Then and Now (1955-2000)

This entry is part 5 of 12 in the series The Don Hallock Collection
Reading Time: 7 minutes

The Buildings

Then: The station in 1958, occupying a rather dusty second and third floor roller-skating rink in an old brick building located opposite MIT at 84 Massachusetts Avenue, Cambridge. (Photo by Brooks Leffler.)

In 2000, WGBH sprawled over extensive real estate near Harvard. This is the main studio building at 125 Western Avenue, connected by a skyway to offices on the opposite side of the street.

In the old days we had never been awarded one of these….

….or any of the rest either.

Studio A and Studio A

In the 1950s, Studio A (in 84 Mass. Ave.) looked like this….a wooden-floored, sixty by eighty foot production space frequently utilized to the last available square inch.

(Photo from Brooks Leffler.)

(Photo courtesy WGBH Archives.)

In 2000, Studio A (in 125 Western Avenue), much larger and far better equipped, compared favorably with any such facility in the country.


Now (above), and in the late ’50s (below).

The RCA TK-30 black and white camera weighed about 100 pounds, took about a half hour to tune up, was equipped with four fixed-focus lenses, and was not equipped even with fittings on which to mount a TelePrompter.

Below, the station’s first first full-time cameraman, Frank Vento, shoots Discovery, with Mary Lela Grimes.

And in the department of conspicuous anachronisms we have specimens of cameraman anciencis with camera modernus.

Control Rooms

Studio control at 84 Mass. Ave. looked like this.

Over the shoulder of Bob Larsen, seated at the director’s console, we see the video control monitors below.

And to Bob’s right, Bill Busiek operates the RCA audio console. The announce booth is in the background just beyond Bill’s head.

This is today’s Studio A control. Vastly more elaborate — and luxurious — than the one at “84.”

We have no pictures of the old WGBH-FM facilities, but one thing’s for sure — they never looked the way these sophisticated, state-of-the-art, radio studios and control rooms do.

Master Controls

Here’s what ran it all in the distant past … seven- foot-high racks of tube-operated, marginally stable, massively heavy, heat generating control and distribution units. Remember them? All this, and vastly more, would now fit on a microchip no larger than your fingernail.

Above we have the video/master-control console at “84.” At the near end are camera controls #1, #2 and #3, followed by the “Line Out” monitor and beyond that, at the very end of the console, the station’s entire Television Master Control. It consisted of nothing more than a fourteen inch by six inch aluminum panel in which was mounted a single-bus gap-switcher with probably four active source buttons. They were: Film Chain, Studio A, Studio B and Remote.

Today’s WGBH Television Master Control has developed into something a bit more elaborate.

Recording Devices

So what’s this? A mechanical Mickey Mouse? Nooooo….it’s the first device for the continuous recording of television material.

During the late forties and early fifties the kinescope recorder was the only alternative to live broadcasting, and was the only way of archiving audio/visual content until the late 1950s, when Ampex produced the first videotape machine.

The “kine” machine was a noisy and fickle beast consisting of an un-blimped 16mm film camera (the square-headed “Mickey” to the right), its lens pointed at an ultra-hot kinescope picture tube (hence the name).

In order to produce the considerable image brightness necessary for the low-sensitivity film stock of the day, such high voltages had to be generated and applied to the tube that a metal housing impervious to X-rays (center) was incorporated to protect the machine’s operators from radiation injury.

Synchronized sound was recorded on 16mm sprocket-driven magnetic film (the audio recorder can be seen in the equipment rack to the left). The shutter of the camera had been filed by hand to a very fine tolerance, since every image was actually made up of two halves (top and bottom), and the edge of the shutter blade determined whether these two image sections either overlapped, were separated by a thin black bar, or met exactly and, therefore, invisibly.

The temperature of the of the machine effected this function as well, and so it had to be warmed up for several hours before use. Constant “mothering” was necessary on the part of the operating engineers (Frank Harvey, Art Richardson and Larry messenger, most often) in order to achieve an acceptable recording.

The final product was a 16mm, black and white, composite print (picture and optical audio track) which had to be reintroduced to the system through a film projector and vidicon camera (known as a film-chain) in order to be broadcast. WGBH achieved a reputation for producing very high quality “kines.”

In about 1959 rumors circulated throughout the industry that Ampex had finally achieved a design breakthrough by creating a system of magnetic television recording using two-inch wide tape wound on 15 inch reels (rather than the four foot diameter reels required by machines being researched by Bing Crosby Industries).

Several of our engineers reportedly purchased stock in Ampex, and the next year WGBH became the proud owner of one of the first Ampex 1000 machines (serial number 11, I believe). Production changed drastically thereafter, making possible instantaneous recording (after some le
ngthy tweaking of the machine), and almost immediate playback.

The video tracks were recorded across the width of the tape by rotating heads (which assemblies were quite expensive, and wore out after only a few hundred hours of use). There was no way to edit the tape electronically. It had to be spliced manually (much like the audio tape of the time), after being “developed” by the application of a volatile fluid bearing iron oxide dust, so that the frame intervals became visible to the editor.

The tape was then sliced with a razor blade (used one time only) under a microscope, and painstakingly spliced with pressure-sensitive tape. Often edits would have to be remade three or four times before a clean one could be accomplished.

The machine shown above is not one of those original ones (they were about three times larger) but, since the format for video recordings has changed radically, and the newer tapes are only one inch wide, this one is being kept at the station in order to play back those older tapes still in the archives.

In more recent years recording and editing of videotape has advanced impressively. The equipment is smaller and much more versatile. The on-tape signal is digital, meaning that copies are virtually as good as the original. Razor blades have long since disappeared from the scene; editing is entirely electronic, and frequently computerized so as to make it possible to automate much of the process.

Image Quality

Back then (in the ’50s) symphony broadcasts looked like this one from Kresge Auditorium….low definition, black and white imagery. No modification of the standard, distressingly flat, auditorium lighting was permitted, as the musicians claimed that any change would interfere with their ability to read music and see the conductor.

But today, all that’s changed. Symphony and Pops broadcasts are aesthetically lighted and many programs include elaborate light changes, ranging from the brightest high-key to dramatic, near darkness with only back lighting for accent. Color brings the concert further to life, and impressively high definition images add to the excitement.

And more change yet is in the pipeline. “High definition television” is a reality, and programming is now being produced in the new medium. In wide screen, and sporting resolution so acute that it makes the use of painted scenery virtually impossible, the picture is astoundingly good (as Chris Sarson could tell you).


  • All photos by Don Hallock, except where noted.
  • Old master control photo coutesy of WGBH Archives
  • Kinescope recorder taken from the film “Discovering Discovery”
  • Tape recording and editing bay photos courtesy of WGBH Archives
  • Old symphony broadcast photo courtesy WGBH Archives
  • “Throwback” photos: Sean Hallock
  • Old camera pictures taken from the film “Discovering Discovery”
  • “Cameraman anciencis”: Sean Hallock
  • “84 Mass. control” taken from the film “Discovering Discovery”
  • Equipment racks photo taken from the film “Discovering Discovery”

Last, a large photo of “84” provided a background for at least this pair of throwbacks, Don Hallock and Fred Barzyk ….

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