Saluting the vision of ABC's gentle giant


When Leonard Goldenson first saw the pilot of "Twin Peaks," he sized up its commercial prospects for ABC perfectly.

It didn't matter that the founder of ABC was in his mid-80s at the time, or that he had been working in show business since the Depression. Goldenson knew television.

"Terrific pilot, but it does not have broad appeal" was Goldenson's instant analysis, recalls his daughter, producer Loreen Arbus. As far as ABC was concerned, of course, its chairman emeritus was right on the money -- as usual.

"He was just ahead of the curve his whole life," says Arbus, who helped organize the "Leonard H. Goldenson: The Gentleman Giant" centennial tribute than runs through Oct. 22 at the Museum of Television and Radio in Beverly Hills. Goldenson, who died in 1999, was born Dec. 7, 1905, to a couple who owned a dry goods store in Scottdale, Penn.

The MT and R installation (which will run at the museum's New York headquarters from Nov. 28-Dec. 31) makes a good case for Goldenson being the father of the modern media conglomerate. He was a visionary executive who made a point of seizing opportunities at a time of upheaval in the film, radio and television industries.

Goldenson recognized the promise of a company having tentacles in different media sectors. He was renowned for embracing change, nurturing innovators and giving his underlings plenty of freedom to rise or fall on their own merits. He also maintained a rock-solid sense of ethics that led him to view ABC as a public trust. His conviction that a broadcast television network was something a step removed from a regular moneymaking venture was not just talk. He felt the network had an unwritten contract with its audience, and he felt the pressure to live up to it, Arbus says.

Goldenson got his start in entertainment when he was a few years out of Harvard Law School, working as a lawyer for Paramount Pictures on the studio's bankruptcy reorganization proceedings in the early 1930s. He was rewarded by being named head of the 1,700-strong Paramount Theatres chain in 1937, when he was just 33.

A few years later, Goldenson was in the crowd at the 1939 World's Fair in New York when RCA and NBC titan David Sarnoff gave his historic demonstration of television.

"He always said he just saw it as the future, right then and there," Arbus says.

The MT and R exhibit details Goldenson's maneuvering to orchestrate the $25 million merger in 1951 of his United Paramount Theatres chain with the ailing American Broadcasting Co., a ragtag group of radio and TV stations. Through sheer force of will, Goldenson built ABC into a full-fledged competitor to CBS and NBC. Famously, Goldenson did so in part by courting Hollywood studios to produce for the new medium that moguls like Jack L. Warner had seen as the enemy. He invested in Walt Disney's dream of building a fantasy land in Anaheim, in exchange for the rights to put some of Disney's magic on ABC's air.

In between building the network and fending off hostile takeover attempts from formidable foes like Howard Hughes, Goldenson managed to leave an indelible philanthropic legacy through the founding of United Cerebral Palsy. It was a personal mission for Goldenson and his wife, Isabelle Weinstein Goldenson, whose first child, Genise, was born with the disability.

"For him, it wasn't about getting recognized at a dinner or making a lot of money. He drove Chevys and Fords," Arbus recalls. "He was more concerned with making a positive contribution to society, in whatever he did."