by JULIO MARTINEZ
[dropcap]KCET[/dropcap], Community Television of Southern California, first signed on the air on September 28, 1964, as an affiliate of National Education Television (NET). When James Loper came aboard, rising from director of education to station president during his 1964-1983 tenure, he envisioned one of KCET’s main mandates to be the production of televised drama, drawing from the vast pool of acting, writing and directing talent to be found in Los Angeles, the “Entertainment Capital of the World.” Under Loper’s leadership, KCET initiated two drama series: Hollywood Television Theater (1970-78) and Visions (1976-80).
On May 17, 1970, KCET, now a founding member of the Public Broadcasting System (PBS), launched Hollywood Television Theater (HTT) with The Andersonville Trial, directed by George C. Scott and adapted from the 1959 stage hit by Saul Levitt. Among the production’s all-star, 17-member cast: William Shatner, Martin Sheen, Buddy Ebsen, and Jack Cassidy. At the time, assembling that many name personalities could not have been financially feasible on commercial television. But with the financial leniency allowed NET programming and a special contract negotiation with AFTRA, KCET was able to cast its production net out to the vast local talent pool. The Andersonville Trial won three 1971 primetime Emmys and a Peabody Award. HTT was on its way.
During its eight-year span, HTT taped 54 productions. Norman Lloyd helmed ten of them, including Awake and Sing (1972) and HTT’s finale, the Jerome Lawrence bio play, Actor, starring dancer/choreographer Michael Kidd as legendary stage and film star Paul Muni. One of my favorites from that time was USA, Paul Shyre’s play adaptation of John Dos Passos’ novel chronicling American life during the first three decades of the 20th century, produced by Lewis Freedman. Directed by Shyre, the stage play had enjoyed a successful Off-Broadway run in 1959; the HTT production, taped at KCET’s studios at 1313 Vine Street, was directed by George Shaffer and featured a notable ensemble that included Peter Bonerz, John Davidson, James Farentino, Joan Hackett, Shirley Knight, and Michele Lee—with Edward G. Robinson delivering an on-camera prologue and epilogue.
The true highlight of the HTT years occurred when KCET moved to the former Monogram Film Studios lot at 4401 Sunset Blvd in 1972. One of its first projects was Bruce Jay Friedman’s controversial Off-Broadway play, Steambath, helmed by Bruce Brinkerhoff and executive produced by Norman Lloyd. Bill Bixby portrayed a character named Tandy who finds himself in an afterlife purgatory, which takes the guise of a seedy spa overseen by a Puerto Rican steambath attendant (played by José Peréz), who also happens to be God. The cast included a towel-clad Valerie Perrine, Herb Edelman, Biff Elliot, Kenneth Mars, and Art Metrano. Historically, Steambath became the first show on television to show (if briefly) full nudity. (PBS could get away with it because it was considered to be an educational outlet.) Although Steambath went on to be nominated for two primetime Emmys—for production and adaptation—only 24 of the more than 350 PBS affiliates carried the program. The controversial bare skin scene can be seen here.
In terms of inventiveness and originality, the true gem of KCET’s dramatic programming was Visions, an original drama series overseen by veteran producer Barbara Schultz. It spanned more than 40 productions during a five-year period, beginning with Conrad Bromberg’s Two Brothers (1976), starring Judd Hirsch and David Spielberg. Three standout productions were Harvey Perr’s The War Widow (1976), directed by Paul Bogart, a landmark portrayal of innocent young lesbian love, with Pamela Bellwood, Katherine Bard and Frances Lee McCain; Ladies in Waiting (1979), Patricia Resnick’s portrayal of waitresses at a diner facing emotional crossroads in their lives, helmed by Michael Lindsay-Hogg and featuring Nellie Bellflower, Annie Potts, Annette O’Toole, Ronee Blakley, K Callan, Susan Tyrell and Joyce Van Patten; and Marsha Norman’s Appalachian drama, It’s the Willingness (1980), directed by Gordon Davidson. Another noteworthy drama series taped at KCET was Steve Allen’s independently-produced historical gabfest, Meeting of the Minds, which ran from 1977 to 1981.
In 1982, PBS launched American Playhouse, the dramatic anthology series that involved a number of prominent PBS affiliates, including KCET, which became a major provider, beginning with Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun, directed by Bill Dukes; and Seguin, scripted and directed by Jesús Salvador Treviño. Both were produced in 1982. KCET continued to turn out acclaimed dramas, including Tennessee Williams’ Cat on A Hot Tin Roof (1984), Ruby Dees’ Zora Is My Name (1990), Emiko Omori’s Hot Summer Winds (1991), Darrow (1991), starring Kevin Spacey; and Tru, Robert Morse’s Emmy-winning one-person portrayal of Truman Capote (1992).
For me, the most significant KCET-produced American Playhouse production has to be Arthur Miller’s adaptation of Henrik Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People, filmed on KCET’s soundstage in 1990, directed by Jack O’Brien, artistic director of the Old Globe Playhouse in San Diego. The production starred John Glover and George Grizzard and featured Valerie Mahaffey, James Morrison, Robert Phalen, and Nina Siemaszko, as well as stage actors who had worked with O’Brien in San Diego and LA, including Robert Symonds, Mitchell Edmonds, Anne Gee Byrd and James Whittle.
At the time, I was KCET’s senior publicist. I was also pressed into duty as a chauffeur. Twice, I drove to Burbank to pick up Arthur Miller, who was in town to have meetings at Disney Studios and was delighted to have the opportunity to visit the set at KCET. Another responsibility I had was getting Mr. Miller to look up long enough to be photographed. Fortunately, KCET’s staff photographer was Mitzi Trumbo, the daughter of Dalton Trumbo, who had no trouble at all getting Miller to smile for the camera. I was also privy to O’Brien explaining to Miller why the locale of the play needed to be changed from Ibsen’s Norway to a village in Maine. “Those Yankee accents are vital,” O’Brien affirmed. Miller just nodded.
Even with the demise of American Playhouse in 1994, KCET continued to produce dramas, among them KNBC weatherman Fritz Coleman’s one-man play, It’s Me! Dad! (1999); and a landmark pairing of Mary Tyler Moore and Dick Van Dyke in Donald L. Coburn’s two-person play, The Gin Game, in association with RKO Pictures, which aired on PBS in 2003. (The Gin Game was originally produced on stage in 1976 at American Theatre Arts in Hollywood.) KCET has also gone out in the community to promote local live theater. In 1991, Off Off LA turned the spotlight on 99-seat theater; 1995 saw a profile of playwright Justin Tanner during his tenure at the CAST Theatre complex in Hollywood.
KCET removed itself from the PBS family on January 1, 2011, striking out on its own as an independent public television station. In April 2012, KCET moved from Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood to its new home at 2900 West Alameda Avenue in Burbank. On January 4, 2015, the station’s Artbound series presented a one-hour special focused on the avant-garde opera, Invisible Cities, produced by The Industry, L.A.’s experimental opera company in partnership with the L.A. Dance Project.
It will be interesting to see what theatrical directions KCET will follow in the future. There is a very large theatrical community that would love to be a part of it.