A tribute to Dave Davis

Reading Time: 10 minutes

From Don Hallock

As I remember, a 30 year old Dave Davis came to us at WGBH-TV from the University of North Carolina campus TV in 1957. That was the same year I, at 19, began in the scene shop as assistant to Peter Prodan.

Dave was a musician and veteran television Producer-Director. He succeeded John “Rocky” Coe as Production Manager, as I recall, and first occupied a tiny cubicle at the far end of the upstairs TV production office area where there was, quite appropriately, a little window looking down into Studio A.

I very much loved working as cameraman for Dave. His precision, expertise, and intelligence were absolutely inspiring.

I didn’t see or know much of Dave for several months following his arrival. I think that was because David MacFarland Davis was Scottish to the core — a distinctly quiet and private person who in time, though, proved pivotal to the future development of my entire later life.

My very first acquaintance with Dave happened one morning when I nervously approached his desk to say that I might have to quit working at the station as I was having a terribly painful and difficult time working under Peter. I really don’t know how Dave had any knowledge of who I was, or what my talents or enthusiasm might be (I aspired at that time, more than anything else in the world, to be a television cameraman). His reply, however, nearly knocked me off my seat — and profoundly changed the course of my life — forever.

He told me that in June and November respectively the station was going to be hiring two full-time cameramen. Frank Vento, who was already assistant Studio Manager under Bob Moscone, was to be the first, and that, if I could stick it out in the shop until November, I could be the second one. In the meantime, he said, I could be the station’s title-slide photographer after hours, and run microphone boom on a weekend science series he was directing for NET.

I was nothing short of astounded because, although I had as a teen, done some unofficial assisting in the TV studios at WBZ-TV on weekends, and had several years of theater experience, I had never run a boom or camera before in my life. But I accepted, and with so much excitement I could barely get any words of appreciation out of my mouth. Obviously, I stuck it out.

Dave was as good as his word (he always was). And so, subsequently, I found myself working for him, I believe to our mutual satisfaction, and definitely to my great pleasure, for nearly seven years thereafter. I ran camera on most of his directing stints and after he became Assistant General Manager for Television and didn’t direct further, it was he who powerfully changed my life yet again, by agreeing — on the prompting of Greg Harney — to promote me to Producer-Director. And again I was awed by this show of faith on his part (I was also, I must admit, perfectly terrified).

You see, the station rule, formerly strictly adhered to, was that all Producer-Directors must have college degrees, and I was only a high school graduate. I wish I could say I knew it at the time, but it only gradually seeped into my consciousness that, though incredibly detail-conscious and formal, Dave’s softer jazz musician side would sometimes very quietly reveal itself, and that he actually navigated a surprising amount on intuition.

I very much loved working as a cameraman for Dave. His precision, expertise and intelligence were absolutely inspiring. I respected his work greatly, and we probably disagreed, rather humorously in the long run, on only a couple of very minor issues. Actually, our differings stemmed from my having been an impassioned student of television since I got my first TV set at age 14, and by age 16 having read every book on television in the Boston Public Library.

The romance of the medium absolutely enchanted me from the beginning. I watched TV constantly through high school and had probably seen every one of all the great network programs of the time (Wide Wide World, Studio One, Goodyear Playhouse, Kraft theater, Omnibus — all the shows that were breaking ground and breaking rules). I absolutely loved the excitement of “live TV,” the constant innovation in a very new medium, and especially the rule-breaking (I have always been something of a rule-breaker).

As a director, Dave went, I found, somewhat by-the-book. I was not at all disappointed in him for that. Dave just “had his ways,” and I respected him for those. They worked well for him, and for me also as a hands-on student of TV technique. I did find some of them amusing, though, and our accords, as well as our divergences, later helped me, of course, form my own styles of directing.

In the category of divergences, for instance, “Takes” were Dave’s rule of thumb for virtually all music shows, including the Boston Symphony broadcasts. I, on the other hand, have always loved dissolves. I don’t remember Dave ever using a dissolve, even on the slowest, softest and sweetest of music. While cameraman on Dave’s music shows, my heart yearned so much to have a dissolve or two that, after I started directing music programs myself, I probably used a few too many for a while.

In those later times when I was directing, Dave was likely in frequent disagreement about my choices of transitions. But always the fair-minded Scotsman, he never once objected.

Dave also seemed to feel that the cyclorama, drapes or black curtains were the only proper backgrounds for music programs — and cameras were never to be seen. Being a jazz musician himself, and “THE jazz director” of the station, that was Dave’s convention for jazz as well. Lew Barlow dutifully continued that tradition when he became director of Jazz with Father O’Connor.

Well, about the time I inherited that program from Lew, I happened to see kinescopes of two CBS programs that Jack Sameth had recently done with Miles Davis, Gil Evans, and combo. They blew my mind! Unlike the usual TV setting, Sameth had set the musicians in a loose horseshoe with Gil Evans conducting his arrangements from the horseshoe’s opening. All were thusly facing each other – more like a recording session. Furthermore, there was no set, only dimly lighted studio walls, and the cameras were allowed to dolly into and out of the backgrounds of each other’s shots. So powerfully beautiful was the music and the presentation (they both broke so many rules so elegantly) I thought immediately, THAT was the way jazz should be shot! And THAT’S the way I will do it!

Well, needless to say, I was distinctly nervous on the night of my first show as nobody but the people in the studio, the cameramen who just loved the impending freedom, and Father O’Connor, who not only couldn’t have cared less but thought it was an interesting idea, knew my plan. We now got every shot we wanted, moved anywhere we wanted to move, saw lights, booms, and cameras, and used takes, dissolves, and supers as much as we felt was evocative of the real spirit of jazz.

All responses to the program were decidedly positive (thank you, Jack Sameth). And Dave, who’s opinion most worried me, never uttered a word of disparagement. I don’t know if he objected to the approach or not, but I do believe he felt it was creative (creativity was a concern of paramount importance to Dave), and that it was only right that he respect my aesthetic decisions as much as I had respected his. I gained much greater confidence as a director in this particular adventure (thank you, Dave).

One rather amusing note: After I left the station in 1963 I did see one Boston Symphony broadcast where Dave slowly and beautifully dissolved into and out of a very wide shot of the whole hall from the Symphony Hall balcony. I do believe that Jordan Whitelaw, the Boston Symphony producer who, when I directed music programs, had liked my choices of dissolves and takes — and was much more of an open romantic than Dave — finally got to him on that occasion. Nevertheless, it was Dave who taught us all how to properly televise music, and if that had been Dave’s only gift we would all owe him a huge debt of gratitude.

There was really only one other, rather humorous, area I remember where Dave and I differed frequently, and that was where the choice of lenses was concerned. This may not mean very much technically to present day camera operators who use only zooms, and not fixed lenses as we had to do then, but Dave had an absolute phobia about (against) the use of any lens of a focal length shorter than the normal (50mm) — and that lens only for the widest of cover shots. He felt that, on anything closer than a waist-shot, even a normal lens introduced an intolerable depth of perspective, which Dave saw and denounced as “distortion.”

Therefore, on shows he was directing at least, he insisted on the use of a 90mm or longer for almost all shooting, including cover shots. This, of course, made smooth dollying, especially on 84 Mass. Ave’s. washboard studio floors simply impossible, and was absolutely infuriating to camera operators, as it made them feel terribly incompetent. In all fairness, I must observe that the wider lenses did make the use of a tele-prompter, which was then mounted below the lens turret, more obvious. But even when a prompter was not being used Dave had his fairly strict preferences and held to them firmly.

To the best of my memory, he never ever used the station’s one 35mm lens, barely tolerated the 75mm when we got it, and, I believe, abhorred the 28mm lens we eventually bought (super-wide for the day) that I simply loved. He staunchly stood by the perspective flattening that the longest usable lens would give.

I, on the other hand, loved the feeling of depth, perspective and dynamic camera movement that the wider angle lenses gave. I knew that long lenses had their place, and never resisted their appropriate use. I always strove to use the right lens for the right shot, and tailor the use of lenses to the show and the director.

But I was also an avid enthusiast of John Frankenheimer’s television drama technique, namely that of invariably using the widest lens possible. He made abundant use of crane shots and rarely used a lens shorter than 35mm (wide angle) even for close-ups. I found those image dynamics absolutely exhilarating — something like flying. So, I frequently tried to slip one over on Dave by using a wider angle lens than I knew he would want. Often he caught me at it, and a few times he didn’t. But he never did get rasty about it. He just invoked the dreaded “D” word, and we made the change to the lens he preferred. Because he very much liked me to add my contributions to what he was directing and to “sell him shots,” I think he secretly enjoyed our little “lens-joustings.”

In truth, I believe the lens issue went deeper than the merely technical — to the level of personality. Longer focal length lenses give a subtle feeling of “viewing subjects from a safe distance,” which better suited Dave’s preference for interpersonal relating. The wide angle lenses, in contrast, made one feel “inside the action” — more of a participant in the drama — which, in my youth at least, felt very exciting.

It would probably be impossible to enumerate all that Dave Davis gave and meant to us while at WGBH. He constantly and insistently emphasized — and through that gift, we all learned — “creativity” and “quality.”

One area where Dave and I were in perfect agreement was in shot calling. That directing technique was almost as important to cameramen as to switchers. Ask any old-time ‘GBH director (and probably some of the younger ones too) about “1-1-1-take!” and “ready 2…dissolve.” Dave brought those camera calls to us when he joined the station.

The method was both elegant and precise. The repeated number always meant to the switcher that a cut was next, while the “ready” always signified an impending dissolve. At first, some directors found the new calls annoying, and preferred to stay with the old ones (they were the “ready 2….take 2” crew with whom you, as switcher, never knew if the “ready 2” preceded a cut or a dissolve. When switching, you, therefore, had to try — too often unsuccessfully — to be ready for both).

But eventually, when their almost fool-proof effectiveness in preventing “mis”-takes were appreciated, (and, it should be said, on Dave’s fully justified insistence) the new calls were universally adopted. In fact, I believe that those camera calls of Dave’s are still being used, at least by some. (Bill Francis knew them as TD when I employed them while directing the Summer Symphony in Montana in 2002.)

Dave’s shot call system only failed once that I know of. That was on a performance program where Dave Nohling was switching, and a novice Whitney Thompson was directing. Nohling was known for having a very peculiar sense of humor. So when Whitney became flustered, lost his place in the score, and called out 3……2……1……take! Dave simply accepted the call literally and punched those buttons one after the other in quick succession – 3,2,1. Needless to say, that didn’t look any too good going out live.

It would probably be impossible to enumerate all that Dave Davis gave and meant to us while at WGBH. He constantly and insistently emphasized — and through that gift, we all learned — “creativity” and “quality.”

Dave really taught us pretty much all we knew about good music work, in all genres — especially classical and jazz. He brought much significant childrens’ programming to the station. And, of even greater importance, he modernized and stabilized many of our key production methods, initiating many of the essential innovations that first carried us out of the more primitive realms of production technique and into national prominence (a work-in-progress that Greg Harney ably continued).

Directly or indirectly Dave Davis “fathered” all of us in TV in the very best of ways. He knew well that to have creativity, space must be made available for individuality …

Dave’s role in the station’s spectacular recovery from the fire at 84 Mass., in the emergency use of the Catholic TV Center, in the successful move to the Museum of Science, and in the planning of 125 the Western Ave. plant, are un-erasable as memorials to his wonderful resilience, determination, dedication, and savvy. Dave was, as we all know (or should know), one of the major forces behind the preeminence that WGBH eventually achieved. Directly or indirectly Dave Davis “fathered” all of us in TV in the very best of ways. He knew well that to have creativity, space must be made available for individuality — he never expected us to go about like a bunch of “little Daves.”

In my experience, Dave was a remarkably complex, and even at times enigmatic, person. He was a rather terse, emotionally somewhat remote, always impressive, clearly ingenious, unswervingly purposeful, occasionally humorous, at times intimidating, but always a gentle, fair and kind human being, who should, I feel, remain a justifiably revered figure in the history of

Finally: and I wish to say this to you personally, Dave, wherever you may be: I have long suspected that the man who dramatically changed my young life in unforeseeably beautiful and lasting ways; who introduced me to an appreciation and knowledge of music which has stayed with me my whole life; who gave me chances I would almost certainly never have gotten from anyone else; who helped me to get a foothold doing what I dearly wanted to do and loved doing, with people I came to love, in Public Broadcasting — a field which you were steadfast in supporting, and which I continue to hold in the highest esteem as indispensable to our society … that that man was still alive, somewhere in the Caribbean making the music he so loved making. I’m deeply happy to hear that that was indeed true. It’s what I would have wished for you, Dave.

And this knowledge ameliorates, just a tiny bit, the tears I can’t seem to hold back, right now, as I write this, in deep respect of your wonderfully admirable service, and in profound mourning of your passing … because, Dave, I have so very much to love you for.

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