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.”
“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?”
“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.
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.
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.
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