Thursday, November 12, 2009

Norm Abram Exposed . . . As a Really Nice Guy!

I spent a good part of my working life playing at a local PBS station.  And in addition to wearing an Arthur costume and memorizing the plots to every Are You Being Served episode, one of the great pleasures of the work was getting to know the icons that had such a big influence on the thinking public-- and among that pantheon was Norm Abram.  When I heard that he was wrapping up the show it reminded me of a weekend nearly twenty years ago.

Norm's spinoff show, The New Yankee Workshop, had recently hit the airwaves in the wake of the continued success of This Old House (sort of like when The Jeffersons spun off All in the Family.)  Norm was promoting the program at a local consumer home show through the auspices of our local station.  The place was packed and time was tight.

Norm arrived without a care in the world.  And while there was a specific timetable for breaks and down time, he ignored it and spent many hours talking one-on-one with the general public (sort of like how I expect he would dig into the cutlist of a cherry armoire.)  It takes real skill to answer the question "How many flannel shirts do you own?" for the fifteenth time and make it seem like the first.  Every block of wood was signed, every awkward shop-made tool was inspected, every photo was posed for with the same enthusiasm.  And though This Old House was going through an acrimonious break up with its main presenter (he whose name shall not be spoken), Norm refused to say a single negative thing about the situation.  Instead, he spoke about the need to get on the treadmill more often.

Two funny things about the audience data at the time:  Ninety-some percent of the viewers of The New Yankee Workshop never picked up a tool.  They watched because somehow, deep inside, even just watching someone complete a piece of furniture brought about a sense of well-being.  No surprises there.  And while men over fifty was the largest audience segment, it was only slightly larger than the number of children under five.   More kids watched The New Yankee Workshop than Mister Rogers Neighborhood! Because like Fred Rogers (an amazing human being) Norm was a sincere person talking directly to the camera about something for which he had great passion.

The New Yankee Workshop would go on to air for many more years.  Norm's no-nonsense delivery, seemingly unlimited stable of power tools, and love of dark Minwax finishes, would become the thing of woodworking legend.   And like my other public broadcasting heroes, Julia Child, Bill Moyers and Fred Rogers, he never flew the PBS coop for some other more lucrative deal.  Twenty-one years without a whiff of controversy or discord.  That's pretty cool.  As the program winds down, I've heard some say that Norm is going back to being just a regular guy, but the way I see it, he never stopped being one.

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