WGBH Pioneers: Michael Ambrosino – Part 1 (1998)

This entry is part 3 of 11 in the series The Michael Ambrosino Collection

Michael Ambrosino — the creator of NOVA — describes his early years at WGBH, an era of live and live-on-tape TV productions at the 84 Massachusetts Avenue studio in Cambridge.

This series presents authorized interviews with early producers and directors for Boston’s innovative public television and radio stations. He was interviewed on June 19, 1998 by Fred Barzyk.

Watch Video — Part 1 (56 minutes)

Transcript — Part 1

INTERVIEWER: This is June 18, 1998 and I’m having a conversation with Michael Ambrosino. Thank you Michael for joining us.

Can you give us a little bit of your personal history, where you were born and where you went to school and how you came to television?

MICHAEL AMBROSINO: I was born in Brooklyn, spent half the year there, half the year in West Hampton Beach where Dad had another store.

[I] grew up being fascinated with science and did a lot of theater, music.

I was a jazz musician when I was 14, had the nicest set of drums on Long Island, and because the war was going on, I got mickey gigs and played every gin mill and polka palace on Long Island.

I changed majors the first day at the university.

I had been admitted as a BS in physics and changed to a BS in drama, because I didn’t want to wake up being an old man of 35 not having had given that creative side of me a chance.

It was a very romantic death wish because, in those days, there was one regional theater east of the Mississippi — it was called the Brattle Theater.

Of course in 1949, when I was a freshman it became a movie theater, so I was preparing myself for a profession that didn’t exist.

After the service I came back and did a Masters in television and that was very helpful because in those days commercial radio stations never thought they wanted to go into TV … it was 20, 30 times the capital.

At Syracuse, we produced directed a whole bunch of programs that went on the commercial station.

As a graduate student I did a series of 13 half-hour shows myself.

A tremendous kind of experience that you can’t get today, but today you can pick up a little camera and make a video all by yourself and edit it on your Macintosh.

The second job was for the Ford Foundation doing a research project in Schenectady, New York.

It was one of the first high schools in the United States to use closed circuit television to expand teaching.

In those days, there was a tremendous teaching shortage: they had 27 physics classes and 1 physics teacher and we would try to multiply his use to see if we could work out, technically, question and answering sessions from multiple classrooms.

We did French with Madam Ann Slack and we did Social Studies and we did a bunch of things.

I was invited along with a bunch of other people from Ford cities to come to Harvard and give a speech and somebody from WGBH heard this speech and I was working here two weeks later.

INT: Had you heard of WGBH?

MA: Yes. While at my first job at the University of Connecticut, I’d actually taken the tour of the station.

I couldn’t find it, drove up Mass Avenue looking for a TV station, drove right past it, and didn’t realize that it was a defunct roller skating rink above a drug store.

I had to work my way all the way back from Harvard to finally find it.

INT: Who was the person that heard your speech?

MA: Hartford Gunn. He was then the Controller of WGBH. He was in charge of money, dispersing it — we never raised money in those days — and he asked me to come and start school broadcasting for the state of Massachusetts.

INT: So, you were in charge of developing school broadcasting for the station?

MA: Yes.

INT: Based upon your experience with your in-school experience?

MA: Based on six months experience, because I was an “expert”.

INT: I see. This was educational television….

MA: Yes it was. It was very educational.

In those days, programs consisted of a series of things. It was an extension of the educational system of Massachusetts.

If you remember, people came back from the Army — Navy and the Marines — and told Conant that Harvard should start a radio station.

Conant, being very wise, said that [it would] always be a Harvard station, we shouldn’t do that.

So, he got Ralph Lowell to get a bunch of other institutions in Boston together and they formed the nascent Lowell Institute Cooperative Broadcasting Council.

For the most part, they made radio series on poetry, on music, on everything except art, I guess, it’s non-visual, and put those on commercial stations around town.

It quickly became a real pain in the neck to get bumped off every time the commercial station really sold something, or to be allotted Saturday mornings at 7:00 or 6:00 time.

In ’51, the LICBC put on its own FM station. In those days, there were no FM receivers.

Later on, became the provost of MIT, himself had recorded for Lomax, many of the recordings that are in the Library of Congress of folk singers in the South.

went to General Armstrong and had him give WGBH its first transmitter, which was the prototype Armstrong frequency modulation transmitter. I think it probably had a number one on it.

INT: LICBC, what is that?

MA: Lowell Institute Cooperative Broadcasting Council. I think everyday on WGBH David Ives talks about it turn the station on at 6:00 am.

INT: What was it exactly? What was the function?

MA: It was a coop. First of all, they charged themselves money. I mean the major budget for the station came from Harvard, MIT, the Museum of Fine Arts, the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and second from these groups came programs.

So that Edwin G. Boring would do a series of 15 programs on psychology. The Museum of Fine Arts would do programs about art.

There were no children’s programs, or news and current affairs. It was an extension of the educational process of adult education.

The Lowell Institute was created by the Lowells for those people who had interest, but no cash, to further their education.

They could take courses at night at Harvard and if they worked long enough get an Associate Arts degree.

If you go to the Harvard Commencement, at any year as I did this year, because a friend was getting a PhD., the loudest applause are for the Associate Arts because they know that these people worked long and hard to get their degrees.

INT: When you first came to WGBH, can you kind of describe the place? How many people were employed there and what was the place like?

MA: Dinky. You walked in the door with two dark columns on either side and strapped to one of them was a big bronze plaque, that is in the front of this building today, announcing the Lowell Institute Cooperative Broadcasting Council.

You went up a flight of dark green stairs, turned left, and realized that there was a telephone operator next to a big telephone answering machine.

It was one-half of a defunct roller skating rink. Under the balcony were the radio studios and what was .. Control A for A studio, there was only one studio. and a telecine room, engineering offices.

Above the balcony were the offices for the radio and television staff and audio editing for the radio producers.

The floor was made of wood. And one day all the males at WGBH were invited in on a Saturday to nail the studio floor down, because it squeaked and if you dollied a certain way the cameras kept bumping up and down and you couldn’t move.

There was in the other half of the roller skating rink an engineering company.

When it went out of business it donated to WGBH three brand new galvanized garbage cans full of old bread boards.

WGBH enjoyed that so much, the engineers unsoldered every resistor from those bread boards and straightened out the prongs and put them in the proper cabinet.

It was a different world.

It had two cameras. old tubes that had been donated from commercial stations so that if you sat anywhere very long you burn in a shot.

You could do anything with two cameras that you could do with two cameras.

When we got the third camera everything was really great.

On Thursday night, we did a live half-hour program from the Museum of Fine Arts.

All three cameras went there which meant that any other program that night had to also originate from the Museum of Fine Arts.

Programs consisted of relatively small things.

We ran from something called “What’s Going on Around Boston” which was a drum on which were listed, on little three-by-four cards pinned to the drum, events coming up.

You played music and roll the drum and then pan left to the other card, and then they would roll the drum and then you pan right, and this was one of the first directing jobs that you had to do.

On the other hand, from the beginning days, the station did children’s programming.

Tony Saletan did music, natural history programs with Mary Lela Grimes, programs that dealt with world affairs, politics— but, for the most part, long series of programs on poetry, music, psychology, science. “Science Reporter” was one of the first programs.

But these were interview programs. Basically staged as we doing this little bit right now. Not inconsequential though.

In 1955, the first mention, in television that I know of, of the effect of tobacco and cigarettes on cancer was done by a doctor in a series called “The Facts of Medicine,” which is tremendous when you think of it and that’s what it was like.

INT: How many people Michael?

MA: I remember about 30 or 35.

I remember, I kept thinking I was the 35th or the 36th employee and we all had to cram into one office on the second floor.

INT: I take it money for shows was scarce and hard to come by?

MA: You didn’t get money for shows, you got things.

You got so many hours of studio time.

You got whatever the scenery people could build, whatever the art department could draw.

We all would rehearse our programs in the afternoon and then do them live.

One of the first jobs that you were taught was how to replace the director of the previous live programs.

There were film and kinescope and live and that was it, with one switcher and one control room. This was a juggling act.

INT: So when we started off we were almost like radio shows being put on camera.

two black and white and then we got a third camera which then opened up the horizon.

All the shows were live at that particular moment.

MA: Yes, with the exception of those programs that had been made from other places, and kinescoped and sent to us, or actual half-hour or 15 minute films.

But not all just discussion. The children’s programs were quite active. Children in the studio, dancing, music, etc.

The natural history program was quite active itself. A young Harvard senior, however, complained to Mary Lela Grimes that she had no film.

Mary Leia said, stop bitching and do something about it.

And the senior went out and bought himself an Aeroflex in 1956 for $9,000, bought lenses and designed his own lenses and shot, free of charge for her, for an entire year, beavers and butterflies and all kinds of the most marvelous film.

Suddenly the second year of “Discovery” directed by Bob Larsen was an amazing program because it had the natural history captured, instead of bringing a beaver into a studio and hoping it didn’t eat up all the scenery.

Charlie went onto produce children’s programs here, got his PhD. and he now is in charge of Ornithology, Cornell University, which is the big job for anybody who knows anything about birds. He’s a specialist in bird navigation.

INT: And his full name is?

MA: Charles Wolcott. He was either the grandnephew or great-grandnephew or had some relation to — Ralph Lowell, himself.

So, Charlie, although he had many frayed shirts, had a Mercedes and could well afford to buy an Aeroflex, but he decided to do it. He was an amazing human being.

INT. You started mentioning some names, I think we should go into them a little bit from your prospective.

Robert Larsen, Bob Larson as we called him.

Can you tell us a little bit of what he did, what his influence was on the station, his contribution?

MA: I think he was the only person from Boston who worked at WGBH, he was the local boy.

He worked at the Christian Science Monitor, came to WGBH as a producer. In 1957, when there was a major shakeout, he became Program Manager of the station.

He moved up through the ranks as Program Manager, became, I think, Vice President, when Dave Ives took over as President in ’70.

He was a gentleman, a learned man, a person who, like many of the staff, would spend days attending courses at Harvard, looking for good talent to be on programs.

He had a profound effect on me, on the future of the station.

INT: What would you say was his most lasting –?

MA: The sense that WGBH did things in an honorable manner. That ideas mattered.

This is a great town for an idea. People don’t laugh at you if you’re serious.

And he allowed many of us to do things over the last forty years that had some fun about them because they went deeply into the substance of ideas.

INT: Dave Davis?

MA: Dave Davis came two or three days before I did in 1956.

He’d been teaching at Temple. He had a sense of expertise because he’d worked in commercial television.

He was one of the guys like yourself or Potter, Al Potter, Russ Morash, David Atwood, who can just do anything.

You go into a stadium and you say, “Okay we put the cameras here, there, there, get the lines, do this,” and be on the air in a couple of hours.

Dave had done sports and music and all kinds of stuff. He was a trumpet player and he had his own fake book. He played in jazz bands.

He did a lot of the music programs. He directed the first symphonies before Bill Cosel did. In the I guess you’d call it a putsch in… 1957, he was asked to take over television .

Bob was his Program Manager and they were the two people who formed the station from then until 1967.

They were the two minds that moved the station forward in terms of television.

INT. Hartford Gunn?

MA: Hartford Gunn. Probably the first real strategic mind in public broadcasting. Always thinking ahead.

The story I often use about him whenever giving a talk is that my first task at WGBH, in which I spent two weeks at a drafting board, was to design the University of New Hampshire Television Studio.

Because Hartford was trying to help stations start all over New England, because he knew that ‘GBH would never survive alone, and that public television had to become more than local, had to become regional, and then national.

We’re talking about a time when there was 12 public stations on the air, when the closest one was Pittsburgh and the next closest was Iowa or Georgia or Houston, Texas, or Denver.

There was no station in Los Angeles, none in Washington, none in New York … this was a different time of life.

Hartford wanted me to design that so he could bring that design to the University of New Hampshire’s President …

so that if and when they ever raised enough money to put up an educational TV station, the President, that week, could be persuaded to excavate the cellar of a student union that was under construction …

so that there would be a place that the money could go.

He was thinking seven steps — I hope he played chess, I never knew if he did play chess —but he had that kind of a mind.

Whereas the rest of us would possibly decry the ability of New Hampshire to set [up] a station for itself.

He was working all the angles, trying to figure out how to actual help them.

In the end WGBH offered all of its programming live to WENH to help them get on the air . They built that station in that basement much the way it was designed.

There was no stronger strategic voice for many years than Hartford Gunn. He hired me on a ruse to be his assistant controller, but really it was to start school broadcasting for the State of Massachusetts.

He knew that that was not in the cards, and so, this was the way — either persuading Mr. Lowell or the-then manager to do it.

INT: Now, Michael I know that not only were you planning, but you also had other responsibilities — with only 35 people there — to also produce and direct, correct?

Tell us about some of your shows, the early shows, that Michael Ambrosino did

MA: Well we did some talk shows, some that went out on radio and television simultaneously.

“Youth Speaks Its Mind” was a weekly program which kids would come in and talk about everything except sex, thank god, because the teachers would not want them to talk about such things as sex.

We did a series called “The Ends of the Earth,” which was an Antarctic research with Father Dan Linahan, who was called the “Arctic Priest.”

He was out at the Weston Observatory in Weston, he was a seismologist.

Dan — Father Dan I guess I should call him — would get thousands of dollars from companies to test their equipment on the South Pole.

He’d get some wire from some wire company and he would stretch out the wire and he’d work, do his seismology, and or when his time was up he’d come look for the wire, bend it to see if it was okay, and write a report for the company and that money could pay for his seismological work.

One day, he did not find the wire. All he found was a ball of copper.

It seems that the Skua gulls had eaten whatever neoprene lining was on the wire and he reported that, true it was very flexible after a month in the Arctic, but that they should find some less palatable substance to put around the wire.

We did a lot of plays. A wonderful woman named Adele Thane — who’s probably now known as the person who taught Julie Taymor of “Lion King” fame how to be a good child actress — she ran the Boston Children’s Theater.

and every time they would do a play, Adele and I would adapt it for television and bring it in to do a half-hour version of “Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn” and a variety of things. Some of those guys are in Hollywood, Michael Tiger .

In those days you could do whatever you wanted as long as you didn’t spend money. You were doing plays by Brecht … as long as you could get volunteers and paint the sets yourself and do all that other stuff. It was a different world.

People said, you know, wasn’t it the golden times, and the answer is no.

I’ve been poor and I’ve been rich, and let me tell you, I prefer having money to do research and proper television and film technique.

INT: You also did a lot of science shows even in the early days, didn’t you Michael?

MA: When school broadcasting started.

INT: When was that’?

MA: That was in March the 4th in 1958.

I had to make a couple of hundred speeches and persuaded about 35 school systems to voluntarily contribute money and we did a series with Gene Nichols called “Science Six.”

INT: Gene Gray.

MA: I’m sorry, right. Gene Gray, Gene Nichols directed.

We did a music program with Tony Saletan, a social studies program, and a French program with Anne Slack.

That was the first year.

Then we hired a larger staff and did programs that were complimentary to the curriculum to the schools, broadcasting to a significantly enlarged number of schools each year.

When I left in 1960 there were 135 school systems that had voluntarily come together.

That system is no more.

It’s now called Massachusetts Educational Television and they do satellite programs with their own facilities.

They don’t do that in cooperation with ‘GBH anymore.

INT: A major event took place at WGBH when videotape arrived.

Can you kind of tell us what was the difference at WGBH from the live black and white broadcast to that of when videotape arrived?

MA: Not much. Hartford Gunn would go to all the national meetings . He came back from an NAB meeting and he said to us all, two things.

“I have seen the future and it is videotape,” and the second thing he said was, “Buy Ampex.”

He was paying us our salaries out of public broadcasting salaries, none of us could buy Ampex except Henry Morgenthau and he bought Ampex.

INT: Basically tape meant that instead of rehearsing six or seven programs in an afternoon and doing six or seven programs in an evening, you would rehearse a program in the morning and tape it, and rehearse a program in the afternoon and tape it, and that evening there would be some live programs and some pretaped programs.

All school broadcast programs were pretaped and allowed repeats.

The word editing was not something that we knew about. You made a half-hour program and you shot it all the way through and if there was a glitch you had to live with it.

Even much later there was no such thing as redoing.

I’m talking about ’58, ’59.

Hartford had persuaded someone to give WGBH its first Ampex and he was always the crusader and then demanded that public television, or educational television in those days, get off the kinescope routine and make videotape programs because the quality was so significantly better.

The Ford Foundation finally was persuaded to give all public television stations — not already equipped — a videotape recorder .

Hartford screamed bloody murder and eventually he won and so, WGBH was the first station that had two videotape recorders.

Both of them were badly hit by the famous fire.

INT: I do remember one show in which you were doing a science show and Gene Gray was taking some hydrochloric acid I believe, may be you might recall it….

MA: It wasn’t Gene Gray it was . …the Chief Scientist at the Museum of Science, who he was doing the program with, spilled acid on himself.

INT: It wasn’t that, I was thinking about there was a Styrofoam cup.

MA: Oh, oh, oh, no, that was not acid, I think that was carbon tetrachloride.

INT: Why don’t you give us a little background because that exists on tape.

MA: Oh it does?

INT: Yes.

MA: Oh wonderful. Cut it in …

Gene was pouring carbon tetrachloride in a Styrofoam cup that was on a scale to do some very special weighing — not knowing obviously that carbon tetrachloride dissolves Styrofoam cups — and it just all, you know, started….

INT: … In a live show…

MA: Yeah, in a live show … to spill all over the place.

But the famous stories of live television were there.

Mary Lela Grimes did let some bats loose in her 5:30 children’s program and they were still flying around the studio at 6:30 when Louie Lyons was doing his news program and they were going in and out of the shot.

We just did things like that. Things fell down or cameras fell over, or you heard strange noises and you just went right ahead.

INT: You want to recall the jingling johnny for me?

MA: You know the jingling johnny story better than I.

INT: You were doing a music show and I think it was a school show, it was about various instruments of various. ..

MA: 13 programs, one included a symphonic orchestra….

INT: And your stage manager was….

MA: … John Henning who is now the newsman, senior newsman at WBZ .

I instructed John to hand in the jingling johnny quietly.

This is a brass pole with about 9,000 bells on it that jingled.

It was an ancient instrument. We were doing a program on ancient instruments with the Museum of Fine Arts instruments, something called a … serpent, a very deep bass horn.

At the rehearsal, several nights before, someone was tightening .. the strings of a 14th century lute and the back broke in two.

I’m just glad that didn’t happen on camera.

It wasn’t that you were particularly attuned to things going awry, but you knew that they would and you dealt with them just like Johnny Carson does and all of the live talk shows do now.

INT: Do you remember the famous incident at the MFA when the scoop was placed a little bit too closely to the…

MA: Well ,WGBH had done previous research, quite literally, to see how much light would destroy a painting.

Some fakes and maybe even some paintings of lesser known artists were used for these tests.

We were talking about three and four hundred foot candles and then when color came in it was five-, six-, seven-hundred foot candles to get a shot and the paint would just slowly drip off the canvas.

INT: It was a Renoir.

MA: It was a Renoir. I don’t remember that…

I do remember — because the cameras had relatively long single lenses — the camera sort of panning across and hitting a priceless Egyptian statute, which ended up as a bunch of sandstone on the studio floor.

INT: The MFA had a department of television for awhile I think that ceased to exist.

MA: They did many wonderful programs. They’d bring a whole bunch of art into a studio and a variety of different MFA people — producer/writer/talent — would do “The Age of Cezanne” or “Van Gogh’s Early Days” and use all of the paintings to illustrate these things.

INT: My favorite story was Brian O’Doherty who was one of the very first of the on-camera hosts and actually in many ways public television’s first star, because it was his kinescopes that got shown on many stations.

He would have everything that he had to say on little pieces of paper hidden everywhere inside the Museum of Fine Arts, so as he walked from one to the next, his eyes would scan to read the next section.

Of course, those were all live.

And another thing that’s not known that the MFA is totally wired for television then and not a lot of people know that.

MA: The Museum of Fine Arts was wired for television.

Kresge Auditorium in back of WGBH was wired for television.

Sanders Theater was wired for television and had a microwave dish in its tower which burned down, I think, two nights after I came to WGBH.

We used to use these as adjunct studios.

There was no place big enough to do a symphony orchestra, so the first time I used a symphony orchestra I put it in Kresge and had Dave Davis direct it for me that day.

INT: So we had a Studio A and then when this other company went out there was actually a Studio B and then we had a bus which had the remote equipment in it.

MA: That was rather late in our life.

That was in 1961. It was a million-mile Greyhound Bus that new brakes, new tires, and they were equipping it.

They put the cameras in on, I think, a Tuesday and put the two tape recorders in on a Wednesday and, I think, Thursday we burned to the ground.

INT; Yes.

MA: October 14, 1961.1 have charred papers in my archive file at home.

INT: Where were you?

MA: I was in Chicago. I was giving a speech for the Ford Foundation.

You may not remember, but in those days ,every year or so, there were national air alerts in which all flights would be suspended for 24 hours and the Air Force would play war games.

I got a call from Dave Davis saying that we burned to the ground.

This was about 11 o’clock and about 12 o’clock the air alert went on.

I had to sit for 24 hours in Chicago without being able to get home, worried to death whether or not the tapes from the 21-inch classroom had been saved or not. Indeed they had.

They were thrown out of a window by Bob Mascone and were caught by firemen and volunteers .

At least we could go on the air with school broadcasting.

INT: Before we go beyond the fire, let me go back to … What was the atmosphere like at WGBH in those days, before the fire?

What would you say … the 35 probably grew to what 75 by the time the fire happened? 50? 60?

MA: We thought we were doing pioneering work. I think we thought we were doing God’s work.

Nobody was watching us, but by god, we were doing good work. We were trying very hard.

Most of us had backgrounds that thought ideas were fun.

Most of us would rather attend a good lecture than a bad movie .

Maybe we were a little smug that the rest of the world who would think that was fun, too, because what we were basically doing was presenting lectures on television and radio.

We were trying to advance the medium, but we had such damn few aids to help us. The equipment was old and outmoded.

We were bound into the studio.

You could do anything you wanted as long as you brought it to the studio.

Garden programs were done with a huge vat of dirt You would plant in that and then you had to clean the studio.

You had to make sure you didn’t it up because there was a program coming later and the dirt would have to be picked up.

It was a nice place to be. We all would eat lunch together.

I had one of the few cars so we’d all pile in and go swimming on the North Shore.

After awhile I stopped inviting everybody except for one person.

INT: You mean there was a significant other in the early days at WGBH?

MA: Lillian Akel was a marvelous .. former journalist who was working as a radio producer at the station .

When I reorganized the office plan, I accidentally put her desk next to mine.

We, and many people at the station, did a lot of things together and we became fast friends and the next thing you know we became man and wife.

INT: Terrific. That’s a happy story.

MA: Yes it is. We had almost 40 wonderful years.

INT: I remember that it was sometimes hard to tell the difference between work and play in the early days at WGBH.

MA: It’s interesting because, after Lillian died, I went through a lot other diaries.

We were here on Saturdays and Sundays, we would be doing desk work and editing and rehearsing and doing all kinds of things.

We were all, for the most part, single and we had no children and we had nowhere else to go and we just were here.

Most of us lived fairly close-by. We lived on Marlborough Street. We just walked across the river and be here.

INT: There was some interesting people that wondered through WGBH at that time.

Bob Squire was one of them,. Maybe you can give us a little history of Mr. Squire?

MA: Bob was a torrent. He was a BU scholar.

He produced and directed, stayed on after that, did some programs.

He did some consulting in Saudi Arabia, came back and did programs here.

He’s now one of the country’s best political consultants.

Just a torrent, he moved very quickly.

INT: Added a certain kind of significance to the editorial staff of WGBH.

I remember he was the one that really established the snappy, the snapping of the fingers.

Somebody else who had an impact I think in the directing part was Paul Noble.

MA: Yes, Paul did a lot of the Mrs. Roosevelt programs, did all of them with Henry Morgenthau.

INT: Paul was also part of the BU scholars, wasn’t he?

MA: In those days the crew — the people who ran camera and did the lights and stage managed — were graduate students at BU who were on a two year rather than a one year program.

They’d go to school a semester and come work for us a semester.

So ,there were two groups: those in school would then be replaced.

That lasted a number of years until the complexity of the programs made it necessary for us to have full time people, so that we were teaching them camera work while we were trying to do very complicated programs.

That’s when we went to a full crew, and then the second crew, and I remember the possibilities of a third crew, because everything was studio-based film.

WGBH was doing a film project in the earliest days and the first one was an absolute disaster in 1957 because — except for Paul Rader, who was brought in to do the project — all of us grew up in live-TV terms.

We knew that you did all of your research, and you did all your work, and you did it Thursday night and it either went on tape or it went out.

But with film, you could always play a little bit, a little bit, a little bit and you could never finish.

‘GBH got a contract — in hindsight, a very silly contract — to make programs about existing scientific projects going on around the world in the International Geophysical Year 1957.

You can’t make a film about something that’s going on, because you go out with a group of scientists, into the ocean, and you watch them drop things into the ocean, and that’s exciting, …

and then you watch them look at dials, and that’s very exciting.

Then they say to you, “We won’t know what the results were for about another six months. If you can come back and interview us then we can tell you some more.”

And so, WGBH had been given money for three programs, had finished one and the other two were relative shambles.

The money came for the second three and Hartford wisely at that point said, “We really don’t know the film business.”

He had a meeting with the entire film staff.

This was the first time that I’ve come across a situation in which honorable people can leave a meeting thinking that two different things occurred.

The head of the film department and his assistant came out and said to Jack Hurley,

“Hartford is such a thoughtful man He’s so concerned about our problems. He really appreciates the trouble we’re having.”

And Jack Hurley had to say to them, “Excuse me, don’t you realize that you’ve just been fired?

The film department is being closed. The money is being given back to the National Science Foundation and this place will never do another film.”

That’s not the story they took out of the meeting. It really was a “Rashomon”.

This building, that we’re sitting in, was built without any film facilities in it at all because we didn’t know film.

It was a long time before we did film again.

INT: We snuck it in. MA: We snuck it in.

INT: If there was one moment out of that early period before the fire which really kind of sticks in your mind as being one of the happier moments for you — be it at work and not Lillian— but is there one kind of moment that really kind of said to you, this is why I got involved in television in the first place?

MA: During one of these programs — “Music for Grade Six” that I was directing myself — the folk dancers were late and I couldn’t understand why they were late.

They finally all arrived and they told me that they had met the nicest man on the steps of MIT and folk danced with him for 20 or 30 minutes.

When they described him, it was clear that this was the world’s leading mathematician of the time, who frequented the steps of MIT and the soda joint downstairs — and I’m blanking on his name, Norbert Weiner — who lived in Belmont, I guess, with his mother….

INT: Lived in another world.

MA: Yeah, lived in another world, and was folk dancing with my students.

I guess that would be one of the joyful things. We were doing things with our hands. We were involved in everything that we did.

We produced, directed, wrote, whatever we did.

We built the scenery, determined where the basic lighting patterns would be. It was in our hands.

It was not as much fun as I think we all came to do later when we actually had huge resources at our command.

Then, we were working up to the level of our incompetency — where we were not curtailed by outside influences, but only our own knowledge, creativity, and persistence.

INT: Was there one major disappointment in those early years that you wished you could have changed or something that could have happened that would have made everything….

MA: Not in those… that came later.

INT: All right, so the fire, WGBH and Boston kind of got married pretty tight together at the time of the fire because we went off the air, we were on the air very shortly after that.

Maybe you might kind of recall, after you’ve returned from Chicago, what you found.

What was going on in Boston as WGBH had been burned to the ground?

MA: Well I walk up those stairs into my office and I suddenly realized…. INT: This is at 84 Mass Ave., after the fire….

MA: Yes, I suddenly realized I was not walking on the floor of my office, I was walking on what was left of the ceiling.

The roof of the station had collapsed. I, with a shovel, dug away enough stuff to find what was left of my desk.

The telephone had melted over an uncancelled check that had come in, good gracious, for school broadcasting, no, for the Eastern Educational Network that we were creating at the time.

I had left WGBH and was the founding director of the Eastern Educational Network with offices at WGBH.

I had in the back of my office a huge oak table that had been built into the wall — it was the former dressing green room table — and it had charred underneath and the water hit it and it bent over.

As I lifted it up, that portion was attached to the wall.

The entire wall of my office fell into what was the remaining of Studio B and I thought I’d better back up and get the hell out of here.

There were a few documents, but everything — all of the research that I had amassed on School of Broadcasting, all of the work that we had put together in developing the Eastern Educational Network — was gone.

The first thing I did was to sit down and try to reconstitute my telephone list because I had to call foundations and stations and tell them that we were still in business, that the development of the network would go ahead.

Two days after the fire Hartford Gund and I left Boston and drove to Maine to testify before the legislature of Maine as to whether or not they should start educational television.

Coming from a station whose fire had been in the front pages of every Maine paper, we had to tell them that we were still in business.

The third day after the fire, I flew to Washington D.C., to do the same thing to government agencies that we were looking for grants.

But we all survived — we are the station, the human beings involved. We’ll be back in business.

We were fairly soon in seven different locations around Boston.

A live TV studio was at the Museum of Science.

You paid a quarter and watch the animals make television.

The Roman Catholic Television Center had a little studio with a chandelier in the middle, so that if you pulled back too far the chandelier came in every shot.

The scenery was built for us at Northeastern University.

There was what was called the Red Shack or the Red Building at the Museum of Science where there was staff.

Management was in Kendall Square in the Eastern Educational Network, we moved the headquarters there.

Headquarters of the Eastern Education Network was two desks, two 1930s-style desks given to us by the Christian Science Monitor.

I think the Christian Science Monitor took every piece of old furniture they had — I think this looks like some of them — and gave it to us and that’s what we used.

Old Underwood typewriters, etc. And we survived like that.

I immediately started designing the place to use for fundraising. That design never got built, but later a group went up to Dartmouth and really designed this place.

This place I think was designed with nine or 10 live TV studios.

Not one film editing room, because the whole idea of live TV and needing many places to make it was still very much in our minds.

INT: That’s some change though and ended up I think with three studios. Studio A, Studio B and little Studio C.

MA: A little Studio C which is a radio studio that parroted the studio we had at 84 Mass Avenue.

A radio studio with glass sides in certain places so that Louie Lyons and the news could come out of there and we could shot through the glass.

INT: We were on the air, very shortly after the fire, broadcasting.

MA: Yes I think the School Broadcasting went on the next Monday. TV was off maybe a night or two.

The Junior League of Boston marshaled every woman with a car. Dave Davis got every commercial station in town, both of them — this was ’61, so maybe there were three…

INT: There were three.

MA: Channel 5 had gone on the air and the engineers brought the schedule of when they needed their own tape recorders for their own programs .

School Broadcasting went on the air with tapes being shuttled from station to station to station where a tape recorder was available at 8:30, at 9:00, at 9:30, at 10:00, etc., and Dave Davis organized all of that.

Sometimes tapes would have to be transferred back two or three times. The stations were wonderful.

An immediate cry went up as to how we would need a million or so dollars to put ‘GBH back on the air.

It’s necessary to talk about Ralph Lowell because I think his beautiful picture down in Cahners makes us think of him as a nice, cuddly man who had the money, and that’s what he gave to ‘GBH.

Ralph Lowell had guts.

I remember many occasions when WGBH was about to risk editorially, or with cash, and it was Ralph Lowell who always gave the support to Hartford to do it.

Many of us have been in many positions where we’ve had board of directors or presidents of corporations over us and it is not inconsiderable to have somebody who stands behind you and says,

“Yeah, do it. You’ve presented the case well. Go ahead and do it.”

And that’s what Ralph gave to this station.

Second, he had command of the names and the bodies of this town. So if he asked you to do something it was hard to say no. He had that much respect.

It was more than just raising money. It was ideas and people, a significant guy.

INT: I remember for a period of time, I was one of the BU scholars who was asked to go down to his bank on payday because Jack Hurley, who was then head of finance, was having trouble making the payroll and Daddy Lowell, as we called him, always able to come forward to make sure that we all got paid.

MA: We had a drawing account at the bank.

On the second day I was at WGBH in 1956 I, too, was asked to present myself to Ralph Lowell.

At the same time, I been reading John Marquand’s book — and I forget the title of it now — but he was about a Lowell type person.

He described how you walk in the bank and there was all the marble and then there were people behind the cages and then there were people behind the balustrade and some of them had desks and some didn’t.

And some had desks on rugs and some didn’t and then some had offices and then there was the office.

I walked into the Boston Safe Deposit and Trust Company, and I saw John P. Marquand’s bank and I was ushered into meet “The Mr. Lowell” in the office as he had so described.

I’m certain he had known Ralph Lowell and had been to the bank many times.

INT: Is there anybody else that was as significant to the ‘GBH and who it is now in those days?

MA: Dozens of people at the universities. The people who gave of their time.

The Boston Symphony Orchestra. Ralph Lowell sat down and had a meeting with Petrillo and got us the permission to do the Boston Symphony Orchestra live .

If any money ever came about it would go to the pension funds, but we never paid them a penny to do concerts.

The idea of a live TV concert of this an entire symphony was just unknown in those days.

INT: The history that exists on those tapes downstairs in archives is quite amazing.

MA: Yeah, Charles Munch…Leinsdorf

I remember we did concerts … one of the last concerts Stravinsky came and conducted himself and now it is a history.

INT: MIT’s “Science Reporter,” just as we end off this hour, maybe you should give us just a little bit more history of that….

MA: It was a studio program that was basically a lot of talk and a little showing.

T hen it became a little talk and a lot of showing.

It then found resourcefulness in a man named Russ Morash, in which it became a lot of showing and on the road, so that you didn’t have to bring things into the studio.

It started out with Volta Torrey as the MIT on-camera host, and then John Fitch did that.

I think those programs were instrumental in reminding us that the studio was out there in the world. Russ and Al Potter and Pete Downey just took us everywhere that we could move.

It was one of the first programs that I distributed to the rest of the stations as the founding director of the Eastern Educational Network .

It was one of the proofs we used that programs that we made locally could be distributed by our network by videotape — because we were not interconnected in those days — and that the Eastern Educational Network had a useful thing to do in addition to the national network, which didn’t want “Science Reporter” at the time and later, of course, picked it up and it became a big national show.

INT: Thank you. End of first hour.

Going Public (1964-1970)

This entry is part 8 of 11 in the series The Michael Ambrosino Collection

WGBH: The Early Years

Programming for the public

I’ve never considered myself an intellectual; my memory and thought processes are just not good enough for true intellectual work. I do, however, have an insatiable curiosity and enjoy the world of ideas. A public TV station, even in the ’60s, was certainly interested in ideas.

One of my jobs was to manage the on-air schedule; to help determine the time slots for each program. Remember, there were only three commercial networks at that time; no cable, no satellite TV, and very few remote controls! Programmers around the world worked on the assumption that if we could get a viewer to tune into our station early, they’d be prone to stay with us at the end of one program to see what else was on. In that way, we all programmed to attract and to keep the audience for the evening.

Some public TV scheduling theories said we should offer an interesting variety of shows each night; others suggested “drama night”, and “science night” and so on, in a seven-day range of specific topics. Some programmers took account of certain smash commercial shows while others realized that all other shows were the competition since over 90% of the audience was watching commercial TV rather than public television.

Some program managers created huge wall schedulers with a 3×5 card for each half-hour. After a few months of watching them fall out of date very quickly, most opted for good old pen and paper. I used colored pen and paper. Jonathan Rice of KQED gave me some Japanese coloring pens with bamboo nibs. On a long sheet that displayed spaces from 6am to midnight, I’d put in live shows in red, film in blue and tape in green. Each individual program had a number and from each week’s sheet, the traffic staff could make up the daily broadcast log and pull the necessary films and tapes from storage shelves and bring them to the control room.

In an emergency, we would just dump the schedule, as we did for United Nations feeds when the 1967 war broke out in Israel.

I worked a few months ahead but, in an emergency, we would just dump the schedule, as we did for United Nations feeds when the 1967 war broke out in Israel. I sat in Control Room C for days, working the incoming network feed I’d arranged from CBS, while producing short analysis segments using international specialists to give helpful insight during the translations.

Bob Larsen and I divided up the supervision of local news, public affairs, TV courses, and special telecourse production for the US Navy. We were doing relatively little national production in those days and Dave Davis or Greg Harney usually looked after them.

A lot of time was spent looking at tapes and films of new series or specials to decide what we wanted to air. At this time, WGBH was commissioned to make some of the earliest anti-smoking commercials and since I was supervising their production, I quit smoking thinking my hypocrisy could only go so far.

Many shows from abroad were made to fit a 50-minute standard length and we always had a need for short programs. A local Newton poet, Anne Sexton, was nationally known, and after seeing a reading, we asked her to make a number of fills reading her poetry. Sexton had a problem with depression and her openness in her poetry was startling. Her most striking poem was a long apology to her daughter for her “madness.” After several attempts, she succeeded in suicide and a fascinating lyric voice was lost.

One of our weekly local programs, “Performance,” presented the vocal or instrumental recitals of music majors from Boston University and The New England Conservatory of Music. There was only so much you could do with an hour-long piano recital. After many attempts to shoot keys, fingers on keys, faces looking at fingers on keys, faces under the sound board, strings, hammers hitting strings, faces superimposed on strings, and dollying slowly around the studio to show the piano from every angle imaginable, a change was needed. David Sloss, then the series’ producer, suggested we turn our ideas around and show the rehearsal of the recital, instead of its finished performance.

“Rehearsal” was born and we showed students being coached to perfect their material. The series was more successful because watching people working on material was often far more interesting than the finished product. This was not yet the birth of the “process approach” in my mind, that came later with NOVA, but it was a good example of how ideas evolve and how a good mind, in this case, David Sloss’s, could adapt an idea to serve this new medium of television.

No matter how hard we tried, we couldn’t sell [“The French Chef”] to NET for national distribution. A “cooking show” was just too “low brow” for them.

Meanwhile, Julia Child and “The French Chef” were becoming local sensations. Broadcast on Sundays at 8pm, Julia was well known in town and the ratings were high. But, no matter how hard we tried, we couldn’t sell the idea to NET for national distribution. A “cooking show” was just too “low brow” for them. Hartford Gunn went so far as to invite the wives of the top four NET executives to Boston for a taping and a special dinner with Julia, without success. Frustrated, WGBH started to sell the “The French Chef” to other local public stations for $50 a show; first Dallas and then San Francisco. Word picked up, the press was good, and after long years of rejection, it finally became a proud staple of the NET distribution schedule. The rest is history.

NET cultural programming in those days was very, very, very, highbrow. At a NET national meeting, Hill Bermont, the program manager from Athens, Georgia, ended a long litany of complaints to Curtis Davis, then Director of Cultural Programming, about the precious nature of NET offerings by shouting, “Curtis. When? When? When, will you stoop to Swan Lake?”

The answer was never. Ballets as popular as Swan Lake came to NET only after Curtis left.

And it wasn’t only ballet. The avant-garde opera “Intoleranza” was set to open in Boston. In it, singers roamed about the stage amongst scenery made mostly of empty cardboard boxes. They sang to off-stage characters who were projected onto a giant projection screen set up on stage left. Greg Harney proposed taping it for NET distribution and it was accepted. After two acts of singing, screaming and screeching among the boxes and the TV screens, the opera ended to unenthusiastic applause.

We hung around the auditorium to say goodnight to Greg. Singers wandered about on stage wiping off makeup and yelling to their waiting friends about plans for dinner and drinks. Kenny Anderson, the TV floor manager, a man with a keen sense of humor, sidled up to Lillian and me. He surveyed the scene, pointed to the singers on stage and whispered immortal words, “Only those in the know realize that this is the third act!”

It could have been so!

A collegial interlude

When a producer suddenly had to leave WGBH, Dave Davis asked me to step in and take over the producing of two video documentaries to be made at Yale. Russ Morash would be directing, and working with him would be a delight. The new School of Art and Architecture had attempted to bring a different type of student to Yale and these two documentaries were to explore what it was like learning to be an artist in a university setting. The specific question was, “Did Yale change the artists and did the artists change Yale?”

It was soon clear that neither affected the other. The students all felt that having a gallery in New Haven meant failure. Only New York mattered. Yale, having built a grand new building to house artists, made its own statement by where they chose to house them. The print makers and their noxious acid baths were placed one floor below ground level without air conditioning. The sculptors were quartered two floors below ground level, requiring the removal of large plate glass windows to a pit-like courtyard to bring in large blocks of wood and stone, and again to remove their completed sculptures.

On the other hand, the building’s architect, Paul Rudolph, in charge of teaching architecture at Yale, housed the student architects in the bright and airy high-ceilinged upper floors.

It’s little wonder that several years after the taping, students set fire to the building and only fast work saved it.

Several things stand out in my memory from making those programs.

I was amazed to watch these artist/teachers handle their materials. Gabor Peterdi, a print maker, touched paper with hands that seemed to understand paper itself. He did so with a grace that I found mystical. He knew paper and just to see him slide new paper or completed prints from one pile to another gave me a totally new appreciation of the way artists handled their tools.

So too with sculptor James Rosati, and the way his hands grasped his chisels and his hammer. When he passed a palm over a slab of un-worked marble, it was as if he were stroking a living thing; a living thing that he loved!

With his eyes blazing, Rosati exhorted his students to live the full and good life. To their unbelieving smirks he intoned, “To be an artist, you have to be a whole man!”

Jim Rosati was a gem. He was sculpting abstract forms in stone. Mostly self taught, he delighted in coming up from New York two days a week to teach at Yale. Short, strong, and tough, he spoke roughly to his students who were unwilling to try. On the last night of the shoot, we bought several cases of beer for an informal taping session, and with his eyes blazing, he exhorted his students to live the full and good life. To their unbelieving smirks he intoned, “To be an artist, you have to be a whole man!”

Tears came to his eyes as he told me of his first Italian trip to Cararra to buy marble. As you approach Cararra by the mountain road, you can see the white scar of the quarry up ahead. White dust covers everything as workmen wrench the crystalline blocks from the mountain wall. James Rosati was on his way to select the same pure white stone as the great Michaelangelo had done centuries before. James Rosati and Michaelangelo; brother sculptors! It was a high point in his life and he spoke of it with almost religious reverence.

A more down-to-earth Rosati discovered that his sculptures, although all abstract forms, sold better when they had names. He would have preferred to call them “Work #1, Work #2” and so on, but the market prevailed, and after so many years in the steel mills, Jim enjoyed his new celebrity, the high prices his work commanded, and the better quality of his table wines.

What to do? He was not a man of words.

Well, his neighbor was!

Each time he accumulated a body of work, Jim would invite his neighbor and friend, poet Stanley Kunitz, to his New York studio. Opening a bottle of well-aged single malt scotch, he would wait a sociable period, and point to one of his new works. Glass in hand, Kunitz would think a moment or two and, with a warm smile, would say something like, “Nature coalesced!” or some such poetic incomprehension. Jim would scribble down “Nature coalesced”, and proceed to the next. Thus, Jim Rosati’s master abstractions would become word-christened for the waiting art market.

I was impressed with Rosati and enjoyed his success in his later years as he reverted to his native steel, creating large, finely burnished stainless abstracts in major commissions around the world. He loved his work and felt privileged to have been lifted from poverty by his artistry. Giving back to the students was his way of thanking all the artists who went before him.

No. Yale did not much affect the art students, but Jim Rosati did.

Back to the hustings

When it came to the news, WGBH had a continuing problem. There was never enough money to compete openly with the three local commercial stations. What should we do? The decision seemed to be “waver.” For several years we did no news. Then we experimented with a fifteen-minute show at sign-off that mostly gave John Henning the on-air experience he needed so he could go to WBZ and do it for real.

Then the thinking would shift to harnessing all our resources behind one big documentary per week. After a bit of that, the decision would be made that, once again, WGBH had to have an every night presence, and shows like ”The Reporters” would be born.

“The Reporters” included young newspapermen and women and some TV wannabees who went out into the neighborhoods with the new mini-cams to do stand-ups and short documentary stories. Alan Lupo, a large, cigar-smoking Globe reporter, covered the city and the big stories. We also had Sharon Rivo, Joe Klein, and Howard Spergel. (Joe Klein became famous a few years back with his blockbuster novel and film, “Primary Colors,” about a fictional sleazy US President with a loose zipper.)

Howard Spergel was such a good reporter that he was soon an embarrassment. Howard’s beat was education. He was so efficient that he often had two or three stories to any other reporter’s one. Some nights, the show was mostly Howard. Sadly, he died of a brain tumor well before his time. I told his story a few years ago at a speech to students at Emerson College and was approached at the end by a pretty coed in tears. She was Howard’s daughter, and told me that she had not known that about her dad and thanked me.

The Democratic State Convention that year was at the Hynes Convention Center and we covered it completely. Reporters on the floor gave insightful reports and, unlike the other stations, we stuck it out until the bitter end, broadcasting the final vote for Endicott Peabody’s nomination for Governor well after midnight. It was 2:30am when “Chubb” Peabody made the long climb to our booth for his victory interview. After a bit of sharing the glory, Chubb looked sheepishly at the interviewer and asked, “Do you really think anyone is still up watching us”? “No”, the interviewer admitted.

We said goodnight and shut down our coverage!

WGBH at this time was trying hard to break into national production. NET, which had been formed to choose national productions, had started to produce most of the big series themselves and there was not enough money to go around. We did get them to buy “Science Reporter,” and each year got money for a documentary or two. For that reason, on a regular basis, the program staff and producers would meet to discuss the problems of the nation and the world and to propose documentaries that would examine these serious issues.

At one such meeting we were going at it full bore. The table was littered with spent passion and virtue when Hartford walked in to introduce the program manager of the Globe’s new UHF station, Channel 56. Polite handshakes went all around the table and one of us asked him what he was going to put on his new station. He laid out a litany of old and tired re-runs, tawdry talk shows and cheap old movies. Don Fouser, a tough, moralistic, and fearless producer, whose mouth had gotten h
im in trouble more than once, piped up in horror, “That’s God-damned air pollution!”

A crimson-faced Hartford, newly elected to the Globe station’s Board of Directors, rushed the Channel 56 program manager out of the room. We did not see either for the rest of the day.

About the same time, the national meeting of stations was held in New York City. WNET, Channel 13, the host station, had a grand hotel suite full of food and booze, and we naturally gravitated there in the late evenings. The meeting coincided with WNET’s annual fundraising pledge night and they wanted to have us all see how grandly they could do things. On went the huge TV set and, to pay for our free booze, we were supposed to sit there and watch “Thirteen Stars for Thirteen!” Big stars they were too. Well-known Broadway and Hollywood singers and dancers did their thing and in between, WNET staff made pitches for money. Every so often, a WNET executive would place a call, ask how things were going, and announce in a whisper we could all hear, how much money they had made in that last “Star” pitch.

“Star” Tom Lehrer came up next. Everybody who went to college in the 50s knew him. Lehrer, a Harvard math instructor, made up hilarious songs whose lyrics usually scorched some sacred cow. Everybody enjoyed his records and his pointed roasting of the military, the government, big business, and the church. For whatever reason, Tom decided that night to sing his caustic “Vatican Rag”, poking fun at the Roman Catholic Church, which had as its refrain:

“First you get down on your knees.
Fiddle with your rosaries.
Bow your head with great respect, and …
genuflect … genuflect … genuflect!”

New York is heavily Roman Catholic.

After a moment, the phone rang in the suite and the NET executive answering it went ashen. Slowly, he hung up. No whispered money totals this time. In a rush, he gathered up all the other WNET executives and they stormed into a bedroom and closed the door.

The flood of complaints about “The Vatican Rag” was so great that no money pledges could get through!

Now, the fundraising gimmick for the evening was that the “Thirteen Stars” would do their thing, and the taped “Star bits” would be repeated over and over. While we all ate and drank and sniggered at their problem, the WNET executives remained locked in debate.

WNET was well known for its boasting and ostentation, but rarely for its speed, so that when the door finally opened, and the executives had reached a decision, an hour had gone by

WNET was well known for its boasting and ostentation, but rarely for its speed, so that when the door finally opened, and the executives had reached a decision, an hour had gone by.

What do you think happened?

Yup. Before they could react, Tom Lehrer’s taped bit was on the air again and the phones were jammed even worse this time.

“Thirteen Stars for Thirteen” continued for the rest of the evening, but except for the mathematically challenged, only twelve stars could be noted performing thereafter.

Begging in low style for high stakes

WGBH continued to edge from “educational television” to “public television”, exactly paralleling the change of its financial dependence from Lowell Institute Cooperative Broadcasting Council dues to general public donations. That meant we had to use our own airtime for begging and that led to the WGBH auction!

Hundreds, and later thousands, of volunteers formed an army of “go-getters” that begged free stuff from willing businessmen. Clothes, food, art work, china, tires, week-end retreats, homemade quilts (from Mr. Harrington’s mother), all funneled into studio B, which, each day, looked more like a department store warehouse. In those days, when most of the staff worked on in-studio local programming, the auction became an eight-day holiday from work. Both studios were totally occupied, and there was nothing we could do but work on the auction. We rotated through directing, running tables, greeting celebrity auctioneers, confirming sales, handling paperwork and money, and on-air selling. My specialty was “sign-on” and “cross-over;” starting the auction, explaining how it worked and moving the action from table to table for several hours at a time. As the auction moved to color, I did too, buying a Madras plaid sport jacket from the preppy Harvard Square store, J. Press, which gave me a rainbow glow.

Early auctions were loose and informal affairs. When we auctioned off a band, they played several numbers and we all danced.

Early auctions were loose and informal affairs. When we auctioned off a band, they played several numbers and we all danced. The auction was held early in June before the wealthy lady volunteers headed to Maine or the Cape for summer holidays. In the first few years, a contingent of Chestnut Hill neighbors settled into the function of “confirmation,” calling the high bidders to tell them that they should come in to “pick-up-and-pay.” Guzzling from large thermos containers of martinis, this group often confirmed more than one high bidder, causing more than one irate “winner” to show up expecting their prized item.

Very soon, confirmation became a WGBH staff function.

Auction time also meant extreme heat in Studio A and lots of free Coca Cola. I didn’t recognize the effects of addiction until Monday morning after auction, when I found myself drifting down to the cafeteria early for a coke. I was in need of a caffeine fix! Now I use Coke only to keep awake on long driving trips.

The history of the auction takes us back to KQED. Founded by Jim Day and Jonathan Rice, the San Francisco station went on the air with very little money and in very Spartan quarters. I remember the “soundproofing” in their main studio consisted of egg crate partitions that had been nailed to the walls!

In less than a year, their Board of Directors discovered they were out of money and decided to close down. “Horrors,” cried Jim and Jon. “If we close, we may never reopen! Say, if we raise $20,000 in the next two weeks, can we stay on the air ‘til we figure out how to raise more?”

With a Board OK, Jim called a bunch of his friends and raised $10,000.

Jon Rice called his mother!

With the $20,000 in hand, Jon Rice set about to create a money raising scheme that promised a continuing return. He concocted a plan to sell donated stuff on KQED air and the auction movement was born. One of the items donated to that first auction was a set of purple bed sheets from a leading San Francisco hotel that had just been slept in by the sultry Hollywood actress, Kim Novak. A clever clothing manufacturer bought the sheets, made them into several dozen purple ties, and donated them to the KQED auction to be sold for even more money.

A monster was born!

Many stations hated the idea of doing something that crass and commercial, until it became clear that hundreds of thousands of dollars could be raised. The auction continues at WGBH and at many stations, although in the greater scheme of things, it’s no longer a significant portion of fundraising. The mere fact that thousands of volunteers are still interested, and the auction brings them into an intimate contact with, and loyalty to, the station, makes it worthwhile.

WGBH 1967 to 1970

In 1967, Public Television was changing.

For a decade, our major financial backer ha
d been the Ford Foundation. Ford had invested two hundred and fifty million dollars in helping to equip and program the stations. The “network,” a video distribution system by mail, was supported by them. NET, the commissioning (and later the producing) arm of the system, was their creation. Their hand was not very heavy but it was definite. Many waggish stories included, “Does anyone love the Ford Foundation?” The answer depended upon whether they had funded you. For every grant they made, many were denied.

Folks came and testified and the staff listened and then wrote a report which would, hopefully, figure a way to fund PTV on a long term basis and include a method for dispensing the funds.

With a push from WGBH’s Hartford Gunn and Ralph Lowell and funding from the Carnegie Foundation, the Carnegie Commission was formed, made up of leaders in American communications and intellectual thought. Folks came and testified and the staff listened and then wrote a report which would, hopefully, figure a way to fund PTV on a long term basis and include a method for dispensing the funds.

Out of it all came annual federal funding and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting as the disbursing agent. The Commission called for a board made up of distinguished Americans. When President Johnson appointed the manager of his own Texas TV station, we all understood the Washington interpretation of “distinguished.”

Back at home, the station and our lives were more and more concerned with war. International politics caused almost every action to be examined on the premise, “Are you with us or are you with Russia?” Even the Middle East war found the US on one side and Russia on the other. In Asia, Vietnam was in the headlines daily. Instead of seeing that as a struggle to evict a foreign power — Vietnam had been under the French and the Chinese for over 700 years — many in The United States saw another fight between “Democracy” and “Communism.”

Taking advantage of the close connection between Washington and Cambridge, we made many programs on these subjects, using the same academics that were advising various government agencies. One thing they did was to play “War Games.”

Former military and political officials, with a goodly mix of academic wannabees, would role-play various American and Russian officials. A crisis would be dumped in their laps and the viewer would watch as action by one nation would be met with reaction by the other. We would televise these deliberations and show charts and graphs of the results in each side’s “war rooms.” How dispiriting it was to see how many times the dispute ended in war! No one wanted to give in or mediate.

It’s interesting that in real life the big war between the Soviet Union and the United States never happened. So much for the difference between a game and real life. In real life, the consequences of childish posturing includes results too horrible to contemplate.

Election coverage

When it came time for the ‘68 elections, we invited the major candidates for the House of Representatives to come in and be interviewed live by me and answer questions from callers. It went well until the night I interviewed “Tip” O’Neill, later to be the powerful Speaker of the House. I felt I’d handled everything with care and efficiency until a live caller asked, “Tip, how about that woman you’re having an affair with in Fall River?”

Too poor, too inexperienced, and too stupid, we had assumed that a producer screening calls would obviate the need for a seven-second delay on the phone line. Well, the caller outfoxed us, Tip was furious, tearing off his headset after we left the air. It seems that this fellow had been dogging Tip at every speech. Tip was a devoted husband and well known in Washington as a man who went home to “Millie” for dinner each and every night.

A fierce election fight for Attorney General was in the works between Frank Bellotti, a tough Italian lawyer and pol from Quincy, and Elliot Richardson a Brahmin lawyer from the best of Boston law firms. Richardson, went on to fame as the principled Republican Attorney General in the Nixon administration who refused to fire Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox, the man who was investigating Watergate and demanding the Nixon tapes. Here, Richardson had made a less principled accusation in the local campaign.

Richardson had suggested that “Providence money” was behind the Bellotti organization. To any Bostonian over twelve, he was accusing Bellotti of receiving money from the Mafia. Bellotti was rightly furious and announced that he would not appear with Richardson on any stage in the future. That was fine, except that he was scheduled to debate Richardson on WGBH in a few nights and I was the producer!

I sat down, figured out all the possibilities, and created a number of different scripts for the evening:

1. Bellotti fails to appear. We announce the fact, show Richardson being present, say the debate has been cancelled and run a substitute program. (We could not give Richardson airtime because Bellotti could then demand a free show under the “equal time” provision.

2. Bellotti appears. We start the debate. Bellotti denounces Richardson and stalks off. We announce the off-stalking, give Richardson five minutes to reply, say the debate has been cancelled and run a substitute program.

3. Bellotti appears, all is OK, we use the long script and run the debate.

I know I prepared five scripts in all, but for the life of me can’t remember the circumstances of the other two. I think one had the debate start and have a blow up in the middle and Bellotti or Richardson stalk off. This is just a small indication of how you prepare for the unforeseeable when your airtime is at stake

The Vietnam War and WGBH

I also remember how we wiped out our evening schedule for several days during the Vietnam era when the protesting students took over Harvard. The first day of the takeover, Middlesex County Sheriff John Buckley, a good family friend, was being installed in a formal ceremony. Resplendent in top hat and tails, he was handed an Army helmet, led to an armored vehicle and told, “Students have just taken over Harvard Square and it’s your job to get them out!” John used to joke that it was the quickest on-the-job training he ever had.

WGBH set up a large table in Studio A where dissident members of the Board of Overseers sat down with a large group of student activists for a live broadcast that went on for hours.

Harvard President Pusey refused to talk to the students while they occupied Harvard buildings, so WGBH set up a large table in Studio A where dissident members of the Board of Overseers sat down with a large group of student activists for a live broadcast that went on for hours.

During the bombing of Cambodia, Studio B was set up as a newsroom and several of us went on camera to read lists of protest sites for the next day, thus clearly encouraging civilian dissent to the war effort. It’s hard to remember just how strong the anti-war sentiment was in Massachusetts, and these actions remind me how deeply it reached into our program decisions.

Meanwhile, the Ford Foundation was trying one last big push to get Public Television noticed more. To do that, they underwrote a major production unit in New York City. It was also to be our first live national network feed for an experiment called “The Public Broadcasting Laboratory”, or “PBL.” Shows ran on Sunday nights and featured a mix of public affairs and culture, an update on the old “Omnibus&
rdquo; ideas of the 50s.

Controversy began with the very first broadcast. Short documentary segments examining race in America preceded a play, “Day of Absence.” The play’s premise was fascinating: everyone in America wakes up one day to find all the negroes have gone. The performance was made more powerful because the cast was made up of black actors in “white face”.

Many stations complained. But many stations complained about everything. Managers resented any trouble brewed up by their viewers in response to programming over which they had no control. The national NET meetings were filled with griping sessions and now PBL comes along with ”CONTROVERSY!” “Gracious,” you could almost hear them thinking. “If only those New York liberal types would stop stirring up the pot!”

Greg directed … Pinter’s “The Dwarfs,” a powerful drama about control and possession … for TV

Two relatively unknown actors were in it; Jon Voight and Dustin Hoffman.

Later in the year, Lewis Freedman, in charge of Culture for PBL, asked Greg Harney to check out the production of a new Pinter play and Greg asked me to join him at the performance. David Wheeler, an old friend, was directing Pinter’s “The Dwarfs,” a powerful drama about control and possession. Greg and I both thought it was great. PBL bought the idea and Greg directed it for TV.

Two relatively unknown actors were in it; Jon Voight and Dustin Hoffman.

PBL lasted three seasons and was replaced by a Boston production, “The Advocates;” court room style debates about major issues with leading figures arguing each side. Mike Dukakis was moderator for awhile. It stopped the criticism from conservatives because it was so clearly “fair and balanced!”

Also at that time, EEN had some production money and I proposed to make a one-hour Christmas program that dealt with humanist truths not based on religion. Pete Seeger agreed to come and we invited Tony Saletan, Bernice Reagon, and a dozen other musicians to a party in an old barn for “A Circle of Light.” Pete would not accept any fee larger than any other singer and to try to make up for it, I added his wife, Toshi, to the talent list. Pete thought about the smallest details and even brought some extra-dry firewood from his home on the Hudson, so that there were no crackles and sputters when it burned in the fireplace.

My introduction to Rock and Roll

With the assassination of John Kennedy, America lost its innocence. The death of Martin Luther King was a body blow that rocked the nation. City after city erupted in anger with blacks marching through the streets, burning businesses and buildings, and engaging in general looting.

The day after King’s death in 1968, the famous entertainer, James Brown, was to play a concert in the old Boston Garden. Thirteen thousand young fans, mostly black, were to be there. Since the concert would end after mass transit stopped for the night, the audience would walk back to Roxbury through the center of Boston. Boston had avoided violence following King’s death, and the city government was terrified that would end that night.

Mayor Kevin White’s first answer was to cancel the concert.

His counselors argued that mayhem would result. Mayor White changed his mind and he and his staff concocted a plan to have WGBH broadcast the concert live! All the media were asked to tell folks to stay home and watch it. In that way, Boston might be spared the terror experienced by other American cities.

I was called into Hartford’s office at 5:30 pm, and told of the circumstances. He asked me if I could set up a live, multi-camera broadcast from the Boston Garden by 8:30 pm! At that point, the room erupted in an argument as to the wisdom of getting involved at all. I stood up, said they could continue arguing if they wanted, but I had only three hours to do my job and if I was to meet the deadline, I had to get to work.

I called together the three most experienced staffers with remote broadcasts; Greg Harney, Russ Morash, and David Atwood. If anybody could do it, they could. We assembled a staff, drove the mobile unit to the Garden and went to work.

I had Greg come with me to meet James Brown when he arrived. And arrive he did. Short, compact, buoyant, wearing dark shades, hair high in a black glistening pompadour, white cashmere overcoat lying carelessly over his shoulders, burly bodyguards on both sides, James Brown entered the stage door of the Boston Garden.

“Mr. Brown, I want to thank you for allowing us to televise the concert this evening.”

“What television?” he barked.

Oops

Walking up, hand extended, I introduced myself and said, “Mr. Brown, I want to thank you for allowing us to televise the concert this evening.”

“What television?” he barked.

Oops!

Mayor White’s idea had not yet reached the most important player, James Brown. A closeted meeting quickly followed with Tom Atkins, the Mayor’s black assistant. Brown agreed to TV only when the City of Boston said it would “buy the house” and pay him what he would have made from a sold-out Boston Garden.

We returned to the task of getting on the air and did so by 9:30pm.

What a concert!

I’d never attended a rock concert before and certainly never roamed about back stage at one. The sound was ear-splitting. A big stage band, with two drummers and four lovely back-up singers in white form-fitting evening gowns, filled the night with music and joy. The several thousand who sneaked into the auditorium all rushed close to the stage and danced and cheered and gawked.

Brown’s shtick was to sing till “exhausted” and fall to his knees on stage. Several of his bodyguards would rush out to cover him with a velvet cloak. He would “revive,” throw off the cloak and have another go. This went on endlessly with cloaks of different glowing colors. The crowd loved it.

Brown soothed the grieving audience by dedicating the show to the memory of Martin Luther King and invited Mayor White on stage for mutual hugs. Brown and White urged Boston to “be cool.” They said that Boston was a great city and destroying parts of it would not avenge the death of Martin Luther King. It worked. Those at the concert walked home without incident.

Boston was not a great city for blacks. Countless years were spent fighting bussing and it’s still one of the most segregated cities in America.

Later, I learned that James Brown never got paid! He did get the tapes and I recently saw them for sale on-line.

The killing didn’t stop. Bobby Kennedy, then running for President against Lyndon Johnson, was shot while campaigning. Once again all programming ceased and images of death and mourning swept the airways. Sensing that this was the worst thing for kids, I commissioned two programs; on one a poet read children’s poems about loss and on the other, I asked Tony Saletan to sing songs about those ideals and values Kennedy fought for.

One of the benefits of being in public television is the freedom to see needs and provide answers to fill them. More money in the future would mean more opportunities.

I called Pittsburgh and suggested to Fred Rogers that he also make a special program for kids. ”Haven’t you heard?”, he said. “I’m in the studio right now making a half hour.”

Thus, Fred’s famous program about the death of the gold fish
was made. Together with our two shows, the PBS network had at least ninety-minutes for kids that was not filled with crying and caskets.

One of the benefits of being in public television is the freedom to see needs and provide answers to fill them. More money in the future would mean more opportunities.

Skating Around the Rink (1956-60)

This entry is part 6 of 11 in the series The Michael Ambrosino Collection

Michael Ambrosino Ed: In 2006, WGBH pioneer Michael Ambrosino completed an autobiography for his family. Last month, he made a gracious offer for us to publish some of his early-WGBH stories on this Web site.

In this, the first of three excerpts, Michael describes the early years at WGBH, an era of live and live-on-tape TV productions at the 84 Massachusetts Avenue studio in Cambridge.

Stay tuned for future installments covering the creation of the Eastern Educational Network from 1960-64 and the transformation of WGBH from educational to public television from 1964-70.

The photo, right, is from Michael’s collection. He wrote, “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.

WGBH in 1956

WGBH: The Early Years

WGBH was then at 84 Massachusetts Avenue in Cambridge, directly across from the main entrance of MIT in a small, unassuming brick building with shops and a drug store at the street level. The building housed a surprise when you walked upstairs: an ancient roller skating rink, complete with a bumpy wooden floor and a balcony running around three sides. WGBH occupied one half, and a start-up electronics firm the other half.

Fifty years ago, we thought of this make-do facility as state-of-the-art. Studio A, 30×50 feet, occupied the entire floor of the skating rink rented by the station. Three second-hand cameras, with hand-me-down image-orthicon tubes, sat in the studio, along with a microphone boom, a lighting grid, and what few scenery flats were at hand. Under the balcony had been tucked the radio studio and control room for WGBH-FM, Studio A TV control, and the engineering facilities. Also tucked in were simple dressing rooms and a “green room” for talent waiting to go on the air.

84 Mass. Ave.

Above (via Don Hallock): This is one of the few existing photos of the 84 Massachusetts Avenue building. It was taken in 1958 by Brooks Leffler with his trusty Leica, from just across the street on the sidewalk in front of the steps of MIT. (More photos.)

On the balcony above were three small offices for the top executives, one big open office for the rest of the staff, a radio editing room, and storage.

The scale of operations and the financial picture of WGBH in the ’50s can be illustrated by what happened when the start-up electronics firm next door moved to greener pastures. In the middle of their now empty floor, they left three garbage cans full of partially built circuit boards. This electronic “trash” was taken into the WGBH shop where each resistor and transistor was carefully unsoldered, ends straightened, and placed into storage bins for reuse.

We had little to spend and nothing to spare.

The early days of “educational television”

To think in terms of the “early days of television”, you have to forget about today’s several hundred color channels beaming twenty-four hours a day showing golf from Scotland, war from Afghanistan, typhoon damage from Japan.

Think small. Think live. Think black and white and no money.

WGBH’s transmitter was … almost 40 degrees in another direction . The joke in Cambridge was that, “WGBH is my favorite station, it’s a shame I can’t pick it up.”

WGBH went on the air only a few hours each evening. A test pattern was broadcast in the morning and afternoon so that television installers could adjust sets and aim rooftop antennas. WBZ and WNAC broadcast from towers on the Needham hills and sadly, WGBH’s transmitter was on Great Blue Hill, almost 40 degrees in another direction. The joke in Cambridge was that, “WGBH is my favorite station, it’s a shame I can’t pick it up.”

The day started with a children’s program featuring Tony Saletan. The brief four or five hour schedule usually alternated live programs and films, so a few times each evening we could have a half hour to move things around in the single studio. Producer/directors (we all directed our own shows in those days) rehearsed in the afternoon and our shows went out live that evening. Each show’s scenery occupied various corners of Studio A, and often one cast would sidle out in the one minute break between programs so that another group could sidle in, get into position, and “hit it” on the clock

My first lesson as a new director was how to set one fanny cheek on the director’s chair, as the director of the previous live show slid over to the right. He would finish his show, punch up the WGBH ID, and cue the live announcer in the booth. The silky-voiced Bill Pierce would read the station ID and tell about upcoming programs. I would slide over to take control of the chair and the switcher (we also switched our own shows), settle my coffee on the director’s desk, light up my cigarette, adjust my headset and microphone, give final directions to my floor manager, and, on the clock, switch on the necessary slides or film to introduce my program.

We had one switcher for the entire station. … One night, a director spilled a coke into the switcher and the sugary liquid put us off the air until the engineers could clean all the contacts.

We had one TK5 switcher for the entire station. It had five inputs for cameras, slides and film, a fader for dissolves, and fades to black. One night, a director spilled a coke into the switcher and the sugary liquid put us off the air until the engineers could clean all the contacts.

Our second lesson was to direct “Around the Town.” Every day, Quindara Dodge would type up 3X5 cards describing events around Boston. These were stapled in two rows around a large, cloth-covered, vertical drum. Coordinating the music background, the slow and precise rotation of the drum, and the single camera panning left and right to view the two rows in sequence constituted a 15-minute program.

Not quite a NOVA!

Our third lesson was to plan our show so that our camera movements moved in line with the boards in the wooden floor. To do otherwise meant a camera bumping and jiggling about. We could reposition a camera across the wooden grain, but only when it was not “on line”, or on the air.

One Saturday, the entire male staff came in with hammers to nail down the floor every four inches in an attempt to even out the bumps. We must have been quite a sight; hammer-wielding yuppies, shoulder to shoulder, fannies high, inching our way backwards and pounding specially hardened screw/nails into the hard oak skating rink boards. Don Hallock reminds me that if not hit just right, these nails would shoot out to the side like a bullet, stabbing a yuppie/nailer nearby.

Local programs in the ’50s

Producers rarely got money to spend. We got “services” instead. A show would be assigned so much rehearsal time, and so many crew hours. The art department and the scenery shop would do all we asked until they complained.

Tony Saletan did a daily studio show for pre-school kiddies; mostly Tony, his guitar, and some visuals.

Mary Lela Grimes tried her best to spark interest in “Discovery,” a live nature program that featured stuffed animals and photos from the Audubon Society. A young Harvard grad student, Charlie Walcott, complained that it was a pale substitute for a real outdoor experience and got a sharp reply of, “Oh, yeah. Well, why don’t you do something about it?” Charlie, a nephew of Ralph Lowell, the famous Boston banker, philanthropist, and WGBH Board Chairman, bought an $18,000 Aeriflex camera and built special close-up lenses to shoot outdoor nature footage for the second season. He did something.

Later, I hired Charlie to produce a nature series for the 21” Classroom and he was great. He is the former Chairman of the Department of Ornithology at Cornell and lives in Ithaca on Sapsucker Lane. Really!

I remember Russ … carefully taking apart every one of the kids’ crude attempts to make a birdhouse and hammering them back together correctly. Russ, the son of a contractor, was just too much of a perfectionist to let them be.

Russ Morash, (of Julia Child and “This Old House” fame) produced and directed a children’s program called, “Ruth Ann’s Camp.” On one occasion, I remember Russ and his floor manager carefully taking apart every one of the kids’ crude attempts to make a birdhouse and hammering them back together correctly. Russ, the son of a contractor, was just too much of a perfectionist to let them be.

“Images” appeared every week, produced by The Museum of Fine Arts. Drawing on their vast collection of slides, an art historian from the museum, Thalia Kennedy, would create stories about artists, periods, or styles. She combined music, narration, and pictures to tell an interesting story. The slides were projected on a large screen and our studio cameras would move about on them to increase visual interest. These were the years before zoom lenses. You had four fixed lenses that you could change by rotating a large drum in the center of the camera. If you wanted the effect of a “zoom in”, you had to choose the appropriate lens and move the heavy camera forward. You did this slowly with your left hand while constantly changing focus with your right. If some of these shows looked a bit static, it was because just about everything we did was so damn hard!

Every Friday night, however, we had the joint jumpin’. Father Norman J. O’Connor, a Jesuit priest and jazz enthusiast, would invite the featured band that had come to play that week at “Storyville.” We would have a half hour of jazz mixed with interviews of the key stars and players. Everybody came to “Storyville” and America’s best singers and musicians appeared. The local union let us do this free since it built up publicity for the artists’ weekend gig.

Each producer/director tried to outdo all others in creative camerawork on the show. When Don Hallock was directing, he hit his high point one evening when two of his three cameras died suddenly in the opening minute of the show. Flinging off his headset, Don flew into Studio A, took control of the remaining camera and directed the rest of the show from the floor, covering all the action expertly.

“Louis Lyons and the News” was unique. The news was whatever Louis Lyons thought should be the news. Louis was an old newsman who tended the flock of Nieman Fellows at Harvard. His job was to choose a dozen Fellows each year from the best journalists in the world and help them spend that year at Harvard. He also planned a Wednesday gathering with a thoughtful and often controversial guest and enough beer to keep the conversation flowing.

Scanning the AP “A” wire, Louis would present news stories with the added perspective of forty years of following world events. Guests came in after the “News” for in-depth interviews on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday for “Backgrounds.” They included visiting dignitaries, professors, political figures, and even me on one occasion. David McCord, the genial Cambridge poet who wrote “Every Time I Climb a Tree,” would come every Christmas and read his new poems. Each year Robert Frost would visit as well. Louis’ first question to Frost was always, “Well, what are you working on now?”

Once when given a “speed up” cue, he looked up, stared at the floor manager and said — right on the air —“Young man, I’m sure I have five minutes left.” He did.

Louis licked his lips, rarely looked at the camera, never seemed quite pressed or combed and was very much a law unto himself. Once when given a “speed up” cue, he looked up, stared at the floor manager and said — right on the air — “Young man, I’m sure I have five minutes left.” He did.

“Museum Open House” appeared each week. A gallery at the Museum of Fine Arts would be hung with several dozen specially chosen masterpieces and an MFA TV curator would walk us through this special exhibition of subjects such as, “Van Gogh at Arles” or “Landscapes of the Flemish School” or “Religious paintings of Michaelangelo.” Three cameras would move about the paintings in the gallery while the host or hostess gave the lecture.

Working with genuine masterpieces was a considerable responsibility. All cameras in those days needed lots of light and that meant lots of heat. Months before, WGBH and the MFA had tested just how much heat would cause a fourteenth century oil painting to “run.” I assume a “lesser work” was used as the test painting. It ran. We now knew what temperature to avoid.

One evening a small fourth century BC Egyptian sandstone statue was sitting on a pedestal, just where a quick swinging camera lens would smack it and return it to particles of fine Egyptian sand. In one music program I was producing at the MFA, I heard a large “crack” to see a musician mooning over the back of a Medieval lute she’d just snapped while tightening the strings. Most days, we got by with less excitement.

Of course, taking three cameras to the Museum on Tuesdays meant no cameras for anything else. Few other live shows were planned for Tuesdays, but all of them, including “Louis Lyons and the News” had to originate from the museum!

Each winter, the World Affairs Council and WGBH would produce six discussion programs on the big subjects of world peace and justice. “Decisions” would have a host/moderator and at least four pundits drawn from government and academia. In the days of The Cold War, conflict seemed quite possible and these matters really concerned us.

A little known Harvard professor was a regular. He spoke cogently, if too long, and with a thick European accent. One year we decided that he should be the moderator and he was a disaster, never allowing anyone else to finish sentences and hogging the center of every discussion. We called that hogging syndrome, “The Kissinger Syndrome,” and never invited Henry to moderate again.

“MIT Science Reporter” was a weekly studio show, with Volta Torrey as host. Studio demonstrations were mixed in with interviews about the latest big science happenings. This was the first time I saw a flexible glass rope transmit light even if the rope was tied into a knot. No one on the program proposed any uses for the rope; it was just a clever new invention. Of course, miles of fibre optic cable are being laid each day as you read this.

Another e

arly series was “The Facts of Medicine” with Dr. David Rutstein. I remember little about this series except that in one program, Rutstein directly tied smoking to cancer. This was 1956! No one in the media was talking about that. Of course the tobacco companies continued to prosper by saying ”nothing had been proved,” and that “more research was necessary”. Sound familiar?

Professor Boring was best known for explaining the phenomenon that the moon looks larger when close to the horizon. He disproved the notion by bending over and looking at the moon backwards through his arched legs.

Many of our programs were courses such as “Poetry” with Professor A. I. Richards; a thin, pale, intense, squeaky-voiced English import to Harvard. Another was “Psychology One,” by a delightful bustling bundle of flesh with the unfortunate name of Professor Edwin G. Boring. Professor Boring was best known for explaining the phenomenon that the moon looks larger when close to the horizon. He disproved the notion by bending over and looking at the moon backwards through his arched legs. The sight of the distinguished Professor Boring doing this on camera was a delight to us all.

Many of these courses were made and recorded for the United States Navy for submarine sailors who submerged for six months at a time and got quickly bored with magazines and comic books.

And so?

We all thought of ourselves as being on a mission to educate and inform our city. Perhaps a bit holier than thou, we earnestly thought that folks enjoyed, or would enjoy, learning neat things if we presented them with style and excitement. A major problem was that we were mostly using the academic model rather the journalistic model for program planning and production. Mostly this was due to our lack of money, and because we were tied to the studio. None of us had seen a clear model to emulate or the money to put it into practice. For me, that would come later when I spent the year at BBC.

We also had a healthy case of inferiority. Daily, we saw program models that were new and vital on the commercial networks. Often the research and the content were shoddy but the forms were impressive. Commercial TV was real TV and it took a few decades and many millions of dollars for that to change. At the time of this writing (2004), nothing on the commercial networks equals NOVA, NATURE, FRONTLINE, GREAT PERFORMANCES and THE AMERICAN EXPERIENCE.

But back to the past.

My job

I was hired as Assistant to the Assistant General Manager and Director of Operations and my first task was to redesign the main office to include four new employees; David Davis, Bill Cavness, Lillian Akel, and me. I moved things around on a paper scale model, and after Hartford’s approval, moved the desks themselves. It’s true that Lillian’s desk was placed next to mine, separated only by a portable partition, but in my truest memory, it was not a plan to get to know her. (She was cute, though)

I often accompanied Hartford in testifying before Legislative committees in New Hampshire, Vermont, and Maine, providing them with helpful information as they were in the act of voting on bills to build ETV stations and networks.

Once, testing some neoprene covered electrical wire, stretched it out on the ice to determine what several months of Antarctic weather would do to it. When he went to find it just before returning home, he discovered … hungry Skua gulls had feasted on it.

In my “spare time,” I produced and directed thirteen programs on Antarctic Exploration with Father Daniel Linehan of the Weston Observatory. Father Dan was a Jesuit geologist with an explorer’s itch. He’d go to various US companies needing things tested in extremely cold climates, take their gear to Antarctica, spend a few hours testing them, and then spend the rest of the summer doing his own research. Once, testing some neoprene covered electrical wire, he stretched it out on the ice to determine what several months of Antarctic weather would do to it. When he went to find it just before returning home, he discovered it wound into a round copper mess with all the neoprene insulation missing. Hungry Skua gulls had feasted on it.

His report said the wire fared well but that the insulation made the product unsuitable for cold climates!

I also produced and hosted a weekly chat show, “Youth Speaks its Mind” dealing with many subjects … except sex and things that really mattered to kids. A group of teachers and I would pick the topics and each week a different school would supply the kids. As host, I would start the ball rolling and ask questions to keep it moving. The show also ran on radio and the radio producer was Lillian Akel.

The Boston Children’s Theater performed four or five plays each year with Adele Thane as Playwright/Director. Whenever they did a good show, Adele would produce a thirty-minute adaptation and I would direct it for TV. We did “Tom Sawyer” quite well, and I still have a mental image of a petite young lady attending all the rehearsals and watching it go out live on the air from the control room. Her name was Lillian Akel.

The 21-inch Classroom

Hartford did not hire me to be his assistant. He hired me to start in-school television for the State of Massachusetts. Parker Wheately, the Manager, however, was not too enthused and so for several months I did other things. In 1957, an eruption in the WGBH staff occurred and Hartford became General Manager.

The eruption consisted of Hartford’s going to Mr. Lowell, the Chairman of the Board, and saying that the top half dozen executives of the station would leave if Parker was not fired. Mr. Lowell gave Parker Wheately a year’s salary and he was gone.

The city of Newton figured largely in the creation of in-school TV. Grace Whitamore, the head of the Newton School Committee, and Bernard Everett, the Director of Curriculum, came to WGBH asking for help to get it started. Hartford and I met with them and he said, “Michael is just the person for you”. Over the next year the three of us spent many hours together as we planned the organization of a voluntary group of school systems in the WGBH coverage area. That meant meetings. And meetings meant speeches. I must have met with, and spoken to, over a hundred PTAs and school committees. I became an expert in the cookies and punch often served at these sessions. Lillian even came to some.

This was also my introduction to Jim Armsey and the world of fund raising. In those days, The Ford Foundation allowed senior program officers to give grants of less than $15,000 on their own signature. In 1957, that was real money. I created a plan for a regional program service to schools run by WGBH and financed by voluntary contributions. We told Jim we intended to use his $15,000 for start-up and showed him how the project would soon be self-supporting. Jim always needed to hear that. He called in his secretary, asked her how much was in a certain account, turned to us and said, “OK, send me a proposal for $14,500 and its yours!”

Future fundraising was rarely that easy.

Just as we were ready to proceed, we discovered a problem that threatened to scuttle the whole venture. A well-meaning fifth grade Cambridge teacher had set in motion a bill in the Massachusetts Legislature to allow cities and towns to voluntarily give money for just such a collective school television project. We thought this was unnecessary. More importantly, if the bill failed, it would be considered that cities and towns did not have the right to do so! I spent most of the summer on Beacon Hill persuading legislators to

back the bill. Cambridge Representative Mary Newman, was a big help, but all the while we kept getting the feeling of the presence of invisible obstacles.

One turned out to be the State Department of Education, jealous that they were not to be involved. Thought to be a lumbering elephant, none of us wanted their bureaucracy to weigh us down. We persuaded them to hold off and they agreed. But still, a resisting fog kept many legislators undecided.

Finally the elephant stuck his trunk out. It turned out that the Boston Archdiocese was opposing the bill unless Catholic schools got the programs FREE! In those days in Boston, the Church got what it wanted. They were written into the bill.

The bill finally passed and we could proceed.

We prepared a short science series in the spring of 1958 to show teachers what our shows might be like. I chose Gene Gray, who had been a star pupil in the class I‘d taught the previous year. The Science Museum’s chief science demonstrator, Norman Harris, was added over my objection. The Museum of Science was a member of WGBH and they insisted. On the first show, Harris spilled acid on his hand, cried out in pain and shouted for the help of his assistant, all live on the air! I insisted that Gene do the rest of the shows solo, and Harris never appeared again!

That week, it so happened that Lillian’s cousin, Tony Khair, was visiting Boston. On the subway to Logan to pick him up, I noticed a headline and familiar picture on the Boston Evening Globe front page being read by a man across the aisle. Our test show had hit the press with a glowing front page review! A nice way to start.

The 21" Classroom

“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.

On the air

The 21” Classroom hit the air in earnest in the fall of 1958 with five series broadcast to about 35 school systems.

Two stories from those first series tell a lot about Boston in the 50s. Tony Saletan had been a musician and children’s performer in the Boston area for years. I had him do a supplemental series teaching songs and dances. We used Paul and Marianne Taylor as the folk dancers and it soon became clear that the slight bulge in Marianne’s figure was an impending new family member. HORRORS!

Teachers from Boston complained that I was showing a pregnant woman on television. What would the kiddies think? It was clear that no one bothered to worry about all these kiddies in large families with mommies walking around the house with expanding bellies.

Teachers from Boston complained that I was showing a pregnant woman on television. What would the kiddies think? It was clear that no one bothered to worry about all these kiddies in large families with mommies walking around the house with expanding bellies.

Boston teachers were women. They were Irish women. They were mostly unmarried Irish women. Boston even had its own teacher’s college, so that they perpetuated the clan of local, Irish, unmarried teachers in the school system. A more conservative group of biddies you have never seen.

They were also angry. Working hard in their crowded classrooms, day after day, they answered to a cadre of younger, less experienced, higher-paid men! In meeting after meeting, I could feel the resentment and since it had nowhere to go, resentment often was manifested upon the easier targets: ergo, my lovely folk dancer, Marianne Taylor.

I kept her on the series into her ninth month!

Eager to get kids reading, we did a storytelling series using new books so we could incorporate living authors. (Yes, I really did get to meet Robert McCloskey, the author of “Make Way for Ducklings”, and yes, he really looked just like that little kid in the book on the tricycle running down the ducklings.)

Interviewing many storytelling-teachers, I finally chose Beryl Robinson, who turned out to be a Newton Corner neighbor. Beryl was short, warm, and wonderfully cuddly. Her rapport was instantaneous with kids and adults alike. An employee of the Boston Public Library, I was surprised that, with her acknowledged excellence, she was not working at the Main Library but at the Egleston Square branch.

In conversations with other librarians, I always sensed a uncertain hesitancy about their support for Beryl. Was there a controversy or a hidden body somewhere? Beryl was an excellent and cooperative talent. Her set was minimal; a comfortable chair, a small bookcase, and a spread of eager kiddies to sit at her feet to hear and respond to her stories. On the small bookcase at her side, I insisted we have a five-dollar bouquet of fresh flowers every week.

There are times when you do something just for the effect on the talent. Silk flowers would have done as well, but Beryl knew that they were fresh! After each taping, the bouquet was given to Beryl and her astonishment that we would buy fresh flowers and then lavish them on her personally, alerted me to the fact that life had not always been easy for her.

Later, when I met her husband, Judge Bruce Robinson, all became clear. Bruce was tall, thin, Republican, and very black! Beryl was light skinned. I guess I expected that she was Italian or Greek.

So, I had a pregnant folk dancer and “Negro” storyteller in my first set of series. I can take credit for keeping on the pregnant dancer, but I chose Beryl simply because she was the best of the bunch. Isn’t that the way America is supposed to work?

Other series included history, French with Madame Anne Slack, and science with Gene Gray.

Dear Gene Gray. That bright spark plug of a man with that quick mind and all the energy of an enthusiast. We became fast friends, spent many weekends with Gene and Ruth at the farm, made pottery, helped build a foundation underneath the house, ate freshly picked corn, and planted hundreds of pine trees.

One weekend we faced a particularly difficult problem. A large elm with three main trunks sat at the corner of their house. One of the trunks arched dangerously over the house itself. With a chain saw, Gene expertly felled two trunks away from the structure. Then tying a stout rope high on the trunk of the third, we ran it out into the field to a pulley system attached to another tree in his little forest. Back and forth the rope ran through the pulleys to give me the leverage that a pulley system is noted for. I pulled four feet, the tree top leaned over one foot. Steadily, I moved the remaining trunk out of danger of falling on the house as Gene, standing precariously on the two stumps, worked on cutting a wedge out of the third so the tree would fall free of the house corner.

Suddenly a scream. “Damn!”

The chain saw went one way, Gene went the other.

I let go of the rope, the tree sprung back into shape, and I rushed up to find out just where he’d injured himself.

“Damn,” he said again. “We should be filming this! Look. Here we are creating advantage of power with pulleys, using angles to help the tree fall properly. It would have made a fine TV lesson!”

That was Gene Gray.

Several more seasons of “The 21” Classroom” went well. Our teachers were happy, and I was learning how to be a boss of a large project and manage the work of other producer-directors. The number of member schools grew steadily from 35 to 150 and I was beginning to travel to regional and national meetings to share our knowledge about school programming and to learn what other

cities were doing.

WGBH Timeline (1946-1978)

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

1836

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

1946

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

1951

April

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

October 6

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

1955

May 2

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

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

October

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

1957

February

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

May

Hartford Gunn becomes WGBH station manager.

June

First “Boston Pops” telecast (from Kresge).

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

1958

March

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

Summer

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

September

Elliot Norton Reviews begins lengthy run.

November

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

1959

June

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

October

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

A Peabody Award goes to WGBH’s Decisions series.

1960

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

1961

October 14

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

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

1962

February

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

May

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

August

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

October 14

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

1963

August

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

October

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

1964

March

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

April

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

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

August 29

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

November

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

Late Fall

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

1965

April

Julia Child receives Peabody Award.

May 1

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

October

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

1966

Spring

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

May 31

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

June 17 – 18

Channel 2 transmitter is moved to Needham.

1967

March

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

June

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

September

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

October

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

November

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

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

1968

April 5

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

July

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

September

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

1969

April

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

October

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

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

November

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

1970

February

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

July

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

October

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

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

1971

January

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

April

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

October

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

November

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

1972

January

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

October

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

1973

January

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

April

Death of Robert Larsen.

May

ZOOM and The Advocates are awarded Emmys.

June

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

November

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

December

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

1974

January

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

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

March

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

May

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

October

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

November

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

1975

January

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

February

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

March

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

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

1976

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

April

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

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

November

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

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

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

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

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

1977

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1978

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tony Saletan’s What’s New Specials (1960s)


From Al Hinderstein — 2000

The Tony Saletan shows were called "What’s New Specials."

I stage managed the one at Old Sturbridge Village. I remember Greg Harney coming on set to show the old "miller" where to look when he delievered his speech about "The miller’s share."

When Don rolled tape and I cued him, the "miller" walked right up to the camera lens and said his line. All we got was a mouth full of gums. He didn’t have any teeth!

The in-studio segments were shot at WHDH after the fire. They were done for the "What’s New Series." Don wanted a low camera angle, so we developed the "El Paso Fearless Panoram Dolly," made out of a shipping dolly with a high-hat mount and a wooden handle on the back. Fixed Front wheels helped keep it on course.

From Tony Saletan

Al’s reference to Old Sturbridge Village reminds me …

I was singing and hosting the program there. At that site we were tensely working against time to finish the shoot while the sun was out, to avoid the impossible expense of arranging for another day. Since the scene was outdoors, we were dependent not only on the sun being up, but also the cloud cover giving us some consistency.

The tension was palpable as we watched the sky to predict a long enough period of steady light — either pure sunlight, or a large enough cloud to cover the sun for the estimated length of the shoot. Finally the heavens favored us, and we prepared to shoot that necessary scene.

Just then the generator providing our on-location power blew. There was silence as everyone’s tension seemed to be at maximum, when cameraman John Henning broke us up with, "White man who sell us generator speak with forked tongue."

Among the "Field Trip Specials" also used on "What’s New?" was New York State’s Fort Ticonderoga. And thereby hangs a tale.

Fort Ti was the farthest location, and therefore the most expensive trip. Involved were overnight accommodations for producer, director, camera person (we did this one on film), sound person, and me. So time was of the essence.

Somehow, after we all got back and the film was developed, the camera person (mercifully anonymous here) discovered that one reel was unaccountably blank. Lens cap? Camera glitch? Gremlin? We didn’t know, but we had to go back (another long trip) to Fort Ticonderoga to redo that material.

Good news: we were able to agree on a date. So some days later, all of us rose inhumanly early (to use the sun, and to avoid paying more motel fees) and travelled in one vehicle with equipment, back to Fort Ti.

Bad news: Imagine the embarrassment, chagrin, and frustration when it transpired that the unnamed camera person had forgotten to bring the battery pack! There we were…what to do?

Good news: Frantic long-distance phone calls (I know not whether to the manufacturer/distributor of the camera, or to an organization of camera buffs, or both) revealed that a possessor of the exact same model, who would have a battery pack, was resident in the county we were near.

Bad news: A call to his house revealed that he had very recently died.

Good news: His widow understood our plight, and said she would locate the battery pack and call us to come and pick it up. The tension built as hours passed with no call. Finally, we called her again.

Bad news: She was understandably emotionally unable to go through her late husband’s stuff, and we gave up and went home with no images.

Never revealed until now: That program, nationally distributed, includes some "Fort Ticonderoga" scenes which we actually shot some weeks later at the fort on Castle Island, Boston.

Lamb and the Bacon (1970)


From Derek Lamb

I think it’s time to tell the story of who filled 125 Western Avenue with the smell of cooked bacon that got trapped in the air condition system during the summer of 1970.

Yes friends, it was me.

It happened while working on a show with Ralph Nader, a show to demonstrate facts about suspect-chemical-additives in various food products such as MSG in baby food, that sort of thing.

And so there I was with my animation camera & lights, holed up in some remote, dark corner of the building, surrounded by a mountain-high assortment of packaged foods and preparing for the next sequence, an expose’ about BACON.

I put several pounds of the fatty-stuff in an electric frying pan and proceeded to time-lapse the cooking of it for the best part of an hour. The visual result, as the mound of bacon cooked to a seared crisp, was spectacular.

But meanwhile, I’d not realized the air conditioning system had sucked in the bacon-fumes and was pumping them generously throughout the building. The smell lingered for several days. It was only later I learned of the mass nausea it had caused.

So there you have it; the cat is out of the bag; or the pig is out of the package, or something like that!

Saletan Remembered (he’s still with us)

Folksinger (1950s)

From the Boston Globe TV Week

This picture promoted the Field Trip Specials remote at Old Sturbridge Village

Folksinger

Tony Saletan visited Old Sturbridge Village to record a typical day there as one of five specials to be seen on Ch 2 Mondays at 5:30 pm, beginning tomorrow.

Fifth graders from Stephen Palmer School, Needham, were on a school outing, and recognized Tony from his In-School programs.

Seated is Kathryn Fader; standing, Barbara Holst and Philip Patrone. Tony played and sang for the students, as well as for the curious horse.

Quo vadis WGBH (1946-2000)

This entry is part 4 of 12 in the series The Don Hallock Collection

From Don Hallock

Where, in Boston, has WGBH been?

It may surprise you to know how many places the station has called home.

A converted skating rink on the second floor of this building, and the office spaces on the third, were the home of WGBH from 1955 to 1961. The television operation was launched here and, because of that, many have thought of 84 Mass. Ave. as the place of WGBH’s origins….

….but the adventure actually began here, less than a block uptown of the Boston Public Garden.

The Lowell Institute

The first offices of the Lowell Institute Cooperative Broadcasting Council (LICBC) were housed in small, cluttered rooms on the top floor at 28 Newbury St. The FM station had not yet materialized. LICBC educational radio programming, originated and taped here, was broadcast on various commercial stations in the Greater Boston area.

A couple of years after the LICBC vacated 28 Newbury Street, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (who’s brass lettering still tops the doorway), sold the building to Elizabeth Arden. Today [2000], it is occupied by a Banana Republic store.

Symphony Hall

With the launching of WGBH-FM, the LICBC offices were moved to Symphony Hall at the corner of Massachusetts and Huntington Avenues. The station’s first radio studio was built here, and WGBH went on the air in 1951 with an evening broadcast of the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s season opener.

The facade on Huntington Avenue.

The marquee and box offices on Massachusetts Avenue (looking toward Cambridge).

The north side (or rear) of the building facing on Westland Avenue.

Excerpts from One Way to Run a Railroad by Ray Wilding White:

“The station’s new quarters were in the northwest corner of Symphony Hall . Two utility rooms in the basement under the musicians’ room were Parker’s office and the business office… Hartford’s executive desk was a door and two iron-rod saw-horses…

“Two floors up, over the musicians’ room, the orchestra’s museum was vacated and turned over to the station. In one corner of the old museum space, a small studio big enough for , a seldom used spinet, a couple of chairs, and a mike boom, together with a cramped control room and a minuscule announcer’s booth, had been built.”

84 Mass. Ave.

This is one of the few existing photos of the 84 Massachusetts Avenue building. It was taken in 1958 by Brooks Leffler with his trusty Leica, from just across the street on the sidewalk in front of the steps of MIT.

Today the 84 Massachusetts Avenue lot is a grassy park occupying almost exactly the former building footprint. It might be read, by some, as a kind of unintended memorial.

The alley which ran behind 84 Mass. — and on which we all struggled daily to find parking— is a cement walkway. Hardly a trace of the old building can be found — unless you know where to look, and what to look for….

Our serious young guide points to “where we are”….

….and to the airy space which studio A once occupied.

Kresge Auditorium, behind the old WGBH building, and from which the first BSO telecasts originated, still stands, little having changed but the roof — newly copper clad (in response, no doubt, to the chronic leakiness of the old cement one).

The notorious Frank Lloyd Wright lecture, Handel’s Messiah, and Menotti’s The Gorgon, The Unicorn And the Manticore were televised from here as well.

And the MIT Chapel (round brick building on the right) is there as well. This view looks back toward 84 Mass. from Kresge Auditorium.

And here it is — the original alleyway, replete with sunken curb stones….

….the very ones over which one used to drive to the the Robert Moscone “Executive” Parking Space (up on the sidewalk), in which no one else dared park (except Al Hinderstien, when he was young and brash).

Fire!

From the Official History of WGBH

October 14, 1961: A fire in the early morning at 84 Massachusetts Avenue completely destroys WGBH facilities. Channel 2 is off the air for all of Sunday, October 15, but, by dint of herculean efforts by staff, and superb cooperation from the community, manages to sign on at the regular time on Monday the 16th.

Emergency control room is set up in Catholic Television Center (WIHS), which also lends use of its limited studio space.

For the next seven months WGBH-TV functions as the “diffuse organization:” control rooms at Catholic Center, large-studio facilities provided late at night and on weekends by WHDH-TV on Morrissey Boulevard, films and tapes (some of which have been salvaged from the fire) originated, via network, at Channel 11 in Durham, as well as other Boston stations.

Scenic department finds home at Northeastern, arts department at B.U., programming and production offices at Kendall Square, Cambridge. Full schedule of programs maintained.

Kendall Square

Dawn first broke on “the new WGBH” in this imposing example of textile-mill architecture bordering the west edge of Kendall Square in Cambridge.

As part of a series of lightning moves to recover our footing as quickly as possible, Rose Buresh and a new telephone switchboard had been installed within days in a vacant fourth floor office space, along with dozens of very obviously pre-owned desks, chairs, filing cabinets and typewriters.

FM was given space on the fifth floor (and was the last department to leave the location, ultimately moving directly from here into the new building at 125 Western Avenue).

Life was extremely hectic and work, frustratingly difficult to organize, but the time was characterized by a heady sense of the heroic. Until its next move, to the Museum of Science, the entire station was administered from these offices, and programming originated from a maddening patchwork of disparate locations.

The fire refugees take hold in their new digs.

“Kendall” today, viewed from either end of Kendall square.

As seen from the rear of the building, the offices of WGBH were behind the circled windows.

Bay State Road at Kenmore Square (WIHS)

In a decidedly somber old home on the corner of Grabby Street and Bay State Road, just off Kenmore Square, and not far from the Zebra Lounge, the Archdiocese of Boston maintained a 3 camera, black and white television facility to create Catholic religious programming.

It bore the call-letters WIHS (In Hoc Signum), even though it included no transmitter, and therefore had no broadcast presence. WIHS made itself visible to the community, much as WGBH had in the early years, through local commercial stations.

Following the fire, use of their “studio A,” a large, second floor, mahogany paneled, living room with a tiny music room connected, was immediately given over to WGBH during the weekdays. A small, walled-in yard in the rear of the building was roofed and turned into a master control, tape and telecine room.

At the outset, most WGBH programming originated here, while a deal was soon struck with WHDH-TV to use their large and well equipped South Boston color studios on weekends and evenings for large-scale production work.

According to a recent contribution [1/06] from Phil Luttrell, WIHS/Granby Street was itself consumed by fire in the early 1970s. The building burned to the ground. The Catholic Television Center is now located in Newton.

Clearly, “Granby” is no longer standing, but the spot on which Al Hinderstein stands in the photo would have been just between the white post and the park bench. (Al Hinderstein in the control room at Granby Street: courtesy of Al Hinderstein.)

Here Norm Gagnon (GGN Information Systems) has once again come to the rescue. His apparently voluminous archives contained materials showing Granby Street in its heyday, which he has very generously forwarded to us.

So, here it is. The Granby Street headquarters building of WIHS as it looked in what appears to be the early spring of 1956. Our back is to Kenmore Square, and we are facing the Charles River.

From RCA Broadcast News we have a photo of Sunday Mass as televised from inside the WIHS studio. That may well be Cardinal Richard Cuushing celebrating. WGBH-TV used that same space and equipment for several months until the facility at WHDH and our own remote truck became available. (RCA Broadcast News pictures of the WIHS television facility were made available by Norm Gagnon; GGN Information Systems.)

And here’s the plan of the second floor. If you’re like me, you may remember it differently. Either the actual construction didn’t match this drawing – or my memory may be faulty.

Morrissey Boulevard (WHDH)

The cars roar by here, even in the late afternoon, headed south from the Route 93 off-ramp. We’re standing beside Morrissey Boulevard in Dorchester, just opposite the former location of the WHDH-TV studios.

Amazingly (to me at least) the building has been torn down and replaced by a bank and insurance company offices. It had been a very expensive facility, and could not have been in use for long as it hadn’t been occupied for many years before the fire, when WGBH began to use it for larger scale, taped productions. Few people in the neighborhood even remember it.

The WHDH building housed two color-equipped studios, probably the largest in New England at the time. The cameras were RCA’s first color models (TK-41), and will be remembered as about the size, and weight, of a baby grand piano.

At first we used WHDH’s mobile unit which was equipped with black and white cameras. As soon as possible, WGBH completed and pressed into service it’s own half-constructed Greyhound bus mobile unit using three nearly retired black and white field cameras obtained from CBS in New York. They had just come back from the Olympics in Europe. All the labels had been covered over with tape, and the names were written in German.

We were the “back door gang,” parking the bus behind the building, entering and exiting through the loading doors, rehearsing and taping on weekends and often far into the night. Orchestral and choral programs; Music for White Alice, a series on film-scoring with Daniel Pinkham; Tony Saletan’s first NET children’s music series, Sing, Children, Sing; the Dynamics of Leadership series; Epitaph for Jim Crow, a series with Tom Pettigrew on the history of segregation, and quite a few other productions were shot there.

We have no pictures of the building’s exterior. This, however, is a shot typifying the (familiar to us oldsters) programming use WHDH made of it. (Photo from RCA Broadcast News of April 1961; Courtesy of Norm Gagnon, GGN)

Now here, in lieu of the WHDH building itself, we have some photos from a little film clip of mysterious origin. Conversations with Al Hinderstein suggest that these are scenes from several productions shot at WHDH studios soon after the fire.

That’s Frank Vento in picture number one (above) setting up a camera bearing their call letters. Hindy remembers: “When we first went to WHDH we used their B&W mobile unit. The series with Daniel Pinkham was shot using the mobile unit except for one show that was done in color so could chroma key the film clips behind . I remember the title of the program was Music for White Alice. It was the first time Bill Harri
s and I ran the RCA TK 41s.”

Picture number two (above) includes Al Hinderstein, an unnamed Boston University student (background), a foreground man who we still cannot identify, Bob Hall, probably Ginny Kassel, Greg Harney and, in the background, Bill “Woozy” Harris. The production is unknown, but could (Hindy thinks) be Epitaph for Jim Crow.

The last four shots are, according to Hindy, from The Dynamics of Leadership series directed by Russ Morash. The host was Malcolm Knowles from Boston University.

The photo above may show Ken Anderson doing lighting, and the same unidentified BU student. And who’s that running prompter?

Please, if you have any more information on these photos, help us with our research by sending the information to us so that it can be entered here.

Public Garden — Boston Arts

Here, it’s comparatively quiet, even though we’re in the middle of Boston at the Public Garden. For many years WGBH camped out on this location for about two weeks each spring to televise the Boston Arts Festival.

Though the weather could occasionally be chilly and rainy, the talent and presentations were world-class and hugely exciting to shoot (with little to no rehearsal). For the largely studio-confined WGBH crew, the Arts Festival was a sweet ritual of renewal in more ways than one.

From the stage (constructed each year completely from scratch), ballet, opera, orchestral and jazz music was broadcast. The open-air theater sat here, straddling the walkway, right next to the Swan Boat pond. The audience area trailed back behind us into the grassy areas shown in the pictures above.

Museum of Science

In May, 1962 — 7 months after the fire, and countless cab rides and automobile expense sheets later — a consolidation of operations and a semi-permanent home was arranged in an agreement with the Boston Museum of Science. The win-win arrangement had WGBH-TV functioning both as itself, and as one of the museum’s exhibits.

A sizable space was allotted on the bottom floor in the rear of the museum building (which was, at that time, only about a third of its present size). A well traveled hallway ran along side the studio space, and large windows were cut in the studio and control room walls so that visitors to the museum could watch the station’s ongoing operations.

The staff eventually got used to working “in a zoo,” and things went on this way for 2 years and 3 months.

Offices were located refreshingly close to the studio, in what was known as the “Red Frame Building.” This wooden, one story structure had been used as office and workshop space during construction of the museum itself.

Cool enough in the summer, but frigid-windy in the winter, it was located by the Charles River just across a parking lot (now obliterated by expansion of the museum itself). Memory suggests that the “Red Frame” may actually have occupied a pier, similar to the one shown, as it seemed that going to work each day required walking on (or at least over) water.

The station’s new studios had been in planning during this whole time and anticipation became reality in August 29, 1964 (2 months short of 3 years after the fire).

125 Western Avenue

The station’s present home [2000], 125 Western Avenue, was a daring, one-and-one-quarter million dollar project made possible through the imagination and persistence of station management and impressive community, academic and corporate support.

And it was here that the potential, generated by the creativity, drive and resilience of the early staff, took hold, in the form of a very fine production plant, and making of WGBH possibly the most successful Public Broadcasting enterprise in the history of the medium.

Having begun in tiny offices on Newbury Street, and in Symphony Hall, the station has, in recent years, vastly extended its domain, occupying extensive real estate in the neighborhood around “125.”

A huge and labarynthine extension to its space, has been built and connected to the main building by an elevated walkway over Western Avenue.

Having begun in 1946 with a staff of less than a dozen and, in the “84 Mass. Ave.” era, expanded to something under 100, the present operation reputedly employs about 1,500 staff and boasts turn-of-the-century annual budgeting roughly 100 times greater than its 1960 level of $450,000.

Other locations

Unfortunately, we have no pictures just now showing other locations more-or-less regularly used by the station.

We refer here to places like The Boston Museum of Fine Arts (Museum Open House), Sanders Theater (BSO concerts), the showroom of the Boston Gas Company (The French Chef) and the Northeastern University Scene Shop.

Perhaps these omissions can be remedied in the future.