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In the Kitchen with Russ Morash: GBH's Discovery of Julia Child

In the Kitchen with Russ Morash: GBH’s Discovery of Julia Child

Boston Gas Kitchen
Julia Child and her GBH producer Russ Morash discuss a dish during a pilot show. GBH’s headquarters had been destroyed in a fire, so filming took place at a donated kitchen cabinet showroom at the Boston Gas Company. Later episodes were taped in the donated studios of the Catholic Television Center near Boston University.
W584657_2 Photograph by Paul Child. © Schlesinger Library, Harvard Radcliffe Institute.

His French language skills were sorely lacking. While growing up, dinners at his house were overcooked fish, fowl and vegetables. He was a theater actor by training. So, what was this 27-year-old doing as producer/director of GBH’s The French Chef with Julia Child? We spoke with Russ Morash, now in his eighties, who is featured in HBO Max’s new fictionalized Julia series, about the early years of the GBH program, his relationship with Julia and what GBH was really like back in the day.

What was dinner like in your childhood home?
My dear departed mother would try her best, but she cooked the hell out of everything. I remember dinners as a sort of an ordeal. The quicker you got through, you could be excused from the table and you could leave.

Who was the first person to talk with Julia Child at GBH?
It was probably me. I had been at GBH for about four years. It was 1962 and I was in our temporary office at the Catholic Television Center [space borrowed after GBH studios were destroyed in a 1961 fire]. The phone rings and it’s a woman with the oddest voice I'd ever heard. It was a trill. It was Tallulah Bankhead. It was Katherine Hepburn. It was Boston Brahmin, sort of. I’d never heard it before nor since. It was distinctive and had a lovely lilt. She said, “I’m going to be on [GBH’s] I’ve Been Reading and I will need a hot plate. Please pass that along to Miffy.”

Who was Miffy?
Miffy Goodhart. She was a GBH volunteer who lived in Cambridge with her husband, who was an economist at Harvard. One of the shows that GBH gave her to manage was I've Been Reading, where Julia made her first appearance to promote her new book Mastering the Art of French Cooking.

What was your first encounter with Julia like?
I remember going to her house on Irving Street in Cambridge. I was dazzled by how civilized it was. It had a grand piano and there were paintings by her husband Paul on the wall and there was some of his hand-carved furniture. There were photographs everywhere. It was a street full of distinguished neighbors including John Kenneth Galbraith. Down the street was Arthur Schlesinger and Edwin Land, a co-founder of the Polaroid Corporation.

Is it true that Julia Child paid for the pilot?
Julia may have given GBH a generous contribution over the years, but she did not pay for the first program. The program was paid for by underwriting at first by S&H Green Stamps, and later by Polaroid.

What made her so special?
She was extremely bright. Julia had an incredible ability to evaluate taste—even complex tastes—and adjust them if something was not right—a little more tarragon or some chives. She had such a good understanding of the recipe that she built it in her mind before she actually did it. She was a great conversationalist, and she could keep up a patter—indispensable asset for someone who is expected to talk for a half-hour nonstop about a recipe. And she had no vanity. She didn't care whether you knew her or should have known her or knew how important she was. There was no pretension about her.

Did you become personal friends?
Absolutely fast friends, we went to her house often and she came to ours. We never got to go to France with her, unfortunately, but we had a lot of fun in California, Norway and Cambridge.

What was GBH like in those days?
GBH was a creation of the Lowell Institute and was a really powerful cultural aggregation of Greater Boston’s universities and museums. There was nothing like it. There were only about 60 employees when I started. It was a family. It was 1961 and I was making 65 dollars a week as production assistant. I was learning everything about how to operate a television camera. In 1961, our studio burned down. Everything was lost except for an old and tired Trailways bus, which had been converted into a mobile recording control room. I was one of the pioneers in using it to record remote telecasts. And that is how we made the original French Chef programs.

What else was going on at the time The French Chef aired?
GBH in those days was a hotbed of activity, with professors from Harvard and MIT and people from the Boston Symphony Orchestra coming and going. Most everything was done live but we did have a video tape recorder in our mobile unit, so we could tape programs and run them at other times. At our borrowed studios, we would have a book review program at one end. At the other end would be a science program and in the breaks between the half hours we would roll the cameras from one end of the studio to the other. We worked until about ten thirty at night.

GBH had never done a program like The French Chef before. What were some of the methods you used?

One of our innovations was to use a mirror over Julia’s countertop so viewers could see what she was seeing. This also allowed us to show the ingredients and her techniques. We also insisted on focusing on her hands rather than her face. If you’re teaching people how to cook and what to look for, you’d best focus on what’s in the pot. That was our mantra. It takes a lot of choreography and coordination between the talent and the production team. We had to complete the live-on-tape program in 30 minutes, on time and on schedule. There was no editing possible then. So we had to stage the recipes—having the raw ingredients, the half-cooked meal and then the fully cooked version ready to go. The food was spectacular and Julia was wonderful.

What did you work on after The French Chef?
I created other “how-to” shows like Victory Garden and This Old House. These were programs about fundamental topics—food, gardening, shelter—that people were very interested in and that made them feel good to understand. They were done with the mobile unit. It was a way to break down the walls of television. In many ways, public television is doing that now, closer than ever to our original vision.

Discover more about Julia Child here.