Slouching quietly in the back of the audience was a young man in a collarless shirt, dungarees and a pair of red suspenders. Over one shoulder he had a fishmonger's wicker basket full of more red suspenders.
"Roy Underhill's my name," he announced, jumping breathlessly to his feet and passing out a fistful of suspenders to the somewhat startled onlookers as he headed for the podium. "The suspenders are lending our support to you. But I hope you will lend your support to us."
Underhill was one of the contestants this week as public TV programmers from all over the United States met at the Sheraton Washington for a "Program Fair." It was a cross between a beauty contest and an endless sales meeting. In various conference rooms, hungry television producers got up before the station programmers to try to sell their programs. It was hard work for both sides.
A bouncy aviator from Medford, Ore., presented a series called "Flight!" which he has written, produced and personally flown here. "Who will complete the series after you have an accident?" asked one prospective buyer. A series on "Energy" was followed by a clip from "The Mother Earth News" showing how to build a fish tank and a yogurt-maker, a documentary on Martin Luther King Jr.'s family, and a 60-minute feature on the 25,000 workers who died of malaria digging the Panama Canal.
Underhill, a native of Washington, was hawking a 13-part series called "The Woodwright's Shop" that has already had some success. The program, broadcast for the last two seasons out of the public television station in Chapel Hill, N.C., was nominated for an Emmy last season.
At the screening session, "The Woodwright's Shop" took the audience through the intricacies of making wooden windowpanes with pegs, willow whistles, stable beam joists and birch bark canoes. It was informative. It was funny. Like a wheezing racehorse (he smokes three or four packs of cigarettes a day), Underhill raced through his material, cracked jokes, made mistakes and almost hit himself on the head with a maul, an 18th-century wooden mallet.
But under the banter, Underhill, 31, is deadly serious. Currently a master housewright at Colonial Williamsburg ("I'm bus stop three on the tour"), he is a professional artist who happened to fall in love with a non-moneymaker -- making 17th-century wooden rakes, chairs and houses in a transistor age.
Underhill divides his time between Williamsburg and the public television station at Chapel Hill. The first "Woodwright" series was shot outside his shop in Durham, N.C. But for the second series, Underhill rebuilt the shop peg by peg inside the Chapel Hill TV studio, shot the series and then tore it down.
"Yeah, I'm breathless on camera because by the time you see it I have run through the material three times without stopping. This kind of TV is like putting out a rough draft as a final," he says. But something about it works. The broadcasters couldn't stop laughing. With Underhill.