Russell Morash, father of how-to and fix-it television, dies at 88 | Texarkana Gazette (2024)

Russell Morash, a behind-the-scenes presence in public television who made Julia Child a celebrity chef and created the fix-it show "This Old House," prototypes of an enduringly popular TV genre that has inspired millions of viewers to don an apron or tool belt with do-it-yourself gusto, died June 19 at a hospital in Concord, Mass. He was 88.

The cause was a brain hemorrhage, said his wife, Marian Morash.

Mr. Morash, son of a carpenter, was widely considered the godfather of how-to television. Hired by WGBH in Boston in the late 1950s, he became a producer and director and spotted the talent of future stars including Child, whom he introduced to the airwaves, in all her exuberance, with "The French Chef" in 1963.

A struggling gardener, Mr. Morash drew on his own mishaps, including a woodchuck in his broccoli patch, to create the show that became "The Victory Garden," which debuted with horticulturalist James Underwood Crockett in 1975 and schooled audiences in the art of cultivating vegetables, fruits and flowers.

Four years later, Mr. Morash put handyman Bob Vila on the air as the original host of "This Old House," a ratings juggernaut that according to PBS was "TV's original home-improvement show."

Today entire cable channels - among them the Food Network and HGTV - exist to satisfy the kitchen cravings and solve the home-repair problems that many viewers lack the confidence to tackle on their own.

Mr. Morash "pioneered the whole genre of do-it-yourself lifestyle television," said Ron Simon, head curator at the Paley Center for Media in New York City. Mr. Morash, he added, had a special touch for drawing viewers to the screen - and then sending them out to try what they had learned.

In addition to teaching viewers how to baste and braise, what to do about root rot, or how to install wainscoting, Mr. Morash's shows responded to a fundamental human curiosity, one that surges up in childhood and for many people never abates, about how things work.

"Most of us live our lives without ever seeing what goes beyond our cars, houses, buildings and grounds, even our meals," Mr. Morash told the New York Times in 1999. "All of these are done by others, without our being present. We come home at night and cut a check."

He recalled that his father at one stage of his carpentry career worked at a firm that made optical systems. During the lunch hour, physicists and rocket scientists would gather in his workshop for advice on home repairs. "My God," Mr. Morash recalled his father exclaiming, "these men and women of such education are coming to me!"

In his line of work in television, Mr. Morash correctly perceived that viewers would flock to TV experts much as his father's colleagues had turned to him.

Mr. Morash gave Child a regular spot on TV after seeing her promote her opus "Mastering the Art of French Cooking" on a book show. With a voice that he described as "somewhere between Eleanor Roosevelt and Tallulah Bankhead plus a couple of packs of Marlboros a day," she would be, he was certain, a hit. Over the years, until her death in 2004, Child became perhaps the most celebrated TV chef of her generation.

Before "This Old House" debuted, "the words 'do it yourself' hadn't been put together," Mr. Morash told Boston magazine in 2009. "People did not have power tools, did not do their own repairs. They hired people."

For the first season of the show, WGBH restored an old Victorian house in Dorchester, Mass., revealing to viewers the potential of homes that at first glance might look like teardowns. "This Old House" made addicts of fans who followed the hammering and pounding of a renovation to experience the glory in the end.

Mr. Morash, who received a slew of Emmys, as well as a lifetime achievement award from the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences,told an interviewer he was "thrilled" for his shows to be imitated in their modern-day cable iterations, which, he noted, are far more heavily produced than his were.

Working with a shoestring budget, he and his colleagues avoided stops and cuts whenever possible, watching, he said, as the show "just came together."

"I'm not doing the third act of Hamlet," Mr. Morash joked to the Times. "You just ask these craftsmen to tell us what they do and what they're thinking about when they're doing it."

Russell Frederick Morash Jr. was born on Feb. 11, 1936, in Boston and grew up in Lexington, Mass. His mother was a homemaker and later a secretary. His father was his first instructor in D.I.Y. trades.

Mr. Morash became involved in the dramatic arts in high school and studied theater at Boston University, where he graduated in 1957. He declined an offer to work as an assistant stage manager for a Samuel Beckett play in New York to stay in Boston with his future wife, whom he married in 1958.

By her account, Mr. Morash walked in the door at WGBH and landed a job as a camera operator, pushing around what he described as "one of these refrigerator-sized cameras." Shortly thereafter, he began directing and producing - "which was really his personality," Marian Morash said - and never stopped.

In his early years at the station, despite having little knowledge of French, he oversaw the foreign-language instructional program "Parlons Francais." He quickly demonstrated his versatility, working on a children's show, public-affairs programming and a series jointly produced with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology called "MIT Science Reporter."

He moved into his signature D.I.Y. programming, his wife said, because of his exasperation with the state of his garden. She recalled him saying, "You know what we need is a gardening show - so that I can learn, and maybe other people would like to learn."

Marian Morash, a cookbook author and James Beard Award-winning chef, was a close collaborator in her husband's career, working with Child as her executive chef as well as appearing on "The Victory Garden" in segments teaching viewers how to cook what they had grown.

Besides his wife, the former Marian Fichtner of Lexington, survivors include two daughters, Victoria Evarts of Concord and Kate Cohen of Lexington; a twin brother; a sister; five grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren.

Mr. Morash's later shows included "The New Yankee Workshop," with master carpenter Norm Abram. He never lost faith, his wife said, that "people like to know things like he liked to know things."

He also hoped, he said, that his programs might help keep the peace in households that turned to the TV for help in the kitchen, in the garden and at the workbench.

"Husbands and wives are watching together," Mr. Morash told the Times, "comparing their homes to the ones we're showing and resolving their differences about renovating projects. We hope we're settling arguments."

Mr. Morash, second from right, Julia Child and other colleagues on the set of "Julia Child and Company" circa 1978. MUST CREDIT: James Scherer for WGBH

Mr. Morash in an undated photo. MUST CREDIT: Bob Busby for WGBH

Russell Morash, father of how-to and fix-it television, dies at 88 | Texarkana Gazette (2024)
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