By Michael Rizzo
Live TV is not a new concept. Saturday Nite Live did not invent it. For production designer Sy Tomashoff, who worked on live TV shows since the early 1950s, it was once a way of life.
Back then, before the introduction of videotape, all TV was live. And because it was a brand new medium there were no rules to learn, only rules to be created, and all of its young parents were involved in the trial-by-error excitement of this new experiment. Television was to become the electronic babysitter of a generation of kids, the inspiration for TV dinners, a companion for the lonely, a powerful tool for election campaigns and religious programming, and the technology that shaped the global, media-saturated community in which we now live.
Earlier this year the Film Society and Art Directors Guild presented “Sy Tomashoff: Dark Shadows and the Evolution of 3-Camera Television,” a tribute to one of TV media’s most honored, creative contributors. The history of TV was reviewed and examined through the work of the medium’s visual giant.
Tomashoff won seven Emmys between 1981 and 1994 for shows he designed, which included The Home Show, The Armstrong Circle Theater, East Side/West Side, The Edge of Night, Dark Shadows, One Life to Live, Ryan’s Hope, Capitol, and The Bold and the Beautiful.
The power of Tomashoff’s vision and creativity greatly influenced TV. Seen now through jaded eyes used to sophisticated shows like The West Wing, Dark Shadows  is a hoot. But despite its stilted, melodramatic acting, its heralded gothic sets and shrill, repetitive musical theme, the creators of the show were forging new paths. They managed to pull off a hit series from 1966 to 1971, giving a hungry audience three-camera TV production values, “the closest thing to story and action in real time,” according to Tomashoff. This is the formula responsible for today’s shooting and production techniques for soaps, talk shows, news shows and, of course, sitcoms.
Originally shot in black-and-white, Dark Shadows later went color. The advent of color TV was a terrifying moment for some. When asked what he would do with the advent of color, Tomashoff replied, “Nothing.” He had designed TV scenery for years in color with value tones as his guide. The generic two-toned green walls had become standard: middle tones for the wall color and darker shades for the molding. “It’s the balance of light to dark values that made the first years of television work,” he said, “and the same guidelines could be applied to color.”
Another weekly series shot in black-and-white that aired in 1963–64, East Side/West Side, had a profound effect on its audience. As a reflection of that period, it focused on problems of the inner city: welfare, drugs, child abuse, slums and poverty. The emotional impact of the writing inspired Tomashoff to confront his audience with a translation of the screenplay into a literal and figurative, black-and-white visual reality. In this way, Tomashoff’s contribution to the cinema verité of “the small screen” is a testament not only to the depth of his design grit and capability, but also to the emotional and intellectual power of early television programming.
By Michael Rizzo