This Old House: An Oral History
On its 30th anniversary, the creators, cast, and (mostly) lucky homeowners of This Old House reveal what the cameras haven’t shown—from how the series almost didn’t get off the ground to who really foots the bill for all those jaw-dropping renovations.
Builder Tom Silva (pictured right) joined the show full time in 1986, followed by landscaper Roger Cook two years later. Silva Brothers Construction, which Silva co-owns with his brother Dick and nephew Charlie, has been the general contractor on every Massachusetts-based This Old House project since.
Morash: Tommy’s father was a carpenter, and Tommy and his wife, Virginia, and their children lived next to us in our old house in Lexington. Tommy helped me fix up my house. Isn’t that interesting? It’s all a family.
Roger Cook (landscape contractor, pictured right): It does feel like a family. We’re all fishermen, and we’ll get together in the summer and go boating. Tommy and Rich [Trethewey] like to be on the water, but I’m the best fisherman.
Igoe: The Silva brothers are known for some of their antics, their practical jokes.
David Vos (director): They’re all wiseguys. They could have been great standup comedians or phenomenal builders. They went with both.
Maitland: Charlie Silva has a dummy that he keeps in his truck. It was a filming day, and this new [production assistant] from ‘GBH was walking around kind of starry-eyed. So Charlie had this dummy up on the roof, and he let out a huge scream and dropped it. Everyone was in on it, they started running over, Oh my God, oh my God.
Irving: The hallmark of that particular joke was that the PA was standing there with her little clipboard. Over the edge falls this dummy, and she looks up, sees it all happen, and makes a note. We were just like, there’s an unflappable PA.
As the most authoritative home-improvement show on television, This Old House provides the kind of platform that’s an advertiser’s dream. Of course, as a public broadcasting production, it can’t accept traditional advertising and instead must walk a fine line with its underwriters. The show confines short promotional spots to the beginning and end of an episode—a procedure that savvy manufacturers are keen to circumvent whenever possible.
Michael Burton (vice president of television operations, This Old House Productions): I think all [the cast members] could have made vast fortunes endorsing a product or two.
Abram: I look at Julia Child. There’s a woman who never endorsed anything. The last thing I ever want to be is a pitch-man. I don’t want to be running around the country pitching tools or doing infomercials. That’s for somebody else.
Dan Beliveau (Charlestown home-owner, 2000 season): You can’t name any of the products [on camera]. I kept making mistakes. I might say “Toto toilets” or the brand name of the bamboo flooring. They’d say, “Cut, cut. Can you just not do that?”
Morash: Owens Corning prints its logo on its rolls of fiberglass, and I told our crew to always install it upside down so when you come into a room we’re not seeing it. The Owens Corning guys said, “How come you always turn it around?” I said, “Because, you know, we’re not supposed to show labels. It’s public television—I’ll go to Leavenworth if I get caught doing this.” It took them about three years to figure it out, but they started printing it in such a way that no matter how it was hung you were going to be able to read the name.
In 1989 the issue of endorsements became a major problem for This Old House. Bob Vila had begun appearing in ads for a small chain called Rickel Home Centers, a competitor with Home Depot, which was an underwriter. Home Depot complained to the producers, and Vila soon left the show. “I am at heart a capitalist,” he later told the Wall Street Journal. “The years I hosted on PBS I compare to the years I volunteered for the Peace Corps.”
Morash: [Vila] was getting in the face of our efforts to underwrite the show. I said, “Bob, you’ve got to lay off that.” He said, “I can’t do that.”
Vila: In the beginning, they paid me 200 bucks an episode. After 10 years, I think they’d gotten up to $800. There wasn’t any money there. There was money to be had in terms of endorsements and stuff.
Becton: There was no question that we were going to part ways [with Vila], but I don’t remember being worried about that.
Morash: In the early days of the show, as I said again and again, the host asks the questions that the homeowner has. If the host appears to know the answer, it changes the chemistry completely. As Vila matured, he became the expert. What kind of cuckoo land was that?
Tom Silva (general contractor): With Bob, you were more just saying yes or no. He liked to control the scene.
Vila: I didn’t appreciate the way I was being dealt with, so we just kind of went our separate ways. It was the best thing for me, because within a year I was back on the air with the syndicated show Bob Vila’s Home Again and became spokesman for Sears Craftsman tools and did lots of things in the ensuing years that never would have happened.