Mel Waskin
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Mel Waskin, 2012

Melanie Cregger conducted the following interview with Coronet Film's Mel Waskin in 2012

An Interview with Mel Waskin


Coronet Instructional Films is probably most well-known for its formulaic social guidance films. The first of such films, Shy Guy and Are You Popular?, were released in 1947. Both feature simple, student-centered problems that can be resolved in ten minutes—a model that many of their subsequent films sought to replicate. Often featuring well-mannered, well-dressed teenagers dealing with problems about dating or fitting in, these films came to define the Coronet style and have often been the target of popular culture parodies. In the 80s, Coronet even released its own parody called The Great American Student, a compilation of the best and worst from their guidance films.

In his 44 year career as a script writer with the company, Mel Waskin wrote many of the films that helped shape the educational experience of students across America. According to his estimates, he wrote over 1,000 scripts during his tenure at Coronet. In 1950, after freelancing for the company, he was hired on staff. True to Coronet’s reputation, his first script was How Do You Know It’s Love? (1950), a social guidance film.

Before getting involved with Coronet, 17-year old Waskin enlisted in a special college program through the Army, in 1944, which existed because “there was some concern that when the war was over, there would not be an educated group of young men and women who could carry on the high tech work that they expected America to be doing.” This program allowed him to enlist at 17 and go to school until he was 18 rather that enter immediately into the fighting forces: “I turned 18 two days into the third semester, so the rule was that you had to finish the semester. So, at the age of 18, I had a year and a half of college.” When he finally completed basic training, America had defeated the Nazis, so the Army sent Waskin to the University of West Virginia to continue his education. There he finished three more semesters before World War II and the program were over. “I went into the Army in high school and came out a senior in college.”

During those three and a half years, Waskin had been studying Civil Engineering. Even though he had some trouble with certain engineering concepts, he decided to stick it out rather than throw all of that education away. However, when he transferred to the University of Illinois, an advisor made a mistake and signed him up for a class “at the wrong time, in the wrong building, in the wrong room.” He took it as a sign that the gods were telling him not to do engineering. He instead decided to get a degree in journalism.

In 1949, as a recent college graduate, Waskin knew that he wanted to be a writer and that he wanted his writing to last. According to him, “Newspaper writing is bird cage toilet paper. Radio writing is evanescent; it flies away in the air. But movies last. If I’m going to write, I want stuff that’s lasting. I decided to aim for movies.” With this goal in mind, he wrote to and applied at the two big educational film companies in Chicago, Encyclopedia Britannica and Coronet. In his application letter he wrote that he lived with his parents and had no major financial needs. So, despite the fact that he had no script writing or film experience, Coronet decided that he “was their ideal candidate.”

His first year there, Waskin was expected to write 20 scripts. The topics for these films were determined by the research department and assigned to the script writers. Basically, the research department analyzed a variety of texts from several different companies. If a particular topic was covered in enough books, Coronet could probably sell it: “The function of the company was to stay in business. We stayed in business if schools would buy the films. And schools would buy the films if they enhanced the teaching that was done by the textbooks.”

Perhaps due in part to their reliance on textbook material, Coronet developed a reputation of being stodgy: “the people at Britannica used to make fun of Coronet by saying, ‘Britannica brings the world to the classroom. Coronet brings the classroom to the classroom’ because so many of our films took place in the classroom.” In fact, being so tied to the textbooks and the classroom curriculum often meant that creative projects were not done.

Another major factor contributing to Coronet’s reputation could arguably be the influence of Jack Abraham, the general manager of Coronet at the time. Abraham was a very conservative person, and towards the end of his tenure, he held the company back from making compelling films. For example, Abraham didn’t want the films to have any credits except for Coronet branding. His philosophy was that the schools wanted films that educate; they were not paying for or interested in the name of the writer or producer.

Waskin describes the meeting that brought about a change of culture and direction for the company: “We had a meeting with the top executives that owned Coronet, and the questions was raised, ‘Why are Coronet films so stodgy?’ We all knew the answer, but we didn’t want to say because we all knew that it would be the end of Jack Abraham. But Hal Kopel, he’s the one who said, ‘Well, it’s because of Jack Abraham.’ And that was the last time Jack Abraham was part of our company. The next day he was gone. Hal Kopel was in charge of everything, and everything changed. We were a film company rather than just an education company.”

After Jack Abraham left, the company stopped producing “banal dumb stories.” The films got more creative and more interesting, and less tied to the classroom. The filmmakers also began to use a mix of live action and animation. However, like most educational film companies of the era, budgets were still limited, which meant the stories and techniques stayed relatively simple.

Over the years, Waskin worked on a variety of films in a range of disciplines – from language arts and history to science—not just social guidance films. Holiday films were also popular. For example, he wrote films like The First Christmas Tree (1971) as well as The Trolls and the Christmas Express (1981), which he created in conjunction with HBO.

Waskin’s favorite film is The Helpful Little Fireman (1966), which he wrote and directed. As he describes it, The Helpful Little Fireman was “kind of a fantasy, language arts, social studies film about a little boy who is a real fireman. How he got to be that, no one knows, but after a certain event, he is the hero of the day.” Part of what made this film special was because Waskin had so much control over it. Waskin normally didn’t direct, but the company let him do some experimenting and gave him complete freedom over the direction of this project. It also turned out to be a big seller.

Regardless of the changes that occurred before and after Jack Abraham, the films remained educational in nature. Their primary goal was to teach rather than entertain. The value that film brings to the classroom is the ability to show material in a more visual and dynamic way than the textbook can provide. For Waskin, the best example of this is a film he created about the solar system: “I created a full scale model of the solar system with size and distance the same scale. Three feet equals one million miles. So, we had a sun that was three feet in diameter, and using a helicopter, we placed the planets at various distances from the sun. Pluto, which at the time was a planet, was several miles away, but we were able to place it with a helicopter. No book could possibly show the great distances between the planets and how small they really are compared to the distance because no book could show the size and in scale.” [Exploring Space: the Solar System, 1978, dir. John W. Randle]

Though the goal was to create and sell educational films, education was not what drew Waskin or his fellow writers to the industry: “I would say that the writers at Coronet were writers rather than educators. If they were able to educate by their writing, that was the best. I think I was, but for the most part the people who worked there just wanted to write and that was the kind of writing job they could get.”

In the end, technological changes meant the industry was no longer as profitable as it once was. The change from film to video in the 80s meant a decrease in revenue: “What was a $250-300 film would be a $10 video. You can’t really make a living selling the same number of videos as films.” Then came computers and DVDs, and now 16mm films and projectors are antiques.

In 1994, the Coronet headquarters were moved from Chicago to New Jersey. Waskin decided it was a good time to quit, partly because he didn’t want to move and partly because he “was so old [he] could retire.” After the company moved to New Jersey, it didn’t stay in business for much longer. In 1997, their catalogue was sold to Phoenix Learning Group, Inc.

When asked why he stayed with the company for so long, Waskin replied, “I think I was able to be creative, and I enjoyed that very much. The pressure was not high. Friends always said, ‘Why don’t you go to Hollywood?’ But that’s not the kind of life I want. Chicago was just fine… that wasn’t my world. I’m not a high achiever. I set my level lower probably than I could achieve, but I was very comfortable. And I stayed comfortable most of my life. And I still am.”

 

Filmography


*Note – Due to the huge number of films Mel Waskin wrote as well as Coronet’s earlier practice of not listing credits, this filmography is incomplete. It has been pieced together through the interview and secondary sources when necessary.

How Do You Know It’s Love? (1950)
Hoppy the Bunny (1952)
Who Are the People of America (1953)
Mark Twain Gives an Interview (1961) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lrgV0VdxZtE
The Helpful Little Fireman (1966) http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=1953371141845106337
The First Christmas Tree (1971)
Exploring Space: the Solar System (1978, dir. John W. Randle)
Jingle Bells (1981) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g6wE0g7plE8
The Trolls and the Christmas Express (1981) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3n4i36XAL2o
Global Winds (1985)
The Great American Student (1985)
Halloween Safety, 2nd Edition (1985) http://www.archive.org/details/HalloweenSafetyEducationalFilm1985Coronet
Your Active Body: Bones and Movement (1988)
What's the Brightest Star in the Sky? (1993)
Mr. E Science Series
Wonder World of Science Series (Wondercat Series)
 


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