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I Wear a Happy Face
Written May 1, 2010

 

When I was learning television as a graduate student at Syracuse University, I realized that my future career would be in a TV control room.

During the 1970 spring semester, many of my classmates and I enjoyed one course in particular, called TVR 657.  We escaped from academic book-learning and traveled to a real TV station, where we produced real TV programs!

Now, you can listen to us doing so.  Just click on the Audio Links you'll find later in this article.


WCNY-TV's call letters proclaimed that it served Central New York.  It was located in suburban Liverpool, less than five miles northwest of Syracuse University.

However, in those days not many people were watching UHF broadcasters like Channel 24, an “educational” station barely four years old.  WCNY's mission had recently been renamed “public television.”  It was hoping to attract more viewers with a new children’s series then in its first season, Sesame Street.

Under an agreement between the station and the University, we grad students produced a half-hour program at WCNY every week.  Some of these programs actually aired on WCNY a couple of months later.  Because the shows varied widely in subject matter and tone, the series was called Montage.

Our subjects included city parks, comedy, the Moog synthesizer, and dining in Montreal.  We had musical performances (Captain Nathan’s Jazz Rock Band and pianist Elsa Ransom); historical reviews (the Erie Canal and 50 years of broadcasting); a profile of Robert Dalton, who invented a photo-ID camera; an imagined conversation with a computer in 2040; and discussions of sensitivity training and new forms of worship.

The class was divided into Team A and Team B, with about 14 members each.  Each team would produce seven shows.  For each show, two members of the team were assigned to be Producer and Director; then they assigned the rest of the team to the remaining crew positions.  The two teams taped their programs at the station on alternate Wednesdays.

I was on Team B and was invariably chosen to operate the audio board, except for March 11 when Su Morris and I were the Producer and Director.

But on the alternate weeks when Team A was taping, I didn’t stay home.  I went to Liverpool to hang out and learn.  For example, I recall being a volunteer cameraman’s assistant on April 8, helping dolly the camera across the floor to get shots of the band.  And when Team A taped its next-to-last show on May 6, I brought an audiocassette recorder to the control room to preserve the fun for posterity.

And here it is, posterity!  My stereo recording spans more than an hour.  It begins with the rehearsal of the last half of the show, followed by the actual taping of the first half of the show.

I’ve posted 38 minutes of my recording in the form of 20 segments, each consisting of a .wma file of two megabytes or less.  To launch each one, I suggest that you right-click on an “Audio Link” button below and choose Open Link in New Tab.  Then you can continue reading this page while the audio plays.

Spring comes late to upstate New York.  On May 6, 1970, the morning temperature was a frosty 27° and we received a quarter of an inch of snow.  Also, classes at Syracuse University had been canceled because of protests over President Nixon's Cambodian incursion and the fatal shootings at Kent State two days before.

But our education continued inside the walls of WCNY, where the program being videotaped that day was called “I Wear a Happy Face.”  The subject was music education for preschoolers, profiling the work of child music specialist Dick Lourie.

Our producer and director had first contacted Dick eight weeks before.  Later, he would go on to write poetry such as Ghost Radio and “Forgiving Our Fathers.”

This is a recent picture, and you can read a recent interview with him here.

For this show, Dick was the on-air “talent.”  He would speak in the studio for only a few minutes.  The rest of the half hour would consist of pre-recorded pieces of various kinds.

We arrived at the studio at 9:00 on that Wednesday morning.  The plan was to rehearse the half-hour show at 10:15 and a second time at 11:05, then tape it starting at 11:45.

The 36-by-45-foot studio was equipped with three black-and-white Marconi cameras.  We were told they were acquired from CBS after that network upgraded to color.  They had originally been used on The Ed Sullivan Show, where they televised the Beatles’ first appearance in 1964!

 

Audio Link

1:23

As our audio coverage begins, there has been a pause in the final rehearsal.  Associate Director Vicki Doenges is in the control room answering questions from the crew.

Producer Nancy Ross comes in to find out why Dick had been signaled to conclude his “rap,” or extemporaneous comments, before he was ready.  It turns out that he was running long.  Director Vin Ialenti has an idea:  they could eliminate the following segment (featuring a poem), thus allowing Dick twice as much rap time.  He'll have four minutes.  They agree to try it like that.

 

Audio Link

1:49

Then Vin suggests that the poem could be included in the rap.  He’s backed up by our instructors, Executive Producer Richard Barnhill and Production Consultant Don Carroll, who are apparently meeting the talent for the first time.

We're behind schedule, and the station's Operations Director comes in to warn Vin that if he isn’t finished taping by 12:50 pm, he’ll lose one of his “machines.”  We’re using one of WCNY’s video tape recorders to play back segments and another to record the complete show, but the station itself will need to use one of those VTRs at 1:00.  However, we intend to record as scheduled from 11:45 to 12:15, so there should be no problem.

The station doesn’t allow us students to actually operate the incredibly expensive “quad” VTRs nor handle the two-inch-wide video tape.  Station engineers do that.  To make sure they cue up the correct tapes, we do have a student “A.D.” in the tape room, Victor Lisnycizyj.

Lighting terminology:  “Limbo lighting” means illuminating the people but not the background, which thus appears black.  “Scoops” are lights mounted inside huge bowls that soften the source by spreading it out over a wider area. Like the more intense “spots” used for “cross-lighting,” the scoops hang from a metal grid suspended 13 feet above the floor.  Because our cameras are black and white, we don’t need to use nearly as many lamps as would be necessary for the more complex four-tube color cameras.  In fact, at WCNY the standard illumination level is only a dim 45 foot-candles.  When you're on the set, it's hard to realize that you're actually in a “lit” studio.

Audio engineer John MacKerron, who has been hearing bleed-through from the strong squeal produced when tapes are rewound at high speed, decides he’ll have to “punch the button off” to eliminate it, not merely “fade down the pot.”

 

Audio Link

2:18

More discussion ensues on how to introduce the poem.  The crew begins to lose momentum, and Technical Director Price Comly seems to have wandered off.  But Vicki learns a new word:  graffiti.

 

Audio Link

2:19

At the beginning of a filmed comment from Dr. Eleanor Robinson from the University’s Department of Family and Childhood Development, we plan to matte an identifying graphic over the film — after Price lights his cigarette.  In this control room (as in most), food and drink are prohibited lest they get spilled into the equipment, but smoking is apparently still okay.

The film lasts 3½ minutes and will be followed by a 2½-minute video tape showing rhythmic movement to a recording of “Soul Serenade.”

 

Audio Link

2:51

Next, in the studio, Dick rehearses his rap while sitting on a stool.  He includes the poem.

I am teaching music
in Joseph's nursery school.
He likes me.

The teacher says
his father is a local militant leader
but always in and out of jail.
Now he's in for a year.
Joseph tells me,
"When I grow up,
I'm going to be a guerilla."

As I am putting the instruments away,
unplugging the tape recorder,
packing it up,
Joseph says,
"When I grow up,
I'm going to be like you.
Get me a mask and glasses
and a wig like that (hands on my curly head).
Get me a tape recorder
and stand on a ladder."
A ladder?  To be as tall as me?  "Yes."

Joseph says, "Are you going home now?
When you coming back?"
I don't know.
Not next week.
Maybe in the spring.

Don Ham’s Camera 1 is focused not on Dick but on the “crawl” for the closing credits, consisting of white letters on a black background.  Although I’m not officially on the crew, I help Price look for the cause of extraneous white spots that are showing up.

 

Audio Link

1:25

We’re slightly late in starting a video tape.  When we get to it, we see Dick leading a group of kids in the title song, “I Wear a Happy Face.”

 

Audio Link

2:29

 

While all this is happening in our off-the-air rehearsal, WCNY is broadcasting Sesame Street from the network.  The images, appearing on one of our control room monitors, catch John’s attention.  He’s not supposed to be watching that program.

As Dick and the kids continue to sing, we matte and roll the closing credits.  They “crawl” up in front of the camera lens while the camera continues to look straight ahead.

We notice some problems.  For example, the camera needs to be panned right to avoid cutting off the end of UNIVERSITY.  Nowadays, of course, the graphics would be electronically generated and would not cause such difficulties.

The rehearsal is over.  Vin announces that we’ll tape the show starting at 11:50.

 

Audio Link

2:58

 

Lighting director Bud Hedinger requests some members of the crew to help him reposition scoops.

Meanwhile, Price and I discuss why the credits don’t look good.  The white characters have been applied to the black background using WCNY's lettering machine.  We decide that one of the fonts is simply too small, but it’s too late to do anything about it.

 

Audio Link

2:12

After cuing a tape, John turns up the sound on Sesame Street.  Today, Kermit the Frog and the other Muppets are being brought to us by the letter “F.”

 

Audio Link

1:38

Vin has just announced that we will begin taping in three minutes.  (It actually will be nine, and then a false start turns that into twelve.)

He tells Price not to delay the operation excessively by worrying about the graphics, such as the lower-case letters in the title-card phrase “with DICK LOURIE.”

 

Audio Link

2:17

 

Steve Kenna, operating Camera 3, is no longer needed to check out the repositioned lights, so he returns to a shot of the Rear Projection screen or RP.  Hidden behind this translucent screen are slide projectors focused on it, operated by Frank Wilbur and Patti Sloan.

Instructor Don Carroll reminds the crew to concentrate on their jobs and not to make distracting comments along the way.  Later, Vin reminds Barry Iselin on Camera 2 to save his jokes until after the show.

There’s a snag:  floor manager Edie McClurg has not yet prepared the slate.  On this white board, she needs to use a grease pencil to write in the date, the name of the show, the series, the producer, the director, and the running time of 29 minutes.

(This foreshadows the 1988 Olympics, where much of my work would consist of preparing slates electronically by typing the data into a character generator.)

 

Audio Link

2:11

A camera will focus on Edie's slate, and we’ll record the image at the beginning of the video tape for identification purposes.  When the slate is ready, we can roll to record!

 

Audio Link

2:38

The program begins!  We have liftoff!

But whoops, we have to stop.  No audio is reaching the video tape recorder.  We'll have to recycle the countdown to T minus 45 seconds.

 

Audio Link

2:26

The program begins again!  For the first two minutes, we hear pre-recorded audio while we watch 37 slides from the film chain, many of them photographed five weeks before at Maine Head Start centers.  Vicki calls the changes while Paul Neal operates the slide projector in the projection room.  (There's still no audio reaching the studio, but that's a minor problem; Dick doesn't really need to hear our playbacks.)

Next, we roll the first of four VTR inserts.

 

Audio Link

2:00

The tape shows Dick at the S.U. Nursery School, where he leads a group of kids in pretending to be angry giants.  They stomp around to the 1812 Overture.

 

Audio Link

1:44

Next, on an audio tape, Dick describes his career.  Vicki calls 25 slide changes for the RP projection while Vin directs his cameramen.

 

Audio Link

2:31

The video tape for the next segment must be “up to speed” when Vin wants to dissolve to it, so he must direct it to roll seven seconds before that.

 

Audio Link

2:42

What's happening on this second video tape insert?  What's a Sleep Shaker?  Dick explains in a voice-over that has been pre-recorded on a “cart” (an audio cartridge).

When the cart ends, John has to fade the VTR’s audio back up to its previous level.

 

Audio Link

1:54

On another audio tape supported by 32 more RP slides, Dick explains the virtues of an autoharp (like the one below) for music education.

 

Audio Link

1:27

After the autoharp discussion is concluded, it will be time to roll the film of Dr. Eleanor Robinson and matte her name.

You may recall that we heard Dr. Robinson earlier, during the rehearsal.  This is where we came in!

My control-room audio recording ended here, but the video taping continued with Dick's rap/poem in the studio, the kids singing “I Wear a Happy Face” on tape, and the closing credits.

 


As I listen to these sounds 40 years later, I notice that the student crew wasn’t nearly as efficient as the TV crews I work with nowadays.  Back then, we obviously didn’t quite know what we were doing.

But that’s why we did it — to gain experience in how to do it.