Jean Shepherd tells his first WGBH story

This entry is part 7 of 22 in the series The Fred Barzyk Collection
Jean Shepherd (1970)

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.

Fred Barzyk (2007)

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.

Museum of Science (2000) by Don Hallock

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 Shepherd
Jean Shepherd on the dock behind the Museum of Science for his first TV show with Fred Barzyk. With him is Margy Pacsu, a “GBH Staffer. By Dan Beach.

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.

“Professor Schmidlap?”

“Yes?”

“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.

The Party XIV

205. David Atwood and Bruce Bordett.

206. David Atwood shares an affectionate moment with Olivia Tappan.

207. Well….two moments.

208. Yet another shot of Peter Hoving and Chris Sarson. (Do they get residuals on these?)

209. John Henning.

210. John Henning again, POV.

211. John “Rocky” Coe and Faith Nachman Klein.

212. Gene Mackles, John Carver and Paul Solman.

213. Thea Chalow and John McKnight.

214. John Kerr, unknown, Kristi Moore and Nancy England.

215. Frank Lane, Jane Pikor and Benny Krol.

All photos this page: Jeffrey Dunn.

40 years with ‘GBH

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

My first visit to WGBH was in the fall of 1955, just after TV had gone on the air at 84 Mass Ave. in Cambridge. I was at work developing a TV master plan for the University of Connecticut at the time, and wanted a tour of one of the few (12) “educational” stations on the air.

Several drives up and down Mass Ave. from the river to Harvard Square showed nothing remotely resembling a TV station. Finally locating an oddly shaped small brick building, with a row of stores and a soda fountain on the street, I entered a small doorway between two round pillars.

A dark green flight of stairs led up to one of the smallest reception rooms ever seen, mostly taken up by the huge telephone switchboard. Behind it sat, at lunch time, one of the WGBH secretaries affording the regular operator a lunch break. On this day, it turned out to be a beautiful and familiar face, a former classmate from Syracuse University, Bernice Goldberg. Many of you will remember her in later life as “Bunny” Chesler, the gifted author and one of the spark plugs of the ZOOM staff.

While waiting for my tour, three identically clad men, all in charcoal gray suits, white button-down shirts and black knit ties left for lunch. “Gracious,” I thought. “They’ve all brought their Harvard uniforms with them!” I suspect that was my first view of Hartford Gunn, Larry Creshkoff, and Ted Sherburne. In such a way are first memories born.

In the Spring of ‘56, I gave a short talk at Harvard, describing the Ford Foundation school TV project I was then directing in Schenectady, New York. Hartford heard it and a few weeks later asked me to start in-school TV for Massachusetts. Arriving at WGBH the same week as Dave Davis, Bill Cavness, and Lillian Akel, my first job was to redesign the small office to make room for all the new bodies. I “accidentally” moved Lillian Akel’s desk next to mine.

My second task was to design a TV production facility to fit into the yet unexcavated basement of the University of New Hampshire. This was Hartford Gunn at his best, part visionary, part schemer, but all action. Give the President of UNH the plan, ask him to excavate the space so that when money is raised for such a facility, there will be someplace to put it! Working with Hartford was an experience to remember.

The 21’ Classroom went on the air in 1958 with series in French, Music, Literature, Social Studies, and Science. Gene Nichols, Jean Brady, and I produced and directed and I remember John Henning as my floor manager. (I called him Mr. Henning in those days)

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

I left in 1960 to help Hartford create the Eastern Educational Network. It’s hard to think of a time when so few stations were on the air, but Hartford knew that if the educational communities did not activate their licenses they would get swallowed up by the commercial interests. He also knew that many stations would ensure our success as we grew and shared our resources.

I helped groups plan facilities and budget for them. I testified before Legislatures. WGBH offered free programs. All these steps were necessary to insure new stations in New England and the East. The EEN began with an off-air interconnection between WGBH and WUNH, became a useful adjunct to NET, and soon, under Don Quayle’s effective guidance, became the nations first interconnected public television network.

I returned to WGBH in 1964 as Assistant and then Associate Program Manager to Bob Larsen and then Michael Rice. In 1969-70 I also produced and appeared in an 18-program local documentary series immodestly titled Michael Ambrosino’s Show with Freddie Barzyk, Dave Atwood, and Peter Downey as my directors. More and more I realized that making programs was where I wished to be and told Michael to fill my job for I was taking my 40th year off! If I came back to WGBH it would be to do something else.

That 40th year was spent at the BBC as CPB’s “American Fellow Abroad” working on a nightly BBC1 news and current affairs program, 24 Hours. The whole family enjoyed our year in London. I strongly recommend taking time for everyone. Time is our most precious commodity and we seem to squander it or leave it to others to manage.

I did return to WGBH in 1971, and developed and was the Executive Producer for the first three seasons of NOVA.

Leaving again in 1976, I developed and executive produced two seasons of Odyssey, which was meant to be a continuing series like NOVA, but this time about human beings as seen in the past (archaeology) and present (anthropology). Nixon cut the PTV funding 40%. The stations bought 40% fewer series in the SPC choosing NOVA rather than Odyssey. So went my first experience as a freelance production company.

A side venture caught me up about this time as well. In the late 60’s, The Unitarian Church asked me to help a new black production company that had just started and assist with their efforts as I could. That began a 30 year professional and personal relationship with Henry Hampton and his company, Blackside. I went on to help Henry turn his dream Eyes on the Prize into a reality for PBS and was the Consulting Executive Producer for series I and II. (Henry and I also flew together for 20 years and owned a plane together for 10.)

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

In the mid 80s, Phil Morrison of MIT, the first NOVA consultant, came to me with his idea for a series on the nature of scientific evidence. The next years were spent developing and Executive Producing, The Ring of Truth, broadcast in 1987. It was a great chance to bring together many of the NOVA and Odyssey staff again. Working with Terry Rockefeller, Ann Peck, Sam Low, Marian White, Boyd Estus, Eric Handley, etc., has always made filmmaking in Boston such a rich experience.

As a natural arc of my life, I ended my career in the early 90s as writer/producer/on-camera correspondent for a 90-minute Frontline called “Journey to the Occupied Lands,” an investigation of the issues of land and justice in the 27th year of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. It was good to be intimately involved in production again after years of supervising.

All this time was spent in a marriage to the woman some of you knew as Lillian Akel. One of the worlds great romances, our life together ended sadly after an 8-year battle with cancer in 1995. Lillian was a reporter, a radio producer, a teacher, and spent her last and most happy years as an attorney with a clientele that included many of the independent film producers of Boston. Evelyn Sarson, Judy Chalfen, Peggy Charren and Lillian were the founders of Action for Children’s Television.

I am now pleasantly retired having discovered the joys of reading American History (1740-1820), helping to build a post and beam barn in Vermont, blue water sailing and white water rafting.

“BFB” Big F’ing Barn, designed by Bob Slattery and built by Bob, several paid Vermonters and several volunteers. I spent 55 days over the summer and fall of ’98 to work through bereavement and bang home the joy of creating something that big and complex. What is it for? Well, Marian White of the news staff and NOVA now raises prize Churro sheep in Vermont and they need a home.

Another way to deal with grief is white water rafting and kayaking. It is very hard to think of anything else except survival in good company miles from the nearest phone in the Idaho wilderness.

Daughter Julie, after life in TV in Boston and LA, is a happy mommy for a while in Los Angeles. Michael, after years of college and cooking, designed, built and runs the art and animation computer labs for the Pacific Northwest College of Art in Portland, Oregon. Jonathan, who has been restoring and building organs here and on the coast, is living in Philadelphia, but can be found on the road most months voicing organs and writing about them. We will all get together with the grandkiddies for a sailing trip in the BVI to celebrate my 70th this summer.

I’m looking forward to the reunion and introducing you to my new love and best friend Lynn Cooper. Lynn is a clinical Psychologist who has heard about some of you and not heard all your stories about the “goode olde days.” She is a good listener and we hope to have a grand time.

We’ve moved five blocks away from the busy Centre Street home in Newton the family had lived in for 37 years. The new house is on a cliff side overlooking a 70 acre back yard called the Newton Commonwealth Golf Course. Our companions are ducks, geese, one swan, many song birds, a red fox and just last Saturday, a wild turkey.