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Episode 4: Jean Walkinshaw
Beyond Scope and Content: Hidden Histories from the Film Archive
HP: Hannah Palin
JW: Jean Walkinshaw
[Begin transcript 00:00:04]
HP: Scope and Content note for Jean Walkinshaw films and videos, 1966-2003: documentary films produced by Jean Walkinshaw, including raw footage, film elements, and finished programs from her career in public television. Subjects include the Pacific Northwest Ballet, the Columbia River, Mount Rainier, the Rhona disaster, storytellers in Russia, Sub Pop records and interviews with cultural figures such as Harriet Bullitt, Tom Robbins, George Tsutakawa, Emmett Watson and Alan Hovhaness.
HP: Welcome to Beyond Scope and Content: Hidden Histories from the Film Archives. My name is Hannah Palin and I’m the Moving Image Curator at the University of Washington Libraries. I’m about to take you on a deep dive into a few of our collections featuring women filmmakers. Now you probably haven’t heard of these artists. They’ve been overlooked or they’ve faded from our collective memory. But the thing is their work is sophisticated and passionate and just really surprising. So after you finish listening to this podcast, you’re going to need to go watch their films. Trust me. Let’s get started.
HP: Jean Walkinshaw is a force of nature. She’s in her 90s. She lives alone in Seattle. She’s sharp as a tack and spends her days creating a video memoir to share with her family. Jean’s amazing, and she’s always been amazing. I first became aware of Jean when she contacted Special Collections about whether we wanted programs she produced for King TV, the local NBC affiliate, KCTS, the local PBS affiliate, and SCC TV, the television station at North Seattle College.
HP: It filled a moving truck and required three people to get it from its temporary home at Seattle Community College to its permanent place at the UW Libraries. It’s during this last bit that I came to know Ms. Walkinshaw, learning about her career and her trajectory from loving wife and mother to fierce television producer, someone who was as devoted to her family as she was to telling stories about our region and the world we live in.
HP: Did I mention that Jean is amazing? Jean and I had the opportunity to record an interview in late 2020 in the midst of the COVID pandemic shut down. I have to admit that this is my first experience taping a phone interview, so the sound quality leaves a lot to be desired. Sorry guys. I just hope that Jean’s wonderful stories overcome my deficiencies as a broadcast engineer. Here’s my conversation with Jean Walkinshaw about her life and her work.
JW: Yes, yeah. How are you?
HP: I’m doing pretty good. How are you?
JW: I’m great. Thank you. Thank goodness yeah, gorgeous day. I’m looking across at the mountains so that-that-that affects my feelings when I have a gorgeous day like this.
HP: It does, doesn’t it? I know I’m…Jean was born in 1926 and was raised in Tacoma, WA on what was then known as the Gold Coast.
JW: My grandfather was one of the first botanists to actually, he was the first one to go into the Olympic mountains. He was here in 1889. A lot of Northwest plants are named after him, hendersonii.
HP: Her extended family, the Strongs on her father’s side, the Hendersons on her mothers, have been in the Pacific Northwest for generations. They’ve been here so long that there are actually mountains named for both families. Mount Henderson in the Olympic Mountains is named after Northwest botanist Louis F. Henderson (1853-1942).
HP: The Mount Walkinshaw name was officially adopted in 1965 to commemorate Robert B. Walkinshaw (1884-1963), author and lawyer, whose conservation efforts contributed to the establishment of Olympic National Park. Jean’s roots, go deep.
JW: My roots really do go deeply. I married a guy whose father was one of the early mountaineers. And my mother was here visiting, and Walt came home and was really kind of proud of the fact that there was a mountain named after his father. And mother kind of said, “Oh, you know, Walter, I think there’s a mountain named after my father.” And indeed, there’s a Mount Henderson, but it is not nearly as impressive as Mount Walkinshaw.
HP: Jean went to Clover Park High School, Stanford University, and the University of Washington. She met and married Walter Walkinshaw, a lawyer, and they both became active in the Seattle arts and cultural community. They knew everybody. So when she got a call from the owner of King TV, it wasn’t out of the blue.
HP: She knew Stimson Bullitt personally and considered him a friend. When Stim wanted Jean’s sharp wit and incisive opinions on one of the station’s early talk shows he just asked if she was game. She said yes and that was the start of her multi-decade career in television.
JW: I was teaching, a teacher at Bellevue High School teaching Social Studies, and Stim came to the door one day and said that he would like me to come and work at King. And I knew nothing about television. I was really disdainful of it. Both Walt and I were because at that time it was the new medium. And we didn’t want our kids, we felt it was very bad for our children to watch television. So we didn’t even have a set really.
JW: Stim wanted me to do a show a week on interesting women because women weren’t interesting at that point. I mean, and the show was mainly cooking and sewing. It was mainly people who were working women who were doing jobs that were not ones you’d expect them to be doing maybe a woman doctor, a woman lawyer.
JW: They were substantive people with education who are not entertainers. It was a little insert in their telescope show, a kind of poor man’s Today Show. It was a morning show and they had an absolutely gorgeous host and think there was a male too.
HP: It wasn’t easy. She was one of the few women at the station and wasn’t interested in focusing on women’s issues.
JW: After a year the executive producer called me in and just gave me hell. I mean, it was personal and it was saying you, you do thus and so and thus and so. And you’re not good on camera and so forth. So I was just undone by that. Nobody had treated me that way before. And so I came home and I wrote a letter to King resigning in anger.
JW: When Stim was head of King and he was bringing in all these hotshots from the East Coast and from highly educated institutions to upgrade television. So one of them was Roger Hagen. He was one of Stim’s assistants. And after I wrote this letter I got a letter from Hagen saying, “I have seen your admirable letter of resignation.
JW: “I want you to know that such things are not wasted. As you’ve probably heard it has caused a small earthquake in the structure and it is cracked and if not crumbling. I only wish you had a draft card to tear up.” And so with that I did have courage to keep in the business and registered for a class in television production.
HP: She decided to take classes at the University of Washington under the legendary Milo Ryan. This is from an article written by Sheila Farr for History Link, an online encyclopedia of Northwest Regional History.
HP: Milo Ryan was “pioneer of Seattle public television and legendary figure in radio history.” He “was responsible for discovering and preserving a forgotten cache of some of the most important radio news broadcasts of the twentieth century. A University of Washington communications professor, Ryan was a founder of KCTS Channel 9 in 1954 and served as the station’s first program director.” Jean met Roberta Byrd at the University of Washington in a class taught by Ryan.
JW: She was doing a little reading to kids on camera for Milo. She had such an incredible, beautiful voice and was such an interesting woman. I actually, she and I pretty much developed the idea of Face to Face with his helping us really and-and saying “Yes, go for it.”
HP: In a wonderful article on History Link, Sheila Farr writes about Jean.
HP: “Award-winning producer Jean Walkinshaw pioneered television documentary filmmaking in the Northwest. Beginning at KING-TV in Seattle in the 1960s, Walkinshaw pushed TV beyond its white middle-class comfort zone with the weekly interview show “Face to Face,” hosted by African American educator and actress Roberta Byrd — one of the first local programs to take on minority issues.”
JW: There was nothing like that on local television yet. There were news shows and so forth, but I don’t think they’re even any Black commentators yet. Now I could be wrong on that, but Roberta was certainly the first Black woman to be put in front of the camera in a position of authority rather than being a somebody who’s dancing or sewing or cooking.
JW: That was really a first here in the Northwest and I-I love the fact. That’s one of the things that I think helped me with my whole career thereafter was to have helped with Roberta get that show underway and then get it funded at King.
HP: This is also from Sheila Farr’s History Link article.
HP: “’Face to Face’ was a hit. The two women would choose a topic, and then Walkinshaw researched and wrote the scripts, tracked down guests and prepped Byrd, who took charge in front of the camera. In the 1960s it was a new thing to see a Black woman preside over a TV program and Byrd was compelling. The Seattle Times columnist Emmett Watson once wrote he could listen to Byrd read the phone book.
HP: Despite the show’s good ratings, Walkinshaw had to plead to get office space at King. For a while she had to use the phone in the women’s restroom to line up interviews. The pay was minimal, $50.00 each per program. But eventually, after underwriting from the Aerospace Union was secured, they wrangled $100 a show for Walkinshaw and $125 for Byrd. Face to Face aired on Sunday afternoons an undesirable time slot. So in 1970, when Walkinshaw and Byrd were offered primetime at KCTS, they jumped at the opportunity.
JW: And then we moved back to KCTS with the show. And so I was given an opportunity to start producing in the field, but most of it was in-in studio. We started with the poverty program and we were really pretty much ahead of the game nationally according to the Columbia School of survey Journalism that they did one year.
JW: They did a study and they said Face to Face was the only show in the nation that was consistently covering minorities.
HP: This is also from Sheila Farr’s History Link article.
HP: “After moving the show to KCTS, Walkinshaw next produced the series “Faces of the City,” inspired by Studs Terkel, before going on to create more than 40 documentary features on prominent artists, writers, and cultural topics for local and national audiences.”
HP: She produced so much excellent work while at KCTS. It’s kind of hard to talk about all of it. The thing that strikes me about Jean’s collection is that it leaves behind documentation of the icons of our region. She was really interested in what makes the Pacific Northwest different. What makes our people tick?
HP: Maybe that’s because she has such deep roots in the region. But she wants to know why are we different from everybody else, through interviews with everyone from the founders of Sub Pop Records to the writer Tom Robbins to Native American communities and stories of Mount Rainier and the Columbia River.
HP: Her roots are here. Hell, her family has two mountains named after her. You can’t get more Northwest than that. Jean had an eye and an ear for those who were on the fringes of society as well as those who are in the thick of it. It’s a really interesting juxtaposition.
JW: I’ve always been interested in trying to do something about something, and I was brought up worrying about the environment and also certainly equality for people. And so I’ve had this strong sense of justice that has motivated me too.
HP: As a young woman, Jean went to Hiroshima after World War II as part of a construction project called Houses for Peace.
JW: I was there early on right after the war in Hiroshima, doing, building houses for goodwill. So I got to know the Japanese culture.
HP: She worked with Floyd Schmoe, a Quaker and peace activist and it changed her outlook. And it was a really important experience in her development.
JW: I became very, very influenced by Japan because of my contacts in Hiroshima. One of my early shows was Japan/Northwest, was the aesthetic similarities between Seattle and the Japanese influence in Seattle and I got the money to go to Japan to shoot.
HP: Years later in 1986, Jean made a documentary about Schmoe called 90 Years of Tomorrows. A profile of Floyd Schmoe, the first park naturalist on Mount Rainier, a marine biologist, a professor of forest ecology, a Quaker pacifist and stretcher bearer in World War I, a humanitarian relief worker, and the author of nine books.
HP: During World War II, Floyd stopped teaching at the University of Washington to work full time, helping those held in Japanese internment camps. Close to his 90th birthday, Schmoe was given the prestigious Order of the Sacred Treasure and named an honorary citizen of Hiroshima by Japan.
JW: Then there again, my personal life entered my professional life. I wrote a grant to go back to Hiroshima with him when he was honored at the peace ceremony. So I did a show, which I’ve always really loved and it’s called 90 Years of Tomorrows. But that was out of my own personal life.
HP: Like all documentary filmmakers, Jean had to look for funding to get her projects made, even when she worked at television stations like King and KCTS. She was really adept at writing grants that funded projects like Tar Heels and Loggers and their Lore among many, many others. Jean perfected the art of the hustle. She was so good at it and she got so much work done because she knew what funders were looking for. She was a master.
JW: You know you’re only as good as your last show. Particularly for me, because for so many years they didn’t put me on staff at KCTS and so I had to come with grants. That’s another thing about our Northwest. I think that we grew up, we in the arts, grew up with an inferiority complex that ever since Mr. Beecham came to town and called us a cultural dustbin.
JW: It-it certainly was something I had to deal with a lot. So you’re always, you were always looking over your shoulder for your next thunder. It was very hard to-to break into that actually. For the first full documentary, no, it was the second one that I ever did in a full half hour. I-I got funded with the National Endowment for the Arts and it was Three Artists in the Northwest.
HP: a documentary featuring Guy Anderson, George Tsutakawa, Theodore Roethke, three artists who live and work in the Pacific Northwest. They discuss drawing their inspiration from nature, mountains and the wildlife of the region as well as from Japanese art.
JW: It really, really did get all sorts of recognition because it was a real breakthrough in that, number one, people haven’t really used the beauty of our Northwest as a backdrop. And I was so much into ecology even then. It did get huge recognition and was played three or four times on PBS and so forth.
JW: And what a break to have be your first documentary. The reviews were great on it. It won a couple of Emmys and so forth. So that sent me on my way with these, you know, funding agencies. Of the National Endowment for the Arts, and they were looking for people to do shows on-on hidden pockets of folk arts in our Northwest. And so I was able to fill that. I did this piece on the Tar Heels up in Darrington. I did Hrvati! the-the Croatians in Anacortes. And I did oh, and that was the one I got the funding for: Loggers and their Lore.
HP: I just want to point out that Jean is kind of the connective tissue between the other two people we focused on in Beyond Scope and Content. Jean knew both Doris Chase and Ruth Kirk. They were all working and creating and producing at about the same time and they worked together on different kinds of projects and interacted socially.
HP: And it’s a really interesting idea to me that the three of them were connected and that they also were influenced by a lot of the same things, having grown up in the Northwest. And Jean talked about her connection with Doris Chase and Ruth Kirk during our conversation.
JW: I think I met Ruth because Walt was so active in conservation and I remember she invited us over to dinner. So I actually knew her socially a little bit before. And it was the same thing with Doris because my sister was in the art world and so I naturally I was interested in that. And so I actually I knew these people, both of them, I think just plain socially before I really knew them professionally.
JW: But I-I kind of had to protect my turf because there’s only, only so much funding out there and, it’s, that’s the problem with competition really. It makes cooperation hard. But as I’ve said before, I don’t think you can really create by committee and I always had to be the boss. I was pretty arrogant about that because we are in our specific areas of artistic endeavor.
JW: But it wasn’t the exact same area, so we could really, really exchange ideas and all because the written word is really pretty darn different from then writing for television. And Ruth was more of a very exacting scientist really and her kinds of books were based on facts and figures, not an emotion and music and stuff, and so she added a lot to me because I meant to be not very good on facts and figures. But Ruth and I actually, I was a little, she was almost kind of a rival when I first started because we were both working with the Makah Indians.
JW: So here I come along and she was just great. She was very sharing. By then, she’d move more to the print media, so that then we got to know each other that way and because I used, she let me use some of your footage in my shows. And then we became good friends and would have dinner together.
JW: Our husbands liked each other. Then when we got to work on this centennial of Mount Rainier, oh my gosh, we used to just talk all the time. And I could feed her leads and she could feed me leads because she was doing the book and I was doing the video. We were cross-fertilizing each other and then after that we were very good friends. And I used to go down and see her when she was living out of out of Olympia.
JW: And Doris really was the so incredibly creatively aesthetic, putting circles on top of circles and things. When she came back to Seattle, she made an effort to keep up with people in the arts. And she’d call me and ask me to come down and have-have lunch with her. By then she was living in Horizon House so I had the good fortune of knowing her in her later years. And I was so intrigued with her interviews that she’d done in New York with the famous artists. And her dance videos were so innovative.
JW: She was so incredibly creative. She was very generous in letting me look at, I don’t think I reused any of her stuff because it was a little different from the kind of thing I was doing, but I thought it was, it was wonderful. And she was very encouraging, very encouraging of all other people who were in the same field as she was. And I just benefited from knowing her too.
JW: So there are these two women who really were very influential in just talking ideas and looking at new creators’ stuff, and particularly when it came to the media. So I feel extremely lucky to have known them both.
HP: When that moving truck pulled up to our storage facility a few years ago, filled with boxes of videotapes and stacks of film cans, the enormity of Jean’s body of work struck me with the force of a tsunami because here’s the thing. When you think of a film, you think of a finished product. When you hear that Jean produced 40 documentaries, you think of 40 videotapes or 40 reels of film.
HP: In reality there are close to 2000 videotapes and almost 800 cans of film that all went into making the final program that aired on television or that you’re now watching online. That is the part of filmmaking that most people don’t see and, frankly, probably don’t need to worry about. But I do.
HP: The thing that intrigued me most about Jean’s collection was not just that she’d interviewed Tom Robbins who is one of my favorite authors or made a documentary about George Tsutakawa, Raymond Carver, Jacob Lawrence or that she created a television show with a female African American host or focused so much of her work on amazing women and fascinating stories of everyday people.
HP: What called to me, where the outtakes, the two hour interview that went into the three minutes of screen time, the rough cuts, the be rolls, the outtakes, all of the extra bits that informed what Jean finally chose to put up on screen. That material is gold because that material has never been seen before. No one knows it exists except Jean.
HP: She was one of the last people to view it and touch it and think deeply about it. That’s what people need to do their research on just about any topic you can think of: loggers, musicians, artists, writers, theater and television history, even nuclear weapons for heaven’s sake. There is so much material in Jean’s collection that has yet to see the light of day.
HP: Because like Jean archives have to hustle for funding and for attention. Like the artists she focused on, archives rarely get the support they need. So I’ll take a page out of Jean’s playbook. I’ll keep writing grants advocating for my collections and training students to work on moving image materials because getting her work out to the public is not just important. It’s imperative.
HP: Like Jean, I’ve got my life’s work cut out for me, making sure that the visual history of the Pacific Northwest continues to be preserved and that it can be accessed for generations to come. That’s what will keep me going, just like Jean and Ruth and Doris. I’ve got amazing examples of commitment and dedication to guide me on my journey. Thanks to all of them.
HP: A collection of Jean’s work can of course be found at the University of Washington Libraries Special Collections. We’re making more of it available every day, so keep checking back. But selections have also been taken into the American Archive of Public Broadcasting, a collaboration between GBH and the Library of Congress with a long-term vision to preserve and make accessible significant historical content created by public media and to coordinate a national effort to save at risk public media before its content is lost to posterity. Make sure you check out Jean’s work and take a deep dive. You’ll be glad you did.
HP: Today’s episode was brought to you by a grant from the Friends of the University of Washington Libraries. Thanks to Ketsia for our theme music “Hope in Endings” and to Bluemount Score for our scope and content music “Captain Cover Clam.” A very special thanks to Sarah Meidl, without whom this episode simply would not exist. Thank you for listening and stay tuned for upcoming episodes of Beyond Scope and Content: Hidden Histories from the Film Archive. Thank you so much. Have fun out there.