Roger Englander had a tremendous impact on the television industry, and on the way many of us think about music. Like his longtime collaborator Leonard Bernstein, Englander was at precisely the right place at the right time to bring cultural television to new heights. Post-war American television was remarkably receptive to experimentation and innovation, and Englander’s expansive imagination was brought to bear on many vital projects. He brought a certain eagerness and a penetrating insight to everything he did.
Perhaps best known as the producer of CBS-TV’s The New York Philharmonic Young People’s Concerts With Leonard Bernstein, Englander also produced the first opera telecasts in history, Gian Carlo Menotti’s The Medium and The Telephone. That milestone NBC telecast in 1947 led to a two-year association with Menotti, during which Englander produced four additional operas by Menotti for the New York City Opera Company, the Chicago Opera Company, and road company tours. He went on to produce musical programs for The Bell Telephone Hour, creating shows for Alfred Drake, José Ferrer, Isaac Stern, Howard Keel, Rosemary Clooney, Eileen Farrell, and the ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, among many others. He also directed programs for S. Hurok Presents, and, later, Vladimir Horowitz at Carnegie Hall (1968).
He earned five Emmy Awards during his long career, as well as the Peabody Award, The Director’s Guild of America Award, the Prix Jeunesse from Munich, and the Prague International Festival Award. He is the author of Opera: What’s All the Screaming About? (Walker, 1983), and has written articles for the New York Times, Musical America, Opera News, and Television Age, among other publications.
In 1949, Englander became an associate director at ABC-TV, where his assignments often took him beyond his strong musical background. His credits include the full spectrum of what was being telecast, from news and sports to quiz shows and dramas. Later, in 1953, he was appointed staff director at CBS. His years at that network brought him assignments much more aligned with his musical talents, such as the musical segments for Omnibus and the critically acclaimed Odyssey series. He also took dramatic experimental directions with the weekly shows Lamp Unto My Feet and Look Up and Live.
It was the Omnibus program that demonstrated Bernstein’s powers as a television personality. Englander said at the time, “Bernstein proved on his Omnibus program that serious music can attract large and responsive audiences. It’s great satisfaction to be able to show them and millions more to a front-row seat at Carnegie Hall.”
Born in Cleveland, Ohio, on November 23, 1926, Englander’s earliest musical ambition was, not surprisingly, to become a conductor. He played piano, French horn, and trumpet at Cleveland Heights High School, and eventually conducted the high school band and orchestra. But at the University of Chicago, which he entered at age 16, he turned to studying drama, composition, and theory, and he earned a Master’s degree in Music. Among his composition teachers at Chicago was the renowned composer Arnold Schoenberg.
After graduating, he quickly became involved with both the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the Chicago Opera Company, where he served as Fausto Cleva’s assistant. He embarked on a career as an impresario, and he met the major artistic figures who passed through Chicago, like Menotti and Tennessee Williams. Still a young man, he was already intimately familiar with every phase of artistic production. Using two cumbersome cameras and a student cast, he mounted productions of four of Williams’s unpublished plays, and would have telecast them locally had not higher powers decided the works were too “provocative” for broadcast.
Englander moved to Philadelphia, where he vigorously pursued his newfound interest in television. He began working at NBC’s Philadelphia affiliate, producing and writing original scripts. It was there that, in collaboration with director Paul Nickell, the historic broadcasts of the Menotti operas originated.
Next, Englander became an itinerant stage manager for a brief period, then he returned to television to produce one of the earliest episodes of NBC Opera Theater, turning again to Menotti: The Old Maid and the Thief. Another series of television jobs landed Englander at CBS in Manhattan, where he laid the groundwork for a long career in televising the performing arts.
In addition to his countless television credits, Englander directed musical comedies at the Chicago Fair, produced ballets for Ruth Page, staged acts for Beatrice Kaye and for Katherine Dunham’s company, wrote and produced The Opera Theater of the Air for WAAF Radio. He scripted documentaries for CBS-TV, and composed a song for Our Miss Brooks and a song called “Conga For Electronic Computer and IBM Differential Calculator”; both songs were aired by CBS.
The Bernstein Years
Englander first met Leonard Bernstein in 1946 at the Tanglewood Festival in Lenox, Massachusetts, where he was stage manager for Bernstein’s legendary
American premiere production of Benjamin Britten’s masterpiece, Peter Grimes.
The following year, Englander invited Bernstein to be guest lecturer for a series he was directing on The Dance at the University of Chicago. In 1956, Englander went to Boston to direct the Bernstein-hosted remote telecast for Omnibus. The two men had a remarkable chemistry—and throughout their lives, both retained the ability to see the world through youthful eyes, a talent that blossomed most famously in the Young People’s Concerts series.
These telecasts, as fresh today as they were half a century ago, introduced a generation—and beyond—to the joy of classical music, and to the joy of concert-going. By eschewing gimmicks and by never “talking down” to the viewers, the programs were remarkably seductive and accessible, no small thanks to the enormously talented and attractive Bernstein, who always considered himself first and foremost a teacher. And Englander’s musicianship enabled him to organize the program’s camerawork along musical and dramatic lines. The New York Times noted, “The exceptionally good camera work of the television crew worked as if it were part of the orchestration itself.”
Englander also deliberately departed from the previous practice of deifying the conductor; once the music began, Bernstein was depicted as part of an ensemble. The program ran for 18 years with Bernstein, and then his protégé Michael Tilson Thomas, holding forth, with Englander at the helm. Besides producing Young People’s Concerts, Englander produced The Little Orchestra Society’s Children’s Concerts, conducted by Thomas Scherman in New York, Connecticut, and New Jersey.
From Network to Network
Englander continued to experiment and refine his camerawork and editing in ways that changed televised artistic performances. By the time he directed Horowitz at Carnegie Hall—one of the cultural highlights of the entire decade—Englander’s visual energy was peaking. He choreographed his team quite elaborately, accommodating Horowitz’s finicky demands, including a talcum-powdered stage to prevent any squeaking from the slipper-wearing camera crew.
As a freelance director, Englander moved from network to network throughout his career, continuing to specialize in classical music programs. He also continued to mount stage productions, directing and producing for New York City Opera. At Lincoln Center, he inaugurated the New York Philharmonic Promenades with Andre Kostelanetz, and he produced the composer evenings for Richard Rodgers’s Music Theater. He co-founded the American Dance Theater with José Limón, and initiated the Musical Theater master of arts program at New York University. For Lord Snowden and Princess Margaret, Englander directed special entertainments, as well as for Presidents Kennedy, Johnson, and Carter. For PBS, he directed Leonard Bernstein’s 60th Birthday Celebration with the National Symphony Orchestra from Wolf Trap in Vienna, Virginia, and he directed a recital of Brahms lieder with Bernstein and Christa Ludwig from the Tel Aviv Museum.
The CBS Years
In 1975, Englander returned to CBS full-time to work as a producer and director for the Sunday morning arts series Camera Three, where he enjoyed true creative freedom, despite a small budget and viewership. He worked on 64 episodes; perhaps the high point was the program he devoted to choreographer Anna Sokolow’s ballet, Dreams, about a concentration camp. Englander filmed the dance at a deserted printing plant, often using only one camera, with extremely powerful results. He won a Peabody Award in 1977 for his work on the program, but the show was canceled in 1979.
Englander was named head of Music Programming for a new venture, CBS Cable. He devised a number of promising shows, but less than a year after CBS Cable began, it, too, was canceled. That collapse was a bellwether for what happened to the arts on television (and off) during the 1980s, when funding dried up and networks were at best hesitant to take on arts programming.
Back to Freelance
Production Englander quickly shifted his focus to live performances and the new technologies on the horizon. He produced a number of cultural extravaganzas for Elie Wiesel’s Foundation for Humanity, and for Pennsylvania Governor Robert Casey. And for Time/Warner New Media, he wrote an interactive CD-ROM musical guide to Mozart’s The Magic Flute. He spearheaded a series of archival videotapes for Music Theater International, tapes that featured writers and composers of Broadway musicals who explained their production techniques that would become indispensable to fledgling theater companies.
Obviously, Englander was a hard worker, but he also took the time to make and keep a wide array of close friends. He had a marvelous sense of humor, and was insatiably curious. In his later years, he divided his time between Manhattan and Newport, Rhode Island, eventually settling in Newport. In the end, Englander was primarily responsible for some of the most enduring and important performing arts broadcasts in television history.