A DIY Legacy | Interview with Famed Public Television Producer Russell Morash

The famed public television producer Russell Morash reminisces about a life in TV and how he’s still taking on projects around the house.

By Yankee Magazine

Dec 01 2016

Russell Morash

Russell Morash outside his workshop at his home in Lexington, Massachusetts.

Photo Credit : Jack Cohen

By Holly Beretto

Russell Morash
Russell Morash outside his workshop at his home in Lexington, Massachusetts.
Photo Credit : Jack Cohen

When he graduated from Boston University in 1957, Russell Morash had no idea he’d wind up in television, never mind building an empire that would cause the Boston Globe to one day christen him “the granddaddy of do-it-yourself TV.”

The brainchild behind Public Television favorites “The French Chef,” “The Victory Garden” and “This Old House,” Morash is a carpenter’s son with a decidedly independent streak, not much willing to pay someone to do something he could do himself. As sometimes happens in life, though, it’s about timing meeting expertise. And Morash’s timing couldn’t have been better. While working as a cameraman for WGBH in 1965, his bosses asked him to meet with Julia Child. She’d just released her first cookbook, The Joy of French Cooking, and was shopping it around, looking for publicity. That meeting changed Morash’s life, turning him from a cameraman into an Emmy Award-winning producer multiple times over. Thirteen, to be exact.

We caught up with the 80-year-old Morash, who splits his time between Nantucket and his hometown of Lexington, Massachusetts, as he was about to return to the mainland for the winter.

Was there a definite beginning in your TV career?

I broke into TV as a cameraman, and I pushed around one of these refrigerator-sized cameras with all the lenses and so forth at WGBH. We thought we did very noble work. [But my producing work] started with Julia [Child]. In the early 1960s we managed to burn down our studio with careless smoking. While we built the new building, they said to me, “Here’s this very strange talking woman who’s just appeared on our doorstep with her book. It’s about 600 pages and for those of us who’ve never had more than New England baked beans, it represents a take on classic French cooking, which probably no one will ever watch. But she is an interesting character. Would you take a look at her and see if you can create something and just prove one way or another if it will work or fail?” We said sure. We had a Trailways bus with seven million miles on it, which we converted into a control room.We’d managed to save a couple of cameras and we had a tape recorder from the fire so we could kind of move around town with these small units. We took the bus over to the Cambridge Gas and Electric company, which had loaned us their demo kitchen. It was used mostly by women in those days, housewives, who came to learn how to use electric appliances.It was a funny kitchen when I look back on it now. It had a washer and dryer in it and fake windows with fake curtains. But we spruced it up and put Julia in it and did a couple hundred programs. That was my first indoctrination to that kind of television.

And, famously, you did this–and all your shows–on a tiny, some might say, a shoestring budget.

I was told, ‘you have the crew, no overtime, no unusual expenses.’ So we’d get loaners for table linens and we got people to donate the food and they were happy to do so. It wasn’t, ‘Here’s a checkbook from WGBH.’ We did these for hundreds of dollars per episode. Moreover, we did two programs on Tuesday, took Wednesday off, because I did the show “Science Reporter” at MIT on Wednesday, then came back on Thursday and did two more programs. We did the first French Chef series in 1963 and I think it was 13 [shows] and they gave us [two more seasons] of 26 [episodes]. We were busy campers. Four programs a week. And some of those programs, by the way, are still seen on the air today.

What was it like working with Julia Child?

She was one of a kind; just unbelievably talented. Not only could she write, she was well-educated, well-spoken—she could speak for half an hour, and she was a great teacher. Then along comes [Jim] Crockett, 10, 15 years later [with “The Victory Garden”]. He was a great teacher. [And] Norm Abrams, I hired to work on “This Old House.” He’s a great teacher. I’ve been blessed and that was the real reason for any success. We found the right people.

You’ve said one of those was Jim Crockett of “The Victory Garden.” But that show was born out of a necessity of yours.

I was a terrible gardener. But I wanted to learn. My own family was made up of carpenters and builders, but we didn’t know how to grow anything. We had a little victory garden, but I recall being a water boy for that.

You mean an actual victory garden, like the ones during World War II, when people grew those community plots?

Yes. Homeowners would dig up their front lawns, and the idea was maybe you’d save on transport of the crops, save on the gas. It was sort of naive, but many people did it. So that was my entire experience.

But designing your own garden was something else entirely?

It couldn’t have been a worse experience. [Our house in Lexington had] small lots. And it was on this hillside that sloped to the north, which I found out later was in the worst possible condition. It didn’t get any sunshine. It was rocky, so we had trouble growing anything. But I tried. And I met with every animal in the neighborhood that came to visit.

So, you took the idea to WGBH?

At WGBH, which was my station for many years, there wasn’t an attempt to do gardening on TV. The only portable cameras were film, which was another deal altogether. They were very complicated, and difficult to use. So, you couldn’t go out to someone’s garden. We did have a plot of ground next to the studio that was a parking lot and I asked if I could turn it into a garden. They thought I was nuts. I said, “It won’t cost us anything.” That’s my natural Yankee frugality. I’m a Depression-era baby, eat everything on your plate; use it up till you wear it out or do without. But I said, “Don’t worry about the cost. We can get this thing going for a few hundred dollars an episode.” So, this show sort of came together; we dug up the parking lot, and got our hands on a Lorde & Burnham greenhouse. We had a fenced in area of about 1.2 acres, with raised beds and a concrete path, because we were still stuck with these enormous cameras, well, at least one of them, a big studio camera. The other was a prototype lightweight camera, not lightweight in terms of what you think today, but it could be worn by a man and with some coaxing you’d get a good picture. But it was tethered to the station, only a couple hundred feet away. Which meant we didn’t have to go through the expense of running [a remote shoot]. With cables and hookups, we could just take the camera and run down to the garden. That’s how we did it.

The show also furthered your working relationship with your wife, Marian. She’s played a big role in whatever you’ve done, far beyond just being your bride.

On the set with Julia, we’d have several versions of the dishes at different stages of preparation. So she’d be able to say, ‘This is what is starts like, and this is what it will look like at this stage,’ or whatever. At the end of the shoot, we’d have versions leftover and Julia would send them home with me. Julia would write in longhand, instructing how Marian was supposed to finish the recipe. I’d take all this stuff home and drop it on Marian’s counter. “Tonight we’re having coq au vin, and this is one that was prepared and it needs 16 more steps,” I’d tell her.Marian would sit and read Julia’s notes and if it was really a big deal she might call friends over and we’d have an impromptu dinner party with a Julia Child feast that night. That’s how she learned to cook Julia’s way and eventually ended up a few years later assisting her and becoming her executive chef on several of her programs. When Jim Crockett joined us on “The Victory Garden,” we’d grow these particular veggies and Jim was not a fan of eating vegetables. We got many letters, ‘What do you do with parsnips?’ Or, ‘We can grow them, but how do we use them?’ So, I thought, Marian can maybe jump in. And we did these tiny vignettes of Marian in her kitchen, showing [Jim] the gardener, and Marian working with the vegetables—and she did in fact become Chef Marian. And she did hundreds of programs with us.

Talk about how “This Old House” came to be.

I had this idea we could make a TV program, [that would] in real time show a house being rebuilt. We’d then come back to it every week or so till it was completed and then try to sell it. This mirrored what my wife Marian and I tried in two houses that are here in metro west Boston. We were met with a lot of disbelief among my friends and acquaintances—‘What’s a television producer doing fixing up his own house and doing the work on his own?’ It triggered in my mind the notion that if maybe enough people would be interested in that idea we would make a series about it.

When you were growing up, your father was a builder, and you worked with him. How do the memories you have from those days contribute to what you do today?

In those days, you had to serve an apprenticeship. You didn’t do anything alongside a master except hand him a tool. But I remember, it was, take that pile of flooring and carry it from point A to point B, or, take these bricks up to the second floor. I came from a father who expected me to work alongside him. And that’s where I gained many of my skills. This is time I think of fondly. He wouldn’t leave till the job was done. I can’t either.

What is life like for you these days?

I’m fully retired. My business card says clammer and gardener. I have a full woodworking shop I adore and that’s where I retire to in wintertime. I like to gather things from the sea and I love to take my rake and go down and find something on the beach to eat. That’s the sickness I have. I don’t deny it. I spent the better part of yesterday trying to get a hole fixed in the tire of my 20-year-old garden cart. I could not get the damn thing fixed. I have all the tools to do it. I have the knowledge to do it. But it took me three tries before I got it. When I came out this morning to see if it had gone flat again, I said to myself, ‘If it has, I think I will kill myself.’ I squeezed it and it held. Perfectly. So these are my little successes. They let me write a little column for the local paper. It’s irregular, but laced with spectacular failure, like how bad my corn crop was. But I am persistent and I am patient. I will try the corn again and I will grow it another time. It makes good copy. People love failure.

What do you think about when you look at the fact that there is a whole network now that is dedicated to what you started and it’s literally 24/7?

I am thrilled to be imitated. But today’s programs are more produced, and the shows need to fit around the commercials. Ours were spontaneous, and they were born from the way we had to produce things, with long camera shots without a lot of editing. It was almost a matter of personal pride to try to avoid any stops in the production. The cameras would move where they needed to go—come in on the close up, pan right. Our approach was to never cut unless we couldn’t think of anything else to do. [If we did our shows today] all that spontaneity would be lost. Having to fit it around the commercials and make that story happen—ours just came together.

So how do you see your legacy?

There was a wonderful illustrator in the 1940s named Eric Sloane. There’s a museum dedicated to him in Kent, Connecticut. His epitaph says, “My god, he tried.” Now, that’s a little too pompous for me, but that’s as close as I can come.