From Bill Charette
The following is an essay I wrote for a memoir group I recently joined. As is common with memoirs, it is presented in the spirit of my best recollection of the time and in a way that makes the story accessible to non ‘GBHers. I was on staff from 1970 to 1980, an amazing decade of growth in programing and technology led by some of the most talented people in the history of television. I encourage all of you to continue to share your stories too.
The first memorable assignment I had as a member of the WGBH-TV Studio Production Crew was in 1971 as an Assistant Stage Manager on the French Chef with Julia Child.
The show was produced in the enormous Studio A with a twenty-foot high lighting grid from which hung a wisteria vine of cables and lighting instruments. It was big enough to produce a lecture series with Leonard Bernstein and the entire 100-piece Boston Symphony Orchestra. But that’s a story for another day.
The French Chef set was mammoth, consisting of a large kitchen with an expansive counter that incorporated a cooktop and sink. Off the kitchen was a full-size dining room where Julia ended each show with a taste of the meal she made followed by a sip of wine and her sign-off line, “Bon appetite!”
The set’s multiple walls and counters were all on wheels stored just outside the studio in what was called the scene dock. It would take a crew of several people a full day to wheel the set into place, clamp the various walls together, and focus dozens of klieg lights under Chas Norton’s precise direction.
On production days, one crew member was assigned to come in at the crack of dawn to open the scene dock door to let Julia and her husband Paul into the building. They usually had a couple of tote bags loaded with various kitchen tools, notes, and Paul’s camera equipment. He was Julia’s official photographer.
On the cold dark morning I was assigned to be there to let them in, there was an awkward moment as I approached the door in anticipation of their arrival. I could hear them having an argument, the nature of which I don’t recall except that it ended abruptly once they heard me unlocking the door. I note this only because it was such a human moment in the real life of a celebrity that only I was there to witness.
Julia was always upbeat and down to earth. Paul, about a foot shorter than her, always seemed to be serious as he hovered in the background during rehearsals, taking photographs of Julia and each prepared dish.
The shows were recorded live, and once tape rolled, we didn’t stop for anything.
Out on the studio floor were three cameramen and their 200-pound cameras on rolling pedestals. Then there was a stage manager, an assistant stage manager and behind the cameras, and for one season, a set of bleachers holding a small studio audience.
The crew wore headsets linked to the control room occupied by a director, switcher, production assistant, audio engineer, lighting director, and a couple of producers all facing a bank of television monitors. The director told each camera operator what to shoot and called out to the switcher with the snap of his fingers as to which camera he wanted on air.
Working left to right, Camera One was assigned the wide shot of Julia and whatever she had going on in front of her. Camera Two might be tilted skyward to a reflection in a long rectangular mirror hung above Julia’s head allowing for an overhead view into a bowl or pan on the stovetop. Camera Three was assigned to close-ups of the food being prepared.
The production assistant, stopwatch in hand, precisely timing each segment, kept everyone apprised of the time. The stage manager relayed time cues to Julia and held up cue cards with bullet points next to the lens of Camera One to guide her through each segment.
My big moment as Assistant Stage Manager came on the day Julia did a show about lobsters. The opening shot was a close up of Julia’s hands moving a mound of seaweed aside to reveal a twenty-pound live lobster. She did her introduction with her signature flourishes: “We’re doing lobsters, eating and cooking, today on the French Chef!” She showed various size lobsters more typically used for cooking which helped emphasize the wonder of the giant glistening 20-pounder nearby.
When she carried a couple of the small lobsters over to a boiling kettle on the stove, the order came over headsets, “Charette, get the 20-pounder off the counter!” Mind you, that lively lobster had unbanded claws bigger than my fist. I gingerly reached in, out of camera range, and managed to complete the task without incident beyond an elevated heart rate and a sense of great accomplishment. I was in show business!
When I tell people about my experience working on the French Chef, I’m often asked what became of the food once the show was over. Well, the good news is the crew and support staff got to eat it. Though I do remember a mouthwatering turkey perfectly brown and juicy looking on the outside that was inedible because the center was partially frozen since it only had to appear completely cooked for the opening segment of the program.
On the day of the lobster show, everyone was allowed to put his or her name in a hat for a drawing to see who would take home the 20-pound live lobster. Of course, if this were to happen today there would be a social media uprising calling for the poor beast to be released back into the sea. However, back then the winner of the drawing was a fellow crewmember, Mike Floyd, who was newly transplanted to Boston from the West Coast. He had never eaten lobster. The following day he reported back how he’d gathered a bunch of neighbors and a galvanized washtub big enough to boil the lobster. It made a lot of hungry people very happy.
One other footnote: My mother loved to brag about her children, it kind of drove us crazy. She’d declare to anyone who would listen, “Well, my oldest, Daniel, he became a priest, then there’s Gerry the State Trooper, Connie joined the convent and became a nun, JoAnn is a registered nurse, and Billy, oh … he is trying to find his way.
Well, the day came when my mother was in the French Chef audience and I got to introduce her to Julia who kindly chatted with her and signed my mother’s copy of her cookbook, Mastering The Art of French Cooking. Now my mother could say “…and then there’s Billy, he works at WGBH-TV in Boston and he introduced me to Julia Child.”
I loved my job.
The Lobster Show is available on YouTube.
- Producer Ruth Lockwood
- Co-Producer Roger Smith
- Director Russell Fortier
- Designer Francis Mahard Jr.
- Production Assistant’s Claudia Allyn, Nancy Trolland
- Audio Dave Loerzel, Wil Morton
- Video Bill Fairweather, Karl Lorencic, Steve Rogers, Aubrey Stewart
- Stage Manager Dave DeBarger
- Lighting Designer Chas Norton
- Switcher Kathy Smith
- Recordist Dave Hutton, Dave St.Onge
- Cameramen Jim Field, Greg MacDonald, Skip Wareham