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Russell Morash, ‘This Old House’ and ‘The French Chef’ producer, passes away at 88

Hailed as the 'father of how-to television' by the National Academy of Television Arts & Sciences, which gave him a lifetime achievement Emmy Award in 2014, Morash helped usher in the DIY era with the enduring instructional shows that he helped create for the Boston PBS station WGBH.
Last Updated : 27 June 2024, 03:51 IST

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Russell Morash, a public television producer and director who helped turn a cookbook author, Julia Child, into America’s chef and transformed bathroom tile replacement and roof repair into addictive TV with This Old House, died on June 19 in Concord, Massachusetts. He was 88.

His death, in a hospital, was confirmed by his wife, Marian Morash, who said the cause was a brain hemorrhage.

Hailed as the “father of how-to television” by the National Academy of Television Arts & Sciences, which gave him a lifetime achievement Emmy Award in 2014, Morash helped usher in the DIY era with the enduring instructional shows that he helped create for the Boston PBS station WGBH.

The French Chef, which debuted in 1963, with Morash as director and producer, and which became Child’s vehicle to mass-market fame, changed the way Americans thought about food with her distinctly American approach to French cooking. And This Old House proved an instant hit in 1979, and remains a ratings powerhouse after 45 years. As of last year, the show and a sister show, Ask This Old House, together had received 20 Emmy Awards and 119 Emmy nominations.

Long before the Food Network, HGTV and other outlets created a how-to revolution on cable, Morash seized on the idea that craftspeople with no television experience could become stars of the small screen by sharing their insider tips and insights.

This Old House, for example, made household names of Bob Vila, who previously ran a home renovation business, and Norm Abram, a carpenter whom Morash had originally hired to build a workshop in his backyard in Lexington, Massachusetts.

Crockett’s Victory Garden debuted in 1975 with James Underwood Crockett, an author of gardening books, as the host. The show also featured Morash’s wife, a self-taught cook, whipping up veggie delights from the garden. The show was refashioned as The Victory Garden after Crockett’s death in 1979.

“He was very skilled in getting the best out of ordinary people,” Henry Becton, a former president of WGBH, said of Morash in an interview.

In terms of sheer impact, no discovery could rival that of Child, a geyser of personality with a fluttering soprano seemingly made for Lincoln Center. Indeed, she later became the subject of a 1989 opera, Bon Appétit!, and of memorable parodies.

But there was no indication that she would become an institution of the airwaves when she was invited in 1962 to appear as a guest on a WGBH book show called I’ve Been Reading, to discuss her new cookbook, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, which would go on to have a seismic impact on the food landscape.

As Morash recalled in the WGBH interview, “The phone rang one afternoon, and this woman I would describe as having the voice somewhere between Eleanor Roosevelt and Tallulah Bankhead, plus a couple of packs of Marlboros a day, said — demanded, really — that she have a hot plate on the reading program.”

On air, Child began beating eggs in a giant copper bowl. “I thought to myself: Who is this madwoman cooking an omelet on a book-review program?” Morash recalled.

The station hired her for 26 segments at $50 apiece, and “The French Chef” ended up running for a decade.

That show, however, was only the start for Morash.

Russell Frederick Morash Jr. was born on Feb. 11, 1936, in Boston, one of three children of Russell Sr., who was part of a long line of carpenters and builders, and Naomi (Lingley) Morash, a secretary.

In his youth, Russ learned carpentry skills while assisting his father, but he became interested in theater while working on productions at Lexington High School.

After graduating from Boston University in 1957 with a degree in theater, he set his sights on a career as a stage director. But he turned down a job as an assistant stage manager in New York to remain in the Boston area to be with Marian Fichtner, whom he married in 1958. He soon took a job as a camera operator at WGBH, and within a year was directing and producing.

His own considerable handyman skills helped inspire This Old House, a concept that grew out of the restoration that he and his wife were doing on their 1851 farmhouse in Lexington.

“We were met with a lot of disbelief among my friends and acquaintances — ‘What’s a television producer doing fixing up his own house and doing the work on his own?’” he said in a 2016 interview with Yankee Magazine. “It triggered in my mind the notion that if maybe enough people would be interested in that idea, we would make a series about it.”

The original concept was to purchase a home, fix it up and sell it for a profit. For the first season, Morash scraped up enough money for a mortgage on a Victorian house in the Boston neighborhood of Dorchester that required extensive renovation work.

A Boston Globe reporter was tapped to be the host of the pilot, which never aired, although station executives did not think she had the right camera presence. “But the guy who was doing the work,” Morash said, referring to Vila, “he could really come through the camera. The connection between him and the audience really came alive.”

The station barely broke even on the sale, but it scarcely mattered: “This Old House” set local ratings records for WGBH and became a bonanza nationally.

One reason for its initial popularity was the overall scarcity of how-to information. “No one was going to teach you how to square a board or how to cut drywall, let alone how to solder a pipe or wire a fuse,” Morash, who retired from WGBH in 2004, said in a 2021 video interview. “There was no internet in those days, no YouTube.”

After the pilot, the show changed its format, sending out its crew to ride to the rescue of anxious homeowners facing daunting repairs. “This Old House” thus created a winning formula later adopted by many cable shows, including HGTV’s Love It or List It and Bravo’s Buying It Blind.

Vila left the show in 1989 and became a one-man home improvement franchise, with celebrity tool endorsement deals and multiple renovation shows of his own.

This Old House, too, grew into a franchise, with Morash producing and directing spinoff shows like Ask This Old House and The New Yankee Workshop, which starred Abram.

In addition to his wife, he is survived by his daughters, Victoria Evarts and Kate Cohen; five grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren.

While This Old House became a television institution, Morash later recalled his father’s initial skepticism that viewers would have any interest in tradespeople beavering away with claw hammers and circular saws.

“I said, ‘Dad, I’m not asking them to quote Shakespeare,” he said in a 2009 interview with Boston magazine. “I want them to tell me, in their own way, how to lay an oak floor.”

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Published 27 June 2024, 03:51 IST

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