Between Sign-Off Films and Test Patterns: Insight at UCLA
As an addendum to Paul Cullum’s preceding essay, this article details the UCLA Film & Television Archive’s 2003 acquisition of the twenty-three-year run of the religious television program Insight, and the ongoing efforts to ensure the long-term conservation, preservation, and accessibility of this significant collection of public service broadcasting.1 Explicating UCLA’s involvement, however, requires a personal anecdote. In the winter of 1994, jolted awake in the predawn hours by an unnerving aftershock to California’s severe Northridge earthquake, I turned to my television for the reassuring local omniscience of Channel 7’s Eyewitness News. Surprisingly, I found instead an eerie, obviously vintage teledrama featuring familiar actor Brian Keith hulking around a sparsely decorated set, devastated that his estranged son’s bad LSD trip apparently contributed to a tragic murder. The episode, “The Sandalmaker” (1968), was unique in its earnestness and overtly grim tone—its 4:00 a.m. broadcast slot unsettling yet somehow appropriate. The end credits were equally stark—titles superimposed over an imposing religious statue (of St. Paul the Apostle) draped in shadow. The accompanying authoritative voice-over identified the series, its origin, and aim: “Insight is a production of the Paulist Fathers, a group of Catholic priests who serve their God by serving those outside their church.”
Created, executive produced, hosted, and occasionally written by Paulist priest Father Ellwood E. Kieser (1929–2000), Insight was launched in 1960 and aired nationally in syndication for well over two decades, occasionally enjoying high-profile prime-time programming slots in major markets.2 Over the course of Insight’s run, a remarkably diverse cross-section of Hollywood artists, from Irene Dunne to Flip Wilson, contributed their talents gratis to the dramatic series—drawn by the show’s reputation for consistently stretching the creative boundaries of television. Offbeat and experimental by design, the lower-than-low-budget series won Emmy awards and received critical praise for addressing social issues (the Vietnam War, nuclear proliferation, and suicide, among others) from which network TV shied. The episodes often deployed black humor or stark realism, and nearly always with a humanist, as opposed to strictly Catholic, theme, in keeping with the Paulists’ mission to “reach those outside the church.”
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Within the sweeping broadcast landscape that Federal Communications Commission (FCC) chair Newton Minow rightly or wrongly christened a “vast wasteland,” the anthology series Insight represented a jarring disruption of television’s regimented flow of safe entertainment, interrupted in periodic increments by commerce. Presented without commercials, the series played unapologetically as high-quality, half-hour public service announcements, seemingly designed to provide an antidote to TV’s parade of falsely tranquil domestic spaces. Whether played for comedy or as searing drama, Insight’s concept of “home” was invariably a setting for characters in deep crisis—often involving the human frailties or mortality of family members. Perpetually set in a dark limbo or physical purgatory, the series featured such tormented archetypes as a lonely disfigured man forced to live in the shadows by his overly protective mother (“Teddy,” 1981) or a man certain that he will die upon turning forty (“Happy Birthday, Marvin,” 1973). Amid the show’s exceptional drama, admirable experiments, and occasional misfires, a thematic resonance can be found: an attempt to illuminate the consequences of ill-advised actions, frequently taken on the shabby edges of existence, and to point to a way out.3
By 1978, despite aggressive promotion, the program suffered a 41 percent decline from its coverage of 171 stations in 1970.4 The year 1983 saw Insight, one of the last descendants of the golden age of television drama, cease production—victim to the rise of paid airtime by televangelists and slack enforcement of FCC “public interest credit” for TV stations during an era of deregulation. By the early 1990s, the once celebrated series, which in its heyday enjoyed deep syndication over 195 stations and accolades in the New York Times and the Hollywood trades, was relegated to sporadic or unscheduled filler time slots. Reruns appeared in the twilight hours of the Sunday morning programming ghetto, alongside other broadcast ephemera nearing extinction, such as test patterns and national anthem sign-offs.5
Nearly a decade after my accidental encounter with this outré cathode relic, lingering curiosity (compounded by a dearth of detailed reference resources) prompted me to track down and cold-call Paulist Productions, the company behind Insight, to inquire as to the fate of the moving image legacy of their strange, ambitious series, which by 2003 had been driven from the airwaves altogether by all-night infomercials. To my surprise, the kind voice on the other end of the line at Paulist headquarters indicated that Insight holdings did survive, though entombed in the unlikeliest of places—the dank recesses of the infamous oceanfront property where, in 1935, screen star Thelma Todd (a.k.a. “Hot Toddy,” featured with the Marx Brothers in Monkey Business and Horse Feathers) was found in the garage, slumped over the steering wheel of her convertible, dead at age thirty.6
Built in the 1920s, the 15,000 square-foot landmark, a Spanish-Moorish three-level structure near the Santa Monica Pier, was once playground to Todd and her part-time lover and business partner, director Roland West (The Bat Whispers, 1930). Todd kept an ocean-view apartment on West’s vast property, which also featured a roadhouse restaurant, Thelma [End Page 225] Todd’s Sidewalk Café, as well as Joya’s, a popular after-hours Hollywood watering hole and alleged gangland hangout. The club’s volatile mix of clientele, ranging from starlets and movie moguls to mobsters, fueled speculation about the suspicious circumstances of Todd’s demise. Accidental carbon monoxide poisoning, murder at the hand of West, and the work of extortionists connected to organized crime were among the conjectured causes of her death.
The ornate original doors to Joya’s speakeasy, with its name emblazoned in etched glass, survive as the portal to Paulist Productions. The storied building found its way to the Catholic group via West’s second wife, actress Lola Lane of the singing Lane Sisters (and costar alongside Bette Davis in 1937’s Marked Woman). After remarrying and converting to Catholicism, Lane and husband Robert Hanlon became taken with Father Kieser and allowed him to utilize the ground floor for production offices, eventually selling the entire property to the Paulists at a fraction of market cost. The irony of the site of Todd’s scandalous death as the setting for a religious production company was not lost on the notoriously resourceful Father Kieser, who only half-jokingly told a reporter that the Paulists “exorcised the place before we moved in,” and that his screening room was once the “nightclub’s men’s bathroom.”7
After decades of active television production, the Paulists adapted several sections of the humid underbelly of the speakeasy for storage of their master and circulation film and tape elements. Through these dark, damp, expansive catacombs of Todd’s former haunt, a Paulist Productions staff member led UCLA’s television archivist Dan Einstein and me to the Holy Grail—hundreds of kinescopes and video-reels of Insight. Our first assessment of the find brought both relief and concern. On the positive side, Paulist staff and volunteers had done an admirable job of shelving and organizing many of the legacy holdings—row after row of rusty 16mm cans and weathered but sturdy 1- and 2-inch videoreel cases. More worrisome was the lack of suitability of the physical space—dusty, balmy, with exposed pipes snaking through the basement area and a saggy, water-stained ceiling overhead. For environmental control, only a tiny electric home-use dehumidifier chugged away in a corner. Thankfully, our initial inspection of the films and magnetic media revealed no signs of mold or other severe condition issues.
As befits a religious nonprofit, these improvised vault spaces were the only fiscal option available to the Paulists for their collection’s substantial storage needs. Father Frank Desiderio, successor to the late Father Kieser and president of Paulist Productions from 2000 through the summer of 2009, welcomed UCLA’s intervention.
“Insight represents something that doesn’t exist anymore: faith-based, scripted, quality TV programming, delivered free to television stations for broadcast,” says Desiderio. “It was both entertaining and helped raise consciousness about social concerns and questions of spirituality. I was very concerned about the conditions under which these important videotapes and films were stored. With the sea air and summer heat our masters were in danger of deteriorating. Insight was such a unique show that I wanted to make sure it was preserved for future media [End Page 226] researchers, especially those interested in religious programming.”8
With Father Desiderio’s blessing, formal deposit terms were agreed upon which allowed UCLA Film & Television Archive to become the long-term custodian of Paulist Productions’ physical Insight holdings. As the series was prolifically syndicated for decades and actively marketed on 16mm to schools and churches via catalog sales, the Paulists held redundant copies of many episodes across multiple physical formats. Our first task was to sort through these holdings to locate 2-inch videoreel masters where extant, or best available copies on 1-inch videoreels and 16mm prints where they were not. After numerous visits to the Paulist offices, UCLA accessioned over 450 items, representing nearly the entire run of the Insight series: 82 two-inch videoreels, 151 one-inch videoreels, and 228 twelve-hundred-foot reels of 16mm film. These holdings were inventoried, and in some cases recanned, at UCLA’s “vaults” headquarters, located at the Television Center complex in Hollywood (formerly the historic Technicolor laboratory, built in 1924). After accession, the Insight holdings were transferred for safekeeping and conservation storage at the University of California’s Southern Regional Library Facility on the UCLA campus—a secure, temperature- and humidity-controlled, high-capacity space designated for UC library materials, archives, and manuscript collections.
Preservation efforts have focused on the migration of 2-inch videoreels of select Insight episodes to Digital Betacam. This work is conducted in the CBS Videotape Annex, part of CBS Television City, where many Insight episodes were originally produced. Founded in 1995 as a unit of CBS’s Videotape Operations division, the annex is fondly referred to as “Jurassic Park,” for its impressive collection of dinosaur equipment that remains in constant use. It serves as home to UCLA’s Ampex AVR-1, a 2-inch quad machine (as well as several additional 2-inch VTRs). Under a cooperative arrangement in place since 2002, CBS maintains and utilizes the AVR-1 for CBS/Paramount library projects and external clients, as well as gratis preservation transfers for UCLA—sometimes a considerable undertaking.9
“UCLA’s vintage AVR-1 has been extensively modified throughout the years, and all legacy format machines are a challenge to operate and maintain,” says David Keleshian, one of a team of video technicians at CBS. “Luckily, CBS has had the foresight, at considerable cost, to maintain in-house facilities and keep parts in stock.”10 To date, over three hundred of UCLA’s television holdings on 2-inch tape have been preserved at CBS, including four noteworthy episodes of Insight.
To support scholarly and professional access via the Archive Research and Study [End Page 227] Center (ARSC) on the UCLA campus, Dan Einstein created bibliographic records with key credits and program summaries for the majority of the Insight holdings. These are available via the public access catalog ( http://cinema.library.ucla.edu ). With only a handful of Insight episodes released on VHS (for the religious educational market), and its reemergence on DVD precluded by potential clearance issues, access to the series is currently limited to ARSC. Researchers may make appointments to view more than 75 Insight episodes that have been transferred to VHS use copies. Episodes held only in legacy formats can be transferred for viewing per patron research request. Academic outreach for the Insight collection at UCLA has also included the presentation of a highlight reel along with a preserved episode (“Locusts Have No King,” 1965) at the sixth Orphan Film Symposium in 2008, where a late-afternoon screening substituted admirably for the series’ customary 4:00 a.m. time slot.11
Insight Episodes Preserved at Ucla Film & Television Archive
“Locusts Have No King” (1965), prod. No. 157. Writer: Gilbert Ralston; director: Ted Post; primary cast: William Shatner, Geraldine Brooks, Kent Smith, Henry Beckman. Synopsis: A businessman must decide if it is his civic and moral duty to stand against criminal political corruption in his municipality.
“The Hate Syndrome” (May 14, 1966), prod. No. 172. Writer: Rod Serling; director: Marc Daniels; primary cast: Eduard Franz, James Beggs, Harold Stone. Synopsis: A Hebrew teacher confronts a former pupil that has abandoned his Jewish heritage to become an American Nazi party member.
“The Sandalmaker” (April 22, 1968), prod. no. 200. Writer: David Moessinger; director: John Newland; primary cast: Brian Keith, Don Quine, Tim O’Connor. Synopsis: A young man accused of murder while under the influence of LSD clashes with his father over the morality of a dishonest legal defense.
“The Poker Game” (March 2, 1969), prod. no. 310. Writer: Jack Hanrahan; director: Ralph Senensky; primary cast: Ed Asner, Booker Bradshaw, Don Dubbins, Bill Bixby, Peter Haskell, Jeffrey Hunter, Beau Bridges. Synopsis: A card game becomes hostile when an idealistic young man reveals the hidden frailties among a group of middle-aged friends.
Executive producer and host (all episodes): Father Ellwood Kieser, C.S.P.
Mark Quigley manages access services for UCLA Film & Television Archive, where his fondness for vintage television led to his assignment as lead writer/researcher for the commemorative reference publication, Hallmark Hall of Fame: The First 50 Years. He holds an MFA from UCLA’s School of Theater, Film, and Television, and serves as an adjunct faculty member for UCLA’s Moving Image Archive Studies program.
Special thanks to Father Frank Desiderio and the Paulist Productions staff for their ongoing support of the UCLA Film & Television Archive’s efforts.
1. Los Angeles Times television listings for October 16, 1960, indicate the date as the broadcast debut of Insight. According to Paulist Productions’ internal records, the last original Insight episode was produced in 1983.
2. “‘Insight’ Series Achieves Primetime Status on May 3,” Hollywood Reporter, Apr. 30, 1965.
3. In a 1984 interview, Kieser said “What we try to do around here [at Paulist Productions] is irrigate the wasteland, bring a humanistic perspective to television.” Ursula Vils, “Priest, Producer, and ‘Half a Ham,’” Los Angeles Times, Apr. 16, 1984.
4. Ellwood E. Kieser, Hollywood Priest: A Spiritual Struggle (New York: Doubleday, 1991), 240.
5. Bill Ornstein, “Father Kieser’s ‘Insight’ Show Now Beamed Over 195 Stations,” Holly-wood Reporter, July 27, 1966; Jack Gould, “TV: Paulist Fathers Face Real Issues,” New York Times, June 9, 1969. [End Page 228]
6. See also Robert W. Welkos, “A Mystery Revisited; A Building that Figured in the Unsolved Death of Actress Thelma Todd Is for Sale,” Los Angeles Times, May 29, 2002.
7. Cecil Smith, “‘Insight’ Calls God to Account,” Los Angeles Times, Nov. 27, 1980.
8. Frank Desiderio, e-mail, June 12, 2008.
9. Pioneering Los Angeles television station KTLA donated the Ampex AVR-1 to UCLA in 1992. KTLA has partnered with UCLA in numerous preservation projects, including the preservation of the color videotape used for the 1958 NBC special An Evening with Fred Astaire. The work resulted in technical Emmy Awards for the UCLA Film & Television Archive, Ed Reitan, Don Kent, and Dan Einstein in 1988. The Archive’s Ampex AVR-1 was relocated to CBS in 2002.
10. David Keleshian, e-mail, June 18, 2008.
11. The “Church and State” relationship between UCLA and the Paulists was humorously labeled “Strange Bedfellows” by Dan Streible for the Orphans 6 program, where Insight was coupled with Mark J. Williams screening an episode of The Orchid Award (ABC, 1953) starring Ronald Reagan and Liberace.