I’m curious to finally see how Aaron Sorkin will handle the Birth of a Television saga on stage in his play "The Farnsworth Invention," which is set to begin its previews at Broadway’s Music Box Theater on Oct. 15.
I think the historical story of how vacuum tubes, radio waves, ionoscopes and various transmitters, circuits and receivers were mashed together to create radio with pictures is a fascinating techno-thriller that should be more widely appreciated. It’s got all the dramatic elements — heroes and villains, endearing underdogs and larger-than-life overlords, examples of pure ingenuity, gumption and genius and ultra-high stakes for profit and glory among the (mostly) men who raced to stake their claim to having "invented" television.
Philo T. Farnsworth is a Steinbeck-ian character, the Utah farm boy who had an epiphany of how radio waves could be channeled to make pictures fly through the air as a teenager working in the field and studying rows of corn (I think it was corn). There’s no question he got hosed in the credit department by the institutional machine of RCA, its mega-titan David Sarnoff and Sarnoff’s genius-inventor-in-chief, Vladimir Zworykin.
But from the books I’ve read on the subject (one of the best is Michael Ritchie’s "Please Stand By" — click here to check it out via Amazon.com), it’s a little too simplistic to paint the story as RCA stealing it all from the struggling little-guy Farnsworth. So I’m anxious to see how Sorkin handles it. Play directed by Des McAnuff stars Jimmi Simpson as Farnsworth and Hank Azaria as Sarnoff. I’m guessing there’s a role for Philo’s beloved wife, Pem, who was at his side in the lab and stuck with him through his unhappy end in 1971, and then worked hard to make sure the industry didn’t completely forget about her husband’s accomplishment.
(Pictured above, from left: Sorkin, Azaria, Simpson and McAnuff from Tuesday’s photo call. Pic by Eugene Golorgursky)
Variety looked in on "Farnsworth" when it was workshopped at the La Jolla Playhouse in February and March (click here for the story). And if you’re interested in diving deep into TV geek-dom, there’s all kinds of websites out there stocked with info about Farnsworth, Zworykin, John Logie Baird (a nutty British guy who also has TV pioneer cred), and their ilk. (Click here for a good one about Farnsworth.)
The enduring image I have of rail-thin Philo T. is from an appearance he did on "I’ve Got a Secret" in 1957. (He got a couple hundred bucks cash and a carton of Winstons for stumping the panel.) I caught a rerun on Game Show Network some years back, and lo and behold I found the clip on YouTube.