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If I Were a Carpenter

Bill Sharpsteen is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles. His last article for the magazine was about the land speed record

Everybody likes steve and Norm. And some people really like them. Unknown to the pair as they dig into their Tex-Mex at an elegant Tucson restaurant, two well-dressed women in the powder room discuss how they’d like to take Steve and Norm home and demonstrate their keen appreciation for men with tool belts. Or so I’m told by someone who sat in a stall listening.

And why shouldn’t these women be, um, fans? Steve Thomas and Norm Abram, hosts of “This Old House,” PBS’ winsome chronicle of home renovations, hardly look like unapproachable celebrities. At 44, Steve is still boyish in a square-jawed manner--the show’s wide-eyed spectator full of questions for the craftspeople, who tolerate him as if he’s the apprentice eager to move up from getting the coffee. When Steve asks if he can grout the tile, he speaks for the countless armchair renovators who wish they could wield the trowel themselves.

Opposite Steve is Norm, 47, a former contractor whom the show’s credits list as a master carpenter, and indeed it would seem he knows all there is to know about wood and how to build with it. Norm has the aura of a buddy with whom you could share a beer and talk drywall. People buttonhole him in restaurants for his opinion on the best stain for a mahogany newel post, and he patiently advises them. The two are amiable opposites. “I’m the enthusiast and Norm is the realist,” Steve says. Steve likes the gentle stardom that comes from “This Old House”; Norm prefers the smell of wood to fame.

This may or may not explain the carnal adoration pondered in the restroom. On the one hand, “This Old House” is devoted to documenting houses torn apart and refurbished, an activity with just enough testosterone in the sawdust to bring guys to their televisions. On the other, nearly half the show’s audience of 10 million is women. And they might say “This Old House” is about relationships: Viewers get to know a house’s charms and watch a commitment form to work on it for the good of all concerned. Affection grows as each room is lovingly remodeled with beauty, function and warmth. Like pining ex-lovers, the show’s most ardent fans seek out past projects, which Bruce Irving, a “This Old House” producer, only half-facetiously calls “national shrines.” Attorney Mills Fleming of Savannah, Ga., whose Italianate Victorian townhouse was featured in 1995, regularly encounters the faithful on the sidewalk in front of his Monterey Square house, its location handed out by the visitors and convention bureau. Some of them, Fleming marvels, “remember Norm standing in one particular spot in front of the house, and they’ll get a picture there.”

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From wistful beginning to usually triumphant end, “This Old House” unfolds like a soap opera with power tools. The show selects a worthy home about to be renovated, helps arrange for contractors and as much as possible controls the schedule and materials. All this while the homeowner foots the bill (though perks abound, as we shall see). In early July, KCET is airing the show’s latest installment: a $150,000 renovation of a 1930 Pueblo Revival house in Tucson’s historic Colonial Solana neighborhood. The house is owned by architectural designer Jim Meigs and his wife, Colleen, a friendly couple who, after living in the stucco house for 18 years, wanted to combine the cachet of a classic hacienda with the innards of something from “The Jetsons.” Out with the cruddy chipped floors, the narrow, dark kitchen and dilapidated courtyard; in with goodies like floors of handmade tile, a new kitchen with a custom-built island made of rare mesquite and, in one courtyard, a 12-foot-long “aquatic treadmill” that allows one to swim in place like a salmon driving upstream.

It’s here that “This Old House” today is shooting a scene where Steve discovers the completed pool after first seeing it in its pre-assembled state several episodes ago. (Construction on the house has to be finished in a blistering 90 days so that the last show airs on time; when the pool was installed toward the end of the job, the first three shows had already aired through most of the country.) In a biting wind under dark skies, Steve, dressed in blue jeans, hiking boots and a worn leather bomber jacket, leans against a concrete wall reviewing his lines with the show’s executive producer and director, Russell Morash.

“The last time we saw this,” Steve mumbles in rehearsal, “it was just a metal box--"

“And now we’ve got a swimmer,” Morash coaches.

“And now we’ve got a swimmer,” Steve repeats, as Seth Pepper, a local freestyle champion, smoothly crawl-strokes in place (and doesn’t dare leave the 80-degree water or risk freezing).

Morash turns to James Murdock, the subcontractor responsible for the pool, and elicits the factoid that its wave-generating engine is fueled with vegetable oil. “So in case of a leak, you’ve got salad dressing,” Steve offers, and Morash manages a smile at this oh-so-Steve stab at levity.

Not quite grandfatherly at 61, Morash looks more like a football coach working a hundred plays in his head than a director with eight Emmys (“This Old House” has won 14) back at his Massachusetts farmhouse. He’d much rather broadcast a slightly flawed scene so long as it tells the story, and his style mirrors the gritty construction sites that “This Old House” chronicles. Rough edges abound, most of them in deliberate view of the camera so that viewers get a sense of the chaos and the potential order. (Morash even eschews that most basic TV fixer-upper: makeup.) People rarely stand still on “This Old House,” and when they do, the hand-held camera keeps moving, circling the participants or zooming in on details. Earlier in the day, when Morash needed the camera to shoot above the action, he had cameraman Joel Coblenz slowly walk backward up a piece of scaffolding propped against a ladder--crane shot a la Morash.

With the exception of a wireless hand-held monitor and better cameras, there isn’t much different about Morash’s method since he created “This Old House” in 1979. Thirty-one homes, or relationships, ago, he persuaded Boston’s PBS station, WGBH, to buy a $17,000 Victorian in suburban Dorchester so that he could document its renovation. As the guy who launched Julia Child’s first cooking show in 1963 and the venerable “Victory Garden,” which still quietly runs 22 years later, Morash was already creating a small how-to empire. With “This Old House,” the carpenter’s son shrewdly combined do-it-yourself information with the simple fascination of watching craftspeople build. “I think a lot of people are interested in what’s behind the fence,” Morash says, “what’s over the wall, what’s behind the door.”

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With help from an underwriter, the station gave Morash $400,000 to produce 13 episodes for the Boston market. At the time, Norm happened to be remodeling Morash’s own home when the producer approached him with the idea for the show. A carpenter’s son, like Morash, raised on the measure-twice-cut-once credo, Norm had just started his own contracting business and didn’t see many other jobs ahead. Morash was offering 15 weeks of work. “I just said, ‘Wow. TV,’ ” he recalls, “How could it hurt me?”

Originally, Morash hadn’t planned on having Norm say anything on camera. “I thought my role would be carrying a ladder through a scene,” Norm says. But when Morash needed an expert to show viewers how to fix rotted eaves, he coaxed Norm into the grungy construction limelight for a few words. He gave a nervous, low-key presentation that, minus the nerves, pretty much continues today. “If Russ wants me to jump up and down and be super-excited, he’s going to have a hard time getting it out of me,” Norm says.

Morash also hired Bob Vila, a Boston-based builder whom he’d met through a newspaper reporter, to act as host for a reported $250 per episode. “Vila was pretty good,” Morash says. “He had a glib way about him. Didn’t know anything about building or contracting or anything else. But he was certainly a talker.”

“This Old House” went national the next year and gradually found an audience for its loose, folksy celebration of quality workmanship. Then, in 1989, just as the show was approaching national-treasure status, WGBH fired Vila when he refused to stop promoting Rickel Home Centers, a competitor of Home Depot Inc., which also happened to be a “This Old House” underwriter. Vila claimed Morash encouraged him to pursue endorsements, which by 1989 totaled $250,000 annually, and WGBH management admitted it knew of his commercial activities. Since being cut loose from the show, Vila has cashed in on numerous endorsement deals, including a Hearst-published magazine called Bob Vila’s American Home, his own syndicated home-repair show and books. “I am at heart a capitalist,” Vila told the Wall Street Journal (he refused to be interviewed for this story). “The years I hosted on PBS I compare to the years I volunteered for the Peace Corps.”

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Among present-day “This Old House” personnel, Vila is usually referred to as The Previous Host. When Richard Trethewey, the show’s plumbing and heating expert, describes the day Steve took over the host duties eight years ago, it’s hard not to detect a lingering bitterness. “It wasn’t unusual for us in the old days to do a rehearsal,” Trethewey recalls. “The camera came on, and if you didn’t say your lines fast enough, the host took it from you and you just stood there. Now it’s clearly a sense of ensemble.” Morash’s exasperated coda to the Vila saga: “I don’t talk about him anymore, I just don’t. There’s no percentage in it. Jesus Christ, it really is over.”

Just before the 1989 fall season began, Steve was hired out of a pool of 419 applicants ranging from a brain surgeon and concert violinist to contractors hoping to follow in Norm’s footsteps. A natural storyteller, it takes him 15 minutes and a sipped beer to recount the trail that led him to “This Old House.” A Manhattan Beach native, Steve spent his 20s sailing, renovating homes for profit, writing a book about ancient Micronesian navigation and producing a documentary on the same subject. It was a lot of fun, but eventually his wife sat him down for “one of those serious conversations you have in the course of married life,” Steve says. “She said, ‘Look, you’re not making it. You’ve got to get a job.’ ” Steve became the current host with one significant contractual difference from The Previous Host: He isn’t allowed to endorse products.

With Steve, the program has in the last five years outrated every national PBS program including WGBH’s big gun, “Nova” (in Los Angeles, “This Old House” is usually in the top four). Last year, WGBH signed a 10-year licensing agreement with Time Inc. that includes an affiliated bimonthly magazine, books, videos and syndicated reruns. Part of the terms is that Norm and Steve attend trade shows to further the “This Old House” brand recognition among advertisers. And it is here that the ban on endorsements gets murky, because companies pay the traveling expenses for Norm and Steve to shake hands at their booths. While the hosts aren’t allowed to be photographed with any products, it’s not clear if the distinction is apparent to anyone but the lawyers. (Endorsements or lack thereof are a touchy subject among the “This Old House” crew. When a bystander at the Tuscon house observes that viewers will want to buy the pool based on the show’s implied seal of approval, Steve instantly gives her a stern rebuttal. “We don’t give endorsements. We’re just showing a product because it’s part of the project.”)

Thousands apply each year to be chosen for one of the two projects “This Old House” chronicles each season. The producers take a surprisingly casual approach--until recently, the show didn’t even require the homeowners to sign a contract, and the one that’s used now is a simple one-page agreement.

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If someone claims they can afford the construction, producer Irving doesn’t verify their finances. “We just believe that nobody would sign up to be on national television only to run out of money,” he says. “And if they do, that’s going to be part of the story.” (In 1987, a pair of homeowners complained that the show forced them into spending more on their renovation, than they had planned. Acting about as annoyed as he ever gets, Norm characterizes the incident as “overstated.” And Morash, who tends to be far more candid than his guarded hosts, says, “We begged them to cut their expectations because we could see they weren’t going to make it. We didn’t run them out of money--they ran themselves out of money.”)

Two strict guidelines eliminate most hopefuls: For the 18-episode fall project, the house must be in the Boston area, where the cast and crew live. And the eight-episode spring project has to be somewhere warm because it is taped in winter, when most home construction in the Northeast shuts down. (The only exception was a 1991 spring project in London.) “It cuts out all the people from Seattle that write to us,” Irving notes.

Palatial abodes of the rich or famous never make the cut; instead, the producers try to zero in on that-could-be-mine houses that, when finished, inspire just the right amount of longing and envy among viewers. This describes the Meigs home, which, while hardly a fixer-upper, doesn’t appear extravagant. Still, the pool seems a little over the top. When I ask Meigs how much it cost, he says, “Sixteen thousand. But we got a good deal.”

That’s not the only bargain. However humble the “This Old House” folks appear on camera, they have lots of clout. Materials such as windows throughout the house were given to the project in exchange for a credit at the end of the show; the driveway was repaved with $14,000 worth of donated fancy tiles. With laborers in the background laying the brick-like tiles, Norm picked up one for the camera and described in awed tones how the tiles are a special composition of concrete made by an amazing machine from Germany. (“Heidelberg meets Taos,” muttered Irving.) And after hearing from Irving, Viking Corp. offered the Meigses its top-of-the-line kitchen appliances at discount. “I would have used less expensive appliances,” Meigs concedes. The donations, by the way, aren’t completely free--the windfall is considered taxable income.

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While soliciting donations is standard procedure at PBS, some have criticized “This Old House” because the freebies turn the show into a bazaar for new products, hardly a commercial-free format. According to Irving, donations typically total $50,000 to $200,000, depending on the project. Although manufacturers aren’t mentioned by name during the show, the producers make sure each product gets adequate exposure. “Let’s put it this way,” Irving says. “If $30,000 worth of windows come to the house, we wouldn’t just sort of walk by them and say, ‘Oh, the windows are here!’ and keep on going.”

The issue is clearly tiresome to Morash as he discusses it on the Meigses’ front porch surrounded by construction clutter. With a relatively small yearly budget of $2.6 million supplied entirely by three underwriters--State Farm Insurance, Glidden paints and Ace Hardware--the free products and discounts, he argues, give the show something it can offer homeowners in exchange for the show controlling some of the materials. “If I want content,” Morash says, “it seems to me I ought to help pay for it in the sense of donations.”

While some components may be free or discounted, the craftsmanship isn’t. Irving scours each location for the best builders and tradespeople. In Boston, the show invariably uses contractor Tom Silva, an expert at both installing doors and tweaking Steve for his stage-directed ignorance of home building. Under Morash’s direction--and nothing happens on the show without Morash’s approval--Silva has developed an on-camera personality almost on par with Norm’s and Steve’s.

In any event, few builders turn down the opportunity to work before the “This Old House” cameras. “It’s the kind of exposure that any contractor would kill for,” says the Meigses’ contractor, John McCaleb. (Indeed, a sign on a store in town reads, “This Old House Chose Us for Their Shower Doors.”) Tedd Benson, whose New Hampshire timber-framing business has been featured three times on the show, says he hasn’t quantified the bottom line, “but did a lot more people become aware of what we’re doing and why we’re doing it? You bet.”

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If “This Old House” is indeed a parable of human relationships, it sometimes chronicles the small disasters that cause everyday life to grind to a halt. Because the show often chooses older homes governed by historical commissions with strict rules about exterior renovations, more than one house has been saddled with delays. “Does it add drama?” Steve, ever the storyteller, muses. “Sure. Problems add drama. People love a question mark at the end of each show. And if the historical commission or the planning commission has a decision that is hanging in the balance and it’s going to affect the fate of the project, people will want to know what the answer is.”

If ever a relationship had too much drama, it was when “This Old House” watched a planning commission shut down its London project in mid-construction after it decided the new mansard roof, which tipped at a nontraditional 90 degrees, was inconsistent with the neighboring historic flats. With the first shows of the project already airing, all that could be done was to tell the story. “We were having our little closing party,” Irving recalls, “and up front guys with welding torches were cutting I-beams. I can remember sparks literally landing on the flower bouquet and saying to myself, ‘Well, we really screwed this one up.’ ”

This fall, “This Old House” is returning to its original concept and buying a house in a suburb of Boston that it will renovate and sell. Morash alum Julia Child has been invited to consult on the kitchen design and the folks from “The Victory Garden” to do the landscaping. And perhaps because the producers are aware of how abruptly they end each affair, they plan this time to linger a little longer after the job is done. “We’ve just done these tornadoes through these houses at the end, and then it’s ' ‘Bye, see you later,’ ” Norm says. “Many people want to see the decorating.”

Or maybe they can’t bear to end the relationship. But no. Steve and Norm will take their tool belts, say goodbye and leave for the next house.

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“A little half-hour show,” Morash ponders. “We’ve been doing it for 18 years. You would think that people would tire of it.”


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