Robert Saudek, who gave the era of live television some of its most elevating moments as the creator of the acclaimed ”Omnibus” series, died of natural causes Thursday at a hospital in Baltimore. He was 85 and lived in Washington.
Saudek won 11 Emmys and seven Peabody Awards. He later helped keep the luster of 1950s broadcasting alive, first as founding president of the Museum of Television & Radio and later as the head of the division for motion pictures, broadcasting and recorded sound at the Library of Congress.
It is not exactly clear what the Ford Foundation had in mind when it put him in charge of the experimental TV/Radio Workshop in 1951 and gave him his head, but what it got was ”Omnibus,” an often daring 90-minute weekly celebration of Saudek’s wide-ranging interests and his determination to share his enthusiasm for music, art, theater and fun with the masses.
As a child in Pittsburgh, where his father was an orchestra conductor and his mother a symphony violinist, Saudek grew up with a love of great music. He saw no reason why it or other arts should be reserved for a cultural elite.
His idea for a segment on dance was not to show men in tights; it was to get Mickey Mantle, Johnny Unitas and Sugar Ray Robinson to demonstrate their famous athletic motions while Gene Kelly translated them into dance. And when Saudek presented ”Oedipus Rex,” he had the ”Omnibus” host, Alistair Cooke, prime his viewers by pointing out that more people would see that single Sunday performance than the cumulative total of all the people who had seen all the previous productions over 2,500 years.
As TV’s first great impresario, Saudek gave Leonard Bernstein his first star turn (expounding on Beethoven’s Fifth, with the opening bars painted right on the studio floor) and introduced Jacques Cousteau to the world of television. He also gave many TV viewers their first looks at Agnes de Mille, Leopold Stokowski, Peter Ustinov (as Dr. Sam-uel Johnson), Mike Nichols and Elaine May, Pablo Casals, Arthur Rubinstein, Marian Anderson, Isaac Stern, Ye-hudi Menuhin, Igor Stravinsky, Glenn Gould, Danny Kaye, Yo-Yo Ma and Dr. Seuss.
In an age of pioneering television, ”Omnibus,” which went on the air in 1952, operated so far beyond the frontiers of conventional programming that it was passed like a hot potato among the three networks. And except for a sea-son or two, it was considered too advanced for primetime, and relegated to the culture gulch of late Sunday after-noons. There, it proved so addictive that it disrupted dinner schedules in every time zone.
Saudek cast his imaginative net so wide it was hard to tell what he would dream up next. Over eight seasons, regular viewers might see a demonstration of a new X-ray film one week, a witch-doctor dance another week and in between an original play by William Saroyan, an essay on Maine lobstermen by E. B. White, an S. J. Perelman look at Hollywood, and Bert Lahr in George Bernard Shaw’s ”Androcles and the Lion.”
After the Ford Foundation withdrew its support in 1957, on the assumption that ”Omnibus” had established itself and could go it alone, Saudek formed his own production company, which kept the show alive until 1961. Then it finally sank beneath the waves of a network demand for programs that appealed to the widest possible audiences.
Before accepting William S. Paley’s commission to establish the Museum of Broadcasting (now the Museum of Television & Radio) in 1974, Saudek produced other acclaimed programs, including ”Profiles in Courage,” ”Leon-ard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic” and ”S. Hurok Presents.”
Saudek is survived by his wife, Elizabeth; four sons; a daughter; 14 grandchildren; and a great-grandchild.