BEVERLY HILLS, CALIF. — BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. -- With much of the history of television already on constant display on cable television, it might seem superfluous to open another institution to celebrate the broadcast industry even further -- especially here in Southern California.
Nonetheless, the West Coast branch of the Museum of Television & Radio opened its doors last month on a busy corner in tony Beverly Hills (yes, its zip code is 90210). The $14 million facility shares with its more austere 20-year-old sibling -- on West 52nd Street in New York -- access to more than 75,000 programs, news clips and commercials, as well as exhibitions and seminars.
With the flick of a mouse, it's now possible to sail through seven decades of broadcast entertainment and recorded history.
Already exhausted the repertoire of "I Love Lucy" and "The Honeymooners" on the superstations? Then feel free to spend time here with Orson Welles' "Mercury Theater," FDR's fireside chats, the reporting of Edward R. Murrow, Ernie Kovacs' groundbreaking comedy, Babe Ruth, Howdy Doody, Rocky and Bullwinkle, Garry Moore, Carol Burnett, Ed Sullivan, Stan Freberg, Barbra Streisand or Molly Goldberg.
Less a museum than an audio-video library, the 23,000-square-foot Museum of Television & Radio isn't the kind of place where visitors can stroll among antique consoles and galleries full of electronic artifacts. Instead, they'll find several comfortable screening and listening rooms, a plush lecture hall, a radio broadcast studio and a library, where computers will allow almost instant perusal of the archives.
"This is a library of programming and the creative product, and a museum that actively interprets that collection," said museum president Robert Batscha.
Mr. Batscha says that the New York museum -- which, in 1991, moved into a new $55 million building named for founder William S. Paley -- doesn't keep statistics as to what percentage of its guests visit to conduct research and how many come just for the fun of seeing or hearing old shows and political documents.
He does know, however, that many in the creative community have used the archives to inform their film, TV or theater projects. For example, Oscar nominee Joan Allen says she based much of her portrayal of Pat Nixon on tapes she found in the New York museum, including a Barbara Walters interview.
"I think this building is going to be a focal point for people who are going to be doing roles with some kind of historical significance," said Norman Pattiz, a trustee and president of Westwood One radio network. "It will be far more convenient for a lot of them to be here."
Of course, many Los Angeles-based entertainers are likely to show up just to examine their electronic legacies.
"We know that a lot of books have been written in the museum, and on a variety of different topics, not just about television and radio," added Mr. Batscha. "If you're doing research on World War II, you have to come and listen to our broadcast collection because that was a radio war. If you want to do Vietnam, then you have to come and look at our television collection."
It's fashionable to knock the commercial media for the banality of such programming as "Married With Children" and for encouraging the celebrityhood of overblown characters such as Howard Stern and Rush Limbaugh.
Portrait of America
Still, by separating the wheat from the chaff in popular culture, it is also possible for educators to create a portrait of 20th-century America.
"We work very closely with teachers," said Mr. Batscha. "For instance, if a class is studying the change in attitudes toward women from the post-World War II period, they could look at Lucy Ricardo, who couldn't get a job; to Marlo Thomas, in 'That Girl,' who had the nerve to want a career before she was married; to Mary Tyler Moore, who was living on her own; to the audacity of Murphy Brown."
Physically, New York's Museum of Television & Radio, housed in a 17-story building designed by Philip Johnson, reflects the upward trajectory of its midtown Manhattan neighborhood and exudes a stately, almost formal, air.
The sleek, Modernist California structure, designed by Richard Meier and named for longtime ABC head Leonard Goldenson, has a much sunnier personality throughout.
The distinctive, three-story rotunda lobby serves as the eye of an information storm, surrounded by a Circular Gallery and angular promenade that leads to the Library and Console Center.
Tourism is encouraged and can be great fun, especially if visitors prepare and know what they want to pursue. Be advised, though, that, unlike Chicago's folksier Museum of Broadcast Communications, the New York and Los Angeles institutions promote their links to the creative and business communities, and, as such, often reflect the pretensions of the largely bicoastal industry.
Practically every nook and cranny of the privately financed new museum is named for a broadcast-industry heavyweight who has donated $100,000 or more.
Among those immortalized with dedicated square footage are Grant Tinker, the Spellings, the Bochcos, Bud Yorkin, the Wolpers, the Marshalls, Danny Thomas and Diane English and Joel Shukovsky.
Legend has it that Ms. English, creator of "Murphy Brown," was an early visitor to the original Museum of Television & Radio in New York. She wanted to learn how to pitch a script but, once inside, decided to sample some of the programming on display.
Chicago's Museum of Broadcast Communications on Michigan Avenue also reflects its media environment. But, unlike the other facilities, it takes a more participatory approach to radio and television history, in which Chicago played a key role.
"We're more Midwest: folksy, people-oriented," said museum president Bruce DuMont, who also plays host for a nationally syndicated political talk show. "The museums in New York and California are really for people in the industry, first and foremost.
"The museum in Chicago is for people who watch television."
Nearly 180,000 visitors are attracted annually to the MBC's galleries, exhibitions and functions. But it, too, is deeply involved in targeted research, with 15 major projects being conducted there.
"Where we differ," Mr. DuMont explained, "is that we have, from the very beginning, felt that there has to be a hands-on aspect. This means we use vintage radios and television receivers as part of how we present things.
"In addition, we have a working studio, where we produce programs that people can participate in to see what it's like to be a television newscaster or a radio disc jockey."
The Museums of Television & Radio will share about 45,000 television programs, 20,000 radio shows and 10,000 commercials.
The museums also will be able to conduct bicoastal seminars, via satellite, and transmit lectures to other educational institutions from the state-of-the-art John H. Mitchell Theater.
The earliest radio tape is from a 1920 speech by Franklin Roosevelt, when he was secretary of the Navy. The earliest examples of television include a soundless piece of film shot off a 1938 broadcast, "Poverty Is Not a Crime on the Streets of New York," and a 1949 Toscanini concert.
The 75,000 entries in the collections may sound like an imposing amount of material, but it represents only a fraction of available recorded programming.
"We have three criteria: first, artistic excellence -- what's the best?" Mr. Batscha said. "Second, historical significance -- television and radio have documented the 20th century. For example, we have all the presidential inaugural addresses since they were recorded. Third, social impact -- programs that have caught the attention of the American public at a certain point in time. We have representations of all the popular programs."
Some treasures have eluded curators, however. They're still searching for film of Johnny Carson's first "Tonight" show, a sound recording of the first Major League All-Star Game broadcast in 1933 from Comiskey Park, early teleplays by Rod Serling and Gore Vidal -- and tapes of the first two Super Bowl telecasts.
Television curator Ronald Simon said he'd love to see more programming from before 1947, when kinescopes began to be commonly used. He also is on the hunt for recordings of Ernie Kovacs' early Philadelphia shows and an "Open End" discussion among Serling, Kovacs and director John Frankenheimer, artists who created a whole different language for television."
The first attractions here include "Standup Comedians on Television," a screening series and seminars; "Rock 'n' Roll and Radio," a listening series that examines the music's impact on the medium; an international children's television festival; "Star Trek: The Tradition Continues," which showcases the costumes and facial appliances from the various series; and dozens of Al Hirschfeld drawings of media legends.
Pub Date: 4/28/96
If you go . . .
* The wheelchair-accessible Museum of Television & Radio, 465 N. Beverly Dr., Beverly Hills, is open Wednesday through Sunday from noon to 5 p.m. and until 9 p.m. Thursday. The suggested adult admission is $6; students and senior citizens, $4; and children under 13 years of age, $3. Parking is available in the building and nearby. Call (310) 786-1000.
* The New York Museum of Television & Radio, 25 W. 52nd St., is open Tuesday through Sunday from noon to 6 p.m., until 8 p.m. on Thursday and 9 p.m. Friday. Public transportation is advised. (212) 621-6800.
* The wheelchair-accessible Museum of Broadcast Communications, in the Cultural Center at Michigan Avenue and Washington Street, Chicago, is open Monday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 4: 30 p.m., Sunday from noon to 5 p.m. and closed on all holidays. Admission is free. (312) 629-6000.