Feb 282017

Samuel Barber, 1944

The fifth floor of the Museum housed the scientists’ offices and was also a storehouse of artifacts not on display. Margaret Mead had contributed objects from her work in Bali. While she and I were working out a script for the segment on Manus she pointed at something I had never seen. She called it a saron. It looked something like our xylophone, but the keys were brass and there was a trough under it for resonance.

“Can you play it? “

“No. We’ve got a lot of musical instruments in the collection. We’ve never heard them played. “

We found a number of sound makers that had been collected but never used by the museum’s staff. One of Jac Venza’s friends was Samuel Barber. I had heard of Barber who belonged to the short list of serious American composers. When we met he was shy and terse with me. I think he was uncomfortable with straight men. I would ask a question but he would direct his answers to Jac.

Curiosity overcame his modestly when he touched the artifacts. He and Jac whispered and then told me they would return in a week or two. On an April day he brought some first chair musicians from the New York Philharmonic. The flutist picked up a wooden Japanese wind instrument and compared its primary scale against the conventional Western flute.  It was a different do-re-mi than our diatonic scale.

The first chair trumpeter tested a Fiji Island conch shell and a horn made of calabash sections from Tanganyika Africa.  The percussionist examined a two toned drum in the form of a slit wooden animal. One side of the carving gave one tone; the other, a lower timbre. The talking drugs from the Yoruba were mobile tympani. The tribal drums were held under the armpit. When the elbow squeezed the drum into the rib cage the tone ascended or descended.

A palm sized metal instrument best described as a hand piano that twanged when plucked fascinated Samuel. He opened his composition with it.

The composer was restricted by budget to six musicians. He did not want to compose for the artifacts alone. His musicians would also use the conventional harp, French horn and clarinet.  He waived his fee to hire a seventh musician.

Barber wrote a twenty-minute score for Adventure that could not be conventionally notated. It was exotic, beautiful and inventive. His biographers have found Barber’s written score, but it can never be replayed.



Samuel Barber, by Carl Van Vechten – Van Vechten Collection at Library of Congress, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=52003


Feb 272017

Center to Right: Perry Wolfe, Jac Venza and Mike Wallace, CBS Adventure Series

When television was young—before the computer, the microchip, and editing cuts lasting less than a wink—CBS News did 136 broadcasts of Adventure, a documentary television series beginning in 1953. It was produced in collaboration with the American Museum of Natural History and hosted by Charles Collingwood.

Some programs had no commercials. The salesmen called Sunday afternoon the “cultural ghetto.” Since public broadcasting had not yet begun, the burden of cultural respectability had to be carried by the networks. It was expected that a station’s license to make money would entail broadcasting programs in the “public’s interest, convenience and necessity.” It was assumed that culture was an American necessity. I don’t think commercial television was ever virginal, but it was prudent before it was prurient.

Later, when public broadcasting began, the commercial broadcasters were relieved. PBS would take over the responsibility of distributing the fine arts and sciences. CBS underwrote the building of the educational station in New York. It donated a complete New York studio with full equipment, and at the cost of millions, shepherded through a license for one more station in New York. It was a gracious gesture, but now not only could culture could be handed off to PBS, but the local CBS station had one less competing commercial channel in New York.

At the time the ratings came out just once a week. They were printed in what was called a Nielsen pocket piece. It measured only shows with commercials.

One day Sig Mickelson, the head of CBS News, came by my secretary’s desk and saw the Nielsen ratings piece. He was sharp with her.

“Perry is never to see the ratings. He and you are not hired to count the house. We do Adventure for other reasons.”

That is one of my fondest memories of the many fine men under whom I served.

Adventure was the precursor of the nature programs that have become staples of television broadcasting.

There were a lot of personal boundaries for me to erase.

I had always lived in big cities. Until the war I had seen the sky mostly as a backdrop behind buildings. So far as I knew, the sky could be square. As for the out-of-doors, I remember a vow of a soldier with whom I had shared a foxhole for a week. “When the war is over the only time I’m going outside is when I go from one building to another.” I agreed.

I recognized my incompetence quickly, and I cast my staff with a knowledgeable aide, Robert (Shad) Northshield.  In basic training Shad had taught me how to throw grenades properly. (Don’t bend the elbow, Wolff! Hurl it, don’t pitch it!) A print journalist, he had studied natural history. He was also the photography and zoo editor of The Chicago Sun Times.

Sometimes he appeared on screen, most notably on a live sequence devoted to friendly otters. While on the air the otter shat on Shad and bit him at the same time, and Northshield lost his commissioned officer composure.

Another wise choice was Jac Venza who became famous years later as the executive producer of Great Performances and the cultural czar of the Public Broadcasting Service.

The two men were at different poles.

Shad came to Jac and me one day. “We got to do a show on kidneys.”

“Why kidneys?”

“Because fish don’t piss.”

“Why don’t they piss, Shad?”

“Because the water flows through their gills and flushes the crap away. Until the fish got kidneys they had to stay in the water, so there couldn’t be animals living on land. We’d still be pissing in the ocean if the kidney hadn’t developed in the first fish that crawled on land, lungfish. The kidneys are an elaborate set of filters that screen out the poisons.”

Jac interrupted. “Elaborate filters?”

“Yes, Jac.”

“Perry, it has to be a Mondrian set. Mondrian’s paintings are filters. “

We found the kidney expert at the ichthyology department of the American Museum, and he explained the subject on the broadcast. Jac lost. The set was fishy.

CBS Studio Shoot

I wrote most of the segments, and at the beginning directed the live cameras. Later I hired help for both jobs.

There were practical boundaries between television and science. On the very first program an archeologist showed some of the Museum’s richest treasures—the Chibaya beaten gold pieces, so precious they were kept in a vault and were never on public view. The archeologist, Junius Bird, brought them by station wagon, carefully wrapped.

The union stagehand saw Dr. Bird bringing the artifacts into the studio. He was suspicious and confronted me.

“What is he carrying?”

“Beaten gold objects.”

“He’s carrying the props into the studio.”

“They can fall apart so easily!”

“He’s carrying the props into the studio. That’s a violation of the contract. Stagehands pick up the sets and the props. We deliver them. You’re in violation. Want to be written up?”

Dr. Bird got the masks into the studio, and the argument flared up again after the show.

Even today the beaten gold artifacts remain unseen and locked in the Museum’s vaults.

The next week my production manager called for delivery of sets and props. The stagehands were to go to Minnie in the basement room B2 of the American Museum. Minnie was told to let the union men handle all artifacts.

The live artifacts were rattlesnakes.

I had scheduled a sequence on herpetology. After some swearing the argument was settled amicably. The small scientist handled the props.

That same opening show contained the first of many disasters.

The most popular exhibit in the Museum was the Planetarium. The scientists in specialties less popular than astronomy called the Planetarium “our big theater,” but they tolerated it because it brought people into the building and provided some income.

We scheduled a visit to the site for the opening sequence. The segment was terrible.

The vastness of the heavens had to be reduced to the prevailing TV monitor size in 1953. The Universe was compacted to 18 inches, black and white.

As background music we played Gustav Holst’s The Planets but nothing was cosmic.

Years before I had been fascinated by the sciences, particularly astronomy. In the 1930s when the Depression made it seem that capitalism was a failure, my brother had persuaded me that Marxism was a scientific solution. Economics was a science, and an elite group of scientists could rule the world of finance. Science was pure, capitalism was base greed.  And the purest science was mathematics (I almost failed algebra my first semester, to Leon’s horror). Almost as pure was the movement of the universe. So I registered for an astronomy course at Northwestern, and sat at the end of the telescope, open to the cold winds of Lake Michigan. I froze.

I retreated from Marx. I am no longer awed by outer space.

Inner space, inexact science, life science as taught by the American Museum brings awe more slowly. It took time for me to appreciate the less exact disciplines. For example, I heard for the first time the word “ecology.” Over a film clip of plant and animal life in a garden the curator warned that the sun was the center of our environment and ecology was the study of the interrelationships between the species, and there might be trouble ahead.

I didn’t get it. I wasn’t yet worried about pollution, and so I cut the ecologist to ten minutes.

There were some scientific fakes in the Museum’s library films. They had a print of a snake film from a recommended Disney nature documentary. Snakes, writhing in an upright position in tempo with sinuous music. Shad was suspicious and called in a herpetologist. The elegant twisting of upright snakes was dismissed in a moment by the scientist.

“The snake is writhing because the sand he’s in has been heated almost to the boiling point. He’ll be dead in a few minutes.”

And then the perpetual questions that persists today: “How did the cameraman get the picture?” “Is he really inside the tree trunk looking at the bird’s eggs, or did they build a fake tree in the studio?” Once the audience asks itself this simple question, the fakery is often apparent.

Faking film, and the ethics of editing should be a required course.

Both institutions were good to us. The museum housed the CBS team and we ate “dinosaur stew” with the scientific staff at lunch in the common cafeteria.

At the beginning many of the scientists did not own or watch television. They patronized us. We were better tolerated after the scientists were astonished when strangers who had recognized them on-screen would thank and compliment them.

I knew when we were tacitly admitted when the most distinguished head of Mammalian Studies said, “ABC has a better test pattern at sign-off than CBS.” That meant he had stayed awake watching his screen until 2AM…and explained his red eyes the next morning.

As we moved into the second year the guards had a direction for strangers: “CBS used to be below the reptiles, but now they’re between the apes and man.”

We made an arrangement with museum-sanctioned expeditions. CBS split the cost of the film stock and processing, as well as half the tuition of short film course for the photographer-scientist. The Museum would give us access to their remarkable archives of past expeditions, but we would have to clear the rights with the owners.

Perry Wolff at CBS, Adventure Series

CBS gave me a staff, and $17,000 per week to produce the hour.

Some ten weeks in the season I went to the head of programming for CBS News and told him I had saved over $17,000.

“Wolff”, he said, “You have deprived the American audience of over $17,000 of production. You aren’t expected to make money.”

But he had trouble with a voucher we submitted entitled, Costs for Ants.

“Ants? Ants? You could have come to my kitchen in New Jersey and gotten as many as you wanted, free.”

We made a deal with the head of the Animal Behavior department who was studying the flow of army ants. At times tens of thousands of ants are dormant. At other times the insects move like a hungry river, a chain, devouring everything in its path. The group flows through the jungles of Central America.

I had approved the payment of the air ticket to a scientist, and I explained this to my financial superior.

I begged on the basis of the march of science. “The behavioral question is what triggers the flow of ants? Shall the river of ants be considered the basic biologic unit, or should the behavior of a single warrior ant be studied? I mean what about human behavior? Are we herds or are we individuals? It really was a hell of a segment, Lou.”

Mr. Stone was not impressed.

“Look. Suppose we change the voucher to “Ant Act” and the accountants will think of an insert on The Ed Sullivan Show. You know, two girls with antennae – feelers – coming out of their heads. Leading Sullivan on stage, with that goofy grin on his face. Cheap act at that price.”

The scientist who most impressed me was Dr. Harry Shapiro, Chairman of the Department of Anthropology. Tall, near-sighted, well dressed, he carried that green felt book bag that marked his generation of Harvard scholars. His speech was enthusiastic and simple. I nestled as closely as I could.

The American Museum came together when the scholars of 19th Century recognized the force of Darwin’s theory of evolution. The whole institution was based on the history of life on earth. The phylogenetic tree traced the many-million-year rise from single-celled creatures to that of our species, Homo sapiens. It was understood, if not said, that man was the culmination of evolution.

“The proper study of mankind is man,” said Alexander Pope.

(However an ichthyologist noted, “If a fish could draw the tree of life, there’d be a fish on top.”)

In its early days the museum considered some homo sapiens to be superior to other homo sapiens. A mild form of racism, but one that persisted too long. The anthropology departments particularly thought some ethnic groups were superior to others, and, while not scientifically provable, in practice rich New Englanders were at the top of the tree.

Harry Shapiro was professionally qualified to head the department in the 20th century, but the name Shapiro helped erase the past sins of earlier department heads. A Jewish chairman of anthropology was an apology and an act of contrition on the part of the Museum.

His specialty was physical anthropology, particularly the measurement of human skulls. A human skull fits neatly in a shoebox. Dr. Shapiro had many behind his desk chair. Like a Florsheim salesman, he would reach behind his head, catch the box by the lid, flip the lid back and pull out a human skull. He was opening a number of boxes one day when he made a remark that showed he was Jewish.

“You know the proscription that we Jews have against marrying a Gentile? When I was digging up and measuring skulls in the Holy Land I discovered why the rabbis were against it. It was that I found so many Hebrews had married Philistines. The cranial measurements show intermarriage flourished.”

I watched the competition between the two schools of anthropology—physical and ethnic. If Dr. Shapiro’s expertise was the study of skulls and bones, Dr. Margaret Mead’s skills were in describing the customs of societies. Each anthropologist was knowledgeable about the other’s field, but each was a specialist.

At the time Harry Shapiro had an advantage: he decided how the department would be housed.  As I passed his office one day, I heard him say, “Margaret, there are other anthropologists in this department. They need room, too!”

It was the first time I heard this elegant man raise his voice.

Johanis Lokus (Loponiu), Margaret Mead, Petrus Pomat, Raphael Manuwai, John Kilipak with Manus children, 1953.

The most difficult scientist I had to deal with was Dr. Mead, the most famous anthropologist of the time, and a goddess-to-be in the world of feminism.

Margaret Mead returned with a good deal of film footage from a second trip to the island of Manus in the Pacific. She was scheduled to make an appearance on Adventure. A previous husband had made a classic film of her visit to a tribe in Bali, Dance and Trance in Bali, but it was obvious she had not spent much time in the editing room. Her new footage was delivered to our editing room. Two editors and I screened rushes with her.

She was a small woman, older; imperious at one moment and friendly the next.

Her new Samoa material was edited by Jerry Bender who had never gone to college, had never heard of the most celebrated name at the American Museum, and went on to make a fortune in feature film sound editing. The dialog between the scientist and the editor grew tense. Film was a language she did not understand. Anthropology was a discipline new to Jerry.

I tried to act as a Rosetta Stone, but I couldn’t reach either.

“Mr. Bender you cannot put that picture there! I took it another day!” she said.

“Honey, I have to get from one moving shot to another. I need a still shot in between.”

“That man is not from this tribe!”

Jerry exploded “Dr. Mead, you take care of the fuckin’ anthropology, and I’ll take care of the fuckin fillum.”

I said, “Margaret, please give us an hour or two.”

When she came back we showed her the rough cut. It pleased her.

“Jerry, you’re right. You take care of the fillum, and I’ll take care of the anthropology.”

Previously, during the delivery of her daughter, the birth was filmed in close-up, but when she appeared on the set of Adventure she was concerned about her looks. I was directing, Charles Collingwood was the narrator, and Joe Papp was the floor director. Dr. Mead’s close-up was to be from a camera over the shoulder of the questioner. But on my screen she was in profile, not in full face. It took me a moment to understand why. She wasn’t looking at Collingwood; she was staring at her image on a floor monitor. She made eye contact only with herself.

“Papp,” I yelled, “Don’t let her see the monitors.”

There was scurrying and noise as the monitors were shifted. Finally the scientist had no choice but to look at the correspondent. Angrily, I thought.

She wasn’t angry the next time I saw her. In the months following she had received many compliments because of her first television appearance.

It was at a “dinosaur stew” lunch at the staff cafeteria. She thanked Jerry and me and brought me a fresh coffee when she went back for her own refill.

She said, “Harry Shapiro told me I looked young and wonderful on live TV. So did my daughter.”



Center to Right: Perry Wolfe, Jac Venza and Mike Wallace, CBS Adventure Series, (photo: Landov), http://perrymilleradato.com/about/

CBS Studio Shoot, (photo: Landov), http://perrymilleradato.com/about/

Perry Wolff at CBS, Adventure Series, (photo: Landov), http://perrymilleradato.com/about/

Johanis Lokus (Loponiu), Margaret Mead, Petrus Pomat, Raphael Manuwai, John Kilipak with Manus children, 1953, https://www.loc.gov/exhibits/mead/field-manus.html


Feb 172017

Irna Phillips pictured dictating stories to her assistant, Rose Cooperman.

A few days before I was fired, my novel The Friend was published and released in Chicago. A small book party was held at a bookstore around the corner. The reviews in the Chicago papers had been good, but the attendance at the party was spotty: nobody from the radio station showed up. I had my family, a few friends and A.J. Liebling, the New Yorker critic who was writing a study of Chicago, The Second City. He could see I was disappointed at the small turnout. Liebling invited me to his apartment and fed me sardine sandwiches. He said something pertinent.

“Chicago is a great city to be from. Hemingway left, Hecht and McArthur left, and I’ll get out of here as quickly as I can. It’s not a town for writers.”

Tuulikki had been saying the same thing. When we were married I had promised to go to New York the following year. But it was approaching four years, and she was impatient.

At the time an old Army buddy, Arthur Peterson, was an actor in a soap opera The Guiding Light. He was indignant at the way I had been treated. He introduced me to Irna Phillips, the creator and sole writer of the serial.  By chance Miss Phillips wanted to try out a backup writer, and Art made much of my skills and my troubles with the Chicago police force.

Irna agreed to a paid tryout. She thought I should sit by for a week and watch her write. That way I could understand her writing style.

She didn’t write; she dictated. She was not a handsome woman, but she had fine, lanky legs. Dressed in a gauzy peignoir that reached only to her knees, she dictated all the parts to a gentle, understanding secretary who took shorthand notes.

Irna first played Meta, whose elegant accent was somewhere between Lake Forest, Illinois and three hundred miles west of England. Irna-Meta was elegant, impulsive, and too gentile for her German father.

“The Cherman Fahder had an eggscent dot was wery pronounced: aber he was kinly and gemüütlicht even to his elegant daughter,” she would say. Irna-Fadder was sad because Die Mutter of Irna-Meta had died, of course.

Irna played all the parts to the hilt, including the male suitor. And then, exactly on time just before the commercial, Irna imitated the announcer who breathlessly said, “Well!” or even “Well Well”. (Astonishment, required)


Irna’s secretary would say, “What got into Meta today? What a way to talk to her father!”

Irna said, “I don’t understand that girl. She’d better watch out, or she’ll have some serious trouble!” Irna-Meta was not Irna Phillips.

The secretary typed out the script and sent it to New York where The Guiding Light was produced. At 12:15 pm Central Standard Time, Monday through Friday, the live broadcast was heard in the writer’s apartment. While Miss Phillips was content with the actress playing Meta, despite the many, many German refugees in New York, she disliked their accents.

She wanted someone whose eggscent was exactly like hers — someone “kinly and gemüüütilicht even to his elegant daughter. Die Irna-Mutter had died two seasons back.”

Irna was kindly and elegant to me. She outlined the plot for the next two weeks and sent me off to write some episodes. She also paid in advance.

I sent the trial episodes to her by mail and was asked to visit her in her Lake Shore Drive apartment.

“I am sorry”, she said. “But it won’t work out.”

“Why not Miss Phillips?”

“Perry, you made one error that I could correct. You advanced the plot on Monday. The plot must never advance on a Monday. That’s the day you review all the events of the week before to remind the audience and prepare them for the surprise on Tuesday.

“As I said I could take care of that. But there is something in your writing style that I know I could never correct.”


“Perry, you rewrite. You are literary. You cannot dictate normal dialog because you rewrite and that is what makes it too literary.”

She continued. “I’ll tell you what I can do for you. There are going to be two deaths in the plot. (Two actors have quit for jobs in Hollywood.) You can write two funeral services for the Memorial Day programs.”

I did. An obituary for The Guiding Light for Mehta’s father. In real life, the actor had a profitable restaurant in Manhattan that gave him time to do the soap opera. The accented Mehta did a fifteen minute tribute to her fadder and cried very well. I don’t remember what other person character died or who read the second Guiding Light eulogy, but now I had enough money to go to New York and look for a job.