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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Sunday, Oct. 26, 2014

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In Movies & TV Commentary

Betty White is featured in the next edition of "Pioneers of Television" at 7 p.m. Tuesday on PBS.

Early TV 'Pioneers' love locally-produced series on PBS


When we look at where we are, it is important to know where we came from. For those who enjoy TV, these Milwaukee-based producers show the way in their "Pioneers of Television" on PBS.

The third season of this acclaimed show kicks off with an airing of "Funny Ladies" at 7 p.m. Tuesday. The four hour-long episodes run locally on MPTV Ch. 10 through Feb. 5.

"We had the opportunity to interview Milton Berle, who at the time was really the senior statesman of television," said "Pioneers of Television" producer Steve Boettcher about when he and Mike Trinklein started with the idea to make the series. "And he lead us to others like Red Skelton and Bob Newhart."

If you had the chance to catch airings of the first two seasons, then you know the storytelling is anchored with solid interviews with great actors and actresses.

"We got to meet these stars, and get the backstage stories with only the stars of these shows," Boettcher said.

"Funny Ladies" takes a look at the amazing comedians that were the first to star in series and open doors for the world of many artists. Interviewed in the show are small screen legends Betty White, Carol Burnett and Mary Tyler Moore as well as contemporary actresses Tina Fey and Margaret Cho.

"Something we wanted to do was tie in how the past has influenced the TV we see today," Boettcher said. "That's why it was great to interview (Fey and Cho) to see how much they took from what they watched in the past."

To prepare for the shows, the entire crew – which all come from Milwaukee – head out west to meet with the stars. The crews do a couple of weeks of background research, meet with the stars and pre-interview for a couple of days and go through the stars' own personal archives. Then, they finally have the sit-down interviews.

"Unlike what they do at 'Entertainment Tonight' or show like that, they do the interview in 3 to 4 minutes and are out. For us, it takes hours," Boettcher said. "I tell them to wear comfortable clothes, because we are going to be here a while."

Boettcher credits his co-producer Trinlein, who writes the show, with weaving the story that shares insights into what was really going on when these TV milestones were being created.

As a viewer, I'm amazed at the details and personal insights that these stars are able to share in the interviews. The stories come alive with the clips from the shows and other archive footage that rolls as the actors recall what they have experienced. In the program "Superheroes," set to air on Jan. 29, Jack Larson, who starred as Jimmy Olsen, shares what he remembers about the death of George Reeves, who played Superman in the "Adventures of Superman" in the 1950s.

"We were able to cover George Reeves' death, and he was able to share so much because he was there, at the scene," Boettcher said.

Boettcher said what works so well for the series is that the stars find PBS to be a safe place to talk about what they've done in their careers. I consider it to be a capstone on their portfolios.

The other two episodes of this season cover miniseries as well as primetime soaps like "Dynasty" and "Dallas." Ryan Seacrest is the familiar voice you'll hear narrating the show, who was added to the project in a deal that, according to Boettcher, took a couple of months to put together.

"(Seacrest) is such an icon and he has a lot of respect for these early pioneers," Boettcher said. "He came into that meeting and really did his homework and watched the first shows. He's great to work with."

The show has a Midwestern feel, and I say that in the kindest of ways, and I think that's what resonates with the actors, actresses and others that participated in the show's production. The great news for Boettcher and his Milwaukee crew, and the rest of us, is that PBS renewed the show for a fourth season.

"Pioneers of Television" is a showcase of some of the best storytelling on TV today.

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