Being Taped for the Martha Stewart Show
by Ellen G.K. Rubin
I wanted to shout, “It’s Ellen-from-the-Bronx!!” as I stood in the cavernous lobby of the Brooklyn Public Library’s Central Branch in Grand Army Plaza. A production guy from the Martha Stewart Show was patting cornsilk on my shiny nose and cheeks. The Library boasts that about one million visitors pass through this hall every year and it seemed that at least half of them were present now and staring at ME! Who did they think I was? How did I get here?
I started collecting pop-up and movable books about 14 years ago after my finding these unique books to read to my young sons. In 1993, I joined the newly formed Movable Book Society [MBS], which offered me the chance to write for its quarterly newsletter, Movable Stationery. The writer I had always fantasized being now had a subject and a platform. The books themselves continued to dazzle me. Childhood classics, like Little Red Riding Hood, Alice in Wonderland, and the impenetrable Hobbit, were brought to life by paper engineers, those genius artists who make illustrations move or jump off the page. Collecting took me to dusty bookshops in London, Paris, Prague, and Vienna. My collection burgeoned to over 4000 books. My nieces and nephews loved family gatherings where they begged to be shown my latest additions. Friends knew my collection had no boundaries and often inquired about the possibility of new erotic titles. One thing was very clear. Pop-up books made everyone smile. Myself included.
Robert Sabuda, Maurice Sendak, Ann Montanaro, Ellen G. K. Rubin at the Broooklyn Library Gala
In 1998, I had the occasion to meet the Executive Director the Brooklyn Public Library, Martìn Gòmez, and suggested what a fine exhibition my collection would make. He agreed. Along with my dear friends, Ann Montanaro, founder of MBS, and Robert Sabuda, the celebrated paper engineer, we put ourselves forward as curators of the exhibition, Brooklyn Pops Up! The History and Art of the Movable Book. It was our hope to use the exhibition to show the World the wonder of these special books. We knew from collective experience that most people considered movable books a 20th century phenomenon targeted only at children. Few knew that movable books had a 700 year history, were produced for adults as well as children, and, amazingly, were all hand-made!
We mounted an exhibition with over 100 titles and produced a catalog with 8 spreads of pop-ups, each spread representing a landmark of Brooklyn. The piece de resistance for me was being invited by Cargraphics, the producer of the pop-up catalog, Brooklyn Pops Up, to come to Ibarra, Ecuador to watch it being hand assembled. I wrote of the experience for Movable Stationery, calling it, My Trip to Mecca. There was no question this was a pilgrimage few collectors have ever taken.
The public and the press enthusiastically received the exhibition. The New York Times did a feature piece in their Arts section about the exhibition and the publishing of pop-up books (above the fold and in color!). I was quoted often. Friends and colleagues teased me about my newfound fame.
Here would be a good spot to tell you my take on fame. Emily Dickinson said it best. “How dreary to be somebody, how public like a frog.” I was once part of a motorcade of limousines in Boston on a Saturday night. We were dressed in tuxedos and ball-gowns. People lined the streets, craning their necks trying to guess what august group warranted such attention. I leaned out the window, blew kisses, and shouted, “It’s Ellen-from-the-Bronx!” into the crowds. Surely, they were all making fools of themselves taking time out to hail the likes of me.
We considered the Times article to be the cherry on the cake. How could anything else top the attention? I was, therefore, totally unprepared for the call I received from the Library the last week of the exhibition. Did I want to appear on the Martha Stewart Show? Martha Stewart wanted to do a segment on pop-up and movable books. Could someone talk about their history? My response? After talking about my children, nothing could please me more. The producer, Laurie Hepburn, called me on the Friday before the Wednesday taping. It was Christmas weekend, a long one. We chatted about pop-up books and my interest in them. Laurie often cried, “I never knew that!” After almost an hour, she was convinced that what she was eager to learn about movable books, Martha’s viewers would too. Laurie asked me to bring several changes of clothing (“…to coordinate with the set”) and promised I would be shot only from the waist up. (TV’s ability to add pounds to one’s frame is legendary. Vanity was starting to enter the picture.) I offered to bring boxes of books to illustrate my responses and to fill-in the background. This was the equivalent of bringing photo albums when someone asks for a picture of a grandchild.
I spent the long weekend preparing, culling my collection for books that would demonstrate the historical arc of the genre and, at the same time, show the artistry of paper engineers. I prepared lists of books, websites, including mine, should viewers wish to learn more. Being prepared would be my shield against being nervous. I was counseled by a media-savvy friend to smile often. I didn’t think that would be a problem since pop-up books always make me smile. To keep calm, I kept reminding myself that the segment (all of 4 minutes after editing) was being taped; there would be room for error and correction. Martha Stewart, I had been told, would not be at the shoot but would be a voice-over for the segment. One less thing to make me anxious.
I arrived Wednesday at the Library, hours before I was due on camera, about 8 AM.
I wanted Laurie to have plenty of time to look at the books. It wasn’t five minutes before Jerry, a production assistant, asked if I had brought The Pop-up Book of Phobias that was in the exhibition. I did and passed it around. Everyone wanted to go through the books. The crew learned early on that no one was going to be handling my books. I impressed upon them the fact that most of the books were over 100 years old and were fragile. Since the majority of the people I worked with that day hadn’t had their 30th birthday, the books seemed ancient. I was relegated to the old-old category. They did handle me, however….the point of this story.
It was immediately clear to the crew that good audio would be difficult to get in the Library’s rotunda where the exhibition was housed. The lighting was poor too. It was decided that the interviews would be taped in Martín Gómez's office which was wood-paneled and boasted a fireplace, a Martha Stewart backdrop if there ever was one. Laurie suggested I go on first. “Would I mind?” “Not at all.” I was fresh, both in mind and body. Bring me on!
While the crew looked for the best places to set up their lights, I began taking out books of historical significance that also, to my naïve eye, would look well on television. The crew became enthusiastic and begged for more books. When they were satisfied that the backdrop was fine (They continually mentioned the perfectionism of Martha Stewart.), they instructed me to wear the blouse I had worn to the library, a bright blue. The cornsilk I had brought to take the shine off my nose was all I needed to add to my basic make-up.
Then the ‘sound guy’ handed me a small mike and told me to bring it through the front of my blouse, in through a bottom button and out the top. Wires draped over the chair in which I was seated. They criss-crossed the office floor like a net. A bank of lights, looking like a satellite solar panel, perched above my head and to the right, illuminating the area.
For the next two hours I answered questions about movable books and their history, my beginnings as a collector, and the Movable Book Society. Occasionally we were stopped by the sounds of the street on Grand Army Plaza, mostly sirens. I had no idea I had so much to say. The words tripped easily from my mouth. Finally, I was dismissed, and Martín Gómez was called for his interview.
I went to the lobby to take a breather but was soon summoned back to the upstairs office. The producer wanted me to demonstrate my books, that is, let the medium of television do what it does best-show action. For three hours, with a short lunch break, I stood and opened and closed the books. Don’t be thinking this upset me. I was tired and my bum knee began to ache, but I was still smiling although now out of range of the cameras which were focused on my hands. “See how the pop-up rises off the page? See how the story is enhanced or changed? See why we call this the 'WOW! Effect?”
At last, Laurie called it a wrap and again said she thought I would no longer be needed. The crew was now to go into the rotunda to shoot the books in their fantastical custom-made cases. That voice inside who knows best made me say, “I think I’ll leave when all of you do.” I searched in vain for a seat among the showcases. This younger generation hadn’t learned to offer a chair to an older person.
Setting up the lights to illuminate the cases took some time. It was now almost 5 o’clock and the library entry was crowded with school children seeking answers to homework questions and adults returning books. When the lights were in place, Frankie (the cameraman) looked through the lens and then turned to Laurie and declared, “This is boring!” What were they thinking? Did they believe the TV audience would sit and watch the camera pan from shelf to shelf? Did they believe the animation of the books now trussed in PVC mounts could exude their inherent movement? Laurie and Frankie simultaneously swiveled their heads towards me. They wanted me to do a Loretta Young imitation, smilingly appear from behind an exhibition case and spontaneously introduce the exhibition and each of the seven cases. I knew my face was sagging, with bags under my eyes. My shirt, for sure, no longer looked ironed. I was plain bone-tired. But who else could have done it? I said, “Yes.”
“But surely I look a mess,” I said. “No” they shot back. “You look great! You just need the shine taken off your face.” I thought I saw the Pinocchio, sitting in a case behind me, wink. “Okay, but I’m too tired to dig out my make-up. You do it.” So there was ‘Ellen-from-the-Bronx’ standing dead-tired in front of TV cameras under bright lights having her make-up applied. The blasé New Yorkers in the lobby barely glanced over. I asked, "Don't I need a mike?" almost imagining I now was one of the crew. Laurie told me there already was one in place with a transmitter stuck down the back of my pants. In my extreme fatigue, I had never felt it being put on or the wire being snaked through my shirt. My sense of propriety got the better of me. “If you are going to have your hands on me," I snapped prudishly, " could I at least know your name?” With a sheepish grin, the very young man mumbled, “Danny.”