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Kirk Browning, R.I.P.

By admin Published: February 11, 2008

A veteran director of televised productions, including "Live From Lincoln Center," Browning has died at the age of 86. I have posted the Lincoln Center notice after the jump, and after my recollections of Kirk.

Back in the early '90s, I was working on my first book, "Television's Greatest Year: 1954." Someone -- it may have been Fred Rogers -- recommended that I talk to Kirk. I telephoned him, and he invited me to his home to chat. ...

It was a splendid place, alongside Central Park, and Kirk himself was a fine host. He had begun working on televised operas for NBC in the 1948, and directing them in 1950. These were the days before public television, and commercial broadcasters -- expected to air cultural programming -- did classical shows.

As I said in my book, while TV was comparatively primitive in the early '50s, it could still be grand. "NBC Television Opera Theatre," the program for which Browning worked, benefited from having as its producer Samuel "Chotzi" Chotzinoff, noted for persuading the conductor Arturo Toscanini out of retirement to conduct the NBC orchestra, and for commissioning the TV opera "Amahl and the Night Visitors." Chotzinoff had an ace: he was a close friend of David Sarnoff, the top man at NBC's then-owner, RCA.

"I can't tell you what a posh situation I had," Kirk told me, with a laugh. "Anything I asked for, I got."

But there was still a need for ingenuity. Asked how an opera could be mounted in the narrow and camera-laden confines of TV, Kirk explained:

"We isolated the orchestra in a satellite studio. This sounds simple but in fact when you separate the orchestra it means two things. The orchestra doesn't hear the singers because they can't have the leak of the singers piped in (to the audio mix). So they're totally dependent on the conductor. But the conductor doesn't see the singers. He is looking at my television output on a monitor, wearing a headset. ... In turn the singers are hearing the orchestra piped in through a little mike, at a level so low that it won't leak into their mikes."

Kirk called it "an extremely hostile environment" for making a production. But, he said, "in all the years we did it, we never had a breakdown."

Keep in mind that this was all done live, too.

I know that, when people look back at early TV, they often remember the glitches, the primitive sets, the black-and-white images. But, thanks to the research I did for the book, I often think of how inventive people were in bringing even those images to TV's viewers. How much they did with so little. And how important it was to have people like Kirk there to make it happen.

Here's the Lincoln Center announcement:

The longtime director of Live From Lincoln Center, Kirk Browning, died on Sunday, February 10 of cardiac arrest, in Manhattan where he lived. Browning was 86.

Browning, who won three prime-time Emmy Awards for directing during his career, began at NBC filing scores in their music library. Soon he was directing live telecasts of the NBC Symphony with Arturo Toscanini, and later was named stage manager then telecast director of the new NBC Opera Company. It was at NBC that Browning developed his directorial trademark – a probing camera, constantly in motion, that vividly explores character and dramatic conflict. It was also during those days that he came to understand the terrors of live television. “You just have to be terribly focused and organized, and at the same time remain objective enough so that if disaster strikes, you never lose your cool.” After all, he said, “there’s nothing better or more thrilling than capturing the spontaneity of a live performance.”

Browning’s directing credits read like a Who’s Who in television programming. In addition to directing 185 broadcasts of Live From Lincoln Center, ten of which won Emmy Awards, Browning directed Frank Sinatra’s first TV show; the world premiere of the first opera written expressly for television, Gian Carlo Menotti’s Amahl and the Night Visitors; PBS’ Great Performances; Live from the Met; Broadway productions including Gospel at Colonus and You Can’t Take It With You; Pavarotti at Madison Square Garden and Zarzuela with Domingo; Death of a Salesman; Our Town; Hallmark Hall of Fame music and drama specials; Philadelphia Orchestra broadcasts and White House specials.

In addition to his Emmy Awards, Browning received two Christopher Awards, a CITA Award, and a George Foster Peabody Award.

Browning is survived by his wife, the former Barbara Gum, and their two sons, David Browning of Westchester County and Jeremy Browning of Nantucket, MA. Arrangements are being made by Frank E. Campbell.

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