Bruce Bordett: The place I wanted to be

From Bruce Bordett

Bruce Bordett (left) and Russ Morash at the 2000 Reunion

Sometime my senior year in college I decided that WGBH was the place I wanted to be. I started in the mailroom in 1971 and made it onto the crew about a year later. This I learned later was the time-honored path for many who had gone before me to find job happiness at the foundation. In truth, it was a great place to start… as I soon learned just who was who, where they sat, and what they did.

I loved working on the crew from day one. ‘GBH was such a great place to be in the ’70’s. Every day we worked on a different show. One day I was learning about strawberries from Jim Crockett, the next day speaking ubbie dubbie with the Zoomers. I learned about Itallian food from Franco and Margaret, and Ludvig B from Lenny Bernstein. Where in the world could you be surrounded by so much cool stuff and have the opportunity to meet so many wonderful characters?

When the Ronald Reagan put the squeeze on PBS and CPB in the early ’80’s things began to change. Money got tight, and a number of us were casualties. It worked out well for me as I landed a production spot at Digital Equipment. They were riding high in the ’80’s and seemed to have lots of dough for production. I had the opportunity to develop my craft learning to shoot, edit, direct, and design facilities.

For me, the ’90’s was the decade of Lotus Development. I was fortunate to have the chance to produce hundreds of projects for marketing, corporate communications, etc. In 2001, I started Bordett–MediaWorks, a small production company in Newton. I’m still involved in all kinds of projects for educational, corporate, non-profits, and private clients. My latest venture is making family documentaries to help people preserve their stories and histories. (milestonespictures.com)

I’ll always have a warm spot in my heart for all the wonderful people and experiences that were my WGBH days. I was, we were, very lucky to have shared that place.

WGBH Timeline (1946-1978)

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

1836

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

1946

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

1951

April

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

October 6

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

1955

May 2

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

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

October

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

1957

February

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

May

Hartford Gunn becomes WGBH station manager.

June

First “Boston Pops” telecast (from Kresge).

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

1958

March

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

Summer

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

September

Elliot Norton Reviews begins lengthy run.

November

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

1959

June

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

October

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

A Peabody Award goes to WGBH’s Decisions series.

1960

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

1961

October 14

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

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

1962

February

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

May

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

August

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

October 14

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

1963

August

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

October

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

1964

March

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

April

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

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

August 29

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

November

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

Late Fall

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

1965

April

Julia Child receives Peabody Award.

May 1

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

October

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

1966

Spring

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

May 31

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

June 17 – 18

Channel 2 transmitter is moved to Needham.

1967

March

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

June

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

September

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

October

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

November

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

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

1968

April 5

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

July

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

September

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

1969

April

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

October

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

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

November

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

1970

February

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

July

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

October

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

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

1971

January

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

April

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

October

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

November

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

1972

January

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

October

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

1973

January

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

April

Death of Robert Larsen.

May

ZOOM and The Advocates are awarded Emmys.

June

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

November

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

December

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

1974

January

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

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

March

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

May

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

October

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

November

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

1975

January

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

February

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

March

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

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

1976

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

April

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

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

November

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

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

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

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

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

1977

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1978

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Fond Farewell to Helen Fox

From QuickNooz (with permission)

Former ’GBHer Helen Fox passed away on Tues, 7/22. Helen worked at ’GBH during the Foundation’s early days. She started as a volunteer, and she stayed for 17 years, working in Fundraising and in ZOOM.

In an interview in the WGBH Archives (conducted by Fred Barzyk as part of an oral history project), the late David Ives credits Helen with showing him the fundraising ropes; apparently, Helen was known as WGBH’s human computer.

NOVA: From the beginning (1970s)

This entry is part 1 of 11 in the series The Michael Ambrosino Collection

From Ben Shedd

I’m part of the group from the 1970s at ‘GBH, when NOVA was in some ways almost a separate unit at the station. It’s wonderful to learn about the history of WGBH and see why such grand programming has come from the people who worked there through the decades. I’m glad to be part of the great mix of talent who have worked at WGBH.

Michael Ambrosino called 27 years ago from WGBH looking for science filmmakers for a new unnamed science series he was starting. I had just finished my USC Film School Master’s thesis film project, an educational science film titled Mars Minus Myth with Planetary Geologist Professor Bruce Murray from the California Institute of Technology. Michael had gotten my name from the Public Affairs office at Cal Tech.

All the producers and associate producers for the original NOVA teams came from either England … or Los Angeles or New York in the United States. It was almost as if we parachuted into this wonderful creative incubator place and were set to work.

I knew about WGBH and can remember I’d seen a very creative black and white drama on WGBH around 1969 (which I later learned Fred Barzyk directed and Boyd Estus shot). It was like the films I was making in Film School. It had inspired me as being artful like I wanted my work to be.

I was a native Californian and was interested in seeing what other places in the US were like — places with seasons and older buildings — and the possibility of moving to Boston was an intriguing idea. I was hired as part of the original NOVA team and moved my family east. I was 26 years old.

All the producers and associate producers for the original NOVA teams came from either England (with experience on the Horizon series) or Los Angeles or New York in the United States. It was almost as if we parachuted into this wonderful creative incubator place and were set to work.

We started at 125 Western Avenue — 12 new people jammed into an already packed building — and soon moved to 475 Western along with Topper Carew’s Say Brother team, the ZOOM mailroom, and the Film Department. One of the great things about working at ‘GBH was going through the ZOOM Mailroom to get to my office, and picking up a few ZOOMDo’s cards for my daughter. The day-to-day operation of WGBH was down the street from where we worked.

I remember Michael Ambrosino’s entire office door covered with colored 3×5 cards with lots of potential names for the series. NOVA was one of maybe three dozen names under consideration. I took several animation cels home one weekend and mocked up title designs for three or four of the finalists. NOVA was among them and I tripled exposed Helvetica type exploding out of a star photo (kind of like the logo looks nowadays). I think Michael had already decided on NOVA, but he liked the action in the image.

I was paired with Senior BBC Horizon Producer Simon Campbell-Jones as his Associate Producer and Terry Rockefeller, from WGBH, was the Production Assistant. We were the first team to begin production for NOVA. When team #1 was trying to decide on what program to do first, we narrowed the choices down to the then new subject of artificial intelligence with scientists from MIT or water resources as modeled by the Colorado River. We decided on the Colorado River program for two reasons: 1) It was important that NOVA establish itself as a national program and not just a Boston based project, and 2) I remember Simon asking “Which river do you want to go cross over, the Charles or the Colorado?” We left Boston for 43 days on location, from the top of the Colorado River in the Rockies to where it runs dry in the Mexican desert.

While working on that first NOVA program, my thesis project science film about Mars was winning numerous awards, including two we heard about in one week. Michael Ambrosino made a party out of that news. It might have been one of our several ventures to the Harvard Faculty club for lunch.

By the time I wrapped up three years at NOVA, I traveled to more than half the States in this country, and visited numerous Universities while filming …

By the time I wrapped up three years at NOVA, I traveled to more than half the States in this country, and visited numerous Universities while filming, including Princeton where I am now a Visiting Senior Research Scholar and Lecturer — but I get ahead of myself.

When Simon returned to England after a year at WGBH, I moved to the Producer/Director role on team #1 and Terry Rockefeller took my position as Associate Producer. Marian White joined as PA.

While making my first NOVA program — 58 minutes and 38 seconds long with no breaks – there was a moment (or two) during editing when I was struggling to make sense of all the material. Fellow Producer Francis Gladstone happened by the editing room one day and asked me what was the longest film I produced before. I said, “20 minutes” and he then told me no wonder I was having a time of it, going from 20 minutes of sequences and continuity to 58 minutes. He and the other BBC producers had been working on 48 minute long shows at the BBC before coming to the States and he said they had a heck of a time going to 58 minutes. That made me laugh enough to get back to work and finish Why Do Birds Sing? which opened the 1974 second season. The Bird Song program was rerun several times over the years, including on election night in 1976 when all the network stations were showing national election returns for Carter/Ford. The only other thing to watch on TV that night was Why Do Birds Sing? and other PBS fare.

I started my now 24-year-old production company with a contract from WGBH to produce an independent project for NOVA, a film about human powered flight. While on vacation in California, I had met Dr. Paul MacCready, now known as the father of human powered flight, just after he sketched out his first idea for the Gossamer Condor airplane. I loved the idea of being able to film a great moving airplane, and it was clear to me that it would make a fascinating film following the process of science story of an invention in progress. My family and I were also interested in moving back to California. While based in Boston, I was so often on the road filming or in the editing room that I hardly got to know the place.

I did my by-then-usual NOVA research about the subject of human powered flight and became immersed in the world of slow speed flight. MacCready showed me his sketches and I noticed a detail which gave me great confidence to move ahead with the film. In his plans to make an airplane wing using hang glider structure — triangulated wires from a center post holding the huge wing rather than box construction on the inside — MacCready had designed a wing with one tenth the wing-area-to-weight ratio of any other human powered airplane. If the plane could be built and hold together, it was going to do something significant and it was an easy decision for me to make plans to film the project as far as the plane team would take it.

Boyd Estus (whom I’d worked with on 4 of the 6 NOVAs — Peter Hoving shot the other two) left the WGBH film department to come join me in the production. With the Gossamer Condor contract, he bought his own 16mm camera and started what’s become Heliotrope Productions.

To make a long story short, the invention of the first successful human powered airplane in history didn’t happen in time for the scheduled TV airdate and the project was written of
f. Shedd Productions, Inc. continued the production and the finished film showing the whole story of making the Gossamer Condor airplane went on to win numerous international awards including the Oscar Academy Award for Best Documentary Short Subject of 1978. The Flight of the Gossamer Condor film is the only science documentary film to receive an Academy Award.

Shedd Productions, Inc. licensed Gossamer Condor footage to the BBC Horizon series where my mentor Simon Campbell-Jones (by then Executive Producer of Horizon) produced the program Icarus’ Children, which was later shown on the NOVA series. The Gossamer Condor airplane has been in the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum since 1979, and the film was premiered there in the IMAX Theater, a small 16mm image in the middle of the huge screen. Now, excerpts from the film are shown continuously in a video kiosk as part of the permanent display of the plane.

  • Note: see The Flight of the Gossamer Condor film’s Web site for additional information.

Almost twenty years after NOVA began production, I had the great pleasure to reunite members of the original NOVA team #1 in 1990-1992 for the IMAX film Tropical Rainforest.

I produced and directed the Tropical Rainforest film through my production company then based in New Mexico (where I found buildings and cultures much older than those in Boston).

Simon wrote the 400,000,000-year evolution story of the rainforest in non-rhyming iambic pentameter. … When the huge IMAX film was shrunk to video and DVD, it became quite a beautiful tone poem.

I hired Marian White as Producer with me on the film (when we weren’t on location, Marian commuted west two weeks every month for two years while not leaving her New England roots) and brought in Simon Campbell-Jones from London to write the lyrical narration. Simon wrote the 400,000,000-year evolution story of the rainforest in non-rhyming iambic pentameter. The Tropical Rainforest film has been playing on some IMAX type screen somewhere on the planet almost continuously since 1992. When the huge IMAX film was shrunk to video and DVD, it became quite a beautiful tone poem.

I was in Boston — either in 1988 for a screening of my IMAX film Seasons or in the early 1990’s while working on the Tropical Rainforest film — when ‘GBH was closing down 475. I went over to my old offices with Boyd Estus and helped pull down some coat racks that I had helped put up in 1973. Even as a short timer at WGBH, I saw great changes over the years.

I still have a copy of the original American Association for the Advancement of Science White Paper that Michael Ambrosino wrote to create the NOVA series. Its called The Science Program Group for Public Television in the United States. AAAS Miscellaneous Publication 73-3.

Michael began with one of his always clear and direct comments: “Objectives: We, the Science Program Group, have these aims: We want to show the way the world works.” And later he wrote, “The Science Program Group will be founded on its first project: the development of an imaginative and entertaining science series for the adult and young audience, to awaken an interest in the nature of man and his world and to foster public understanding of science.” In 31 brief pages, he envisioned and changed the face of US television.

The Concluding Note reads: “The group would evolve a policy for publishing books, television cassettes and records — these are in the future. (Indeed, VCRs were still far in the future.) The first priority is to establish the Science Program Group as a first-rate television production unit and to get its first series before the American public.” The White Paper is dated March 1973. In March 1974, NOVA was on the air.

A few years ago, Michael invited me to join him and others from NOVA in Washington DC when the NOVA series received the first National Science Foundation National Science Board Public Service Award. NOVA was honored along with Jane Goodall and it was nice to meet many of the present NOVA production group who make the series.

After NOVA being on the air for 25 years, when I say I worked at WGBH, Boston on the NOVA series … its a great mark of professional stature and acclaim of which I am very proud.

For several years after leaving WGBH, it didn’t ring many bells when I mentioned that I had worked on the NOVA series. Such was living in Hollywood. But now after NOVA being on the air for 25 years, when I say I worked at WGBH, Boston on the NOVA series — on NOVA program #1 — its a great mark of professional stature and acclaim of which I am very proud. As I read through the Reunion notes and memories, I see WGBH is a very special place, where programs like NOVA can happen.

Thanks, Michael, for bringing me to WGBH, Boston in the early days of NOVA, and thanks to everyone who has worked to keep NOVA vital and on the air.

When Ben Shedd wrote this story in 2000, he was Visiting Senior Research Scholar and Lecturer in the Department of Computer Science at Princeton University. http://www.sheddproductions.com.