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Broadcasting Museum : A Peek At Radio, Tv's Checkered Past

July 03, 1987|JAY SHARBUTT | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — The way Fred Allen saw it, "Television is a triumph of equipment over people, and the minds that control it are so small that you could put them in the navel of a flea. . . . "

The way Robert Batscha sees it, TV suffers because we tend to use it as visual Muzak. But "if you look selectively," he says, "you can find very good work done by very good people."

It is Batscha's job to look at TV selectively. He heads the Museum of Broadcasting here, a rapidly expanding electronic haven for 25,000 television and radio programs--including those on which Allen starred until his death in 1956.

Established by CBS founder William S. Paley, the nonprofit museum premiered in 1976 with a small staff and a budget of $250,000. Now it occupies nine floors of a Paley-owned building at 1 East 53rd St., has 50 full- and part-time workers and a budget this year of $2.5 million.

Within the next three years, the museum plans to expand further and move one block south to 52nd Street--a few doors from CBS headquarters--into a new 17-story building costing $40 million, land included.

There, instead of 23 audio-video consoles for inspection of broadcasting's past, there will be 100. And instead of a single theater seating 63 persons, there will be two--one seating 75, the other 200.

A larger house notwithstanding, the museum's basic premise will be the same, Batscha says--namely, that broadcasting "is as creative a form" as literature, theater and art, and therefore its significant moments should be preserved "and made available to the public because it's part of our civilization."

Unlike the era of, say, the Sumerians, broadcasting's civilization includes commercials. And strange though it may sound, Batscha, when seeking a specimen of electronic yesteryear for the museum, always tries to get a copy that includes the original network commercials.

This is partly because visitors to the museum--who are asked to contribute a modest sum for entry--find it great fun looking at advertisements for Edsels, dancing packages of Kools and hammers pounding the heads of cold sufferers.

More importantly, Batscha says, a program's commercials tend to reflect the attitudes of America--or at least Madison Ave.--when the program aired, and "it really does give a historical setting for it."

No commercials are on view in the museum's current 14-week exhibit, entitled "Columbia Pictures Television: The Studio and the Creative Process."

On the bright side, the exhibit, which ends Aug. 1, includes a 1953 drama, "First Born," which may be of historical interest. It marked the TV debut of a couple who later left acting and now work in Washington--Ronald Reagan and Nancy Davis Reagan.

The collection displays the wares of both Columbia Pictures Television and its predecessor, Screen Gems, and offers examples of "Playhouse 90," "Alcoa/Goodyear Theater" and such yesteryear favorites as "Father Knows Best," "Naked City" and "Route 66."

The networks are suffering lean times these days. But Batscha, 41, a well-dressed, well-spoken New Yorker who wrote his Ph.D. thesis on TV coverage of international affairs, says business is up, and then some, at the museum.

Last year, 110,000 visitors, triple the number in 1984, came to inspect programs ranging from Edward R. Murrow's "This . . . Is London" radio broadcasts of World War II to "Charlie's Angels," from the surreal comedy of Ernie Kovacs to that of Geraldo Rivera.

Batscha, who became the museum's president in 1981, says the visitors fall into three general categories:

--The general public, including a lot of teen-agers who want to see videotapes of events that occurred before they were born, such as news coverage of John F. Kennedy's assassination, or the American debut of the Beatles on "The Ed Sullivan Show."

--Students and scholars ("the most-utilized part of our radio collection is the coverage of the Second World War," Batscha says).

--Professionals in news or entertainment. The latter, he says, include the young writers of NBC's David Letterman show, who come seeking sustenance and no doubt an idea from the TV comedy, drama and trivia of years past.

Some observers of entertainment worry that this sort of reliance on the television of yesteryear--or old films, for that matter--is a sad state of affairs. They argue that many of today's young TV and film writers and executives tend to be thin on originality in that they only seem able to echo, remake or at best parody that which they've seen on TV or in film school.

The result, this school of thought holds, often is considerably less imaginative than what popped up on television in its earlier years on such programs as Sid Caesar's "Show of Shows" and "Maverick."

(Back then, Roy Huggins, producer of ABC's light-hearted Western series, had Marion Hargrove write an episode based on R. B. Sheridan's "The Rivals"--and gave Sheridan a story credit, even though the dramatist died in 1816.)

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