Russell Morash: This old Yankee leads a guerrilla crew

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It’s raining, so the production crew has scrapped a planned hilltop shoot. Now Russell Morash has just learned that the cement truck has broken down on its way to the renovation site in Milton, Mass., that will be center stage for This Old House‘s 19th season. The executive producer/director has to rethink the entire morning’s production schedule. Fast.

Morash decides to move the crew inside the rambling white house, a 1724 timber-frame colonial that will be transformed over the next few months to accommodate a 21st-century lifestyle. He wants to shoot series host Steve Thomas discussing a scale model of the house with architect Rick Bechtel. There isn’t a table anywhere in the vacant house for the model to rest on, so Morash has someone fetch a plastic cement mold from the barn to serve as a pedestal.

Described by a co-worker as “the archetypal penny-pinching Yankee,” Morash likes to shoot his shows with a minimum of fuss and no script, using available light when possible, homemade reflectors (boards with shiny insulation nailed on them), and a single hand-held camera that swoops in and around the action.

This can-do, make-do, don’t-shut-the- production-down-for-anything style of TV making has served Morash well in his nearly 40 years with WGBH, Boston, where he has crafted some of the longest-lived, most popular shows on public television and won nine directing Emmys for his effort.

First came The French Chef in 1963, in which Morash made Julia Child’s fluty trill familiar to millions of Americans, along with crepes, quiche and copper bowls. Their association continued into the 1980s with three more series, Julia Child and Company, Julia Child and More Company, and Dinner at Julia’s, and they remain friends and Cambridge neighbors.

This Old House was an instant success when it debuted in 1979 and now has a cume of 8.1 million viewers a week; in terms of average minute rating, it has the largest audience of any regular PBS series, according to WGBH. The Victory Garden is even older (1975) and is Morash’s sentimental favorite–perhaps because it features his wife, “Chef Marian” Morash (along with series host Roger Swain and others). The New Yankee Workshop, a woodworking show featuring This Old House carpenter Norm Abram, is a relative newcomer, only nine years on the air.

Often described as the Father of How-To, Morash in fact detests the genre term, especially in regard to This Old House. “I’ve often been tarred by that brush, but I don’t know what it means. … I’ve never said we’re out to show people how to do anything. … If we were, we would never advance the whole project. We would have taken all day to show how they dug that [cement mold] into the ground over there. We just don’t have the time for it. What we can do is talk about the techniques, the tools, what people should expect from it, but we will never be a substitute for good instructional media.”

“The Father of How-To? They just call him that because he’s old,” laughed Geoffrey Drummond, executive producer of Julia Child’s three most recent cooking shows, including Baking With Julia. “But the style of his early Julia shows really set the format for probably 90 percent of cooking shows today–shows done in a studio kitchen from a cooking island, the host talking to the audience through the camera.”

Drummond noted that Morash was churning out cooking shows for 20 years before his PTV peers caught on that the public had an insatiable appetite for them.

“Then he was doing Victory Garden and This Old House way before any other garden or home improvement shows, and now there’s an entire House and Garden Television Network. … I think people should keep their eyes on what he’s working on now so they’ll know what how-to shows will look like in 2010.”

‘Guerrilla’ TV crew

While the topics pioneered by Morash have been adopted by many others, his style has few successful imitators, at least in the how-to genre. His visual signature is the long unbroken take with the hand-held camera, with scenes lasting four, six even eight minutes without a cut.

“We’re much closer now to the way the human eye behaves than with conventional television techniques,” said Morash. “The eye does not cut. It pans, tilts, it can get closer to a subject or farther away. But cutting is a convention, an abstraction, a device for moving action forward, for telescoping scenes. It’s done at the pleasure of the editor and director. My view is, it takes longer for us to choreograph a scene using one camera than it would if we were using conventional methods, but the result is a nearly finished product that makes you feel as though you were right there.”

Some years ago a wag christened Morash’s style “guerrilla television”–calling his production crew the TV equivalent of an army with mismatched uniforms and not enough bullets for all the guns. The label has stuck.

“A lot of what we do is making do with what’s on hand,” said Morash. “The scene this morning [with the architectural model] we did with available light and only one extra light. The conventional way would have taken much longer and be cut together, with many, many pieces. And in the cutting sometimes you lose something.

“… It also gives us a gritty realism that other shows don’t seem to have. That’s our look, and I’m pleased with it. Television has a habit of making anything look better, bigger, more colorful than it actually is. … We don’t cover up any defects. If there’s some noise in the background, well, that’s what it’s like on a construction site.”

This ultra-efficient, PTV-cheap technique sometimes gives the three shows an incestuous quality — This Old House does a shoot in Savannah, and the next season Abram is doing Georgia Low Country furniture on New Yankee Workshop. Abram builds a garden gate on New Yankee and the finished product graces The Victory Garden.

The “guerrilla production” style is also highly dependent on the talents of the small crew, especially camera operator Joel Coblenz and editor Bill Howe, who work on all three Morash series and apparently have telepathic capabilities, as well as technical skills.

“I’ve done TV appearances where everything is heavily scripted; it takes hours to set up lighting,” said Abram. “We make it up as we go. There’s a general outline for the show, but each scene is developed on the spot with the craftsmen involved. It’s a partnership. Everyone contributes in their area of expertise.”

Although clearly in charge of the crew, the soft-spoken Morash does not dominate the set. He speaks with a certain shorthand economy, although those who work with him say he is an excellent teacher who is happy to explain anything. On this day he is decked out in a yellow windbreaker, his white hair sticking out from a This Old House baseball cap. He wears an audio headset and carries a miniature monitor that lets him see what the camera is shooting.

A descendent of Yankee carpenters and shipwrights, Morash comes by his love of craftsmanship honestly. He got the idea for This Old House while renovating his own home (Abram was one of the carpenters). He studied theater at Boston University and joined WGBH just out of school in 1957. He’s been there ever since.

Electronic advances pave way

The guerrilla technique wouldn’t have evolved without significant advancements in recording technology — reliable wireless mikes, lightweight cameras, lights that run on household current without blowing a fuse.

Abram remembered the show’s first season: “We had a mobile production truck, a couple of cameras, cables strung out everywhere, a deck, monitors.”

Child didn’t experience the one-camera revolution until 1984’s Dinner at Julia’s.

“It was very different, because the camera is looking at the food the way you [the cook, not the audience] look at it most of the time,” she recalled. “The camera man was always shooting over your shoulder or down by your hands. Also, when we first started out, we didn’t stop at all and we had to take what came. Starting with that show, we could do editing, so you could stop and do a scene over. We lost some of our mistakes, as well as that breathless quality.”

Still, the hand-held camera has not been widely adapted to the cooking show genre. Most producers are wed to the studio kitchen and two-camera format.

Asked to name other how-to shows he admires, Morash cited Trailside, a PTV outdoor adventure show that also uses hand-held cameras. The series is produced by Teaching Learning Network in conjunction with New Media Inc. “I like their techniques because they’re a lot like our techniques,” said Morash.

Trailside Executive Producer Steven Vocino said he didn’t think director Pamela Alvarez was consciously imitating Morash, “but all how-to programming has been influenced by Russell.”

Facelifts and progeny

Two of Morash’s three series have been around long enough to experience radical facelifts. The Victory Garden was able to survive the death of its original host, James Crockett. Far more acrimonious was the 1989 departure of This Old House host Bob Vila in a dispute over his commercial endorsements. Vila now has a competing home improvement show on cable, and a magazine (Bob Vila’s American Home, started last September by Hearst) that competes with This Old House magazine (started in 1995 by Time Warner).

“I am at heart a capitalist,” Vila told the Wall Street Journal last year. “The years I hosted on PBS I compare to the years I volunteered for the Peace Corps.”

The successor to Vila, Steve Thomas, plays a different role as host.

“My whole approach was never to replicate Bob Vila, but to just be myself. I understood my role was to be the guide,” said Thomas, a dedicated do-it-yourselfer and sailor who had PTV documentary experience before being tapped as the new series host.

“Steve has this wonderful optimistic perception — or presents that way — which is extremely useful. What was happening with the previous guy is that we were losing that,” said Morash, as if uttering Vila’s name would cast a cloud over the set.

“Also, we didn’t have a situation that we do now of Norm in the role of the teacher and Steve in the role of the student. … If you ask me how the show changed, we emphasized an optimistic outlook on the part of the host. He was supposed to be not a know-it-all half-baked contractor; he was to be the epitome of the interested, curious, homeowner-doer.”

In addition to producing the shows themselves, Morash and company are heavily involved in the many spinoffs the three series have generated — companion videos (Morash has done more than 100) renovation and gardening books, woodcrafting blueprints, websites, and the splashy This Old House magazine, with its photo spreads on shellac and power tools. Morash is also re-editing old episodes for syndication to commercial stations under the title This Old House Classics.

The producer’s also been around long enough for some of his proteges to have their own shows. Aida Moreno, executive producer of WGBH’s Antiques Roadshow, was a production assistant for Morash on some of the Child shows from 1977 to 1979.

Although her show requires “three cameras, huge TV trucks, big halls with 3,000-4,000 people milling around” and doesn’t look like Morash programming, “what I learned from him is to have high integrity, put your show first, do your homework.”

For his own part, Morash keeps his shows fresh and his own interest level high with the video field trips — postcards, he calls them — that have become a part of his shows. These little drop-ins might show Nathaniel Hawthorne’s house of seven gables when the Old House crew is working on a property in Salem, Mass., or outstanding gardens in the West or South with Victory Garden correspondents.

It’s been a while since Morash has done anything but how-to (The Advocates, a famed public affairs show that ended in the early ’70s, apparently was his last).

“I’ve got a couple of things I wanted to do that I probably will not ever do,” he says.
“We wanted to do a travel series a few years ago that would have been pretty ambitious. Frankly, as our extensions of This Old House and other projects have taken up any remaining residue of time, it’s almost impossible to consider anything else.”

He predicts he’ll work a few more years on the shows he’s made out of his favorite hobbies — gardening, home repair, woodworking. “I count it off in a matter of months,” he says. “Then it’s feet up. Retirement. As far from television as I can get.”

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