Updated: Sep 15, 2020
I had no idea what I was doing on my first day. We were told to take the camera gear to Washington Square Park and shoot man-on-the-street interviews for a show called “NEW YORKERS SPEAK OUT.” Fortunately, the others with me had done this before.
It was 1977, I was recently married without a job. Fortunately, my wife had one with benefits.
Inside a Greenwich Village apartment across from the Jefferson Market Library, retired Cinematographer and Director Ted Estabrook, ran a non-profit studio where a group of college aged kids could learn video production by actually producing shows. I was one of them. It wasn't quite Grad school, but it also didn’t cost me.
Cable TV was expanding across the country. New content was required to fill on-air time. Trained workers were essential for studio, field and delivery operations. Video was in its infancy, soon to be rapidly growing with ample opportunities.
We were learning on-the-job, by creating shows that aired on Manhattan Cable TV. Ted was our mentor. We would shoot, then Ted would critique. We would edit. Ted would critique. This method continued for many months as you worked your way up and either got a paid job, or were too inept and kicked out. Ted was not gentle about it.
As the sun spilled onto the iconic Washington Square arches, NYU students and vacationing tourists filled the welcoming grass and concrete ledges. Autumn leaves blew past the green benches where the neighborhood’s seniors, Ellis Island immigrants and native New Yorkers sat together, side by side.
Being the newbie of the crew, totally unfamiliar with the gear or how a shoot worked, I was handed the microphone and told to think of a subject to discuss with them. I stood there as I suddenly became, The Interviewer.
The mic was attached to a cable, which was attached to a video deck held by the Sound Mixer. He was attached to the Cameraman by a thicker cable. We had no choice but to approach the benches as a team. I wasn’t sure what I would say, but then I heard, "we're rolling." Words came out of my mouth.
I urged our aging friends to "tell us secrets of a long life. Tell us the dilemma of the day. How about a funny joke?" To my surprise, many opened right up and our conversation was shot and recorded. The answers were thoughtful, funny and wise. It went so well, we returned for more. It was my premiere production, titled “OLD FRIENDS OF WASHINGTON SQUARE.”
That was my first day of many months I spent learning to shoot, light, edit, direct and produce at Ted’s. We worked on shows with celebrities like comedian Rodney Dangerfield at his comedy club. We shot a music video with the heavyweight champion Smokin’ Joe Frazier and his band the Knockouts. We shot interviews with the original cast members from Saturday Night Live, including the late, great, Gilda Ratner.
The Saint Valentine’s Day “HOOKERS MASQUERADE BALL” was one of the more memorable shoots we had documenting New York City nightlife. It was a politically charged social event and party, promoting sex workers’ rights.
Activists, hookers, strippers and porn stars mingled with gay and straight party-goers. Some wore masks, gowns or costumes while others were nearly naked. Gyrating bodies packed the ballroom floor as the disco music pounded. Random sex acts appeared in the midst of frenzied dancers. Sweat-soaked perfume permeated the smoke-thick air. I was crunched and jostled in the middle of it all, while focusing and framing my shots.
Exiting down the long packed staircase, I was suddenly stunned to see my Aunt Sandra making her way up. Our eyes met. We exchanged smiles, a quick kiss and passing hellos before the crowd flow forced us apart.
We never discussed, nor will I ever know, why she was there.
Returning home, just before sunrise, I saw my sleeping wife with the flowers and Valentine’s Day card I had left her, which read, “My love for you please do not refute, even though tonight I’m with prostitutes.”
Excerpts from OLD FRIENDS OF WASHINGTON SQUARE