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The Cincinnati Enquirer

Friday, October 29, 1999


Televising the Pops


Producer Phillip Byrd explains how PBS crew captures Music Hall on small screen


By Janelle Gelfand

The Cincinnati Enquirer


      First came a Mel Torme Christmas concert in 1995.  Next came the “Halloween Spooktacular” with Robert Guillaume (1996) and the “Big Band New Year’s Eve” with Doc Severinsen, Patti Page, Eddie Daniels and Ed Shaughnessy (1997).   In February, love was in the air for the Cincinnati Pops’ new Valentine’s Day TV concert.

      Erich Kunzel and the Cincinnati Pops will tape their fifth PBS holiday special, A Family Thanksgiving, at Music Hall this weekend.

      Cincinnatians will get a sneak peak on WCET-TV (Channel 48) at 8 p.m. Nov. 18.  It will air nationally on PBS stations at 9 p.m. Nov. 19 and repeat at 8 p.m. on Thanksgiving.

      Emmy Award-winning producer Phillip Byrd of Glen Ridge, N.J., who has produced all past Pops shows, spoke about what it’s like to work with Mr. Kunzel and the Pops.

      QUESTION: How did you first become involved with Erich Kunzel and his PBS projects?

      ANSWER: In 1995, when there was first some discussion of doing Pops concerts for television, PBS told Erich to talk with us. The rest, as they say, is history.

     Q: What are some challenges you face when you tape a TV show in Music Hall?

      A: The biggest challenge is that the shows are very complicated.  Erich brings a lot of content to the show, and it comes together quickly at the last minute.  We have to be very clear of head and mind during the last three or four days, because we have to accomplish a lot.

           The nice thing about working in Music Hall is that Erich, the orchestra, the management and the audiences are very tolerant of some of the changes that have to be made to make television work.  Even though it’s hard work, even though it’s complicated, and there are difficult deadlines, it’s a pleasure to work there.

            Unlike a lot of other orchestras who say “Don’t damage our pristine setting,” they say “How can we make this look better on the TV screen?”

           Q: About 6.23 million people tuned in for the Christmas show’s first airing.  How successful has the Pops TV series been?

           A: It’s been quite successful.  We get nice audiences, and it’s interesting to see that these shows have legs.  Last December, the fourth year of the Christmas show, it was still in the top 10 PBS listings for major markets around the country.

           Q: William Greenfield, the renowned lighting director who spent 20 years at CBS-TV, died in January.  Who will join you in lighting and audio this year?

            A: Randy Nordstrom is now doing lighting. He has experience doing The Cosby Show, a lot of sitcoms and has been lighting other big shows recently.  

           John McClure (audio producer for Evening at Pops) should do audio again; Annette Deshotels, the technical director, does the Oprah Winfrey show in Chicago.

            Q: How many cameras will you use for this show?

            A: This is an eight-camera show

           Q: How do you map out the numbers for a TV show?

            A: That would take hours to explain.  The thing to remember is that there are no secrets; we know what’s going to happen.  We build a shooting script for our eight cameras based on the score or the lyrics and do a lot of homework.

           The scores are my script – I write my shots on the score.  Of course, when Erich makes a cut or adds something, I have to be alert.  He’s good about letting us know ahead of time if he’s going to make changes.  We’ve got him trained, or he’s got us trained, depending on how you look at it.

            Q: Who writes the spoken script?

            A: It’s sort of a committee chaired by Mr. Kunzel

           Q: What’s it like to work with Erich Kunzel?

            A:   It’s real hard to keep up with him.  He thinks so fast.  One must be well-rested; he tosses out a dozen ideas every minute. You must have a sharp pencil, plenty of paper and clear head.  He’s a very smart guy: I don’t know anybody who works as hard as he does.

            Q.  How much does he typically change at the last minute?

           A: Not a lot.  He understands the TV process pretty well, and how the dominos start falling.  He has a good understanding of what you can change late and not screw everything up.

            Q: FromThe Waltons’ Richard Thomas to the Cincinnati Ballet members, this show has a cast of hundreds.  How will you manage the logistics of moving everyone on and off stage?

            A: We have several lion trainers (laughs).  What happens on a show like this, where logistics are a challenge, has a great deal of influence on the order that (the show) evolves.  The order of the concert will not be the order of the TV show, the reason being managing all those forces on stage.

            Q. Do you want the audience to wear anything special for Thanksgiving?

            A: Certainly we don’t want anyone in a Santa costume

           Q: Do you have any special instructions for the audience?

            A: Have a good time.  And look like you’re having a good time.  That is absolutely contagious for the TV audience – then (the viewers) will have a good time.  That’s what these programs are about.  Erich is dedicated to that principle, and we’re trying hard to communicate that to the (TV) audience.