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For TV history, try UM's basement

THE BALTIMORE SUN

TV is turning 50 and we are finally starting to consider its history, but where does one look?

Not to stations, which are too busy earning today's ratings to serve as proper archives.

Ditto the networks.

Today historians start in the basement of the Undergraduate Library of the University of Maryland College Park, which houses not one, but two of the most important repositories for TV studies.

In the Broadcast Pioneers Library, scholars and researchers from across England, Japan, Germany, China and Australia -- as well as from across the United States -- find scripts and memos, magazines and recordings by the thousands.

So when Robert Redford wanted to learn what a typical office at NBC looked like for his movie "Quiz Show," the Broadcast Pioneers Library provided photographs.

Next door, the National Public Broadcasting Archives documents America's half-century struggle with educational programming on TV.

Programs from "The Advocates" and "Bill Moyers' Journal" to "Washington Week in Review" and "WNET Opera" are documented and studied.

Alongside facilities in New York, Los Angeles and Madison, Wis., these two University of Maryland collections complete the most important centers for the study of television, the dominant mass medium of our lives for a half-century.

The Broadcast Pioneers Library moved to College Park during the final days of 1994.

It was started in 1971 and for more than two decades was housed at the headquarters of the National Association of Broadcasters in downtown Washington.

For surfers of the Internet, the Broadcast Pioneers Library has its own "web page" that heralds its hundreds of oral histories, with such luminaries as Edgar Bergen, Mary Tyler Moore, Minnie Pearl and Betty White.

Its photograph collection comes to more than 25,000; there are almost as many scripts, including all from Sid Caesar's fabled "Your Show of Shows."

They even have one of Arturo Toscanini's batons from his days with the NBC Orchestra.

In contrast, the National Public Broadcasting Archives began phoenix-like at the University of Maryland College Park in 1990.

It is set to go on-line this fall, and on its web page Internet surfers will find a 100-page inventory of files on PBS programs, from long-running favorites like "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood," "Sesame Street" and "The Electric Company" to the now long-forgotten fare of PBS during the mid-1970s, including the women's AIAW basketball finals from 1975 and "Anyone For Tennyson?"

As one wanders the spaces of the basement of Maryland's four-story red brick R. Lee Hornbake Library, one can only marvel at hundreds of boxes of files filled with oral histories, pamphlets, photographs and scripts. It's the size of two basketball courts.

One passes vertical files up to the ceiling, covering WJZ, WBAL and WMAR, and their early efforts (such as "Pete the Pirate" and "Teen Age Forum") and their early stars (from Bailey Goss to Jim McKay.)

These two archives cover every phase of TV history.

To illustrate how rich they are, consider the possibility of writing the history of children's TV, using just these two archives.

Indeed, the two College Park archives represent the best place to begin a history of the long struggles to fashion educational and entertaining shows for children, from "Romper Room" to "Sesame Street."

Education as Fun!

One of the most influential -- and popular -- kid-vid shows of the 1950s was "Romper Room," produced by Bert and Nancy Claster from Baltimore.

In January 1967, TV Guide reported that "Romper Room" was in 85 U.S. cities and in 45 foreign versions.

Important but hard-to-find TV magazines from the 1950s, such as Sponsor, Television, Radio-Television Daily, TV-Radio Life and Radio-Television Mirror tell the story of this pioneering, and now much-remembered, children's show.

In 1953, the Clasters, proud parents of two girls and a boy, placed the first Romper Room on WBAL.

Bert Claster was the show's producer; "Miss Nancy," his wife, was the on-air principal.

Children in the late 1950s looked forward to "Let's Gallop," (on-air classmates mounting stick horses and galloping around the studio), "Ring Around the Rosy" and "Look and See," a learning-is-fun strategy we now associate with "Sesame Street."

Each city had its own "Miss Nancy," trained by the Clasters in Baltimore under their franchise agreement.

"Miss Nancy" herself retired in 1963.

As late as 1977, Variety noted that "Romper Room" was still being televised in 46 television markets in the United States, some 29 of which linked together with Chicago's "Miss Sally" (who in real life was the daughter of Bert and Nancy Claster).

The Clasters had a chance to be bought out by CBS; they turned CBS down and remained in Baltimore.

With "Romper Room," they started a still-in-business, successful money-making TV production company that was bought out by Hasbro Inc., the giant toy manufacturer.

Claster today produces "G.I. Joe," "Mutant League," "Transformers" and "Littlest Pet Shop."

A 1990s updated version of "Romper Room" failed.

While a tie to a major toy company certainly made business sense, critics questioned persistent plugging of "Romper Room" toys manufactured by Hasbro.

That controversy led to an effort to produce television shows for children that were not tied to moneymaking -- the genesis of "Sesame Street."

Big Bird

Since the late 1960s, Big Bird and Cookie Monster have taught two generations of children their letters and numbers.

At College Park we find scripts, ratings schedules, memos filling about 300 cubic feet -- the size of the average McDonald's -- and encompassing the first 20 years of this influential production house. (The tapes of the shows are at a separate facility near Lincoln Center in New York.)

From the 50 boxes of corporate papers the historian learns how Joan Ganz Cooney, with support from the U.S. Office of Education, the Ford Foundation and the Carnegie Corp., founded the Children's Television Workshop.

Ms. Cooney knew of the ills of the then-three TV networks, having been a publicist for NBC. She loathed the mindless runs of Saturday morning cartoons.

She started with $8 million, a pittance compared with what the networks were then spending on the three top 1969 prime-time shows: "Gunsmoke," "Bonanza" and "Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In."

The result: "Sesame Street" premiered as a daily, hourlong show on the then-new Public Broadcasting television network in November 1969.

Ms. Cooney's remarkable achievement has won award after award, as documented in the files of CTW Newsletter and CTW Project Report found in College Park.

In time, CTW expanded and created "The Electric Company," further shaping growing up in America, challenging preschoolers to appreciate other languages, to deal with sibling rivalry and to adapt to computers.

Recently, CTW announced it was going on-line.

No better measure of its long-run success is that the Children's Television Workshop made the Muppets big stars.

This seems appropriate because Jim Henson invented Kermit and the other now-familiar puppet figures while an undergraduate at the University of Maryland, beginning as a freshman in 1955 when he began to appear on Channel 4 in Washington with "Sam and Friends."

Future study

As TV images of our childhoods dance in our heads, we need to remember that the Broadcast Pioneers Library and the National Public Broadcasting Archives enable historians to go past nostalgia and write the real history -- good and bad -- of children's television, indeed of all television.

TV has helped define the second half of the 20th century and helped us to understand where we have gone -- and where we might be headed.

In turn, historians need to write clear, unbiased analyses of TV and its role in society.

It is no wonder that no less an authority than the Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television, published in Oxford, England, called the Broadcast Pioneers Library "one of the most important sources for the history of radio and television in America."

Douglas Gomery is a journalism professor at the University of Maryland. His column, "The Economics of Television," appears in the American Journalism Review.

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