The Archive just learned the sad news of director Garry Simpson’s passing. NBC television’s first stage manager passed away at his home in Middlebury, Vermont on November 19, 2011. Simpson was an instrumental part of the NBC television demonstration at the 1940 World’s Fair, and directed multiple presentations of Chevrolet Tele-Theater, where he worked with Grace Kelly and James Dean. He also directed Armstrong Circle Theatre, Four Star Revue, and TV’s first sitcom, Mary Kay and Johnny. In 1966 he became Director of Programming for then-fledgling Vermont Public Television.
Here are some selections from Simpson’s four-hour Archive interview:
On audience reactions to the NBC television demonstration at 1940 World’s Fair:
Well, they were amazed, and many of them didn’t ever believe that it was doing what it was doing. They thought that in the screens there was a little movie projector and we were fooling them. Some of them didn’t believe – they walked away in disbelief. But many of them were convinced and were committed to getting TV sets. The sets were not cheap at the time. They were seven hundred and fifty to twelve hundred dollars. And that amount of money bought a lot in those days. But during the war, they sold about 18,000 sets. In 1945, when the war was over, in New York City there were 20,000 receivers in homes, and at the start of the war there were just a couple hundred.
On becoming NBC’s first television stage manager:
Well, when the Fair closed NBC hired me as the studio stage manager. They only had one stage manager at that time and I was it. And I worked all the shows that they had in their studio. And I would also go out and direct mobile units, or sporting events and public affairs events. We’d do the “Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade” and the wrestling and boxing and basketball, hockey. We did all those programs at that time. And whenever there was a film show I got involved in talking with the producers of the film – cutting the film down to size and selecting the segments and then directing the studio segment and integrating the film in the programs.
On televising the Joe Louis – Billy Conn World Championship fight in 1946:
Well, that was a big event for television. First of all, it was difficult for us to get the rights to televise, because the promoters were afraid we’d cut into the gate. But they finally came through and said we could do it. And Yankee Stadium was just abuzz – it was so crowded, jammed, and the excitement was very high. And people had never seen television cameras at ringside like we had it. And those type of things really brought in an audience to television in those early days. And the Rocky Graziano fights we did, they were very dramatic. And during that period there were some great boxers, and we were able to get in to see. We had a contract with Madison Square Garden and we could televise everything at Madison Square Garden.
On directing Mary Kay and Johnny:
It was a situation comedy, yes, between a married couple. And Mary Kay was sort of a Lucille Ball type character. And Johnny was the patient husband who always got her out of her problems. And they picked up a sponsor. And it was fun working with them, and the audience seemed to enjoy it.
On directing Four Star Revue:
NBC wanted more comedy shows, and they developed this concept of having a weekly comedy show, but they knew that no one comedian could keep it up week after week. So they decided they would get four different comedians and have them rotate. And they got Jimmy Durante, Ed Wynn, Jack Carson, and Danny Thomas as the headliners for those various shows. I started off doing The Jack Carson Show and The Danny Thomas Show. And this was the first show that Danny Thomas had ever done on television, so we had several heart-to-heart talks and drinks in Hurley’s Pub, in the lower floor of NBC, and I learned a lot about him and he about me, I guess. But he was a delightful man and a very, very serious person but a great comedian, too.
On directing Wide Wide World:
Well this was Pat Weaver’s idea of getting out of the studio and showing what’s happening around the world. And it was a great idea. We went to exciting places all over the country and did shows. We’d show ski jumping in Minnesota and water ski jumping in Cypress Springs, Florida, and split the screen. And in those days splitting a screen with two images was a miracle, because electronically it had never been done before. But we did first things like the first broadcast from a ship to shore, the first broadcast of a parachutist carrying a camera, the first skier carrying a camera going down the ski slope.
On becoming Director of Programming at Vermont PBS:
I was hired as the director of programming. And I was hired before the station was on the air. I came to Vermont and developed the programs that we do in the studio, the people that we would use, and also made contacts with the national PBS offices. And I learned how we could be a partner in the distribution of programs and receive grants, and the Ford Foundation was very helpful in funding a lot of this. We began the state network, seven transmitters around the state.
On advice to aspiring directors:
Get a good background in television. You know, it’s sort of departmentalized now. They produce now sports people, you know, who specialize in baseball, or sports people in other sports. And you know, you have to have a musical background if you’re going into covering the symphony orchestras. For the dramatic work you must have a background in drama, and you should know acting and as much play writing as you can. As much of the culture that you can get rubbed off on you. There’s so many good schools now. When I went to college they sort of ashamedly admitted they had an English drama department. You know, they had deluded the worth of the English department by adding drama to it. But now, you know, it’s prestigious to have a drama school, and it pays one to get the best education that you can get, of course.
Watch Garry Simpson’s full archive interview.
Read Simpson’s obituary here