The man who created PBS’ “This Old House” and teamed with Julia Child to create “The French Chef” — shows that helped spawn today’s vast ecosystem of programming about the American home — advocates a return to modesty over McMansions.
“We don’t need these enormous houses with five bedrooms and six baths –– that’s ridiculous,” said producer and director Russell Morash, 83. “It’s too much resource being spent on things you really don’t need.
“We’re going to have to find ways to live smaller, and I think ‘This Old House’ is going to have to lead the way into what those houses can be,” he said of the venerable program, currently celebrating its 40th anniversary season.
Morash, besides setting the exemplar for a now-surging home improvement genre, also sparked a blaze of cooking shows. In 1963, he teamed with the imperturbable Child to create “The French Chef,” and together they launched other cooking classics over three decades.
For a couple of other long-running creations, he didn’t even have to leave his own property. “The New Yankee Workshop,” hosted by master carpenter Norm Abram, and “The Victory Garden” were both filmed in the backyard of the 1851 Massachusetts farmhouse that Morash bought in 1975 with his wife, Marian, a James Beard award-winning chef.
He’s won 14 Emmys for his work, as well as a lifetime achievement Emmy. And yet he would rather rhapsodize about a $13.99 Home Depot pressure-relief valve, a fix for his busted well.
“Love it, love it –– can’t get enough of it,” said Morash, personifying the fastidious attention to detail that’s made “This Old House” a lodestar for millions of DIYers.
Seated in an office atop that famed “Yankee Workshop,” Morash took a break from tending his Fortex string beans to talk about old houses –– and America’s beloved, indomitable chef.
We understand that your carpenter father wasn’t thrilled when you shared the concept for “This Old House.”
“Who wants to see that?” He just couldn’t understand it. And Marian’s dad –– he worked so hard in his private life to appear as somebody other than the poor guy in the kitchen of the fraternity house cooking chickens for students. He wanted to be known as a bon vivant –– anything but a cook. You see what’s happened in only a couple of generations. Now, the cook is king –– the uber-chef we’ve anointed with legendary attributes. While carpenters still have a way to go, is there anyone around who doesn’t appreciate what they do?
What was it like working with Julia Child?
Oh, she was wonderful, a good friend. Julia would call me the “friendly ayatollah,” and it was done with love. She had an innate curiosity about everything. I always called Julia a “today” person. She didn’t much care about what happened yesterday. She was only interested in moving it forward, which is a great tactic to get through a complex life.
She would toss off a blithe, “Eh bien, tant pis!” (Oh well, too bad!) when things soured.
She was an expert at everything she did, but occasionally a pie crust or a pie itself would fall on the floor. She said, “Well, look, you’re alone in the kitchen. Pick it up, put it back on the plate, and serve it, eventually. You’re the only one that knows what happened.”
Back in 1983, you said, “You can actually teach precious little in a half-hour TV program.” Do you still agree?
The ease with which media can be edited has made it simpler, along with cheap animation, and “This Old House” uses both. When we started out, not only were the cameras terrible and the technology pathetic, but we had no way to telescope action.
“This Old House” has a built-to-last ethic — that’s appealing in an increasingly throwaway culture.
Just look at the trim boards on the 1851 farmhouse I live in –– good today as they were when they were nailed up. It’s probably first-growth pine, not the kind of quick growth, ship-to-market from Plum Creek, Idaho, stuff that’s been on the stump for only 25 years. We have a bad habit in this country of putting forth things that we’re not 100% sure will be there 100 years from now.