WGBH: The Early Years
Programming for the public
I’ve never considered myself an intellectual; my memory and thought processes are just not good enough for true intellectual work. I do, however, have an insatiable curiosity and enjoy the world of ideas. A public TV station, even in the ’60s, was certainly interested in ideas.
One of my jobs was to manage the on-air schedule; to help determine the time slots for each program. Remember, there were only three commercial networks at that time; no cable, no satellite TV, and very few remote controls! Programmers around the world worked on the assumption that if we could get a viewer to tune into our station early, they’d be prone to stay with us at the end of one program to see what else was on. In that way, we all programmed to attract and to keep the audience for the evening.
Some public TV scheduling theories said we should offer an interesting variety of shows each night; others suggested “drama night”, and “science night” and so on, in a seven-day range of specific topics. Some programmers took account of certain smash commercial shows while others realized that all other shows were the competition since over 90% of the audience was watching commercial TV rather than public television.
Some program managers created huge wall schedulers with a 3×5 card for each half-hour. After a few months of watching them fall out of date very quickly, most opted for good old pen and paper. I used colored pen and paper. Jonathan Rice of KQED gave me some Japanese coloring pens with bamboo nibs. On a long sheet that displayed spaces from 6am to midnight, I’d put in live shows in red, film in blue and tape in green. Each individual program had a number and from each week’s sheet, the traffic staff could make up the daily broadcast log and pull the necessary films and tapes from storage shelves and bring them to the control room.
In an emergency, we would just dump the schedule, as we did for United Nations feeds when the 1967 war broke out in Israel.
I worked a few months ahead but, in an emergency, we would just dump the schedule, as we did for United Nations feeds when the 1967 war broke out in Israel. I sat in Control Room C for days, working the incoming network feed I’d arranged from CBS, while producing short analysis segments using international specialists to give helpful insight during the translations.
Bob Larsen and I divided up the supervision of local news, public affairs, TV courses, and special telecourse production for the US Navy. We were doing relatively little national production in those days and Dave Davis or Greg Harney usually looked after them.
A lot of time was spent looking at tapes and films of new series or specials to decide what we wanted to air. At this time, WGBH was commissioned to make some of the earliest anti-smoking commercials and since I was supervising their production, I quit smoking thinking my hypocrisy could only go so far.
Many shows from abroad were made to fit a 50-minute standard length and we always had a need for short programs. A local Newton poet, Anne Sexton, was nationally known, and after seeing a reading, we asked her to make a number of fills reading her poetry. Sexton had a problem with depression and her openness in her poetry was startling. Her most striking poem was a long apology to her daughter for her “madness.” After several attempts, she succeeded in suicide and a fascinating lyric voice was lost.
One of our weekly local programs, “Performance,” presented the vocal or instrumental recitals of music majors from Boston University and The New England Conservatory of Music. There was only so much you could do with an hour-long piano recital. After many attempts to shoot keys, fingers on keys, faces looking at fingers on keys, faces under the sound board, strings, hammers hitting strings, faces superimposed on strings, and dollying slowly around the studio to show the piano from every angle imaginable, a change was needed. David Sloss, then the series’ producer, suggested we turn our ideas around and show the rehearsal of the recital, instead of its finished performance.
“Rehearsal” was born and we showed students being coached to perfect their material. The series was more successful because watching people working on material was often far more interesting than the finished product. This was not yet the birth of the “process approach” in my mind, that came later with NOVA, but it was a good example of how ideas evolve and how a good mind, in this case, David Sloss’s, could adapt an idea to serve this new medium of television.
No matter how hard we tried, we couldn’t sell [“The French Chef”] to NET for national distribution. A “cooking show” was just too “low brow” for them.
Meanwhile, Julia Child and “The French Chef” were becoming local sensations. Broadcast on Sundays at 8pm, Julia was well known in town and the ratings were high. But, no matter how hard we tried, we couldn’t sell the idea to NET for national distribution. A “cooking show” was just too “low brow” for them. Hartford Gunn went so far as to invite the wives of the top four NET executives to Boston for a taping and a special dinner with Julia, without success. Frustrated, WGBH started to sell the “The French Chef” to other local public stations for $50 a show; first Dallas and then San Francisco. Word picked up, the press was good, and after long years of rejection, it finally became a proud staple of the NET distribution schedule. The rest is history.
NET cultural programming in those days was very, very, very, highbrow. At a NET national meeting, Hill Bermont, the program manager from Athens, Georgia, ended a long litany of complaints to Curtis Davis, then Director of Cultural Programming, about the precious nature of NET offerings by shouting, “Curtis. When? When? When, will you stoop to Swan Lake?”
The answer was never. Ballets as popular as Swan Lake came to NET only after Curtis left.
And it wasn’t only ballet. The avant-garde opera “Intoleranza” was set to open in Boston. In it, singers roamed about the stage amongst scenery made mostly of empty cardboard boxes. They sang to off-stage characters who were projected onto a giant projection screen set up on stage left. Greg Harney proposed taping it for NET distribution and it was accepted. After two acts of singing, screaming and screeching among the boxes and the TV screens, the opera ended to unenthusiastic applause.
We hung around the auditorium to say goodnight to Greg. Singers wandered about on stage wiping off makeup and yelling to their waiting friends about plans for dinner and drinks. Kenny Anderson, the TV floor manager, a man with a keen sense of humor, sidled up to Lillian and me. He surveyed the scene, pointed to the singers on stage and whispered immortal words, “Only those in the know realize that this is the third act!”
It could have been so!
A collegial interlude
When a producer suddenly had to leave WGBH, Dave Davis asked me to step in and take over the producing of two video documentaries to be made at Yale. Russ Morash would be directing, and working with him would be a delight. The new School of Art and Architecture had attempted to bring a different type of student to Yale and these two documentaries were to explore what it was like learning to be an artist in a university setting. The specific question was, “Did Yale change the artists and did the artists change Yale?”
It was soon clear that neither affected the other. The students all felt that having a gallery in New Haven meant failure. Only New York mattered. Yale, having built a grand new building to house artists, made its own statement by where they chose to house them. The print makers and their noxious acid baths were placed one floor below ground level without air conditioning. The sculptors were quartered two floors below ground level, requiring the removal of large plate glass windows to a pit-like courtyard to bring in large blocks of wood and stone, and again to remove their completed sculptures.
On the other hand, the building’s architect, Paul Rudolph, in charge of teaching architecture at Yale, housed the student architects in the bright and airy high-ceilinged upper floors.
It’s little wonder that several years after the taping, students set fire to the building and only fast work saved it.
Several things stand out in my memory from making those programs.
I was amazed to watch these artist/teachers handle their materials. Gabor Peterdi, a print maker, touched paper with hands that seemed to understand paper itself. He did so with a grace that I found mystical. He knew paper and just to see him slide new paper or completed prints from one pile to another gave me a totally new appreciation of the way artists handled their tools.
So too with sculptor James Rosati, and the way his hands grasped his chisels and his hammer. When he passed a palm over a slab of un-worked marble, it was as if he were stroking a living thing; a living thing that he loved!
With his eyes blazing, Rosati exhorted his students to live the full and good life. To their unbelieving smirks he intoned, “To be an artist, you have to be a whole man!”
Jim Rosati was a gem. He was sculpting abstract forms in stone. Mostly self taught, he delighted in coming up from New York two days a week to teach at Yale. Short, strong, and tough, he spoke roughly to his students who were unwilling to try. On the last night of the shoot, we bought several cases of beer for an informal taping session, and with his eyes blazing, he exhorted his students to live the full and good life. To their unbelieving smirks he intoned, “To be an artist, you have to be a whole man!”
Tears came to his eyes as he told me of his first Italian trip to Cararra to buy marble. As you approach Cararra by the mountain road, you can see the white scar of the quarry up ahead. White dust covers everything as workmen wrench the crystalline blocks from the mountain wall. James Rosati was on his way to select the same pure white stone as the great Michaelangelo had done centuries before. James Rosati and Michaelangelo; brother sculptors! It was a high point in his life and he spoke of it with almost religious reverence.
A more down-to-earth Rosati discovered that his sculptures, although all abstract forms, sold better when they had names. He would have preferred to call them “Work #1, Work #2” and so on, but the market prevailed, and after so many years in the steel mills, Jim enjoyed his new celebrity, the high prices his work commanded, and the better quality of his table wines.
What to do? He was not a man of words.
Well, his neighbor was!
Each time he accumulated a body of work, Jim would invite his neighbor and friend, poet Stanley Kunitz, to his New York studio. Opening a bottle of well-aged single malt scotch, he would wait a sociable period, and point to one of his new works. Glass in hand, Kunitz would think a moment or two and, with a warm smile, would say something like, “Nature coalesced!” or some such poetic incomprehension. Jim would scribble down “Nature coalesced”, and proceed to the next. Thus, Jim Rosati’s master abstractions would become word-christened for the waiting art market.
I was impressed with Rosati and enjoyed his success in his later years as he reverted to his native steel, creating large, finely burnished stainless abstracts in major commissions around the world. He loved his work and felt privileged to have been lifted from poverty by his artistry. Giving back to the students was his way of thanking all the artists who went before him.
No. Yale did not much affect the art students, but Jim Rosati did.
Back to the hustings
When it came to the news, WGBH had a continuing problem. There was never enough money to compete openly with the three local commercial stations. What should we do? The decision seemed to be “waver.” For several years we did no news. Then we experimented with a fifteen-minute show at sign-off that mostly gave John Henning the on-air experience he needed so he could go to WBZ and do it for real.
Then the thinking would shift to harnessing all our resources behind one big documentary per week. After a bit of that, the decision would be made that, once again, WGBH had to have an every night presence, and shows like ”The Reporters” would be born.
“The Reporters” included young newspapermen and women and some TV wannabees who went out into the neighborhoods with the new mini-cams to do stand-ups and short documentary stories. Alan Lupo, a large, cigar-smoking Globe reporter, covered the city and the big stories. We also had Sharon Rivo, Joe Klein, and Howard Spergel. (Joe Klein became famous a few years back with his blockbuster novel and film, “Primary Colors,” about a fictional sleazy US President with a loose zipper.)
Howard Spergel was such a good reporter that he was soon an embarrassment. Howard’s beat was education. He was so efficient that he often had two or three stories to any other reporter’s one. Some nights, the show was mostly Howard. Sadly, he died of a brain tumor well before his time. I told his story a few years ago at a speech to students at Emerson College and was approached at the end by a pretty coed in tears. She was Howard’s daughter, and told me that she had not known that about her dad and thanked me.
The Democratic State Convention that year was at the Hynes Convention Center and we covered it completely. Reporters on the floor gave insightful reports and, unlike the other stations, we stuck it out until the bitter end, broadcasting the final vote for Endicott Peabody’s nomination for Governor well after midnight. It was 2:30am when “Chubb” Peabody made the long climb to our booth for his victory interview. After a bit of sharing the glory, Chubb looked sheepishly at the interviewer and asked, “Do you really think anyone is still up watching us”? “No”, the interviewer admitted.
We said goodnight and shut down our coverage!
WGBH at this time was trying hard to break into national production. NET, which had been formed to choose national productions, had started to produce most of the big series themselves and there was not enough money to go around. We did get them to buy “Science Reporter,” and each year got money for a documentary or two. For that reason, on a regular basis, the program staff and producers would meet to discuss the problems of the nation and the world and to propose documentaries that would examine these serious issues.
At one such meeting we were going at it full bore. The table was littered with spent passion and virtue when Hartford walked in to introduce the program manager of the Globe’s new UHF station, Channel 56. Polite handshakes went all around the table and one of us asked him what he was going to put on his new station. He laid out a litany of old and tired re-runs, tawdry talk shows and cheap old movies. Don Fouser, a tough, moralistic, and fearless producer, whose mouth had gotten h
im in trouble more than once, piped up in horror, “That’s God-damned air pollution!”
A crimson-faced Hartford, newly elected to the Globe station’s Board of Directors, rushed the Channel 56 program manager out of the room. We did not see either for the rest of the day.
About the same time, the national meeting of stations was held in New York City. WNET, Channel 13, the host station, had a grand hotel suite full of food and booze, and we naturally gravitated there in the late evenings. The meeting coincided with WNET’s annual fundraising pledge night and they wanted to have us all see how grandly they could do things. On went the huge TV set and, to pay for our free booze, we were supposed to sit there and watch “Thirteen Stars for Thirteen!” Big stars they were too. Well-known Broadway and Hollywood singers and dancers did their thing and in between, WNET staff made pitches for money. Every so often, a WNET executive would place a call, ask how things were going, and announce in a whisper we could all hear, how much money they had made in that last “Star” pitch.
“Star” Tom Lehrer came up next. Everybody who went to college in the 50s knew him. Lehrer, a Harvard math instructor, made up hilarious songs whose lyrics usually scorched some sacred cow. Everybody enjoyed his records and his pointed roasting of the military, the government, big business, and the church. For whatever reason, Tom decided that night to sing his caustic “Vatican Rag”, poking fun at the Roman Catholic Church, which had as its refrain:
“First you get down on your knees.
Fiddle with your rosaries.
Bow your head with great respect, and …
genuflect … genuflect … genuflect!”
New York is heavily Roman Catholic.
After a moment, the phone rang in the suite and the NET executive answering it went ashen. Slowly, he hung up. No whispered money totals this time. In a rush, he gathered up all the other WNET executives and they stormed into a bedroom and closed the door.
The flood of complaints about “The Vatican Rag” was so great that no money pledges could get through!
Now, the fundraising gimmick for the evening was that the “Thirteen Stars” would do their thing, and the taped “Star bits” would be repeated over and over. While we all ate and drank and sniggered at their problem, the WNET executives remained locked in debate.
WNET was well known for its boasting and ostentation, but rarely for its speed, so that when the door finally opened, and the executives had reached a decision, an hour had gone by
WNET was well known for its boasting and ostentation, but rarely for its speed, so that when the door finally opened, and the executives had reached a decision, an hour had gone by.
What do you think happened?
Yup. Before they could react, Tom Lehrer’s taped bit was on the air again and the phones were jammed even worse this time.
“Thirteen Stars for Thirteen” continued for the rest of the evening, but except for the mathematically challenged, only twelve stars could be noted performing thereafter.
Begging in low style for high stakes
WGBH continued to edge from “educational television” to “public television”, exactly paralleling the change of its financial dependence from Lowell Institute Cooperative Broadcasting Council dues to general public donations. That meant we had to use our own airtime for begging and that led to the WGBH auction!
Hundreds, and later thousands, of volunteers formed an army of “go-getters” that begged free stuff from willing businessmen. Clothes, food, art work, china, tires, week-end retreats, homemade quilts (from Mr. Harrington’s mother), all funneled into studio B, which, each day, looked more like a department store warehouse. In those days, when most of the staff worked on in-studio local programming, the auction became an eight-day holiday from work. Both studios were totally occupied, and there was nothing we could do but work on the auction. We rotated through directing, running tables, greeting celebrity auctioneers, confirming sales, handling paperwork and money, and on-air selling. My specialty was “sign-on” and “cross-over;” starting the auction, explaining how it worked and moving the action from table to table for several hours at a time. As the auction moved to color, I did too, buying a Madras plaid sport jacket from the preppy Harvard Square store, J. Press, which gave me a rainbow glow.
Early auctions were loose and informal affairs. When we auctioned off a band, they played several numbers and we all danced.
Early auctions were loose and informal affairs. When we auctioned off a band, they played several numbers and we all danced. The auction was held early in June before the wealthy lady volunteers headed to Maine or the Cape for summer holidays. In the first few years, a contingent of Chestnut Hill neighbors settled into the function of “confirmation,” calling the high bidders to tell them that they should come in to “pick-up-and-pay.” Guzzling from large thermos containers of martinis, this group often confirmed more than one high bidder, causing more than one irate “winner” to show up expecting their prized item.
Very soon, confirmation became a WGBH staff function.
Auction time also meant extreme heat in Studio A and lots of free Coca Cola. I didn’t recognize the effects of addiction until Monday morning after auction, when I found myself drifting down to the cafeteria early for a coke. I was in need of a caffeine fix! Now I use Coke only to keep awake on long driving trips.
The history of the auction takes us back to KQED. Founded by Jim Day and Jonathan Rice, the San Francisco station went on the air with very little money and in very Spartan quarters. I remember the “soundproofing” in their main studio consisted of egg crate partitions that had been nailed to the walls!
In less than a year, their Board of Directors discovered they were out of money and decided to close down. “Horrors,” cried Jim and Jon. “If we close, we may never reopen! Say, if we raise $20,000 in the next two weeks, can we stay on the air ‘til we figure out how to raise more?”
With a Board OK, Jim called a bunch of his friends and raised $10,000.
Jon Rice called his mother!
With the $20,000 in hand, Jon Rice set about to create a money raising scheme that promised a continuing return. He concocted a plan to sell donated stuff on KQED air and the auction movement was born. One of the items donated to that first auction was a set of purple bed sheets from a leading San Francisco hotel that had just been slept in by the sultry Hollywood actress, Kim Novak. A clever clothing manufacturer bought the sheets, made them into several dozen purple ties, and donated them to the KQED auction to be sold for even more money.
A monster was born!
Many stations hated the idea of doing something that crass and commercial, until it became clear that hundreds of thousands of dollars could be raised. The auction continues at WGBH and at many stations, although in the greater scheme of things, it’s no longer a significant portion of fundraising. The mere fact that thousands of volunteers are still interested, and the auction brings them into an intimate contact with, and loyalty to, the station, makes it worthwhile.
WGBH 1967 to 1970
In 1967, Public Television was changing.
For a decade, our major financial backer ha
d been the Ford Foundation. Ford had invested two hundred and fifty million dollars in helping to equip and program the stations. The “network,” a video distribution system by mail, was supported by them. NET, the commissioning (and later the producing) arm of the system, was their creation. Their hand was not very heavy but it was definite. Many waggish stories included, “Does anyone love the Ford Foundation?” The answer depended upon whether they had funded you. For every grant they made, many were denied.
Folks came and testified and the staff listened and then wrote a report which would, hopefully, figure a way to fund PTV on a long term basis and include a method for dispensing the funds.
With a push from WGBH’s Hartford Gunn and Ralph Lowell and funding from the Carnegie Foundation, the Carnegie Commission was formed, made up of leaders in American communications and intellectual thought. Folks came and testified and the staff listened and then wrote a report which would, hopefully, figure a way to fund PTV on a long term basis and include a method for dispensing the funds.
Out of it all came annual federal funding and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting as the disbursing agent. The Commission called for a board made up of distinguished Americans. When President Johnson appointed the manager of his own Texas TV station, we all understood the Washington interpretation of “distinguished.”
Back at home, the station and our lives were more and more concerned with war. International politics caused almost every action to be examined on the premise, “Are you with us or are you with Russia?” Even the Middle East war found the US on one side and Russia on the other. In Asia, Vietnam was in the headlines daily. Instead of seeing that as a struggle to evict a foreign power — Vietnam had been under the French and the Chinese for over 700 years — many in The United States saw another fight between “Democracy” and “Communism.”
Taking advantage of the close connection between Washington and Cambridge, we made many programs on these subjects, using the same academics that were advising various government agencies. One thing they did was to play “War Games.”
Former military and political officials, with a goodly mix of academic wannabees, would role-play various American and Russian officials. A crisis would be dumped in their laps and the viewer would watch as action by one nation would be met with reaction by the other. We would televise these deliberations and show charts and graphs of the results in each side’s “war rooms.” How dispiriting it was to see how many times the dispute ended in war! No one wanted to give in or mediate.
It’s interesting that in real life the big war between the Soviet Union and the United States never happened. So much for the difference between a game and real life. In real life, the consequences of childish posturing includes results too horrible to contemplate.
When it came time for the ‘68 elections, we invited the major candidates for the House of Representatives to come in and be interviewed live by me and answer questions from callers. It went well until the night I interviewed “Tip” O’Neill, later to be the powerful Speaker of the House. I felt I’d handled everything with care and efficiency until a live caller asked, “Tip, how about that woman you’re having an affair with in Fall River?”
Too poor, too inexperienced, and too stupid, we had assumed that a producer screening calls would obviate the need for a seven-second delay on the phone line. Well, the caller outfoxed us, Tip was furious, tearing off his headset after we left the air. It seems that this fellow had been dogging Tip at every speech. Tip was a devoted husband and well known in Washington as a man who went home to “Millie” for dinner each and every night.
A fierce election fight for Attorney General was in the works between Frank Bellotti, a tough Italian lawyer and pol from Quincy, and Elliot Richardson a Brahmin lawyer from the best of Boston law firms. Richardson, went on to fame as the principled Republican Attorney General in the Nixon administration who refused to fire Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox, the man who was investigating Watergate and demanding the Nixon tapes. Here, Richardson had made a less principled accusation in the local campaign.
Richardson had suggested that “Providence money” was behind the Bellotti organization. To any Bostonian over twelve, he was accusing Bellotti of receiving money from the Mafia. Bellotti was rightly furious and announced that he would not appear with Richardson on any stage in the future. That was fine, except that he was scheduled to debate Richardson on WGBH in a few nights and I was the producer!
I sat down, figured out all the possibilities, and created a number of different scripts for the evening:
1. Bellotti fails to appear. We announce the fact, show Richardson being present, say the debate has been cancelled and run a substitute program. (We could not give Richardson airtime because Bellotti could then demand a free show under the “equal time” provision.
2. Bellotti appears. We start the debate. Bellotti denounces Richardson and stalks off. We announce the off-stalking, give Richardson five minutes to reply, say the debate has been cancelled and run a substitute program.
3. Bellotti appears, all is OK, we use the long script and run the debate.
I know I prepared five scripts in all, but for the life of me can’t remember the circumstances of the other two. I think one had the debate start and have a blow up in the middle and Bellotti or Richardson stalk off. This is just a small indication of how you prepare for the unforeseeable when your airtime is at stake
The Vietnam War and WGBH
I also remember how we wiped out our evening schedule for several days during the Vietnam era when the protesting students took over Harvard. The first day of the takeover, Middlesex County Sheriff John Buckley, a good family friend, was being installed in a formal ceremony. Resplendent in top hat and tails, he was handed an Army helmet, led to an armored vehicle and told, “Students have just taken over Harvard Square and it’s your job to get them out!” John used to joke that it was the quickest on-the-job training he ever had.
WGBH set up a large table in Studio A where dissident members of the Board of Overseers sat down with a large group of student activists for a live broadcast that went on for hours.
Harvard President Pusey refused to talk to the students while they occupied Harvard buildings, so WGBH set up a large table in Studio A where dissident members of the Board of Overseers sat down with a large group of student activists for a live broadcast that went on for hours.
During the bombing of Cambodia, Studio B was set up as a newsroom and several of us went on camera to read lists of protest sites for the next day, thus clearly encouraging civilian dissent to the war effort. It’s hard to remember just how strong the anti-war sentiment was in Massachusetts, and these actions remind me how deeply it reached into our program decisions.
Meanwhile, the Ford Foundation was trying one last big push to get Public Television noticed more. To do that, they underwrote a major production unit in New York City. It was also to be our first live national network feed for an experiment called “The Public Broadcasting Laboratory”, or “PBL.” Shows ran on Sunday nights and featured a mix of public affairs and culture, an update on the old “Omnibus&
rdquo; ideas of the 50s.
Controversy began with the very first broadcast. Short documentary segments examining race in America preceded a play, “Day of Absence.” The play’s premise was fascinating: everyone in America wakes up one day to find all the negroes have gone. The performance was made more powerful because the cast was made up of black actors in “white face”.
Many stations complained. But many stations complained about everything. Managers resented any trouble brewed up by their viewers in response to programming over which they had no control. The national NET meetings were filled with griping sessions and now PBL comes along with ”CONTROVERSY!” “Gracious,” you could almost hear them thinking. “If only those New York liberal types would stop stirring up the pot!”
Greg directed … Pinter’s “The Dwarfs,” a powerful drama about control and possession … for TV
Two relatively unknown actors were in it; Jon Voight and Dustin Hoffman.
Later in the year, Lewis Freedman, in charge of Culture for PBL, asked Greg Harney to check out the production of a new Pinter play and Greg asked me to join him at the performance. David Wheeler, an old friend, was directing Pinter’s “The Dwarfs,” a powerful drama about control and possession. Greg and I both thought it was great. PBL bought the idea and Greg directed it for TV.
Two relatively unknown actors were in it; Jon Voight and Dustin Hoffman.
PBL lasted three seasons and was replaced by a Boston production, “The Advocates;” court room style debates about major issues with leading figures arguing each side. Mike Dukakis was moderator for awhile. It stopped the criticism from conservatives because it was so clearly “fair and balanced!”
Also at that time, EEN had some production money and I proposed to make a one-hour Christmas program that dealt with humanist truths not based on religion. Pete Seeger agreed to come and we invited Tony Saletan, Bernice Reagon, and a dozen other musicians to a party in an old barn for “A Circle of Light.” Pete would not accept any fee larger than any other singer and to try to make up for it, I added his wife, Toshi, to the talent list. Pete thought about the smallest details and even brought some extra-dry firewood from his home on the Hudson, so that there were no crackles and sputters when it burned in the fireplace.
My introduction to Rock and Roll
With the assassination of John Kennedy, America lost its innocence. The death of Martin Luther King was a body blow that rocked the nation. City after city erupted in anger with blacks marching through the streets, burning businesses and buildings, and engaging in general looting.
The day after King’s death in 1968, the famous entertainer, James Brown, was to play a concert in the old Boston Garden. Thirteen thousand young fans, mostly black, were to be there. Since the concert would end after mass transit stopped for the night, the audience would walk back to Roxbury through the center of Boston. Boston had avoided violence following King’s death, and the city government was terrified that would end that night.
Mayor Kevin White’s first answer was to cancel the concert.
His counselors argued that mayhem would result. Mayor White changed his mind and he and his staff concocted a plan to have WGBH broadcast the concert live! All the media were asked to tell folks to stay home and watch it. In that way, Boston might be spared the terror experienced by other American cities.
I was called into Hartford’s office at 5:30 pm, and told of the circumstances. He asked me if I could set up a live, multi-camera broadcast from the Boston Garden by 8:30 pm! At that point, the room erupted in an argument as to the wisdom of getting involved at all. I stood up, said they could continue arguing if they wanted, but I had only three hours to do my job and if I was to meet the deadline, I had to get to work.
I called together the three most experienced staffers with remote broadcasts; Greg Harney, Russ Morash, and David Atwood. If anybody could do it, they could. We assembled a staff, drove the mobile unit to the Garden and went to work.
I had Greg come with me to meet James Brown when he arrived. And arrive he did. Short, compact, buoyant, wearing dark shades, hair high in a black glistening pompadour, white cashmere overcoat lying carelessly over his shoulders, burly bodyguards on both sides, James Brown entered the stage door of the Boston Garden.
“Mr. Brown, I want to thank you for allowing us to televise the concert this evening.”
“What television?” he barked.
Walking up, hand extended, I introduced myself and said, “Mr. Brown, I want to thank you for allowing us to televise the concert this evening.”
“What television?” he barked.
Mayor White’s idea had not yet reached the most important player, James Brown. A closeted meeting quickly followed with Tom Atkins, the Mayor’s black assistant. Brown agreed to TV only when the City of Boston said it would “buy the house” and pay him what he would have made from a sold-out Boston Garden.
We returned to the task of getting on the air and did so by 9:30pm.
What a concert!
I’d never attended a rock concert before and certainly never roamed about back stage at one. The sound was ear-splitting. A big stage band, with two drummers and four lovely back-up singers in white form-fitting evening gowns, filled the night with music and joy. The several thousand who sneaked into the auditorium all rushed close to the stage and danced and cheered and gawked.
Brown’s shtick was to sing till “exhausted” and fall to his knees on stage. Several of his bodyguards would rush out to cover him with a velvet cloak. He would “revive,” throw off the cloak and have another go. This went on endlessly with cloaks of different glowing colors. The crowd loved it.
Brown soothed the grieving audience by dedicating the show to the memory of Martin Luther King and invited Mayor White on stage for mutual hugs. Brown and White urged Boston to “be cool.” They said that Boston was a great city and destroying parts of it would not avenge the death of Martin Luther King. It worked. Those at the concert walked home without incident.
Boston was not a great city for blacks. Countless years were spent fighting bussing and it’s still one of the most segregated cities in America.
Later, I learned that James Brown never got paid! He did get the tapes and I recently saw them for sale on-line.
The killing didn’t stop. Bobby Kennedy, then running for President against Lyndon Johnson, was shot while campaigning. Once again all programming ceased and images of death and mourning swept the airways. Sensing that this was the worst thing for kids, I commissioned two programs; on one a poet read children’s poems about loss and on the other, I asked Tony Saletan to sing songs about those ideals and values Kennedy fought for.
One of the benefits of being in public television is the freedom to see needs and provide answers to fill them. More money in the future would mean more opportunities.
I called Pittsburgh and suggested to Fred Rogers that he also make a special program for kids. ”Haven’t you heard?”, he said. “I’m in the studio right now making a half hour.”
Thus, Fred’s famous program about the death of the gold fish
was made. Together with our two shows, the PBS network had at least ninety-minutes for kids that was not filled with crying and caskets.
One of the benefits of being in public television is the freedom to see needs and provide answers to fill them. More money in the future would mean more opportunities.