Those 'Old House' guys are just cut-ups


Some of the best stories from the PBS series "This Old House" never made it on the air, says the show's host, Steve Thomas.

Take the time the crew set out to scare a young, timid production assistant by rigging an amputation scene with a power saw and a fake hand.

The saw "cut off" a crew member's hand; it flew through the air; everyone screamed; producer Russell Morash threw sawdust on the hand; Mr. Thomas started beating it with a stick.

"That assistant left us at the end of the year," recalls Mr. Thomas.

A testament to the entertainment value of house rehabbing: Only 34 percent of "This Old House" viewers actually do home improvements, according to surveys.

Speaking from his office in Boston, Mr. Thomas says the people who come to his talks -- builders as well as the general public -- don't want to know building techniques.

What they do want to know: "How do we pick subjects? What are the finances? Does Norm really own all those tools?" Thomas says, referring to Norm Abram, the show's lead carpenter for 14 years.

Some of the funniest "This Old House" (Saturdays, 4:30 p.m., Channels 22 and 67) stories are perpetrated by one of the show's builders, Charles Silva, an incorrigible practical joker who staged the severed hand trick. He specializes in terrorizing production assistants, usually young, nervous people on their first big job.

One year, to scare another assistant, Mr. Silva put a huge, ugly dogfish, with antennae drooping all over its face, into the water bubbler. That assistant found it when she went to make coffee. She, too, left at the end of the year.

For yet another assistant, he hung a live white mouse inside the big coffee maker -- attaching it to the cover by a string. When she lifted the lid to start coffee, the mouse came with it.

Mr. Thomas says audiences also want to know about Mr. Abram, who now has his own show, "The New Yankee Carpenter."

"Women in particular think Norm's wife must be the luckiest woman in the world," Mr. Thomas says.

"Nothing could be farther from the truth," he says, noting that Mr. Abram rarely completes a project.

"All the 'Yankee Workshop' pieces are down in their basement unfinished. The house is still open from where he was going to install an air conditioner last summer."

Three years ago, after Bob Vila lost his job as host of "This Old House" because of controversy over his commercial endorsements, Steve Thomas was chosen from 400 applicants.

He has a history of house rehabbing, both in Washington state and in Boston; a degree in philosophy, and a lifelong love of marine carpentry and sailing.

He had previously appeared on the PBS show "The Last Navigator." That was an account of Mr. Thomas' apprenticeship with Micronesian master navigator Mau Piailug, who taught Mr. Thomas the secrets of navigating without instruments, using only stars, waves and birds.

Mr. Thomas, 39, now lives outside Boston with his wife and agent, Evy Blum, and their 6-year-old son. They live in an 1836 colonial revival house with a historically correct exterior and a simple, classically modern interior -- curved blond Alvar Aalto chairs and an Andy Warhol print of Mao.

In the screen test Mr. Thomas did with Mr. Abram, the pair looked almost identical with beards and glasses.

"They look like the Smith Brothers," producer Russell Morash said then. "They looked so much alike we were afraid people would think it was a cruel joke."

Someone had to shave; Mr. Thomas was the new guy. He has been clean-shaven since.

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