Tune in for trip along America's airwaves Radio, TV museums: You can do serious research or just browse through broadcast history and entertainment at three museums -- in New York, Chicago and Beverly Hills.

April 28, 1996|By Gary Dretzka | Gary Dretzka,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. -- With much of the history of television already on constant display on cable television, it might seem superfluous to open another institution to celebrate the broadcast industry even further -- especially here in Southern California.

Nonetheless, the West Coast branch of the Museum of Television & Radio opened its doors last month on a busy corner in tony Beverly Hills (yes, its zip code is 90210). The $14 million facility shares with its more austere 20-year-old sibling -- on West 52nd Street in New York -- access to more than 75,000 programs, news clips and commercials, as well as exhibitions and seminars.

With the flick of a mouse, it's now possible to sail through seven decades of broadcast entertainment and recorded history.

Already exhausted the repertoire of "I Love Lucy" and "The Honeymooners" on the superstations? Then feel free to spend time here with Orson Welles' "Mercury Theater," FDR's fireside chats, the reporting of Edward R. Murrow, Ernie Kovacs' groundbreaking comedy, Babe Ruth, Howdy Doody, Rocky and Bullwinkle, Garry Moore, Carol Burnett, Ed Sullivan, Stan Freberg, Barbra Streisand or Molly Goldberg.

Less a museum than an audio-video library, the 23,000-square-foot Museum of Television & Radio isn't the kind of place where visitors can stroll among antique consoles and galleries full of electronic artifacts. Instead, they'll find several comfortable screening and listening rooms, a plush lecture hall, a radio broadcast studio and a library, where computers will allow almost instant perusal of the archives.

Active interpretation

"This is a library of programming and the creative product, and a museum that actively interprets that collection," said museum president Robert Batscha.

Mr. Batscha says that the New York museum -- which, in 1991, moved into a new $55 million building named for founder William S. Paley -- doesn't keep statistics as to what percentage of its guests visit to conduct research and how many come just for the fun of seeing or hearing old shows and political documents.

He does know, however, that many in the creative community have used the archives to inform their film, TV or theater projects. For example, Oscar nominee Joan Allen says she based much of her portrayal of Pat Nixon on tapes she found in the New York museum, including a Barbara Walters interview.

"I think this building is going to be a focal point for people who are going to be doing roles with some kind of historical significance," said Norman Pattiz, a trustee and president of Westwood One radio network. "It will be far more convenient for a lot of them to be here."

Of course, many Los Angeles-based entertainers are likely to show up just to examine their electronic legacies.

"We know that a lot of books have been written in the museum, and on a variety of different topics, not just about television and radio," added Mr. Batscha. "If you're doing research on World War II, you have to come and listen to our broadcast collection because that was a radio war. If you want to do Vietnam, then you have to come and look at our television collection."

It's fashionable to knock the commercial media for the banality of such programming as "Married With Children" and for encouraging the celebrityhood of overblown characters such as Howard Stern and Rush Limbaugh.

Portrait of America

Still, by separating the wheat from the chaff in popular culture, it is also possible for educators to create a portrait of 20th-century America.

"We work very closely with teachers," said Mr. Batscha. "For instance, if a class is studying the change in attitudes toward women from the post-World War II period, they could look at Lucy Ricardo, who couldn't get a job; to Marlo Thomas, in 'That Girl,' who had the nerve to want a career before she was married; to Mary Tyler Moore, who was living on her own; to the audacity of Murphy Brown."

Physically, New York's Museum of Television & Radio, housed in a 17-story building designed by Philip Johnson, reflects the upward trajectory of its midtown Manhattan neighborhood and exudes a stately, almost formal, air.

The sleek, Modernist California structure, designed by Richard Meier and named for longtime ABC head Leonard Goldenson, has a much sunnier personality throughout.

The distinctive, three-story rotunda lobby serves as the eye of an information storm, surrounded by a Circular Gallery and angular promenade that leads to the Library and Console Center.

Tourism is encouraged and can be great fun, especially if visitors prepare and know what they want to pursue. Be advised, though, that, unlike Chicago's folksier Museum of Broadcast Communications, the New York and Los Angeles institutions promote their links to the creative and business communities, and, as such, often reflect the pretensions of the largely bicoastal industry.

Practically every nook and cranny of the privately financed new museum is named for a broadcast-industry heavyweight who has donated $100,000 or more.

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