One of the glories of the American Museum of Natural History was the Hall of Mexico and Central America. As part of the Adventure Series (1953-1955), we planned a lengthy segment on the films a staff archeologist had taken of Mayan architecture. He would then have a conversation with Frank Lloyd Wright, the American architect.
An enormous blowup of Hollyhock House, one of Wright’s major achievements, was placed next to a model of Mayan architecture. Wright had suggested the photographic similarities to the research staff. He had just begun what would become the Guggenheim Museum in New York.
Wright had written extensively on the relationships between his architecture and Mayan step design. After a discussion with him our researchers brought him a summary of the areas he and Charles Collingwood might discuss.
Wright appeared—distinguished, elegant, reserved—and requested no one talk to him while he prepared. He sat next to my wife, and as I passed by, I heard this unsteady exchange:
“How do you like television, Mr. Wright?” Tuulikki asked.
“How to you like being a wife?”
Gordon Eckholm, the anthropologist, spoke about the studies he had made on Cortez, and Charles introduced Wright.
I was the camera director. The opening shot of the segment was to be a gradual pullback from the Mayan piece and Wright’s famous Hollyhock House, ending in a picture of the narrator and his guest.
During the reveal Charles asked, “Sir, would you tell us the relationship between the Mayan tradition and your splendid work?’
“No relationship at all, Mr. Collingwood! No relationship! Nothing Mayan about my work!”
That was not at all what he had told our research staff. He was drunk. Embarrassingly drunk.
There was an unlit great hall to the right of the Hall of Mexico where a gigantic blue whale hung from the ceiling. That’s what caught Wright’s eye.
He staggered out of camera and microphone range and disappeared to look at a stuffed monster on the ceiling of the next hall. “A whale in the sky! What a wonderful idea.”
He slapped a column on the way out. “What a wonderful architectural erection!”
My floor director, Joseph Papp, tried to head him off but I told Joe to let him go. I asked the technical director to close all microphones and pictures.
Collingwood was wearing a headset, and I asked him to vamp. Charles, ever supple, turned to Dr. Eckholm and asked why Mayan culture had disappeared. Eckholm was modest, interesting, and went on to discuss the decline of Inca culture.
No one paid attention to the revered and drunken architect.
While the Wright kinescope still exists, the Museum archivists have held it from biographers of the architect. Recording tape did not exist so that the only records are motion picture films in black and white taken from the TV output—kinescopes.
The Museum subsequently published a catalog of the kinescopes of the series. CBS junked its copies.
From the Museum’s catalog: “Cue cards fell over the camera lens, a gorilla went out of control, rattlesnakes did not stay in their marks, and interviewees extemporaneously contradicted the host.” Nevertheless the series and I won Peabody Awards.
Hollyhock House, https://www.pinterest.com/pin/253397916505706050, originally published in architecture. about.com, article by Jackie Craven, November 13, 2008
Whale at Milstein Hall of Ocean Life, AMNH, http://www.amnh.org/exhibitions/permanent-exhibitions/biodiversity-and-environmental-halls/milstein-hall-of-ocean-life