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Behind the Scenes of ‘Old House’ Cleaning

Times Staff Writer

For countless gentrifiers saddled with sagging roofs and warped floors, Bob Vila, host of the Public Broadcasting Service’s series, “This Old House,” is a hero.

He was, as the August-September issue of Boston Business magazine puts it, “the Superman of do-it-yourself TV, swooping in on dilapidated old shacks in his blue Ford pickup truck and 26 weeks later speeding away with a smiling couple waving goodby from the doorway of their gleaming, fully restored home.”

So why, last April, did Boston public television station WGBH take away Vila’s hammer and give him the ax? As writer Paul Keegan tells it, the story behind that pink slip is a tale of how greed and egotism gnawed away at a solid idea like so much dry rot.

“This Old House” was created by Russell Morash, who also cooked up such well-loved how-to shows as “The Victory Garden,” “The New Yankee Workshop” and the everlasting Julia Child as “The French Chef.”

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Since its premiere 10 years ago, “This Old House” has become the most popular half-hour show on PBS. At its peak last year, it lured 22 million viewers away from the networks and cable channels. It won five Emmys. The show connected, Keegan writes, with Americans’ “wildest dreams and deepest fears.”

Child was PBS’ and Morash’s first star, rising to celebrity in the ‘60s and ‘70s. This was the pure, noblesse oblige period of PBS, when a few cookbooks and videos discreetly peddled on the side were considered a fair part of the bargain with the low-paying station, according to the article.

Vila’s stardom came in a much different era.

Both Morash and Vila knew there were big bucks to be made in public broadcasting, the article asserts, adding that “Under the pious rubric of educational television, they could both get what they wanted.”

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A small-time developer who had left some less-than-satisfied customers and neighbors in his wake, Vila was quick to cash in on PBS fame. He raked in endorsements, earning as much as $500,000 on the side last year, Keegan writes.

Meanwhile, the Reagan Administration’s budget had forced PBS to do some entrepreneurial labors, too. By the end of the show’s 10th year, Keegan writes, the folksy House gang, having moved on to increasingly upscale abodes, was not so much rebuilding as inserting: putting in prefab cabinets, trendy windows and $1,000 toilets, all with the label of the manufacturer who had donated them prominently displayed.

The two enterprising men before and behind the “This Old House” cameras had their differences, but the final fallout between Morash and Vila occurred only when their enterprises clashed.

When Vila signed on as spokesman for the competitor of the lumber company that spends $1.2 million to underwrite “This Old House,” it was more than Morash--or the lumber company--could stand.

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As a result, a remodeled Old House will appear this fall with only the ghost of Bob Vila haunting the rickety hallways.

A New Class of Nannies

Back off, goat ropers. “Nanny Times” ain’t for you.

The 4-month-old magazine with the unlikely name is aimed at the estimated 1 million Americans who provide in-home or live-in child care, said Gillian Gordon, president and editor-in-chief.

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“It’s a rapidly growing field . . . there’s such a dreadful shortage,” Gordon explained with a lilt vaguely reminiscent of Mary Poppins.

A native of Ireland, Gillian came to America via England. She got the idea for the magazine while trying to find a nanny for her own child. What she found is that the nanny’s job is much different here than in Great Britain.

“In England, the training is very rigid--two to five years. Student nannies have to spend six months on pediatric ward, six months in a maternity ward. The training is intensive.”

She thinks her publication will help to raise standards here. “A lot of these people are not trained, and we are trying to change that,” she said, speaking from her in-home office, as her 3-year-old made childish sounds in the background.

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Articles in the 25,000-circulation publication are targeted at nannies but may capture parents’ attention, too. The July issue, for instance, included an article on “Interviewing for the Nanny Position” and features on children’s teeth and teaching reading. It also had a story asking “Two-year-olds, Terrible or Terrific?”

Future articles will deal with everything from nanny agencies to Halloween costumes, Gordon said. And each issue features classified advertisements aimed at nannies and those in need of their services.

Subscriptions are $9.95 for 13 issues, at Nanny Times, P.O. Box 31, Rutherford, N.J. 07070

AIDS Alert

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From the moment the AIDS epidemic first infected the media, heterosexuals have ridden a roller coaster from anxiety to calm, panic to complacency.

Even a roller coaster gets boring after five years. But readers for whom the subject of AIDS now elicits a yawn may find themselves awakened by a pair of articles in the September Mirabella.

In the first work, Brooke Kroeger describes how a white, middle-class, heterosexual woman, in none of the known risk groups, became a statistical anomaly--infected with the HIV virus through normal heterosexual activity.

In the next article, Randy Shilts, author of the acclaimed history of the AIDS epidemic, “And the Band Played On,” confronts the theory currently in vogue: that the risk of AIDS for heterosexuals is a myth.

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For a number of reasons, he writes, the AIDS epidemic is unlikely to spread through the United States in the same pattern manifested in Africa and other parts of the Third World, where heterosexual transmission is the norm. But that does not mean AIDS will not have a devastating effect on heterosexuals, Shilts concludes.

Shilts, a homosexual, defied the gay power structure by drawing attention to the way gay bathhouses amplified the spread of the disease. He also has argued that some gay community leaders and medical professionals encouraged the media to exaggerate the heterosexual AIDS risk in America because they knew the government would not fund a war against a disease that killed only homosexuals.

The people who cried wolf, he believes, now bear some responsibility for the negligence that the media and leaders show now that AIDS has, in fact, spread into certain heterosexual communities.

In the inner city, Shilts points out, crack houses may be the heterosexual equivalent of the bathhouses that helped spread the disease so rapidly in the early ‘80s.”

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Shilts concludes: “No reasonable person looking at the awe-inspiring levels of HIV infection in the inner city can possibly say there is not a heterosexual AIDS problem in America. What the heterosexual-myth proponents are really saying is that because AIDS is not a problem for middle-class Caucasians, it’s not a problem. In other words, millions of poor African Americans and Hispanics don’t matter. It’s truly astonishing that such a transparently racist analysis can earn such intellectual currency in contemporary America.”


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