PRODUCER’S POINTERS: Why I Became An Oral Historian And How You Can Be One, Too

May 6th, 2016
Archive of American Television

One night when I was ten years old, my parents brought their then-new video camera over to my grandparents’ house. My dad set up the briefcase-sized Panasonic on a tripod in the living room and aimed it at the dining table in the neighboring room. Around that table sat my three living grandparents. (My maternal grandfather passed away when I was five.) For the next hour, my parents recorded my grandparents telling the stories of how their families came to America, what their parents’ and grandparents’ names were, and other lore that had been passed down through the generations. 

That tape is now one of my most treasured keepsakes. (And I’ve had it digitized.)

My grandparents have now all passed away - the last one in 2008. It’s been eight years since my paternal grandfather last serenaded me (he was a sax and clarinet player), fourteen years since I’ve made cannoli with my paternal grandmother, twenty years since I’ve watched Jacques Pepin and Yan Can Cook with my maternal grandmother, and thirty-one years since I last made pancakes with my maternal grandfather. I miss them all terribly, but I’m grateful that my family took lots of pictures and videos over the years. Not only do I have my own cherished memories of my grandparents, I also have many visual reminders of wonderful moments spent with each of them. And that family history tape is the Hope Diamond of the collection.

At the time the tape was shot, I didn’t think much about what my parents were doing that night. I’m on the tape, bouncing around at the foot of the table, unable to sit still on the green shag carpet. Then my sister and I fight over who gets to operate the camera. (My dad let each of us have a turn.) But I paid almost no attention to the content being discussed around that table. Now, as an historian, and as a grandchild who misses her grandparents, the topics discussed are fascinating to me. I love watching my grandparents tell stories; I love learning about where I came from; I love seeing my grandmother correct my grandfather on the year HIS mother passed away. That tape captures not only a specific moment in time and the origin stories of my family, but also the dynamics between my three grandparents. I love it all.

Looking back, I think that tape had a lot to do with why I currently do what I do for a living. I’ve always loved stories and pictures from the past, particularly those of the 1940s. That era always fascinated me - the war years, young men becoming soldiers, women entering the workforce in new ways… And this thing called television starting to grow and gain in popularity. Early television is a remarkable topic to study. In graduate school I watched '40's and '50's programs and observed what the pacing was like back then, learned about the lighting that was used and the odd makeup that people wore to counteract the shadows of those harsh lights, studied which radio stars succeeded in the new medium and which didn’t. I delved into all of it, soaking up Kukla, Fran, and Ollie, Gertrude Berg and Dave Garroway, Milton Berle and Fred Allen.

And then, on an industry trip to Los Angeles during grad school, I learned about the Archive of American Television. This was a program dedicated to preserving the stories of television history, as told by the people who MADE television: an oral history collection of individuals talking about their early years and family influences, how they got started in show business, what contributions they made to various TV shows, how they honed their craft, and what advice they had to offer to future generations. I was hooked.

I’ve been involved with the Archive since 2008, and it’s likely not a coincidence that the year that I became a part of this oral history project is the year that I lost the last of my grandparents. Here’s the thing: watching someone on video somehow makes them present - that person is there talking to you. Even if he lives in another state, even if you’ve never met him, even if he's no longer walking around on this planet, he's there on that screen, chatting away, and that’s precious. I love the video of my grandparents talking about memorable people and moments in their lives, and I love the videos of Anderson Cooper, Carol Burnett, and Sid Caesar doing the same.

Over the holidays last year I realized that my parents are now the age that my grandfather was when he sat around that table misquoting the year his mother died. And that spurred me to conduct video interviews with each of my parents, and a couple sessions with them both together. (Those last ones were particularly entertaining.) If you are lucky enough to still have parents, grandparents, uncles, aunts, siblings, and other cherished family members around, I highly recommend that you record their stories. You'll be happy you did. 

When I started this process, I can’t tell you how many people told me that they wished they had interviewed THEIR parents when they were still alive. For those of us privileged to still have those we love around, don’t let it be a regret for you, too.

You don’t need to let age be a determining factor in your interview subjects. I plan on interviewing my sister later this year and my dad wants to interview me. In thirty or forty years my memory of recent events may not be what it is now, so why not get me on video sharing some stories this year? (At the Archive we’ve interviewed ABC founder Leonard Goldenson and director Delbert Mann, but we’ve also interviewed actor Jon Hamm and journalist Gwen Ifill. It’s all a balance, and different perspectives from different points in people’s lives make for a varied and content-rich collection.)

Since I research and interview people for a living, it wasn’t much of a stretch for me to compile a timeline of my parents’ lives and put together an interview guide of questions. But it doesn’t need to be a stretch for you either. I followed the basic model of what we do for interviews here at the Archive and just modified it slightly. If you’ve watched our interviews, you know we largely interview in chronological order, following an interviewee from birth to current day. I did something similar, but added a whole section about family history before asking about my parents’ lives. I asked what my parents know about their surnames at birth (I covered ancestry on both sides, family roots in other countries/how the family arrived in this country, asked about their great-grandparents, grandparents, parents) and then moved through the years up to now covering their childhoods and education, major life events, historical events, family traditions, meeting close friends, etc. Do a little research, set up a camera (there are some great, fairly inexpensive ones out there now and lots of rental options, too) and then go with your gut! You can do twenty minutes here and there, several hours at once - make it as formal or informal as you like. Just actually do it.

Over the next few months, keep an eye out for my PRODUCER’S POINTERS articles - I’ll be outlining how we do what we do here at the Archive, and offering some tips about how you at home can modify our procedures to conduct your own interviews with subjects near and dear to your heart. Whether here at the Archive, or in my interviews with family members, I’m looking to capture not only the stories and history people have to share, but also to capture their personality, their humor, their certain something that makes them unique. And I want to preserve all that good stuff not only for those of us around today to enjoy, but for future generations, too. 

So I guess I need to thank my parents. Thank you for insisting on gathering your parents around the table on that 1989 night, and for videotaping that delightful hour that ensued. Thank you for letting me operate the camera for a bit. (You can imagine the fun a ten-year-old had with the zoom button.) And thank you for agreeing to sit for interviews with me this past year. Maybe one day a future Faillace will watch them, see some magic, and discover that oral histories are a pretty wonderful art form. They’re time capsules, just waiting for you to crack them open and enjoy, kind of like good books. So go ahead - figure out what you want to put in your capsule, and go build one. Just don’t bury it when it’s completed. Play it. Play it again, and again, and again. Watch your grandmother hit your grandfather on the shoulder when he says the wrong date, and cherish it. 

- by Adrienne Faillace

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