An Early “Discovery” – Nature in a Live TV Studio

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[This story was in response to Why has WGBH had such an impact? Five views. Read more about “Discovery” here.]

From Charles Walcott

In the Spring of 1955, I received a call from Mary-Lela Grimes. As the public relations person for Massachusetts Audubon she had been asked to produce a program on Natural History for the new public television station, WGBH.

I had met Mary-Lela when I was a counselor at WildWood Nature Camp where she was the camp director. My job there was to teach nature photography to the campers. Mary-Lela asked me to watch the first episode of “Discovery” and let her know what I thought about it.

As I remember, that first program was about frogs. Mary-Lela had a tree frog or a spring peeper in her hand and was telling us about the suction cups on its feet. Sadly, all one could see on the TV screen was that she had a small black blob in her hand; you couldn’t even tell it was a frog much less see its legs! The TV camera simply couldn’t get closer than a head and shoulders view. When Mary-Lela called me I told her that the program was wonderful but that we couldn’t see anything that she was talking about. She challenged me that if I didn’t like it, I should come and fix it!

That was the beginning of my involvement with television. I went to WGBH and found that the TV camera lenses at that time simply could not focus on anything really close. The engineer lent me a cap that screwed in where a lens should be and I took it over to the machine shop in physics at Harvard where I was a junior undergraduate.

I asked the machinist if he could make an adapter so I could use my Leica lenses on the TV camera. He said that would be easy and I asked him how much it might cost. He replied that $100 should cover it, so I told him to go ahead. A few days later he called and said the adapter was ready and when I came to pick it up I asked how much I owed him. He said, “Well, if it is for WGBH and education, it was my pleasure to do it to help out”! With that adapter, we were able to use all my Leica lenses, bellows, and extension tubes and we were able to fill the screen with close-ups of frog feet, insects and anything else that we wanted to show.

That first season of Discovery, we had a great variety of programs. On one, we showed the entire life history of the Cecropia moth. We had cocoons hatching into moths, all the various stages of the caterpillars, eggs hatching, and caterpillars spinning cocoons all on live television. On another program, we showed lobsters in a short film that I took showing how they are caught, and we had a bunch of lobsters in a tank so we could talk about their biology. I regret to say that Mary-Lela and I ate the talent after the show.

Another program had to do with termites. While termites may eat the wood in your house, it is the protozoa in their guts that digest the wood and feed the termite.

Dr. Thomas Eisner from Harvard agreed to show us, and he arrived at the studio with termites, protozoa, and a microscope. The problem was how to attach the TV camera to the microscope; we needed a cardboard tube about an inch and a half in diameter and perhaps 4 inches long. Tom disappeared to the men’s room and returned with a toilet paper tube which was perfect!

Perhaps the most dramatic episode was when we asked Prof. Donald Griffin to show us about bat sonar. Don came with his bats, a maze for them to fly through, and an electronic device that translated their ultrasonic calls down to frequencies we could hear. We spent a wonderful half hour learning how the bats could navigate their maze, we could hear their sounds and it made an exciting program.

Unfortunately the result of our activities meant that the studio was full of flying bats. And Discovery ended at 6:30 just in time for Louis Lyons and the news. There was no time to recapture the bats so viewers of the news were treated to occasional pictures of bats swooping over Louis Lyons as he read the day’s news! After that, WGBH went to network and we reclaimed the bats.

Many of these programs were kinescoped and I believe, were among the first from WGBH to be syndicated nationally. As a result of this, during the Spring of 1956, we were able to get a grant to do more, in particular to buy film and processing. I spent a large part of the summer of 1956 filming and editing. We made one film of a barn spider spinning its web which won the program a Sylvania award for creative television technique. But there were many more including beaver behavior and the birth of a bat, probably the first film of a mammalian birth shown on TV.

I then went off to graduate school at Cornell ending my involvement with Discovery. My intention was to get a PhD and then return to putting science on public television. I managed to get my degree in three years and then returned to the Boston area. I had arranged a 21” classroom program on Natural History with Massachusetts Audubon and WGBH.

At the same time, Ralph Garry at Boston University had put in an application with the Office of Education to study the effects of in-school TV programming on children. This grant provided the funds to hire someone to present the material and pay my salary as a producer. I hired a senior Harvard Professor, William H. “Cap” Weston to be the host. When I reported this to the head of the 21” Classroom, Michael Ambrosino, he said, “OK, but let’s give him a screen test.” That we did and it took about 5 minutes for Cap to charm everybody in the studio.

I really think that Don Hallock is right about why WGBH has had such a great impact: grace was a large part of it. But beyond that, it was an exploration. Julia Child brought us a wonderful view of cooking. Louis Lyons distilled the news into the interesting and important parts.

What WGBH did, and still does, is to capture the intellectual vibrancy of Cambridge and its institutions and share it with the world. It was exciting in 1955 and it still is today.


  1. Carole on April 3, 2021 at 5:39 am

    To Michael and Ben and all who were involved in our original NOVA “family”, thanks for sharing your remembrances – they warm my heart. Carole Ashcraft, Production Secretary “NOVA”

  2. Bob Manosky on April 2, 2021 at 2:47 pm

    I agree with all of the above. One thing that I would add regarding our success in those golden days are the visits by Ralph Lowell to the studios on many occasions bringing with him many fine people from outside. Unlike when most bosses come onto the production floor The response by our group wasn’t: “Oh no it’s the boss we better look like we’re doing something”. Instead it was. “Mr. Lowell is here yippee”. He would come right up and kibbitz with us and introduce his guests. He was a great ray of sunshine.

  3. Jack Caldwell on March 28, 2021 at 1:40 pm

    We who enjoyed and benefited from the privilege of ever having been on the WGBH team do often ponder our good fortune. Why were so many people so committed, so good at what they did, so willing to be a team player? From every decade of GBH’s existence, former employees and interns rejoice in telling of their experiences.

    I believe there is one underlying reason. (at least one) Hartford Gunn. For two decades, before leaving to be the founding president of PBS, he maintained and practiced an important leadership mantra. He shared it with me when he invited me in for an interview.

    “Hire young, smart people. Give them a task/objective and give them the tools and the funding. They don’t know what failure is and they will not allow themselves to fail. They will take the chances to find success.” — ….and then GET OUT OF THE WAY. Watch the magic happen.

    Advanced by Hartford and many other leaders then and now, we, the alums of this great organization know one or several who took a chance on us — just as we did with others.

  4. Michael Ambrosino on March 27, 2021 at 4:31 pm

    So good to hear from Charles.
    One of the spirited youngsters (we were all in our twenties) who just pushed ahead and found ways to make things happen.

  5. Charles Walcott on March 27, 2021 at 10:12 am

    Those early days at WGBH made a lasting impression. The staff were so unbelievably friendly and helpful and they allowed me to try my hand at camera work and boom microphone operations. When I wanted to do filming of duck behavior for my senior thesis, Franco Romanolli showed me the camera I needed and taught me how to use it.

    I knew Hartford Gunn and Ted Sherburne and the whole atmosphere in those early days was one of excitement and fun. This experience led to work with NOVA, the 3 2 1 Contact at Children’s Television workshop all the while carrying on a teaching and research career.

    Now that I’m an Emeritus Professor, I’m having fun making 5 to 10 min videos of faculty research to post on You Tube and to go as “Video Abstracts” for scientific papers.

    • Ben Shedd on March 27, 2021 at 5:46 pm

      Indeed, Charlie brought nature filmmaking to NOVA with the first program I produced and directed for NOVA: WHY DO BIRDS SING? In NOVA Season 2.

      Charlie came with the story of bird’s singing to claim territory and using that knowledge and research, he brought a wonderful technique for getting close-ups of bird singing — put a speaker in a tree near a branch and play a pre-recorded birdsong of a neighbouring bird. The bird whose territory was “invaded” by the imaginary other bird would fly right in and sing and sing, giving Charlie plenty of time to film that bird with a silent 16mm Bolles and then also record that same bird with a parabolic microphone singing the same song.

      We sunk the picture and sound together in the editing room — we called it bird sink — and made a documentary filled with close-ups of several different species of birds singing just for camera. We also made a sequence about using this technique in the field to study bird behaviour and territoriality with one of the scientists featured in the program.

      Charlie also taught me something else which has become fundamental to my making documentary films. While we were in production, Charlie noted to me that lots of bird experts would likely be watching — and listening to — WHY DO BIRDS SING? and we should be sure to record background sounds in each area with the birds from that area to make sure the close-ups were in the right sound field. When it came time to create the sound mix for this program, we had all the accurate background sound tracks which added to the illusion of reality in that documentary — and in all my other documentaries since then.

      A thank you Charlie, and it has been wonderful through the decades to hear bird recordings from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology where Charlie was Director for years, and know what a great opportunity I had to get started making NOVAs with such a strong sense of accuracy and reality in the presentations.

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