The original dream factory — Mass Ave. Studio A (1950s)

This entry is part 3 of 12 in the series The Don Hallock Collection
Reading Time: 11 minutes

How best to explain the extraordinary reverence with which studio A is remembered by so many of its former denizens?

This is a deeper and more difficult subject than it might seen at first glance.

Photo from From Brooks Leffler: Studio A, 84 Mass Ave, 1959. Visible are Don Knox, Bob Moscone, Fred Barzyk, Mel Bernstein, possibly Al Kelman, and Lew Yeager. [It was shot] by me — three exposures with my old trusty Leica III (long gone, alas), pasted together with tape and tweaked a bit in photoshop. (Upon looking at it again, I think that’s Dave Nohling coming through the door to the control room.)

Oh, you might begin by thinking of the place, perhaps, as a homely seed pod … housing an almost primal urge to produce a kind of life peculiar to its spirit. Or imagine, maybe, a dry, dim, dusty womb. Anything like that will do.

For years, from the time of it’s construction as a roller skating rink, until the fire collapsed it’s roof, studio A was literally a place where the sun never shone. But was it ever full of light! The bright scoops and fresnels that television production of the era demanded notwithstanding, the light of shared vision, creative endeavor and a remarkable group spirit illuminated the place in very special ways.

So many careers were launched, or at least nurtured, its environment. None, to the best of my knowledge, ended there.

The studio was a rather shabby place, with little character of its own, a chameleon space, created to mimic other environments than itself. (Film, television and radio studios tend to be like that: Selfless in a sense. But studio A had a ‘self’ that those who worked there knew with a loving intimacy.)

It was, for its brief time, a truly magic place.

For many, the place has been strongly emblematic of its time. And if anything, it’s magic blossomed from the power of paradigm, having had so much to do with the drive to produce programming that one could feel pride in, with the ongoing and exhilarating drive to overcome obstacles, with the almost mythic experience of being forced by necessity to achieve the impossible through sheer persistence and ingenuity. This creatively aggressive attitude seems, in a broader sense, to have characterized the entire station’s approach to its place in the world (and is probably, to a significant measure, responsible for its ultimate successes).

WGBH has always been a multifaceted entity, its activities extending to an ever widening range of enterprises and venues — and its human element possessed of a remarkable spirit and sense of mission. That spirit showed itself dramatically in the studios (FM and TV) at 84 Mass. Ave.

The FM Studio

The life of the FM operation and studio (you’d find it just through the window to the left of the photo, behind the microphone boom) was somewhat of a mystery to us, in television. There were, after all, no sets or props or costumes to dramatize the content of the radio programming.

Though we knew all the folks in FM, and that they were doing just as challenging programming as we were in TV (though probably of a higher production quality), we were somewhat in the dark about their undertakings and their output.

Beyond the low partitions, over on the radio side of the big third floor office space, were collected some of the sharpest intellects one could hope to find in the aural tradition. Throughout their work day, they could be heard periodically bursting into gales of laughter, playing word association games so clever, erudite and abstruse that we, the cretins over in TV, could barely follow them, much less participate.

And a dedicated bunch they were too: Bill Cavness and Tom Conley, particularly, could be found prowling the station at almost any hour of the day or night. They were frighteningly bright, seemed to love deeply what they did, and were both a challenge and a pleasure to work around.

Sometime in the late 1950s I attended a tiny get-together at Bill Cavness’ home. At one point Tom Conley insisted that Bill play for us a little project he (Bill) had been working on for a couple of years. It was a work in progress, on audio tape, consisting of various sized music fragments drawn from probably a hundred classical works. Bill had painstakingly assembled them so that the key signatures matched, the transitional notes and instrumentation were continuous, and the whole had a strange and beautiful non-sensical sense to it. It was a full-fledged musical work in it’s own right, alternately comic and touching, grand and intimate. Brahms was suddenly and seamlessly Hovannes; Corelli, became Barber, and just as unexpectedly, Satie and Schostakovich.

I’ve never heard anything like it since. It was a work of genius, and to call it a pastiche would have been an insult. It was a righteous collage in the finest artistic sense.

The TV studio

In television, too, the spirit was alive — or, more appropriately, ‘live.’

For years, before the advent of tape, the vast majority of the production to emerge from studio A was live. And lots of production emerged from that room. Anywhere from one to four hours of television was pumped daily through that control room and directly out onto the air waves.

Anyone who hasn’t done abundant ‘live’ television will have at least a little difficulty imagining how it would have been to do almost nothing but.

Here’s a little of what that was like. In the early days of the station, there was, as I’ve said, no video tape. The existence of such stuff was only a tantalizing rumor (though, in the long run, the station actually procured one of the very first Ampex 2″ machines).

There was ‘kinescoping’ (recording through a modified 16 millimeter film camera, live and live-style programs from a television image on a tiny, very intense, black and white monitor tube, the entirety of which machine was constantly hovered over by Frank Harvey, Arthur Richardson, and Larry Messenger during every second of it’s operation). The results of our kinescoping were, compared to the rest of the industry, of a very high quality — though by modern standards the product would be considered awful.

There was film (and its production, as you know, bears no resemblance whatever to ‘live’).

Live and back-to-back

And then there was ‘live’ itself, the closest thing to which would be classic theater performance, with, given the primitive state of the television art, dozens of times the chances for disaster. Anyone who has done much live television knows that, while the obvious goal is to produce a good piece of TV, the deeper imperative is to avoid, if at all possible, embarrassing one’s self to death. In the days of live television, potential disaster skulked within every vacuum tube, behind each tick of the clock, and sat silently perched, like Poe’s raven, on every shoulder.

As a director, for instance, you would be on the studio floor cleaning up a few (hopefully final) details with the crew. Bill Pierce would elegantly announce his way through the station break and promos. From the control room speaker the switcher would call out “1 minute to air.” And that was it. Did you forget anything — and , if so, what?

There’s now time only to run to the control room sit down, take a breath, and listen to the master control operator on the intercom intone, “You’ve got it!” From that moment the ball is irrevocably yours, the master control operator leaves for a soda, and absolutely anything you do, right or wrong, the audience at home will witness.

Now let’s up the ante. At WGBH, in those years, all programming was broadcast in the evening, and it was not uncommon for a couple of hours of productions to emanate from the studio “back-to-back.” (“The studio,” because for the first three or four years, though it was affectionately known as “A,” there was no studio B to relieve the intense usage of that space. Studio B was an afterthought — but an important one, and extremely well advised.)

Now on any given evening there might, typically, be an hour-long children’s’ program, a half hour news show, a program on famous art works, and a jazz show, one after another, with nothing but a station break separating each of them. That meant that all the rehearsals for those shows were done, also one after another, in the afternoon; and hopefully those hundreds of shots and camera moves, audio cues, lighting changes and talent directions would be correctly remembered hours later, on the air. One director would finish a show, vacate the chair, and the director of the next one would slip in and, one minute later, start theirs.

And some days in each week things got worse, yet. In the ’50s the station owned only 3 cameras and no mobile unit! If there was a field pickup (every Monday, for instance, the Museum of Fine Arts program Museum Open House), two of those cameras were out of the building — only one being left in the studio to do those three or four back-to-back shows we mentioned earlier.

Sets and lenses

The choice of lenses for a given show, for instance, became critical (because, as you may remember, there were no ZOOMs). Lenses could not be changed at any time during a one-camera program. A 50 millimeter lens enabled a cameraman to dolly reasonably smoothly, but approaching a subject for much of a close-up was impossible. A 90 millimeter lens (closer to a telephoto) enabled dollying to a close-up, but dollying smoothly, especially across its seriously flawed floor surface (more on that below), required intense concentration and unusually fine coordination. Emergency maintenance to a malfunctioning on-the-air camera (especially if it was the only one in the studio) often consisted of a swift fist to the side-panel.

Much of what was done in studio A was “stuck-together” television. Few shows had a budget that would buy more than a few phone calls. Materials were constantly and chronically in short supply. There was one roll of gaffer’s tape, for instance, which lasted a year or more, and was measured out by Bob Moscone by the inch. You almost had to sign for each piece. Cheaper tape (something like 1 inch wide plastic stuff, in red and blue and black) lived locked in the desk drawer of Bob’s mobile office. (In truth, Bob had no office; only a wooden desk on casters which was never to be found in the same place two days in a row.) Spike marking with masking tape was more freely permissible — the tape was cheaper.

Sets were mostly of the reusable type. You, as director, might have got a little initial budget for set and design, but then you were almost always stuck with that for the run of the series (frequently several years). Otherwise, you, as director, designed your own sets, and probably built them as well.

They might be made of standard (and ubiquitous) studio drapes, occasionally swagged; ugly but useful modular risers; a variety of chairs (almost all ugly also); literally anything you might find by rooting through the scene dock (like those endlessly reusable, always in fashion, 7-foot high Corinthian columns — yes, or even cannibalizations of sets from someone else’s show, turned upside down, sideways, or cleverly redecorated with books, Books, BOOKS!).

Very strange materials were pressed into service such as used audio tape strung between light poles, or stuffed baby elephants (we almost had one, and by God we would have used it!). In short, giving your show any kind of distinctive look was a chronically desperate undertaking.

But talk to anyone who worked in that space in those days and fondness is what you will hear.

A workaday atmosphere? Hardly. Starting in the morning we were up in the offices scripting (when there were scripts — mostly there were run-down sheets, if there was anything on paper at all) and preparing the programming, in the afternoon, rehearsing, and until 10:30 or 11 pm, shooting, striking and setting up for the next days shows.

On weekends, when no special projects like A Time to Dance were on the boards, Ginny Kassel, John Henning, myself, and often others would hang out in the conference/guest/dressing room (just off the studio) and do what? … watch television, of course! In those days weekend TV was rich with Omnibus, Camera Three, Wide, Wide World, and our favorite piece of trash, Whirlybirds. At Christmas the whole staff would come in after hours and all night long to tape a holiday show consisting of send-ups of the regular programming.

Frank and the crane

One night, on a live presentation of Performance,” I was running camera 1, on a pedestal, and Frank was operating camera 2 — the Fearless crane. (This contrarily named machine was a large dolly supporting an 8-foot crane upon which a 100-pound camera was mounted. Since there was no accommodation whatever for the camera operator, the possession of some simian talents became a virtual necessity.)

Now, somewhere around the middle of the show, Frank was doing a slow dolly-in with the crane extended all the way up to maximum camera height — a position which obliged him to balance precariously on a couple of the top rungs of the crane arm, and hang on for dear life.

While repositioning my camera, I heard a zip-clank-BANG-CRASH and, glancing at the studio monitor, saw the picture from Frank’s on-the-air camera which was now pointing almost straight upward. Swinging wildly from side to side, the camera was panning the light grid, the microphone boom, and virtually all of the studio except the performers.

About six feet behind the dolly, lying flat on his back on the floor was poor Frank, his face reflecting an odd combination of stark amazement and something like beatific rapture (I think the fall nearly knocked him out).

His headset was dangling from the camera, which was, at this point, exercising a completely deranged mind of its own. Apparently the crane had begun to swivel. In trying to shift his weight to regain control, Frank had lost his grip, and tumbled helplessly out into mid-air, narrowly missing the person pushing the dolly.

I fumbled up a usable shot, and the director quickly cut to it. Frank got up from the floor, brushed himself off, checked for injuries, and finding none, remounted his unruly steed to finish the program.

Not too fancy

Studio A was in no way perfect. It wasn’t really spacious (measuring only about 50 by 80 feet). And in the early days, since there was no scene dock, and the set shop was housed in a tiny office measuring about 10 by 15 feet, sets were constructed, and even stored in the studio itself.

A converted skating rink, Studio-A’s floor was made of maple boards which had been washed so many times they’d ‘cupped,’ transforming the surface into something resembling a washboard. Dollying a camera along the grain produced an even enough effect, but trucking smoothly across the grain was almost impossible (though, to be fair, the blessing was mixed; it was a wonderful floor for dancers, and the studio crew never got shin splints).

The facility was a second-story affair, its only large-scale access to the outside world being nothing like a loading dock door, but only an 8 by 8 foot freight elevator through which everything of any size at all came and went (often in a disassembled form).

The studio was definitely not sumptuously equipped. Three camera
s and one microphone boom were minimal amenities. All varieties of equipment were in short supply, and in that environment technical problems posed a continuous threat to the station’s production capability. Every resource had to be stretched for the maximum effect it could provide.

Yet, for all that, literally thousands of hours of often remarkable and impressive (for the time) television emanated from that space, and it was from here that WGBH first put itself on the national map, becoming known for quality concept, high-powered talent, and excellence in production.

In this studio, for a short span of time, a few young professionals, eager groups of college students and starry-eyed volunteers worked together to achieve a quality of broadcast output which, in time, compared favorably to that of New York.

Visitors to the dream factory

The élan, and body of skills, generated in Studio A set the philosophical tone, and established the resources of craftsmanship, for all the struggles which followed the fire. Throughout the post-inferno diaspora of production facilities borrowed from the Boston Archdiocese, WHDH-TV and the Museum of Science, that spirit has probably carried over into the station’s permanent home.

Here are only a few of society’s heavy hitters who’s talent passed steadily through Studio A.

  • Dimitri Shostakovich
  • Aaron Copeland
  • Richard Rogers and Oscar Hammerstein
  • artist, Marc Chagall
  • Max Lerner
  • Henry Kissinger
  • Arthur Schlesinger and Herman Kahn
  • Norbert Wiener (the father of cybernetics)
  • Isaac Asimov
  • psychologist B. F. Skinner
  • photographers Ansel Adams and W. Eugene Smith
  • Buster Keaton
  • Marcel Marceau
  • playwright Harold Pinter
  • MGM production chief Dore Schary
  • Jazz greats like George Shearing, Dave Brubeck, a very young Gary Burton and Cannonball Aderly
  • Choreographers and dancers Jose Limon, Jose Greco, Alwin Nikolais, Maria Tallchief, Andre Eglevsky and Geoffrey Holder

Those who worked there were consistently exposed to some of the best that culture had to offer.

In the ’50s, the romance of WGBH was heavily influenced by what took place inside Studio A. The personality of the station became indelibly colored by the atmosphere emanating from within its television operation, and from within the walls of its only (at the time) studio facility.

As an organization, the station never paid extravagant attention to the intentional creation of team spirit and group synergy. That was never really necessary because the station community was, from the very beginning, galvanized and unified by an innate and remarkable passion for the medium, for the love of creativity, and for the “spin” of high ideals.

For some inexplicable reason, the station’s ‘family’ has in general been comprised of uniquely agreeable people who’s shared vision made working together memorable as an exhilarating, challenging and rewarding experience. And the origin of that tradition can be traced directly back to the early days of “Studio A.”

Inasmuch as the history of WGBH has been synonymous with the history of National Educational Television and its successor the Public Broadcasting Service (and the evolution of “educational television” into “public television”), Studio A and those who worked there made, in their time, a seminal contribution to the creation and nourishment of that endangered species, intelligent television.

Finally, with all due respect, if these sentiments have sounded a little overblown, don’t bother voicing your objections in earshot of those who worked at the station in the days of ‘Studio A.’ You’ll find it a hard sell. The experience had a deep personal meaning for them which seems persistent, even to this day.

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