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Happy Birthday, Carousel

On this day, ten years ago, Carousel Films & Communications was born. To celebrate, I’m honoring mentors who made this all possible by giving me opportunties and nurturing my devotion to story-telling. I’m limiting what will already be a lengthy blog post to Executive Producers I worked with as a staffer at WGBH and ABC, before starting Carousel. First up, Paula Apsell. She handed me an entire career in television by giving me a shot at NOVA, the PBS science series. She can be tough, I know: If you have a creative disagreement, she’ll win. But need I remind readers that if we were discussing a male executive, this would be seen as a plus? Also, she is affectionate and playful with her staff. When I was preparing for a grueling six-week trip to Buenos Aires to assist the BBC wunderkind David Dugan on his production “Search for the Disappeared,” Paula greeted me every day at the office with her own personalized version of “Don’t Cry For Me, Argentina.”

To the right, I'm pictured outside of Buenos Aires in forensic anthropologist Clyde Snow's famous cowboy hat, while we were enjoying an asado and a much-needed break from the shooting. It was an intense experience, and I was grateful that Paula gave me the chance to work on it. Paula advocated for equal pay between men and women performing the same job on her staff. And, she trusted me with verite films. I used half my production budget at one point during a NOVA shoot, and I had absolutely nothing to show for it. Paula didn’t pull the plug, and the program went on to win the prestigious Columbia-DuPont Gold Medal. Paula and I also collaborated on Emmy-awarded winning productions. That's us below in our early years together, more than 20 years ago.

William Grant was Paula’s second-in-command for many years. He is an excellent writer, and he taught me how not to twist myself into a pretzel while writing. I was in Bill’s office at NOVA one day when I was struggling with the first scene of what would become my most widely-watched program for NOVA, “Secret of the Wild Child,” about the discovery of a 12-year-old girl who had been socially isolated from birth. I was second-guessing the science in the show, which was based on a sample size of…well, one wild child.

Bill didn’t get drawn into my unproductive thinking. He simply shuffled papers on his desk, prepared for his next meeting, and without even looking up at me, he said, “It’s not that complicated. You know. Once in a great while, civilized society comes across a wild child….” What did you just say, Bill? Immediately Bill’s line became the opening narration for my program and the inspiration for my own marketing campaign, which yielded reviews in Variety, The New York Times, TV Guide, The Boston Globe, and many other publications. The program won an Emmy for Outstanding Informational or Cultural Programming.

Judy Crichton, the first Executive Producer for the PBS series the AMERICAN EXPERIENCE, was a story-teller extraordinaire. She once told me that when she couldn't sleep, she would thumb through books in her Manhattan apartment library, looking for events in history that played out over a period of only about two weeks. The more compressed the stories were, the more she liked them. I made a film for her about the events leading up to the U-2 incident--the downing of Francis Gary Powers' spy plane over the Soviet Union--and the rough cut screening felt as if it had three separate opening scenes. Judy waved her magic story-telling wand, meaning, she used her considerable talents, and she found a way to compress the characters, information, and critical points from three scenes into one. The program secured an Emmy nomination and great reviews in The New York Times, the Boston Globe, and other publications.

This brings us to Tom Yellin, who was head of the Peter Jennings Reporting Unit at ABC and now is president of The Documentary Group. Tom has equal parts PBS and commercial sensitivities, which makes

things interesting. Also, he loves TV producers, or at least, he makes producers feel loved. He knows what it takes to work in the field, and he's especially attuned to making sure producers have the support they need back in the office. Alas, Tom also loves pranks. We attended a News and Documentary Emmy ceremony together, after the program I produced for him was nominated in the category of Outstanding Historical Programming. The show was about the Memphis garbage strike, the little-known cause that had brought Martin Luther King, Jr., to Memphis when he was killed. Tom was sure it would win. For reasons still unclear to me, I developed an intense case of stage fright that evening while waiting for our category. I actually experienced the phenomenon of cotton mouth. As our category approached, I pleaded with Tom to accept the Emmy if we won. He agreed, and then he said he spotted an ABC executive he had pressing business with across the vast hotel ballroom from where we were seated. He disappeared. Category after category passed, and Tom did not return. I couldn’t even spot him in the crowd. Finally, it was time for the history category, and as Tom had predicted, we won. At this point, my mouth was so dry, that my upper lip was stuck above my teeth and as I walked to the stage, I spent the entire time trying to push my lip down. When I reached the podium, Tom also appeared on the stage, almost as if out of thin air. His disappearance had been a prank. “You didn’t think I was going to make it up here, did you,” he said with an impish grin. Hmmmm.

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