Paul Noble was hired at the end of the Boston University Scholars program. Starting in 1959, he and his crew created a strong relationship between WGBH executives and staff, a culture based on humor and fun. It was Paul’s work with the in-house paper called “Ille Novi” which helped everyone who worked there feel like family.
Paul and Eliot Norton conceived the format for “Eliot Norton Reviews.” Paul worked on “Prospective of Mankind” with Eleanor Rosevelt including the adventure of shooting the show at the White House. Paul was also the producer/director of the Museum of Fine Arts series “Invitation to Art.”
Paul went on to have a great career in NYC television and is now retired, living in Florida. Paul was interviewed by Fred Barzyk. This post was lightly edited for clarity and brevity.
Q: Paul, when did you first hear of WGBH?
Paul Noble: I was walking through our arts campus at Cornell University and there was a notice posted on the bulletin board inviting applications for a scholarship at WGBH TV. I think it was $1,200 for tuition and starting in June. I ripped the thing out and I went to my two campus advisors in the government department. Both encouraged me to do it. They said: That is right up your alley. Go ahead, apply. So I applied and, a week later, I was accepted. That was in March, or so, of that year.
Q: What were you studying at school?
Paul: I was a major in government with an undisclosed minor in communications because we had no communications department in those days. I mean, there was no television in Ithaca, unless you subscribed to a cable company and nobody on campus had television!
Q: Now you said that your advisor said this would be perfect for you. Can you tell me why they thought it was perfect for you?
Paul: They knew me well enough from my courses, and the kind of things that I was interested in, to realize that it seemed to be a very, very good match. So I went ahead and applied. So once I was accepted, there was no reason to go searching around for other graduate schools. I just went right forward and that was it.
Q: So now you had received your invitation and you headed off to Boston and I assume you had been in Boston before.
Paul: No, I never had been to Boston before. And, I got a ride from one of my my future classmates, Victor, was lived in Queens. And he drove me up in his open convertible to Boston and we had a wonderful trip. Those were the days of Paul Anka singing “Diana” and “Old Cape Cod” by Patty Page. That’s the only thing we could get on the radio.
Q: So as you drove into Boston, what did you think that WGBH would even look like? Had you done research before?
Paul: Well, the first shock was actually the School of Public Relations and Communications at Boston University, which was at the time, in the summer of 1957, in an old building in downtown Boston, an old brick building that looked like a warehouse or factory. And they said, don’t worry, this isn’t our real place. We’re settling into Commonwealth Avenue next semester, but right now we’re here. So that was a bit of a shock because it really looked a little crumbly compared to the fantastically lavish Cornell University campus, which was old, but distinguished.
Q: Can you tell us who was in your crew and any stories about them that you could give us?
Paul: Sure. There were eight of us who were part of the original crew. There was Jerry Michaels, Larry Baker, Jim Nesbit. They were also part of our crew, but they only stayed for a few weeks each or a few months each, but the eight of us who were the heart and soul of the crew were Jean Brady from Knoxville, Tennessee, there were the three of you guys who had decided to share an apartment together. (One was Fred who gave his life to WGBH for the rest of his rest of career.) And, Bill Heitz, also from the Midwest, was really into drama. But he was, I think, far enough along the ladder that I was really impressed to learn that somebody had so much experience in the kind of things that we were going to need to know.
Then there was Don Mallinson. Mallinson was a real New Englander and he knew his way around Boston, so we always squeezed into one car so that Don could take us on his tour. We went to Walden Pond, we went to all the crazy restaurants in Boston, including the Blue Ship tea room, where we had whale steak. I don’t know if you realize what the condiment is for whale steak, but it turned out to be grape jelly. It tasted a little bit like liver. We also went all the way up to Maine and even saw and Portsmouth, New Hampshire. So we really got around in the first few days. We went to our first concert at the Hatch Shell on the promenade, along Storrow drive on the Charles River, and we actually heard the 1812 overture at Beethoven’s fifth at these concerts, which were just at sunset, on the shore of the Charles. So as a group, we used to really hang out together.
Q: How did you guys all click to such a degree?
Paul: Well, one reason is that we were laughing all the time, so it was very hard to get into a fight or, or an argument of any kind. We were just having a great time because we each had experiences from different areas. Vic moved into a building with the other married guy in our group, Ed Donlon. Donlon was a newspaper guy. He was the kind of guy who would be a reporter if he hadn’t been coming to WGBH and indeed, he decided, in order to help provide his family, that he would actually take a job, and he went to the Hearst paper and got a job as a rewrite man. And so he worked nights in addition to working evenings at WGBH, and he’d go into classes with us during the day. And, by the way, he is still with us, living up in Vermont, with his wife, Betsy.
So let’s see, who did I leave out? Oh, my roommate turned out to be the other single guy in the group, John Musilli. He had gone to Seton Hall University and he became a brilliant and creative television director. He and his partner did fabulous specials from the White House and other places that were just fantastic, including a lot of fundraising specials for PBS stations all around the country. John passed away about 15 years ago and I still miss him. He was terrific guy. So we had a wonderful range of people in our little organization and we just hit it off.
Q: Tell me about the people that you met at WGBH who were on staff at that time.
Paul: The general manager was Hartford Gunn who had been instrumental in getting WGBH on the air. For years, he had been working on it and this was his pride and joy. I think he was the second manager of WGBH when it was purely FM; the first was a man named Parker Wheatley, who I don’t remember meeting. I think he was gone by then, but his shoes were filled admirably by Hartford who was very well respected in the industry and who founded PBS. He did a phenomenal job at organizing the forces that needed to be organized.
Dave Davis was the vice president of WGBH TV. He was in charge of our being on the air. He was like the general manager of the station itself. And he and Mike Ambrosino, who was our training chief, the two of them, with the help of Bob Moscone and the studio chief, prepared the guides for us to work from. We had learned how to direct a television show from books, but their guide included things like: how long to make a dissolve between two cameras and why we were forbidden to use black on the air, because we didn’t want people to tune us out at any time. All of this was covered brilliantly and completely in the workbook materials that we received and that we followed carefully every day.
Dave was basically a musician and he thought of television as a way to expand the field of music in his own way.
Q: He brought a lot of jazz to GBH?
Paul: One of our most popular shows was Father O’Connor’s jazz anthology and that was a Friday night event, at 7:30 I guess, and everybody who came to Boston to perform for the weekend would be invited to the show. So we met Gene Krupa and Stan Getz and Dizzy Gillespie and so many people. They came by week after week and it was absolutely unbelievable to sit in their presence. Dave was also responsible for bringing in George Shearing who, with his quintet, did a series for PBS — then National Educational Television. And they were terrific. I really enjoyed them.
Q: Tell us about Bob Moscone, otherwise known as ‘the king.”
Paul: He was one of the most unique people I’ve ever met. He was a veteran, I think Marines actually. And he was a former Arthur Murray ballroom dancer and teacher. And he was a North Ender from Boston, deeply ingrained in the Boston community. But more than that, he really knew how to light a set, how to make quick changes.
You know, we had three cameras for one big studio and one small studio, and if you had a two-camera show in one studio and a two camera show next in the other studio, it meant that sometime in that 30 seconds between shows — we didn’t have long commercial breaks — in that short period, we had to move a camera from one studio to another. So we had to have people on the cable to prevent all kinds of incidents. It was an amazing thing because we could actually shift from one studio to another with hardly a whimper in 30 seconds.
One of the things that is rarely talked about or written about is the exquisite nature of the camera operators. We had two who were very, very important in the early days. This is before Russ Morash came, and the two of them were Don Hallock and Frank Vento and they were our main camera people. And it was extraordinary how they were able to very quickly handle these awkward cameras and tripods and rolling bases and actually give you a smooth look. Remember we were located on the second floor of a three story building that had been a roller rink for many years. That’s what it was when WGBH came in 1956. They didn’t have the money to redo and put down a completely new floor.
So we were running on a roller rink floor, which meant that the poor cameras had to roll on these very awkward tripods and pneumatic bases, but it was bumpy. And so while you’re doing your camera dolly in on a piano and a pianist, you had to know exactly where the bumps were in advance when you’re going. That’s right. This was years ahead of Zoomar lenses, which came in around ’58 or so, and the Zoomar allowed a cameraman to do a dolly in without moving the camera. And that was important.
A couple of years after we arrived Russ Morash became our third cameraman, and Russ was also very talented. Of course, everyone knows that he went on to great fame and fortune by working with Julia Child.
Q: So now what we have is your group of people together, having a lot of fun. We know that, at the beginning, you had to work three days a week at WGBH; that was part of the deal while you guys went to do school. And then they would pay you extra if you could come extra hours, and everybody needed the money.
So, at this particular moment you started to do something that what I consider very unusual by a group of scholars on grants, working at a television station, and you started to do journalism on the very operation of WGBH.
Paul: Well, that happened a few years down the road. When our group broke up in 1958, only Jean Brady and I were left behind, along with a new crew that had just arrived. We decided to keep everybody up to date with a newsletter that was made even before mimeograph – I think it was on a ditto machine – and it was called Ille Novi, which is a very poor Latin translation of “well here’s the news” which was the catchphrase of Louie Lyons, our news announcer. So we did behind the scenes information and gossip for our crew, which was the seed of communication efforts that continued at WGBH. It’s always been a station where the people who work there have always been directly involved in the impact that was made on the community and on our own lives. It was terrific.
We had a grand time doing that in our spare time.
Q: Ille Novi set a tone at that station for years.
So let me ask you about some of the shows that you did with Jean Brady. She was head of the in school programs. You had another series you were doing at The Museum of Fine Arts?
Paul: I did. It was a very busy year for me in ’58 after we graduated. I was given really wonderful plum assignments that year. I created a drama review show called Elliot Norton Reviews, which was from scratch. We came up with a theme song. We came up with the animated opening and the other things, which were a lot of fun to do, especially cause Peter Prodan in the shop really could turn out a fantastic, set of visuals that we needed.
I was introduced to Elliot. I’d never worked with someone who was the age of 51 or 52. He was the most important theater reviewer in the Boston area. I didn’t know that when I first met him, and then it dawned on me that I was going to live a fantastic experience.
On Tuesday nights at 6:45, Elliot did a review of a show he had seen it the night before and he invited the director or the writer or the actor or the choreographer of that show. I would pick up the guest in Boston at about 5:30 or so, bring them over to Cambridge, put their make-up on — I had to learn how to use pancake and powder — and then I would introduce them to Elliot, make sure they were ready to go on, go into the control room, and direct the show. And then at the end of the show, I’d take the guest back.
Q: Give us the names of some of those people.
Paul: Well, the first one that I remember was a woman whose name you may not remember, but it was Cornelia Otis Skinner. She had written a series of books. The first one was called Our Hearts Were Young and Gay and it’s about two girls in Europe having a wonderful time after college. It was a remarkable experience meeting a woman who was in her sixties. She was then in a show called The Pleasure of His Company, with Richard Wright. And she was so glib and delightful and she was just like the teenage girl who was represented in the movies. nIt made into a movie too.
We then had so many people. Rogers and Hammerstein of course, were the ultimate guests. One day, in August of 1958, a huge truck rolls up. One of the first AMPEX two-inch videotape machines was rolled into the building. They were later referred to as quad machines. I think they had to build a ramp to get it up to the studio. Larry Messenger and his crew then worked on this device for months to make sure that it was installed properly. They were even sent out to Redwood City, California, to learn all of the details about how to set it up and that continued until some time in September. They were ready to record somebody on camera, and who was that first person? They picked Jean Brady, who sat down and played the piano, then they recorded it and played it back.
Now you have to remember in 1958, there was no such thing as home video. Yes, you could have super-8 movies, but that was about it. There was no home video, there was only live television, and then the terrible film recordings that were made directly off the face of the television tube, Kinescope or Telecine, which were distributed around the country by National Educational Television. There was no video tape and people just didn’t know what it was. So we’re talking about almost 20 years before everybody started getting video recorders at home.
We at WGBH had the first machine in New England and so we were the first on the air with too, and it all came about as a stroke of luck.
Richard Rogers and Oscar Hammerstein were in town for two or three weeks for a tryout and shakedown, and premiere of Flower Drum Song. So Monday night the show premieres and on Tuesday morning I get a call from the press agent, who said, You know, I’m so sorry, but I can’t deliver Rogers and Hammerstein on to you for tonight’s show. I said, What do you mean? And he said, Well, they, they have another dinner they have to go to. I said, Well, I have an idea. I said, what if we were to videotape it in advance, that afternoon, would they be willing to do that?
And the press agent said, Well, whatever that is, we could go ahead and try it. So I called Frank Harvey, our engineer. I explained what I needed. He called me back in a couple of minutes and said, We can do it. We’ll do the show at two o’clock. So I called the press agent back. I said, If you guys are ready, we are, and so at two o’clock, the limousine pulls up to the building and up the stairs come Richard Rogers and Oscar Hammerstein. Well, it was amazing. They came in, sat down on the set and I gave them their makeup, did a half an hour discussion, which was quite remarkable and it was over and I came out onto the studio floor and Will Morton, the audio engineer, was playing Richard’s Victory at Sea.
And we were entertaining them with music and milk and cookies. I mean, that’s what we did in those days. Well, a few minutes later, I said, Gentlemen, would you like to see the show now? And Roger says, Well, don’t you have to develop it? I said, No, just come with me. So I brought two of them into the room in which our one videotape machine was perched all by itself. There were a couple of stools in front of it. Larry Messenger, the engineer, presses the button and on comes the show and their jaws dropped. They’d never seen anything like it. It was only a black and white television show, but it had happened only a half an hour earlier. And there it was.
A few years later, Richard and Oscar bring The Sound of Music to Boston. Now, remember, no one had ever heard any of the songs from it. No one had ever known what it was going to do for musical theater, but it was an amazing achievement. And they come in to do another show with Elliot, and we find out that Hammerstein can’t do the show because he is ill, and so they substitute Theodore Bikel. Well, the most amazing thing occurred somewhere in the discussion on air with Elliot. Bikel says to Rogers, Dick, when am I going to get my song? Rogers replied, You’ll have the song before we leave Boston. And true to his word, Edelweiss was inserted the final night in Boston.
Well, many years later I bumped into Theodore Bikel at an event, I think the film restoration of My Fair Lady, which he had been part of. And I said, Mr Bikel, let me remind you of something that happened years ago in Boston and I told him that story. He said, Well, let me tell you something. We were open for a few weeks, and I go out every day to the alleyway to sign autographs and this woman comes up to me and she says, oh Mr. Bikel, I so enjoyed your performance. I especially liked that song Edelweiss. But, she said, of course I prefer it in the original German.
Q: How about the show with Mrs. Roosevelt?
Paul: When I was at Cornell, I just missed seeing Mrs. Roosevelt when she addressed the university in a big event at Bailey Hall on the campus because I was busy back at my radio station. I was the manager making sure the signal got through, so I didn’t see her. I thought, oh, I’ll never meet Eleanor Roosevelt.
Then one day Henry Morgenthau, my great buddy at WGBH, brings her to the studio and within a few weeks he puts together a program with the Ford Foundation and Brandeis University. Mrs. Roosevelt would teach a class on a Monday and on the Sunday the day before, we would do a television show on videotape and Kinescope for the stations that didn’t yet have videotape machines. And we would do that show directly from the Brandeis campus Slosberg music center. It was an incredible achievement and I did first did the first two years of that, starting in 1959.
Gene Nichols, one of the people from the group ahead of ours directed it. And we were able to do shows in London, Washington, DC, the United Nations and Paris. Prospects of Mankind. And everybody was on the show, from Edward R. Murrow to Governor Nelson Rockefeller. Henry Kissinger.
John F. Kennedy didn’t really want to do the show, but he was aware that Mrs. Roosevelt’s support in his campaign for presidency was gonna be very important. Henry intimated to Jack that if he appeared on the show, she would be in support, but he had to support her main project, which at that time was the Peace Corps. The give and take to get him on the show was that he would promise that he would, after he was elected, he would get the Peace Corps rolling, which he did within a month.
And not only did he do that, but he later agreed to come on Mrs. Roosevelt’s show from the White House, and it was the first telecast from the White House while JFK was president. He was inaugurated on January 20th, and we did the show on February 28th.
He sat for an interview in the very room in which FDR did his Fireside Chats during the depression and World War II, a room that was underneath the West Portico of the building. It was the only room that was soundproofed in the White House in those days, which meant that we could easily use it for television. But what we had to do! We went into this room and it was filled with Mamie Eisenhower’s furniture that she didn’t like. So we had to carry it out and then construct a set out of whatever pieces of furniture we could find in the White House. And we had a really great time putting that together. I’ll never forget it. And then Jack Kennedy and Caroline took us on a tour of the White House and she said, I’m sorry, my mom and my baby brother aren’t here, they’re away in Palm Beach.
Q: You were also instrumental in bringing the Museum of Fine Arts to the people of Boston, but once it hit on Kinescope and tape, you also made a star out Brian O’Doherty far beyond Boston.
Paul: Well, the series, Invitation to Art, had been going for one year already, developed by Cabot Lyford who was then made the head of the public television station in Durham, New Hampshire at the University of New Hampshire. So I was assigned to it.
And in the three years that I worked on it, it was the most incredible learning experience for somebody whose art knowledge came from visiting the Museum of Modern Art when I was a kid. I now started to learn all about the impressionists and Rembrandt and we did extraordinary shows and Brian wrote, researched, and hosted all of them. And he did a brilliant job by today’s standards. Of course, today these shows look a little rough around the edges. We only had two cameras floating around the museum. I was lucky enough, every Monday morning in advance of the show, to be able to rehang the galleries I needed. And so looking back on it, I just can’t believe the museum, let us do all this.
Q: The museum so believed in television that they wired the entire museum with coaxial cable. It still sits there in the walls.
Then you had quite a career after WGBH. You went on to New York and were part of a lot of big shows.
Paul: I hosted shows on a weekly basis on WNEW in New York. I introduced movies and had my own show for about a year. We did many of them on location. I did all of our show intros out of the Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria Queens, which has been restored as working studio, but they had a fabulous museum there and I was able to use that museum for my backdrops.
I should just mention that I, um, I have my memoirs out, called “My First Eighty-Three Years” and there are pages in there about WGBH and my other television experiences. In addition to WNEW, I worked at Lifetime Television for Women, and we brought it up to number one in basic cable for two years over all the other basic cable networks. We had the run of the place. We marketed ourselves as television for women, and that’s who came, and we really stole that audience. And we had a wonderful time, mainly because of putting movies in thematic days. You know, we would pull together five movies about amnesia and call it Don’t Forget Amnesia Sunday. That, that was part of my trick.
Q: Thank you, Paul.
Paul: It was wonderful talking with you.