Elliot Norton Reviews: A Peek into Boston Theater History

by Jessica Green

Last Monday night, the Boston theater community gathered at the Paramount Theatre to celebrate an impressive season of groundbreaking theater and honor the designers, playwrights, choreographers, actors, and directors that made it such a success. The 29th annual Elliot Norton Awards, originally known as the Norton Medal, were founded in honor of respected Boston theater critic, Elliot Norton, upon his retirement in 1982, after 48 years in the biz.

From 1958-1982, WGBH, one of the sponsors for the awards, was home to Norton’s television show, the Elliot Norton Reviews. Think Inside the Actors Studio with Elliot Norton as James Lipton, no studio audience, and all Boston theater people. Each 30-minute episode features one to three actors, directors, playwrights, or other theater personalities speaking with Norton about their recent or upcoming production, season, or career as a whole. They discuss the writing, rehearsal, and production processes and touch on topics including script analysis, production changes, design choices, acting styles, and casting decisions.

As an intern at WGBH and drama nerd, I have the privilege of cataloging the Elliot Norton Reviews this summer. This entails the joyful process of skimming through the videotapes of each of the 150+ episodes in the WGBH archives and writing a short summary of the topics covered by Norton and his guests. Unfortunately, it would take far too long to watch and transcribe every full episode, but these records will at least make researchers aware of the resources available to them at WGBH.

As a part of The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation supported Participatory Cataloging Project, the records for the Elliot Norton Reviews will be published online and available free of charge later this summer. These records, along with other records in WGBH’s Media Library and Archives catalog, will raise awareness of the rich collections available at WGBH.

Researchers and theater enthusiasts will be able to view records of the individual episodes and potentially come to WGBH to view the episodes firsthand, or work with WGBH archivists to access them online. There will also be an opportunity for scholars to enhance the records that are specific to their areas of expertise. In addition, WGBH is planning to work towards supporting and making available streaming archival media. These archival records will be a valuable resource for scholars, students, and all the theater people out there who are looking to remount a production, deepen their understanding of Boston’s rich theater history and find out fascinating tidbits about some of their favorite plays and actors.

– Jessica Green, Intern

Robinson Risner, former POW

This Memorial Day, we remember the sacrifices of our service men and women. We invite you to watch or listen to our interview with James Robinson Risner, filmed for Vietnam: A Television History in 1981.

J. Robinson Risner, 1981

Risner, a celebrated fighter pilot who led missions in both the Korean and Vietnam wors, was featured on the cover of Time Magazine in April of 1965.

In September of that same year, Risner was shot down flying over North Vietnam. He ejected and landed hard in a rice paddy, badly injuring his knee. He was captured and taken to the notorious “Hanoi Hilton” prison and later to Cu Loc Prison, known as “The Zoo”. His captors revelled in the fact that they had captured the hero from the cover of Time. He was tortured for 32 days and held in solitary confinement for 3 years.

Despite these unbearable circumstances, Risner helped lead American resistance in the prison, using a tapping code to communicate, and inspiring the other POW’s with his resilience and spirituality. He later wrote:

“To make it, I prayed by the hour, I did not ask God to take me out of it. I prayed he would give me the strength to endure it…

Risner's release, 1973. Courtesy DOD

J. Robinson Risner was released in 1973 as part of Operation Homecoming. He was awarded the Air Force Cross multiple times, and rose to the rank of Brigadier General. A nine-foot bronze statue of Risner now stands on the central plaza of the Air Force Academy in Colorado, honoring the sentiment he shared that hearing fellow prisoners singing “The Star Spangled Banner,” in the Hanoi Hilton made him feel nine feet tall.

Watch the entire interview with J. Robinson Risner here on Open Vault.

Interviewing Madame Nhu, 1982

by Judith Vecchione

[Judith Vecchione was a producer for Vietnam: A Television History in 1982]

I remember the interview with Mme Nhu vividly. She lived way outside of Rome, in a huge old house, hard to find, isolated. We drove through an ornate metal gate, up a long drive, and were finally admitted — but only to the greenhouse attached to the house, not into the house itself. We were told, with no explanation, that this was where we could film. The room was dim and it was hard to get the lighting right. But the sound problem was worse: it was a cold, wet day, and the sound of rain hitting the greenhouse roof made it sound, for a while, as if we were under a waterfall.

We finally got set and she came in, dressed in her trademark ao dai tunic, cut tight and low, with a glittering cross around her neck. She was tiny, delicate, and completely in control. She wanted to lecture us, not to be interviewed. It took a lot of discussion to persuade her, but finally, just as I was starting my questions, she got up and left. Again, no one explained, so we just sat there. After a while, Mme Nhu returned, wrapped in a beautiful mink stole against the cold. And the interview began.