In July 1941, Frances Buss was a frustrated actor pondering a future as a sales girl when she received a tip about a temporary job as a receptionist with a radio broadcaster, the Columbia Broadcasting System, about to make the leap to television. “Everyone on the staff helped out in one capacity or another,” she recalls. “I soon was a stand-in under the hot lights and, when it was discovered I had a knowledge and some talent in art, a map maker and letterer of charts for the news programs.” After a wartime hiatus during which she made training films for the Navy, Buss returned to CBS as an assistant director under legendary programming maven Worthington Miner. In 1944 she became the network’s first—and for many years, only—female director. Initially assigned women-centric fare like The Missus Goes A’ Shoppin’ and Vanity Fair, Buss was soon directing and producing a variety of telecasts, from Brooklyn Dodgers games to musical extravaganzas to sordid crime dramas, thus helping to establish many of the programming templates in use today, along with much of television’s unique visual language. “The hardest thing in television,” she has said, by way of modestly addressing her remarkable ascent, “is to start thinking of everything in terms of a three-by-four inch frame.” Buss’s stature was such that in 1951, when CBS won government approval for its proprietary color system, Buss was selected to direct television’s first commercial color broadcast. She retired from television a few years later, having made, in little more than a decade, a monumental impact on the development of the medium.
Born in St. Louis in 1917, Frances Buss wanted to be an actor from an early age and spent much of her youth performing in high school plays. After a year at Washington University, she struck out for New York, hoping to further her dramatic training. In between calls to theatrical agents and producers, Buss found work on daytime radio and as a show model and eventually landed the leading role in Elizabeth Sleeps Out, a play by Leslie Howard that opened and closed virtually overnight. Broke and discouraged, Buss fluctuated between St. Louis, where she found occasional work at the Civic Theatre, and New York, where her big Broadway break remained forever over the next horizon. She was ready to “chuck it all for St. Louis,” she says, when she received a tip about a two-week job as a substitute receptionist with the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS). These were heady times for CBS, both technically and artistically, as it shifted the focus of its broadcasting operations from radio to television. After two years of experimental telecasting—and facing fierce competition from rival NBC—it began commercial television operations the same month that Buss began what she thought would be a temporary assignment.
Given her stage background, Buss was quickly put before the camera, appearing, in any given week, as the scorekeeper on CBS Television Quiz, television’s first game show, or as the “femcee” for an instructional series about first aid (viewers were sent bandages in advance so they could follow along), while also pitching in with the writing and staging of a variety of programs that were telecast, in this halcyon era, on a trial-and-error basis from a vast studio above Grand Central Station. “The broadcast schedule was minimal,” she recalls, “as we were on the air for two hours in the afternoon and two in the evening, Monday through Friday.” Sunday was a dark day. However, on December 7, 1941, when news of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor reached New York, CBS staffers quickly flooded the studio to help out. The biggest obstacle that Sunday, as Buss explains, “was that we didn’t have a decent map of the Hawaiian Islands and the Pacific Basin. Those of us who could helped draw crude maps and letter-place names so that Richard Hubbell, our newscaster, could go on the air.” As the war raged on in Europe and the Pacific, CBS cut back its television operations before finally suspending them altogether in early 1943. Buss moved on to Willard Pictures, a producer and supplier of training films for the Navy. With her background in production, she was sent to the Naval Air Station in Jacksonville, Florida, where she served as cameraperson, director, and editor on a series of documentaries ranging in subject from dieting tips for female enlistees to how to survive a mid-ocean bailout.
In May 1944, as CBS resumed regular television broadcasts (albeit, for the time being, in just the New York and Los Angeles markets), Buss was pulled aside by Worthington Miner, the producer-director of much of CBS’s prewar television output, and told that henceforth she would no longer be working before the camera but behind it—that is, in the high-pressure, men-only clubhouse known as the control room. As the first woman within CBS to gain access to this rarefied atelier, Buss paved the way for colleagues like 2005 SMI honoree Lela Swift, herself a former secretary, who broke into the directing ranks later that decade. Under the tutelage of Miner, Buss quickly progressed from assistant director to full-fledged program director and producer. Her first assignments were war-themed programs like Women in War Time, Two Soldiers, and the USO performer’s showcase They Were There. She also helmed innumerable episodes of The Missus Goes A’ Shoppin’, a supermarket-set quiz show which, like many early television programs, had originated on radio, and assorted other offerings squarely intended for a daytime audience of housewives. As director, Buss faced a multitude of responsibilities: script, casting, props, set design, lighting, costumes, music, announcements, and, most importantly, obtaining a decent, viewable picture of whatever action or activity was being staged for the camera.
“Women have a natural advantage over men in handling certain television programs, such as home economics, children’s shows, fashion, and merchandising,” she contended in a 1949 CBS press release. “While many of the jobs filled by women in television today have resulted from wartime manpower shortage, there is little question in the minds of many of the industry’s executives that women will continue to fill important jobs in the field, especially as writers, producers, and directors of women’s programs.” And while Buss was certainly regarded as a specialist of television for her gender, she was, like all staff directors at CBS, expected to tackle every kind of programming—from baseball games to crime dramas to horse races to talent shows. The fact that these shows were transmitted live—often from remote locations far removed from the controlled environment of the studio—only added to the pressure of being a woman in a male-dominated profession. Once, when overseeing the telecast of an amateur boxing tournament, Buss faced a unique dilemma: how to fill airtime after the sudden knockout of a boxer demanded the quick appearance of the next two competitors. Only one fighter showed up in the ring, and several painful minutes passed before Buss realized that the missing opponent was patiently waiting in the wings for the trunks of the kid who had just been KO’d.
In early 1946, producer John Houseman, who with Orson Welles had formed the Mercury Theater, came to New York, along with his associate Nicholas Ray (who would later go on to make such films as They Live by Night and Rebel Without a Cause). They had been brought in from Hollywood by Miner, ever on the lookout for expanding television’s dramatic horizons, to adapt Lucille Fletcher’s enormously popular radio thriller, Sorry, Wrong Number, for television. “I was assigned to direct—presumably with the expert assistance of John Houseman,” recalls Buss. “I never saw Mr. Houseman, but I did work with Nick Ray who was a gent and an interested observer.” Television at that time was still considered a poor cousin to the movies (as well as a threat to its audience) and that, coupled with the inherent sexism of forties America, resulted in the press highlighting the contributions of Hollywood hotshot Houseman over those of television-bred Buss. As Buss explains: “The broadcast got good reviews from three publications, each of which trumpeted that this was now shown to be the way to go—to take advantage of the superior experience offered by Hollywood—and that Mr. Houseman had rehearsed the actors, set up the moves, and then graciously stepped aside to permit the network director [that is, myself] to take over for the actual broadcast. Nonsense. But I was too busy to worry about it.”
By 1948, as CBS expanded nationally, and more and more living rooms became outfitted with television sets, Buss and her crew struggled to balance the technical limitations of the medium with Miner’s ambitious programming directives. Their collective efforts established many of the templates still in use today and moved television forward technically, if not aesthetically, in leaps and bounds. For What’s it Worth?, a proto-Antiques Roadshow, Buss found herself stymied with “the inability of the camera to focus down on an object to show sufficient detail [so] Freddie Reinhardt, one of our engineers, came up with a lens extension which allowed me to fill the frame with a beautiful brooch or the intricate detail of an ivory carving. Marvelous!” Another program Buss directed was To the Queen’s Taste, a cooking workshop featuring British-born chef Dione Lucas, whom Buss had to teach to “confine her moves to a limited area which could be covered by our camera.” From 1948 to 1951 Buss produced and directed Vanity Fair; hosted by Dorothy Doan, women’s editor for the International News Service (INS), it was the first daily interview show on television. And then there was Mike and Buff, which paired future 60 Minutes correspondent Mike Wallace with his then-wife Buff Cobb for a celebrity gossip gabfest that presaged Entertainment Tonight and the entire E! Network.
Throughout the forties CBS and its archrival RCA, parent company of NBC, had been in fierce competition to develop and, most importantly, to gain government approval for, a viable system for color television. By the end of the decade, CBS engineer Dr. Peter Goldmark had finally achieved the impossible: a mechanical system that utilized color gels in a rotating wheel inside the camera. In 1950 Buss was sent down to Washington, D.C., to direct Patty Painter, a blonde model known as “Miss Television,” in a series of colorfully composed vignettes intended to convince the FCC to select the CBS system as the U.S. standard for color television. As Variety reported, “Whatever its effect on the final decision of the FCC, the demonstrations are proving a publicity bonanza for the network [by] attracting thousands of passersby whose curiosities are aroused by signs proclaiming color television.” That fall, the FCC ruled in favor of CBS—a decision that RCA would fight all the way to the Supreme Court—and subsequently designated June 25, 1951, as the official start of color television in the United States. It was a history-making occasion and Frances Buss, one-time receptionist, was chosen to direct it.
Television’s first commercial color broadcast was entitled, appropriately enough, Premier, and featured, among other guests, such CBS luminaries as Arthur Godfrey, Faye Emerson, Ed Sullivan, CBS president Frank Stanton, and CBS founder and chairman William S. Paley. The program, which was transmitted over a five-station East Coast network, lasted about an hour and boasted no less than sixteen sponsors. Merging this number of advertisements with the celebratory comments of the assembled dignitaries proved no easy feat for Buss—particularly as one of the commercials was designed to showcase an automobile spinning on a giant turntable. To commemorate the event, Paley and Stanton presented their star director with a Lucite cube embedded with a kaleidoscope pattern of color chips and the following inscription:
FOR HER PART IN
THE FIRST REGULAR NETWORK
COLOR TELEVISION PROGRAM
4:30–5:30 PM JUNE 25, 1951
Regularly scheduled colorcasts began on CBS the very next day, and Buss, quite naturally, directed a number of them, including The World is Yours, a children’s nature show, New Horizons, a science program, Modern Homemakers, a hour of cooking and cleaning tips, and The Whistling Wizard, a delightful collection of original fairy tales from husband-and-wife puppeteers Bil and Cora Baird.
The CBS Color System colorcasts ended abruptly on October 20, 1951, with a request from the Defense Production Administration asking CBS to suspend mass production of color receivers “to conserve materials” for the ongoing Korean War. Color television, it seemed, had become a fatality of the Cold War. CBS suspended color operations and all previously sold and delivered color receivers were recalled and destroyed. Ironically, earlier that same month Mademoiselle magazine touted Buss and many of her female colleagues as the “women of color television” in a full-page photo spread; the accompanying caption offered advice to any young reader hoping to break into the increasingly opportunity-filled field of broadcasting. It was also around this time that Buss was featured in a print ad for a life insurance company. “Meet Frances Buss—Another Do-it Yourself American!,” the banner read, while the ad copy detailed her remarkable ascent and quoted her as saying, “There are plenty of new frontiers for women today if you set your goal and stick at it, on your own!.”
Although commercial color broadcasts were, for the time, outlawed, Buss went on to use her expertise in a significant application of color television: a series of educational films on the detection and treatment of cancer. Commissioned by the American Cancer Society, these programs, which Buss directed, were produced and transmitted live via a multicity, closed-circuit network to physicians around the country while also being kinescoped for additional distribution by CBS. Her medical liaison for the project was Arthur I. Holleb, M.D., a young surgeon with New York’s Sloan-Kettering Memorial Hospital. “He explained that we would be working with the Chiefs of Services,” Buss recalls, “men who were gods in their hospital’s hierarchy, whose judgment was seldom questioned. That was alright with me. They knew their business and I knew mine. They might not like taking orders from a female, but what are you going to do?” Circulated for years thereafter, the Telecolor Clinics series is credited with significantly increasing the medical profession’s general knowledge in the field of oncology. Shortly after completing this project in the spring of 1954, Buss left CBS to marry William Buch, whom she had first met during the war when they were both making training films for the Navy. She never worked in television again.
She died on January 19, 2010.