"Now, dearie, I will require a hot plate for my appearance on Professor Duhamel's program."
Russ Morash, who had answered the telephone in a makeshift office he shared with the volunteers at WGBH-TV, was momentarily startled, not so much by the odd request as by the odder voice. It had a quality he'd never heard before -- tortured and asthmatic, with an undulating lyrical register that spanned two octaves. A woman's voice? Yes, he thought, like a cross between Tallulah Bankhead and a slide whistle.
With brusque Yankee economy, Morash tried to decode the caller's m.o. "You want -- what?"
"A hot plate, dearie, so I can make an omelet."
Doesn't that beat all, he thought. A hot plate! An omelet! What kind of a stunt was this gal trying to pull? Morash had worked at the station for a little under four years, and in that time he had heard his share of doozies, but they were workaday doozies, what you'd expect to hear at "Boston's Educational Television Station." The principal clarinetist for the symphony orchestra needed an emergency reed replacement, a beaker broke during a "Science Reporter" rehearsal, those were the tribulations that befell such an operation. But -- a hot plate . . . and an omelet . . .
"Well, from my experience that's a first," Morash told the caller, "but I'll be happy to pass it on to Miffy Goodhart, when she gets in."
The twenty-seven-year-old Morash knew that commercial television was in remarkable ascendance; since the end of World War II, it had catered to an enormous, entertainment-starved audience that was hungry for distraction, and creative minds were struggling to feed the greedy beast. But educational TV -- and WGBH, in particular -- was a different creature altogether. Educational TV was an anomaly, a broadcasting stepchild in its infancy, still in the crawling phase, with no real road map for meaningful development. "We were kind of making it up as we went along," Morash says of an experiment that was barely six years old. "There was tremendous freedom in what we could put on the air." Still, there was nothing exciting about the programs on WGBH. Audiences were as scarce as scintillating programming. A scattering of viewers tuned in to watch Eleanor Roosevelt spar with a panel of wonks; fewer tuned in Friday evenings when a local character, jazz priest Father Norman J. O'Connor, introduced musical figures from the Boston area. Otherwise there were no hits to speak of, nothing to attract people to the smorgasbord of brainy fare. The station was licensed through the Lowell Institute to the cultural institutions of Boston: the museum, the libraries, and eleven universities, including Harvard, MIT, Tufts, Boston College, Boston University, and Brandeis. The educational backdrop was a fantastic resource. Each member of the Institute provided support, financial and otherwise. If one of them said, "Hey, we've got a great professor. Let's broadcast his lecture," that was enough to launch a new show.
Such was the case with Albert Duhamel -- make that P. Albert Duhamel -- one of Boston College's most lionized teachers. Duhamel was a man who loved books and their authors. A suave, strapping academic with a penchant for Harris tweed, he was addicted to the intellectual interplay that came from talking to writers about their work. Al was an author himself -- his steamy "Rhetoric: Principles and Usage" was a campus blockbuster -- and his show, "People Are Reading," was the tent pole of WGBH's Thursday-night lineup.
"People Are Reading" was the forerunner to shows like "Fresh Air" and "Charlie Rose," but in those days, with a budget based primarily on the host's pocket change, books on loan from his personal library, and no such thing as an author tour sponsored by a publisher, it was television -- educational television -- at the most basic level. Because the dirt-poor station shied from appearance fees, let alone train fare, the authors who appeared came mostly from the Boston area, and to make attracting them easier, guests were usually college colleagues -- a noted economist or quantum physicist. Thus, in the words of one WGBH crew member, "The shows were dry as toast," but plans were afoot to inject a little jam into the equation.
Morash, who was familiar with the show's static format, realized that "People Are Reading," however tedious, served the greater good. For one thing, it was the only book-review show in Boston -- this was long before the days when "breakfast television" would trot out authors five mornings a week -- so there were no other outlets for writers promoting their work. And his neighbors, the university crowd, loved to read. They loved to read. They formed the show's small, faithful audience, creating buzz about any book that happened to catch their fancy.
The guest who had telephoned, Morash imagined, might just throw this gang a curve. Later that day, when he caught up with Miffy Goodhart, he told her,
"Miffy, you've got a hot one here this week. Some dame named Julia Child called, and she wants a hot plate, thank you very much. She says she'll bring all the other ingredients for -- get this! -- an omelet."
Miffy wasn't the least bit surprised by this last detail. As assistant producer of "People Are Reading," she had conspired for some time to bring about a makeover to the show. It needed pizzazz, something to appeal to a wider spectrum of viewers, younger, more engaged viewers who looked beyond academia for their jollies. Politics, science, and literature were fine. . .in moderation, she thought. "But I was trying to lighten the mood and make it completely different," she recalls.
Goodhart had been hearing about Julia Child and her "super new cookbook" for some time. For several months, in fact, word had buzzed around Cambridge that this cookbook sensation, "Mastering the Art of French Cooking", offered a remarkable new take on food, and once that crowd got it in their bonnets that something had cachet -- well . . . look out! . . . there was no way to stop the groundswell. This Cambridge set -- they were called Cantabrigians, of all things -- saw themselves as an extremely enlightened circle, a clique of wellborn WASPs who were slightly bohemian and slightly rebellious. If there was someone in their midst who could entice their wary eye, you could be sure the Cantabrigians would take notice and respond.
That's what Miffy Goodhart was banking on when she booked Julia Child for a segment of "People Are Reading." All that week, Miffy awaited the Thursday-night broadcast with an eagerness that bordered on impatience. There had been something in this woman's voice that promised to shake up the eggheads. She'd felt it from the start, when they'd first talked on the phone. There was an energy, a spark, that conveyed a broader characteristic. Miffy tried to put her finger on it. Spirit? Spunk? No, more than that -- a joie de vivre laced with mischief. "Making an omelet on TV didn't seem to confound Julia one scrap," Miffy recalls.
"It'll be fun, dearie!" Julia warbled. "We'll teach the professor a thing or two. Just watch."
From "Dearie: The Remarkable Life of Julia Child" by Bob Spitz. Copyright (c) by Bob Spitz, published by Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved.