucks
All of a sudden, the bandage came off and he started squirting blood all over the place. I mean pumping, squirting blood. He held his arm over the tub to catch the blood. I went crazy. I handed him a towel, got the name of the Doctor, raced upstairs to the pay phone in the hallway, dialed MGH and asked for the Tom’s Doctor. As I waited, I wondered if I should have called 911.
The operator came back on and said there was no such Doctor at the hospital. Egads! I rushed downstairs to see if Tom could make it to the street where I could call an ambulance. Fortunately, he had applied enough pressure to the wound that the blood had started to coagulate. Whew! Disaster avoided. Tom’s payment for all this … 15 bucks.
My money problems were solved in other ways. Bill Heitz had told me to try and get the Sunday master control job.
The local CBS station would not carry the networks Sunday morning shows, so WGBH, as a service to its audience, worked out a deal with CBS for Ch. 2 to air the programs from 10:00 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. The station needed an engineer, a booth announcer and a master control operator.
I got the job. My pay was $10 for each Sunday worked. That took care of the rent.
My buddies during these Sunday stints were (usually) engineer Bobby Hall, booth announcer Bob Jones, and Jerry Adler who was right next door to master control running WGBH-FM from a small control room. We were a quiet group, sometimes fighting off hangovers, planning what we would do with the rest of Sunday.
There were talk shows, and then there was Camera Three. Camera Three had been a cultural godsend to me when living at home in Milwaukee. It did segments on the fine arts, the theater, dance, photography. It was up to speed with the NYC art scene and exposed me to ideas and concepts that were beyond my wildest dreams. It helped determine my style and approach to TV.
An aside: Camera Three and Nam June Paik
Many years later I was asked to be a guest producer for Camera Three. And to show what a small world it really is, one of the executive producers was a former BU Scholar from Bill Heitz’ group. I choose video artist Nam June Paik as the star of my Camera Three.
That meant bringing into the CBS union studio all his broken down TV’s, Charlotte Mormon, who would play her cello while wearing Paiks’ Video Bra, an upright piano which Paik would destroy, and lots of his small non-broadcast electronic gear.
It probably was the first time that this kind of electronic equipment had been brought into a studio of CBS. I think every engineer in CBS found some reason to walk through the studio on their way to wherever. And every last one of them had to stop and gaze at what Paik had created.
The show was called “The Strange Music of Nam June Paik.”
CBS never asked me back to do another show. As a matter of fact, this turned out to be their last season, Camera Three was no more.
Still, it was wonderful to see the cycle completed. From an avid viewer as a college kid to a full-fledged TV producer creating something for a show that meant so much to me. Special.
And then, my money problems were solved.
Late in that first summer, I walked across Mass Ave. heading from WGBH to MIT’s indoor pool. We were going to do some kind of remote. As I crossed the street, I was hit by a car. Not really hit, more like bumped.
The problem was that, in those days, cars had hood ornaments. This was a Pontiac, which carried a shiny Indian-face ornament. This sharp little piece of metal pierced my left side, causing a rather deep wound.
Moscone took charge. Somehow, I was in a car racing to Boston City Hospital. They took me to the emergency room. The King kept telling them it was not a knife wound. I don’t know if they ever really believed him. Anyway, they washed out my wound, stitched it up, bandaged it and told me not to lift anything heavy for six weeks. I went home and rested and healed rather quickly.
Bob Moscone took me to see a lawyer … I went to his office and with great fanfare, he presented me the insurance company’s settlement. A check for $600.
But Bob Moscone, being the King, went a step further. He took me to see a lawyer. The lawyer’s office was situated in a back room of a walkup in a seedy part of Boston. The lawyer listened, got the name of the person who hit me, and said he would get back in touch. I didn’t hear from him for over 4 months.
Then I got a message from Moscone. The lawyer wanted to see me right away. I went to his office and with great fanfare, he presented me the insurance company’s settlement. A check for $600.
This money changed my lifestyle. Since I’d dreamed of making the professional theater my career choice, I spent a lot of the money going to plays, Wednesday matinees, in Boston’s theater district. Yes, in those days, there were still plays up and running in one theater or another. It seemed like there was a new one every couple of weeks.
I became a regular in the balcony section. I shared the spot with a group of ladies who were also weekly attendees. We became great friends. They started bringing me sandwiches. They were great. I saw Carol Burnett, Tom Bosley, Tommy Tune, so many great stars. It was heaven.
I decided to celebrate my new wealth by taking Ruth out on a real date. We went to a little French restaurant, which existed on Mass. Ave. (and is no longer there). We had Duck a l’Orange and a glass of wine.
Then we took a bus to Harvard Square and went to see a New Wave French film at the Brattle Theater. The Brattle, whose theater history I knew and appreciated, was not built in the faux-Oriental style that I was used to in Milwaukee. No, the Brattle was a basic box theater with little international flags on the wall, tight hard seats, and a back screen projection system.
It was clear the audience was young, college kids, most likely, intellectuals. Probably Harvard, MIT, Tufts, Brandeis, BU.
As Ruth and I settled into our seats, it was clear the audience was young, college kids, most likely, intellectuals. Probably Harvard, MIT, Tufts, Brandeis, BU. We were early and so sat back to wait for the beginning of the film.
And that’s when it happened. Like a flash of bright white light, the truth bopped me on the head. This was the Eureka moment!
Somewhere in the theater, somebody had turned on some music to keep the customers entertained until the movie began. It was a scratchy, LP record. The audio was slowly turned up until you could finally hear it. It was a harpsichord. Oh no, it was a Scarlatti Sonata.
And right then, at that very exact moment, I knew I was a hopeless stranger in a wildly exotic land. It was as if I had been plunged into some distant planet, a planet filled with flying things, a planet so different from where I had come from that it left me speechless. Clueless. Sitting, watching, not believing — right there in the Brattle Theater!
The recorded music grew more intense, filling the cavernous room with harpsichord music. The young couple in front of us moved closer together. Tighter and tighter.
She looked up at him, lovingly.
“They are playing our song.”
“I know, I know.”
And then they kissed.
About Fred Barzyk
From IMDB: Fred Barzyk is a longtime producer/director at WGBH, the public television station in Boston, Massachusetts. His credits include: Ollie Hopnoodle’s Haven of Bliss (1988), The Star-Crossed Romance of Josephine Cosnowski (1983), The Great American Fourth of July and Other Disasters (1982), The Lathe of Heaven (1980), and Between Time and Timbuktu (1972).
Pete Hoving (camera) and I traveled to New York to work on a documentary about a Boston still photographer, Marie Cosindas. We had received a grant from Polaroid to help defray the cost of doing this “Creative Person” 1/2-hour show for NET.
Peter and I both had experience at the MFA in Boston, where they would never let us roam free without someone from the museum staff being with us. (Probably those restrictions happened after one of our lights melted a painting on exhibit. It was a scoop light that was a little too close to the painting that caused the disaster. Fortunately, the museum experts where able to retouch it and it looked pretty much the same. The MFA kept on doing Museum Open House and WGBH employees knew the rules of engagement.)
But here at the MOMA, we were shocked at what happened to us … free and alone in a gallery with some of the worlds most noted modern masterpieces. Here is a little poem recalling the event.
Museum of Modern Art, 1962
I couldn’t believe it —
We had been left alone —
The top floor of the MOMA
Just me and my cameraman
Left alone by a busy curator
Before any security guards appeared
In the middle of a deserted gallery
We waited, quiet, uncertain
Left alone in the Museum of Modern Art
Pollock, Klee, Kandinsky and all the others
Colors, shapes, demanding us to pay attention
Visual challenges screaming out from the shadows
Paintings, barely lit by the early morning light
We tried to comprehend their messages
but the images just stared back,
providing no other clues
We waited, quiet, uncertain
Left alone in the Museum of Modern Art
Around a corner is where it was hung
Twenty five feet long
Eleven feet high
Black and white,
A screaming woman,
A limp baby
A severed arm clutching a sword
Pablo Picasso’s scream against war and carnage
We looked, quiet, uncertain
Alone in the Museum of Modern Art
Then the Silence stopped
Now an ugly sound filled the space,
a sound so loud and awful
a horrible sound heard only by our eyes
emanating from the massive, black and white canvas:
red, hideous yellow fire bombings,
pink flesh gnashing against brittle bones
hot blood flowing dark purple, crimson;
until nothing but
Horrified, we listened with our eyes
Alone in the Museum of Modern Art
Then it stopped. Gone.
The sound of high heels on cold tile
The gallery lights sputtering on.
The curator returned and the carnage vanished
Replaced by distant city traffic down below
by a car horn, a police siren
by the heaviness of our breathing.
Time now to film our documentary
Time to turn our attention to another artist
We set up our tripod and loaded our camera
Point and shoot, focus and zoom
We try to forget the cries of anguish we saw
While we were alone in the Museum of Modern Art.
I first heard Jean on the radio in Boston. It was 1961. I was babysitting my young son and, while idly scanning radio stations, I heard this person, this intense personal voice, talking to me.
Whoa! Is it possible? Something clicked in me. Had I found a kindred soul?
Jean had grown up in the Midwest, in Hammond, Indiana, the industrial Midwest. Me, too, I grew up just an hour away in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. My father worked in a factory, International Harvester, and my mother worked in a factory during the war, Perfex. My neighborhood was surrounded by all kinds of factories. You could smell them in the air.
Jean was weaving a tale about The Steel Mill, running, delivering the mail. He recalled a horrible accident: a vat had turned over, killing one of the steel men. But he also talked about the beauty of the giant plant. He talked about tapping the heat.
He never played any music, he just talked! Come on! This was a Saturday afternoon, for God sake. Who the Hell is this guy? Right then and there I knew I had to work with him.
I was a young television director (22) working at WGBH-TV, a little Educational Television station housed in a former roller skating rink, above a drugstore at 84 Massachusetts Avenue and right across the street from MIT. There were 45 employees running the TV and FM radio stations.
I was on contract to direct a series of French Language shows aimed at grade school students. But what I really wanted to do was dramas for TV. Maybe this Jean Shepherd person might be the storyteller I was looking for. Maybe.
“How the hell am I going to meet him, or get to work with him?”
Youth is great. I figured I would just write him a letter and offer him a half hour of airtime on our little station. I huddled with Mike Ambrosino (a fan; Mike was responsible for the development of the Eastern Educational Television Network and created NOVA) and John Henning (a fan; John had grown up in New York City listening to Jean on the radio. John became one of Boston’s most distinguished newsmen.)
Here was the problem: WGBH had no money. We were lucky to meet the weekly payroll. I was making $80 a week and trying to support a wife and baby, and I had no money. So we offered an artist the one thing they can’t resist. Free airtime to do anything he wanted to do.
I was directing a series of French Language shows, but what I really wanted to do was dramas for TV. Maybe this Jean Shepherd person might be the storyteller I was looking for.
We couldn’t afford his airfare. He would have to sign a release devised by our financial officer, Jack Hurley. Jack insisted that some hard cash pass between WGBH and the talent, so each person was to receive $1. The chances of Jean Shepherd even responding to this offer were very low. Probably, non-existent.
Boy, was I wrong. He wrote back and agreed! We talked on the phone and decided on a date. Now I had to tell management that I had made this offer and it had been accepted. (No, I never did get permission before I sent the letter. What the hell? I never thought he would respond.)
Bob Larson, programming manager, looked dubious. A comedian? No, I said, a great storyteller. How much will this cost? A one-dollar release. Somehow (don’t remember what I said) Bob agreed to let me go ahead with the show.
Bob had graduated from Harvard and was very erudite. He once told me I would never be a producer because of the school I had gone to, Marquette University in Milwaukee. I shrugged and said OK, time will tell. Bob took a chance on this one and, for me, it started a 30-year working relationship with Jean Shepherd.
There is an important event that I forgot to mention. That little TV station above the drug store — it had burned down to the ground several months before. With an amazing amount of public support from institutions and viewers, a campaign to build a new state of art studio was created. We were offered free space from many institutions while the new studio was being built. WGBH was spread out across the city in 7 different locations.
The TV studio was a small room in the basement of the Museum of Science. There was a window from which the paying visitors could watch us make TV shows: We were an exhibit. The producers, directors, and execs were housed in a small red wooden building behind the Museum, right on the waters of the Charles River.
Bob Larson laid out the rules of the game. I would have a single camera and the show would be a half hour live and recorded on tape. (That original tape exists in the WGBH archives: “JEAN SHEPHERD, AMERICAN HUMORIST.”) I decided we would shoot from the dock behind the building.
I would need a big light to cover the area since the show would air at 10:00 p.m.. The opening and closing credits would be created on a large piece of cardboard perched carefully on an easel. Camera starts on cardboard, pans to Jean, he talks for a half hour, pans back to the cardboard. Done.
The day arrived and so did Jean with a young woman, Leigh Brown. She was introduced as his secretary. She never said much but watched with great interest.
Jean was affable and eager to do his bit. I introduced him to the crew and we headed out to the dock. He had a crew cut, wore a summer jacket and tie. He was fit and seemed to enjoy the opportunity to do this for WGBH. I later found out that it was our connection to Harvard, MIT, the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Brandeis, Tufts, and Boston University which made this gig really appealing. Jean was looking to forge his credentials in the world of academia.
Jean had brought his theme music on audiotape. The time arrived and we were on the air, in living black and white, with the Charles River behind him. He proceeded to tell us two of his classic stories. First came the Ovaltine story and the magic decoder ring. He ended with the blind date story.
The stage manager gave him the one-minute cue, he concluded his bit, and we panned to the cardboard credits. The crew applauded. Egad, this wasn’t like our normal shows. I mean we were doing lectures, piano shows, educational courses for distant learners. And here was this guy entertaining us. Wow! This called for a celebration.
We were doing lectures, piano shows, educational courses for distant learners, and here was this guy entertaining us. Wow! This called for a celebration.
Jean, Leigh, myself, and most of the crew made off to one of our favorite watering holes; this night was going to be on me. (Might blow the family budget, but it was worth it.) I would pick up Jean and Leigh’s drinks. I had assumed that Jean was a beer drinker, like my Dad, but no. He ordered a martini! And just one. The rest of us bought the cheapest beer in the house. We laughed and talked.
And then something amazing happened. Jean asked how WGBH was doing. We said what do you mean? How are the ratings? We all laughed. We never knew if anyone was watching us. Jean asked what kind of shows did we do. At that moment, WGBH was doing a lot of Harvard extension courses for the Navy. Physics, calculus, trig, a series of shows for the crews of atomic subs that stayed submerged for months at a time. The crew could get academic credit for taking this course when they took an exam on returning to base.
Shepherd’s eyes twinkled. He smiled that crooked smile of his, and he created a story right in front of us in the seedy beer-smelling bar. Jean began:
I can see it now. Professor Schmidlap appears at a blackboard and begins to explain calculus to the TV audience. He is amazing, his voice flying out over Boston … talking MATH!
Suddenly, after just two weeks of his little show, the ratings are soaring. The local commercial stations take notice.
“Who the hell is this guy? What’s going on? Maybe it’s that theme music. I mean who the hell can understand calculus?”
Four weeks later, Professor Schmidlap is number one in Boston TV.
The news spreads to New York. They call up and get an air tape. These Big time execs gather in a large conference room and they watch!
The theme music comes up. (They lean forward.) Prof. Schmidlap appears and begins, writing a long equation on the blackboard. (They lean in further.) Professor smiles as he shows us the solution. (They are now standing.)
“Get this guy on the phone. Now!”
Professor Schmidlap is at home when the phone rings. It’s one of the big time New York agents.
“This is _________. Who’s your agent?”
“My insurance agent?”
By months end, the Professor has his own show on NBC. His show is broadcast over the entire nation. And the ratings take off. Before long he has won the coveted 9 p.m. slot NATION WIDE. The other networks respond. Soon there are shows on Physics, Metaphysics, Epistemology.
And what happens to WGBH and educational TV? They start running old Ed Sullivan shows.
It is worth noting that, in the year 2002, WGBH aired several episodes of the Ed Sullivan Show. After exactly 39 years, Jean Shepherd’s prediction came to pass.