Frank Baxter, television’s first man of learning

On commercial TV, he showed the way for educators using the tube

Commentary by David Stewart

Like Norman Corwin, the exceptional radio producer profiled in the last issue of Current, Frank Baxter had his great broadcast successes on the cusp, just before his medium became too commercially successful to continue airing the kind of programs that made Corwin and Baxter famous. Both were forerunners of today’s public broadcasters. This Baxter profile was written by CPB’s director of international activities, David Stewart as part of his history of public television programming.

Baxter in Shakespeare mode. (Photo: University of Southern California.)

When he died in 1982 many were astonished: Frank Baxter still alive in the ’80s! Many remembered him as mature, if not quite elderly, nearly 30 years before when he grasped national attention simply by talking to a TV camera about Shakespeare’s plays and poetry.

In the early 1950s he was a curiosity, a professor on television, a bald, bespectacled, moonfaced man who lectured on Shakespeare in the same style he used in the classroom; as a reporter remarked, “without benefit of giveaways, girls or gimmicks.” What’s more, to everyone’s surprise — except perhaps his classroom students at the University of Southern California (USC) — he became an overnight sensation, first in Los Angeles, then throughout the country. He represented the kind of intellect to which millions aspired: disciplined and knowledgeable but self-effacing.

Frank Baxter’s appearance coincided with the dawn of public television. In retrospect his popularity was extraordinarily fortuitous because it helped a large national audience to consider TV as more than a conveyor belt for commercial entertainment.

Though his early programs were aired on commercial TV, along with NBC’s Omnibus and Leonard Bernstein’s music lectures, Baxter became extremely useful to the educational TV stations that were just getting on their feet in the mid-’50s. “Like Frank Baxter” was a phrase often used by producers of noncommercial programs.

When Baxter came to television in 1953, he was in his late 50s, a skillful and experienced lecturer at USC for 23 years, named one of America’s most popular teachers in a national student poll. KNXT, the CBS station in Los Angeles, offered the University an hour of “public service time” each week, at 11 a.m. on Saturdays.

Although complaining that he would be talking to an audience of three — “two retired librarians and a bedridden man” Baxter was delighted. As it happens, about 400,000 watched him on TV, 350 paid $12 to take English 356a for credit, while another 900 audited it. CBS, bemused but not unaware of Baxter’s potential, recorded the programs on kinescope and made plans to broadcast them nationally. Three Shakespeare on TV series were produced in 1953.

In December Baxter flew to New York where, along with Rod Serling, Mary Martin, Jerome Robbins and the producers of Omnibus, he received the prestigious Sylvania Award. A few months later he found himself in the Los Angeles Palladium, surrounded on stage by Donald O’Connor, Eve Arden, Lucille Ball and Desi Arnez. Looking amused and conspicuous in his conservative suit and tie, he held a 1953 Los Angeles-area Emmy in each hand — one for “most outstanding male performer,” the other for “best public affairs program.”

Asked to say a few words, Baxter said, “I’m sorry to announce that the person who deserves this award— William Shakespeare — cannot be here, due to a long absence. I would, however, like to thank my writer, who, by a strange coincidence, is also named William Shakespeare.” The audience roared. As John Freeman wrote in the San Diego Union, “It was inconceivable . . . and quite wonderful.” Dr. Frank C. Baxter had stolen the show. He was, unbelievably, a star.

Francis Condie Baxter was born in 1896 in Newbold, N.J. He went to work when he was eight, serving glasses of water to patrons in the box seats of Philadelphia’s Civic Opera House. He dropped out of high school after one year and became an office boy in a chemical plant, eventually becoming the firm’s bookkeeper.

After a year in the Army Medical Corps during the final year of World War I, Baxter was admitted to the University of Pennsylvania where, by 1928, he had financed himself with scholarships and university jobs through undergraduate and master’s degrees. A frustrated actor in college plays, he later complained that he was always cast as “a lawyer or doctor or in some nonconsequential role.” He seems to have been more successful as a radio announcer (“I read everything: recipes, the weather . . . advice to the lovelorn”) on Philadelphia’s WOO.

Shortly before departing for England and Cambridge University in 1928, he married Lydia Morris, who had been his student at the University of Pennsylvania. The newlyweds were accompanied by Baxter’s exceptionally domineering mother.

“My father had a problem,” says Baxter’s daughter. “He couldn’t do anything without his mother. When he was young and invited out he would ask the host if he could bring his mother. Eventually my mother presented him with an ultimatum; my father would need to choose between them. My grandmother moved out. When we went to California, she lived near us but separately. She and my mother never spoke. My father used to take my brother and me to see her each Sunday.”

Baxter completed his Cambridge doctorate in English literature in 1932, two years after he had begun teaching at USC.

The Emmy awards event in 1954 was an important marker in Baxter’s life. In the years ahead he would win five more Emmys and enough honors and citations to crowd the home in South Pasadena where he lived with his wife, two children, several thousand books, a Globe Theatre model he had made to illustrate his lectures and several models of early printing presses he had also constructed.

Baxter had few misgivings about his association with commercial TV, contending that it held great promise for academic programs. “Looking at it from a cold-blooded standpoint,” he observed in 1954, “I feel there is a real market for this kind of program. It appeals to a large middle class … that could be valuable to an advertiser….The mail we get is from solid citizens. Their letters are literate; the sentences have verbs in them.”

After completing three, 15-program Shakespeare series, he embarked upon a strenuous schedule of new TV productions and speaking engagements that were the envy of many in show business and the occasional dismay of his academic colleagues. Some teachers felt he had “sold out” and dubbed him “the Liberace of the library.”

I have to watch myself with my colleagues,” he wrote in a letter during this period. “Talking about my sundry adventures in darkest Hollywood must be infuriating and something of a bore to them.”

Throughout his most active television production years Baxter continued to teach four courses at USC, serving for eight years as chairman of the English Department. Upon retirement he noted that he had missed only three or four of his regular classes despite the demands of his television career. Though he said that his crowded schedule was “hell on wheels,” he was clearly enjoying himself.

In 1954 Baxter threw himself into another and longer TV series, Now and Then, in which he talked about a broad range of literary interests from Egyptian hymns to Edwin Arlington Robinson. It was broadcast on 95 stations of the CBS network. This was followed by Renaissance on TV, again for CBS, and the first of three series called Harvest for the NBC network. Harvest was designed to express “man’s achievements in art, literature, public affairs and science.”

Harvest, a total of 84 half-hours, offered Baxter an opportunity to indulge a wide variety of his considerable interests: the Civil War, Elizabethan naval battles, the McGuffey Reader, the history of the Red Cross, Altimira cave drawings and American clipper ships. Nearly all the programs were illustrated by charts, photographs and paintings from his personal collection as well as models he had made himself. (His Shakespeare TV lectures had been animated by wooden figures of actors from over 300 he had carved.)

Writing to Robert Hudson at the National Educational TV and Radio Center in Ann Arbor, Michigan, Baxter explains, “Harvest for NBC [is] very much like the CBS Now and Then, save that NBC is giving me expensive and imaginative production beyond my wildest dreams.”

The expense was only relative to his first austere studio arrangement— Baxter behind a lectern. CBS’s 17-page contract for 18 Renaissance programs provided that the network pay USC $100 a week for the services of Baxter and any other professors working on the production. Subject to a separate contract, CBS gave the Educational TV Center in Ann Arbor copies of the programs to distribute to noncommercial stations.

Baxter’s fame rested in part upon his ability as a talker, someone who could explain how an early printing press, or a sonnet, worked. He had an exceptionally retentive memory and uncommonly broad interests. But the touchstone of his success was his intellectual energy, the enthusiasm he brought to his subjects.

By 1954, with CBS broadcasting the Shakespeare series and Now and Then “coast-to-coast,” Baxter, if not yet a hot property, was rapidly gaining national recognition. TV columnists welcomed but were puzzled by his growing popularity alongside wrestling events and sitcoms.

“How odd for a lecturer on literature to have not one but two television shows!” wrote Val Adams in the New York Times. “Dr. Baxter has emerged as TV’s first intellectual glamour boy. . . . The professor’s new program shatters forever the theory that television programs must have movement. The only movement in Dr. Baxter’s program is that of his lips . . . Without interruption he stands alone talking into the camera. And he seems to enjoy it.”

Baxter starred in a new series of science specials sponsored by the Bell System, including “Our Mr. Sun,” produced and directed by Hollywood’s well known Frank Capra (Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, Lost Horizon among many other popular movies). As in the other science specials, Baxter was cast as “Dr. Research,” teamed with Eddie Albert as a writer who is after the sun’s story. Together they investigate the solar role in people’s lives, sometimes appearing with cartoon characters (a technical innovation at the time) such as “Chloro Phyll.”

Baker introduces viewers to the DNA molecule in "The Thread of Life."

Other Bell programs explained blood (“Hemo the Magnificent”), genetics (“The Thread of Life”) and cosmic rays (“The Strange Case of Cosmic Rays”). Warner Brothers picked up the genre, producing four more programs, all featuring Baxter, including one on relativity, “About Time.” As stiff and earnest as some of these programs may seem today, they remained extraordinarily durable and videocassettes are still available today.

Baxter inevitably had to manage some problems of celebrity. In a 1956 letter to Elise Schiller he writes: “There are some stores I can no longer patronize for I seem to have … a reception whenever I stand still.”

Though he enjoyed some of the attention, Baxter was an intensely private person. “I love mankind but find people very trying,” he revealed in response to Ms. Schiller’s questions.

Lydia, his daughter named after his wife, remarked later, “He didn’t have friends, was never gregarious. My mother said he could be very fond of people, but if they asked something of him it would turn him off.”

“He could be very quiet and moody for long periods of time. He couldn’t stand moodiness in others, but he seemed unaware of his own silences.”

Though Baxter’s rise to a unique sort of TV fame solved many financial problems that had plagued him for years, it seems not to have resolved a variety of difficulties for his wife and children.

“I got out early,” said his son, Frank Jr., who dropped out of USC and joined the Army. “My father was the sort of fellow it was difficult to compete with. Also, since he never had a childhood himself, he couldn’t understand his own children. When we were three and four and did something improper he would say to us with disgust, `Now that was really childish.’ ”

Baxter’s daughter Lydia didn’t get along well with him until she had grown up. “He couldn’t stand immaturity,” she recalled. “Mother, realizing this, tried to keep us from him. We were fed in our own rooms until we were eight or nine.”

Ken Harwood, one of Baxter’s USC students and later a professor himself, has commented, “It is a task, a chore and a burden to be the offspring of an academic, because you have so much to, quote, live up to, unquote.”

Soon after winning his first two Emmys, Lucille Ball invited Baxter to make a guest appearance on I Love Lucy, but he declined. “I love lucidity,” he commented prissily.

He did, however, become a full-fledged personality of the TV age — plain-spoken, not without humor and decidedly avuncular. He appeared frequently on network TV, less often in the role as lecturer in his own fields of expertise than as the personality who embodied erudition for the television audience. Baxter appeared on The Telephone Hour, Playhouse 90 and dozens of other programs. In the late ’50s, he was host Telephone Time, dramatizations of true stories featuring well known Hollywood actors.

The TV personality stomped up and down the land talking to Rotarians, (“Businessmen and Books”), lawyers (“Mass Education and the Complacent American”), and public relations executives (“Deliver us from the hard sell and the pretty packaged lie”). He advised a gathering of Mobil Oil dealers in Las Vegas that “nothing takes the place of consistent and varied reading.”

Baxter occasionally took on pretenders to Shakespeare’s authorship (“Baxter Scoffs at Marlowe” was a common newspaper line), but his arguments were conventional, attracting little academic interest. For all of his insistence on academic rigor, it was his enthusiasm and assertive TV style that commanded attention.

Before the end of the decade Baxter was engaged to write and preside over a series of 15 half-hour programs, The Written Word, filmed at USC for the National Educational TV and Radio Center. In substance the programs were drawn from his USC course, “History of Books and Printing.” On one program he made papyrus and wrote on it, on another he devised a language of his own from symbols.

The series formally united commercial TV’s foremost intellectual with educational TV, the forerunner of public TV. Later, when National Educational Television (NET) took up residence in New York, Baxter was hired to host a Shakespeare drama series, An Age of Kings, that it had purchased from the BBC. It was NET’s first genuine success. There were then 60 noncommercial stations on the air, and Baxter found himself becoming closely identified with programs carried by the new system.

The educational programs “act as the touchstone and standard by which commercial public service programming is judged,” he told the New York Herald-Tribune, though he warned that “TV is no vending machine for education.” Baxter seldom played the apologist: “at its worst TV . . . appeals to the eight-year-old intelligence and the six-year-old intellect,” he said.

Three years later NET invited Baxter to return to host a series of international documentaries, Intertel, a collaboration with Westinghouse. His first program in the series was “The Quiet War,” about Vietnam.

If Frank Baxter had continued to concentrate upon teaching Shakespeare on TV, his work would have been an interesting but isolated cultural event. It was the broad range of his interests and his ability to share them with large audiences that made him attractive and drew attention to the real possibilities of teaching by television.

From 1954 on the awards and honors rolled in: a Peabody award in 1956, Toastmasters International’s first Golden Gavel. He was twice invited to read poetry and receive awards at the Library of Congress. Brandeis honored him “for reawakening interest in the classroom.” USC and three colleges gave him honorary degrees.

One morning in May 1961 the Los Angeles Times dispatched a reporter and photographer to record his last classroom appearance (“Dr. Frank Baxter Delivers Final Lecture at SC, Makes Sparks Fly”). The camera saw a tall man standing before 50 alert USC students, his body tilted slightly toward them, his arms and large hands outstretched, inviting, almost beseeching, their full attention. His last words from Shakespeare’s The Tempest: “My charms are all o’er thrown …” And from himself, characteristically: “Take the next part of this course next semester. Or I shall haunt you.”

Throughout his career, the USC public relations office tirelessly exploited Baxter’s accomplishments through a snowstorm of press releases. He rivaled the University’s football team in public relations value and in 1964, despite his aversion to spectator sports, he provided commentary on a special record celebrating that year’s Trojan football season.

Here was an authentic scholar who had become famous, certainly ubiquitous, through his exposure on a still new and alluring medium. In many respects he was the press agent’s dream: a familiar figure who was also the object of universal admiration. As Arthur Miller’s Willy Loman might have observed, Baxter was not only liked, he was well liked.

In later years Baxter hosted two Westinghouse-sponsored series — a travel and adventure program, The Four Winds and then The Fair Adventure, 60 TV programs and 30 radio progams of Baxter reading from Shakespeare’s plays and poetry. He chose the title from King John (Act 5, Scene 5): “The day shall not be up so soon as I, to try the fair adventure of tomorrow.”

Public readings had long been something of a Baxter specialty. In 1965, as a professor emeritus, he became USC’s official Reader in Residence, offering several afternoon poetry and prose readings on campus each spring and fall.

As Baxter grew older, he increasingly suffered problems relating to a diabetic condition, diagnosed many years before. His mobility was restricted but he resolutely refused to exercise, to eat healthful food. He smoked his pipes and short black cigars; when he developed lip cancer, he responded by adjusting the position of the pipe stem in his mouth.

He read constantly. The man who had created hundreds of television programs and inspired thousands more could rarely be lured to watch a TV screen.

On the last evening of his life he enjoyed an elegant restaurant meal with his son and daughter-in-law. Later, as he did not look well, they took him, protesting, to the local hospital emergency ward where he joked and flirted with the nurses until the doctor arrived.

“Have you ever had heart problems?” asked the physician.

“Never,” Baxter replied, and he died. He was 86.

Many of the obituaries referred to Baxter’s acting aspirations. He had always wanted to be an actor, said a close friend, Aerol Arnold, who took over his Shakespeare classes when Baxter retired. “He was an old ham.” Many recalled his classroom interpretations of Falstaff, Hotspur and Prince Hal. Former students commented upon his career as a professor. But the words “TV personality” appear more often. It was a subtle shift, requiring years, a transformation Frank Baxter would have no doubt appreciated and approved. In the end, TV claimed him as one of its own.

Many of David Stewart’s Current features on notable public TV programs appear on this site and were collected in his 1999 book The PBS Companion: A History of Public Television.

RELATED ARTICLE

From the 1920s into the 1940s and later, U.S. commercial radio and TV networks did some pioneering work in educational and cultural programming while working against the growth of educator-run stations or anything resembling the BBC.

LINKS

Wikipedia says Frank C. Baxter died in 1982, after long and distinguished service at the University of Southern California and in TV, winning seven Emmys. He also appeared as himself in the sci-fi movie The Mole People.

In 1950, when Baxter was already winning Emmys for his TV work, Life magazine named him one of the country’s eight most outstanding college professors, according to USC.

According to David Templeton in the Sonoma County Independent, Baxter’s obit should have read: “Dr. Frank Baxter, 85, beloved star of the strange, unintentionally campy Bell Laboratory Science Series, eight perversely earnest educational films — including Our Mr. Sun, Hemo the Magnificent, and The Alphabet Conspiracy — that have been the source of unexpected entertainment in classrooms for over 30 eye-opening years.”

Another fan’s comments on Baxter, with some video.

Baxter starred as Dr. Science and Frank Capra directed “Unchained Goddess,” a 1958 Bell Telephone science program about weather.

Baxter, quoted about TV among the shorts in Time, June 2, 1961: “Although the medium has made him famous, Dr. Frank Baxter, 65, bald, genial lecturer on Shakespeare and science, had some scornful words for television. “The idiots who run TV … think people are best pleased at the low, hypnotic and opiate level,” he told his last Shakespeare class, as he prepared to retire from the University of Southern California. Said Baxter: “There is no law in America which deprives people of reading.”

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