This is the sixth in a series of reminiscences by Fred Barzyk, longtime WGBH producer and director. Watch The Waiting Room, below.
Ah, yes … The Waiting Room. This was my last TV drama production. After almost 60 years of trying to create situations where I could direct dramas, it finally comes to an end. This half-hour show was the only way for me to say “goodbye” to all my actors.
I love actors. I love how they are willing to give of themselves, to be vulnerable to critics, to wrap themselves in personas not their own, and how they love what they do.
It has always been my style to support their work. My job as a director was to protect them from outside noise, let them practice their craft surrounded by people who appreciate what they are doing. I, as the director, would always stand next to the camera and act as their “audience.” I would stifle a laugh when they said a funny line, or get depressed when things were going wrong for the character. I hoped this helped. I tried my best.
The Waiting Room is the most personal drama I have ever done. It came to me in the middle of the night, the whole thing just popped into my head. I got up from bed and wrote the script at 2:00 in the morning. It’s probably why the whole story is a little murky.
With that murky premise, I think I have to give you a little back-story so you can maybe understand the motivations behind the script.
I was this kid on the South Side of Milwaukee, growing up in a blue-collar neighborhood. I was an only child, spoiled rotten. My Dad worked at International Harvester. He worked there for 50 years and was proud of it. He was also proud that he graduated from High School. He was devoted to doing crossword puzzles. His mother had died of Spanish influenza. He and his sister were placed in an orphanage for several years. His father remarried and they joined Grandma Barzyk in her little grocery store.
My Mom ran away from home when she was 13. Her mother died young, her father remarried and soon there were 4 other girls. She never got over the loss of her mother or the entrance of so many other girls in the family! So she ran away in the middle of the night, boarded a train in Clinton, Indiana, and went to an aunt who lived in Milwaukee. Soon she was a “live-in” nanny at a Jewish family’s big house on the East side of Milwaukee. She lied to the family that she was 16; not her real age of 14. That lasted a few years until the boys got measles and she had to leave.
She ended up as a nurse’s aide at Milwaukee Children’s Hospital, feeding kids in the contagious disease ward. During WW2 she worked the night shift at a factory making artillery shells. I can still remember her smelling of copper filings and oil. But her longest job was a sales clerk at Gimbel’s Department Store, downtown Milwaukee. She worked in the men’s dept. but she liked to say she worked in men’s underwear.
My appreciation for the aesthetic seemed to develop around the age of 6. We were renters, the bottom floor of a two-family house. We had concrete walkways to the front porch and alongside the house to the back porch. From the sidewalk you would have to climb up 2 concrete steps. Each of them (like all the others in the neighborhood) were neat, with sharp corners. For some reason, I thought they would look better if they were rounded. So I got a hammer from the basement and attempted to round them off. It wasn’t pretty. My Mom said I had gone too far. The landlord never complained. I went back to see the house a few years ago and the ragged corners are still there.
And then there was my piano playing. For some reason, I thought I could be this great piano player. Hell, my Mom’s cousin had the most popular swing band in Milwaukee. My aunt Frances was a friend with a famous Milwaukee Pianist: Liberace. So I took lessons. I was really bad. Very bad. My father kept saying it must be the teacher so I kept going to other piano teachers.
One time, as I was waiting for my lesson to begin, I heard this kid in one of the rooms reciting a monologue. I wanted to do that instead, and so I began elocution lessons. I even ended up in a play a “walk-on” role with no lines at age 10. But the real moment of truth happened at one of those horrible piano recitals. We kids would sit in the back room, all-nervous, dressed to the nines. And then I realized that if I made some goofy sound I would break the tension. So I did.[Imagine sound here.]
Did it ever break the tension. They started to giggle, trying to hold back. I did it again and again, till I had them laughing out loud. This was it. This is what I wanted to do. Entertain a crowd. The teacher came in and yelled at us. She pointed at me and said “Freddy Barzyk, you cut that nonsense out. You are going just too far, do you understand?” Boy, did I ever.
I went to Marquette University in Milwaukee because that is what my parents could afford. I lived at home and the tuition was only $250 per semester. I thought maybe I would be a sports announcer. Soon as I took my first acting class, I was hooked. I realized I wanted to be a stage director.
I mean so many things were happening in the theater. Guthrie had established his regional theater in Minnesota, and then other regional theater started popping up all over the country.
Then there were the plays! My Fair Lady, Long Days Journey into Night, West Side Story … all on Broadway. Off Broadway was happening too. European playwrights were being celebrated: Bertolt Brecht’s “Three Penny Opera,” Eugene Ionesco’s “Bald Soprano,” Luigi Pirandello’s “6 Characters in Search of an Author.”
The theater was happening. And I wanted to be a part of it.
I planned to go to Yale Drama School. The problem was that I had no money. A dear friend of mine insisted that I apply for a scholarship to Boston University for a master’s degree in Communication. The deal was you had to work 3 days a week at a little educational TV station, WGBH. I got in. BU was disappointing. Channel 2 was great. I spent all my time there.
After the scholar year was over, my boss, Greg Harney, offered me a 3-month directing gig to cover for one of the full- timer directors who went off to Saudi Arabia on a special assignment. That happened two more times. Greg knew I still wanted to go to Yale Drama School. He had another plan for me.
I found myself back in Milwaukee, trying to figure out how to raise monies for Yale. I would take strange little jobs. One day, I was working at a Polish Newspaper, “The Novini Polski.” I would do cold calls. I would take the big newspaper in town, use their “Apartments for Rent” section and then pitch the owners to place an ad in “The Polski.” You know, these Polaks are reliable, clean, and would pay their rent on time.
Suddenly the boss yells out to me, “You got a phone call.” Who the hell could have found me here? My mother must have given them the phone number. I was shocked. It was Greg Harney.
“Ok, Fred, this is it. I am offering you a full-time TV director job. $85 a week … but no more talk of Yale and the theater. You have to commit.”
And then it happened.
I paused, looked back at the room full of callers trying to convince people to put an ad in a Polish newspaper, and finally said … “Ok, but you have to let me do a TV drama on my vacation. I would need 4 days in the studio.”
Pause on the other end.
Had I gone too far once again?
Finally … “Ok.”
I was now a TV director who would be allowed to do dramas. It turned out to be the best of both worlds. I had not gone too far.
First thing I did was go to every community theater production I could squeeze in, constantly looking for actors who would volunteer for my plays. My volunteer assistant was Sally Dennison who went on to cast Antonini’s “Zabriski Point.” She also helped cast “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.” I now had an actors group of 20 people.
I was given $10 for the rights to a play I selected, “Five Days.” I had use of the art department, scenic, and TV crew. All props, costumes, any out-of-pocket costs would have to been picked up by me. It worked. Elliot Norton, famed Boston theater critic, agreed to introduce the play. It was a Brechtian anti-war play, done “live on videotape” with black and white cameras. The management liked it. I was given permission to do another.
There was a teacher at MIT who was an aspiring playwright. I took his play and paired it with a French farce and called the show “2 for Laughs.” (WGBH is on Channel 2). Pete Gurney was the playwrights name. Pete has gone on to have a very successful career in the theater. He is now known as A.R. Gurney, author of “Love Letters,” one of the most often performed contemporary plays across America. His TV play was lost in a fire that destroyed WGBH back in 1961. As luck would have it my first TV play survived and is now in the WGBH Archives.
In the new WGBH building, I did an outrageous play called “The Pit.” This time WGBH picked up all the costs. “The Pit” was a surreal play featuring a little girl who has fallen into a pit and an older man, a Good Samaritan, who tries to get her out. Of course, he never does and is finally hauled off to prison as a “subversive.” It didn’t have a lot of good reviews. Except for the one that really mattered. Kurt Vonnegut saw it and laughed.
My dear friend, David Loxton, who worked at WNET, New York’s Public TV station, suggested we approach Vonnegut and see if we could do an original TV movie based on his work. For some reason, he agreed!
It was called “Between Time and Timbuktu.” This time I hired real pro actors but filled out the rest of the bit parts with my coterie of local actors. This was it! The beginning of my long career working with actors.
Here are some of the names I have been fortunate to work with:
- Lily Tomlin
- Dan Ackroyd (Collisions)
- Gilda Radner (Collisions)
- Jane Alexander (Letters of Calamity Jane for CBS Cable)
- Matt Dillon (Great American 4th of July & Other Disasters for PBS)
- Christian Slater (Secrets for Hearst Network)
- Barbara Feldon (Secrets; she was Agent 99 on Get Smart)
- Christopher Reeve (Last Ferry Home for Hearst)
- Ashley Judd (Ryan Interview by Arthur Miller for Kentucky Public TV)
- Eddie Bracken (Ryan Interview; stage actor and movie star 1940’s)
- Bob and Ray (Between Time and Timbuktu for PBS, + Double Channel show)
- Kevin McCarthy (Between Time and Timbuktu for PBS)
- Bruce Davison (Lathe of Heaven for PBS)
- Kevin Conway (Lathe of Heaven)
- Morgan Freeman (Charlie Smith; started on Sesame street, became a huge Hollywood movie star)
- John Amos (Listen Up for PBS)
- William Conrad (Great Whodunit!; star of Gunsmoke)
- Gene Barry (Great Whodunit!; radio, TV stage star, was great in the musical La Cage aux Folles)
- Tammy Grimes (“She wanted to me to be her “director” …nope)
- Geraldine Fitzgerald (Great Whodunit!)
- Tyne Daly (No Room for Opal for Hearst Network; one of the few actors who had trouble with me as director)
- Claire Dane (Opal; has become a movie/TV star)
- Theresa Wright (featured in a lot of movies, worked with Alfred Hitchcock)
- Ben Vereen (song and dance actor; was in Jenny’s Song for Westinghouse Network)
- Jean Stapleton (Tender Places; famous for Edith in All in the Family TV series)
- Jerry O’Connell (Ollie Hopnoodle’s Haven of Bliss; fresh off film Stand By Me, now in several TV series and movies)
- Rosie Perez (Poof! for PBS; made splash in Spike Lee’s first movie)
- Ed Asner (Listen Up; lead in The Mary Tyler Moore TV series)
- Richard Kiley (Madhouser; star of Broadway musical, Man of La Mancha)
- John Goodman (Flashback for HBO; gone on to be Hollywood movie star)
- John Houseman (Cable Arts, in many films, worked with Orson Wells)
- James Wood (Andrew Silver drama, went to Hollywood and did well)
- ,Jane Curtin (Pretzels for HBO, original SNL cast )
And now, here in Chelmsford, I returned to my roots. I found great volunteer actors, had the latest video equipment and a dedicated volunteer crew, which allowed me to continue this long love affair I have with actors and my little dramas.
We raised the money for this production by the use of Kickstarter, an Internet fundraiser. We raised over $4,000 to support this production.
Well, we did it. Former WGBH professionals who also volunteered their time and talent joined my trusty group of Chelmsford Volunteers, some in their 70s: Bill Charette, John Osborne, Bob Burns, Debbie Dorsey, and Marcia Hully. God Bless them all.
In many ways, this little movie was a final tribute to the many actors who graced my pictures with their amazing talents. It’s still hard to believe that a kid from Milwaukee actually worked with all these wonderful actors. I must have died and gone to Heaven.