From Don Hallock (with Michael Ambrosino) — 12/18/2010 (updated 1/11/2011)
Many extraordinarily-gifted figures and luminaries of the day — in the arts, science, politics and education — found their ways into the halls and studios of the original WGBH-TV/FM studios at 84 Massachusetts Avenue, which were located just across the street from one of the main entrances to MIT, and close by Eero Saarenen’s beautiful Kresge Auditorium.
WGBH first moved into the building in 1955, and a major expansion was accomplished in the fall of 1956. The fire, which destroyed it all, ending the station’s rather brief six year tenure, took place in October of 1961.
During those short six years though, the place was a veritable hot-bed of talent; many very successful careers were begun here, and much that was revolutionary in broadcasting history took place during WGBH’s time in the building.
Simulcasting (FM and TV) of the Boston Symphony Orchestra was pioneered in this building. The projection room was also home to the very first unit off the assembly line of the Ampex VR1000 2-inch videotape machine (the first videotape machine ever commercially available).
Much broadcast history was laid down at 84 Mass. Ave., and much accomplished which was the genesis of what WGBH has become today.
The Eastern Educational Network was dreamed up here, and eventually proved itself a model for vastly more extensive educational broadcast link-ups.
Even then WGBH was proving itself a production center to rival that of WNET in New York and KQED in San Francisco, the other two major centers supplying programming for NET (the National Educational Network). This was not an easy accomplishment, given that most major talents were located in New York, and had to be brought (lured by superior program ideas) to Boston to perform in WGBH television productions.
A certain reverence accompanies this presentation, as much broadcast history was laid down at 84 Mass. in six short years, and much accomplished which was the genesis of what WGBH has become today.
A space designed for creativity
I’ve taken the time to do this project since there are still a few of us who affectionately remember working in these rather modest, musty, and occasionally ill-fitting spaces, but also because there may also be some alums of more recent vintage with an interest in having some sense of the rather makeshift origins of the station’s facilities.
This journey into the past includes two annotated floor plans of 84 Mass. Ave. during that brief period. Likely this presentation is unique, since I believe none of the original blueprints exist, and as far as I know no one else has attempted such a reconstruction.
There are still a few of us who affectionately remember working in these rather modest, musty, and occasionally ill-fitting spaces.
Please also bear in mind that these drawings are a reconstruction completely from memory, and so there may be unintentional errors or omissions. I apologize for any of these in advance; but the building was configured this way almost 50 years ago, and memory can become a bit vague over time.
Since (I believe) no helpful dimensional information has survived the interim,these plans could not be drawn to scale. The measurements are quite approximate but, I also believe, give a good idea of what the original 84 Mass. Ave. facility looked like.
The slight angle of the rear wall is not a mistake. I had thought I remembered it that way, and made the original drawings to reflect that. Later, though, I doubted my memory and made the building rectangular. In a very helpful email, however, Michael Ambrosino said that he remembered the building tapering toward the north, and so I revised my plan again to show that peculiarity.
I want, also, to offer a second apology here. Since far too many of the WGBH “family” worked in the various parts of the operation at 84 Mass. Ave., I will have forego trying to fit names with the spaces. Instead, I will mention only a few key figures. For those who will inevitably be left out, please don’t be hurt, and please forgive the omissions.
First some notes on the building itself, and the virtues and drawbacks it presented to a new WGBH-TV, and a somewhat more mature WGBH-FM.
From roller rink to educational link
The building was constructed as a roller rink, with the skating surface on the second floor, and balcony spaces for observation and relaxation on the third – as is the custom generally for skating facilities. The street floor was sub-divided into spaces to house several shops, offices and other store-front enterprises. I’d be surprised if it measured much more than 250 feet in length, 70 feet in depth, and about 40 feet in height.
WGBH did not own the building and, initially, the station rented only the south half of the upper two floors (to the left of the photo). The north half of both floors (to the right) housed a company which designed and built highly accurate atomic clocks — probably for MIT.
It was constructed of red brick, and judging by the rather stern and gloomy architecture — which may be seen in Brooks Leffler’s unique photo of the façade from across Mass. Ave. — probably dated from the 1920s or possibly the 1930s. It could possibly have been built in the early 1940s, but I doubt it. Renovations required to make the cavernous edifice fit the station’s needs were very extensive, and must have been quite costly.
Advantages and disadvantages
One advantage of the building — aside from its being located just across the street from MIT, or even in the same city as some of the nation’s most prestigious educational institutions — was that, while obviously not very fire resistant, it was a sturdy monolith, and didn’t need as much sound-proofing as might otherwise have been required.
One very major disadvantage, which plagued production work from the beginning to the end, was the studio floors (the original roller-skating surfaces) which were made of maple boards which had been washed too many times. The boards were all cupped from the moisture, and this made camera-dollying in most directions a horribly lumpy business.
As well, the cameras of the day were very heavy (about 250 pounds for a pedestal unit — God knows how close to a ton when the Fearless Panoram Dolly was used), and the creaking of the boards was heard on countless shows and recordings. We tried many solutions, including hand nailing each and every board down tighter, but all to no avail. For this reason the studios were a sound engineer’s, and camera operator’s, ongoing nightmare.
Other disadvantages included the fact that only the station’s top four or five executives had reserved parking spaces in MIT’s lot behind the building. The school’s parking facilities were even then over-subscribed. And so the rest of the nearly 100 staff had to do countless daily neighborhood drive-bys in order to find awfully scarce (and very frequently illegal) parking.
I don’t know who was responsible for all of the renovations that made the old rink suitable for a radio and television facility, but they do deserve abundant praise.
One notable exception was Bob Moscone, the studio supervisor (affectionately known to the studio minions as “The King”), who managed to convince all and sundry that an illegal spot on the alleyway sidewalk at the front left corner of the building was his (somehow, it was never ticketed). The only person I can remember ever successfully violating this unofficial convention was Al Hinderstein. Such chutzpa Al had!
And a final major disadvantage: there was almost no place nearby serving any kind of decent food. Under most of studio A the street floor did feature Tech Drug, a soda fountain with a large table area in which to eat lunch. Many from WGBH and MIT did so. But the food was — how can I put it diplomatically? — atrocious. Besides, they only served lunch, which is not very helpful to a staff most of which started work at 2 pm, rehearsed for three hours until 5:00pm when we took to the air, and left around 11:00pm.
There was an Italian restaurant about a block further into Cambridge, and the food was reasonably tasty, but that place only served dinner and the kitchen was not very clean (witness the many canker sores one could contract after eating there). Otherwise, we had to travel a bit of a distance to find eats. Bag lunches were by far our most common form of nourishment. Ah, but it all made the pioneering effort somehow more of a commitment, and bound us together the more tightly.
In fairness, I’ll hasten to observe that the two stages of renovations to make the old rink suitable for a radio and television facility were quite well thought out, and with considerable foresight. The layout and facilities were always practical, and served our basic needs quite admirably. I don’t know who was responsible for all that, but they do deserve abundant praise.
The tour begins
Well let’s get to the meat of the thing by bringing on the plans.
As a convention — and to avoid confusion — we will call the street floor of 84 Mass. the “street floor.” But the logic ends there. The second floor of 84 Mass. we will call the “studio floor” (since, obviously, the studios were all located there). The third, following similar reasoning, we will refer to as the “office floor.” Please remember that both floor plans reflect the layout following the occupation of the entire length of the building.
The drawings — one of the “studio floor” (floor 2), and one of the “office floor” (floor 3) — show the configuration of each floor after the expansion from occupancy of one half of the upper 2 floors of the building to filling of the entire upper 2 floors, from one end of the building to the other.
I very much hope you find this “magical mystery tour” enjoyable. If you’re one of the “original crowd,” you might test yourself on the floor plans before consulting the key numbers, just to see how well you remember the place — or if, perhaps, you remember it better than I. Maybe this will even coax a tear or two from a few old eyes.
In the rear alley, the new/used WGBH-TV Greyhound bus resided while it was being converted to a mobile unit. As luck would have it, the outfitting was very nearly complete when the building burned, and the bus became the literal life raft for the TV operation. We did many productions using it, including parking it outside WHDH-TV, and shooting our own productions inside their studios.
What we accomplished here
From this humble home sprang the media colossus that is now WGBH. Sometimes (upstairs, in the heat of summer) we hated the place, but mostly we loved it dearly. What we did there, and who we were with each other, seem to have an ongoing life which can still be felt.
Looking back, it’s amazing what was accomplished in this place.
The fire was a catastrophe from which the public face of the station quickly recovered; the viewing audience barely noticed a hiccup. But we who salvaged what little was salvageable from the charred remains, even while pursuing a commitment to continue, did so in spite of a subtle but persistent state of shock.
It could be speculated that the fire actually catalyzed the station’s growth and rapid maturation, and that without that kick in the pants we might have languished in that old building, and in relative poverty. From adversity often comes strength, and out of ashes….
WGBH has had two more sets of digs since 84 Mass. For younger alums, and those who stayed on past the middle sixties, these newer abodes will form more of the framework of their recollections. Some of us, however, and with justification, will remember this original building fondly, and recall vividly the day of its demise.
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.