Aldyth Morris

Terence Knapp


Original air date: Tues., Oct. 18, 2011


Hawaiʻi’s Adopted World Class Actor


Leslie Wilcox sits down with Terence Knapp, “Hawaiʻi’s Adopted World Class Actor.” Terence is perhaps best known for his title role in Damien, the Aldyth Morris play and PBS Hawaiʻi special about the Kalaupapa priest.


Terence reflects on key roles he has portrayed, his childhood during World War II and his global travels. Now professor emeritus with the University of Hawaiʻi at Manoa, he continues to mentor up-and-coming Honolulu thespians.


Terence Knapp Audio


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My feet have always been a problem. Well, ever since I’ve been to the islands, that is. Oh, not when I was a boy in Belgium; no, I was as good on my feet as anybody in those days, running around the countryside, helping out on the farm, driving the cows in at night, skating on the River Dijle. Why, the night before I left home for good, I walked fourteen miles to say goodbye to my mother at the Shrine of Our Lady. Twelve years I promised her.


This studio at PBS Hawaiʻi has been the scene of many wonderful productions. From music specials, educational and informational programs, to shows about the arts, our cameras have captured them all. But in 1976, over a series of several days, a high water mark in local television was set. Journey with us to that time, as we look back on the career of actor Terrence Knapp, here on Long Story Short.


Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox is Hawaiʻi’s first weekly television program produced and broadcast in high definition.

Aloha mai kākou. I’m Leslie Wilcox. In this edition of Long Story Short, you’ll meet a man who is considered by many to be a cultural treasure of Hawaiʻi, a devoted teacher of the dramatic arts, who chose to relocate from the British Isles of Shakespeare to an island home of a very different kind, an actor who has performed with Sir Laurence Olivier in the National Theater of Great Britain, and who mentored Booga Booga’s James Grant Benton. Now, that’s quite a range. Join us, as we take you from the King’s English to Pidgin English with actor, director, professor, Terrence Knapp.


Did you grow up in an august theatrical family?


No. I grew up the oldest of a family of seven. I had only sisters; I was the only boy, I was the oldest. And my mother—


You sound like you were spoiled by seven younger sisters.


Spoiled, my eye.




I did the spoiling of them, if anything—




—right. Because my father, of course, was in the British Army practically all of my young life until I was about fifteen. And my mother—this was during World War II, 1939 to 1945. And we were forcibly evacuated from London in 1940 into a Welsh mining village, which had no running water, no electricity, bla-bla-bla. My mother got fed up with that, and managed to get us over to Dublin by boat. But things were just as bad there, because there was no rationing, see. In Britain during the war, everybody got a fair share, even though it was only that much, right? And my mother’s great advantage was that even children were given an allowance of tea. Tea leaves, right, two ounces a week, something like. Well, she could barter for all kinds of things, because we children didn’t drink tea much; water would do, or milk, yeah?


What could she get for the tea leaves?


Well, canned food, for example. And people who had an allotment and grew their own vegetables, right? Just kind of whatever they wanted. If she had something to offer, then it was tea. The British like their tea.


Did you go hungry sometimes?


I don’t remember being hungry. But I do think it was the fittest generation that ever grew up in the United Kingdom, yeah. I was seven when the war broke out, I was fifteen when it was all over, as it were. I was a very healthy youngster without an ounce of fat on me, if you follow me. And I think that was true practically of the whole population. In 1945, when the war came to an end, all the young men who had been taken from the schoolmasters, yeah, returned. So there was a wonderful new energy at the Anglican Grammar School that I won a scholarship to. The parish priest was very annoyed that I was then going to go to a non-Catholic high level school. But my mother said, no, she wanted me to take the opportunity, because it was given within a kind of education area, if you follow me, and she knew that I’d get enough of a Catholic upbringing with her and my sisters at home. So I was very lucky. A three hundred year old Anglican grammar school with a marvelous tradition of excellent teaching, especially of literature, and that turned me on. I’d always been an enthusiastic reader of my own accord. We used to go to the public library and look for books, the Count of Monte Cristo, whatever it might be, and if I enjoyed it, within a year I probably reread it, yeah. There was no television in those days, none at all, but there was a wonderful BBC Radio service, and one of the things they did were short plays and stories, and that kind of thing. So there was much to educate and inform, as well as entertain.


How did you qualify for that scholarship?


I had to … well, actually what happened was, we did a play at school, Macbeth. And I was cast as Lady Macbeth.


You were cast as Lady Macbeth.




Were there girls in the play?


No girls in the school.


No girls in the school; okay. So how did you be the one to get the Lady—


Might I remind you that in Shakespeare’s time, when he wrote the play, there were no women in the theater at all, apart from tarts.


All right; all right. Point taken. [CHUCKLE] So how did you feel about playing the role?


I didn’t have to worry about it, because she came and haunted me at night. And I don’t mean in a frightening way. She just came to me. In other words, as I became more familiar with the text, and with the situation of the play itself, she formulated herself in my imagination. And then, because nobody interfered with me and my natural response, right … apparently, I knocked them for six.




And the headmaster, the classics master immediately told the board of governors that I should be given a scholarship, or at least to audition for the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts. Which I did, and I was accepted, and I got the scholarship. But I just had such a jolly time pretending using my imagination.


Did you ever pretend in real life to get through situations?




For example?


Going into the Royal Air Force. I didn’t know what I was letting myself in for. So, I went through the three-month training period, an intake of twelve hundred young men, boys of my age, eighteen or so. And I passed out as best recruit of the entire wing, and I was offered a commission. Because I pretended I was somebody like Richard Todd. Do you know Richard Todd?


I don’t know who Richard Todd is.


A soldier in a film.   And yeah, I just pretended to be somebody else. And that’s how it worked, yeah.


In 1978, the PBS Hawaiʻi production of Damien won top national honors, including the coveted Peabody Award. But it might surprise you to learn that Dr. Terrence Knapp discovered Father Damien, not in the 1970s in Hawaiʻi, but in the middle of World War II, in a little Victorian chapel in a borough of London called Hackney.


And that’s where you heard of Damien?




In this church?


At the back of the church, there was a magazine rack, little books that people paid the equivalent of fifty cents to buy, and go and read about this, that, or the other. Well, I read every pamphlet [CHUCKLE] in between masses, waiting.




And I was fascinated by this character, Damien. Yeah. And—


He’s Belgian, what did you relate to?


Yeah, Flanders, rather. So, I absorbed the story for myself. In fact, I still have that two-penny booklet.


Do you really?


Yeah. I should have brought it with me to show you. So he was part of my psyche in a sense, because I’d read about him so much.


And what did the story tell you about him? What did you know at that young age?


That he was a man of very little education, who was filled with the idea of loving God through other people. And not minding doing the dirty work. Because he was used to doing it with the pigs and the cows, all that kind of stuff, yeah. And he wasn’t in any sense really educated. And he had a brother, Pamphile, who decided he was going to be a priest, an older brother, so he went off to be trained as a priest. And, Jef De Veuster, later to be Damien he thought he’d like to be a priest too. [CHUCKLE] So he went trotting after his brother. And then his brother was ordained but fell sick, some type of chickenpox, right, and he could not go by boat to the Sandwich Islands, as was arranged. So the head honcho in Belgium said to Jef De Veuster, later to be Father Damien, Well, you take your brother’s place. And he said, Yeah, all right, yeah. And he went. Now, when he arrived, the French Bishop who was here said, You’re not even a priest? And he said, No, not yet. So the Bishop ordained him, then sent him to Hilo to build a church and Catholicize the community. That’s how he got going. It’s a remarkable story, really, because he wasn’t to know that he had anything like the capacities that he exhibited as the years went by. But I think the simple answer is that he’s a man of the soil. There’s no pretension about him, he never pretended to be anything other than he was, which was really a simple God-fearing young man who wanted to be of help to other people. And then when I went to talk to Aldyth Morris about doing something for the bicentennial, and I mean, I knew that Damien was the patron saint of Hawaiʻi, as it were. There was this Marisol statue that I’d also seen in Washington earlier. So we wrote a multi-character play about him. And then, I thought, well, we should develop this more, because he’s part of Hawaiʻi in an extraordinary way. Anyway, I thought it’d be a lovely part to play. [CHUCKLE]


And you were talking right to the camera in this studio—


Yeah; yeah.


All those years ago.




Wade Couvillon was the cameraman, and he—


Yeah, that’s right.


He said he felt you were playing right to him.


I did. I did. ‘Cause I wanted a pair of eyes, yeah, and he was on a crane, as you probably know better than I do. And so, when he would come in for a close-up, yeah, I would look, as it were, past the lens into his face. And I enjoyed it. It was a wonderful, wonderful experience. It really was.


The University of Hawaiʻi at Manoa was to be Professor Terrence Knapp’s home for a long career, where he taught and mentored generations of up and coming actors. It was also the site of a most unlikely pairing; the works of Shakespeare, and the local comedy group Booga Booga.


I had met David Friend, who knew Dr. Ernst, who was the founder of Kennedy Theatre. And I had tea with Dr. Ernst in Japan, and he said, When you come to Honolulu next, please let me know. So I did. And first thing I saw at Kennedy Theatre was called The Magi—Russian play. Russian play, a comedy, translated. And I simply could not believe, six hundred people sitting in that wonderful auditorium, having such a good time, and enjoying the play. Then I trotted back to England in due course, then I got a letter from Dr. Ernst to say, would I be interested in coming out and being a guest director. And I thought, I would like that. [CHUCKLE] And he wanted an English Season. We were going to do The Importance of Being Earnest, Shakespeare’s Scottish play Macbeth, and then …


You didn’t play Lady Macbeth, though, right?


No, no, no. Hay Fever, Hay Fever by Noel Coward, a lovely threesome. And I enjoyed it. And Joel Trapido, who was the vice chairman at the time, came and said, Are you enjoying yourself? And I said, Yes. He said, Do you like it here? And I said, Yes. And he said, Would you like to stay? And I said, Yes. [CHUCKLE]


That’s nice and neat, isn’t it?


I didn’t have to apply for the job, it was offered to me.


And so, along the way, thirty-five years with the University of Hawaiʻi at Manoa, you taught students in acting.




You must have seen all kinds of ranges of raw talent. What was the most needed thing for these students?


There was a man called Jim Benton who was one of my earlier students, and it was through him that something like Kumu Kahua came into being.


That’s James Grant Benton.


That’s right; as he later became. He was Jim Benton, right. And there was knock on my door, and I’d been there only for about a year or so, and he put his head—rather, this man put his head in and he said, Eh, you Shakespeare 101?




And I said, How dare you?




It was Jim. He came in, and we became buddies very quickly. And he said, could I help him understand Shakespeare. And I said, Yes, you can register as a student in day classes, can’t you? He said he couldn’t afford to do that. So I said, Well, if you like, we’ll have some Shakespeare readings in my office. And he came, and brought, the Booga Booga lot. [CHUCKLE]


That’s an interesting assortment of people in your office.


And they were sitting on the floor. There must have been fifteen people in there, as well as on the sofa and on the stairs.


And what attracted you to do that? ‘Cause you didn’t have to do that.


His delightful personality, as much as anything else, and a kind of Cheerful Charley quality about him, which I liked enormously. And so, we read Twelfth Night, okay. Blow me down if just something like two or three weeks later, [KNOCKING] on my door. He walks in, he’s got papers in his hand. He has rewritten Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night into Pidgin.


And what was your reaction to that? Could have been very negative.


No, I loved it.


You loved it.


Well, I was enchanted by Jim himself. I thought he was such a delightful spirit, and he was mad about performing and comedy as I am, if you know what I mean. And we read it. I got a cast. And there were people who were wetting themselves with laughter. They really were. So I decided to stage it in the Lab Theatre, because the main stage season was already, set up. And they were hammering on the doors to get in. Then we became, as it were, bosom friends, and I decided to—the Lab Theatre, they liked it. Then we took it out to one of the community colleges which has a big, big auditorium, about six, seven hundred.


Leeward Community?


Leeward. The walls were shaking. The walls were shaking with delight, yeah. So that was simply a lovely thing to have happened, yeah.


What a great cross-cultural mix.


Well, yes, it was. And me, with my great love and respect for Shakespeare itself, right, it was simply a matter of idiomatically transferring that into this other gorgeous language, right, Pidgin. Of course, it’s English with Hawaiian flavor. But it was great fun. It was great fun.


The same man who enjoyed watching the locals rolling with laughter in the theater at Leeward Community College has certainly seen it all. In his long career, Dr. Terrence Knapp can count among his friends and colleagues some of the most distinguished actors that Great Britain has ever produced; and he knows a thing or two about taking a show on the road.


Well, there’s Laurence Olivier, for a start. [CHUCKLE] The Lord Olivier of Brighton Stone, as he was. He became a peer and sat in the House of Lords on behalf of the theater arts. I was with him for almost four years in his company. He was founding a company in Chichester in South of England, a beautiful theater like the one in Canada, open stage. And I auditioned for him, I was taken into the company, and then when he founded the National Theatre, later to be the Royal National Theatre, he invited me. One of the greatest joys of my life was playing Osric in Hamlet with Peter O’Toole as Hamletm and Rosemary her name fails me momentarily. But it was a stunning, stunning cast, right. And he had me play Osric as the kind of runabout boy at the court of the King, right. So I was often to be seen doing this or the other, offering the Queen a handkerchief. But enormous fun. And I was well noticed in it, in the production, and Larry was very pleased with me.


What did the critics say about you?


Well, they just said I was kind of a quicksilver. And that was the one word that I was very flattered. Light on my feet, and I mean, Hamlet doesn’t like Osric for those reasons; he’s like an annoying fly, right. But I enjoyed myself enormously.


Judi Dench; you know Judi Dench, right?


Oh, Judi, I know. Well, Judi and I were part of a British council touring company to West Africa. Now, this was one of the most exciting things that ever happened to me in my life. We played out of doors usually, to audiences in Ghana, Nigeria, and Sierra Leone, and on one occasion, we were playing to two and a half thousand people sitting on the southern edge of the Sahara. And because it was so dry, the acoustics was perfect. And as I was saying, I was playing Feste, and I had a trio of musicians who would give me the note, and I’d go. And on this particular occasion, I got the note, and I sang, but they weren’t accompanying me. [CHUCKLE] When we got off, I said, What’s the matter with you? And they said, You took the wrong key. I said, I did not.




I said, I took the one you gave me. Apparently, what happened was, there was a train whistle twelve miles away which went, beep. And it traveled all that distance, and I took that as the …




That’s quite a memory, isn’t it? Yeah. And Judi and I became chums, because she liked to paddle around in the swimming pools, right. And so we formed an aqua ballet. [CHUCKLE] It was very hot, altogether in the Sahara, but we had such a lot of fun. And then, two years later, I was invited to do a similar tour of Southeast Asia, and I was looking forward to being with Judi again, but for whatever reason, she wasn’t able to do it. But by then, we’d become fast friends, right. And so, I see her when I go back to England, and her daughter Finty and her grandson Sam. And I knew her husband, Michael Williams very well. He sadly died of lung cancer after only about ten years. But it was a closeness and conviviality, and a liking.


In the 1970s and 80s, Hawaiʻi was a hotbed of television production, and the industry needed the best of Hawaiʻi’s acting talent to line its casting sheets. Although he filled his share of guest slots, Dr. Terrence Knapp might hope you might forget some of his appearances on the small screen.


What do you think about acting in that venue? Do you enjoy that?


Not much.


Not much.


Not really.


Not much.What did you play in Hawaiʻi Five-O?


Oh … a kind of middle aged English twerp. [CHUCKLE] Fully suited and ties, and so on, and visiting something or other. I did do one that—I’ve forgotten what it was called. Something Hawaiʻi, and I was cast as an attorney. And I had to do something like a twelve-minute speech and I knew that I probably would have a hard time memorizing it with certainty. Do you follow me? So I asked the director if he would put it on the thing, and I would read it off. And he was very dubious. And I said, Well, this way, I won’t falter, I can time it according to … All right, he said, one take. And I got a standing ovation from the entire set when that one had done. Because I was so relaxed, I didn’t have to try to remember, I could just … and then I said, [INDISTINCT].


Now, you know the Twelfth Night in Pidgin? That never rubbed off on your speech. And after how many years in Hawaiʻi, more than thirty—


Yeah, well—


You still have your—


If I want—




—I could do a good—




—imitation, sort of, yeah. I can slur. [CHUCKLE] I don’t have the vocabulary; I mean, that’s what gives the Hawaiian dialect or form such joy, their version of certain words, right, and the way they’re used. Oh, I’ve been a very lucky man.


Hawaiʻi’s world class actor, Dr. Terrence Knapp, a man who’s rubbed shoulders with English lords and UH Manoa undergrads, who made a huge contribution to the legacy of this TV station, PBS Hawaiʻi, with his performance in Damien, continues to live in Honolulu in retirement. As professor emeritus of theater, he spends his time traveling, mentoring students, and occasionally performing. For Long Story Short and PBS Hawaiʻi, I’m Leslie Wilcox. A hui hou kakou.


For audio and written transcripts of this program, and all episodes of Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox, visit


As the eldest of seven kids, the rest of whom were girls, what can you share with us about growing up with girls? What kind of insights can you tell us?


You learn to be very patient, first off. [CHUCKLE]


You never got to use the bathroom for any length of time, I bet.


No, no. I don’t remember that, but the three elder sisters, as it were, Sheila, Eileen, and Patsy, were only about a year apart, right. So they were almost like triplets, in fact, yeah. And I remember them sometimes losing their temper when they were little girls, and pulling each other’s hair, for no good reason that I could think of. And my mother told me never to interfere. [CHUCKLE] She said, Just let them do it. [CHUCKLE]


Mary Bitterman


Original air date: Tues., Nov. 24, 2009


Leading PBS in Hawai‘i and Beyond


Leslie Wilcox visits with Mary Bitterman, who was the Executive Director of PBS Hawai‘i (then referred to as KHET) from 1974 to 1979. The youngest Executive Director of a PBS station at the time, she headed KHET at the time of the groundbreaking production of Aldyth Morris’ “Damien”, which won the George Foster Peabody Award and was aired on PBS stations nationwide. She went on to become the President and CEO of KQED – the PBS television station in San Francisco – and was board chair of PBS. Mary is now Chair of the PBS Foundation and head of the Bernard Osher Foundation, which provides scholarship funding to selected colleges and universities.


Mary Bitterman Audio


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And I think the future of our state, the future of our republic, and the future of our world has got to be people understanding people, people respecting people, people respecting the diversity of people’s backgrounds and interests, and insights. And I think that Public Broadcasting is going to play, increasingly, an important niche in bringing the people of the world to a better understanding and appreciation of one another. The stories must be told.


For four decades, a leader in public broadcasting, Mary Bitterman, has had a meaningful impact on how Hawai‘i sees the world, and how the world sees Hawaii. Her story on Long Story Short.


Aloha mai kakou, I’m Leslie Wilcox. In this edition of Long Story Short, we’ll catch up with Mary Bitterman, the first woman to lead a PBS television station. Which happened to be this station—PBS Hawai‘i, called Hawai‘i Public Television during her tenure in the 1970s. Mary Bitterman would go on to run a larger PBS station, in San Francisco. She would become PBS national board chair, and receive public broadcasting’s most prestigious award for lifetime achievement. She still calls Hawai‘i home, returning to Honolulu every month from her offices on the west coast. And she takes Hawai‘i with her everywhere she goes. In Washington D.C. I’ve heard her explain to large national groups the meaning of “ohana” and the Japanese principle she learned here, “okage sama de,” which means, “I am what I am because of you.” Fate brought this fourth-generation Californian and Ivy League scholar to Hawai‘i. Her husband, psychology professor Jeff Bitterman, was offered a short-term job at the University of Hawai‘i at Manoa.


And so he was asked to be a guest professor for a year. And so we came to Hawai‘i for a year. And that was 1971, and we—


You thought it would be one year, I bet.


Yes, we never left. I mean, even though I work off island, and have for several years, Hawai‘i has always been our home and permanent residence since 1971.


What made you feel at home here? Because, you know, there is a great deal of aloha and hospitality on one level, but on another level, it’s sometimes hard to get into the culture when people are busy, and they have things to do, and they think you’re gonna be leaving in a—




—year, anyway.


Exactly. And I just can’t tell you how many instant opportunities were made available to me. I mean, I know exactly what you mean. And when people say to me, Oh, I’m going to move to Hawai‘i, I really want to make sure that they understand how important it is to exercise curiosity, and not just to come fully shaped and imprint themselves somehow on Hawai‘i. When I first came, I taught several courses at the University of Hawai‘i. One of the students in class was an older woman who was returning to finish her degree. And she said to me after class, My husband is doing a special project with the Ford Foundation, and I would like him to meet you. So I said, I’d be very happy to meet your husband, and how nice that he works for the Ford Foundation. All right; but here’s what he wanted. He said, What we want is someone to do a history of Hawaiian landownership and land use, so we have a baseline for the development work that we’re undertaking.


Now, that’s a—


And I said—


—fascinating issue.


I said, Here’s the problem. The problem is, I think the whole idea of doing historical research on Hawaiian landownership and land use is fascinating; but I’m not competent. I’m not competent, because I don’t know the Hawaiian language, and because I have not studied Hawaiian history in any really significant, deep fashion. And he said, Well, we really would like you to take on this enterprise, and so on and so forth. At any rate, I was hired to do some basic historical research dealing with a great number of texts. What I did was, I published a series of papers that began with the ancient Hawaiian land use forms, going on to the Mahele, going on to the various uses of the land, especially when we had the development of sugar and pine, then moving on to the period of military installations on the aina, and then really ending up with the visitor industry after the second war and the development of resort properties and the rest of it.


That’s a great way to get to know Hawai‘i, isn’t it?


Now, this, when you said, How did you, coming with this modern European background, and so and so forth, come into Hawai‘i and have a chance to sort of be involved right away? And it’s because I worked on land. It just gave me a chance, I would say, to leapfrog and to arrive, say, by year five, at a place that might have taken some other malihini … twenty, thirty years.


Well, you could have blown it big time while you were doing this. But you didn’t.


I had so many teachers. I had so many people who opened themselves to me. It was just extraordinary.


But you were a teacher who was willing to be taught. I think that’s one—


Insatiable curiosity; that’s the only way to learn and I think even when one reaches a point where people say, Oh, you know a great deal, one must never be led to believe that one doesn’t have still so much more to learn than one knows.


What did you do when the study was complete, or when your role was done?


Well I’m very committed to the Buddhist principle of impermanence, with all things changing all the time. It’s become my way to explain everything that happens in life. After I served as the historian for this regional environmental management project, which was called HESAL, and the simulation part of it was really that the Fujitsu Corporation provided us with all of these wonderful computers and computer specialists, so we could take the data that our development colleagues were aggregating, and run different scenarios of development. And the focus of our study was the Kaneohe Bay watershed. And we did a number of public hearings in which Oceanic Cable helped us to record some of the public hearings, and really get the public involved in, how do you want the Windward side of Oahu to develop, how precious are the taro fields, what will be the cost of capital facilities to support a much larger population, what will the erosion from development, soil erosion, what kind of damage might that cause to the Kaneohe Bay. And the final thing I did for Ford was to write a history of the Hawai‘i environmental simulation laboratory, which is on file at Windward Community College Library. So there.


Okay; so now you’re pau with that, and—


So now I’m—


—what are you gonna do?


—pau with that.


So far, by the way, I notice you’ve gotten two jobs, not because you went after them, but because people went after you.


Well, the opportunities, it just absolutely was incredible. The man from the Ford Foundation, Bill Felling, with whom I got on very well, he became very interested in Hawaiian history as I shared with him some of what I had read, and introduced different books to him that he began reading. Everything from John Papa Ii to Kuykendall, to “On Being Hawaiian” by John Dominis Holt. Just a whole wonderful range of things—David Malo—and serving as the Ford monitor brought me in touch with more people from the Ford Foundation, which curiously, was the major foundation underwriter for Public Television across the United States. The laboratory also had an advisory committed of extraordinary people, including Phil Gianella, who was the publisher of the Star Bulletin then, Kenneth Brown, wonderful Kenny Brown, people like Minoru Hirabara who headed Del Monte operations, Bud Smyser, also from the Star Bulletin. And this advisory group, several of them said, when the position here at PBS Hawai‘i became open, You should do this. I don’t know the difference between a transmitter and a translator; I think that jobs like that should really go to people well schooled in technology, engineering, production, and the rest of it.


Just like you’d said before, I think the job should go to somebody—


Exactly; to somebody who is competent.


—Hawaiian history.


Yes, to somebody who is competent. And so the argument of Minoru Hirabara, who became one of my dearest friends in the world, and Kenny Brown and others was … Here’s what you do have. You’ve told us what you don’t have; what you do have is a real love for Hawai‘i and the people. You do have an understanding and a growing knowledge of Hawaiian culture, and the cultures of the people of Hawai‘i. You have been connected to a very big foundation, which supports Public Television; and who knows, maybe you could get them to send some money to Hawai‘i for Hawai‘i Public Television. You have testified before the State Legislature, which in those days, PBS Hawai‘i was part of State government, and we received our appropriation from State government. So being able to go before the leaders of the Legislature and being able to testify was considered very important, to do it effectively and to do it respectfully, and all. And so that’s how I became the youngest general manager in PBS’ history, and the only woman to head such a station.


Two historic distinctions … Mary Bitterman says Hawai‘i’s multi-ethnic culture was quick to accept a young woman in this leadership role.


I think that everyone who has come to Hawai‘i, whether ancestors came from Japan, Korea, the Philippines, Madeira Islands, Scandinavia, Ireland, Mexico, Puerto Rico, wherever, that the indigenous people, our host culture, has had a very special effect, a softening effect, and I would argue also having women be seen as potentially very competent. I mean, if we read Hawaiian history, we know the place of enormously powerful, gifted women who played such important roles.


Queen Kaahumanu.


Kaahumanu … Liliuokalani. I was on St. Andrews Priory school board, and we know all the incredible things that Queen Emma did. Princess Ruth Likelike. I mean, just an assortment of people—Princess Bernice Pauahi Bishop. So I think that, coupled with the fact that a governor like George Ariyoshi, gave opportunity to women. Boy, once we came to Governor Ariyoshi, more and more women were appointed to cabinet positions, and doors of opportunity opened in very, very important ways. So I had this really great opportunity which has made all the difference in my life. This is really where everything started.


For example?


Well it’s when I really came to Public Television, that in addition to continuing my study of Hawaiian history, that I really became increasingly, increasingly imprinted on Asian history, Asian culture, becoming a host family for East West Center. It was through working with people here at the station, and being really taken into so many ohanas. Our dearest friends were people that I met here; the Kono family, Melvin Kim Farinas, Akio Sakata, who was our chief engineer. So it’s just the world became very, very special for me here. I had never had friends, as I had here.


Why do you think that is? I mean you had a—


I think—


—family in California, you had—


But a small family.


—college experiences.


A small family. So many of my friends here had much larger families. I had two older brothers, and my oldest brother passed away. But it’s really when I came here that I was able to meet so many people with deep roots and many generations in Hawai‘i, that just opened up so many new doors of opportunity. I mean, just through my dear, dear friend Melvin Kim Farinas. Mel was the art director here at Hawai‘i Public Television for many, many years, and I think, gave the station its great reputation for artistry. He was half Korean, half Filipino. His father, Francisco Farinas, was the first Filipino radio broadcaster in Hawai‘i. Melvin’s wife, Ronnie Mae, was half Chinese, half Japanese. Her maiden name was Fujii, her mother’s maiden name, Goo. Just within Melvin, I became involved in all of these cultural outreaches. It just began that everything seemed to connect me to more and more pieces of a mosaic. So if this whole table were these incredible facets, each one of them just sparkling, I began to have connections to so many of them, and every day my life became more interesting, more challenging, because the more I would learn about things that needed to be done or people that we could bring together, and make things happen, it was just terrific; absolutely terrific.


Using all of her skills as a team builder, Mary Bitterman took over a troubled TV station and launched an era when Hawai‘i Public Television became nationally recognized for its programs.


So your personal life was developing, and your knowledge of Hawai‘i was growing. What were you doing professionally here? What did you see needed to be done, and what did you get done?


Well, it was a very exciting time. And I think sometimes when entities are in a distress situation, which we were—


You were invited to lead a distressed organization?


Yes. But I have to tell you, the only distressing thing was that we didn’t have … we had a modest amount of financing, and we were a little overdrawn on our State account, so we had to go bare for a while. What we did have was an extraordinary group of people. We had forty-eight student helpers from the University. Everybody, as we both know, trained in television in Hawai‘i was trained here in the good old days. And we just had a staff of people, thirty-six people, who were just absolutely incredible. But we had to find out how we were going to do things on almost nothing. That’s why we wanted to find a way, even without resources, that we could just kind of take what we had, and do it. So we started, actually, a program called Hawai‘i Now, which was a stripped program, five days a week, in which we could put different segments. And so International Kitchen was one day a week. So how did we start out? This is just an example. We took our fabulous administrative officer, Shareen Nakasone, and said, Shareen, you really make great Okinawan donuts—you know, andagi. Why don’t you come and cook them in the studio? Shareen said, I’ve never been on television, I don’t know if I’d want to do this. But she was just such a great girl; she said, Okay, for the cause, I’ll do it. So she came in, and she was our first cook. And then we began. We weren’t online, but we would send people copies of the recipes from International Kitchen. So people would write in, and then we developed a membership group so they could become members. And it was terrific. So we started off with Hawai‘i Now. But then we did—everybody wants sports, and you have your wonderful Leahey & Leahey program now, but we did something called Sports Page 11, with Marv Vedetto.


With Jim Hackleman.


Well, Jim Hackleman afterwards.


He came later.


But it started off with Marv Vedetto from the University, and then went on to Jim Hackleman. But it was really fun, because we did everything from

women’s sports, which weren’t being covered then, to kids’ T-Ball. I remember we did one program doing a T-Ball game over in Waimanalo, and we had more reaction from the community. People were just—






Totally support that.


Absolutely, absolutely wonderful. And then we began an arts program, Spectrum, we had Dialog which was our Friday night public affairs discussion. And we did a lot of interesting people.


This was when Hawai‘i had only a handful of viewing choices, before the proliferation of cable channels. Mary Bitterman found the funding and gave the green light to a production that would, arguably, become the most nationally acclaimed of Hawai‘i’s locally-produced TV programs.


Obviously, the jewel in the crown was Damien, which I am so delighted … I can’t begin to tell you. It just is so personally meaningful to me that this extraordinary story, this exquisite play, written by a most wonderful woman—I just wish everyone could have known Aldyth Morris. Brilliant, sensitive, compassionate. Everything about her was very special. You would just know that if you read the script; you know that somebody very special wrote it. And then to have that combined with a brilliant actor, who just became Damien in Terence Knapp, and a gifted producer/director, Nino Martin, and a gifted art director, Melvin Kim Farinas. It was a combination of things—the videographer, Wade Cuvian—that was magical. It’s just extraordinary. But we did some other programs. We did a three-part series with Joe Nathan, an independent producer, called The Japanese. And those were films that he filmed in Japan, and then we did local follow up. So for example, his film called Farm Song on a Japanese family living in an agricultural area, we went off to Maui and did the Orodomo family in Kula. And when he went off and did Full Moon Lunch, a bento operation, we went down to Liliha Street and did Nishi Catering. So it was a combination of trying to take the wonderful things of our own community and setting them into the context of a larger world. And then, of course, China Visit, which we had a group of Hawai‘i residents going in 1977, the year after Mao’s death, to do that film, was a terrific thing.


You were one of the first groups of Westerners in China.


Exactly. But I think it really stands the test of time that you’re able to look at that film, that is PBS Hawai‘i’s film, and you’re able to go back and see what China, now the tenth largest economy, was like thirty-two years ago. It’s very exciting.


You hosted that documentary in pigtails.


Well, I have to tell you. It’s very interesting. When we were in China in 1977 people will not believe it; they just won’t believe it, because China has just moved so quickly forward. In 1977, there was not one woman to be seen wearing anything different from a navy blue or a gray Mao suit with Mao trousers, and whose hair was not cut like this, or who had pigtails. And because I have long hair, it was decided that the best thing for me to do was to put them in pigtails, right?


Later, Mary Bitterman was asked to take the directorship of “The Voice of America” which she saw, in part, as an opportunity to bring Hawai‘i’s spirit to the rest of the world.


And so a door of opportunity opened to become the youngest and the only woman ever to serve as director of The Voice of America, and all because the people of Hawai‘i gave me the opportunity. And I worked very hard at The Voice, and really tried to introduce the aloha spirit to a larger audience. We really opened up our relationship with China, we arranged for the first exchange of broadcasters between The Voice of America and China. We had some wonderful, wonderful days and, as you can imagine, it was my work at Hawai‘i Public Television, Koji Ariyoshi, the trip to China, that I already had contacts with Chinese broadcasters, and with the Minister of Propaganda in China. So that when I went to The Voice of America, I was able to build on some of that, and arrange for these exchanges.


And by the way, was that the actual title, the Minister of Propaganda?


Yeah; yeah. Dung Lee Chun.


If we could skip ahead just a little bit. I think you were recruited for another job at a Public Television station.



It was another distressed station, but much more distressed, much larger jurisdiction.


Yeah. And that was an opportunity which arose in 1993, and it was in distress, it was in a near bankrupt situation.


And the viewers were extremely upset that local programming had been yanked from them.


Local programming was gone.


Which is something you had brought back to Public Television in Hawai‘i.


It also had a recent labor strike, and there were very antagonistic feelings between union members and the management of the station. There were a huge number of problems.

Your good relations with unions must have helped you in—


It helped me a lot.


—San Fancisco.


Because before I went there, people on the KQED staff had called people in Hawai‘i at HGEA, Charlotte Simmons, other people, saying, What is this person like, and so on and so forth. So that was enormously helpful. But at KQED, what I tried to do was two things. One, to put the stations back on sound financial footing, and we would be responsible stewards with the community’s investment in us, and we would deliver the greatest possible content.


Years after reviving the San Francisco PBS station, KQED, Mary Bitterman became the president of a funding organization that helped her rescue that station. the Bernard Osher Foundation is one of the nation’s largest supporters of higher education and the arts. It’s given millions of dollars to the University of Hawai‘i. At this time in 2009, the Osher Foundation is Mary Bitterman’s paying job. But she has never stopped contributing to PBS, serving in many unpaid leadership positions, including National Board Chair and head of the PBS Foundation. I’d like to thank Mary Bitterman for joining us on Long Story Short, and for upholding traditions of teambuilding and excellence here at PBS Hawai‘i. I’m Leslie Wilcox. A hui hou kakou.


History was biographies of admirals, generals, and kings and queens. But the real richness of history are all of these other people, and the way in which they shaped our lives. And I think Public Broadcasting’s niche is in bringing more people on the stage, and letting them all be heard.