The Continuity Will Be Televised: MPT’s Our Street and Afro-American Perspectives

What does public television have in common with many libraries and archives? As arenas of discussion, education, and reflection, all three aim to engage with the communities they were ostensibly created to serve. How are communities enriched and strengthened through engagement with collections of manuscripts, text and mass media? What role does this type of engagement play in civic discourse and reflection? 

Recognizing the important role of public television in cultural dialogue, Maryland Public Television (MPT) founded, in 1969, the Urban Affairs Advisory Council, a group of 60 men and women from the Baltimore area. Together, this group designed a variety of half hour-long programs that addressed issues specific to Baltimore, including the daytime serial Our Street and the documentary series Afro-American Perspectives, produced as part of MPT’s educational arm, ITV. Episodes of both these programs are available in the University of Maryland Libraries Digital Collections, and in watching them, viewers get access to both the perspectives of the past and commentary on the present.

The 56 episodes of Our Street tell the fictional story of the Robinsons, a Black family from East Baltimore. Syndicated to 20 stations around the country, Our Street introduced Baltimore to communities beyond Maryland, examining challenging themes within the framework of domestic drama. 

Picture of a newspaper with two photographs and a block of text. The top photo takes up most of the page and features a man with dark skin leaning over a couch to talk to a woman with dark skin, who sits with her lands in her lap. Text next to them reads black family's search for dignity and respect. Below, a photograph of a group of four people with dark skin, and 1970s fashion.
“Our Street” featured in Daytime TV, October 1972. Image: Daytime TV, October 1972.
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Live from Baltimore: Maryland Public Television’s Crabs

May is here, bringing with it bouts of summer weather that have us eager to shed the stress the spring semester. While the library often represents serious intellectual pursuits, at Hornbake Library we have plenty of materials documenting the lighter sides of history. May I present Crabs, an irreverent sketch comedy show produced by Maryland Public Television (MPT) in the 1980s. Crabs serves up clever commentary on culture and politics both local and national. The pilot episode, “Nature’s Way” premiered September 5, 1984 and invited the Mid-Atlantic to taste Baltimore comedy.

Each 30-minute episode was taped before a live studio audience and cast members served as both actors and crew. Our featured episode consists of nine hilarious skits, ranging from spoofs to musical numbers. While the entire show has plenty to discuss, today we’ll be focusing on three  comedic gems that make light of the dynamic between Baltimore and Washington, DC. 

The show opens with an exterior shot of Baltimore’s Memorial Stadium, the original home of the Orioles. Voice-over informs the audience  about a concerted effort to encourage more D.C. baseball fans to come see the Baltimore Orioles. Wearing a “Where’s the beef?” t-shirt that is three sizes too small, the Baltimore fan in the stands is a ballpark classic: heckling the players, waving his arms and spilling his beer. Sliding in to take the seat  beside Where’s the Beef (despite the fact that the section is otherwise totally empty), our man from D.C. comes complete with a picnic basket, a quiche, and a cravat to boot. The two new companions are both thrown off by the other, with Where’s the Beef asking Cravat “Are you from a foreign country?”, to which he disdainfully replies “I’m from Washington.” The juxtaposition and back-and-forth between the two  pays irreverent homage to the dynamic between the two cities, a theme that runs throughout the episode.

Two men sit closely to each other on a yellow stadium bench. One wears a grey suit with a cravat and yellow pocket square. The other wears a Baltimore Orioles cap with a yellow shirt that says where's the beef? They gaze at each other with confused expressions.
Washington, D.C. and Baltimore go head-to-head on MPT’s Crabs, 1984
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Back in the Yard: MPT’s Basically Baseball

We are over a month into quarantine, and for many of us, the loss of baseball hits hard, no pun intended. In lieu of visiting the ballpark, I’ve reached for another Maryland Public Television (MPT) gem: Basically Baseball, a four episode mini-series made in 1973 when MPT was known as the Maryland Center for Public Broadcasting. Shot on-location in Florida during spring training, each 30-minute show features the Baltimore Orioles working on the field and sharing advice on technique. Heavy in hot tips and the inside scoop, Basically Baseball may not be the season as we know it, but it’s basically better than no baseball at all.

A man in a Baltimore Oriole's uniform stands with his leg stretched nearly into the splits, with his back foot resting on a baseball plate. His gloved left hand reaches forward as if to catch a ball.
Boog Powell, Orioles first baseman, demonstrates stance on MPT’s Basically Baseball, 1973

Our featured episode  aired June 4, 1973. Focusing on fielding, the show acts as an instructional document for young athletes, but could also help the adults who have been recruited to coach despite having zero experience. Split into five sections (“Stance”, “The Glove”, “Ground Balls”, “The Cross-Over Step” and the all-important “Throwing the Ball”), viewers get the excitement of immediate and up-close access to baseball legends while also benefiting from their sound advice. The relatively advanced age of the show does nothing to take away from its value – the tips are as sound today as they were almost fifty years ago. In addition, Basically Baseball’s nostalgic appeal, an enduring element of baseball fandom, is massive, offering today’s fans with a time capsule to experience a slice of the Orioles’ golden years.

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Dipping into Maryland Public Television

The coronavirus pandemic has many of us from Special Collections and University Archives (SCUA) working from home, which provides the opportunity for me, student assistant Emily Moore, to get to know our collections in a new way. My current project at Hornbake involves working closely on our collection of Maryland Public Television (MPT), which celebrated its milestone 50th anniversary in 2019 (check out the online version of our gallery exhibit.  As a recent transplant from the West Coast, I have discovered that working with MPT content provides me a unique lens into Maryland culture and history. A wide range of television content that dates from the 1970s is available from SCUA in our Digital Collections database. Through watching four episodes of MPT programs, I got an intimate, first-hand introduction to Maryland. Today’s post focuses on  Chesapeake Bay Cooking with John Shields, but be sure to check back for subsequent posts about MPT classic programming including Crabs, Our Street and Basically Baseball.

Chesapeake Bay Cooking with John Shields is hosted by Baltimore native John Shields, who balances interludes of cooking with explorations of the Mid-Atlantic landscape, combining his love of animals, plants, learning and food. Each episode features a different region, offering viewers an armchair trip that is especially welcome as we socially distance and remain in our homes. In his April 7, 1998 episode on Bishop’s Head, we learn how to make Maryland fried chicken and bread in the shape of a crab. As a woman born and raised in Colorado, I had to Google what a blue crab looked like in order to make sure I structured mine correctly. Turns out they’re beautiful. Here’s a picture of one featured on a postcard from the National Trust Library Postcard Collection:

Love from Maryland, circa 1981-2000. Postcard features word "LOVE" created from photographs of Maryland.
Love from Maryland, circa 1981-2000. National Trust for Historic Preservation Library Collection, https://hdl.handle.net/1903.1/20592.

Fried chicken

I love fried chicken, but I have always been reluctant to try making a batch without a fryer. John Shields, however, demonstrates an easy way to use a pan frying technique. Thankfully, I already had most of the ingredients, but because of the pandemic I had to create my own homemade buttermilk and Chesapeake Bay seasoning substitutes. (Was Shields referring to Old Bay? Keep in mind I only learned about Old Bay six months ago, and I definitely don’t have any in my kitchen (yet!). I approximate my own and hope for the best; I won’t be able to tell if it’s wrong anyway.

I put the chicken in one morning to soak up all the goodness overnight. Shields really sells this recipe by promising lots of secrets, and boy does he deliver. Here they are: hot oil (400 degrees), a BIG skillet with a cover and cooking for 20 minutes. It turned out as juicy as Lizzo’s big hit last year. 

Crusty Crustacean Bread

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New Exhibit Celebrating Maryland Public Television’s 50th Anniversary Now on Display in the Maryland Room Gallery

Special Collections in Mass Media & Culture is pleased to announce the exhibit “Made Possible By Viewers Like You: Maryland Public Television Turns 50” is now on display in the Maryland Room Gallery at Hornbake Library through July 2020. It celebrates the milestone anniversary of Maryland’s only statewide TV broadcaster, and highlights the fruitful partnership between MPT and UMD Libraries. 

The exhibit includes artifacts and documents from 1969 to the present, including the very first Program Journal from 1969, an original script from the 1977 production “Bartleby, the Scrivener”, a GoPro camera smashed during a Motorweek shoot, a trophy case filled with Emmys® and other prestigious awards, and dozens of videos featuring segments from some of their best-known programs. 

Nothing in the exhibit would have survived if MPT hadn’t taken great care to preserve their rich and unique history. Unlike most other TV stations—commercial and noncommercial alike—MPT has dedicated the resources to maintain an archive both at its Owings Mills headquarters and at the University of Maryland.  After UMD Libraries established the National Public Broadcasting Archives in 1990, MPT was one of the first organizations to begin depositing print and audiovisual materials. The latter presents particular challenges because simply saving AV materials isn’t enough; due to the obsolescence of playback machines and deterioration of master copies, videotapes must be migrated to modern formats in order to ensure the content remains accessible. This is a timely and expensive process. 

Fortunately, efforts to preserve public broadcasting in the U.S. have risen dramatically, thanks in large part to the American Archive of Public Broadcasting (AAPB), which just announced the availability of over 50,000 historic public media programs available in the Online Reading Room (ORR). When the AAPB launched in 2013, MPT immediately answered the call to submit programs for digitization, sending over 1500 tapes during the first phase of the project. Since then, MPT and SCUA have continued to work together to digitize their AV holdings at Hornbake Library, which are comprised of Umatic, betacam, VHS, 1” and ¾” tapes and 16mm film. As of fall 2019, nearly 700 programs have been reformatted and are steadily being uploaded into Digital Collections. The newly-established Maryland Public Television Preservation Fund is designed to support this important work well into the future. 

Visit the Maryland Room Gallery and find out how MPT has become a national leader in public television and a treasured resource for the state. Hours vary by semester, check current hours online


Post by Laura Schnitker | Ethnomusicologist, Audiovisual Archivist, and Curator of Mass Media & Culture in Special Collections and University Archives at University of Maryland Libraries