A ragtime pianist shows public TV how to have fun

Commentary by David Stewart

Max Morath reminded America about a largely forgotten part of its musical legacy, but beyond that achievement of mass education, the musician also helped educational TV accept the element of entertainment in its programs. This article by Contributing Editor David Stewart is part of Stewart’s planned book on public TV programming. Stewart, who retired as CPB’s director of international activities, profiled early television’s favorite professor, Frank Baxter, in a January issue of Current.

Educational TV wanted something lighter than its usual cultural fare. Denver’s station found Morath, shown above on the set in 1960. (Photo: Rocky Mountain PBS.)

In the summer of 1959 an itinerant musician and sometimes TV producer, Max Morath, was playing piano for melodramas in the restored mining town of Cripple Creek, Colo. A year later, the 33-year-old graduate of Colorado College had written and performed a 12-part TV series that would change noncommercial television forever.

Over the next five years — while the music rights were held by National Educational Television (NET) — The Ragtime Era became the most watched noncommercial series up to that time, run and rerun constantly by all the educational (and many commercial) stations throughout the country. The series and its more expansive 15-part sequel, The Turn of the Century, established Max Morath as a leading authority on ragtime as well as a popular performer.

It seems almost quaint to report that there was a time when public TV was uncertain whether it should seek to entertain or enlarge its audience. The problem in the late 1950s was how to take the first decisive step, to produce a popular series without compromising quality, to retain an educational message in an entertaining context.

The stations were at the brink of having a network. NET had arranged a Ford Foundation grant that purchased a videotape machine — then a very new device — for each of the 50 or so educational stations in the country. Soon thereafter, John F. “Jack” White, NET’s energetic president, visited every station looking for new program ideas.

“NET was thirsting for something different that was not the heavy arts and humanities thing,” says Jim Case, the first program manager at KRMA, Denver. [now Rocky Mountain PBS]. He helped create the Ragtime series and directed all of its programs. “They wanted something a little lighter. So I invited Marvin Hall, a KRMA producer, and Morath to make a pilot.”

Hall, a writer and actor from California, had been stage manager for the Cripple Creek melodramas and was a friend of Morath.

Case had hired him soon after KRMA moved into its new studios in 1957. The 22nd educational station on the air, KRMA was the first to operate in studios built expressly for TV production. KQED in San Francisco was making programs with two DuMont cameras in a warehouse, and WGBH was operating in a Boston skating rink with a bumpy wooden floor. All three stations made programs for NET distribution. But for a while KRMA had the edge, with new studios and equipment as well as a production crew that Case describes as “incredibly talented.”

“It was Hall’s idea,” says Case. “He knew that Morath understood the history of the period (1890-1920), its popular music, and how to play it. Hall’s job was to help Max make the transitions from performer to narrator, from pianist to historian. Our working title was Before Jazz.

“The educators were using TV as a verbal medium,” Hall continues. “I thought we should be using visual and dramatic means, performers not teachers, to get the material across. NET needed a person who knew the history of his work, someone who could really connect with an audience. So I said to Max, ‘Let’s try it. They’ll pay you!'”

“So,” Case continues, “we raided several antique shops, put some ferns on the set and pushed tacks into the piano pads to give it that rinky-tink sound. Max, dressed in his ’90s costume, played and sang for 15 minutes while we rolled the video. I sent the pilot off to New York and back came a contract for 12 half-hour shows.”

The series describes a wide range of popular music, most of the hits and a lot of the misses. Along the way, Morath talks about music for silent films, sheet music publication, the emergence of the gramophone, barbershop singing, Tin Pan Alley and composers like George M. Cohan and Scott Joplin, among many others. He made clear, however, that his first love was ragtime, a musical form that defined the period and influenced most of the popular music that followed.

An awareness of the venturesome nature of the series, its entertainment value, may have encouraged Morath and Hall to pack the programs with information. NET’s publicity department also seemed sensitive about this series in which “show” clearly dominates “tell”; its initial press release begins, “A series of 12 unique educational and cultural programs . . .”

As Morath explains, “NET wanted to get away from the professor in front of the gray drape, but not too far away. It’s worth a reminder that in those days all NET programs had to have some sort of educational cachet. There was a consultant from the Colorado College music department built into our budget.” (No one remembers seeing the consultant.)

In his history of public television, The Vanishing Vision, former NET President James Day recalls, “NET needed to reach beyond the converted to find a new audience whose appetite did not necessarily tend toward the tastes of high culture … Ragtime Era was everything educational television was not supposed to be: upbeat, fun and entertaining.”

As Jim Case remembers it, the production schedule was exceptionally rigorous, making demands that he enjoyed: “We all came in at 8 a.m. The designer and scenic artist, two brilliant people, had been up all night preparing the set (they sometimes painted Oriental rugs on the floor). The station went live at 11:45 a.m., so we had to be out by then. Max had written and memorized the script. There were no cue cards or teleprompters. We walked it through, had a rough camera rehearsal (there was singing and dancing in nearly every show). Then we would just do it, from beginning to end, no stops.”

“No one could edit video satisfactorily in those days, so it was like a live performance,” Case explains. “The only time we had a bad glitch, we went back and did the entire show over again. We made 12 programs in 12 weeks.”

“By the time we were three or four programs into the series we began to get this wonderful reaction from NET. It was what they wanted. It looked like commercial TV.”

According to a contemporary account in the Denver Post, “Morath sometimes stumbles on words or fluffs lines, but they stay in the show. His fresh delivery gives the appearance of being ad lib.”

Looking at the programs today, nearly 40 years later, the viewer is struck by two characteristics — the extraordinary amount of information in each program and the intensity Morath brings to his work. In episode No. 2, “Any Rags Today?,” we are ushered into a posh “sporting house” by a tall young woman in a feather boa and slinky, sequined dress. Here we find Morath playing an upright piano with its front removed. He is in his customary chalk-striped trousers, a shirt with sleeve garters, string tie, fancy vest with gold watch chain, a derby perched rakishly on his close-cropped hair and a cigar clamped between his teeth.

“Scott Joplin should be better known today,” he begins, launching into “Maple Leaf Rag,” the first of six numbers in the half-hour. Between these performances we learn about Joplin and several other rag composers, hear an explanation of syncopation (“ragtime’s key ingredient”) and listen to some Tom Turpin rags on a piano roll— while Morath puffs reflectively on his stogie— before he shows us to the door as the credits roll. In the episode concerning George M. Cohan, Morath manages to sing and play seven of the composer’s songs while throwing in a seemingly off-hand story of Cohan’s life and times.

“Morath could go through the camera,” says Case. “It was his presence that gave the programs their authority. People believed him. In his narrative he cut right through the center of everything. He used straightforward, evocative language that was easy to understand: no bullshit. He was that way in private conversation, too. There were no temperamental problems, no ‘motivate me’ or ‘I don’t feel right doing that,’ none of that crap. We never had an argument.”

In 1959 Case was one of the few people with network experience who was producing for noncommercial TV. He had been an intern at NBC in New York, then worked on several of its major shows— Howdy Doody, Your Show of Shows and others.

“I went to work at the network because I wanted to learn the craft,” he says, “and that’s where you could do it, in those eight floors of the RCA Building. But then I wanted to get out of town. I didn’t want to live there or be there because I thought it was not the right environment. I wanted to produce TV programs in a civilized place where there was a concentration of talent. And it all came together in this little series.

“The Ragtime Era production was unusual. From 1957 our programs were getting better and better. The chemistry was right. It never lasts long … about four years, then everyone drifts away and it collapses. That happened at KRMA.”

For his work as writer/performer, Morath was paid $225 per show. Hall, the producer, made $100, and Case earned $125 as director. The studio crew, collectively, was paid $240. NET’s total budget for the 12 programs was $22,000. Ragtime ‘s immediate success was reflected in the budget for KRMA’s likewise well-received The Turn of the Century: 15 half-hours for $41,000.

Time, Newsweek and other national publications featured the programs. A Christmas special with Max Morath was produced and offered as a gift from NET to all its stations. Many played it for years. Morath narrated a third series, The Real West, singing and talking about the “true” lives of cowboys. Jack Gould, dean of America’s TV reviewers in the early ’60s, wrote in the New York Times that “[KRMA] could teach Madison Avenue a thing or two … when Morath sat down to illustrate rag piano, his zest and craftsmanship asserted themselves informatively and entertainingly.”

In Denver, where initial support for a new educational TV station had been tepid and sometimes hostile in 1956, the Denver Post now praised the series’ spontaneity, calling Morath, “a ragtime Leonard Bernstein.” “He does more than just talk about ragtime on television. He sells it,” asserted the Post, which went on to observe: “In an affluent society, it seems a shame that more money cannot be channeled into educational television.”

In 1964, at the high point of his Denver popularity, Max Morath moved to New York and became a one-man ragtime industry, playing club dates, making dozens of recordings for Vanguard and Columbia Records, publishing a collection of 100 classic rags, appearing on The Bell Telephone Hour, Kraft Music Hall and, for many years, The Arthur Godfrey Show. Having created a successful one-man off-Broadway show, Max Morath at the Turn of the Century, he has toured it, and its refurbished successors, to thousands of communities and colleges throughout the country.

In 1974 Morath reappeared briefly on public TV in a PBS special produced by WGBH, Ragtime. As the show’s host, he is featured along with Eubie Blake (then 91), E. Power Biggs and Gunther Schuller’s youthful New England Conservatory Orchestra.

Here Morath, still slender and energetic, with a few more wrinkles in his smile, is confident and even more facile as he banters with the other performers, introduces songs and dances, and talks about life in 1905 as if he lives there part-time. Blake, with an enormous bow tie and a head resembling a beautiful piece of polished mahogany, plays his first composition, “Charleston Rag,” from 1899, his long, slender fingers flying over the keys.

Watching Morath’s 1959 and 1974 videos in sequence, it is evident that authority had begun to overtake intensity, In both programs, however, as Case observed, he cut to the center of things.

“I’m not about to retire,” says Morath today. “Retire from what? I haven’t had a steady job since 1959, and that was in a saloon. I have a mammoth concert tour planned for this season” (1996-97).

He had paused briefly in his career, however: in 1995, he became a full-time student at Columbia University where, in the spring of 1996, he received his master’s degree in American studies. The subject of his dissertation was Carrie Jacobs Bond, a publisher and composer in the early 1900s. Bond wrote, according to Morath, two of the most popular songs of all time: “I Love You Truly” and “The End of a Perfect Day.”

Soon after producing The Ragtime Era, Marvin Hall received a fellowship at the Yale Drama School. He later joined the staff of NET, and then moved to San Francisco where he worked for KPIX, made training films and commercial videos. Hall, who has changed his first name to “Moss,” now lives in Pebble Beach, Calif., and writes travel articles.

In 1964 Jim Case was appointed director of Los Angeles’ new educational television station, KCET. Later he became associated with KPBS, San Diego, and produced dozens of documentaries for public TV (including The Naturalists, a series that was rerun nearly as often as Ragtime), finally returning to Denver to head his own production company. These days, nearing 70, he plays golf and, as he says, is “writing children’s books with more enthusiasm than skill.” He credits much of The Ragtime Era‘s success to video recording and the ability of KRMA to use it skillfully.

But Jack White, now in his 80s, disagrees — with the vigor that characterized his presidency of NET 35 years ago. “Jim Case was a stickler for quality,” he says. “But we bought the series because it was fun, it was clean and fun.”

Whatever the elements of its appeal, the series hugely expanded NET’s audience. After its initial release NET made a circumspect and prescient, if somewhat awkward, report to the Ford Foundation, the philanthropy on which its future, and that of public broadcasting, greatly depended: “The Ragtime Era may ultimately be responsible for greater good to a greater number of average TV viewers than many NET programs of greater intrinsic value.”

In 1960 Jack White had good reason to look for programs that enlarged NET’s audience. Commercial interests were bearing down upon educational stations and challenging dozens of the FCC’s noncommercial channel reservations around the country. Many observers were beginning to question the use of broadcast TV to serve small audiences with educational material.

White found what he sought in The Ragtime Era, an undeniably entertaining series with enough information to make it an acceptable educational venture. It conclusively tipped the education/entertainment balance for educational TV, opening the door to The Great American Dream Machine, Masterpiece Theatre, Great Performances, comedies from Britain, Mark Russell’s satire and, in 1968, a name change: “public television.”

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.
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