Mel Waskin, 2012 and at Coronet, 1970s
passed away at the age of 90 on March 10, 2017. His friendliness, humor, and
incredible memory will be sorely missed.
Melanie Cregger conducted the following interview with Coronet Film's
Mel Waskin in 2012
An Interview with Mel Waskin
Coronet Instructional Films is probably most well-known for its formulaic social
guidance films. The first of such films, Shy Guy and Are You Popular?, were
released in 1947. Both feature simple, student-centered problems that can be
resolved in ten minutes—a model that many of their subsequent films sought to
replicate. Often featuring well-mannered, well-dressed teenagers dealing with
problems about dating or fitting in, these films came to define the Coronet
style and have often been the target of popular culture parodies. In the 80s,
Coronet even released its own parody called The Great American Student, a
compilation of the best and worst from their guidance films.
In his 44 year career as a script writer with the company, Mel Waskin wrote many
of the films that helped shape the educational experience of students across
America. According to his estimates, he wrote over 1,000 scripts during his
tenure at Coronet. In 1950, after freelancing for the company, he was hired on
staff. True to Coronet’s reputation, his first script was How Do You Know
It’s Love? (1950), a social guidance film.
Before getting involved with Coronet, 17-year old Waskin enlisted in a special
college program through the Army, in 1944, which existed because “there was some
concern that when the war was over, there would not be an educated group of
young men and women who could carry on the high tech work that they expected
America to be doing.” This program allowed him to enlist at 17 and go to school
until he was 18 rather that enter immediately into the fighting forces: “I
turned 18 two days into the third semester, so the rule was that you had to
finish the semester. So, at the age of 18, I had a year and a half of college.”
When he finally completed basic training, America had defeated the Nazis, so the
Army sent Waskin to the University of West Virginia to continue his education.
There he finished three more semesters before World War II and the program were
over. “I went into the Army in high school and came out a senior in college.”
During those three and a half years, Waskin had been studying Civil Engineering.
Even though he had some trouble with certain engineering concepts, he decided to
stick it out rather than throw all of that education away. However, when he
transferred to the University of Illinois, an advisor made a mistake and signed
him up for a class “at the wrong time, in the wrong building, in the wrong
room.” He took it as a sign that the gods were telling him not to do
engineering. He instead decided to get a degree in journalism.
In 1949, as a recent college graduate, Waskin knew that he wanted to be a writer
and that he wanted his writing to last. According to him, “Newspaper writing is
bird cage toilet paper. Radio writing is evanescent; it flies away in the air.
But movies last. If I’m going to write, I want stuff that’s lasting. I decided
to aim for movies.” With this goal in mind, he wrote to and applied at the two
big educational film companies in Chicago, Encyclopedia Britannica and Coronet.
In his application letter he wrote that he lived with his parents and had no
major financial needs. So, despite the fact that he had no script writing or
film experience, Coronet decided that he “was their ideal candidate.”
His first year there, Waskin was expected to write 20 scripts. The topics for
these films were determined by the research department and assigned to the
script writers. Basically, the research department analyzed a variety of texts
from several different companies. If a particular topic was covered in enough
books, Coronet could probably sell it: “The function of the company was to stay
in business. We stayed in business if schools would buy the films. And schools
would buy the films if they enhanced the teaching that was done by the
Perhaps due in part to their reliance on textbook material, Coronet developed a
reputation of being stodgy: “the people at Britannica used to make fun of
Coronet by saying, ‘Britannica brings the world to the classroom. Coronet brings
the classroom to the classroom’ because so many of our films took place in the
classroom.” In fact, being so tied to the textbooks and the classroom curriculum
often meant that creative projects were not done.
Another major factor contributing to Coronet’s reputation could arguably be the
influence of Jack Abraham, the general manager of Coronet at the time. Abraham
was a very conservative person, and towards the end of his tenure, he held the
company back from making compelling films. For example, Abraham didn’t want the
films to have any credits except for Coronet branding. His philosophy was that
the schools wanted films that educate; they were not paying for or interested in
the name of the writer or producer.
Waskin describes the meeting that brought about a change of culture and
direction for the company: “We had a meeting with the top executives that owned
Coronet, and the questions was raised, ‘Why are Coronet films so stodgy?’ We all
knew the answer, but we didn’t want to say because we all knew that it would be
the end of Jack Abraham. But Hal Kopel, he’s the one who said, ‘Well, it’s
because of Jack Abraham.’ And that was the last time Jack Abraham was part of
our company. The next day he was gone. Hal Kopel was in charge of everything,
and everything changed. We were a film company rather than just an education
After Jack Abraham left, the company stopped producing “banal dumb stories.” The
films got more creative and more interesting, and less tied to the classroom.
The filmmakers also began to use a mix of live action and animation. However,
like most educational film companies of the era, budgets were still limited,
which meant the stories and techniques stayed relatively simple.
Over the years, Waskin worked on a variety of films in a range of disciplines –
from language arts and history to science—not just social guidance films.
Holiday films were also popular. For example, he wrote films like The First
Christmas Tree (1971) as well as The Trolls and the Christmas Express
(1981), which he created in conjunction with HBO.
Waskin’s favorite film is The Helpful Little Fireman (1966), which he
wrote and directed. As he describes it, The Helpful Little Fireman was
“kind of a fantasy, language arts, social studies film about a little boy who is
a real fireman. How he got to be that, no one knows, but after a certain event,
he is the hero of the day.” Part of what made this film special was because
Waskin had so much control over it. Waskin normally didn’t direct, but the
company let him do some experimenting and gave him complete freedom over the
direction of this project. It also turned out to be a big seller.
Regardless of the changes that occurred before and after Jack Abraham, the films
remained educational in nature. Their primary goal was to teach rather than
entertain. The value that film brings to the classroom is the ability to show
material in a more visual and dynamic way than the textbook can provide. For
Waskin, the best example of this is a film he created about the solar system: “I
created a full scale model of the solar system with size and distance the same
scale. Three feet equals one million miles. So, we had a sun that was three feet
in diameter, and using a helicopter, we placed the planets at various distances
from the sun. Pluto, which at the time was a planet, was several miles away, but
we were able to place it with a helicopter. No book could possibly show the
great distances between the planets and how small they really are compared to
the distance because no book could show the size and in scale.” [Exploring
Space: the Solar System, 1978, dir. John W. Randle]
Though the goal was to create and sell educational films, education was not what
drew Waskin or his fellow writers to the industry: “I would say that the writers
at Coronet were writers rather than educators. If they were able to educate by
their writing, that was the best. I think I was, but for the most part the
people who worked there just wanted to write and that was the kind of writing
job they could get.”
In the end, technological changes meant the industry was no longer as profitable
as it once was. The change from film to video in the 80s meant a decrease in
revenue: “What was a $250-300 film would be a $10 video. You can’t really make a
living selling the same number of videos as films.” Then came computers and
DVDs, and now 16mm films and projectors are antiques.
In 1994, the Coronet headquarters were moved from Chicago to New Jersey. Waskin
decided it was a good time to quit, partly because he didn’t want to move and
partly because he “was so old [he] could retire.” After the company moved to New
Jersey, it didn’t stay in business for much longer. In 1997, their catalogue was
sold to Phoenix Learning Group, Inc.
When asked why he stayed with the company for so long, Waskin replied, “I think
I was able to be creative, and I enjoyed that very much. The pressure was not
high. Friends always said, ‘Why don’t you go to Hollywood?’ But that’s not the
kind of life I want. Chicago was just fine… that wasn’t my world. I’m not a high
achiever. I set my level lower probably than I could achieve, but I was very
comfortable. And I stayed comfortable most of my life. And I still am.”
*Note – Due to the huge number of films Mel Waskin wrote as well as Coronet’s
earlier practice of not listing credits, this filmography is incomplete. It has
been pieced together through the interview and secondary sources when necessary.
How Do You Know It’s Love? (1950)
Hoppy the Bunny (1952)
Who Are the People of America (1953)
Mark Twain Gives an Interview (1961)
The Helpful Little Fireman (1966)
The First Christmas Tree (1971)
Exploring Space: the Solar System (1978, dir. John W. Randle)
Jingle Bells (1981)
The Trolls and the Christmas Express (1981)
Global Winds (1985)
The Great American Student (1985)
Halloween Safety, 2nd Edition (1985)
Your Active Body: Bones and Movement (1988)
What's the Brightest Star in the Sky? (1993)
Mr. E Science Series
Wonder World of Science Series (Wondercat Series)