‘Anything could go wrong’: A longtime programming exec remembers the tightrope act of producing pledge specials

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rocor/Flickr via Creative Commons

Carole King performs in San Jose, Calif., in May 2010.

Larry Rifkin’s eventful career at Connecticut Public Television and beyond is the subject of his new memoir, No Dead Air: Career Reflections From the TV Executive Who Saved Barney the Dinosaur From Extinction. Along with introducing a certain purple dinosaur to viewers nationwide, Rifkin led the creation of many local and national productions, including musical pledge shows. In this excerpt, he looks back on working with these programs’ key talents.

I looked for opportunities to produce the big bang musical specials, like the major market producers and, of course, T. J. Lubinsky of WQED in Pittsburgh. Give credit where credit is due; he defined this era for PBS in terms of nostalgic music specials, starting with the doo-wop era and then putting together a mosaic of musical romps down memory lane from Motown to the disco explosion. His shows were well crafted and meant to evoke memories of an era. He was prolific and quite successful. His shows, in the words of Dylan, were “right on target, so direct.” They were built for an express purpose, and they worked.

I recently became aware of the work of the late Clayton Christensen of Harvard University and the guru of “disruptive innovation.” I love his theory of the job a product is designed to do. A classic example is Kodak. In describing their inability to transition to filmless photography, we are reminded that they became so enamored with their engineering prowess and technical capabilities that they lost sight of what people who purchased their product really cared about — capturing memories. Full stop. Apple figured that out, and the rest is the downfall of a classic American company.

In the case of fundraising programming for PBS, there are no awards for style points. Does it pledge? Is it constructed for that purpose? It may be a fun show to watch, but if people don’t open their wallets as the key measurement, it’s a bomb.

We followed Lubinsky’s lead with The British Invasion Returns and Hey La! Hey La! The Girl Groups Are Back!, both mounted as three-day productions at Foxwoods Casino in eastern Connecticut. They did all right as pledge vehicles, and they were fun to watch, but they weren’t gangbusters. I clearly did not have Lubinsky’s golden touch. He had his eye solely on that ball while I was a bit spread out overseeing local productions and other major national work as we approached the mid-nineties. It’s a lesson that singularity of purpose and focus, when rigorously applied, pays off.

I must say, though, I really had fun, particularly on the British Invasion show. While we couldn’t get the two leaders of the invasion, the Beatles or the Stones, to participate, having Peter Noone and the new Herman’s Hermits, Gerry and the Pacemakers, and Eric Burdon and the New Animals as part of it was terrific.

I called upon Gary Grant, who was the manager for Rob Bartlett of Imus in the Morning fame, to be our talent procurer for the compilation shows. Gary was a New York agent who had great contacts and a winning way. He brought a sense of whimsy and joy to the work and took care of as much of the dealmaking as he could, coming to me to try to strategize or sign off.

His one curiosity was a briefcase that he carried with him everywhere as if he had the atomic bomb codes assigned to him. He never let it out of his sight. As a fast-talking New Yorker, he could amble into and out of delicate relationships with a certain ease and a wink of Con-fidence.

For example, Eric Burdon was threatening not to perform on the last night of the production because he felt there was a problem with air filtration at Foxwoods. His throat was impinged upon. Gary and I listened. Gary told us he’d be back and went off in pursuit of a solution. He came back a short time later and assured Eric that he had talked to the engineering department at Foxwoods, and a refiltration of the air was in process. Eric inhaled, as a demonstration of his seriousness about the situation, and declared that he could tell the difference. Given his winning way, Gary, who likely went to the men’s room in his time away, convinced Eric that he parted the Red Sea on his behalf. Problem solved.

In working with musical artists, I learned that egos are enormous, and concerns are varied and unpredictable. While loving the work, I was always on pins and needles that anything could go wrong.

It often starts in the negotiation phase or, in virtually all cases, during the production. And sometimes it’s after all is done in the packaging of the program, the use of various parts of the repertoire, or the home video distribution deal. It’s difficult to know exactly what will spark the flare-up. Assuredly, something will. How you de-escalate those situations is key.

On the British Invasion show, who knew that the once handsome Reg Presley, lead singer of the Troggs, had turned into a rather obese middle-aged man who could barely growl through “Wild Thing” once without oxygen, let alone the extra time we needed because of a technical snafu? Or that Freddie of Freddie and the Dreamers would have a heart attack on the flight back to England and threaten to sue us?

Peter Noone, who performed and hosted the show for us, was great to work with. Given his uninterrupted career fronting newbies still called Herman’s Hermits, he never lost a beat in recognizing that it’s “show business.” He understood that you take your charming personality, some musical ability, and confectionary tunes and ride it to the end. He’s never been without work and a recognition of his musical lane, and he knows how to traverse it from every angle on cruise ships, state fairs, compilation shows, and the like.

I applaud the “truth in music” laws being passed to protect consumers who are attracted to older bands and have no way of knowing if the members they see on stage have any lineage to the original groups. This has been spearheaded by Jon Bauman, the guy who played “Bowzer” with the rock and roll revival act Sha Na Na.

Many of the acts we had on various compilations were only legitimized and authenticated by the lead singer. It is so much harder if the surviving member, or the one still owning the name, is the bass player who never sang or, worse yet, someone who joined the band ten years into their run and somehow goes out using their name.

In 1993 I was on the prowl looking for a smash musical special from my era. In looking at stars who had not done a PBS pledge special, I considered whether the performer still had commercial appeal or if it had ebbed for a younger generation but still burned bright in the hearts and minds of baby boomers. Carole King was one such performer.

Jim Scalem [VP of pledge programming at PBS] was on board, but I underestimated the strength of Carole’s personality and will in fashioning the program she wanted.

Recently a nationally syndicated article by Mikael Wood of the Los Angeles Times titled “‘Tapestry’ at 50: How Carole King ‘bet on herself’ to record a singer-songwriter classic” pointed to the issue that we faced. He wrote that “in the years after ‘Tapestry,’ King could seem ambivalent about the stardom she’d attained. She continued to make records, occasionally in search of a convincing style, but she didn’t tour or promote them as the pop industry requires.” Her aloof personality severed her ongoing relationship with her fans. James Taylor, her close friend and collaborator, maintained and grew his audience with constant touring and reinvention.

Of course nothing appealed to her audience more than her smash album of 1971, Tapestry. Wood also reminded that “nine of her 10 most-streamed songs on Spotify are from ‘Tapestry.’” 

While she agreed to do the pledge special with us in our home base at the Bushnell Theater in Hartford, she had just released a new album and wanted that to be the focus of the program. Furthermore, she wanted her own director, Larry Jordan.

She wanted to have contemporary rock sidemen on the show, such as Slash and Teddy Andreadis of Guns N’ Roses. That was fun until Slash showed up at a rehearsal with a “F***PBS” T-shirt.

Editorial control, an oft-used term in our industry, is something that PBS always demanded that the producer retain, though music specials were not considered controversial, so sharing that with an artist was not uncommon.

In doing so with Carole, it was with some foreboding given her desire to demonstrate her ongoing relevance as an artist and not a beautiful fading memory. She demonstrated that by wanting to keep Tapestry out of the title of the show. I won that battle by having her agree to Carole King: A New Colour in the Tapestry. She wanted to have contemporary rock sidemen on the show, such as Slash and Teddy Andreadis of Guns N’ Roses. That was fun until Slash showed up at a rehearsal with a “F***PBS” T-shirt.

I then turned to Ira Koslow, her agent, who worked for Peter Asher, to intervene on the wardrobe selection for the actual performance. He assured me Slash would not wear that T-shirt on performance night. I really enjoyed working with Ira. He was a true professional and a genuinely nice guy, who himself had difficulty at times guiding Carole in ways that might benefit the success of the program, given its fundraising purpose.

We all know the advice to walk a mile in the other person’s shoes so that you understand what motivates them.

I truly wish that I had seen Beautiful: The Carole King Musical, the wonderful Broadway production, mounted more than a decade and a half later, about Carole’s life. I would have come to a much quicker and better understanding of the woman I was many times up against.

She had to fight to be seen and recognized as the frontline talent, not a behind-the-scenes genius, that she is. She demonstrated that her instincts about her headlining appeal were right. Too often she was regarded highly for her songwriting capabilities but discounted because of her voice or appearance or whatever measure they used. Many thought she would not be a star in her own right.

What she had earned, she certainly was not going to relinquish to an unknown executive producer like me. Now I get that. It should have been clear to me that this was what the power dynamic of editorial control would look like when producer Ken Simon joined me in Los Angeles, ahead of the taping, to take in one of her concerts. In meeting with her after the show, she said, “So how did the suits like the show?” I guess I never thought of myself as a “suit,” but she had long ago divided the playing field between those who have the power and the performers who deserve a much greater voice. Even having that advance understanding would not have made it any easier to get what I needed from her in this performance.

I needed a show that used every bit of Tapestry to populate all the sets, and each set needed to start in a rollicking way and become more emotional and end on the most heartrending note. On set two, she stayed resolute that it would end with a rocker included on her new album. On set three, she agreed to end with “You’ve Got a Friend.” Guess which set performed well and which did not. She wouldn’t budge on that split decision, and that, in large part, determined that the show, while a wonderful concert production, was a moderate fundraising success.

I must admit that Larry Jordan was a good choice on her part as director, though I do think Jay Whitsett or Haig Papasian on our staff would have yielded virtually the same result. Larry gave us one of those unpredictable moments when he lost communication to our cameramen and admonished me that he had done concerts in South America, in a war zone, that were easier than this one, or some such words. I may have made up the part about the war zone. It was all in a day’s work.

Carole, the perfectionist that she was, took back all the original audio from the production and resang her parts.

If you are observant and watch this performance, now available on YouTube, you can see that we had to go behind her for a few seconds on the first song, “Hard Rock Cafe,” because we could not sync voice and picture. It’s a wonderful curiosity.

Let’s fast-forward to 2016. By then I had left television and was back in radio full time. The station was offered complimentary tickets to a theatrical release of Tapestry: Live in Hyde Park. That’s right, it was all from that one classic album.

Of course I went to see it. From a production standpoint, I don’t think it holds a candle to what we did. In part that is because outdoor concerts lack the ability to use the great architecture of the building as a great set piece, such as we did. However, it was the program, musically, that I wanted to do some twenty-four years earlier. Unfortunately Carole wasn’t ready at that time. As we know in life, timing is everything.

Larry Rifkin was a regular on-air presence during his 27 years at Connecticut Public Television most often identified with two signature hits, Barney & Friends and University of Connecticut women’s basketball. He was inducted into the Boston/New England National Academy of Television Arts & Sciences Silver Circle in 2006. 

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