Creating NOVA (1971-76)

This entry is part 10 of 11 in the series The Michael Ambrosino Collection
Michael Ambrosino
Michael Ambrosino

I didn’t know what I was doing.

I didn’t know, that I didn’t know, what I was doing.

There are times when it’s a blessing to not know the magnitude of the job ahead. It’s like a road with lots of curves. You can only see so far and at any given moment you’re simply attempting to navigate skillfully to the next curve. If you saw the true length of the road ahead, with all its trials and pitfalls, you might not proceed with that wonderful assurance allowed by ignorance.

How do you go about creating a large national primetime TV project?

Well, I’d created “The 21” Classroom” and been the founding Executive Director of The Eastern Educational Network. I had the resources and prestige of WGBH behind me, and my recent stint at BBC had given me a special status at The Corporation for Public Broadcasting and a number of highly placed international contacts. I could produce, manage people, raise funds and think of the big picture. I thought I was ready.

There was little theoretical work to do; a ready model was right there before me in the BBC’s series, “Horizon,” and it was a happy and willing potential partner.

Why create a science project?

Science is a part of our heritage, our present culture, and a major force in determining our future. Its absence from television, our most public medium of communication, spoke to the ignorance of many of its gatekeepers who thought mostly in terms of news and the arts, and too narrowly at that. Science, medicine, technology, engineering, architecture all impact our culture by determining how we live our lives! They also made for great story telling.

The “science series” was also meant to be a model for the future of public television. “Masterpiece Theater” had just emerged and I saw it as a threat as well as a joy. “Masterpiece” could buy a wonderful drama from the BBC for a tenth of the cost of making it in the United States. Who then could hope to raise the money for US production? By creating a “strand” of programs, some made, some co-produced and some bought, I hoped to show PBS how to create new series that were truly American at a realistic cost.

Science, medicine, technology, engineering, architecture all impact our culture by determining how we live our lives.

And finally, I hoped the strand approach would help train American producers and directors in the journalistic approach that was so natural to the BBC. By hiring some Brits to produce and filling in the lower positions with bright Americans, in a few years we might have a pool of talented producer-directors for the future.

How to start?

I read books.

I talked to scientists.

First to Phil Morrison, always the best source for anything scientifically worthwhile. Phil promised all the time I needed, as long as I never asked him to waste time in a committee meeting.

I attended scholarly conferences.

The annual session of AAAS, The American Association for the Advancement of Science, had lectures and seminars on a wide array of subjects. I found it an inspiration for topics and a good way to meet, and get the support of, scientists from many disciplines.

AAAS had also just received a large grant from the National Science Foundation to interest more people in science. AAAS is the world’s largest federation of scientific organizations and their Committee on the Public Understanding of Science had long been interested in media. It was chaired by Gerard Piel, then publisher of Scientific American. I met with the committee and laid out my ideas. I remember Piel’s head shaking as he murmured. He thought TV and science would never work. The rest of his committee disagreed and in a few days, Jim Butler and his assistant came to Boston to discuss the future.

Science Program Group white paper
Science Program Group white paper

Jim proposed that I write a “White Paper” on how science and TV might get together. I told them that the paper already existed as my science project plan. I asked him how much money he had. “Forty thousand dollars”, was his candid reply. I pointed out that many projects failed because few developers could support themselves through the lengthy period of fundraising. I told him he should give me the forty thousand dollars, that I would give him my project plan to publish as their “White Paper,” and that I’d attach the AAAS name to the TV series when it hit the air.

They agreed!

We went to Legal Sea Food to celebrate.

After shrimp cocktails, lobsters and several rounds of beer, Jim whipped out his American Express card in the lofty manner of a Washington bigwig. Anna, a waitress well known to the Ambrosino clan, eyed him coolly and cracked, “What the hell is that? We take cash here!

I ended up paying for lunch.

It was the first charge I made against my new $40,000 fundraising budget!

Go west young man

A call from California was intriguing. Would I come out to La Jolla and meet with some west coast scientists? The invitation came from William McElroy, Chancellor of The University of California, San Diego, who had until recently been the Director of the National Science Foundation. It was clear they thought I was under the influence of MIT and Harvard and wanted me to know that science flourished among the palm trees as well as the ivy.

I was greeted, toured, feted, and fed. I saw labs, campuses, and scientists. I walked the beautiful grounds of The Scripps Institution of Oceanography and The Salk Institute.

And I had dinner.

Several dozen scientists were gathered at La Jolla to give me a taste of the talent and potential stories west of the Charles River. McElroy had made sure that Jonas Salk, the Nobel Prize winner and developer of a Polio vaccine, was seated near me.

The dinner went well. Many guests outlined recent research that might be of interest, suggested topics for programs, reviewed the resources on the West coast and pledged their strong support.

A special moment occurred when we broke up. Jacob Bronowski, the brilliant English mathemetician and author of “The Ascent of Man,” pulled me aside and said, “Ambrosino, I’ve read your proposal. It’s very interesting. But you have all these advisors. Advisors mean nothing. You are an honest man. You will do a good job!”

Jacob Bronowski, the brilliant English mathemetician and author of “The Ascent of Man,” pulled me aside and said, “You are an honest man. You will do a good job!”

Over the next years, working on NOVA, ODYSSEY, DYING, EYES ON THE PRIZE, THE RING OF TRUTH and JOURNEY TO THE OCCUPIED LANDS, I took strength from “Brunowski’s” faith in me. Whenever I was confronted with confusion or conflict or controversy, I reminded myself that, “I was an honest man, I would do a good job.”

An early opportunity to compromise

Two roadblocks appeared. The first was by David Prowitt of WNET in New York City. He announced the creation of the “WNET Science Program Group.” Sound familiar? That was the exact title I had used in my AAAS “White Paper,” calling for the creation of the “WGBH Science Program Group.”

David was issuing a challenge. He had been doing science programs at WNET for years. They were thirty-minute documentaries on subjects for which he could find funding. That meant a skewed agenda and a possible worrisome incursion of the funder in the decision-making. His new plan was a direct assault on my project. It seemed a desire to defeat it, or horn in somehow.

PBS didn’t want its two biggest stations, already in competition, fighting with each other, and asked me to meet with Prowitt. I did. PBS suggested we work together in some way.

I refused.

My second roadblock came directly from PBS. Not knowing how much money would be in the ‘73 or ‘74 budgets, they suggested that a “pilot” would be the best way for me to start. It would get PBS out of a money bind and might keep me quiet for a year or two.

I refused.

Well, that sounds pretty obstinate for a fella without a project and much in need of friends, money and collaborators.

The way I saw both cases, compromise would have meant defeat.

Working with Prowitt would have reduced the central focus of the new project, dIvided the resources, dispersed the creative staff, gummed up decision-making, increased overhead costs, and would have had me working with David, whose ideas about science programming was vastly different from mine.

In the second case, making a single pilot would have doomed us to criticism by everybody that the pilot was not what the kind of science “they” thought should be done. One program could never stand for the sweeping breadth of programs that was possible, and would eventually prove to be our hallmark. Instead, I insisted that the entire first season of thirteen programs would be my “pilot,” displaying a wide range of ideas, production techniques and program forms.

Refusing to cooperate, however, is dangerous. It can be done only when you’re ready to give up the dream if you are denied. I was trying not to be an obstinate originator. As “an honest man,” in Bronowski’s words, I was sure that I was right, and that compromising now would destroy our one chance of success.

In the end, seeing how far Boston had progressed, WNET pulled out of the running and PBS never mentioned the idea of a pilot again. It was a tense time. I was pleased that we had come through, although both decisions did rob Bostonians of a new season of “Michael Ambrosino’s Show!”

Fundraising, or how to deal with rejection

Raising money in public television is tricky. It’s a bit like playing chess; you have to plan several moves ahead.

Raising money in public television is tricky. It’s a bit like playing chess; you have to plan several moves ahead.

First you need a positive response from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting to convince the rest of the funders that the Washington Public TV power brokers have looked you over and approved.

You then need a letter from PBS expressing interest. PBS isn’t going to promise airtime until they see your programs, so they send a letter with the not-so-subtle text that reads something like this:

PBS is delighted to know about your new project. We have tentatively penciled it onto our fall list. Since your proposal and planning up to this date have been carried out with such success, we fully expect to schedule your new series where a large and interested audience will find it.”

Gosh. Where do they find people who can write like that?

OK, now you are ready to grapple with the giants of industry and the foundation world. Well, maybe not the giants. The giants are busy running the store. The giants have minions to run their fundraising departments. These minions are flooded with requests such as mine and, having no staff or time to check them all out. They wait and take their cues from CPB and PBS.

The National Science Foundation was an obvious early target and we aimed at them with several big guns. Ford and Rockefeller were active, but were more interested in politics and the arts.

You quickly learn that some foundations like to be first and some last. The Arthur Vining Davis Foundation had a board made up of the relatives of the founder of the Alcoa Aluminum Company; all in their seventies and eighties. What they want to hear is, “I’ve raised all the money except the last quarter of a million. I’m ready to start producing as soon as you decide. Arthur Vining Davis can make this series happen!”

Others, like The Carnegie Corporation, want to be first. In 1972 I got a call from their Vice President, David Robinson, wanting advice on the future of science and television! Imagine my surprise and delight. There I was, having spent a year thinking about the future of science and television, having a proposal in hand, having the imprimatur of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and David Robinson wants to come to Boston to see me!

Now, the end game begins.

My files are filled with letters telling one foundation about a recent meeting expressing the interest of another foundation. Everybody loves a winner, and I kept everybody informed about each meeting, each decision date, each tremor that might shake the money tree.

The companies were another deal altogether. They were in business to make money and only gave it away in rare instances.

That meant you had to find a specific reason for their giving. Surprisingly, many of the “science-based” companies didn’t jump at the chance to fund us. Like everybody else, they liked the arts. You can have fancy cocktail parties when you give to opera and drama. Big stars come to your parties and the bosses loved that.

My most agonizing turndown came from Xerox. Their administrator kept me on a string for months and then said, “You create such wonderful proposals. Your ideas are so refreshing. The next time you’re in Armonk, please drop in for coffee”.

Why would I find myself in Armonk, except to beg money?

The fund-raiser’s best friend is a quick NO. You could then go on to more fruitful places and stop hanging on thinking that “Armonk is interested”.

You may wonder why I did all this. Why not hire a fund-raiser? Well, the resources of the WGBH fundraising department were available, but they were busy raising money for lots of other series and I felt that only the creator could do the real sell. I’d get leads from them, but felt that there was only one person who could get the foundations and corporations excited about the ideas in the project.

And then there was Polaroid.

I’d sent Polaroid a proposal. They were a local company. They’d been generous to WGBH before. They had funded Julia and given hundreds of cameras to every auction. They were run by a small group in Cambridge, and I could easily get a meeting with Ted Voss, their bright, curly-haired Vice President for advertising.

I sat down and nervously started in on my pitch.

Ted interrupted immediately.

“Michael, I’ve read the proposal.” “It’s not a matter of whether. It’s a matter of how much. How much?”

“Michael, I’ve read the proposal.” “It’s not a matter of whether. It’s a matter of how much. How much?”

I mentioned a figure.

“Too much,” said Ted.

We haggled a minute and quickly settled on a new figure.

“How’s Lillian?” he inquired.

You may think that the introduction of Lillian was an extraneous subject, but I understood it totally. “Tell Ted about Lillian and leave. You got your money. Be a good boy and let Ted get back to work!”

That meeting with Ted lasted just about four minutes. They were not all that easy.

Meetings, letters, proposals, negotiations, and trips to Washington ate up much of the next few months. And then there was an extraordinary three days in spring, 1973. It was the kind of week that project creators dream of.

Each day, on May 2, 3, and 4, I received a letter. In order, they notified me that CPB, Carnegie and Polaroid had each agreed to fund the science project. NSF came in shortly after. There was joy, relief, excitement and fear. Now, we had to make good on our promises.

I had to make good on my promises!

The plan of action

I laid out a three-year plan.

We would present thirteen shows the first season, seventeen the second, and twenty on the third. American-produced programs would start at thirty percent and increase to forty and then fifty percent in three years. The first season would begin in March because the commercial television season ended then, and it would be our best chance to get maximum press. We’d deal with science, science’s impact on society and science’s impact on public policy. We would make programs about archaeology, medicine, biology, chemistry, physics and technology. In addition to documentaries, we’d present plays and ethnographic films.

We’d deal with science, science’s impact on society and science’s impact on public policy. We would make programs about archaeology, medicine, biology, chemistry, physics and technology.

I planned to be the Executive Director and run the project. I would hire an experienced Executive Producer and Producers from BBC and bring in Americans to be trained for all the other slots.

I’d taken several trips back to London to interview potential staff and to try to make a mutually beneficial agreement with BBC. I hoped to “borrow” BBC Producers, have them make films with my money and then give those shows free to BBC. The BBC was interested when it was a fledgling project but when I actually had the money, and the series became a reality, they withdrew their cooperation in fear of losing their best people.

Peter Goodchild was running “Horizon” and his cooperation and friendship never flagged but his hands were tied. We could exchange programs and do co-productions, but his best people were out of bounds.

Interviewing people now started in earnest. I was offering experienced Producers the instability of a one year contract in the unknown world of US public television, hoping to lure them away from secure positions in the best broadcasting organization in the world. It was not an easy task.

First things first: Executive Producers. In the end it narrowed to two exceptional candidates; Simon Campbell Jones and Thomas Marquand. They had both made dozens of “Horizons” and each displayed a commanding presence and good sense. They both said no.

The next day, I was to interview and possibly offer jobs to Producers. Only the Executive Producer could do that.

Over a lonely dinner in my hotel room, I realized that I would have to become the Executive Producer. I’d never run a production unit of one-hour science documentaries before. I’d never even made one.

How could I presume to be the Executive Producer?

When you have no options, decision making become easier.

Simon Campbell Jones agreed to come and produce for one year. He was a very senior producer for BBC, had made many films and would be a good mentor. That was one down.

Among the throng I interviewed were Francis Gladstone, a Producer, and John Angier, a Researcher. I hired them both.

Francis was the great-grandson of a former Prime Minister of England. He carried himself with an air of entitlement.

John Angier was bright, organized, thorough, and pugnacious.

It was going to be a bumpy ride.

The staff filled out with Ben Shedd, a fledging filmmaker from California; Cary Lu, a graduate of Cal Tech; Terry Rockefeller, the brightest woman I’d ever met; Elsa Rassbach, an experienced researcher and associate producer; Marian White, an experienced PA who had worked on WGBH news, and Nancy Trolland, a PA who’d been on the WGBH staff for several years.

WGBH staffers Doug Smith and Dudley Palmer joined us as production manager and assistant. I persuaded Graham Chedd, a science journalist, to leave AAAS and join up as my Science Editor helping to research stories and assist in deciding on acquisitions.

We were ready to start.

And so, we began

Memo: Topics under consideration
Memo: Topics under consideration

Everybody started researching program ideas. A memo I wrote on June 14, 1973, listed twenty-eight ideas under consideration for production, thirty films from BBC under consideration for purchase and fourteen possible names for our science series. Michael Rice returned his copy with a generous scrawl of rather negative comments in the margins. I realized that sending out one-paragraph descriptions of incomplete ideas was a mistake.

The next program memo was shorter and was entitled, “Program Ideas Committed for Production.” I decided that if I were to be second-guessed, it would be on finished films and not premature program descriptions.

The title was a ticklish subject. Everybody had a suggestion. Henry Morgenthau always thought producers should come up with a catchy title first and only then design a series to fit. It might have been easier that way.

I circulated a memo of over fifty possible titles and the staff offered more each day, including “The Asymtotic Struggle,” which did not long survive. One day, Michael Rice called me to his office and when I arrived, I found Michael and Sylvia Davis, our Director of Promotion and Publicity, grinning from ear to ear. A bad sign.

“We have your title for you!” Michael chortled.

“You have my title for me?” I replied warily.

“Yes!” he beamed.

I waited.

“EUREKA,” he shouted.

I waited some more.

“Eureka” is what Archimedes, the Greek philosopher, supposedly shouted in his bath when he came up with a workable idea to test the quality of the gold in his King’s crown. He conceived of a scheme to first place the crown, and then an amount of gold of equal weight into a vat of water full to the brim to see if the water displaced was equal. Had the jeweler replaced some of the gold in the crown with less valuable metal, the greater volume of the “lesser” crown would have displaced more water.

‘Eureka” was the bane of science and scientists because it spawned the myth that science worked by instant enlightenment, in the bath or not. Science doesn’t work that way at all.

Science works in tiny steps, by diligent researchers doing their experiments, writing them up for publication in science journals, having other scientists question those findings by trying to duplicate them, and responding in those same science journals. These steps, within the community of science, are essential to the development of good ideas, tested ideas, ideas in which we can have confidence, become the theories that form the basis of our knowledge about how our world works.

Religion is based on faith. Science is based on facts that are hard won by experimentation that is questioned and tested by peers. Modern science is not, and has never been, “Eureka.”

I asked Michael and Sylvia if they’d read any of my memos about the science project and the way we intended to tell our stories.

I told them I would soon come up with a title and left.

I came up with “NOVA.”

A Nova is a sudden, brilliant star in the firmament; so dazzlingly bright that it’s noticed and admired by all. It delights the eye and turns the mind to a joyful appreciation and questioning about the wonders of the universe.

A Nova, or Supernova, is a sudden, brilliant star in the firmament; so dazzlingly bright that it’s noticed and admired by all. It delights the eye and turns the mind to a joyful appreciation and questioning about the wonders of the universe.

The title, “NOVA” was also my tiny secret joke. It was a comment on the way public television was funded in those days. New series got support for a few years. They burst onto the program schedule where they shined brightly, and were then shunted aside as the funders went on to other, newer, projects. Just like the celestial Nova, many series, after their brilliant introduction and display, floundered because of lack of funds, faded, fizzled, and disappeared from view.

“NOVA” it would be.

What made a Nova, a NOVA?

NOVA told stories of discovery.

We couldn’t make a documentary film about the how The Crab Nebula works. The audience would never understand it. We could, and Alec Nesbitt did, make a documentary about the men and women who sought out the neutron star that powered The Crab Nebula. About a dozen scientists and graduate students in England and America, carried out experiments over a dozen years, sought out answers, shared research, challenged others to create new experiments, shared those answers, and slowly, slowly, came up with the story. It was a human story about the nature of discovery and an excellent example of the way science works.

It was this journalistic approach that set NOVA apart.

NOVA told stories of discovery, human stories about the nature of discovery and the way science works. It was this journalistic approach that set NOVA apart.

It took time and money.

After two weeks of library and telephone research by a team, I would get an “outline” of about two pages explaining the ideas of the film and the participants.

After four additional weeks of on-location interviewing and scouting, the outline would grow to a “treatment”: about a dozen pages of detailed descriptions of each segment in a suggested order. In Boston, there’s a lot of talk among producers about “Act One, Act Two and Act Three,” realizing that even in a documentary, the dramatic sense of story-telling has to invite, excite, explain, challenge, and satisfy the viewer.

After reviewing and revising the treatment, we could now make up a production schedule and a budget for the film.

I usually allowed a team four weeks of filming and eight to ten weeks for editing, a few more for mix, negative cutting and post production.

We were not in the business of making art films. We had been assigned airdates from PBS and had to fill them without fail. It was not a joke when we said of our work, “Our films are never finished, they are only released.”

We “released” a first season examining how nature films were made; how the water of the Colorado river was used; how whales and dolphins communicate; how life began on Earth; and how a primitive tribe, the Cuiva, lived in the Amazon. We produced a drama about the discovery of anesthesia; examined the mysterious explosion that led to the discovery of the Crab Nebula; explored how birds navigate; questioned medical experimentation on patients; delighted in the unique research with Washoe, a chimpanzee who “spoke” with sign language; questioned Paul Kammerer’s research in a famous case of faked experimentation; looked into fusion, a possible energy source for the future; and sought the mystery of the Anasazi people who, after living in the southwest for eight thousand years, suddenly vanished!

That was our first season. That was my “pilot,” a wide-ranging series of delightful and compelling stories.

NOVA’s audience out rated drama, music, opera and dance on PBS. The reviews were positive and the letters poured in. People were actually waiting to see what we would do next!

The reaction was immediate and it was grand. NOVA’s audience out rated the drama, music, opera and dance on PBS. The reviews were positive and the letters poured in. One of my favorites exclaimed, “I never knew what the hell you were coming up with next week!” A sense of appreciation is to be desired, but to engender a sense of expectation, was beyond our wildest dreams. People were actually waiting to see what we would do next!

Another letter praised our programs for their complexity and depth. Attached was a comment that explained that my correspondent was deaf and blind and that she “saw” and “heard” NOVA through the hand signals of her nurse-caretaker playing on her lips! Here, with this agile mind trapped in the prison of her recalcitrant body, was a loyal NOVA supporter.

What did I do?

The conductor of an orchestra plays no instrument. It’s clear, however, that on any given night, the music reflects his wishes and his demands.

The Executive Producer of a major TV series makes no films. But it’s clear that on any given night, the films reflect his vision of what makes a good, clear, exciting science story.

I assigned some topics and accepted others from the producers. I decided which films we would co-produce with BBC and purchase. I set the order of the thirteen-week series, in an orchestrated effort to show us at our best and the range of our talent.

On a day-to-day basis, I tried to keep up with the field; attended scientific meetings; chatted with scientists and took program suggestions from everybody.

Each outline, treatment, schedule and budget was an opportunity to question, revise and help sculpt each film. As much as I might want everything to be made fully to my taste, I had to give each Producer the freedom to do his or her best work. Best work is not done in a stifling atmosphere. I tried to give them the freedom that I would want, within the constraints of time and money that we all shared.

“Rough-cut” screenings were scheduled when enough scenes had been edited to make general sense of the film. A long meeting followed with questions and suggestions coming from the notes all of us had taken. The documentary has few rigid rules. The order of a film is not infinitely malleable, but surprisingly so.

The “fine-cut” screening, about four weeks later, should show a fairly fluid beginning, middle and end, with a rough narration read over scenes by the Producer. This is a recognizable film, with roughness only in animation and narration. It should be only a few minutes over the required length. Another meeting with notes and suggested revisions followed and last minute changes were made.

At a certain point, decided mostly by broadcast schedules and money, we would lock the picture so that the sound work and the negative cutting could begin. This was the last time for suggestions and my input.

It took constant juggling. Once, I remember that we had nine films and revisions going on at one time; all in various stages of filming or editing. I was also going to London three or four times a year to check on the progress of BBC co-productions and look at their recently completed films.

Serendipity takes hold every once in a while too.

On a late Friday afternoon, I received a call from University of Reno Professor, Allen Gardner. He was passing through Boston with his wife and mother-in-law and wanted to know if I would meet him on Saturday to look at a black and white movie that he had made himself. A negative response from an overworked executive producer would have been understandable.

I said I’d be delighted.

Allen Gardner showed me a flawed, badly edited, overly long “documentary” of his work. The technique was flawed but the content was fascinating!

Over ten years, Allen Gardner had documented his attempts to teach American Sign Language to a chimpanzee named Washoe. Because he filmed hundreds of days, and edited out the many hours of unresponsive action, the footage of Washoe’s “conversations” were magical.

Over ten years, he had documented his attempts to teach American Sign Language to a chimpanzee named Washoe. Because he filmed hundreds of days, and edited out the many hours of unresponsive action, the footage of Washoe’s “conversations” were magical. I told Allen that I didn’t want to run his film but I did want to buy twenty minutes of it and make a NOVA around the idea of animal/human communication. I assigned Simon, Ben, and Terry to make the quick and beautiful, “The First Signs of Washoe,” a smash success and a delightful addition to our first season.

Often asked to name my favorite NOVA, I had to mention many we made or presented in our first three years.

In “Where did the Colorado Go?” we showed how the Colorado River flow was measured, and its water distributed, based on a 1933 measurement. Science entered the picture when tree ring corings made in the ’70s showed that the 1933 measurement was made during a thirty year wet cycle, and greatly overestimated the flow: a not so gentle warning about measurement and statistics.

“Why Do Birds Sing?” was a grand examination of something we take for granted until somebody like NOVA comes along and explains, with beauty and grace, what’s really going on when birds communicate. We even showed that birds have accents and those accents can determine whether some birds are “accepted” by others in the area!

“Why Do Birds Sing?” was a grand examination of something we take for granted until somebody like NOVA comes along and explains, with beauty and grace, what’s really going on when birds communicate.

In “The Last of the Cuiva” there is a scene that cries out to redefine the term “primitive.” The Cuiva are hunter-gatherers in the Amazon. Their possessions are few, their homes mere protection from the rain, their clothing non-existent. Their culture, however, is complex, sophisticated and carefully tuned to aid their survival. On a fishing expedition, two men each spear a fish. They cut each fish in half and exchange halves. Neither, now, has more than before, but in the mere act of sharing, the statement is made that, in the future, if only one catches a fish, neither family will go hungry. That’s the way people develop and preserve a culture!

John Angier commissioned the design of an atomic bomb. In “The Plutonium Connection,” we showed how missing or stolen plutonium could be fashioned into a crude weapon that had a good chance of exploding. The design was said to be credible by the Scandinavian experts we sought out. It got tremendous press and excellent ratings.

A brief diversion on the merits of arguing from strength

“The Plutonium Connection” was also noticed by the staff of National Science Foundation, who called me to a meeting at their Washington office. Many of those in the Public Understanding of Science office had previously worked at the Atomic Energy Commission, and they were furious that the program had shown, in considerable detail, just how lax the security in the atomic energy field was at that time.

“That was very controversial,” the NSF staff said.

“Yes, and it was very good,” I responded.

“There were many critics of nuclear energy in that film,” they said.

“Yes, I said. “Did you notice that eight out of the ten critics work in the nuclear energy establishment? The criticism was coming from people inside the industry,” I said.

“Well, we have this long memo criticizing the program,” they said, sliding a slim pack of papers across the table toward me.

“Gee,” I said. “Have you noticed how memos attempting to pressure the media have a tendency to fall into the hands of the media?”

“Well”, they said, sliding the memo back to their side of the table. “We think you need an advisory committee inspecting your programs before they’re broadcast.”

“Gee,” I said. “I already have good advisors and we already check our controversial programs before they are broadcast.”

“Suppose,” they said. “Suppose, your next grant would be dependent upon your creating such a committee?”

“Then,” I said. “Then, I would refuse your grant and I’d remove your name from the best science series ever to be broadcast in the United States of America.”

The meeting ended soon after. There was no committee. Their grant was renewed as usual.

That was the only attempt to pressure us in all the time I was at NOVA.

Back to good programs

Memo: NOVA is on the air
Memo: NOVA is on the air

Everybody knows that bombing helps win wars, right? In “War From The Air,” using research data from World War I and II, Korea and Vietnam, we showed that bombing stiffened, rather than destroyed, the enemy’s resolve while leveling cities and killing hundreds of thousands of civilians.

I commissioned a film that would document a year in the Sonora Desert. Deserts may be lonely for humans, but they’re full of life as shown in the dry and wet cycles of “A Desert Place.” This was also a film that had troubles in the editing room and, although concerned about the difficulties, it was a joy to be clear about the reasons for the problem and to step in, and, shot by shot, correct it. It is not how you want to spend every fine-cut screening, but it does help the old Executive Producer ego to become directly involved in a film every so often.

And there was the odd film called “Joey,” the story of fifty-four year old Joey Deacon, a spastic who’d been institutionalized as retarded. When he met Ernie Roberts, also an inmate, he found someone who finally understood his tortured speech. Together they wrote a book about Joey’s life, two sentences per day. Brian Gibson dramatized the story using spastic children and teens as actors and ended up with Joey and Ernie playing themselves as grown-ups. It was an unforgettable gamble to put it into NOVA. It was not really “science,” but it was first class story-telling and no one who saw it, came away unaware of what it meant to be a spastic and to ponder their treatment in society.

In “War From The Air,” using research data from World War I and II, Korea and Vietnam, we showed that bombing stiffened, rather than destroyed, the enemy’s resolve while leveling cities and killing hundreds of thousands of civilians.

And then there were the films that never got made.

John Angier had heard that Howard Hughes was designing and building a new kind of ocean-going factory ship, The Glomar Challenger, to mine manganese nodules from the bottom of the Pacific Ocean. Always interested in new technology, he tried in vain to make contact, hoping to get permission to join them on their first “mining expedition.” We got nowhere. Twenty years later, when classified information was finally released, we learned that Hughes built the ship for the CIA to retrieve a Russian submarine that had sunk in the deep ocean. It would have been an even better story, but it was one that got away.

I wanted to make a film over several years about a “vacant lot” to show that there is no such thing. We would explore the geology of the soil and the possible archaeological remains, the agronomy of the grasses and the biology of the animal life in, and above, the soil.

And then there was “the vacant lot.” If we’d had forward funding, we might have pulled it off. I wanted to make a film over several years about a “vacant lot” to show that there is no such thing. We would explore the geology of the soil and the possible archaeological remains, the agronomy of the grasses and the biology of the animal life in, and above, the soil. The idea was to make it impossible for the viewer to think of any natural space as “vacant” ever again.

Day by day

And so the days went by, filled with meetings, screenings, budgets, schedules, problems of space, salaries, fundraising, promotion, advertising and network scheduling. My homework consisted of poring over outlines, treatments and scripts back at 566 Centre Street late into the night.

While working on Season I, it was necessary to plan Season II and make the contacts for it’s funding. That meant trips to Washington and London, meetings with Polaroid and longish memos to the stations telling them how wonderful we were and what a smash the second season would be.

PBS had created The Station Program Cooperative, and after our first two seasons, we, and all the other continuing series, would bid and compete for the too-few millions the stations had pooled for national programming. We laid out our plans for Season III, and with a flashy videotape in hand, I attended the SPC meeting. PBS gave old shows eight minutes to sell their series. In eight minutes, I showed them video reminders of the highlights of the first two years and tempted them with our ideas for the third.

They voted.

Season III would be a reality.

We succeeded because NOVA was not a science series. We used science as our tool to tell stories about discovery and the scientific process; human stories about the scientist’s search for knowledge.

I was curious about how the world worked and was fairly certain I could play on the viewer’s curiosity as well.

Curiosity and knowledge are linked, each dependent upon the other and intertwined, not unlike a helix. You cannot be curious about a subject until you know something about it. That knowledge piques your curiosity and your curiosity leads you on to discovery. The more knowledge you have, the more you realize how much you lack, and on you go up the spiral, hopefully enjoying yourself on the ride.

I knew intuitively that curiosity and knowledge were linked, each dependent upon the other and intertwined, not unlike a helix. You cannot be curious about a subject until you know something about it. That knowledge piques your curiosity and your curiosity leads you on to discovery. The more knowledge you have, the more you realize how much you lack, and on you go up the spiral, hopefully enjoying yourself on the ride.

And we were good storytellers. We told stories about how people found out about things in a way that brought the viewer along on the quest. Documentaries, dramas, ethnographic films; all types of techniques were used.

And what about me?

We had introduced NOVA in March of 1974 with thirteen programs. Season II started in November of 1974 with another seventeen programs. It was a gamble. By following up our first season so quickly, I wanted to deeply instill NOVA in the minds of the public and the program managers who would vote on its future. It was exhausting, but it worked!

I remember renting a house for a week in that first summer on Cape Cod. It came without a phone. As the rental agent drove away, I told him that he might get an emergency call or two while we were vacationing. While the family was unpacking, he returned. The emergencies had started.

Playing tennis with John Freedman at the Mount Auburn Club one early winter morning, I quit half-way through the hour because I could not concentrate on the ball, I was too wound up about the nine o’clock meeting I was about to have concerning a bad treatment for an upcoming film.

A final warning came when I was in my office hunkered down over a script, when I saw the face of Ben Shedd in the doorway. Ben did not want to interrupt, and I did not want him to enter! Ben obviously had a problem that he couldn’t solve and I didn’t want to help him solve it!

Something was wrong.

I was running NOVA, supervising DYING, and had stupidly agreed to supervise the presentation of Jacob Bronowski’s BBC series, “The Ascent of Man” on PBS. I was exhausted. I did not have the money to hire a Senior Producer to help administer NOVA, and if I had it, I had no qualified candidates in mind in 1976.

Valium had been prescribed and I was using sleeping pills. The normal anxiety sleep pattern is to fall asleep easily, but to awaken about one o’clock to find your mind racing with the problems of the day. That was my pattern.

At a meeting of Executive Producers and WGBH management, I brought up the idea of burnout. My pitch was that folks who created projects, raised money, hired staff, asserted editorial control of each and every film, would soon find themselves in a state of exhaustion and that some method of refreshment was necessary.

I suggested paid leaves of absence for Executive Producers.

David Ives laughed.

Within twenty-four hours, I decided to leave NOVA.

And now what?

I called Steve Rabin, Director of Media at The National Endowment for the Humanities, and asked if he was interested in a “NOVA” of the humanities that examined the world using archaeology and anthropology.

He said yes.

Would he fund a several year research and development period to make it happen?

He said yes.

I spoke with Michael Rice and David Ives and told them of my decision to leave. I had just raised $500,000 from EXXON for Season IV, which would make it easier for the SPC to vote for our fourth year. I told Michael to hire John Angier as the new Executive Producer and that I would leave on March 1, giving John time to begin planning topics for “his” season. I proposed a half-time consultancy to develop two additional science series while I would work on the development of the humanities project.

Michael said yes.

On March 6, 1976, while I was home with the flu, Lillian hosted a party of the NOVA staff just shy of twenty years since I had arrived at WGBH. Although I would be back in the development grind, the familiar activities of research, reading, meeting with academics, etc., would seem like a vacation compared to the actual day-to-day running of a major documentary series.

I determined to run the next project differently.

I would no longer bring work home, especially anything that took critical evaluation and that could produce anxiety. Outlines, treatments and scripts would be dealt with early in the day, in the office! I would go to work early but leave at five o’clock each day.

I would schedule rough cuts and fine cuts at ten o’clock in the morning, leaving lots of time for the review of notes and suggestions for changes. Short screenings of scenes or revisions were OK for afternoons but major screenings required major attention and rested minds.

I would staff bigger. I needed help in management and editorial matters to ease the burden of every decision coming to me.

I would staff better. Hopefully, by time the next project was ready there would be a bigger pool of talented filmmakers. Since NOVA was a success, we might be able to attract more experienced people to come to Boston.

I would continue to trust my intuition. In the past, when I thought I was right, I was most often right. The times when I agreed to something with which I didn’t fully agree, I got in trouble.

What did NOVA mean?

NOVA proved that the documentary form was not dead. Bad documentaries may have seen their day, but well-researched, well-made documentaries with compelling stories had a place in the medium.

NOVA proved, against all the trendy current critics in public television circles, that the documentary form was not dead. Bad documentaries may have seen their day, but well-researched, well-made documentaries with compelling stories had a place in the medium.

NOVA proved that the strand concept worked and could be replicated. New series like WORLD and FRONTLINE and THE AMERICAN EXPERIENCE and NATURE could hope to be funded, produced and accepted, using NOVA at their model.

NOVA proved that ideas worked. Serious subjects, examined with a journalist’s sensitivity rather than an academic’s, could find a wide and appreciate audience. “If you make them, they will come!” (OK, “Field of Dreams” had not yet been made as a feature film, but the idea is valid.) Good shows will attract large audiences. Exceptional shows will do even better.

All those who thought NOVA would be a worthy addition to the PBS schedule, but would never be really popular, got a big surprise. NOVA did, and does, continue to outdraw most of the drama, dance, music and opera presented on PBS. Each season, when the “top ten” list is published, NOVA programs are in the majority.

We could do it”. With help from the BBC, Americans could come up to their quality, co-produce with them and even sell to them. That was unthinkable only a few years before. NOVA’s survival would now depend on the quality of the staff that had been trained.

Few of us could have predicted that NOVA would have survived for over thirty years nor that it would now be better and stronger and the most viewed science series in the world.

The foundations of WGBH: 84 Mass. Ave.

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

Many extraordinarily-gifted figures and luminaries of the day — in the arts, science, politics and education — found their ways into the halls and studios of the original WGBH-TV/FM studios at 84 Massachusetts Avenue, which were located just across the street from one of the main entrances to MIT, and close by Eero Saarenen’s beautiful Kresge Auditorium.

84 Massachusetts Avenue, Cambridge

WGBH first moved into the building in 1955, and a major expansion was accomplished in the fall of 1956. The fire, which destroyed it all, ending the station’s rather brief six year tenure, took place in October of 1961.

During those short six years though, the place was a veritable hot-bed of talent; many very successful careers were begun here, and much that was revolutionary in broadcasting history took place during WGBH’s time in the building.

Simulcasting (FM and TV) of the Boston Symphony Orchestra was pioneered in this building. The projection room was also home to the very first unit off the assembly line of the Ampex VR1000 2-inch videotape machine (the first videotape machine ever commercially available).

Much broadcast history was laid down at 84 Mass. Ave., and much accomplished which was the genesis of what WGBH has become today.

The Eastern Educational Network was dreamed up here, and eventually proved itself a model for vastly more extensive educational broadcast link-ups.

Even then WGBH was proving itself a production center to rival that of WNET in New York and KQED in San Francisco, the other two major centers supplying programming for NET (the National Educational Network). This was not an easy accomplishment, given that most major talents were located in New York, and had to be brought (lured by superior program ideas) to Boston to perform in WGBH television productions.

A certain reverence accompanies this presentation, as much broadcast history was laid down at 84 Mass. in six short years, and much accomplished which was the genesis of what WGBH has become today.

A space designed for creativity

I’ve taken the time to do this project since there are still a few of us who affectionately remember working in these rather modest, musty, and occasionally ill-fitting spaces, but also because there may also be some alums of more recent vintage with an interest in having some sense of the rather makeshift origins of the station’s facilities.

This journey into the past includes two annotated floor plans of 84 Mass. Ave. during that brief period. Likely this presentation is unique, since I believe none of the original blueprints exist, and as far as I know no one else has attempted such a reconstruction.

There are still a few of us who affectionately remember working in these rather modest, musty, and occasionally ill-fitting spaces.

Please also bear in mind that these drawings are a reconstruction completely from memory, and so there may be unintentional errors or omissions. I apologize for any of these in advance; but the building was configured this way almost 50 years ago, and memory can become a bit vague over time.

Since (I believe) no helpful dimensional information has survived the interim,these plans could not be drawn to scale. The measurements are quite approximate but, I also believe, give a good idea of what the original 84 Mass. Ave. facility looked like.

The slight angle of the rear wall is not a mistake.  I had thought I remembered it that way, and made the original drawings to reflect that.  Later, though, I doubted my memory and made the building rectangular.  In a very helpful email, however, Michael Ambrosino said that he remembered the building tapering toward the north, and so I revised my plan again to show that peculiarity.

I want, also, to offer a second apology here. Since far too many of the WGBH “family” worked in the various parts of the operation at 84 Mass. Ave., I will have forego trying to fit names with the spaces. Instead, I will mention only a few key figures. For those who will inevitably be left out, please don’t be hurt, and please forgive the omissions.

First some notes on the building itself, and the virtues and drawbacks it presented to a new WGBH-TV, and a somewhat more mature WGBH-FM.

From roller rink to educational link

The building was constructed as a roller rink, with the skating surface on the second floor, and balcony spaces for observation and relaxation on the third – as is the custom generally for skating facilities. The street floor was sub-divided into spaces to house several shops, offices and other store-front enterprises. I’d be surprised if it measured much more than 250 feet in length, 70 feet in depth, and about 40 feet in height.

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

WGBH did not own the building and, initially, the station rented only the south half of the upper two floors (to the left of the photo). The north half of both floors (to the right) housed a company which designed and built highly accurate atomic clocks — probably for MIT.

It was constructed of red brick, and judging by the rather stern and gloomy architecture — which may be seen in Brooks Leffler’s unique photo of the façade from across Mass. Ave. — probably dated from the 1920s or possibly the 1930s. It could possibly have been built in the early 1940s, but I doubt it. Renovations required to make the cavernous edifice fit the station’s needs were very extensive, and must have been quite costly.

Advantages and disadvantages

One advantage of the building — aside from its being located just across the street from MIT, or even in the same city as some of the nation’s most prestigious educational institutions — was that, while obviously not very fire resistant, it was a sturdy monolith, and didn’t need as much sound-proofing as might otherwise have been required.

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

One very major disadvantage, which plagued production work from the beginning to the end, was the studio floors (the original roller-skating surfaces) which were made of maple boards which had been washed too many times. The boards were all cupped from the moisture, and this made camera-dollying in most directions a horribly lumpy business.

As well, the cameras of the day were very heavy (about 250 pounds for a pedestal unit — God knows how close to a ton when the Fearless Panoram Dolly was used), and the creaking of the boards was heard on countless shows and recordings. We tried many solutions, including hand nailing each and every board down tighter, but all to no avail. For this reason the studios were a sound engineer’s, and camera operator’s, ongoing nightmare.

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

Other disadvantages included the fact that only the station’s top four or five executives had reserved parking spaces in MIT’s lot behind the building. The school’s parking facilities were even then over-subscribed. And so the rest of the nearly 100 staff had to do countless daily neighborhood drive-bys in order to find awfully scarce (and very frequently illegal) parking.

I don’t know who was responsible for all of the renovations that made the old rink suitable for a radio and television facility, but they do deserve abundant praise.

One notable exception was Bob Moscone, the studio supervisor (affectionately known to the studio minions as “The King”), who managed to convince all and sundry that an illegal spot on the alleyway sidewalk at the front left corner of the building was his (somehow, it was never ticketed). The only person I can remember ever successfully violating this unofficial convention was Al Hinderstein. Such chutzpa Al had!

And a final major disadvantage: there was almost no place nearby serving any kind of decent food. Under most of studio A the street floor did feature Tech Drug, a soda fountain with a large table area in which to eat lunch. Many from WGBH and MIT did so. But the food was — how can I put it diplomatically? — atrocious. Besides, they only served lunch, which is not very helpful to a staff most of which started work at 2 pm, rehearsed for three hours until 5:00pm when we took to the air, and left around 11:00pm.

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

There was an Italian restaurant about a block further into Cambridge, and the food was reasonably tasty, but that place only served dinner and the kitchen was not very clean (witness the many canker sores one could contract after eating there). Otherwise, we had to travel a bit of a distance to find eats. Bag lunches were by far our most common form of nourishment. Ah, but it all made the pioneering effort somehow more of a commitment, and bound us together the more tightly.

In fairness, I’ll hasten to observe that the two stages of renovations to make the old rink suitable for a radio and television facility were quite well thought out, and with considerable foresight. The layout and facilities were always practical, and served our basic needs quite admirably. I don’t know who was responsible for all that, but they do deserve abundant praise.

The tour begins

Well let’s get to the meat of the thing by bringing on the plans.

Click thumbnail to download floor plans

As a convention — and to avoid confusion — we will call the street floor of 84 Mass. the “street floor.” But the logic ends there. The second floor of 84 Mass. we will call the “studio floor” (since, obviously, the studios were all located there). The third, following similar reasoning, we will refer to as the “office floor.” Please remember that both floor plans reflect the layout following the occupation of the entire length of the building.

The drawings — one of the “studio floor” (floor 2), and one of the “office floor” (floor 3) — show the configuration of each floor after the expansion from occupancy of one half of the upper 2 floors of the building to filling of the entire upper 2 floors, from one end of the building to the other.

I very much hope you find this “magical mystery tour” enjoyable. If you’re one of the “original crowd,” you might test yourself on the floor plans before consulting the key numbers, just to see how well you remember the place — or if, perhaps, you remember it better than I. Maybe this will even coax a tear or two from a few old eyes.

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

Behind 84 Mass. Ave.

In the rear alley, the new/used WGBH-TV Greyhound bus resided while it was being converted to a mobile unit.  As luck would have it, the outfitting was very nearly complete when the building burned, and the bus became the literal life raft for the TV operation.  We did many productions using it, including parking it outside WHDH-TV, and shooting our own productions inside their studios.

What we accomplished here

From this humble home sprang the media colossus that is now WGBH. Sometimes (upstairs, in the heat of summer) we hated the place, but mostly we loved it dearly. What we did there, and who we were with each other, seem to have an ongoing life which can still be felt.

Looking back, it’s amazing what was accomplished in this place.

The fire was a catastrophe from which the public face of the station quickly recovered; the viewing audience barely noticed a hiccup. But we who salvaged what little was salvageable from the charred remains, even while pursuing a commitment to continue, did so in spite of a subtle but persistent state of shock.

It could be speculated that the fire actually catalyzed the station’s growth and rapid maturation, and that without that kick in the pants we might have languished in that old building, and in relative poverty. From adversity often comes strength, and out of ashes….

WGBH has had two more sets of digs since 84 Mass. For younger alums, and those who stayed on past the middle sixties, these newer abodes will form more of the framework of their recollections. Some of us, however, and with justification, will remember this original building fondly, and recall vividly the day of its demise.

With warmest regards,
Don Hallock

Kirk Browning, 86, WNET TV director

Kirk Browning

Kirk Browning, whose unusual career path took him from chicken farmer to television director of “Live From Lincoln Center,” died on Sunday in Manhattan. He was 86.

“Kirk contained the entire history of cultural television in our country,” Mr. Goberman said on Monday. “He started in 1948 with the NBC Symphony, and here he was at 86, still turning out fabulous performance television.” …

In addition to his “Live From Lincoln Center” programs, 10 of which won Emmy Awards, Mr. Browning eventually directed, among other productions the premiere of the first opera written expressly for television, Gian Carlo Menotti’s “Amahl and the Night Visitors” (1951); the first TV show with Frank Sinatra as host (1957); and “Hallmark Hall of Fame” music and drama specials (1951 to 1958).

For PBS he also directed many “Great Performances” and “Live From the Met” programs; “Pavarotti in Concert at Madison Square Garden”; and telecasts of numerous Broadway productions. He won two outstanding individual achievement Emmys for PBS programs: one in 1987 for “Goya With Plácido Domingo,” and one in 1988 for “Turandot” from the Met.

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.