Fred Barzyk’s Snapshots: Scene 1
This is the first in a series of reminiscences by Fred Barzyk, longtime WGBH producer and director.
Greek Columns in the Studio
In 1959, WGBH did a lot of piano shows. The Lowell Institute members provided the musicians and the only expense was for set decorations. One cheap way to create a proper classical feeling was to have Greek Columns framing the piano. This was done by using large carpet rolls painted as if marble.
In one memorable show, the director had the camera dolly back thru a column of carpet rolls, making the piano smaller and smaller as the piece came to an end. One problem, he forgot about the camera cable and as the camera dollied back the cable proceeded to topple each and every Column.
At the end of the half hour show you could see the stage manager running in trying to stop the columns from falling. They fell with a loud “bloop” sound that only carpet rolls could make.
Ed Scherer and Aldous Huxley
One of the great characters that came thru the doors of WGBH was a producer/director by the name of Ed Scherer.
Ed had made his mark while working at a Washington commercial TV station. He was assigned as TV director to cover a Senate hearing. It turned out to be the famous Joseph McCarthy Army hearing. Ed was 24 at the time. He then headed off to Cuba where he was to be the TV Executive Producer of Cuban Summer Baseball. However, Castro came to power and thru him out of the country.
Ed had met Dave Davis some years earlier and he called out to Dave for a job. Ed was brought in to do MIT Science Reporter. He was the highest paid director at the time, $150 a week.
Ed was charming, funny guy who always just stepped over the boundaries. I once asked him how he was going to shoot a MIT Science Reporter show that had so many stage walls and corridors filling all parts of Studio A. Ed said “Badly.”
On one of the shows he had an English guest by the name of Aldus Huxley. Mr. Huxley was nearly blind and had a female secretary accompany him for the shoot.
After a morning rehearsal, Ed invited Aldus and his secretary to his favorite lunch place. It was a neighborhood bar not frequented by MIT students or faculty. It was where Ed often disappeared to quench his thirst.
Mr. Huxley ordered hot tea with his sandwich. Ed spoke to his favorite bar tender for tea, which was a very strange request. The bartender asked, “Who is that guy anyway?” Ed responded, “Oh, he’s a writer. English.” The tea was eventually found and, as Ed was heading back to the table with his 2 bottles of beer, the bartender said, “Hey, make sure you keep bringing people like that to my place. I’m trying to upgrade the customers, you know. I need some writers.”
Ed left the station after couple of years, going on to NBC where he executive produced a national science show for young adults.
Window Designs to Video Wallpaper
I was assigned to do a lot of piano shows. Hundreds of piano shows. With a meager budget of $10 per show for set design I started to emulate store window designs.
I calculated where each element would go. I hung them from the grid so there would never be a problem with cables knocking over the set. I would take the subway down to Jordan Marsh and Filenes’s dept. stores and look at what they did for design in their windows. I would steal those ideas and bring them back to the studio.
Every once in awhile I was given a performance show, which entailed larger concert groups. One of the shows was a major breakthrough for me: it was a group of flutes, oboes, clarinets and bassoons. However, it was a new piece of music and the orchestra had forgotten to send over a copy of the score so I could plan my shots, and there were no recordings since it was a new composition. So how should I plan to cover this piece?
WGBH in 1960 had 2 studios. Studio A was the big studio with three cameras and a mini crane. Studio B was small and had 2 cameras. My idea led to a new configuration. Since I didn’t know which instrument was going to play, I figured that if I had many cameras covering the performance it wouldn’t matter. I could dissolve between cameras to eventually find the right instrument.
So, I turned to the engineers and asked if they could extend the Studio B cables to reach Studio A. Somehow they agreed. I was informed that I would not have control of the switcher in Studio B. I would need to have a separate person at that switcher. So, now I had 5 cameras, 3 in A and 2 in B. I had 2 switchers and somehow I could super Studio B shots thru my Studio A switcher.
The musicians arrived, played a little for a sound check and I realized that the music was a moody, interlaced slow moving contemporary piece. I decided to do nothing but supers throughout the show. I had to give dissolve directions to two separate switchers. What happened on the air looked like video wallpaper, with long slow dissolves of 4 or 5 cameras at a time.
When the show was over, Bill Pierce, our booth announcer and the voice of the Boston Symphony Orchestra broadcast, walked over to me and announced, “You have gone too far this time, Freddy!” After that, and a few other incidents, my nickname became “Freddy Berserk.”
A Different Approach
Sometimes my approach to things was a little different than what management wanted.
I was assigned a show called European Imperialism, part of a Harvard Extension Course. It featured Prof. Albion, a Harvard Professor of History and a legend in the academic world. It was a simple talk show in which the Prof. lectured directly to camera and the few visuals were mostly pulled from books he brought from Harvard Library. These were produced in the temporary studio at the Museum of Science after the fire in 1962 or 1963.
My best memories: Prof. Albion taking a swig from his flask before he began and actually falling asleep during one of his own lectures.
Here is where I went awry:
I was asked to produce a promo for the show. I went out and bought a black and white chess set which featured the heads of Medieval characters (King /Queen/ Bishop, etc.) I put them on a turntable, up high, with the camera shooting up and played Aaron Copeland’s “Fanfare to a Common Man.”
The Announcer and the copy sounded like something from an epic movie of Roman times. Greg Harney and Dave Davis took one look at the promo and pulled it. Dave Davis said “Hey, Fred! Remember this is only a talking head show!” Whoops.
In 1960 or 1961, in Studio A at 84 Massachusetts Avenue, there was an MIT professor of English who did a studio lecture series “in the round”.
We did lots of such lectures back then. As you say, Fred, they were cheap.
This guy walked from prop to prop in a big circle as he picked up various objects which we’d set on various tables, short columns, and easels.
I was a “WGBH Scholar” back then and operated one of the two cameras. As the professor said the famous line “Alas, poor Yorick…” he was supposed to arrive at the column that held a skull, pick it up, and deliver the line none-to-nose to the dead guy.
But ooops, the table was empty. No skull. The late Al Hinderstein, our energetic floor manager back then and later a university teacher himself, saw the problem, ripped off his headset, ran to the prop storage area, and raced back holding the skull like a quarterback, which he then slid artfully onto its pedestal in a third-base slide movement, just as the professor, unflapped, picked it up and delivered the famous Shakespearean line as I pulled back to reveal the skull in his hand.
I can’t remember who the professor was, nor who was directing. But I do remember that Bob Moscone, our crew chief, came up to Hindy and me afterward and just silently shook our hands.
Yep, those were the days, Fred. No wonder WGBH became a household word. We thought we could do anything.
Little did we know that Aldous Huxley, while in Cambridge, was experimenting with LSD with Ram Dass and others. On a few occasions, I helped him board the Mass Ave bus to Back Bay. We had lively conversations on how Brave New World was already superseded by events.
I remember “Boats” Albion well. During one memorable taping, Willie Morton, running audio, was going nuts trying to figure out what was wrong with the mike because Prof. A’s voice was muffled and bewilderingly indistinct. It turned out that he had taken it off and was sitting on it. Another time, when not responding to cue, we realized he wasn’t closely examining his script, he’d fallen asleep – ah, those warm studio lights… Alex Pirie
Alex, you have it correct…Albion, asleep.
I remember floor managing one of his shows when we were counting in…as the lights came up, George Tuttle, in the control room, was screaming in my headset: “Binder, you idiot!!!” We’d left a ladder in the set. Duh
Wonderful stories, Fred. You are the definitive source for stories of the pre-Western Avenue days of the station. Keep ’em coming!!
The basement at the Museum of Science was so small and cozy that we had little choice but to do most shows from the bus in locations all around town.
Great fun, Fred. All the best