Greg Harney – in memory

  • Positions (from 1958 until 1984): Lighting Consultant, Production Manager, Producer-Director.

From WGBH QuickNooz — 8/10/2005

A link with WGBH’s earliest days was broken last week with the death of Greg Harney at age 78.

“Many ‘GBHers know Greg’s name because of the Harney Scene Dock, dedicated in his honor by WGBH donors Bill and Anne Haney,” notes WGBH President Henry Becton. “But Greg played a pivotal role in establishing WGBH’s leadership in the TV industry.”

Greg speaking at the Reunion of 2000

Greg arrived at WGBH in 1958 on loan from CBS, to provide lighting expertise when we were experimenting with kinescope in the days of live, black-and-white TV. He taught the tricky art of lighting to our early Boston University Scholars program. ‘GBH liked Greg so much, we didn’t want to give him back to CBS. Fortunately, he didn’t want to go back, and he stayed on as production manager. He worked on a number of arts programs, including Laughter’s a Funny Business, a nine-hour series that looked at many aspects of humor, and A Time to Dance, involving the best troupes of the time dancing in the ‘GBH studio (then a converted roller rink on Mass. Ave.).

After the 1961 WGBH fire, Greg helped secure various places where we could continue with our productions. He went on to produce and direct a wide range of milestone TV projects, including The Advocates, which he executive produced and which brought moderator Michael Dukakis into the public eye. Greg is perhaps best known for his pioneering sports coverage for WGBH: he introduced a nation of viewers to live tennis (with Bud Collins), indoor track and field, the Boston Marathon, and the artistry of ice ballet.

“Greg’s career was long, distinguished and colorful,” says Henry. “We’re fortunate to be able to call him one of our own. He will be greatly missed by the legions whose lives and work he touched — myself among them.”

From the Boston Globe — 8/10/2005

Harney, Gregory G. Jr. – Age 78 of Lincoln, Aug. 9, 2005. Husband of Mimi Landis and the late Elizabeth (Newman) Harney. Father of David Harney of Pittsford, NY and Ellen H. Alford of Watertown. Services to be announced at a later date. Gifts in his name may be made to: WGBH PO Box 200, Boston, MA 02134. US Army WWII veteran. For on-line guest book, visit www.concordfuneral.com.

From the Boston Globe (excerpt) — 8/13/2005

Gregory Harney Jr. was an intuitive television producer who put his years of work at CBS to use at WGBH, helping to bring the station’s television programming into modern times. A jack-of-all-trades, Mr. Harney was one of the first broadcasters top put tennis matches on the air, persuading many of the bigger networks that the addictive nature of the sport made it popular among viewers.

“I would consider Greg to have been the first professional that we met at WGBH,” said Russ Morash . “It was an amateur circus we were running — we didn’t pay too many back then (sic) — and suddenly there was this guy from CBS — Wow.”

Mr. Harney, a longtime Lincoln resident who helped transform WGBH into one of the most widely respected public broadcasting entities in the country, died Tuesday in Concord Health Care Center. He was 78.

Script Conference, A Time to Dance, 1959. Left to Right: Paul Noble, assistant director; Jac Venza, producer; Martha Meyers, host; and Greg Harney, director. (Photo by Brooks Leffler)

A lighting designer by training, Mr. Harney took public broadcasting to a new level in the nearly three decades he worked for WGBH, cleverly developing ways to spice up existing shows and display live concerts and dramatic productions.

According to WGBH, tennis made its debut on the station when Mr. Harney teamed up with commentator Bud Collins to cover the US Doubles tournament at Longwood Cricket Club in brookline in 1963. The sport had never been beamed into living rooms, so as producer for that program, Mr. Harney “had to invent it himself,” Morash said.

“It really sparked a tennis boom in this country,” said Collins, who is a columnist for the Globe.

The success caught the attention of the major networks, which soon began to acquire the rights air such matches.

Mr. Harney was born in Yonkers, N.Y. He got his start in theater after earning a degree from the Twin City Television Lab in Minneapolis in the late 1940s. He designed the lighting for theatrical shows, including, when he was in the army many that entertained troops stationed in Europe.

He got his big break when CBS hired him to design lighting for “Studio One,” the series of one hour, live television plays that aired in the 1950s. He also put together lighting for “Toast of the Town,” the precursor of “The Ed sullivan Show,” and for half hour mysteries.

While taking a six month leave from CBS to design lighting for Wellsley College’s Theater on the Green series, he got a call from WGBH asking if he wanted to be part of an experiment. After just three weeks, “I was really hooked,” he said in a 1998 WGBH interview, thirty years after the station hired him. “I just liked the atmosphere of the place.”

The first major WGBH show he took on was “A Time to Dance,” featuring nine half hour segments of dance performances put on by the top dance companies and taped in the station’s studios.

Having worked with some of the best and brightest in television during his days at CBS, Mr. Harney quickly moved up the ranks from lighting designer to executive producer.

“He was Mr. Show Business,” Morash said. Mr. Harney would stay at WGBH until retiring in 1984.

When a fire broke out in the station’s Massachusetts Avenue building in 1961, videotapes were rushed onto a red-and-white Greyhound bus that Mr. Harney had purchased earlier and had parked out back. He then managed the station’s productions in the fire’s aftermath, borrowing facilities of other stations to keep shows up and running.

Over the years, Mr. Harney worked on shows across a variety of genres. His shows explored humor in “Laughter’s a Funny Business” and helped produce “The Advocates,” a debate-styled current events show. He was also executive producer of an influential program on race called “On Being Black.”

Around the station, Mr. Harney was known for having a cheerful demeanor.

The crews he worked with often affectionately parodied his “Harumph,” the signature clearing of the voice that preceded much of his discourse. But he was often quick to demand higher standards and rarely, if ever, minced words.

“He looked at you over his reading glasses and told you your piece was not up to snuff,” Morash said.

“He was a take charge kind of guy who was a public television version of an impresario who managed everything,” said Henry Becton, president of WGBH. “He had a commanding presence.”

The station’s scene dock was named in his honor.

Greg at the far right, on the set of Ruth Ann’s Camp, with many of the “old WGBH gang.” (Photo by Brooks Leffler)

From the Boston Globe (excerpt) — 8/23/2005

Greg Harney, a pioneering producer at WGBH, founder of a long-running PBS Sports Unit, died two weeks ago. He was a pioneer in putting print journalists on TV, with the Globe’s Bud Collins his first success and Deford right behind.

They were the first of many other broadcast careers to get a liftoff from Harney: Mary Carillo, Sean McDonough (remember his days on Ivy League football?), track expert Larry Rawson, tennis guys Vic Braden and Kim Prince, and marathon analysts Kathy Switzer and Toni Reavis. Harney made WGBH the tennis channel 30 years before there was a Tennis Channel.

‘”Greg had a comforting way about him,” said Deford. “He was almost blithe in saying, ‘You can do it.'” Looking back, and realizing how little money we made, you doubt he could have gotten a TV pro to work for that, but it was a great challenge for me. Working at Channel 2 remains the only play-by-play I’ve ever done. But it wasn’t just tennis. He had me do a harness race and also a three-day equestrian event at Hamilton, Mass.”

“Lighting is one part theory to nine parts good practice”

Graphic by Phil Reilly — 1/07/2017

3 thoughts on “Greg Harney – in memory

  1. I am using a borrowed desk in LA trying to stretch back in time to 1965 when I arrived on the ‘then new’ doorstep of 125 Western Avenue to spend a bit of time learning about TV. Greg was a larger than life presence for all but his vitality and excitement about good TV — not just lighting — was an example to many.

    Greg hired me and who took me under his wing. He helped me make the jump from theater lighting to television lighting. A month after starting, I spent a week in New York observing the working of network TV lighting directors; I was privileged to meet almost all the staff and get to observe most of the productions. It was definitely an eye opening experience. I will not say that I always agreed with Greg and will admit that I many times frustrated him because I was not reaching far enough.

    I enjoyed working on his projects over the years and was especially pleased to go to India and work with him on a lighting seminar for Indian Public TV in 1989.

    I will miss him.

    Postscript: It was Greg’s idea to send me to NYC for a week to view CBS in operation and I spent quite a bit of time with members of the CBS Lighting Department and watched a lot of live TV — the soaps were almost all still live then — a couple of variety shows and the Ed Sullivan Show; it was there that I first met Bill Greenfield who had taken over Greg’s slot when Greg moved to Boston. Later on, I realized that Greg has designed lighting for the Group 20 summer stock company in Wellesley where he had worked with another of my mentors, Gilbert Hemsley, Jr.

    Indeed, it is a small world. I owe much to all three who all are and were tangent to my learning curve. I stand in debt to all three.

  2. Greg was apparently a World War II veteran, and was one of the CBS network’s top lighting directors during the “Studio One” era. He came to the station in 1958. As production manager he distinctly upgraded the “look and feel” of WGBH production just when that change was necessary for the station to evolve into a major force in Public Broadcasting.

    He was a prominent figure in our getting through the “fire” crisis. Later he became WGBH’s sports director, and ultimately (in 2000), after his retirement, was honored by having the scene dock at 125 Western Avenue named after him.

    Greg was one of my first, and most impressive mentors in the early days of WGBH-TV.

    He was hired by the station as production manager, replacing Dave Davis who moved up to assistant GM for TV. Where Dave Davis’ approach was rooted in stunningly good technique imposed almost to the point of stringency, Greg brought an exuberance to the studio which was absolutely exhilarating (to me, at least — though I think his approach did, on occasion, press the buttons of some of the staff).

    Greg pushed, prodded and generally forced us to work toward the production values he was familiar with (those of CBS — among the best in the business at the time). He taught our lighting people much about that art, our studio people about how to execute a production in progress, and we camera folks how to do the job like a network professional.

    His impact on the producing and directing staff was no less powerful. If only his main admonition were his entire legacy, that would have been revolutionary: “Pre-plan, pre-plan, pre-plan.” he would repeat until we all thought we would go mad. But for a TV station which was immature and quite “loosy goosey,” it was exactly what we needed.

    I will have to remember Greg not only for what I learned from him, but for his faith in me. I was only a high school educated cameraman at the time of his arrival. The station had a policy of allowing only college graduates (preferably with masters’ degrees) to produce or direct. It was, I believe, primarily Greg who decided I was director material.

    That first year of directing scared the hell out of me, but my various interactions and partnerships with Greg, who took me under his wing, brought me along until I felt I might be able to pull it off. He set me to directing NET shows which he executive produced, and was almost always willing to let me take chances with the possibility that something inNOVAtive would come of it. For all of that, Greg will always have my gratitude.

  3. Our class only new him for the brief time that he came to do a seminar in 1957 or ’58. I recall a lot of energy, a desire to teach us wannabes, and a very easy manner.

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