Though she did not own a TV set, Julia had been bitten by the television bug from the moment she set foot on a studio set. She and her coauthor and best friend, Simone “Simca” Beck, had appeared on NBC’s Today show to promote Mastering , and afterward Julia wrote: “TV was certainly an impressive new medium.” (She would soon buy her first television with the proceeds from book sales.) By then, she had been teaching cooking for nine years and was on a mission to spread the gospel of “le gout francais” — the very essence of French taste — which she fervently believed could be reproduced by American cooks in their home kitchens. All that was needed, Julia said, were a set of clear instructions, the right tools and ingredients, and a little encouragement..
In April 1962, shortly after appearing on I’ve Been Reading, Julia typed a memo to WGBH in which she laid out a vision for “an interesting, adult series of half-hour TV programs on French cooking addressed to an intelligent, reasonably sophisticated audience which likes good food and cooking.”
Each program, Julia suggested, should focus on just a few recipes, and her cooking demonstration — “informal, easy, conversational, yet timed to the minute” — should lead to a discussion of broader culinary matters, such as “a significant book on cooking or wine, an interesting piece of equipment, or a special product.” Julia suggested that other experts, such as a pastry chef or a sommelier, appear as guests, and that well-known chefs — such as James Beard or Joseph Donon (a master French cuisinier) — cook side by side with her on the show.
WGBH had never produced a cooking program, had a small audience, was largely run by volunteers, and operated on a shoestring budget. But encouraged by the public’s strong response to Julia on I’ve Been Reading, the station arranged for her to shoot three trial episodes of a televised cookery show.
On June 18, 1962, the Childs arrived at a borrowed “studio” in downtown Boston — actually, the demonstration kitchen of the Boston Gas Co. — to shoot the initial pilot episode, “The French Omelette.” (Julia preferred the French spelling of that word.) Julia brought her own frying pan, spatula, butter, and eggs. The lights flicked on, and the show’s producer, 28-year-old Russell “Russ” Morash, directed two stationary cameras. Because videotape was so dear, the show was essentially shot “live” in one continuous half-hour take. “I careened around the stove for the allotted twenty-eight minutes, flashing whisks and bowls and pans, and panting a bit under the hot lights,” she recalled. “The omelette came out just fine. And with that, WGBH-TV had lurched into educational television’s first cooking program.”
The second and third pilot episodes, “Coq au Vin” and “Souffles,” were both shot on June 25. This time, Julia had rehearsed the shows at home. Paul built a replica of the set in their kitchen, labeled utensils, made sure the ingredients were measured beforehand, and coached Julia with a stopwatch. Though she continued to gasp and misplace things, she grew more self-assured with each performance.
Julia’s special sauce — her ability to blend deep knowledge, broad experience, precise technique, self-deprecating humor, and infectious enthusiasm — won the public’s heart. There was simply no one quite like her on TV. Julia loved this “high-wire act,” but admitted that she was “a complete amateur” and had no idea how she came across on TV. The answer was simple: The camera, and the audience, loved her.
In response to the “Coq au Vin” show, a viewer named Irene McHogue wrote: “Not only did I get a wonderfully refreshing new approach to the preparation and cooking of said poultry, but really and truly one of the most surprisingly entertaining half hours I have ever spent before the TV in many a moon. I love the way she projected over the camera directly to me the watcher. Loved watching her catch the frying pan as it almost went off the counter; loved her looking for the cover of the casserole.”
Encouraged, WGBH signed Julia up for a 26-episode series. Ruth Lockwood, the assistant producer, scrounged up a track of bouncy French theme music. Unable to decide on a name for the program, Julia called it The French Chef — though she was neither French nor a professional chef (she called herself “a cook”) — until she could invent a better title.
In the first episode, a slightly nervous, fresh-faced Julia demonstrated how to make boeuf bourguignon, the venerable beef stew that would run as a leitmotif through her career. At the end of the show, she tucked a dish towel into her apron, and spontaneously said: “This is Julia Child. Bon appetit!”
When The French Chef hit the Boston airwaves in 1963, WGBH shared copies of the tapes with sister stations, allowing viewers in New Hampshire, Maine, Pennsylvania, and parts of New York to watch Julia a week after she aired in Boston. It would start being distributed nationally the next year.
The audience responded viscerally. You are a delight! wrote housewives, hippies, taxi drivers, MIT scientists, and Wall Streeters. The French Chef was “educational TV’s answer to underground movie and pop/op cults,” Joan Barthel wrote in The New York Times Magazine. “The program can be campier than ‘Batman,’ farther-out than ‘Lost in Space,’ and more penetrating than ‘Meet the Press’ as it probes the question: Can a Society be Great if its bread tastes like Kleenex?”
A big part of Julia’s allure was her natural ease on TV. Her combination of grace and awkwardness built a sense of trust and intimacy with the audience, which was reinforced by her deep knowledge and sure technique. She used humor to keep her viewers engaged, but because she was so technically adept, she (usually) managed to triumph over adversity.
She would start making a quiche, misplace her glasses or lose her train of thought, find them again, and carry on. She would rapidly and expertly dice a pile of mushrooms, fillet a trout, and demonstrate how to encase poached eggs in a delicate consomme gelatin (oeufs en gelee). But in the next instant, a spoon would go flying off-screen, an Apple Charlotte would collapse and she’d mash it back together with her fingers (“It will taste even better this way”), or she’d incinerate the croutons atop a French onion soup into charcoal briquettes (“That’s beautiful! There you are. I think that possibly that browned a little bit too much. But I don’t know. It gives a very good effect.”)
Confronted by a mishap, Julia would look momentarily befuddled and cuss under her breath or just tilt her head back and laugh….
Julia liked to point the TV camera straight down into a pot of softly bubbling boeuf bourguignon to show what it should look like as it cooked. It was instructive, but it also activated your taste buds and tempted you to dive right through the screen to dig into a heaping bowl of that succulent comfort food. “To do that is not easy,” observed the chef Jacques Pepin. “She had a very rare quality.”…
Though she disliked “tooting my own horn,” Julia had a messianic zeal for spreading culinary knowledge. In championing the pleasure of shopping, cooking, eating, and even of cleaning the dishes, she became a role model for people of all genders, races, ages, and creeds. For her, kitchen work was not “domestic drudgery,” it was “such fun!” With the battle cry “Bon appetit!” she reinvented what it meant to be a television chef and brought a growing audience of American home cooks along for the ride.
By John McCormick
After 3 years as a physics major at Northeastern I dropped out (sort of) and started taking night courses at Harvard Extension. In those days that was a very advanced major essentially only prep for graduate school – there were only 12 freshman physics majors which became 4 in my rotation by Sophomore year. (NU was and is a co-op school where upper classes are divided into two schedules.)
I found that my high school hadn’t prepared me well enough to be a productive physicist (at 19 I was already too old to start serious work) so, even with fine grades, I had to move on. I decided to take courses which interested me rather than those which would earn a degree.
My girlfriend from NU was working at WGBH during her co-op semesters and she introduced me to the new HR person (who had recently started the department) so I began work in Traffic, picking up the mail each a.m. and even delivering donations downtown to the bank once a week, along with hauling show tapes around.
Her name is Mary Lou Finnegan and one time Ron Della Chiesa took both of us to the Opera. She was quite popular and I hadn’t grown into my reporter’s cynicism and become the curmudgeon 40 years of journalism has made me. When I heard Ron was writing his book I sent him an email and he either did remember me or was kind enough to pretend he did in his reply.
I must say Ron was (and probably still is) a wonderful person as were about 99% of those there.
I did have to stand up to 10 minutes of cursing and berating by one person who yelled at me because one day his newspaper wasn’t in the rack in the hall outside Traffic. The fact that I didn’t handle the papers and had no idea who got which one, nor was I able to see them from where I worked, nor did I have any slight involvement with them didn’t seem to matter, he just went on and on. That was about the only sour note of my entire time there.
I lost that traffic job in part because of him and because I didn’t have a big enough car but was immediately taken on by Buildings and Grounds.
Things were a lot looser in those days and one day I came in to find an old man who looked familiar sitting in the outer lobby. I asked and he said he was waiting to visit someone, so I took Hoagy Carmichael in past reception, I just couldn’t walk away leaving him sitting all alone in the outer reception area. I’m not positive, but I’m pretty certain his son or stepson was working at WGBH.
Another time I also found a door guard sleeping – he was added security from an outside contractor during one auction. After reporting this to my boss, I was threatened by the head of the security company which I also immediately reported. I only mention that because years later I worked for the same security company but the head didn’t recognize me.
I’ll tell the story of one bright and stormy night at an Auction in a separate posting.
By John McCormick
It was Bright with the promise of an ongoing successful auction, and Bright in flashes from the lightning storm passing across the Massachusetts Bay.
As a low-level employee, I got lots of odd jobs from on camera clothes horse during an Auction segment to running the lights for a time.
I also had free time when I wandered around looking for interesting things I could help out with, especially during Auction time when I worked a regular shift and then stayed on to volunteer.
Over the years several times I was called in to Hartford Gunn’s office, but not for something I did wrong. Somehow it got around that I was a car buff and more than once he actually asked me questions and for advice.
That led to even more odd jobs no matter what my actual job description was. The most unusual were during Auctions.
And so, back to the Auction.
The grip at that time was also a welder. He normally set up the lighting and then ran the board when a show was being taped or especially during live broadcasts.
But during one Auction someone picked up a piece of practice welding had made and deemed it a sculpture which sold well.
Since there was lots of scrap metal around he instantly turned from lights to an artist and began turning out more items.
To do so, he left studio control and turned all the lights up full on in all the working studios and went off to make more “sculptures” to auction off.
But there are always unintended consequences.
It was hot and muggy that evening and the heat load from all those studio lights being on all the time was threatening to trigger a systems failure, possibly putting us off the air.
I worked in Building and Grounds at the time and since we were responsible for the AC system my boss came up with the idea that I should sit in studio control and run the lights, keeping them off in the standby studios and thus letting the AC systems cope with all the heat.
I did this for hours on end — it is a simple enough job — I just had to pay attention to when the director (sorry, can’t recall which one) was about to switch studios and bring the lights up in that studio in plenty of time. After the switch I turned down the lights in the last studio.
All was going well and the director had hardly noticed me.
Then, just after Dave Garroway finished showing viewers how to make a tool which would show them how to determine if a skyscraper (or tree) would hit them if it were to fall in their direction*, disaster struck.
We were in the middle of a fun entertainment segment with one of the pioneers of television.
The director was about to change studios and I had anticipated it by bringing up the lights … but just then all the monitors blacked out.
I instantly shoved all the lights up to full on everyplace since I had no idea what had happened and also no idea where the director would want to switch to.
But the director thought I had done something wrong and ordered me out (I didn’t blame him, directing an Auction can be extremely stressful – no time to realize that it wasn’t low light in the studio which completely blanked the control room monitors..)
Of course it wasn’t anything I had done, lightning had hit nearby tripping the breakers on all those expensive Marconi cameras.
But the storm hit, the evening had cooled off, and hours of keeping the heat load down by dimming the lights in unused studios had let the AC system recover so I wasn’t needed.
I treasure my time at WGBH but when a “real” job more in my area came along I joined Wang Labs as a purchasing agent and mainframe supervisor (and in charge of traffic and B&G) at a service bureau in Arlington where we ran one of the largest IBM systems on the East Coast.
I left TV with no regrets but still, many decades later, when I had my animal sanctuary in central PA — after decades as an author and political/science/medical/technology reporter — I did a live cooking segment at WQED in Pittsburgh where I demonstrated my Emu Chili recipe. I mostly did it because a neighbor who helped out at the sanctuary wanted to become a TV news reader so her mother and I secretly planned to get her on-air time as my assistant.
She was thrilled to discover that although his program had ended, Fred Rogers Neighborhood set was still there and when I was being miked she was a bit stunned to find she was getting wired also but she did great and I felt that even at 14 she was going to do well in TV.
Kimmy went on to become Homecoming Queen at Penn State but after a year or two doing occasional standups she met and married a soldier and turned her back on TV.
That cooking show segment with Chris Fennimore around 2005 was only my second time on TV in a studio. I just had no interest in on air work. I was and am a print journalist – that way I can skip makeup and leave my hair long.
I did end up on some news segments locally because of my Emergency Management work and twice on the local news because of the gas well fracking on my property – the wells weren’t the problem, the trouble was the well tenders who kept leaving my ranch gates open so the miniature horses and rare St. Jacob Sheep got out.
Using my knowledge of TV I got news crews out and raised public opinion among other ranchers and farmers against the gas company involved.
BTW, I now live in Groundhog Central, Punxsutawney, PA., am semi-retired, contributing to a professional Science Fiction magazine, an Australia-based international news organization, and the British branch of a Switzerland-based online news service. In my copious free time raising two St. Weiler pups (puppybyday.blogspot.com), I also publish Kindle books and maintain a critical medical news blog where I try to get vital new developments (such as how to tell if a comatose patient is likely to ever wake up) to doctors and patients (criticalmedicalnews.blogspot.com/).
I’m working on my next book right now, a mixture of the latest science and my life with 24 dogs (over 4 decades, not all at once.)
When it is published (probably November 15) I’ll be happy to send a free copy of the Kindle book to any alumnus who requests it. It’s called “Everywhere I Turn There’s A Wet Nose.”
* (Hint, you fold a piece of typing paper you can sight along to see if you are too close.)
From Fred Barzyk
In the early 1960s, a young producer joined the small WGBH staff. David Sloss had graduated from Harvard and was searching to find a career that fulfilled his interest in performance and music. He was soon asked to produce Folk Music, USA, a local Channel 2 show featuring performances of live folk music.
David booked all the great folk musicians who appeared in Boston; José Felcicano, Phil Ochs, Tom Paxton, Dave Van Ronk, Doc Watson, Eric Von Schmidt, Geoff and Maria Muldaur, Jim Kweskin and the Jug Band, Tom Rush, Charles River Valley Boys, and many others.
After several years of producing programs at WGBH, David moved to San Francisco where he became a conductor of the Fremont Symphony Orchestra, 1980 to 2012.
While at WGBH, David composed this station break. Here is what he wrote about the piece:
I wrote this song for the WGBH auction, and I’m pretty sure it was for the first auction we did, so there are probably a number of WGBH old-timers who could pinpoint the year. We performed it live on the air during the auction. I think I remember Mike Ambrosino or David Ives introducing it on camera: “Usually when we take a station break, there isn’t much we need say about it. But on this occasion, I have to introduce ____ and ____ on tenor, David Sloss on baritone, Dave Davis on bass, and Newton Wayland on piano!” (I can’t remember who the tenors were.)
And now, Fred Barzyk has re-created it in 2016.
You’ve got to say goodbye to that vast wasteland
You’ve got to say hello to that good-taste land
Culture and art can be really grand
On WGBH Boston
This version is performed by singer Roy Early and pianist Brian Snow.
By Vic Washkevich, in the Boston University alumni magazine, May, 2015
Way back in the summer of 1957, 10 new scholars arrived at BU’s Graduate School of Communications with the mission to attend school by day and become the arms and legs of WGBH-TV by night. Our scholarships were made possible trough the generosity of the Lowell Foundation.
Back then, WGBH-TV was on air from 6 until 11 p.m., Monday through Friday. The station was on Massachusetts Avenue in Cambridge, directly across from MIT and one floor above a luncheonette, in a space that once housed a roller skating rink.
It was the TV equivalent of a garage band. The cameras were atop wooden fixed tripods that we prodded across floors furrowed by time and neglect, directing our tired picture tubes, rescued from the WBZ-TV dumpster, at luminaries from Harvard and MIT who discussed things esoteric. Surely, it was then and there that the phrase “talking heads” was coined and became part of the English lexicon.
In our youth, nothing seemed insurmountable. We approached every challenge with the old Mickey Rooney “Let’s put on a show!” enthusiasm.
All programming was live, back-to-back, and broadcast from a single studio. We raced from the director’s booth to man a camera, then to pull a cable, then to operate a boom mike every night for a year.
And so, with our primitive, fragile equipment, we aired the Boston Symphony Orchestra, the Boston Arts Festival, Father Norman J. O’Connor (known as The Jazz Priest), and much more.
Several of us made it through the entire year, became fast friends, and have remained close over the years via reunions at regular intervals, including John Fusilli (COM ’59), Stew White (COM ’58), Paul Noble (COM ’58), Bob Moscone (DGE ’49), and Don Mallinson (DGE ’56, COM ’57).
By Alan W. Potter (WGBH: 1955-85)
It’s October 13th 1961. About 11:00 p.m. Work is over for the day. But, before we can leave, we have to finish what remains of our daily cleanup: sweep and mop the studio floors. Cleanup the studio and the control room. Shut down all electronics. Pull the cameras back into their corral and neatly figure eight all camera cables. Then – Days end! Lights out! Head home!
By 11:30 p.m. give or take a few minutes, I am in my car on the way home, except for one quick stop at the Zebra Lounge, the favorite end of the day nightly stop. Shortly after one a.m. (closing time), I am heading down Storrow Drive. By 2:00 a.m. I am placing my ear gently against the pillow looking forward to a peaceful end of the week and then sleep.
Little did I know, nor could I have ever imagined the events that were about to unfold and how my life was about to change. About three hours into my reverie, I was unmercifully poked awake. Someone was yelling in my ear: “Wake up, wake up!” “Channel two is on fire and has just burnt to the ground.” I really didn’t want to face the day at 7:00 a.m.
I struggled to bring myself out of sleep. I was trying hard to find my way out of that middle distance between asleep and awake when nothing that is going on around you makes any sense. The radio was turned up and I began to focus on the news through the remaining haze of sleep. As I focused, I heard, “Early this morning at approximately 4:30 a.m. a devastating fire occurred at the Channel Two Studios on Massachusetts Avenue in Cambridge. The building is a total loss. More news about this fire in our next newscast in fifteen minutes.”
As I sat on the edge of my bed trying to clear my head, I was really hoping that sleep would come again. The haze lifted. I pulled on the clothes I’d left the station just a short three hours ago as all sorts of things raced through my mind: was it a carelessly discarded cigarette, arson, bad electrical wiring, a forgotten soldering iron that wasn’t unplugged, a discontent listener reacting to a program? What the hell happened? Was it something I did!? What?
Little did I know, nor could I have ever imagined that the three hours of sleep I got that morning of October 14th 1961 would be the longest hours I spent in bed for months – maybe years!
I lurched out of bed dressed just enough to be decent, but not shaved or showered as I usually did at the start of the day, and not dressed in my usual clean starched blue oxford button down shirt and chinos. I was too preoccupied with the morning news and still reacting to the news broadcast I heard while still in “the middle distance.” Body moving – mind trying to catch up – running on automatic.
As I opened the car door and turned the ignition key, the only thought I had was to get to the station to see for myself that this was no joke!
The trip that morning is a blur. I was almost at the intersection of Mem. Drive and Mass. Ave. when I saw a parking spot. What luck! I started running the remaining few feet to Mass. Ave. and turned facing the burning remains that were Channel Two. What a shock!
I kept running. I passed the steps at the front entrance of MIT, which was directly opposite the Channel Two Studio building. After turning onto Mass. Ave., my legs went into overdrive. If I had been running the Boston Marathon I would be on record pace! I heard applause. But even though I was pretty jacked-up and still a little hazy from my rude awakening, the applause brought me finally into reality mode.
They were all there, and they had all arrived before I did. Who? The whole gang. Bob Moscone dressed to the nines as usual. Ken Anderson, Jack Kean – smoking his.5¢ cigar. Bob Hall. Fran Abramowicz and others including my pal Al Hinderstein, Hindy, who joined me for lunch on those step from time to time when the weather was just right.
They had been watching the Cambridge Fire Department for a while and observing the progress of extinguishing the fire so they all knew the status of things. I ran up the steps – raised my hands in wonder and managed to let out a question: “So?” Silence.
The building was still smoldering. The fire department continued to pump water into the second and third floors of the building to completely douse the fire. It took a while. But, when they were satisfied that the fire was completely out, we were allowed to go into certain parts of the building which were deemed to be safe. The building had been a lot of things over the years before the Channel Two Studios were located there. (The exact location of the building has been memorialized with a plaque, which can be seen by visiting the space once occupied by WGBH at that time.)
- See also: The WGBH Fire by Don Hallock
The fire gutted the middle of the building. And destroyed the West end. The West end was the most flammable: scenery, wood, and sawdust accumulated in the scene shop. There was also an antique freight elevator. This area was also badly destroyed in the fire.
Fortunately, the East end of the building was spared total destruction and it was from the technical areas there that we were able to salvage some valuable technical equipment, which was stored at MIT’s Kresge Auditorium located on MIT property behind the Channel Two Studio building. Between the building and the Kresge Auditorium there was an alley: our parking area, if you got lucky and arrived early. At the time the fire struck, we were converting an old Greyhound Bus to a TV Mobile Unit to handle location production demand which was growing by leaps and bounds. Between the salvaged and repaired equipment rescued from the fire and generous donations from many other sources to numerous to mention, the “new” mobile unit was operable within weeks.
The most memorable vision I often recall that occurred during the few days that surrounded the conflagration that took our studios on that fateful night was of a Cambridge Firefighter during the cleanup of the remains of the fire.
It was on the day of or the day after the fire when we were told it was safe enough to enter the East end of the building to start saving whatever we could. I was working breaking down equipment in the Telecine area and the Studio “A” control Room, disconnecting miles and miles of wiring and moving salvageable gear to the storage location at Kresge Auditorium.
These areas (Telecine and the Studio A control room) were separated from the studio by glass walls so we were able to look out into the studio and see, by eye, the physical action taking place there during studio production.
I had already made several trips in and out of the building. I had just climbed the rear fire escape – again, to start more salvage – and as I cautiously prepared to remove more electronics from the telecine room, I happened to look out into the remains of the Studio and there in the middle of this burned and blackened void was a lone Firefighter standing almost up to his knees in water and other detritus left over from when the fire was at its worst. In his grasp: a huge hand auger – standard fire truck gear. Twisting it a half a turn at a time in an effort to drill a drain hole to let the heavy water collected in the second level of the building to drain out to avoid the possibility of a building collapse seemed to me to be a herculean task.
Little did he know, nor would he ever have imagined that a roller skating rink occupied that space years before and the floor was under laid with cork making a more gentle floor for falling roller skaters. When he pulled the auger, the hole closed up the way a wine cork closes around a cork screw. I couldn’t help but chuckle. He didn’t know, but I thought I had found a kindred soul.
We were both engaged in hopeless tasks. I was engaged in salvaging soaked, blackened electronics, which I could not imagine would ever work again. He too, was attempting the seemingly impossible. Years later after we had been long out of the Mass. Ave. Building, I would find water stained, blackened pieces of electronics that I was sure I personally salvaged from the fire and I would think of that Fireman. I have no idea whether he ever managed to drill through that studio floor. The building eventually had to be destroyed. All that is left now is a pleasant grassy, green patch along Massachusetts Avenue opposite the Main Entrance of MIT. And a plaque.
The lesson of the day: you have to keep trying no matter how impossible a task my seem, and I am glad I learned that lesson that day. Years later, I was still working at Channel Two. Who would have ever thought it? I often thought back to that Fireman’s hopeless effort whenever I was faced with a seemingly hopeless task of my own.
What was next?
I was not the only one who wondered about the future of WGBH TV.
Did we dare think that like the beautiful Phoenix Bird, it would rise again from its ashes to become more wondrous than ever before. Would Channel Two emerge from the disastrous fire that destroyed it to become even more extraordinary than it had been since its beginning just a few years earlier. The answer already exists in WGBH’s illustrious history.
Mystery is a wonderful motivator. What next? That was the question on everyone’s mind back then. Channel Two had auspicious beginnings. All of the member institutions were great success stories themselves going back many, many years. The staff at that time (1961) were all goal driven, well educated, and focused on accomplishment and becoming pioneers in television broadcasting. Television was still in its very early years. After the fire, I don’t know of a single staff member who threw in the towel and walked away to find another future.
Imagine: as I write this it is now July of 2016, 55 years and 5 months after that fateful day: October 14, 1961.
Or, was it a fateful day? I suppose any day one looses his place of business – where you have a job and income doing things you love to do with people you love to work with — can be called a fateful day. But this was a different fateful day.
Looking back over the last 55 plus years, it’s easy to relive moments, circumstances, people, places, activities and the many, many challenges that have been cast before me and how that contributed to my personal and professional growth. That fateful day placed many WGBHers on a path to accomplishment and success. There weren’t many of those original WGBH staff and those who followed shortly after the fire, who didn’t make Channel Two a career.
The spirit of those early staffers seemed to become imbued in others as they joined our ranks. The spirit was infectious. The prospects of a future now etched in history.
There is no doubt that Channel Two’s history plays one of the most significant roles in the Public Television Story. I am certain that all those who lived through the destruction of the Station in 1961 stayed on and others came because there was something magical about working here and it was patently clear that as our programming evolved, television technology improved and our ability to experiment was encouraged. The opportunity for personal growth was boundless.
Who could have ever imagined?
From Fred Barzyk (7/20/2016):
Here are my memories of an important civil rights program produced by WGBH in 1963, “The Negro and The American Promise.”
I was assigned to direct, working with executive producer, Henry Morgenthau III, who also produced Prospects of Mankind with Eleanor Roosevelt (1959), Conversation with Svetlana Alliluyeva (1967), and many local WGBH shows such as Where to Get Off in Boston.
Henry and I go back a long way working together at WGBH, and this was our most memorable program. (As of this writing, Henry is 99 years old. Congratulations, Henry!)
Henry’s guests featured then-new and controversial leaders: Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, and writer James Baldwin.
One of his most brilliant choices was to bring in physiologist Dr. Kenneth Clark to do the interviews.
Clark’s soft, probing questions allowed each person a chance to create their own dynamic while still leaving room for their reflections and emotions.
Psychology professor at the City College of New York, Dr. Kenneth Clark, introduced the segment “The Negro and the American Promise” from Boston public television producer Henry Morgenthau III…
The program aired in a climate of racial conflict, just months after Alabama governor George Wallace’s defiant support of “segregation forever,” and before the March on Washington. [Source]
Here is Dr. Clark’s introduction from the program:
Dr. Kenneth Clark: James Baldwin, Martin Luther King, and Malcolm X are, in different ways, symbols and spokesmen for the Negro crying out for his full rights as an American citizen. And now, if one dares to look for the common denominator of such seemingly different forms of Negro protest, one sees in each of these men a dramatic response to America’s attempt to deny to its Negro citizens the fulfillment of the American promise.
By all meaningful indices, the Negro is still, and unquestionably, the downtrodden, disparaged group, and for a long time was systematically deprived of his dignity as a human being. The major indictment of our democracy is that this is being done with the knowledge, and at times with the connivance, of responsible, moderate people who are not overtly bigots or segregationists.
We have now come to the point where there are only two ways that America can avoid continued racial explosions. One would be total oppression. The other, total equality. There is no compromise.
I believe, I hope, that we are on the threshold of a truly democratic America. It is not going to be easy to cross that threshold. But the achievement of the goals of justice, equality, and democracy for all American citizens involves the very destiny of our nation.
- Read the full transcript from American Experience website
Here’s how this landmark program can to be.
Henry and I surveyed a small studio that operated by NET, across the street from the UN building used by diplomats and others for quickie news stories. The rental price was right and just large enough for our two-person interviews. We agreed to three interview dates.
I believe our first interview was with Martin Luther King, Jr. I had the studio crew set up black curtains and use a lot of backlight to separate participants from the dark background. There were the obligatory comfortable chairs and table, with water for each person.
The day arrived and Dr. King came to the studio with a few members of his cadre. He knew Dr. Clark and the atmosphere was friendly and professional. The interview was adequate but not filled with the kind of passion we had seen Dr. King give from the pulpit.
Dr. King spoke about his non-violent philosophy and talked about the politics of change.
Here are a few excerpts from King’s interview:
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr: There’s a great deal of difference between non-resistance to evil and non-violent resistance. Non-resistance leaves you in a state of stagnant passivity and dead-end complacency. Wherein non-violent resistance means you do resist in a very strong and determined manner. And I think some of the criticisms of non-violence, or some of the critics, fail to realize that we are talking about something very strong, and they confuse non-resistance with non-violent resistance.
Next to be interviewed was Malcolm X. A tall, lean man, he arrived in the studio with several members of the Black Muslims. All were dressed in suits, white shirts and ties. They were silent and seemed to view us with suspicion. Dr. Clark was nonplussed and posed his questions with a soft intensity. Malcolm X was strong and passionate.
From the transcript:
Malcolm X: History is not hatred. We are Muslims because we believe in the religion of Islam. We believe in one God. We believe in Muhammad as the apostle of God. We practice the principles of the religion of Islam, which mean prayer, charity, fasting, brotherhood.
And the Honorable Elijah Muhammad teaches us that since the Western society is deteriorating — it has become overrun with immorality — that God is going to judge it, and destroy it, and the only way black people who are in this society can be saved is to not integrate into this corrupt society but separate ourselves from it, reform ourselves, lift up our moral standards, and try and be godly, instead of trying… try and integrate with God, instead of trying to integrate with the white man, or try and imitate God, instead of trying to imitate the white man.
Then it was James Baldwin. He and Dr. Clark arrived very, very late for the interview. I knew something was really wrong. Baldwin looked terrible and Dr. Clark used every “psychiatric” tool to calm him down. Finally, he was able to get Baldwin to sit in our set. Baldwin lit up a cigarette and stared out into space, obviously angry and upset.
Later we learned why. Bobby Kennedy, then Attorney General, had called Baldwin a day earlier and asked him to gather a group of black friends to his luxury apartment in NYC to discuss the civil rights problem. Baldwin quickly gathered artist friends, actors, writers and a young man who had been beaten during one of the freedom rides.
This is how the meeting was recalled in Larry Tye’s new book, “Bobby Kennedy, The Making of a Liberal Icon” (Random House, 2016):
Black novelist James Baldwin had pulled the group together, at Bobby’s request, to talk about why a volcano of rage was building up in the Northern ghetto and why mainstream civil right leaders couldn’t or wouldn’t quell it as summer approached…
Martin Luther King Jr. wasn’t welcome, nor were the top people from the NAACP and the Urban league, because Bobby wanted a no-holds-barred critique of their leadership. He also hoped for a sober discussion of what the Kennedy administration should do, with Negroes who knew what it already was doing. Having a serious conversation without the serious players would have been difficult enough, but Bobby made it even harder: what he really wanted was gratitude, not candor. Baldwin did his best given those constraints and one day’s notice…
Kenneth Clark, the black America’s preeminent psychologist, came prepared to lay out studies and statistics to document that corrosive racial divide, but he never got the chance. Jerome Smith, a young activist who had held back as long as he could, suddenly shattered the calm, his stammer underlining his anger.
“Mr. Kennedy, I want you to understand I don’t care anything about you and your brother,” he began. “I don’t know what I’m doing here, listening to all this cocktail-party patter.” The real threat to white America wasn’t the Black Muslims, Smith insisted, it was when nonviolence advocates like him lost hope. The 24-year-old made his words resonate. He had suffered as many savage beatings as any civil rights protester of the era, including one for which he was now getting medical care in New York.
But his patience and his pacifism were wearing thin, he warned his rapt audience. If the police came at him with more guns, dogs, and hoses, he would answer with a weapon of his own. “When I pull a trigger,” he said, “kiss it good-bye.”…
Bobby was shocked, but Smith wasn’t through. Not only wouldn’t young blacks like him fight to protect their rights at home, he said, but they would refuse to fight for American in Cuba, Vietnam or any other places the Kennedys saw threats. “Never! Never! Never!” This was unfathomable to Bobby.
Others chimed in, demanding to know why the government couldn’t get tougher in taking on racist laws and ghetto blight….
Three hours into the evening the dialogue had become a brawl, with the tone set by Smith…. Bobby had heard enough. His tone let everyone know the welcome mat had been taken up. His flushed face showed how incensed he was.
This is what caused the delay and the desperation in both Dr. Clark and Baldwin. Somehow they did manage to conduct the very intense interview. It was an unbelievable moment as Baldwin, near tears, spews out his frustrations, despair and hopeless anguish.
Henry knew we had filmed an important moment. He released the interview that night to a local commercial station in NYC. He could do that because WNET, based in New Jersey, did not have a New York City channel. The New York Times picked up the story and ran it on the front page the next morning. “Negro and the American Promise” was soon published as a book.
Henry had also carved out monies to shoot some film related to each of the guests. It was a way of bringing a visual aspect to a traditional talking head show. Staff cameraperson Stan Hirson and I plotted out the locations.
Stan Hirson started his professional career as a documentary filmmaker in Boston. He covered the civil rights movement in the South and made film portraits of James Baldwin, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X. Hirson joined the documentarians Maysles brothers and was involved in films such as The Beatles in America, Gimme Shelter, Grey Gardens and numerous other documentaries.
The budget was tight. All we had was a silent film 16-millimeter camera and limited reels of black and white film.
We decided to introduce Malcolm X by filming at and around the Black Muslim Mosque in Harlem. Then, we would travel to Martin Luther King’s church in Atlanta to capture his religious persona.
One other plan was hatched. Stan agreed to a special assignment, one that turned out to be dangerous for him.
Stan agreed to join the black civil rights group, Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), which was led by James Farmer. He would travel with them in a car traveling across Mississippi to capture footage.
“Although the United States Supreme Court… had ruled that segregated interstate bus travel was unconstitutional, such buses enforced segregation below the Mason–Dixon line in southern states. Gordon Carey proposed the idea of a second Journey of Reconciliation and Farmer jumped at the idea. This time the group planned to journey through the Deep South. Farmer coined a new name for the trip: the Freedom Ride. [From Wikipedia]
Stan flew to Mississippi to join the Freedom Rides. I had an agreement with CORE that their people would drive Stan back to King’s church in Atlanta to meet me for the next shoot.
It turned out to be his most frightening drive: one white guy with a camera and three African Americans in an old black car driving across America at night.
Stan was to meet me at our hotel in Atlanta by 8:00 pm on a Thursday. That afternoon, I flew from Boston to Atlanta and planned to check into one of Atlanta’s oldest and grand hotels, the Dinkler-Tutwiler Hotel.
“Are you from Educational Television”
“Yes, I am.”
I reached out my hand to this person who was welcoming me to Atlanta. He leaned in and whispered menacingly.
“Get back on that plane. We don’t want you here.”
I was taken aback, shocked, really. Then I thought it was a dumb joke. But he wasn’t kidding. I laughed, shaking my head in disbelief, shrugged my shoulders and headed on my way. I never did see him again.
I took a cab to the hotel and checked in. I asked if Stan Hirson had left a message for me. The clerk said there was no message. He pointed me to the elevators and handed me a key to the 7th floor. He said my luggage would be up shortly.
I walked to the elevator and the door opened. Inside was a young black girl in a quaint hotel costume. She ran the elevator. I stepped in, mentioned my floor and we took off.
On the way up, I asked her how long it would take to get to Dr. King’s church via cab. She moved closer to the elevator doors and said nothing. I got the message. She had to be careful and wanted no contact with hotel guests. Who knows what had happened in the past. I backed off right away.
I got off the elevator and headed to my room. It was nice, big and a bit old fashioned. There came a knock on the door. It was the bellboy with my bags. He was an older black man with a great smile. He put my bags down and I gave him a good tip. He asked if I wished to have any beverages brought to the room. So, being a kid from Milwaukee, I ordered two beers. He left and I unpacked, turning on the TV. Nothing special on the local station.
Soon, another knock at the door. It was the older gentleman bringing me my two beers and a frosty beer glass. I gave him another good tip. He turned to me and said:
“Your friend will be here in two hours.”
“What? How do you know that?”
He smiled and left. My God, this was the second person that knew I was in town. It seemed everybody knew what I was doing. It was clear that a series of networks had been created to survive the tribulations of the civil rights conflict. I sipped my beers … actually downed them pretty fast.
After an hour, I decided to get a bit of fresh air and do a walk around the hotel. I went to the elevator, rang the bell, and soon the doors opened. It was the same girl. I entered and moved way back in the elevator so as not to alarm her. As the elevator headed to the main lobby, she turned to me and smiled.
“It will take about an hour to get to Dr. King’s church”
“Oh … thanks.”
Stan finally arrived, safe and sound. He told me he had hidden on the floor of the car as he rode back from Mississippi in that car with the Freedom Riders. I bought him a couple of beers, too. We went to bed, wondering what the next day would bring.
Morning arrived and we headed out the front doors of the hotel to the cabstand. The driver got out and opened the trunk to house Stan’s equipment. He asked where we were going. When I said King’s church, he slammed the trunk shut and told us to use the cabs across the street. “They’ll take you there” he said, as he climbed into his cab.
Stunned, Stan and I went over to the “black” cabstand. No problem for the black driver when we mentioned were we wanted to go. As Stan and I drove to the church, we tried to process all that had happened over the last couple of days. It felt really unreal. I felt like a stranger in my own country. As I looked out the window to see the streets of Atlanta, I wondered how the people of city adjusted to the civil unrest.
Our cab came to a stop at a red light. A white, middle age woman drove up next to us in a large American sedan. She looked over at us; two white guys in the back seat of a black cab and gave us the most frightening hate glare I had ever encountered. We were nothing but despicable interlopers in her town.
That look has stayed with me my whole life. I will never forget it.
From David Sloss:
As preparations were underway for the first WGBH auction, the planners received an extraordinary offer from a pet dealer in the Boston area.
This gentleman was in the business of importing ocelots from South America, and selling them as pets. (An ocelot is a stunningly beautiful wild cat, about twice the size of a domestic tabby.) The dealer offered to donate an ocelot kitten to the auction.
Everyone was delighted. The PR people did lots of publicity around the live ocelot to be sold at the auction.
Then one day, they got a phone call from a lady who said, “You can’t sell a live ocelot on television! They are dangerous wild animals!”
“How do you know this?” asked the PR people.
“I know because we had an ocelot, and it bit off my husband’s nose!” said the lady.
So the PR people called the pet dealer, and told him about the lady’s complaint. “Oh, don’t pay any attention to that,” said the dealer. “It’s just sour grapes because I sold her the ocelot that bit off her husband’s nose!”
In the end, we did sell the ocelot at the auction, but only after reading on the air a statement drafted by the lawyers, and requiring the buyer to sign an ironclad release also specially drafted for the purpose.
Passager Books, a not-for-profit press dedicated to publishing the work of older writers, has just released A Sunday in Purgatory, a book of poems by 99-year old Henry Morgenthau III (he’ll be 100 next January).
Henry was a WGBH staffer from 1955 to 1977. During that time he executive produced a variety of series and documentaries, including “The Negro and the American Promise” (1963) with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., James Baldwin, and others; Focus on Metropolis; and Eleanor Roosevelt: Prospects of Mankind (1959-62). His work won him and WGBH national acclaim, including Emmy, Peabody, UPI, and other awards and nominations.
Henry’s father, Henry Morgenthau, Jr., was FDR’s Treasury Secretary and played a major role in shaping the New Deal and America’s post WWII policies toward Germany; his grandfather, Henry Morgenthau, was ambassador to the Ottoman Empire during WWI and the most prominent American to speak out against the Armenian genocide.
After a long and impressive career as a producer and as an author, Henry III began writing poetry in his 90s.
The poems in A Sunday in Purgatory combine memoir (his father “steadying the trembling hand [of FDR] as he mixed Bourbon Old Fashioneds and nibbled caviar, a gift from the Soviet ambassador,” for example), reflections on aging (“Anticipation of death is like looking for a new job”), and wrestling with the tension that exists between being part of a famous American family and yet knowing that he’s an individual, separate from his family history:
I need to be the person
my friends and family believe me to be…
I can’t be the person I am,
but can’t push him out.
Perhaps he will be stillborn
After I die…
2016 Pulitzer Prize winner Peter Balakian said, “Henry Morgenthau’s poems are crisp, elegant forays into memory both personal and cultural… His surgical examinations of self and his unflinching stare into mortality define the unique and honest voice of this remarkable first book of poems.”
Poems by Henry Morgenthau
“A Sunday in Purgatory” is a collection of poems filled with mystery, humor and the confessional style of Robert Lowell. Available on Amazon. Read the reviews!
YOU’LL CATCH YOUR DEATH
“You’ll catch your death of cold,” Mother would say
if I went outside without my jacket, cap and mittens.
When I was older, plagued with an infected tooth,
the dentist numbed my nerve with Laughing Gas.
I felt the pain from his drilling but laughed as if
it were hurting someone else, not me.
Then, at Deerfield, my best friend swallowed
a corrosive base in chemistry lab to end his life,
but recovered to graduate. Next year at Dartmouth,
he lay down across the tracks to wait for the train.
Now death has begun to catch up with me.
I’ve lived too long. Merely standing up
and breathing in and out is a serious challenge.
At Ingleside, our retirement home, we progress
from canes, to walkers, to wheelchairs.
In vain we try to push back looming shadows
as frequent announcements of memorial services
are posted where they can’t be mixed:
advertisements luring us to that final vacation.
Can the unseen
Can bad taste
Is a misfit
Hurrying to get there,
what is there?
If you think you will slip,
don’t take a trip.
Stay home, take another sip.
If life could extend
with no foreseeable end,
let boredom spirit you
around the bend.
January 12, 2017
From Paul Noble: Last night in Washington DC, 35 relatives and friends came together to celebrate Henry’s 100th birthday. Henry read one of his poems, entertained with his usual wit.
- Read about Henry’s book, A Sunday in Purgatory
January 14, 2017
A Century-Old Poet Looks Back — And Fearlessly Forward — In ‘Purgatory’
Interview with Scott Simon, NPR
Henry Morgenthau III was in his 90s when he started to write poetry.
Morgenthau has had an extraordinarily full life. He’s produced award-winning television documentaries, raised children, written a memoir — and yes, his father was the Henry Morgenthau Jr. who was Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Treasury Secretary.
Now, at age 100, he’s promoting his first book of poetry, called A Sunday in Purgatory. He tells NPR’s Scott Simon that he started writing poetry first because he wanted to establish his own identity, not simply to be a member of a distinguished family. “At the same time, I wanted to recall some of the events that I was privileged to observe … like my poem ‘A Terrific Headache,’ which has to do with my father having dinner with Roosevelt the night before he died.”
On knowing FDR
My father’s whole life was tied up with Roosevelt, and I remember that he would come to our house for dinner, and I remember leaning over the banisters from upstairs and hearing him talk and tell stories. He was always a larger than life person.
On what a poem can do
Poems, most poems, my poems, are really metaphor. They are also song. The poetry of the Western world began in ancient Greece — a poet would recite his poem with an instrumental accompaniment. And that goes on to this day, and into a world actually that I’m not familiar with, of hip hop, where they do just that. I think hip hop is doing a lot to make poetry accessible and popular with a much wider audience.
On writing about death
I do think about death. I live in a community where people are … kind of in a purgatory, a waiting place for the end, people passing away just about every week. So I think about it, but I’ve had more than my time. And it’s not something that frightens me. And actually getting it out on paper is a relief.
February 12, 2017
Scion of prominent Jewish American family publishes first book of poetry at the age of 100
Last month, retired television producer Henry Morgenthau III turned 100, and he celebrated by publishing his first book of poetry.
“A Sunday in Purgatory,” published by Passager Books at the University of Baltimore, draws from his life as a scion of a prominent Jewish American family that includes his grandfather, Henry Morgenthau, who immigrated to New York from Germany in 1866 and served as ambassador to Turkey, and his father, Henry Morgenthau Jr., treasury secretary under Franklin Delano Roosevelt. A younger brother, Robert, served as U.S. district attorney in New York.
The collection also reflects Morgenthau’s recent life in Washington, where he moved from Boston seven years ago to be near family. Sitting in his apartment at the retirement community Ingleside at Rock Creek as snow swirled outside, he spoke of how the city had changed since he lived here in the 1930s…
As a documentarian, he spent extensive time with poets and writers, including Robert Lowell. Footage from his 1963 interview with James Baldwin appears in the newly released film, “I Am Not Your Negro.” In 1991 he wrote “Mostly Morgenthaus,” a book about his famous family. But aside from a brief foray in the fifth grade, he did not begin writing poetry until he participated in a couple of writing workshops in his 90s.
August 4, 2017
The Atlantic: Poem of the Week
This year, in honor of National Poetry Month, we compiled some of the best poems published throughout The Atlantic’s 160-year history… and we didn’t want to stop. Come back every week to read another poem from our archives, and go here to check out our month of poetry recommendations from staff and readers.
Editor’s note: Henry Morgenthau III is a 100-year-old poet. He published his first collection in 2016 at the age of 99. Before that, he was a writer and a documentary filmmaker at WGBH in Boston, working with subjects from James Baldwin to Eleanor Roosevelt. He’s also a memoirist, and the son of the former U.S. treasury secretary Henry Morgenthau Jr., but his family connections don’t define his poems—as he told us, “One of the reasons I started writing poetry was to free myself from all that.”
For Morgenthau, freedom comes with humor and insight, in his own distinctive voice. And in his poem “A Sunday in Purgatory,” he finds this freedom even within the would-be confines of his age. It’s the title poem of his book, and we’re delighted to share it below.
A Sunday in Purgatory, by Henry Morgenthau III
A voluntary inmate immured
in a last resort for seniors,
there are constant reminders,
the reaper is lurking around that corner.
I am at home, very much at home,
here at Ingleside at Rock Creek.
Distant three miles from my caring daughter.
At Ingleside, a faith-based community
for vintage Presbyterians, I am an old Jew.
But that’s another story.
I’m not complaining with so much I want to do,
doing it at my pace, slowly.
Anticipation of death is like looking for a new job.
Then suddenly on a Sunday,
talking recklessly while eating brunch,
a gristly piece of meat lodges in my throat.
I struggle for breath, too annoyed to be scared.
Someone pounds my back to no avail.
Out of nowhere, an alert pint-sized waiter
performs the Heimlich maneuver.
I don’t believe it will work.
It does! Uncorked, I am freed.
Looking up I see the concerned visage and
reversed collar of a retired Navy chaplain,
pinch hitting as God’s messenger for the day.
Had he come to perform the last rites,
to ease my passage from this world to the hereafter?
Don’t jump to dark conclusions.
In World War II on active duty,
he learned the Heimlich as well as the himmlisch.
Knowing it is best administered
to a standing victim,
he rushed to intervene.
On this day I am twice blessed
with the kindness of strangers.
Related stories here at WGBH Alumni
This is the sixth in a series of reminiscences by Fred Barzyk, longtime WGBH producer and director. Watch The Waiting Room, below.
Ah, yes … The Waiting Room. This was my last TV drama production. After almost 60 years of trying to create situations where I could direct dramas, it finally comes to an end. This half-hour show was the only way for me to say “goodbye” to all my actors.
I love actors. I love how they are willing to give of themselves, to be vulnerable to critics, to wrap themselves in personas not their own, and how they love what they do.
It has always been my style to support their work. My job as a director was to protect them from outside noise, let them practice their craft surrounded by people who appreciate what they are doing. I, as the director, would always stand next to the camera and act as their “audience.” I would stifle a laugh when they said a funny line, or get depressed when things were going wrong for the character. I hoped this helped. I tried my best.
The Waiting Room is the most personal drama I have ever done. It came to me in the middle of the night, the whole thing just popped into my head. I got up from bed and wrote the script at 2:00 in the morning. It’s probably why the whole story is a little murky.
With that murky premise, I think I have to give you a little back-story so you can maybe understand the motivations behind the script.
I was this kid on the South Side of Milwaukee, growing up in a blue-collar neighborhood. I was an only child, spoiled rotten. My Dad worked at International Harvester. He worked there for 50 years and was proud of it. He was also proud that he graduated from High School. He was devoted to doing crossword puzzles. His mother had died of Spanish influenza. He and his sister were placed in an orphanage for several years. His father remarried and they joined Grandma Barzyk in her little grocery store.
My Mom ran away from home when she was 13. Her mother died young, her father remarried and soon there were 4 other girls. She never got over the loss of her mother or the entrance of so many other girls in the family! So she ran away in the middle of the night, boarded a train in Clinton, Indiana, and went to an aunt who lived in Milwaukee. Soon she was a “live-in” nanny at a Jewish family’s big house on the East side of Milwaukee. She lied to the family that she was 16; not her real age of 14. That lasted a few years until the boys got measles and she had to leave.
She ended up as a nurse’s aide at Milwaukee Children’s Hospital, feeding kids in the contagious disease ward. During WW2 she worked the night shift at a factory making artillery shells. I can still remember her smelling of copper filings and oil. But her longest job was a sales clerk at Gimbel’s Department Store, downtown Milwaukee. She worked in the men’s dept. but she liked to say she worked in men’s underwear.
My appreciation for the aesthetic seemed to develop around the age of 6. We were renters, the bottom floor of a two-family house. We had concrete walkways to the front porch and alongside the house to the back porch. From the sidewalk you would have to climb up 2 concrete steps. Each of them (like all the others in the neighborhood) were neat, with sharp corners. For some reason, I thought they would look better if they were rounded. So I got a hammer from the basement and attempted to round them off. It wasn’t pretty. My Mom said I had gone too far. The landlord never complained. I went back to see the house a few years ago and the ragged corners are still there.
And then there was my piano playing. For some reason, I thought I could be this great piano player. Hell, my Mom’s cousin had the most popular swing band in Milwaukee. My aunt Frances was a friend with a famous Milwaukee Pianist: Liberace. So I took lessons. I was really bad. Very bad. My father kept saying it must be the teacher so I kept going to other piano teachers.
One time, as I was waiting for my lesson to begin, I heard this kid in one of the rooms reciting a monologue. I wanted to do that instead, and so I began elocution lessons. I even ended up in a play a “walk-on” role with no lines at age 10. But the real moment of truth happened at one of those horrible piano recitals. We kids would sit in the back room, all-nervous, dressed to the nines. And then I realized that if I made some goofy sound I would break the tension. So I did.
Did it ever break the tension. They started to giggle, trying to hold back. I did it again and again, till I had them laughing out loud. This was it. This is what I wanted to do. Entertain a crowd. The teacher came in and yelled at us. She pointed at me and said “Freddy Barzyk, you cut that nonsense out. You are going just too far, do you understand?” Boy, did I ever.
I went to Marquette University in Milwaukee because that is what my parents could afford. I lived at home and the tuition was only $250 per semester. I thought maybe I would be a sports announcer. Soon as I took my first acting class, I was hooked. I realized I wanted to be a stage director.
I mean so many things were happening in the theater. Guthrie had established his regional theater in Minnesota, and then other regional theater started popping up all over the country.
Then there were the plays! My Fair Lady, Long Days Journey into Night, West Side Story … all on Broadway. Off Broadway was happening too. European playwrights were being celebrated: Bertolt Brecht’s “Three Penny Opera,” Eugene Ionesco’s “Bald Soprano,” Luigi Pirandello’s “6 Characters in Search of an Author.”
The theater was happening. And I wanted to be a part of it.
I planned to go to Yale Drama School. The problem was that I had no money. A dear friend of mine insisted that I apply for a scholarship to Boston University for a master’s degree in Communication. The deal was you had to work 3 days a week at a little educational TV station, WGBH. I got in. BU was disappointing. Channel 2 was great. I spent all my time there.
After the scholar year was over, my boss, Greg Harney, offered me a 3-month directing gig to cover for one of the full- timer directors who went off to Saudi Arabia on a special assignment. That happened two more times. Greg knew I still wanted to go to Yale Drama School. He had another plan for me.
I found myself back in Milwaukee, trying to figure out how to raise monies for Yale. I would take strange little jobs. One day, I was working at a Polish Newspaper, “The Novini Polski.” I would do cold calls. I would take the big newspaper in town, use their “Apartments for Rent” section and then pitch the owners to place an ad in “The Polski.” You know, these Polaks are reliable, clean, and would pay their rent on time.
Suddenly the boss yells out to me, “You got a phone call.” Who the hell could have found me here? My mother must have given them the phone number. I was shocked. It was Greg Harney.
“Ok, Fred, this is it. I am offering you a full-time TV director job. $85 a week … but no more talk of Yale and the theater. You have to commit.”
And then it happened.
I paused, looked back at the room full of callers trying to convince people to put an ad in a Polish newspaper, and finally said … “Ok, but you have to let me do a TV drama on my vacation. I would need 4 days in the studio.”
Pause on the other end.
Had I gone too far once again?
Finally … “Ok.”
I was now a TV director who would be allowed to do dramas. It turned out to be the best of both worlds. I had not gone too far.
First thing I did was go to every community theater production I could squeeze in, constantly looking for actors who would volunteer for my plays. My volunteer assistant was Sally Dennison who went on to cast Antonini’s “Zabriski Point.” She also helped cast “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.” I now had an actors group of 20 people.
I was given $10 for the rights to a play I selected, “Five Days.” I had use of the art department, scenic, and TV crew. All props, costumes, any out-of-pocket costs would have to been picked up by me. It worked. Elliot Norton, famed Boston theater critic, agreed to introduce the play. It was a Brechtian anti-war play, done “live on videotape” with black and white cameras. The management liked it. I was given permission to do another.
There was a teacher at MIT who was an aspiring playwright. I took his play and paired it with a French farce and called the show “2 for Laughs.” (WGBH is on Channel 2). Pete Gurney was the playwrights name. Pete has gone on to have a very successful career in the theater. He is now known as A.R. Gurney, author of “Love Letters,” one of the most often performed contemporary plays across America. His TV play was lost in a fire that destroyed WGBH back in 1961. As luck would have it my first TV play survived and is now in the WGBH Archives.
In the new WGBH building, I did an outrageous play called “The Pit.” This time WGBH picked up all the costs. “The Pit” was a surreal play featuring a little girl who has fallen into a pit and an older man, a Good Samaritan, who tries to get her out. Of course, he never does and is finally hauled off to prison as a “subversive.” It didn’t have a lot of good reviews. Except for the one that really mattered. Kurt Vonnegut saw it and laughed.
My dear friend, David Loxton, who worked at WNET, New York’s Public TV station, suggested we approach Vonnegut and see if we could do an original TV movie based on his work. For some reason, he agreed!
It was called “Between Time and Timbuktu.” This time I hired real pro actors but filled out the rest of the bit parts with my coterie of local actors. This was it! The beginning of my long career working with actors.
Here are some of the names I have been fortunate to work with:
- Lily Tomlin
- Dan Ackroyd (Collisions)
- Gilda Radner (Collisions)
- Jane Alexander (Letters of Calamity Jane for CBS Cable)
- Matt Dillon (Great American 4th of July & Other Disasters for PBS)
- Christian Slater (Secrets for Hearst Network)
- Barbara Feldon (Secrets; she was Agent 99 on Get Smart)
- Christopher Reeve (Last Ferry Home for Hearst)
- Ashley Judd (Ryan Interview by Arthur Miller for Kentucky Public TV)
- Eddie Bracken (Ryan Interview; stage actor and movie star 1940’s)
- Bob and Ray (Between Time and Timbuktu for PBS, + Double Channel show)
- Kevin McCarthy (Between Time and Timbuktu for PBS)
- Bruce Davison (Lathe of Heaven for PBS)
- Kevin Conway (Lathe of Heaven)
- Morgan Freeman (Charlie Smith; started on Sesame street, became a huge Hollywood movie star)
- John Amos (Listen Up for PBS)
- William Conrad (Great Whodunit!; star of Gunsmoke)
- Gene Barry (Great Whodunit!; radio, TV stage star, was great in the musical La Cage aux Folles)
- Tammy Grimes (“She wanted to me to be her “director” …nope)
- Geraldine Fitzgerald (Great Whodunit!)
- Tyne Daly (No Room for Opal for Hearst Network; one of the few actors who had trouble with me as director)
- Claire Dane (Opal; has become a movie/TV star)
- Theresa Wright (featured in a lot of movies, worked with Alfred Hitchcock)
- Ben Vereen (song and dance actor; was in Jenny’s Song for Westinghouse Network)
- Jean Stapleton (Tender Places; famous for Edith in All in the Family TV series)
- Jerry O’Connell (Ollie Hopnoodle’s Haven of Bliss; fresh off film Stand By Me, now in several TV series and movies)
- Rosie Perez (Poof! for PBS; made splash in Spike Lee’s first movie)
- Ed Asner (Listen Up; lead in The Mary Tyler Moore TV series)
- Richard Kiley (Madhouser; star of Broadway musical, Man of La Mancha)
- John Goodman (Flashback for HBO; gone on to be Hollywood movie star)
- John Houseman (Cable Arts, in many films, worked with Orson Wells)
- James Wood (Andrew Silver drama, went to Hollywood and did well)
- ,Jane Curtin (Pretzels for HBO, original SNL cast )
And now, here in Chelmsford, I returned to my roots. I found great volunteer actors, had the latest video equipment and a dedicated volunteer crew, which allowed me to continue this long love affair I have with actors and my little dramas.
We raised the money for this production by the use of Kickstarter, an Internet fundraiser. We raised over $4,000 to support this production.
Well, we did it. Former WGBH professionals who also volunteered their time and talent joined my trusty group of Chelmsford Volunteers, some in their 70s: Bill Charette, John Osborne, Bob Burns, Debbie Dorsey, and Marcia Hully. God Bless them all.
In many ways, this little movie was a final tribute to the many actors who graced my pictures with their amazing talents. It’s still hard to believe that a kid from Milwaukee actually worked with all these wonderful actors. I must have died and gone to Heaven.