Everyday Drama Enlivens `This Old House'

Whenever the crew takes on a home-renovation project, neighbors and viewers tune in to see how the experts do it

WHEN ``This Old House'' comes to a neighborhood, there's more than the usual curiosity about a new construction project next door. Even joggers stop and stare; people who've never met before drop by to discuss how things are going.

Everyone on site, and just off, is caught up in what the show's host, Steve Thomas, calls the ``romantic dream'' of fixing up an old place like the shingle-style Victorian on Lawndale Street in this close-in suburb of Boston.

The dream is most intense, of course, for the owners, Dean and Lauren Gallant. They had figured on 10 years to refurbish the 86-year-old house, Dean says.

But when their home was chosen from about 200 proposals for this fall's project on the popular PBS show, the time frame shrank to six months. The 18-week series of shows on this project began Oct. 2 on PBS (check local listings for day and time). Planning stage

As work on the stately Victorian structure progresses, surprises are common. Three trees were removed one recent morning, literally throwing new light on the project.

``I hadn't realized how much light would come through once they were down,'' Mr. Gallant says, shielding his eyes in the bright sun. The absence of foliage reveals unseen details, such as a double pitch to the roof of the side turret.

Tree removal was one of many decisions the Gallants talked over with Russell Morash, who has directed ``This Old House'' for WGBH, Boston's PBS affiliate, since he created the show in 1979. This is the show's 26th project.

Mrs. Gallant recounts discussions with ``Russ and Steve'' about the kitchen, which requires a thorough overhaul. With a smile, she recalls the producer's and host's reaction to their original design: ``That's a nice amateurish plan.''

Messrs. Morash and Thomas, both of whom have restored old homes of their own, recommended the Gallants consult a kitchen designer.

One of their best friends is in that field, so they went to him. ``The design we finally came up with,'' says Mrs. Gallant, ``is so different, and in some ways more in keeping with the house - a big working kitchen with lots of space and light.''

Viewers of ``This Old House,'' now in its 15th season, will become familiar with the Gallants' kitchen as bare wall studs and beat-up linoleum give way to glass-fronted cabinets and restored hardwood floors.

The room will be the setting for many a chat among Thomas, master carpenter Norm Abram, and builders like Sal Bertolami of J.B. Sash & Door in Chelsea, Mass.

Mr. Bertolami was on hand that sunny morning to discuss his updated double-hung windows. The half-hour or so spent capturing that two-or-three-minute scene shows how Morash achieves the natural, conversational style typical of ``This Old House.''

First, a few minutes are spent talking over the window, deciding which features to touch on. Next comes a series of run-throughs, during which the order of the conversation takes shape.

From the sidelines, director Morash grimaces as he reminds Thomas not to ask a question about the window's energy performance, since Bertolami has already admitted he doesn't have the figures.

Another time, Morash admonishes Bertolami, ``Sal, don't give me the whole nine yards - these guys make a lot of money just asking questions.'' Then, to his stars: ``Fellas, help Sal along.'' After an objection, he encourages them to break into Bertolami's monologue: ``No, no, you can get in - you just have to be rude.''

At some magical moment, Morash senses it's time for a take and steps back to observe the camera work on his hand-held monitor. The scene goes remarkably well. Afterward, Bertolami, who has been through this process on past ``This Old House'' segments, admits ``It's scary.'' But the low-key approach taken by Morash and company ``makes it a lot easier.''

``We never script,'' says Bruce Irving, the show's producer, explaining that they go by an ``85 percent'' rule - if that much of the desired information gets into the final take, it's a success. ``We talk it through. That way it's spontaneous and fresh, never staged or stagey.'' Trade secrets

Before breaking for lunch, Morash, Thomas, and Abram pause to share a few more of their trade secrets. ``I hate to hold up the job every time the TV crew shows up,'' says the director, who has a keen awareness of the momentum and cost of construction work. So he strives to adapt his work to the environment, not vice versa.

Thomas emphasizes the educational aspects of the show: ``We're taking something that most people find baffling and presenting the simple elements.'' Along those lines, Morash stresses the importance of asking basic questions: ``If you say, `uh-huh,' and you really don't know, the viewers won't know either. And usually that's just the question in the viewer's mind.''

The show also dispels some myths, such as the superior construction of old houses. ``When someone says, `They don't build it the way they used to,' '' says Abram, ``we say: It's a good thing they don't.'' The builders of yesteryear had great timbers to work with, he continues, ``but they didn't know what to do with them.'' Choice of house

The technology for framing houses has improved immeasurably, but the interior woodwork - the beautiful, dark oak casework - in an old place like the Gallants' is ``brilliant,'' Abram says.

That pleasing interior is one reason this home was chosen for ``This Old House.'' It had a lot of potential. Also, the owners had worked on houses before and would participate in the process, not just stand by. And it fit the basic geographical criterion - it is located within 30 miles of WGBH. That's a cost concern.

``This Old House'' does two projects a year, one near at hand and one farther afield. Early next year Norm, Steve, Russ, and crew take their cameras and on-camera spontaneity to Hawaii, where a historic bungalow on the island of Oahu awaits them.

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