The Museum : Please, Touch the Dial

Judith Michaelson is a Times staff writer

It took just 24 seconds on a test run at the soon-to-open Museum of Television & Radio in Beverly Hills recently to call up Edward R. Murrow's "Person to Person" interview with Marilyn Monroe. And in just a few minutes of the April 8, 1955, broadcast on CBS, when TV was in its infancy, there is so much to notice:

Reminders that television was once black and white with shades of gray, and that celebrity journalism flourished before "Entertainment Tonight."

There is news icon Murrow telling viewers that tonight they would go to photographer Milton Greene's farmhouse in Connecticut, where Monroe was visiting. "Hello Milton . . .," Murrow calls out. "What are you doing there?" Smoke from his ever-present cigarette curls about his head, seeming to punctuate his words.

And the luminous Monroe, then 28. You see her at first, sitting at the kitchen table with Greene's wife, Amy. "Are you the cook?" Murrow asks Amy Greene. No, the household has a "wonderful girl" for that. In the den, the actress, in her bubbly voice, tells Murrow that with her new company, Marilyn Monroe Productions Inc., she wants "primarily to contribute to help making good pictures" and offers hopefully "to do drama parts too."

Monroe died a little more than seven years later, and the Murrow interview remains one of the few surviving images of the actress off the big screen.

Such is the possibility of the museum, where about 45,000 TV programs, 20,000 radio programs and 10,000 separate advertising clips are available for the public to watch or listen to. The collection includes news, drama, concerts, comedy, TV movies and miniseries, children's fare, science fiction, game shows, political conventions, specials, sports and variety--the earliest clip being a 1920 radio campaign speech by the Democratic vice presidential nominee, Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

The museum seeks to collect the best--certainly not all of the 3 million hours of television, and uncountable radio hours.

To celebrate its West Coast opening March 18, showcase the collection and give context to it, the museum is staging a batch of exhibitions, screenings, seminars and gallery exhibits. The premiere exhibit is "Stand-Up Comedians on Television," which runs through Sept. 29 and traces the relationship between TV and comics from "Mr. Television" Milton Berle to Phyllis Diller and Jerry Seinfeld.

"The key idea of the museum is to make a collection available to the public," said Robert M. Batscha, the museum's president. "We are not a warehouse of programming. The whole purpose is to make all of the programming available so that anybody can walk in and watch whatever they want. They don't have to be doing research, they don't have to apply. They can just walk in. And Los Angeles [is] the heart of the creative community in television."

Enter the airy, eggshell-colored travertine and glass building on the southwest corner of Beverly Drive and Little Santa Monica Boulevard, and facing you will be eight TV monitors, flickering with program clips. The three-story, 23,000-square-foot structure was designed by Richard Meier & Partners. Meier is architect of the new Getty Center in Brentwood.

On the main floor is the Radio Listening Room, where you can choose from five channels on a small box with buttons, much the way you select channels on an airplane. The room seats 20.

You can tune to the primary radio exhibit, "Rock 'n' Roll and Radio"; to the radio component of another exhibit, "Witness to History"; and to "Campaigns and Conventions," revealing how radio has been used during political campaigns. The fourth channel has clips on the feud between Jack Benny and Fred Allen, while the fifth offers "Rare Voices of the 20th Century," including FDR, Churchill, John F. Kennedy and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

In a corner of the L-shaped room is a small radio booth, where museum officials say they intend to bring in radio personalities for live broadcasts.

The ground floor also contains the 45-seat Education Room, where students of all ages will attend special programs starting this fall.

On the mezzanine is the main screening room with 150 seats for exhibits, screenings and seminars. It has a large-screen video projection system.

The heart of the operation is the second floor, where the console center is filled with 50 TV monitors. (Another 14 are in a scholars' room, for research. In the New York scholars' room, Robert Redford studied clips of old game shows before directing his film "Quiz Show.") Each monitor has two or four headsets, so you can watch alone or with friends or family.

The library is the point of entry for access to the museum's holdings. No books, Dewey decimal system or call slips here. Instead, a computer room accented by a beige and gray carpet offers 50 to 60 computers for calling up the list of available programming.

The museum has created its own software system, which officials say is easy to use. Using a mouse, you sign on and click into one of three doors you wish to enter: Collections Highlights/Exhibitions; The Collection; The Archives.

About 40% of the museum's radio and TV programming is immediately accessible. (The rest is in the archives, which can be searched by program title, but it takes about a week to access.)

Choose the collection for example, and you get icons, representing television, radio and advertising. Within each category you can search by information such as title, names, program summary and subject heading. You can find not only programming but also museum seminars and exhibitions, which are videotaped and added to the collection.

Interested in Mary Tyler Moore? Type in her name. According to Douglas F. Gibbons, director of the museum's library and information services, you'll see a list of about 85 items of her work and appearances. In scrolling the list, you can also stop on an item, click on the "more info" button and get cast and production credits and a program summary.

You can make up to four selections and are then assigned a viewing console, where you watch your programs.

The first performer seen on the Museum's "Stand-Up Comedians" video exhibit is Henny Youngman from a 1959 clip on "The Ed Sullivan Show." It's no surprise that he's a part of the exhibit's first session called "The War Behind the White Picket Fence" (March 18-April 7). In the clip, Youngman is comparing his wife to Marilyn Monroe and, with what by now is a cliche line, adds: "Now take my wife--please!" The 90-minute tape includes Alan King, Joan Rivers and Roseanne.

Rather than being a chronological offering, the exhibit shows how comedians across five decades examined life. "If you did it chronologically," said television curator David Bushman, "you wouldn't be able to look at the way Roseanne was looking at married life and compare it to the way Jackie Gleason was. You [can] look at George Carlin and Lenny Bruce who did the same thing with language, hypocrisy and religion, even though they did it 10, 20 years apart."

Other exhibitions, previously shown in New York, are:

* "Witness to History," which opens with TV coverage of the JFK assassination in November 1963, and radio coverage of the Munich Crisis in September 1938. Curator Ronald C. Simon said that these were "defining episodes" when each medium "signaled it would be a major participant in relaying history."

The exhibit, which runs through Oct. 6, shows radio and television not only as the recorder of history, but also as later providing a perspective of events it has recorded.

* "Rock 'n' Roll and Radio"--through next March--is designed to show what radio curator Ken Mueller called "the synergistic thing" between rock 'n' roll and radio, where, in the wake of the arrival of television, "radio is nurturing rock 'n' roll, and on the other side rock 'n' roll is helping to perpetuate radio."

* An International Children's Television Festival, April 13-Nov. 17, offering about 50 programs from 25 nations.

There are also two non-programming exhibits: "Star Trek: The Tradition Continues" with life-sized mannequins showing the costumes, makeup and facial appliances from all but the first "Star Trek" series. An exhibit of pen-and-ink drawings, gouaches, lithographs and etchings by Al Hirschfeld includes Lucille Ball, Johnny Carson, Leonard Bernstein, David Brinkley, the Beatles, George Burns and Gracie Allen.

The Museum of Television & Radio has three broad qualifiers for programming to come onto its lists.

First, Batscha said, is "artistic excellence or cultural significance. Programs of really high quality--best written, best acted, etc. Second, historic significance. You will see here and listen to all of the known inaugural addresses, all of the space flights, . . . the Army-McCarthy hearings, the Kefauver hearings. And social impact. These are programs that we put into the collection because they represent what is going on in the society at the time."

Don't expect the museum, however, to collect bad programming.

No museum, Batscha said, "hangs bad paintings on a wall."

"We are often asked, and it's a fair question, 'Why don't you do a seminar on what's wrong with television? Why don't you do a screening series of the worst of television?' It's not what a museum does. . . . The role of a museum is to collect excellence and sharpen taste and understanding."

*

Museum of Television & Radio, 465 N. Beverly Drive, Beverly Hills. Opens March 18. Wednesdays to Sundays, noon to 5 p.m., except Thursdays until 9 p.m. During its inauguration week, it will also be open Monday and Tuesday, noon to 5 p.m. The suggested contribution for admission is adults, $6; students and senior citizens, $4; children under 13, $3. A separate fee schedule applies to seminars. (310) 786-1000.

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