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May 16, 2019

Looking at America

As a producer, writer, director and documentary filmmaker, Sharon Grimberg has explored some of the most pivotal and often controversial moments in American history.

Hillary Atkin
  • Courtesy Sharon Grimberg
  • Courtesy Sharon Grimberg

While closed-door and televised Senate hearings are making headlines of late, Sharon Grimberg is spending her time going over documentation of incriminating and volatile testimony from such hearings – those that took place more than 65 years ago.

Coming off the success of her four-hour miniseries The Circus last October for PBS's American Experience, Grimberg is currently working on an as yet untitled two-hour documentary on Sen. Joseph McCarthy. It's slated to air on American Experience in the fall.

They are her first projects under her own banner, Boston-based Winter Pink Films, after she spent 15 years as a senior producer at American Experience. There, she oversaw more than 130 films and garnered a number of accolades- among them, three Primetime Emmy Awards.

Her work delves into a wide-ranging of swath of history over several centuries, including the abolitionist and civil rights movements, Native American history, the Vietnam War and the Jonestown massacre.

The Singapore-born Grimberg moved to England at the age of 12 with her family, and studied economics and history for her Bachelor of Science degree from the London School of Economics.

She pursued her post-graduate education in the U.S., getting a master's degree in communications from the University of Michigan and then began her television career at CNN's Atlanta bureau. She toiled for three years there before deciding decided she did not want to stay in the TV news business.

Grimberg wanted the time that doesn't exist in daily and hourly deadline journalism in order to explore topics comprehensively. Public television was clearly the place for her to be.

"Public TV values things I value, and I feel like I've had an exciting, rewarding career because they value work that's in-depth and thoughtful. I think Americans value public television and you're bringing them something," she said during a recent phone interview from Boston.

The McCarthy documentary is her first non-narrated film, told through reams of newsreel footage, transcripts, radio interviews, newspaper reports and other media.

Here is an edited version of our conversation:

What initially inspired you to investigate and thus immerse yourself in the McCarthy era, a rather dark chapter of American history?

I first started talking with American Experience Executive Producer Mark Samels about Joseph McCarthy in 2003. He had read in the paper that the transcripts of the executive sessions— i.e. the closed-door sessions—of McCarthy's committee were finally being released to the public 50 years after McCarthy's hearings were conducted.

Mark thought it would be interesting to make a film about McCarthy now that we had access to sources that hadn't been available before.

For one reason or another the project kept getting put on hold. When we began production in earnest, we were struck not only by the executive session testimony, but also with how much other material was available -- film footage of the hearings, McCarthy interviews with the press, radio interviews, photographs, headlines. In addition we were able to interview several people who knew McCarthy.

In working on your documentary on McCarthy, did you see parallels between the political climate then – and now?

It was a time, like now, when Americans were anxious. Joseph McCarthy arrived in Washington as a senator-elect at the end of 1946. The Cold War had settled in, and, in short order, Eastern Europe fell under the control of the Soviet Union, Moscow detonated its first atomic bomb, and China fell to the Communists.

So, Americans were very scared. People were looking to be reassured, and some were willing to sacrifice constitutionally-guaranteed freedoms for a feeling of security. McCarthy seemed to know an awful lot about communists and possibly spies infiltrating every level of the government and he seemed to be prepared to dig them out to protect ordinary Americans. He played on people's fears.

The country was very divided, and rhetoric could be very acrimonious. I was struck by some of the venomous letters that senators received from members of the public who didn't agree with them. The difference today, of course, is that the comments didn't go viral, they were stuck in some file folder in a drawer and ended up in an archive. But the feelings of animosity were there.

Looking back on the era and immersing yourself in it, tell us about McCarthy's impact at the time.

Obviously, McCarthy's biggest impact at the time was on the people he interrogated. In a year and a half, he questioned more than 650 people, some behind closed doors and some publicly. Many of them lost their jobs. One man fearing a subpoena killed himself.

A few people were subsequently tried on contempt of Congress charges, although no one was ultimately incarcerated, the whole process was distressing to those involved. Though it is true that some had been communists or involved with left wing organizations at earlier points in their lives, there is no evidence that anyone McCarthy accused was a spy or was involved in subversion.

What do you feel is the legacy of the man himself and the "McCarthyism" that he spawned?

We remember the tactics of the Red Scare as McCarthyism. But McCarthy didn't invent anti-communism, nor did he invent many of the tactics of what has come to be called McCarthyism. The House Un-American Activities Committee preceded him by more than a decade. And HUAC held hearings on Hollywood screenwriters and Alger Hiss, before McCarthy became an active anti-communist.

Yet McCarthy is the person most Americans remember. And there are reasons for that. He was, as one historian I interviewed said, "the demagogue of anti-communism." He made it more dangerous than anyone else ever had.

Because of his recklessness and the way he really harmed ordinary, loyal Americans, he began to make many members of the public very uneasy. And so ultimately it became disreputable to be actively anti-communist.

Some historians believe that McCarthy played a central role in creating a modern Conservative movement – that before McCarthy there was no Conservative movement.

They point out that as a young man, William F. Buckley, Jr. who, as you know, was a very important and respected voice in the Conservative movement, really revered McCarthy, came to his defense, and learned from him that the battle over culture is central to politics.

What would you like the key takeaway to be for viewers after seeing this upcoming documentary?

On March 9, 1954, Edward R. Murrow said in his famous attack on McCarthy that, "This is no time for men who oppose Senator McCarthy's methods to keep silent... There is no way for a citizen of a republic to abdicate his responsibilities. As a nation we have come into our full inheritance at a tender age.

"We proclaim ourselves, as indeed we are, the defenders of freedom, wherever it continues to exist in the world, but we cannot defend freedom abroad by deserting it at home."

Democracy is fragile. We are responsible for protecting each other's rights and freedoms, ensuring that the American experiment remains true to its founding ideals.

You did such a deep dive into The Circus—not to be confused with Showtime's political docuseries of the same name - but the actual "greatest shows on earth" led by a ringmaster. What are the most surprising things you found?

I didn't know anything about the circus. The project was brought to me. The thing I loved about it is that it was the first popular entertainment in America although its origins can be traced back to 1793 from an Englishman. It was a traveling form of entertainment, unique to America.

It was the first form of entertainment that stitched the country together before radio, and created kind of a national culture which hadn't existed before. Americans came from different places to see it. It appealed to all strata of society and it was very democratic. Some circuses had a "black top" showing Thomas Edison's films, and it was the first place many people saw a moving image.

In the late 1870s, Bailey used electricity and that was before streetlights, so it was at the forefront of technology, and to me that was very interesting. Much of the country was so isolated before the telegraph and this was a place that connected them.

By today's standards, many people might view the performers involved in the circus and the animals as being exploited. What are your thoughts?

I looked at it through the lens of time, and looked at the way animals were procured. In order to capture an exotic animal you had to kill all the adults to capture the young. It was a brutal process. People would bring the animals to a trader in Hamburg, Germany. He figured out how to find middlemen to deal with trappers in Africa, middlemen who would buy the animals, and then he supplied them to circuses in America.

In the early 20th century, circus employees – some call them freaks – formed a union, and one of the things they wanted was to be called "prodigies." They wanted to say they were extraordinary, like the bearded woman, a hirsute female. They wanted to be admired for what was different about them, but they never were.

The circus provided employment, but they were exploited. The bearded woman would wear a veil when not in the circus, and she wanted an unmarked grave so as not to be gawked at.

At the same time the circus provided a place and a community and security. Yet it was a tough life for everyone but a few celebrities and it was seasonal. There were no showers when they were traveling and they washed out of buckets.

But it was thrilling having so many people watching them perform. Every single circus performer I talked to, they loved it. Like a 90-year-old still teaching trapeze. They loved every part of it, the camaraderie, the traveling, the audience - there was so much adrenaline. It was an incredible time of their lives.

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