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He has ridden the rails, braved the waves, pedaled a bike and pounded the pavement, all in the interest of showing Chicagoans their city as they have never seen it. As the host – and often the writer and producer – of more than 20 documentary tours for Chicago public television, Geoffrey Baer has become for many of his followers the face of Chicago. It is a role he never expected to play – and one he landed, at least in part, by coincidence.
“I am perfectly comfortable performing,” he says in an interview in his Evanston home of four years, “but I didn’t aspire to being famous. I am more excited about making the shows than performing in them.”
Early on, he gravitated to theater. Born in Highland Park, he was a self-described “theater kid” at Deerfield High School but one who even then, he says, was “more interested in behind the scenes.”
His post-college work in media production was punctuated by forays into theater, endowing him with skills in both. He earned a bachelor’s degree in radio/TV/film from Miami University in Ohio and then worked in broadcast media in Ohio, Michigan and Pennsylvania before returning to Chicago for a master’s degree in theater at Northwestern University.
He taught acting and improvisation at Second City for 18 years and taught at the Chicago Academy for the Arts for five. In 1989 he took a job at WTTW, where he says he started off-camera, as an associate producer of “big arts shows” for PBS. In time, he created and produced the weekly ArtBeat and a documentary series on Chicago.
His first on-camera appearance came during a WTTW pledge drive. But it was a volunteer gig that changed the course of his career. Always passionate about architecture, he trained in 1987 as a docent for the Chicago Architecture Foundation, specializing in the now-famous Chicago River boat tour. To this day, he leads boat tours and says he takes special pleasure in the fact that most of the passengers are out-of-towners with no idea of who he is.
As is clear from his “Ask Geoffrey” moments on “Chicago Tonight,” he enjoys answering questions. But after one of his 1995 cruises, he encountered a questioner so persistent he followed Mr. Baer off the boat. Unbeknownst to them both, the man was Mr. Baer’s new boss at WTTW, Board Chairman John W. McCarter. He had a hunch that Mr. Baer’s boat tour would make good television.
That first river tour, “Chicago by Boat,” was “very successful,” Mr. Baer says – an understatement. The station went on to model at least 21 more feature-length tours on their initial hit. Mr. McCarter left public television to lead the Field Museum but claims to this day, Mr. Baer says, “that he ‘discovered’ me.”
In recent years, WTTW has begun to look beyond the borders of its hometown. In 2013 the station produced the well-received “10 Buildings That Changed America,” which aired, not at the discretion of member stations like many public television streams, but in prime time on the same night nationwide.
The host, of course, was Geoffrey Baer.
Mr. Baer remembers the concept for the show as a team effort but admits others give him the credit. In any case, one good show led to another. This month Mr. Baer is again appearing before a wider audience as host of a three-part, prime time follow-up to “10 Buildings.”
With “10 That Changed America,” Mr. Baer brings the mix of fact and fun that marks his local itineraries to his exploration of manmade wonders across the country.
As always, he greets each place with enthusiasm and delights in the odd fact and historical irony.
On successive Tuesdays, at 8 p.m., April 5, 12 and 19, he will take PBS viewers along to 10 homes, 10 parks, and 10 towns to hear the stories behind their innovative designs, the visionaries who created them, and their subsequent impact.
The series took three years to complete, two to film. Series producer Dan Protess and Dan Andries, who produced “10 Towns,” began by convening a panel of academic advisors who helped select 40-50 potential subjects. In narrowing the field, Mr. Baer says they looked at diversity of type, historical period and geographical location, always asking, “Does it have a compelling story?” The panel suggested eminent historians, architects and landscape architects to provide commentary.
The producers and a small staff did research, chose pictures, checked facts, wrote the script and did the casting for onscreen interviews, picking experts who promised to be lively, as well as knowledgeable.
As senior editor, Mr. Baer kept in touch with the producers throughout and had input into the final script. As host, he played a crucial role: Besides voicing the scripted narration that knits the pictures and video footage into a coherent whole, he conducted the unscripted interviews that make the programs sparkle.
To prepare, he says he studied the five- to 10-page abstracts the editors created for each show, read biographies and watched TED talks and YouTube videos of the interviewees, and “steeped himself in the subjects” of each episode.
In short, he crammed. Once on location, Mr. Baer says his job was to “bond with the interviewees. I take it as a challenge.” An ignorant remark “would undermine their confidence in us,” he says; his goal was to make them “comfortable with sharing their story.” Whether by training, preparation, or innate ability, Mr. Baer is a master of the easy-going interview that allows everyone from a Native American resident of the Taos Pueblo to architecture critic Paul Goldberger to shine.
Arriving at each place he had learned so much about – Monticello and Eames House, San Antonio’s River Walk and New York City’s High Line, St. Augustine, Fla., and Salt Lake City, Utah – was “like meeting a movie star,” Mr. Baer says.
He found Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater “a work of genius” so “transcendent” as to dwarf its leaks and structural problems. On the other hand, he says visiting the Tenement Museum in New York – seeing up close the deprivation suffered by 19th-century immigrants – was “very emotional.” He realized he was “not grateful enough” for what his grandparents endured and says, “We’re living the dream they had for all of us.”
This prime time production, he hints, may not be the last; WTTW is already contemplating an episode originally intended to be the fourth in this series.
He says he hopes the programs will have an impact. “If there is a higher purpose for all this,” he says, it might be to induce people notice the spaces they inhabit. “If we bring people’s attention to [the built environment], maybe they will demand more,” Mr. Baer says. “It affects us.”