This Old House: An Oral History

By Francis Storrs | Boston Magazine |

Thirty years ago, the cultural landscape for fix-it television was barren. This was before HGTV offered round-the-clock advice on installing ceiling fans; before Extreme Makeover: Home Edition began mass-producing mansions; before viewers were left to puzzle over the subtle difference between A&E’s Flip This House and TLC’s Flip That House.

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Then, on the evening of February 20, 1979, WGBH introduced Bostonians to This Old House, a show that would invent a new TV genre. "The words ‘do it yourself’ hadn’t been put together in those days," says Russell Morash, the program’s creator. "People did not have power tools, did not do their own repairs. They hired people." Morash, together with WGBH’s Henry Becton, had a knack for distilling latent cultural interests into wildly popular television shows, including The French Chef and The Victory Garden. Premiering just as the country was sliding into a major housing crisis, This Old House (which WGBH spent a mere $50,000 to launch) would show viewers that they didn’t need to buy new homes to be happy. All they needed was a little Yankee ingenuity.  

The real estate crunch that had cemented the show’s relevance eventually passed. But viewers’ appetite for DIY tips, not to mention their fascination with other people’s homes, has proved enduring. With nearly 4 million viewers per episode, This Old House has become one of the highest-rated shows of its kind and has won 16 Emmys to date. It spawned a magazine (which now boasts a readership of 5.7 million), a website (that generates 16 million page views a month), and two spinoffs, Ask This Old House and The New Yankee Workshop. Today the various arms of the This Old House brand reach 52 million Americans every month.

As originally conceived, though, the half-hour program that would grow into that multimedia empire promised to be little more than a quaint, televised equivalent of a Realtor’s open house. Initially titled House Calls, each episode would show off a completed home renovation (think MTV Cribs for the PBS set). Morash recruited a Globe journalist named Estelle Bond Guralnick to star in the pilot, which was filmed at a Brookline Victorian she had recently written about. The pilot never aired, though, and the whole experiment might have been shelved had it not been for a certain star quality the producers saw in the Victorian’s young builder, who had escorted Guralnick around his project. His name was Bob Vila.

Henry Becton (former WGBH president): I sat down and reviewed the pilot with Russ. I thought it was okay; I didn’t think it was great.

Russell Morash (series creator): I said, "I think you have to show the process." It’s too easy to say, "And then I put down this blue tile." When I see something like what Vila had done with his place, I think, How can I put down my own blue tile? Because I’ll never have the money to do it unless I do it myself.

Becton: Boy, when Vila looked at you through that camera, there was something that really connected. Russ and I thought, Maybe we should try to convince him.

Estelle Bond Guralnick (home design contributor, Boston Globe): Russ just felt awful. He called me and said, "They like Bob Vila." I was very busy, and life went on.

Bob Vila (former host, pictured right): They called me up and said, "Come over and take a look at this house in Dorchester. We’ve got everything ready to go." They had gotten underwriting—I think it was Montgomery Ward—and they had gotten Norm [Abram], who was Morash’s carpenter. This just seemed like a lark.

Morash: Norm had built my barn, and I was so impressed with him I asked if he would be interested in helping out. He was a young unmarried guy, and he said sure.

Norm Abram (master carpenter, pictured right): I just took the job for some work in a winter of no work. I thought I’d be in the background of a couple of scenes carrying around ladders.

Morash: We had to do extensive work on the gas mains, and I said, "I don’t know anybody who plumbs in the city of Boston." I mean, I was a suburban guy. I knew as much about Boston as I knew about Marrakesh. The gas company said, "Well, we have this firm over in Roslindale called the Trethewey Brothers." I said, "The what?"

Richard Trethewey (heating and plumbing specialist, pictured right): It’s a British name.

Morash: My father came to me and said, "I can’t believe you’re going to put a carpenter or a plumber in front of the camera. What do you expect to learn from these people?" I said, "Dad, I’m not asking them to quote Shakespeare. I want them to tell me, in their own way, how to lay an oak floor, what tools to use, what goes on in their mind."

Vila: Shortly after the first show aired I went out to supper with my wife and two other couples at the old Ritz hotel. There was some buzz in the room, and one of the guys at our table was ribbing me about people recognizing me. You don’t wrap yourself around the concept of fame very easily early on.

Morash: It cost us about $30,000 to do all the repairs on the first house. When you think about it, you can’t buy half a car for that these days. The house eventually sold and everybody got paid, but ‘GBH never got its $50,000 back. They never asked for it back, because the show had taken off.

The first season of This Old House, which followed the renovation of the Dorchester home for 13 episodes, was a massive hit that set a new ratings record for WGBH. Its popularity only grew when PBS snatched up the show for national distribution the next season. Viewers found getting advice from real experts—as opposed to actors—uniquely helpful. The format, however, was less popular with contractors.

Trethewey: At first we were nervous that we were giving away trade secrets, like a magician.

Morash: Richard has had to carry an important message back to the plumbing industry: More information on the part of the public is a good thing, not a bad thing. And I think he’s right.

Abram: Contractors would say, "Why are you doing this?" I used to hear that a lot. I felt it was people being insecure. There are going to be do-it-yourselfers no matter what. For those who aren’t going to do it themselves, isn’t it better that they understand your skill and how much work it actually takes? I think contractors finally got that.

 

For the first several seasons, WGBH bought the properties the show worked on, then sold them after renovations were complete. But the slumping real estate market of the early ’80s convinced the producers to change their modus operandi: From then on, homeowners would pay for all the construction work while enjoying the perks (and occasional headaches) of having a lot of the materials donated by eager sponsors.

Becton: Selling those houses was always sort of nail-biting. We thought, We’re not real estate developers. Meanwhile, Russ’s realization was that real homeowners might make a more interesting story line.

Dean Gallant (Belmont home-owner, 1993 season): We had the common misconception that if the show selected you, they would pay for everything.

Terry Maitland (Acton home-owner, 1994 season): There are two huge benefits to working with the show. One is that it’s going to be done in six months, which is extraordinary. The other good thing is all the goodies. All the donations.

Christian Nolen (Watertown homeowner, 1998 season): At the time, Kohler was the plumbing supplier of choice. They said, "You don’t have to, but if you use Kohler, it’s going to get donated." I said, "You know, I think I can find a toilet in the Kohler line."

Janice Levine Igoe (Lexington homeowner, 1992 season): You get what they call a bigger bang for the buck.

Lynn Wickwire (Concord homeowner, 1989 season): We got a letter from the IRS saying, "You owe taxes on all these donated items." It was a ton of money—the taxes were going to be something like $70,000. We said, "We can’t do that—we’ll have to sell the [house]." We ended up hiring a very good tax lawyer. It eventually settled, but we were a week away from going to court.

 

As This Old House became a sensation, homeowners were increasingly eager to pitch their own projects to the producers. Starting in 1986, the show began filming two renovations a year: one somewhere in Massachusetts (always), and another, less-intensive job in a warmer locale like New Orleans or Bermuda. Finding options has never been difficult.

Bruce Irving (former executive producer): We got boxes and boxes of proposals. We got everything from handwritten notes to full-on bound quasi-PowerPoints. A homeowner named Mills Fleming really was memorable in his high-quality pursuit. It was something along the lines of a phone call, a follow-up presentation with photographs, and then—after my resounding silence—another phone call. He pursued me like a stalker.

Mills Fleming (Savannah, Georgia, homeowner, 1996 season): I would say I was "appropriately diligent."

Chris Wolfe (producer, Ask This Old House): We once got a letter from a man that said something like "I’m writing to you because I need some help with a project. I’m trying to make a hole in a wall, and I have a pair of tweezers, a toothbrush, and a spoon." He went on to say that he was in a federal prison.

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.

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.

 

In 2003 Steve Thomas left the show and was replaced by Kevin O’Connor (pictured right), a mortgage broker who had appeared as a homeowner on a segment of Ask This Old House. He so quickly connected with Tom Silva and the producers that he seemed like a natural choice to join the cast.

Morash: We were stripping wallpaper off Kevin’s house—which needed everything and he knew it—and I remember sort of, not helplessness, but his feeling that powerful forces were overtaking his time and finances. That was appealing. That’s what it’s all about: You take on too big a house, and you do too many things to it all at once, and you sit down at night and have a sip of wine and think, What did I get myself into? Kevin had a lot of that about him.

Silva: So I see Kevin’s toolbox and Russ goes, "What can you do with the tools?" I took his paintbrushes and hot-glued them to the inside of his cabinets. You open the cabinet door, all his paintbrushes were hanging neatly.

Kevin O’Connor (host): You’ve got to understand—it’s one thing to pull a gag on somebody, but this is my kitchen. What’s with that?

Burton: That’s Tommy. When he likes you, he picks on you.

O’Connor: When they first called and spoke to my wife, they didn’t say what they wanted. We sat around the table and talked about it that night. My wife said they were going to ask me to host. I was convinced Russ [Morash] needed a loan.

Burton: Kevin has, more than anyone else, built a relationship with these guys. In some ways, they mentor him, which is kind of cool.

In spite of all the budget overruns and the long nights spent pitching in on their renovations, homeowners inevitably develop a genuine sense of camaraderie with the cast and crew by the time that production wraps.

Liz Bagley (East Boston homeowner, 2006 season): I think that what’s so surprising is how suddenly it all ends. You get so used to having people here all the time. And then, there’s no one. We miss the guys.

Nolen: We had lunch with the guys every day. We would all sit up on the third floor, 8, 10, 12 of us all sitting on five-gallon drywall buckets. It was magnificent.

Trethewey: It’s so intense, and all of a sudden we’re gone. It’s like we leave a silver bullet on the countertop—Who were those guys?

Gallant: You feel very special while this is going on. You’ve got a bunch of people who are focused on making your house better—that’s pretty nice. Not only that, but several million people are watching it every week. If you can take it, it’s good for your psyche.

 

Thirty years on, This Old House has made a cultural impact beyond public television and turned its stars into unlikely icons. In the mid-1990s the ABC sitcom Home Improvement featured Tim Allen as a bumbling version of Bob Vila and Richard Karn as his able, flannel-clad assistant, a thinly veiled Norm Abram. Even the homeowners achieve a surprising level of fame.


Vila:
The Disney people contacted me before Home Improvement premiered. I think there was some concern in the legal department about whether I was being ripped off. The fact is, it’s a sitcom based on me and Norm, you know?

Carole Freehauf (design correspondent, pictured right): It could be my dentist or the woman who cuts my hair—you find people all over the place who know This Old House.

Silva: You go into a store, you go into a home center, a mall, airport, wherever—it doesn’t matter where you go, somebody will always say something about the show.

Morash: There are Norm look-alike contests where guys grow beards, put on glasses, and wear plaid shirts.

Abram: In the early shows you’ll see me in solid-color shirts, and I would have plaid shirts when it was really cold. Russ was the one who said, "You know, plaids, they work really well; you should wear the plaids." I said okay, went out and bought myself a bunch of plaid shirts. Now I can’t not put one on.

Nolen: We’ll be standing at Logan waiting for a cab, and somebody will go, "I really like that kitchen."

Bagley: I was in Paris and some couple came up to me. I didn’t know what they said—it was in French—but it ended with "This Old House."

Abram: It’s hard to believe 30 years have gone by. A few weeks ago my wife and I went into the Whole Foods in Bedford. This gentleman was there with two children. He’s holding one, one is in the shopping cart. As soon as I walked in the door, the boy who was in the shopping cart recognized me. He turned around and looked at his father, and his father said, "It’s okay, you can talk to him." So he goes, "Hi, Norm." I say, "Oh, hi." And he said, "How did you get out of the TV?"

Staff writer Francis Storrs profiled personal-injury lawyer James Sokolove in the January issue. This oral history included reporting by Ian Aldrich.

Source URL: http://www.bostonmagazine.com/2009/01/this-old-house/