Fred Barzyk’s Snapshots: Scene 5 – Opera, Film, and a Dream
This is the fifth in a series of reminiscences by Fred Barzyk, longtime WGBH producer and director. Don Hallock has been kind enough to add his notes [in brackets].
“While memory can be unreliable, it is always meaningful. The WGBH story will not be taken seriously until it is printed.”
Opera and WGBH
When I came to WGBH in 1958, the station had a contract for a major kinescope series on dance.
[Don Hallock adds: The series was called A Time To Dance. The host was Martha Meyers and the show featured dance luminaries such as Geoffrey Holder, Carmen De Lavalade, Edward Vallela, Maria Tallchief, Andre Eglevsky, Nora Kaye, Hugh Laing, the Alwin Nikolias Troup, the Herb Ross Dancers, and Jose Limon. Greg Harney and CBS set designer Jac Venza were Producer and Director, and Paul Noble was assistant director.]
The series was a big deal and WGBH ventured further into large-scale shows. None more so than our efforts with Opera.
Greg Harney was the catalyst for this effort, forging working relationships with the local universities and music departments. The big production break through was the use of a live orchestra. A full 100-piece orchestra was setup in Studio B. Full audio was piped live into Studio A with the singers responding live to the music. The conductor watched from a close circuit camera and was able to control the orchestra to the action happening on screen. All of this was aired LIVE and it worked wonderfully. I do not remember how many operas we did, but one of them was assigned to me.
I knew nothing about opera. I had seen one on TV as a kid growing up in Milwaukee. It was a CBS production of Mozart’s “Magic Flute.” The opera I was to direct was “Trouble in Tahiti” by Leonard Bernstein. The New England Conservatory staged the production. My job: to cover the action. I was way out of my field, but I did the best I could. No major goofs.
Later, Harney joined forces with Sarah Caldwell and the Opera Group she headed. WGBH did a number of operas with her.
[Don: Other operas with Sarah Caldwell’s group included Purcell’s “Dido and Aeneas.”]
I worked on one of the operas. It was Luigi Nono’s “Intollerzana,” a contemporary opera that was very controversial because of its Communist sympathies.
NET provided the funds for the coverage of the live stage performance. The staging had various people holding up white posters and then images were projected on to the posters.
When Greg directed the show from the Opera house, the cameras could not read the posters. The projector’s light was not strong enough to let the TV cameras see them. I was asked to re stage these parts of the Opera in Studio A. This would allow us to use a stronger projector and make sure the audience could read the graphics. All of this had to be OK’d by Sarah.
Sarah was quite a strong and demanding artistic director. No one crossed her without getting sued. I had a pretty good relationship with her and all seemed to be going just fine. The studio had been booked, actors hired, all graphics in place.
Then Sarah decided she needed more time to think thru what we were doing. The cost would be enormous if I had to cancel, so Greg and I decided to go ahead with the fixes. On the day of the production, I received a stop and desist order from Sarah delivered by a policeman.
I looked at Greg, he looked at me, and we said what the hell, lets do it. We did edit the pieces in, and eventually Sarah said it was OK. It was aired on NET to mixed results.
I believe we never did another opera again.
The (temporary) end of film
Because of a serious film production problem in the early days of WGBH, the use of film was outlawed. Here’s what happened.
In 1957-58, WGBH had a contract to do a major film on the “International Geophysical Year.” The project was to make films about scientific research, as it was happening, which is the most expensive and dangerous way to make a film.
After completing one, leaving several unfinished, the film department was closed. People were fired. The project shifted to Louis de Rochemont Films and lots of finger pointing and paying money back to the National Science Foundation.
It was announced that no film was ever to be used in a WGBH show.
[Don: Oh boy … the memories! The film debacle you mention was a project to document the International Geophysical Year (IGY), an international scientific project of the National Science Foundation (NSF). The IGY ran from from July 1, 1957, to December 31, 1958.
The NSF contract with WGBH was for 11 films, I think. The project was to be produced by Paul Rader, and included ‘GBH staff consisting of Franco Romagnolli, Peter Hollander, Jean Higgins and Don Molner. A whole 16 mm editing and sound studio facility was set up on the top floor of the studio B end of 84 Mass. The Editola was purchased for that project, as was a 16mm Arriflex, a Nagra tape recorder and a bunch of other very expensive equipment. Hopes were high, on the basis of this project, for WGBH’s entry into major film production.
I believe there was a year allotted to finish the series. Going on 10 or 12 months the first program was, however, still not complete (I believe there were plans for a trip to the North Pole – which never took place). Eventually, some of upper management caught on, and the project was ignominiously canceled. Franco, Peter, Jean and Don survived. That, as I understood it, was why film was banished at the station for quite a while, I think, until the Main Street project which Bob Giuliana, Frank Vento, Bill Morton and I did. We used the Editola, the Nagra and the Arriflex for that. (That film still in WGBH archives)
As I said, it was announced that no film was ever to be used in a WGBH show. But never doesn’t always mean never.
Don Hallock and I somehow got hold of a 16 mil camera and some black and white film stock. We went to the state max penitentiary where we filmed empty cells and jail corridors. We even had lunch with members of the Brinks Robbery (food was terrible) and the film was used in the show as a roll in and it was the first time in 5 years that film was allowed in a WGBH production.
[Don: I recall quite clearly going to the state prison to shoot that footage. A great gray stone building, which was even more depressing on the inside as on the out. We had to go through several layers of ominous check-in inspections with a major cartload of equipment to get to where the cells were. They were in awful condition — unpainted, obviously, for years — and hardly fit for an animal. I remember being locked inside one of the cells in order to shoot out from the inside, and felt distinctly disturbed thinking that the door might not open again. And the food was, as you said, distinctly hideous. I assume the new prisons are much more inspiring — what with 23 hour a day solitary confinement for decades, and all.]
Fast forward to the 80’s. WGBH was creating so many shows on film, that we had 35 Steinbecks working on projects. We had run out of rooms at our studios, and had to rent motel rooms at the Ramada Inn down the street.
Finding the film
I don’t know if this story was ever supposed to get out. I believe it is true, since the person who was involved in the incident told it to me.
Here is the situation. NOVA asked archives for a very specific piece of video. The staff searched the archives and could not find it. The person from NOVA, who requested the video, knew it existed because he/she had been the producer who shot it. The research staff went back again into the vault and after many days they still could not find it. And here is what happened next.
NOVA, our flagship Science show, hired a Dowser from California to come to WGBH and find the video. This Dowser arrived with an assistant and they spent 3 days in the archives vault. After 3 days, using their own system of investigation, they found the missing video. Fact is sometimes stranger than fiction.
A dream not realized
In 1962 I met Joe Raposo, a Harvard student who was a musical genius. He later went on to write most of the great songs for “Sesame Street.” Frank Sinatra called him one of America’s best songwriters.
From Wikipedia: Sinatra recorded four of Raposo’s songs on his 1973 album Ol’ Blue Eyes Is Back. Sinatra insisted the album be composed entirely of Raposo’s compositions, but the record label balked and prevailed over Sinatra, limiting him to four. Jonathan Schwartz reports that Sinatra idolized and popularized Raposo and his music, frequently attending Raposo’s parties at his and first wife Susan’s New York apartment during the 1960s with glamorous friends and several cronies, including Leo Durocher. More…
I hired Joe to write a musical intro to a kids show I was doing called “All About You,” for WGBH’s 21 Inch Classroom.
But Joe and I had bigger plans. I always dreamed of doing an original TV musical. As a kid in Milwaukee, I had watched a TV musical on CBS. It was called “Love and Marriage” starring Frank Sinatra. It was “Our Town” adapted into a musical. Its lead song “Love and Marriage” became a hit.
Joe tuned into the idea.
He felt comfortable writing the music but needed someone to do the lyrics. He introduced me to his friend, Tom Lehrer.
I couldn’t believe it. Tom was a legend.
From Wikipedia: Thomas Andrew (Tom) Lehrer is an American singer-songwriter, satirist, pianist, and mathematician. He has lectured on mathematics and musical theater. He is best known for the pithy, humorous songs he recorded in the 1950s and ’60s. More…
Raposo and Lehrer were willing to work on the musical for no money, in hopes we could produce it on WGBH. What we needed was a play. I had seen an obscure play done at Harvard that year. It was a British drama about a grisly subject. I had my wife type up the script and after an initial read it was agreed that this would be the story. Tom wanted Jerry Colonna to be the lead character.
From Wikipedia: Gerardo Luigi “Jerry” Colonna (September 17, 1904 – November 21, 1986) was an American comedian, singer, songwriter, and trombonist best remembered as the zaniest of Bob Hope’s sidekicks in Hope’s popular radio shows and films of the 1940s and 1950s. More…
Tom Lehrer said that he had the largest collection of Colonna records ever assembled. And the name of the play?
“Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street”
(You can imagine how different this version of Sweeney Todd would have been from Sondheim’s!)
We did write the opening 3 songs but soon other projects got in the way. Tom Lehrer says he still has those songs in his basement. I never did get to do an original TV musical.
What a great collection of people! SARAH CALDWELL, all the great dancers that you mention, JOE RAPOSO, and TOM LEHRER. Well after my days at WGBH, including floor managing “The French Chef, ” I appeared on “Sesame Street,” as Paul the Juggler. My performance partner and I did a show setting up Oscar the Grouch’s bowling alley and we did inserts of numbers 6-12 which were broadcast for 9 years. (No matter how many times they were shown…we received a single annual royalty!). So we knew Raposo’s Music well.
History moves quickly to today…after my days as Founder, Artistic Director and Ringmaster of the Big Apple Circus, I started doing cabarets, at first with ISAIAH SCHEFFER at Symphony Space, later with other partners. This year I’m doing one at an International Psychology conference in Boston. On the evening of October 22 at the Parker House I will sing, in duet TOM LEHRER’S “Oedipus Rex.” There are 10 tickets for non conferees available…better snap them up quick!