Although I’d played around with 8mm film as a kid, I got my first taste of real filmmaking — of telling a story with sound and images — in 1972, during my senior year in college.
Information technology was in its infancy, and Professor Anthony Oettinger of Harvard University’s computer science program (the one that Bill Gates would drop out of a few years later) was running an experimental course in technology-mediated communication. The course had its own little computer lab and a couple of Sony Portapak video recorders; some of my fellow students and I made a little documentary about television news in Boston as our final project.
During my last semester at Harvard, I got involved in a student-run arts festival around Harvard Square. Through Oettinger, we got permission to connect with a little-used CATV system linking some of Harvard’s buildings, and we televised festival events at various locations around campus. This got me a research assistantship for a year after graduation with Harvard’s Office for Information Technology. I worked with a guy named Jim Roberts on a project called Unitel, a joint venture of Harvard and MIT, exploring educational uses of video technology.
Unitel’s mission was to help anyone who came to us with a worthwhile project, so when Harvard student Eric Rothenberg approached us about making a documentary, I was assigned to help him. Eric and I profiled a group of students from Phillips Brooks House — Harvard’s volunteer service agency — who were helping inner-city kids in East Cambridge by running an after-school theater program. The result was a half-hour documentary, “Broken Windows, Fragile Dreams.”
Soon afterwards, I left Cambridge for graduate school in Indiana, with the idea of learning the skills to produce documentaries professionally. That never really happened: I couldn’t find a paying job, so I went back to print journalism for awhile, then I worked in public broadcasting for a few years, got laid off in the Reagan budget cutbacks, went back to print journalism again, transitioned to college teaching, dabbled in video a little bit when I got the chance. It wasn’t until 2002, when Panasonic came out with the first cheap pro-quality video cameras, that I got back to documentary making again with Troubadour Blues.
All the while, I’d hung onto two heavy old reels of video tape — the masters for “Broken Windows, Fragile Dreams.” I don’t know why, but I never invested the time and money into finding out whether my first documentary had survived the years. Finally, in 2013, forty years after making the film, I sent them off to an archival lab, Greentree A/V in Illinois, to see what was there.
Jeff Melvoin went on to be a highly successful television writer, producer and showrunner — Northern Exposure was one of many shows he’s produced. Eric Rothenberg and Cliff Greene are both lawyers. I don’t know what became of Chase Wilson or any of the talented kids involved in that life-or-death struggle to produce “Bye Bye Birdie.” They would all be in their 50s now, those who are left, and watching this film again after many years makes me wonder what became of them. Perhaps some of them will see this and let me know.