Bill Vassar: Studio Exec's career spans nearly 50 years ("1on1 with Jon Evans" podcast)

Bill Vassar: Studio Exec's career spans nearly 50 years ("1on1 with Jon Evans" podcast)
Bill Vassar, Executive VP of EUE/Screen Gems Studios in Wilmington , is the guerst on this week's "1on1 with Jon Evans" podcast.

WILMINGTON, NC (WECT) - Bill Vassar's career in electronic media spans almost 50 years. He has had stints working in radio, television and film production, crossing paths with some of the biggest names in each industry.

During Vassar's dozen years as Executive Vice-President at EUE/Screen Gems Studios in Wilmington, the largest full-service television and film production facility on the east coast, many high-profile stars have come to town to work on that property.  TV series like One Tree Hill, Good Behavior and Under the Dome shot on the soundstages. Scenes of the blockbuster movie Iron Man 3 were shot at the studio. It's a natural working environment for someone who had childhood dreams of a network career.

"When I was a kid in grade school, junior high school, I imagined the classrooms as the studios at NBC in New York," Vassar says. "I was such a fan of the network from such a young age, I could tell you what was being done in what studio, what studios were being turned around to be used two or three times in a day. So I imagined it very young, but I never imagined I would be there."

Bill Vassar's career started in radio, not television. Born in Massachusetts, his family moved to Connecticut, and that's where a young Bill started hanging around radio stations to soak in the environment. Admittedly, he would do anything to stick around, whether it be run an errand to pick up lunchtime sandwiches or sweep the studio floors.

"Eventually one of the stations I was hanging around let me go play in the production studios," Vassar remembers. "By the time I was fifteen I had been trained, and I had a job waiting for me on my 16th birthday."

By seventeen, Vassar was working on-air at a Top-40 music station in Hartford, Connecticut. His career progressed in radio, where he would later join stations in Massachusetts and New York, and ultimately land management positions. A series of ownership changes had him searching for a job in 1984, when his wife Emily spotted a blind box ad in the New York Times that would change the direction of Vassar's career. He applied and got three interviews. He tells the story at 8:55 of the podcast.

"I called and they said 'We have bad news and we have what could be good news'," Vassar recalls being told by the personnel department at NBC. "I said 'Give me the bad news'. 'You were one of two finalists for the job, but it went to a TV guy. But we have this other job that's been open for about six months, and we haven't looked outside the network. We told the person in hiring about you, and she wants to talk to you'. I said 'What's the job?'. 'Well, we don't fully understand it, but it has something to do with excess capacity in the studios, and excess time in the shops, taking the mobile units and renting them out to people when they are not being used by sports'. It was the person who handled the sales for the studios at NBC!"

It was Vassar's introduction to the job he dreamed about at NBC Studios in New York City. He worked around the studios where crews shot entertainment programs like Saturday Night Live, Late Night with David Letterman and the soap opera Another World. Frank Sinatra rehearsed his band in one of the studios when he needed it. Vassar talks about getting the opportunity to become part of the crew on Letterman's show at 16:00 of the podcast.

When I asked Bill Vassar if anyone made him starstruck during those years at NBC, he mentions David Letterman, telling a story of one special moment at the host's next-to-last show at NBC. That part of our conversation comes at 33:10 of the podcast.

Vassar left NBC after five years, went back into radio in Syracuse before joining another studio company called Unitel. In 1998, he got the opportunity to work for George Cooney, one of the legends in the entertainment world. Cooney brought Vassar into EUE/Screen Gems in 1998.

"I learned so much from this guy," Vassar says. "I thought I knew how to do business. It basically came down to being smart, having information, access to money, and be ethical. Don't lie, don't cheat."

Cooney owned the EUE/Screen Gems Studio in Wilmington, and asked Vassar to visit the location periodically to talk about marketing and other aspects of the business. Frank Capra, Junior was the President of the studio at the time. Vassar talks about those initial trips to Wilmington and interacting with Capra at 41:15 of the podcast. The stories include Capra once having legendary actor Jimmy Stewart as a babysitter.

"He was a phenomenally nice person," Vassar says of Capra. "People would walk in and say, 'I have a script'. He would say 'Come on in, let's talk about it'. Probably would never have a chance of being produced. But he was such a giving, caring person."

The visits to Wilmington became more frequent, until Vassar became more integral in the operation. The previous owners of the studios, Dino De Laurentis' entertainment group and Carolco, had both filed for bankruptcy. Vassar started to look for ways to save money and make it successful. Although a little hesitant to move to Wilmington full-time at first, Vassar says his wife came around to the idea after several trips to the Carolina coast. That's a topic of our conversation around 44:00.

"Paramount came in, did a John Travolta movie (Domestic Disturbance in 2001) and they brought their own equipment from New York," Vassar said, recalling a revelation that started the turnaround. "I went 'This isn't good'. I said 'That's where you make your money'. I came from television and it was 'How many cameras, videotape machines, microphones you could rent them in a small space'. Here, we're just renting big boxes. We weren't in the equipment business, the lighting and grip business. I went to George and said 'If you go work on the Paramount lot, you can't bring your own equipment, you have to use theirs. Why are we allowing Paramount and those large companies to come here and bring their own equipment?' We ended up getting in the lighting and grip business."

The Wilmington studio saw some of its highest-profile productions after lawmakers instituted a film incentive tax credit for companies shooting in North Carolina. Vassar had pushed for the idea. Iron Man 3, starring Robert Downey, Jr. and Gwyneth Paltrow, brought international attention to the city in 2012. Things changed, though, when the General Assembly removed the incentive in 2014. The controversial House Bill 2 passed in 2016 also had a negative impact on business at the studio. Vassar had to bite his tongue to keep from publicly rebuking lawmakers over those decisions, instead taking the high road and looking ahead

"My tongue was sore," he says with a laugh. "But you have to be polite. You just have to be polite when you deal with these things. Whenever you get angry, you create scars that never totally heal. So you have to play nice, but be firm, and eventually it's worked."

Vassar says he is encouraged at what's ahead for the local television and film production industry. Another move by the General Assembly in 2017 signaled productions can look to North Carolina for long-term commitments. Vassar is in it for the long haul as well, saying during our conversation he hopes to finish his career at EUE/Screen Gems Studios in Wilmington. I think you will enjoy the interview with this community leader.

You can hear the entire conversation with Bill Vassar, Executive Vice-President of EUE/Screen Gems Studios in Wilmington, by clicking on one of the links listed below.

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