Jac Venza, Who Delivered Culture to Public Television, Dies at 97

Jac Venza, a shoemaker’s son who almost single-handedly delivered to the proverbial “vast wasteland” that was American television in the 1960s and ’70s an oasis of cultural programming, including “Great Performances” and “Live From Lincoln Center,” died on Tuesday at his home in Lyme, Conn. He was 97.

His death was confirmed by his spouse, Daniel D. Routhier.

Mr. Venza never attended college. As an actor, he pronounced himself “dreadful.” As an aspiring artist, he began his career in Chicago by designing scenery for the Goodman Theater and window displays for the Mandel Brothers department store. But while still in his 30s, he began playing a vital role in bringing art to public television.

He was working as a television producer when he was asked to collaborate with other TV innovators assembled by the Ford Foundation in the early 1960s to transform a limited service that generated no original programming into National Educational Television, the forerunner of the Public Broadcasting Service.

While his fellow producers and other media experts were mulling how best to educate the viewing public through a nonprofit network, Mr. Venza recalled, he volunteered, “Why don’t we entertain them, too?”

In the 1960s and ’70s, he introduced “NET Playhouse,” “Theater in America,” “Live From Lincoln Center,” “Great Performances” and, at the suggestion of the National Endowment for the Arts, “Dance in America.” He also imported popular BBC productions like “Brideshead Revisited.”

He collaborated with choreographers like George Balanchine and Martha Graham, composers like Leonard Bernstein and playwrights like Tennessee Williams. Dustin Hoffman had his first starring role on television in a 1966 NET production of Ronald Ribman’s play “The Journey of the Fifth Horse.” A decade later, Meryl Streep appeared onscreen for the first time in the William Gillette play “Secret Service” on “Great Performances.”

“I’m not sure there would be performing arts in prime time on public television if there hadn’t been Jac Venza in the lifeblood of this station,” John Jay Iselin, a former president of WNET, told The Times in 1982. “We take performing arts for granted as the signature of our whole cultural programming. But he was creating programs at a time when most people hadn’t the production skill or insight or ingenuity to make them really interesting and compelling.”

Before he retired from “Great Performances” in 2004, Mr. Venza and the programs he produced for WNET, the PBS flagship station, received 57 Emmy nominations, a record not surpassed until 2010, the station said. He won 10 Primetime Emmys, an International Emmy for lifetime achievement and a Governor’s Award, also for lifetime achievement. In 1997, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting presented him with the Ralph Lowell Award for outstanding achievements.

Mr. Venza was variously characterized as a brilliant visionary and a savvy deal maker. He could also be stubborn and self-assertive. “I have been terrific in this job,” he told The New York Times in 1982, “because I have an open mind.”

He was typically credited as an executive producer, but he was considerably more than that: He was the rare artistic polymath who deserved the title “impresario.”

“Everyone always wonders what an executive producer does,” Mr. Venza told The Times. “He keeps his eye on the horizon. He sets the goals, whether they are what an artist wants, or program ideas we should pursue, or finding the right people to work for a project.”

William F. Baker, who succeeded Mr. Iselin at WNET, described Mr. Venza in an email as “truly a luminary in getting arts on television.”

“He led us into a genre of media that had not been tested,” he wrote. “Other networks never tried to get into it because audiences were smaller and older, and production was expensive. But we felt it was ‘mission,’ and PBS is still dominant and stands alone in it today.”

Mr. Venza was born on Dec. 23, 1926, in Chicago to Rosario Vensa, an immigrant from Sicily, and Frances (Roppolo) Venza. It’s not clear what his given birth name was, but he was known as Jac since childhood. The family lived in two rooms behind his father’s shoe repair shop. His mother managed the household.

Jac started shining shoes before he was 10. But he wanted to be an artist. “While other boys were reading comic books,” he told The Times, “I was reading design books.”

After graduating from a Roman Catholic high school, he received a scholarship through a classmate’s father to help design sets for the Goodman Theater on the condition that he also act in its productions. (“I was dreadful,” he told the Archive of American Television.)

A colleague who recognized his artistic talent recommended that Mr. Venza move to New York. After designing sets for the Spoleto Festival in Italy, he settled in the city and, as a commercial artist, designed store window displays for Bonwit Teller and other Fifth Avenue emporiums. The first Broadway musical he attended was Cole Porter’s “Kiss Me, Kate.” (He would present a revival of that show on “Great Performances” in 2003.)

In 1950, he joined CBS, where he designed sets for “I Remember Mama,” “The Ed Sullivan Show” and “Adventure,” a documentary series produced in collaboration with the American Museum of Natural History. For that series, instead of relying on graphics, he substituted costumed dancers to portray chromosomes and musical notes. He worked his way up from set designer to producer.

In 1964, a few years after Newton N. Minow, the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, declared television “a vast wasteland,” Mr. Venza began his career in public television. But he didn’t become an aesthetic snob, and he recognized what commercial TV did best.

“To present fine artists in prime time, we have to do it at least as elegantly as CBS does ‘Dallas,’” he said in 1982, referring to the hit prime-time soap opera. “Commercial television is the most slickly, professionally produced in the world. So when a fine artist gives me something, I want to make sure it is well produced.”

“I realized,” he recalled of his early days, “that the finest artists had not been asked to join television in a major way. To succeed, public television needed performances.”

In addition to Mr. Routhier, Mr. Venza is survived by nieces and nephews. His sister, Eileen Mitchell, died earlier.

Reflecting on his career at 75, Mr. Venza observed, “There’s nothing in my background that should have brought me here” — “here” meaning professional success, but without the financial reward he might have had if he had pursued a career in commercial television.

“I will come away from the system without a large bank account or a swimming pool, or owning one of those programs I produced,” he said.

But, he added: “What I will have 20 years from now, a lot of people in television won’t have. Our programs won’t spoil. They will be in schools and in videodisc collections. What we have won’t diminish with age.”

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