Friends, colleagues, and family members gathered at One Guest Street on Thursday, October 3, 2019, for a party celebrating the pioneering career of Michael Ambrosino, creator of Nova and Odyssey, and producer of many WGBH programs. The following transcript has been edited.
Attendees: Paula Apsell, David Atwood, Fred Barzyk, Alison Bassett, Henry Becton, Ron Blau, Jay Collier, Callie Crossley, Rebecca Eaton, Boyd Estus, Jeanne Jordan, Emily Lovering, Bob Nesson, Chas Norton, Marita Rivero, Terry Rockefeller, Chuck Schuerhoff, Sheila Simollardes, and Olivia Tappan, Melanie Wallace.
Fred Barzyk: When I first came to WGBH, there were very few people, maybe 45 people, and there was a gentleman who was running our school television service: that was Michael. I was his stage manager for one of the shows.
When I first came here, I was a BU student. I don’t know how many people remember that period of time, but WGBH couldn’t afford any kind of crew, so they made a deal with Boston University. You go for your Master’s degree, they give you $600 for the year to live on and you had to work three days a week. You became the crew, you worked on everything, whatever was needed.
I was stage managing a science show with Gene Gray. If you ever worked with Michael, you know he plans everything to the nth degree. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen one of his calendars for the year. They’re enormous. They’re like a piece of tapestry.
Olivia Tappan: All handwritten.
Fred Barzyk: All handwritten, all beautifully done. Well, Michael was directing the show and he had this really, really great idea about getting the closest closeups we can possibly get. We had two cameras.
Halfway through the show the cables had become so intertwined that the cameras could not move. So, in his wisdom, Michael said to us, “All right, let them go back. I’m going on one camera. You figure out how to get the cable around.”
Fortunately, Hal was on one of the cameras. He took one camera up high. The other guy pushed his camera down; he was practically crawling on the floor, getting to the other side. The rest of the show went beautifully.
Michael Ambrosino: Don Hallock was directing a jazz program with three cameras and he lost two of them. He took off his headset, went into the studio, got on the one working camera and directed the entire show from the floor.
Fred Barzyk: Don Hallock wanted to be an artist. He started at WGBH at the age of 18, working in the shop.
There is a very famous shot — at a time before all the computer graphics — in which Barbara Streisand is standing on a ferry out in the harbor in New York City and the camera is up in this helicopter and she’s singing her song. And the shot goes all the way down and it ends up on a close up. The network said, “There’s only one person that we will ever hire to do that and that’s Don Hallock!” He was at WGBH for about six years.
Michael Ambrosino: He came into the shop as a carpenter and then became a cameraman and director. He now lives in Hawaii.
He was at the reunion in 2000 and he thanked us. He said, “‘GBH has always been my family.” He’s the one that started the alumni website. It was his desire to keep in contact.
Michael Ambrosino: We were doing Michael Ambrosino’s Show, with the mobile unit. Fred was talking on the headset to the driver and to the cameraman and we were driving over the Mystic River Bridge at 8:30 in the morning.
Fred Barzyk: In a bus.
Michael Ambrosino: And he’s saying to the driver, “Slower. Slower. Stop.
“Okay. Pan left, get in that building,” and the driver is saying, “Freddy, there is a long line in back of us. We’re blocking traffic.”
And Freddy says, “We paid our toll.” [Laughter]
I don’t make these things up.
Henry Becton: When I got a job as one of the last two producer trainees at WGBH — the other one being Arthur Schlesinger’s daughter, Kathy Kinderman — the first thing I was assigned was three months working on the studio crew.
The first day on the job I was asked to run a boom mic that I could run around this live audience in Studio A for a production called Violence Sonata that had two different television channels and a radio channel being broadcast LIVE and all kinds of happenings on the stage. David Atwood was directing it, I think.
Fred was in charge of the production and it was chaos.
Michael Ambrosino: Organized chaos.
Henry Becton: There were various meal infractions that were being argued over. I got home that night and said to my wife, “Wow, this is some place.” Anyway, that was my first experience with Don.
David Atwood: The full-time crew had their issues with BU students and producer trainees. When they were new, they would tend to pull cables out of the wall that shouldn’t have been pulled out of the wall and things like that.
Henry Becton: They would speak live in the studio when they should have kept their mouths shut.
Ron Blau: As a former producer trainee, I have something to add. I was a producer trainee, June of 1963.
Emily Lovering: I discovered you! I started in ’63 and my first job was with Bob Larson. I found you.
Ron Blau: Yes … but this story does relate to the person who’s being honored today. [Laughter.]
I went through college not knowing what I wanted to do, which was appropriate for a history and literature major. (That was to the great chagrin of my then-girlfriend’s mother, who wanted somebody who knew his path in life. I didn’t have one.)
During my senior year, second semester, I had a professor who happened to have done something in “educational television,” as it was called then. He said, “You’re not interested in any one particular subject. I can tell.” He said, “If you want to do different things, what about checking out educational television?”
So, I walked over to WGBH. I heard it was on Mass Ave. in Cambridge and I walked in the door. A lot of people were out to lunch but there was this guy sitting near the entrance saying, “What would you like?” This was Michael Ambrosino.
I said, “I’m thinking after graduating from college maybe I’ll have a job on the crew if there’s something available.” So, he said, “What’s your background?” I told him my background. He said, “You might want to apply for a producer training position.”
So, long story short, I became a producer trainee and it is thanks to this man over here that I have career. Thank you.
Paula Apsell: I have something similar to say about that. I’m Paula Apsell, although when I started typing the station logs, I was Paula Schwartz.
I went from typing the station logs to working for Bob Carey in radio and doing The Spider’s Web radio drama show and news.
You know, these were really good jobs, but I never found my niche. I just didn’t feel like I was doing what I was meant to do.
Then Michael started NOVA and a little light bulb went off in my brain and I thought, “Wow, science. That’s pretty smart. That’s something that I could really sink my teeth into.”
So, I’d been a producer in radio and I became a NOVA PA and I always say it was a miracle that Michael and John Angier hired me.
We were doing a film about smallpox eradication. We were supposed to film in Bangladesh. I don’t know if you remember this, Michael, but it was said the last two cases of smallpox were there. Unfortunately, there was also a coup and the dictator took the only 707 out of the country to escape, so there was no way to get there.
Well, the [smallpox] spots faded and the kids got well … and John Angier’s enthusiasm did too. (Michael, you were so patient.) He had wanted to start this film with “You’re looking at the last two cases of smallpox in the world.” And when he couldn’t say that, he said, “I don’t want to make this film.” Michael said, “John, you’ve already spent like $20,000.” (It would be like $120,000 now.)
John said, “Oh, Paula will make it.” And Michael, to his everlasting credit — or, I don’t know, foolishness — said, “Oh, okay.” That was that.
Michael Ambrosino: I do have a history of hiring women of accomplishment! [Laughter.]
I don’t know if you remember how poor we were.
Fred and I were going to Inman Square on a shoot. You got one day shooting, one day of editing, and then get it on air 9:30 Tuesday night.
And a person walked into the editing room with two tape boxes and said, “I have tapes two and three of Michael Ambrosino’s Show.” I said, “Where is tape one?” They said, “I think we recorded the Governor on it last night.”
(We also did a show every year with Robert Frost. Never kept that either. He was just that nice poet from New Hampshire, and tape was expensive.)
Miraculously, Fred had told me before we left Inman Square, “Let’s do the opening again.” It’s a lovely eight-minute walk through Inman Square describing the people and it was on tape three!
So, we sat down and we made a show out of tapes two and three.
Fred Barzyk: And it was the original location of Legal Seafood where you had to have a ticket. You’d have to pay before you could order. It was served on paper.
Michael Ambrosino: George Burkowitz gave me a lesson in how to buy fish there. He said, “Smell it.” [Laughter.]
Fundraising is hard, but getting money to support yourself to raise money is even harder.
Two men from the American Association for the Advancement of Science came to the station and said, “We want you to write a white paper on science and television.” I said, “I basically already did that. It was the proposal for the WGBH Science Program Group.
I asked, “How much money do you have?” They said, “$40,000.” I said, “Give it to me. We can use that for the fundraising phase.” They said, “Fine. Let’s go out to dinner.”
And so, we went to Legal Seafood. Typically, the fellows from Washington had the chowder and the lobster and the cod and the ice cream and the whole business.
One of them whipped out his American Express card and Anna said, “What the hell is that? We take cash here!” I dug into my pocket, pulled out cash, and that was the first money I took out of the $40,000.
Henry Becton: So I worked on that Inman Square show because after my first few months were in the crew, my next job was working for Michael as a Production Assistant. That was probably the best thing that ever happened to me because every show was in a different format and it was whatever Michael thought was interesting and important that week.
So, one week we did that great show about Inman Square, a kind of magazine format. Each segment was a little different than the others. I remember I did an audio collage of Inman Square people.
Michael Ambrosino: People’s voices.
Henry Becton: Talking. With still photographs that went along with it. Then another time, we’d be doing a show about the Boston Harbor Islands with a helicopter filming over the islands…
Michael Ambrosino: With Boyd shooting and editing.
Henry Becton: It was a fabulous crash course in television production for me, and I think gave me a big head start.
Michael Ambrosino: Couldn’t have been done without Oliva!
Henry Becton: Well, my next job after Michael was working for Freddy on the first national Jean Shepherd’s America.
Fred Barzyk: Poor Henry.
Henry Becton: The other thing I would say about Michael — other than learning all these aspects of the craft — was learning the value system of WGBH because you really personified that.
I think you probably don’t know how many people have learned about what is important about the culture of WGBH from you.
I want to thank you for that. [Applause]
Michael Ambrosino: We were fortunate, in the early history of the station, to have Hartford Gunn. I was hired as Hartford’s assistant.
My first task was to design a television studio complex that could go in a long skinny space — which you would never do — so that he could take the blueprints to the President of the University of New Hampshire, and say, “There’s only one TV station in New England and that’s us in Boston. We will never survive if we don’t have more on the air.
“Someday, you and I, Mr. President, are going to go to the legislature for money to build a New Hampshire station and you can tell them that there is space to put it in. So, excavate the basement of the student union that is now under construction!”
Hartford was always playing chess. I mean the thoughtfulness that he had. After he left, he went on to be the first president of PBS.
Paula Apsell: So I have to say something, because I directly inherited Michael’s creation, having worked on NOVA from its second or third season until its 46th. I think I’m going to embarrass you, Michael.
I think it’s really important to understand what’s involved in creating a series that’s going to go on for almost half a century. What a singular achievement that is. Hardly anyone is able to do it no matter how smart, no matter how brilliant, no matter how creative they are.
Michael did it not once, but at least three times that I know of, with Odyssey and with Ring of Truth, which I love, and which has always been one of my favorite television series. And NOVA! I just think today it stands as a testament to this amazing creativity and stick-to-it-ness and the refusal to give up.
What he’s given to WGBH, to people like me — to generations of people who were able to do the most wonderful thing — was to take science and tell stories about it, because Michael always said, “Science is a story,” and he was 100% right and that was his vision.
No one else had that vision, not even Walter Cronkite on Universe, which he started, but then CBS wouldn’t let him continue after two seasons. It never got that ethos that NOVA had, which is 100% storytelling, visuals, character.
So, I think it’s an amazing accomplishment that we have to really salute today and salute Michael and be happy that we were there to be part of it. [Applause]
Michael Ambrosino: One day, during a conversation between Michael Rice and myself, I said we shouldn’t do a particular project. He said, “Then what should we do?” I said, “I’ll tell you on Monday,” and that became Michael Ambrosino’s Show.
Michael gave me and others tremendous freedom to do programs. At the time, I was the Associate Director of Programming, and now I’d also produce Michael Ambrosino’s Show.
Michael [Rice] said, “It needs a talent. Who will appear on it?” I said, “I will. I’m the only person on staff with an Actor’s Equity Card.” (You can produce what you know you, as talent, can do so much more easily than producing for somebody else to host and carry the show.)
So, in the middle of the season, I said to myself, “Okay, you know you’ve got programming chops; maybe it wasn’t recognized earlier. I’m going to take my 40th year off.”
But I didn’t know how I was going to pay for it. I discovered that the Ford Foundation did not want to pay me to sit around and figure what to do with my life, and for Fulbright, I had to teach, and Guggenheim, too.
The Corporation for Public Broadcasting had fellowships to foreign countries in the past, like Finland and Japan. Although I still spoke some Japanese from my service overseas. I’d simply be an observer.
Then, that year, they said, “We’re going to have a year-long fellowship at the BBC in London.” I said, “That is mine!”
I got that fellowship for the fall of ’70 into ’71, and spent the first five months working on a program called 24 Hours with a staff of about 100 with more money than we could spend: seven film teams running around the world, filling 45 minutes a night on BBC 1.
On the Monday of my appearance, I was given the task to do what two other producers had failed to complete because they hadn’t shot cut-aways. But, because we had done all of that snap editing in the control room at ‘GBH, I intercut a performance of an up and coming new performer with material I picked out of the BBC archives and, on Friday night, I had an 18-minute piece on BBC 1 of Mick Jagger singing “Give Me Shelter” intercut, in tempo, with the interview.
The next Monday, I was considered a member of the team.
Sheila Simmollardes: I’m going to go back just a little bit because I was with you from ’65 on, and through the transitions through Hartford, through Michael, through Hadley and beyond.
I was fortunate you invited me to spend a week with you and Lillian in London when you were at the BBC, and I had a tour every day of some spectacular spot and did my Christmas shopping that year at Harrods with Lillian. It was great.
Michael Ambrosino: The BBC had set me up to look at five or six different apartments. They were all small and dark and smelled of fish. Harrod’s had one for twice the price we expected to pay, but it had four bedrooms. We said, “What the hell. It’s just a year.” There weren’t many weeks where somebody from GBH wasn’t living with us.
Michael Ambrosino: So, I spent the second half of that year looking at the BBC Features Group that used a storytelling technique to make documentaries about science and technology and art and music and religion.
That was Horizon. Basically, I brought that idea back and had the Horizon series, as a companion, to work with. (We could never have raised enough money to make NOVA if we had to make them all. And we had no people to make them with.)
The plan was to borrow three Horizon producers, so the minute the money came through, I went back to London with the idea of taking three of their best people. The BBC did not wish to proceed, so I hired those people that I could — Simon Campbell-Jones, John Angier, and Francis Gladstone — and they trained the American staff.
Terry Rockefeller: I got to be part of that team. I was a production assistant on the first NOVA produced. I have so many stories I could share.
One I love telling was during the year we were getting ready to produce NOVA. We had a meeting in the Cahner’s Room at 125.
I was, at that point, working on captioning Julia Child as an experiment to find out whether or not people who were hearing-impaired could actually read captions.
Let me tell a side story about that.
I captioned one of Julia’s shows. She said, “Terry, I misspoke that recipe. Could you correct it in the caption?” I said, “Of course, Julia.” I corrected it and we took it out to the school for the deaf in Hartford, Connecticut, and all of the students said, “You made a mistake in that caption. That’s not what Julia’s saying.” That proved that they could really use captions.
But, back to the discussion about telling science as a story. A number of us had read John McPhee’s article on the Deltoid Pumpkin Seed, a new wonderful form of aircraft.
People in the room said, “I guess, maybe, there is one science story. We could tell that story. That’s a good idea, Michael.”
And, as Paula said, how many seasons later are there still stories to tell? It’s because it worked.
Coming to that team as a production assistant, we were making a film called “Where Did The Colorado Go” — which continues to be a problem not only with the Colorado but with rivers all around the world — and we studied all the fundamentals of knowing how you understand what a river is, what a river system is, how you can look back longitudinally and really get a picture that’s meaningful and true. We made that film and we had our first rough cut screening — I didn’t even know what a rough-cut screening was — but we had a rough-cut screening.
Simon, obviously a very experienced BBC producer, understood the process. We all came back up into Michael’s office and he said, “All right, now I’m going to start with the most important opinions in the room,” and he turned to the assistant editor and to me and he said, “What did you think of that?”
When you talk about creating the spirit of what WGBH is, I still remember that. I haven’t worked with GBH for many, many years — I went on and did other things — but to me that was so amazing that every moment of working was a learning opportunity, a mentoring opportunity, and a fully-sharing opportunity. We all really listened to each other. Thank you, Michael.
I was lucky enough to then work on Odyssey and The Ring of Truth.
Michael Ambrosino: And we were both lucky enough to work with Henry Hampton.
One of the great gifts I was given was a call one day. I was asked, “Would you help this fellow with a new production company?” (It was Blackside, the only fully integrated TV production company in the city.)
I helped raised money and staff for Eyes on the Prize. NOVA was important but Eyes had to be made. Henry knew he had to work fast, because people were dying, and he wanted a history program told by witnesses, not by academics.
That’s why Eyes on the Prize is just the finest program and you [pointing to Callie Crossley] were so involved in that.
Callie Crossley: I only knew Michael because Henry [Hampton] was the meaning of chaos.
Terry Rockefeller: Well said.
Callie Crossley: I just knew Michael would come in and you’d talk to him about it. I was very familiar with your sort of calming ability to come into a chaotic place. It was a rich, creative atmosphere, which I wouldn’t trade for anything.
Michael Ambrosino: When it became difficult to raise money — Eyes was first an ABC project that didn’t work out — Henry Hampton said, “Can we do this for PBS?” I said, “Yes.” Then, all the money would come through my non-profit company and then on to Blackside.
We were turned down by the National Endowment for Humanities because, quote, “Henry had never produced a series.” At that point, I was put on staff as Consulting Executive Producer, on a salary.
We resubmitted the proposal, didn’t change a word, and NEH came through. It’s very silly because if anyone had said to me, when we were developing Nova, “You’ve never made a series” … But I had WGBH in back of me, and the BBC.
Bob Nesson: Well, I just wanted to go back to what Terry was talking about.
For first film, “Where Did the Colorado Go,” Michel Chalaufour was the editor. It was such a learning experience: I was the assistant editor on that film, and it was so instructional to know how the world of documentary and world of environmental issues intersected, and that was my first lesson in that particular framework. It was really an amazing experience.
Ron Blau: Yes. Also speaking of year one, we knew Michael really allowed for experimentation because Francis Gladstone came up with the idea of telling the story of anesthesia through a drama and it was not like short reenactments in between documentary stuff. You let him go with that, and I’m not sure he had done anything like that before.
Michael Ambrosino: Yes. Francis did two plays in the first three years. The first was basically faces and places. We dressed up doctors and the narration told most of the story. The doctor would say things like, “Time me,” and he’d cut off a leg.
The second was a full scripted drama with Piper Laurie and Paul Guilfoyle in the leads.
[To Terry.] What you didn’t mention is that Simon divided the river up into three pieces.
Terry Rockefeller: That’s true.
Michael Ambrosino: He took one section of the river to research himself, gave one to Ben Shedd, and one to you, [Terry]. He had the experience to trust you and you learned by that. I think that’s why we all love Simon.
The reason we get to love what we do is that it’s such a communal business. Anybody that says “my show” is an ass because we have gained so much together.
When I was looking at the Michael Ambrosino’s Show recently, I was struck by all the music Olivia chose that just fit so beautifully. And the camera work and the editing. I’m never out of focus as I’m walking around in all these remotes.
How many shows did Sheila Bernard save because of her editing background. How many of us were saved from disaster by our colleagues?
One day, we were editing with Eric Handley and he says, “No, Michael, I don’t think you want to do that.” “Oh, Eric,” I said, “What do you think I’d like to do?”
[Pause. Listening. Surprise. Ah! Nodding.] So then you have to save face and say things like, “Oh, Eric, that’s nice, too. Let’s keep that in for now.” [Laughter.]
Fred Barzyk: I’d like to go back one more time just to say that both Michael and I and lots of others here at the table feel a strong relationship to the idea of WGBH, not only just to the people. There’s something about the freedom that has permeated right from the beginning along with big ideas. I mean Hartford doing what he did, gambling, rolling the stones. All of us doing the kind of shows we did.
Michael Ambrosino: Imagine. Fred was doing plays by Brecht in the first year that he was here!
Fred Barzyk: I’ll tell this one story. [Laughter.]
I was on the crew in ’58 and ‘59, and you’re supposed to go for your master’s degree. I spent all my time at ‘GBH.
The year after, I went back to Milwaukee taking part-time jobs. I kept getting these phone calls from Greg Harney saying, “So and so is going to Aramco. We need somebody for three months. Can you come in?” So, I would fly back. It was more interesting than some of the jobs I had.
One of the times I was working for the Novini Polski, a Polish newspaper in Milwaukee. I was there for about two days, and the guy who was running the place called me, “Hey, Barzyk, you got a phone call.”
Who the hell could it be? The only person who knew I was there was my mother. So, I walked up to the phone. It’s Greg Harney. He says, “All right, Fred, that’s it. I’m offering you a job as a director at WGBH. $80 a week and you just have to get out of this idea about going to Yale drama school. You’re going to be a TV director or not and this is the final offer.”
I said to myself, I’m 22. I’m looking at these people in the Novini Polski and I said, “I think I’ll take it.” But — and this is where I gambled — “I’ll only do it if you’ll let me do a play. I’ll pay for everything. You won’t have to pay for a thing. I’ll need four days in the studio.” Now the pause is on the other end of the phone. “All right.” So, the first play I did is “Five Days,” Brechtian. Somehow, it made it through the fire and I actually have a copy of it. It cost nothing and I paid 10 bucks for the rights!
Paula Apsell: It seems incredible to me now, but I was doing the station logs. That is not the best job in the world. Anyway, I just reached a point where I couldn’t take it anymore. I was so bored. I thought I was going to die.
I didn’t really know much about radio, but I had always liked it. I worked a little bit in it at Brandeis and I had an idea for a radio drama show.
So, I walked into Bob Carey’s office and I said, “I have this idea for a show called ‘The Spider’s Web’ and I’d like to do it.” He said, “Oh, okay but it’s got to be on five days a week.” So, I said, “Oh, okay.”
I had no idea. Never in my life had I cut a piece of quarter-inch tape or operated a tape machine or directed actors, which it turned out was not my forte at all.
But when you really think about what kind of an institution allows that to happen and has that kind of faith and trust in a young, inexperienced person, and allows you to grow with the job, it really is amazing.
Fred Barzyk: Yeah. If we went around the table and just asked, “How many years have you been involved in doing WGBH programs?” It’s really amazing. Now, even younger people are very proud saying they’ve been here 12, 14 years … people I really don’t know. So, the tradition seems to be carried on, which is great.
Jeanie Jordan: I wanted to say something about Odyssey because that’s where some of us here — and Melanie you should share, too, and Suzanne — that’s where we met Michael.
You kept that same spirit, Michael, at Odyssey, of letting people who may not have known what they were doing do things in this really egalitarian kind of free way.
Michael Ambrosino: Nobody knows what a person can do until they’re asked to do it.
Jeanie Jordan: Even the person themselves don’t know.
Michael Ambrosino: Ordinary people do extraordinary things. Unless you have that challenge, you don’t know yourself that you can do something.
Jeanie Jordan: You know, it had this atmosphere of experimentation and a lot of people that were a little bit crazy and really a lot of fun, kind of an extension of the film department and that feeling of freedom.
The first editing I ever did in Boston was at Odyssey with Marian White who hired me to cut an acquisition called “Bath Waters” about Bath, England. It was such a great experience all the way around for so many of us. Anyway, we just had a lot of fun. Thank you, Michael.
Michael Ambrosino: I left NOVA in absolute exhaustion because I knew I would get ill. I was sleeping a couple hours a night. So, I raised the money for season four. I told them to hire John Angier and gave notice.
I called the National Endowment for the Humanities and said, “Would you like a NOVA of the humanities?” They said, “Yes.” I said, “Give me some money for development and we’ll do that.” We raised the money to do the first season of Odyssey, came to WGBH and I said I want to come back home, but I want control of advertising. I do not want to happen what happened with NOVA.
So, I went to Lilian [Ambrosino, my wife and lawyer] and said, “We’ve got to setup a company!” I discovered how easy it was to run a company of 25 people instead of a unit of 25 in a thousand-person staff.
In the past, I kept having arguments with the station about getting my NOVA producers more money. The answer was, “If we give it to you, then what are we going to do with Bill Cosell?”
“I love Bill Cosell,” I said, “But he’s got 100 musicians helping him and he’s got Mozart and he’s got Beethoven.” NOVA people start with just an idea or a question and make a program”.
So, we had this happy little thing in that happy little building. We had a kitchen and a shower for the joggers. Gee, life became so easy.
Oh, and we owned the films, so when they sold overseas, it meant that there was enough money to develop The Ring of Truth and enough money to research my last film, which was a Frontline in the West Bank and Gaza analyzing the 26th year of the occupation dealing with the confiscation of land, the demolition of houses and torture, and water. It was attacked for two-and-a-half years, which was a good way to go out.
Melanie Wallace: I just want to say, Michael changed my life, because I was going to get a PhD in Anthropology and I was interested in making ethnographic films.
I was at Boston University because they promised that they would teach me that, but then when I got there, I realized that they didn’t really want to teach me films. They just wanted to teach anthropology.
Then I heard that there was this man named Michael Ambrosino who was raising money to create a PBS series for anthropology and archeology called Odyssey. I thought that would be a good place for me to go, and I started sending Michael letters, and articles, and more letters, and just trying to tell him things that he should do on his new series about anthropology and archeology.
Then I found out he was going to be attending the Robert Flaherty Film Seminar in New York. They were looking for work study students, and I was a graduate student so I asked, “Could I do a work study?” And they said, “Yes.”
By the time I got there, I had been sending all these things to Michael Ambrosino for quite a while. When I walked in, I didn’t know anybody because I didn’t know film and television at all, and Michael is there surrounded by all these independent filmmakers who’ve come from all over the country to be where Michael Ambrosino was, because he was starting the next new big PBS series.
So, I waited and waited and then I kind of walked up there and I say, “I want to introduce myself. I’m Melanie Wallace.” He goes, “Melanie,” like he knew me! Gave me one of those big Michael Ambrosino hugs. I was like, “Oh!” Then he said, “We have to have lunch.” I said, “Okay.”
We watched films for three days or so and I sat near Michael and I watched him take his notes and make comments and make a point of communicating to the filmmaker what he thought of their films, which I was very impressed with. (He’s always been that kind of a respectful person and filmmaker.)
Then we had a chance to play volleyball. I am a really bad volleyball player but when I was playing with Michael, I was making those serves! I was getting one point after another for our team.
Then we had our conversation and he said to me, “So, why should I hire you?” I said, “Well, I’m going to be the best person you will ever hire.” He said, “Do you even know what the job is?” I said, “No, doesn’t matter.” It still took a year before he hired me.
Michael Ambrosino: I offered you a job and you rejected it.
Melanie Wallace: Well, it wasn’t the right job.
Michael Ambrosino: You know that t-shirt “She persisted?” [Laughter.] Not taking the wrong job was very important.
Melanie Wallace: I know. It changed my life.
Terry Rockfeller: I have to tell my favorite Odyssey story, which goes back to the democratic way in which Michael encouraged all the film making to happen. Some of the films were made by in-house producers and some of the films Michael commissioned from outside producers and recut in-house.
Michael Camerini came with his crew to show us a film called Dadi’s Family. This was a fine cut and, as with all screenings at Odyssey, all work ground to a halt to watch. Everybody — it didn’t matter what your job was — went in and screened the film and then there was a long discussion.
People were very excited about the film, but it had a way to go. Michel Camerini was very clear that he had pretty much spent his budget, and he had about a week’s more editing left.
Then some ideas came up and people began to ask questions. They wanted to know more about the matriarchal structure of this household, about how the children, the three daughters, came to live under the roof of their mother-in-law and the tensions that were there.
Michael and his team started telling us more stories about things that had ended up on the cutting room floor. All of a sudden, we were envisioning new scenes.
Michel Camerini’s team said, “We’ve got another week of editing scheduled, but if you could give us two more weeks of editing, that would really make it possible.
Michael said, “No. This is going to take four more weeks.” [Laughter.] And as an Executive Producer, Michael was planning for this.
You talk about taking risks with people who were just starting out. He was there to make that last, final step to make the film’s success possible. Amazing.
Michael Ambrosino: Another story. It is 5:00 on a Friday, and you’re tired and it’s been a busy week, and you get a phone call saying, “Mr. Ambrosino, my name is Dr. Gardner. I’m a professor at the University of Reno, and I have a black and white film I’d like to show you. I’m coming through Boston tomorrow, Saturday…” my day off “…with my wife and mother-in-law on our way to Europe.”
And you say, “Of course, Dr. Gardner.” And he shows you an interesting black and white “document,” — not a full documentary — of Dr. Gardner and his wife teaching a chimpanzee named Washoe sign language. It’s not very good but it’s got stuff in it shot over a 10-year period that Nova could have never done. So, I said, “No, I don’t want to buy your film for Nova, but I want to buy about 25 minutes and assign it to Simon Campbell-Jones.”
Terry Rockefeller: And Ben and me.
Michael Ambrosino: And the team should go see what other people were researching. We also found Koko, the gorilla. They made “The First Signs of Washoe,” which is one of NOVA’s most beautiful films.
(To Terry) And tell us why you so enjoyed doing that. Share the famous line you told me.
Terry Rockefeller: “I was French kissed by Lucy the chimpanzee.” [Laughter.]
Michael Ambrosino: Where did that happen?
Terry Rockefeller : At her home. You thought she was going to take me out? [Laughter.]
I’d gone out to meet Roger Fouts, who was the guy who had the best relationship with Washoe. At this point, Washoe had become quite old, and she’d left the Gardners and she was on a chimpanzee reserve.
So, Roger was at the University of Oklahoma in Norman, Oklahoma, and he had families around the city that also had adopted chimpanzees, and were teaching them sign language but under different situations. Some of them were bilingual, et cetera, et cetera.
The way Lucy decided if she was going to like you or not was that she just walked up to you, looked you in the eye, and then climbed up on to your lap, and put her arms all the way around you and then stuck out her mouth. If you didn’t freak, she would just climb down and then she would start signing to you.
I had met a lot of chimpanzees already and decided I could deal with Lucy.
Michael Ambrosino: Did he tell you she was going to do that beforehand?
Terry Rockefeller: No. But he had told me she was very friendly. [aughter.]
Ron Blau: Can I say one very short thing? All of this is embedded in what WGBH is now, and has been for a long time. We talked about this in some ways, but it really is about the community.
I haven’t worked for WGBH in a long time. Do you remember Richard Boch? Just today, (this happens to be my 78th birthday), I sent stems for a sound mix to Richard for a film I’m working on. Still, after all these years.
The community is all over: Joel Olicker, Tug Yourgrau at Powderhouse, all these people.
It’s an amazing community that exists only because of ‘GBH. It’s amazing.
Fred Barzyk: Well, we’ve all had a chance to do our stories and probably should leave some time for mingling. From me, and I’m sure everybody here, I wish you the best of times, Michael.
Olivia Tappan: Before we get into mingling again, I just want to say I’ve been witnessing an interesting little transformation going on as we’ve all been talking, and the transformation is that Michael Ambrosino, listening to all of these wonderful tributes and stories and incidents, has become visibly younger while sitting here and listening to all of this incredible storytelling.
Michael Ambrosino: This is what 89 is like!
Olivia Tappan: What is the Bob Dylan song? May you stay forever young.