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.

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.

this old house

Trethewey demonstrates his unique method for choosing the perfect bathtub. (Photograph by Keller + Keller)

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.

 

The show found its new host in Steve Thomas, a shipbuilder and sailor who had recently appeared in a well-received PBS miniseries. Vila’s departure eased the tension on-set, but subsequent seasons were not without drama—an unavoidable byproduct when the stress of a home renovation is coupled with the frenzy of television production. The show has always asked its homeowners to contribute sweat equity to help get their jobs done, but few realize just how busy they’ll be.

Igoe: The good news is that you actually get your house done on time. The bad news, I have to tell you, is that it was crazy from the get-go, and it just increased exponentially. It was a madhouse. It was pure chaos.

Vos: Our timeline’s pretty compressed.

Silva: One of the projects recently grew almost double in size, and the last two months I had 30, 35 people working six days a week to try and bring it in on time. I did it, but it’s a tough process.

Gallant: My wife and I had a fair amount of vacation time before the project, and we used it all. Occasionally, we’d hear from Bruce [Irving], “The plaster guys are coming on Monday, so you’ve got to pull down these three ceilings over the weekend.” We enlisted as many strong people as we could.

Wickwire: One night we came home from work, and inside the house were all these boxes of shingles. The pile must have been 10, 12 feet high. They said, “Well, you’re going to have to stain every single one of these.” I said, “You got to be kidding me.” They told us we’re taping Tuesday and they gotta be done. They don’t care when you get it done, but it’s gotta be done by Tuesday, if you have to stay all night.

Nolen: It’s renovation at warp speed.

Silva: Outlets are being hung, trim is being made, and the walls aren’t even completed. You can’t actually finish something until the camera has seen it. That’s the hardest part of the whole deal for me.

 

As if a televised renovation isn’t challenging enough, over the course of most projects the homeowners come to realize that being on the show is their one chance to take advantage of the cast’s expert craftsmanship—which can tempt them to stretch their ambitions, no matter the cost.

Beliveau: We increased our budget about 20 percent to get on the show, and then we went over that as well. We had talked to other homeowners, and they said, “You just need to keep an eye on the budget—it goes haywire.”

Silva: Before you know it, the homeowners realize what they’re getting. The next thing you know, they’re using those four magic words in construction that always extend the project and always raise the budget. Those words are “while you’re at it….”

Maitland: Bruce was constantly pulling in on the reins. We really couldn’t afford to do air conditioning, but the contractor said, “I’ll just put all the stuff in anyway—who’s gonna know?” Bruce said, “I’m gonna know, and furthermore, your budget is a national laughingstock.” They filmed the air-conditioning equipment being carried back out of the house while we stood there going, “Bring it back!”

Fleming: We had a small bathroom, and we wanted to put in one of these megatubs, you know? Russ said, “When is the last time you took a bath?” I said, “I don’t know, five years ago.” It was just one of those reality checks.

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