Mon, 06/03/2024

Remembering Jac Venza

Jac Venza

We’re sad to learn that producer Jac Venza has passed away at the age of 97. He began his career in the theater before moving into television, first at CBS and then at NET (National Education Television, the forerunner of PBS). When NET was folded into PBS, he produced some of the channel’s most beloved and enduring series, including Live from Lincoln Centerand created the Emmy-winning Great Performances.

Below are some excerpts from his 2009 interview:

On getting his first job in television, at CBS:

“The guy who was the art director for CBS…he called me and said, ‘You know, if you pass the [union] exam I want you to let me know because I’m going to need another designer and most of the people who are coming to me are coming out of Yale and Carnegie Tech and they all trained to do Ibsen plays, but we don’t have any Ibsen plays. We’ve got musicals and we’ve got game shows and stuff…I really need someone more like what your talents are. Because we’re going to be doing a new kind of thing. So let me know.’ So, the day, the morning that I heard that I passed the exam…the boss called me and said, ‘Come to work tomorrow.’ And I said, ‘I can’t. I’m moving to an apartment on 90th Street…’ And he said, ‘You have to put it off. You have to come today because we have one of our prominent shows called Suspense and the director has refused to work with the designer I’ve assigned to him. I need someone and if you don’t come I don’t know how soon it will be I can hire someone again. You’ve got to come tomorrow.’ So, remember, I had never even seen television. Back then none of us had a television set. I did not know what this was all about. All I know is that I went there. I was handed a script and he said, ‘Go to Grand Central Station. We have studios up there, this is how you get there. They’re in rehearsal. And you have to see what the director wants, get some ideas.’ And I said, ‘Well, what’s the show?’ And he said, ‘Well, you can read it in the taxi.’ And it was a lot of, I don’t know, some mysterious murder mystery that took place in Borneo. … And I got there and said, ‘Well, I think it would be fascinating, probably they have wonderful, mysterious matte walls, all woven, so there will be shadowy things.’ And the director thought that was so fascinating he said, ‘Yes, you’ve got a good idea. Go ahead with that.’ So I went back to the Studio and I said, ‘What do I do now?’ They said, ‘Well, you have to do the drawings.’ This was Monday and we were going on the air Friday. So, by Friday morning the studio had to be filled with scenery and I did not know where the shop was, where they built things, anything. And that’s how it all began.”

On how he moved to NET:

“I [was at] CBS and I was doing, I don’t know, some sort of arts program. But it was very clear to me that there weren’t going to be very many arts programs. I mean, in those days they did one program, you know, Andrew Wyeth, and that would take care of painting for a year, etc. And Omnibus, which had been a successful arts program, was winding down. What was left was Bernstein’s children’s concerts, which were famous, but people forget, they were Saturday afternoon. They were not in Primetime. So, one of my colleagues there said he was going to work for something called NET. I said, ‘Oh NET…?’ He said, ‘Do you know what that is?’ And I said, ‘Yes, I actually took a leave of absence. Remember I went up to Boston. It was really interesting and it happened the project up there was funded by NET, the National Educational thing from Ford.’ And the guy said, ‘Well, you know, they want to expand their work in this non-commercial world and they’re setting up a New York operation with New York professionals.’ Because till now all the things were done by these small stations, so really not very seasoned people. ‘And they’re hiring people with network experience.’ And I said, ‘Oh, I had a wonderful experience, I think that’s great.’ He said, ‘Would you consider actually leaving CBS and doing this?’ And this is when not being married with a family became important. Because if I had a family I would never in the world have left all those years of seniority at CBS to go to this non-entity. But I said, ‘I had the best experience of my life.’ He said, ‘My god, I’m going to call you tomorrow.’…So he called the next day and he said, ‘I’ve created a job for you as one of the executive producers in the Culture Department. I’m head of the Culture Department.’ And I said, ‘What will I do?’ He said, ‘Just come. That’s what we need. We need your expertise and your know-how, how to do this whole thing.’ And when I arrived… it was interesting because among the people on that staff of maybe 10 or 12 producers, I would say three-quarters of them were from CBS. And they were people mostly from Public Affairs. I was the only one of the group who actually had had any experience in the entertainment department. So, we were given, I don’t remember, 5 million a year or something like this, and I think our basic thing was five primetime quality programs a year… Everyone just did documentaries. And I said, ‘But don’t we have to have some performance programs?’ And they said, ‘What do you mean?’ And I said, ‘Like fun, you know, like singing and dancing.’ And they said, ‘But the networks are doing that.’ I said, ‘They’re not. They’re not doing much music. …It's moved mainly to action things like… Bonanza and terrific comedy shows. But there’s a lot of other stuff in the whole concert world. I mean, the American artists are being sought all over, we’ve got to think of some way to do it.’”

On his role working on Great Performances:

“People said, ‘What does a producer do?’ And I said, in our case it's the person who sets the vision for something and is passionate enough to say, this is what on the horizon I want to do. What is it going to take to get there, and be unwavering about, what are the things you need to get there, but be open-minded enough that if you get talented people that along the way they’re willing to say, we could get there with a detour here which would be much more interesting. As you deal with world class artists, we were now talking about, you know, whether
Leonard Bernstein wanted to do this music and he was willing to get up and tell you why. We would be willing to have Balanchine say, I’m going to do this ballet and this is why I think it's good for camera. My job was to say, okay, now we’ve got this going here. What are we missing? …Let’s do the Alvin Ailey program here, but we need, we need also some coverage regionally. Because I did not think most of the PBS money for the Arts Program was coming to my unit in New York. And I did not want the stations who were carrying the program and whose money was being funneled through corporation to us, to think that we believed that the only art in this country was in New York. And one of the places that we were on the road, very successfully and bravely, we’ll be thanked in the years ahead, was with opera. We decided that one thing we needed was new opera. And the problem with a new commissioned opera is it's done once or twice in two performances and then it disappears. Everybody says well, it was, you know, it was very interesting. But I thought, this is a very good way to do this. In Houston, for example they were always commissioning new operas. … And we went down and we talked about how we would shoot the opera and where we would do the thing and we found that that was a very good way to deal with the regional opera companies. Here we wanted to represent what was happening around the country. …But what was also interesting is that some of the new premieres of new American operas happened in these other places. So it meant that we were going to an opera company in something that they excelled, it was exclusively theirs. …So we would go to them and do something unique. And that was the case of the savvy of the music group, about how will we make these places look good? And we did a number of notable operas that really gained recognition.”

On his accomplishments in his career:

“My feeling is that I was very lucky. I was able to have a career in which we set a standard that was so unique with our system that I for many years did some things that almost no executive in television was able to do, is have a unit where we created the programs we thought we wanted to do. We found our own way to fund them… And they were sent out into the system.”

Watch Jac Venza’s full interview and read his obituary in The Hollywood Reporter.