Episode 54: From “J.P. Patches” to elusive gorillas, this Edmonds pair has seen plenty
If you’re old enough to remember when Seattle television was limited to a handful of broadcast channels and you remember J.P. Patches, you’ve seen the work of Sharon Howard and Mike Rosen.
Howard got her start in broadcast TV in 1977 with KIRO-TV as a floor director for newscasts and “The J.P. Patches Show.” It was performed and broadcast live, six mornings a week.
Without any rehearsal to speak of.
“Well, everybody thinks that we had a script and it was planned, but our plans were to meet in the cafeteria 15 minutes before the show,” Howard said. “And we just played it by ear. Somebody would say, ‘Well, let’s do a “Star Wars” thing. I need an R2D2.’ As a floor director, I think, ‘Oh my god, what am I going to do?’ Well, I go and get the shop vac. That’s the kind of thinking it was.”
Rosen arrived in Seattle in the late 1970s and joined KIRO’s news unit as a photographer and Howard caught his eye. They worked together on a few promotional commercials before they started dating.
Meanwhile, Howard moved to KOMO-TV to work on “Frontrunners,” the highly rated weekly show that profiled local high achievers.
It was kind of a “golden era” for quality television, when the locally owned Seattle stations didn’t have to answer to remote corporate owners.
“My partner (Ken Morrison) and I used to say, ‘You know, this is the best of television that we’re going through right now,’” Howard said. “We were not told what to do, we did any story we wanted, we had complete freedom.”
“Whatever the general manager would spend his weekend thinking about is usually what my assignment was,” Rosen said. “Once I spent an hour on Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, which he oddly had not crafted to fit into a 47-minute show with commercials.”
In 1980, Mount St. Helens started rumbling and was in the news every day for weeks. After the volcano’s first eruption, Rosen hopped into the KIRO News helicopter, Chopper 7, to report the damage around the mountain. The pilot had just cleared the new crater when Mount St. Helens erupted seconds later with a plume of steam and ash.
It was Chopper 7’s first live transmission of an eruption. Rosen knew he was lucky to be in the right place at the right time, but Howard was watching and she was scared.
Howard and Rosen loved the freedom and creativity of working with wildlife and out in nature. And since he no longer worked at competitor KIRO, Howard convinced her boss at KOMO that if she hired Rosen, KOMO would only have to pay for one hotel room on remote assignments.
“We got to go all over the world together,” Howard said. “But we did these documentaries on our own time” because they both still had their full-time jobs.
The shared passion for documenting wildlife kept them going, she said.
They worked in very remote locations in Alaska and Africa. They had to pack in all of their supplies and equipment. And this was long before you could shoot a movie with little more than your smartphone and a couple of apps.
On a shoot in Rwanda to document silver back gorillas, Howard and Rosen had to hire 30 porters to carry their food, fuel, gear and supplies through brush so dense their feet never touched the ground.
“At one point we looked at each other, because you can see the gorillas, and you can smell the gorillas,” Rosen said. “We decided we’re going to have to call this show ‘Butts of Nature,’ because that’s all we were getting.”
During a rest break, a silver-back gorilla broke through the brush.
“It walks right up to me, climbs on my lap and puts its head in the lens and sits there for four and a half minutes,” Rosen said. “All the things they tell you (not to do with gorillas) — never make eye contact, don’t get within 15 feet, certainly don’t touch them. And he’s sitting on top of me.”
He looked to Howard for guidance.
“When you look at your producer who is also your spouse, the first words out of her mouth should be, ‘Are you OK?’ but they weren’t,” Rosen said. “Instead they were, ‘Are you rolling?’”
“I’ve never heard the end of that, trust me,” Howard said.
Of course Rosen was rolling. He got incredible footage and Howard wrote an incredible story.
It’s not easy to write a script for an unscripted nature story, Howard said. She gets her best results “writing to the pictures, and a lot of writers don’t in television. They just write what they want and leave it to the poor editors to have to cover it.”
Rosen, more than any of the other photographers Howard worked with, always gave her more than she expected.
“Sometimes when you work with a photographer and you think you’ve communicated and he didn’t get what you wanted, then you have to rewrite,” Howard said. “But with Mike, and I’m not saying this just because he’s my spouse … I’ve always gotten more than I set out to get. So I have to rewrite it anyway because I’ve got better stuff than I thought I was going to have.”
That could explain how Howard and Rosen’s fruitful collaboration racked up 28 regional Emmy Awards and a national Peabody Award for their features, documentaries and filmmaking.
Jim Hills is the library district’s Assistant Communications Director, Communications & Marketing. Jim is a storyteller who claims to still have some ink in his veins from familial connections with, and previous-career infusions from, the newspaper biz.
Kurt Batdorf is a Communications Specialist for Sno-Isle Libraries. Kurt brings years of journalism experience and perspective to his work, along with an array of interesting life opportunities including barging a house from Seattle to Mount Vernon and an inveterate love for Mazda Miata cars (Miata = Miata Is Always the Answer).
The Sno-Isle Libraries Foundation proudly supports the innovative work of Sno-Isle Libraries through private donations.