THE YIDDISH RADIO PIONEER BEHIND PETE SEEGER’S “RAINBOW QUEST”
Rainbow Quest, the beloved 1960s TV series hosted by folk music icon Pete Seeger set a vest pocket visionary standard for the early presentation of traditional music on television, a reputation which still endures. Over its run of 39 episodes, Seeger in his easy going subtly studied manner introduced early TV viewers to a wide array of folk, country, blues, bluegrass and ethnic performers otherwise denied time on the small screen.
Yet, while Seeger’s contributions are on full and timeless display, the contributions of its producer/director — and very possible savior — Sholom Rubinstein, are however, obscured.
Sheldon Joseph Rubinstein, (known personally and professionally as “Sholom” 1919-1989) was to the broadcast manor born. His father, Zvi Hersh (“Z.H.”) Rubinstein was an editor at the Yiddish paper Der Tog when, on WMCA in 1927, he produced Der Tog Program, one of the first Jewish newspaper sponsored radio shows. The series was a mix of up-to the minute Yiddish theater hits, traditional cantorial and folk songs by top name stage and recording artists and all ringed with a timely editorial straight out of the pages of the paper, usually rendered by Z.H. himself. (The show’s format would later be adapted and augmented by station WEVD when it was acquired by the Forverts in 1932.)
When Rubinstein moved Der Tog Program to neighboring station WABC in 1928, it unintentionally netted a vast listening audience: the station was just months shy of being acquired by Philadelphia radio entrepreneur William Paley as the flagship of his new Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) network and where, for the next five years until it was replaced by original CBS programming, Der Tog Program was the only Yiddish program heard on network radio around the country until the Peabody award winning 2002 NPR series, The Yiddish Radio Project, 70 years later.
It was this underwriting which made most programming possible. In 1935, Rubinstein, his father and M. Kielson, opened Advertisers’ Broadcasting Company, to matchmake Yiddish radio shows and national non-Jewish (but kosher) products looking for new untapped markets, and would create hundreds of hours of Yiddish and Jewish-American broadcasts — and its underwriting — for New York stations into the 1960s. And, incidentally, Rainbow Quest.
With the decline of Yiddish popular culture after World War II, Sholom Rubinstein reimagined the kind of Jewish radio programming his father had offered in the halcyon 1920s. On January 17, 1951, WMGM premiered American Jewish Caravan of Stars a not so subtle riff on NBC’s popular variety show Camel Caravan with Rubinstein’s take was aimed at a younger Jewish-American audience more attuned to the Borscht Belt than the Yiddish theater. The Jewish Caravan enjoyed a 10-year run in its Sunday 1:00 PM slot.
In 1953, Rubinstein joined Newark television station WATV (Channel 13) to write/direct and produce Jewish programs. WATV starting in 1948, harkened back to the model of low power radio stations funding multi-ethnic/foreign programming with sponsors from within those language/culture communities, an arrangement Rubinstein inherently understood.
Over the next four years, Sholom Rubinstein wrote, produced and directed a half dozen Yiddish/Jewish-American TV programs tapping veterans like Seymour Rechtzeit, Miriam Kressyn, (“Mr. and Mrs. Jewish TV”) Ruth Jacobs’ (“Jewish Home Show”) and Yiddish composer, Abe Ellstein (“Jewish Talent Unlimited”) while also creating one-off holiday-related Jewish content for the ABC network in 1954 (“The Passover Magician,” “The Story of Rosh Hashona” and NBC (“Hear, O Israel ) and “The Drama Of the Seder” for WPIX (1953)
At WATV at the same time Edwin Cooperstein was a producer/writer/director for commentator David Susskind’s show, Open End. Cooperstein and Rubinstein worked at WATV until it was sold in 1957, only to be reunited in 1965 when Cooperstein got in on the ground floor of UHF: “Ultra High Frequencies” with New Jersey’s WNJU, channel 47. UHF, the first expansion from the initial TV channels, was a tough sell as most standard televisions were not equipped to pull it in, and, even those which were, mostly got ghostly images shimmying in front of a snowy background. UHF would never draw the significant viewership of its older, stronger broadcast sibling.
For programming, Cooperstein, also reached back to the old multi-lingual radio stations model and reserved prime evening programming time for mostly Spanish but also Italian, Ukrainian, Black, and Jewish shows, hence Rubinstein’s arrival.
Sholom Rubinstein produced a modest swath of WNJU Jewish shows including news (Jewish Issues) children (Once Upon a Jewish Story) interviews Jewish TV Chronicle in addition to even rebooting his American Jewish Caravan of Stars in its original one-hour live format.
But by mid-1966, Cooperstein changed direction and eliminated all foreign programming but Spanish which were interspersed by sports, local news and also music shows hosted by jazz pianist Billy Taylor, country singer Ernest Tubb and Rainbow Quest, which Sholom Rubinstein was now available to helm.
Sholom Rubinstein about the time he produced/directed Rainbow Quest (L)
Rainbow Quest came as a direct — but wholly unintended — result of the national folk music “scare” in the early 60s which, among other popular culture accomplishments, resulted in a big budget weekly 1962 ABC show, “Hootenanny” (the word meaning a semi-organized music gathering was made popular by Pete Seeger.) So, it was sadly ironic when Hootenanny’s producers refused to book Pete Seeger due to his unfriendly witness appearance before the HUAC thus leading to a high-profile folkie boycott, and the show’s cancellation after two seasons.
Rubinstein might have already known Pete Seeger before WNJU. Moe Asch, founder/owner of Folkways records – for whom Seeger was a long-time artist — knew Rubinstein both, through their fathers (Moe’s was Yiddish author/playright Sholom Asch) but also from their own Yiddish radio overlap in the 1930s when Asch was chief engineer at WEVD, and Rubinstein was writing and producing shows there. Later in 1960, Folkways issued Sholom Rubinstein’s radio drama “Document of a Dream a Re-enactment of the Diaries of Theodore Herzl” the same year the label also released Seeger’s 25thLP, “The Rainbow Quest” from which the TV show title derived.
Though wholly unfamiliar with much of the music to be aired on Rainbow Quest, Rubinstein was probably in his element in its making. First, he was already fully blooded in the production skills of low budget TV and in presenting music in that very studio. Then, like his father’s (and his own) radio shows which culled the best exponents in Yiddish and Jewish music: Molly Picon, Moishe Oysher, Jennie Goldstein, Seymour Rechtzeit – all of whom learned their evolved musical skills in the traditional oral tradition just as Rainbow Quest’s folk music equivalents: Elizabeth Cotton, Doc Watson, Judy Collins, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGee, Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash, and dozens, dozens more. Rainbow Quest even included some Yiddish portions in episodes with folksinger/collector Ruth Rubin, Theodore Bikel and the Pennywhisters.
A profile in the May 18, 1966 Newsday reveals the bare bones — and laissez-faire — production environment at WNJU:
Pete Seeger was ambling through his hourly show last week. From time to time the director asked him what he’d like to do next, but there seemed to be no ulcers on display anywhere. When Seeger was through, a pack of teenagers appeared, and the place began to jump to Zacherly’s (sic) ghoul-themed rock ‘n rolling. This is an afternoon affair daily.
Rubinstein was also elemental in the show’s crazy quilt funding which also included the Seegers, Moe Asch/Folkways records, and possibly some other small investors, but, despite Advertisers Broadcasting Company contacts in the commercial world, no sponsor ever signed on.
By late 1966, WNJU grew dissatisfied with the spotty show underwriting and decided to cut it to half an hour which the Seegers refused, and the show was pulled. Channel 47’s abrupt decision might have been the last anyone – other than the possible hundreds who watched it on UHF – would know about Rainbow Quest had not Advertisers Broadcasting Company both retained the original 2” video tape masters and their syndication rights.
The following year, Rubinstein put the 39 Rainbow Quest shows into circulation to a core coil of seven nascent public television stations around the country including Rubinstein’s former employer, WATV (Channel 13) now WNET the flagship of public television (“Rainbow Quest’s” prime time bow on WNET on October 1967, featured Seeger’s half-brother Mike and his old time band The New Lost City Ramblers airing opposite network shows “The Man From UNCLE” and the Shirley Booth situation comedy, “Hazel.”)
So, despite Sholom Rubinstein’s critical involvement over the short but productive life of Rainbow Quest, why have his contributions not merely been obscured but, in some cases, fully eliminated?
In the 2002 folk music history aptly titled, Rainbow Quest the Folk Music Revival and American Society 1940-1970 author Ronald D. Cohen dedicates just two sentences to the TV show, neither of which mention Rubinstein while New Jersey Folk Music Revival author Michael C. Gabriele, misidentifies Rubinstein as Seeger’s manager, who was, in fact, Harold Leventhal.
And a Rainbow Quest Wikipedia entry offers an uncredited assertion that Rubinstein was merely repeating camera instructions given him from Toshi Seeger until eventually being bypassed altogether, an assertion which, given Rubinstein’s familiarity with TV production — most notably in that very studio and with those very cameramen .
Part public access artlessness, part field recording, part self-conscious home movie, the easy-going folksiness which Pete Seeger brought to Rainbow Quest was equally and ably matched by its Producer/Director the unjustly forgotten Yiddish radio and television broadcast pioneer, Sholom Rubinstein.
NOTE: After their original syndication in the 60s, the 2" studio tapes eventually fell into disuse and a deteriorating condition until Clearwater Publishing in the 1980s engineered their preservation, restoration, and dissemination. These and more episodes can be found on YouTube.