Small-Screen Pioneer

Born with severe deformities, North Side native Norbert Nathanson becomes one of television’s early frontrunners.




Photo courtesy of Norbert Nathanson
 

 

Norbert Nathanson, 87, was born without feet and with only one hand. He was able to walk but not without difficulty. Nevertheless, he graduated from Carnegie Mellon University (then Carnegie Tech) and joined WQED as a volunteer art director in 1953 before the station was on air. Nathanson also designed WQED’s first station IDs and worked on the sets for “The Children’s Corner,” whose characters would go on to appear in “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.”

Later, he worked in broadcasting in New York, Washington, D.C. and elsewhere, but he encountered setbacks related to his disabilities. In the 1960s, he learned that he could eliminate immense pain in his legs as well as the appearance of being “disabled” by undergoing surgery to amputate his legs below the knee. At age 34, he became a double-amputee and was fitted for prosthetic limbs. He married one of his nurses, and they had two children.

A few years ago, Nathanson recorded his story for his children in a memoir, “A Secretly Handicapped Man.” He talked with Pittsburgh Magazine about how his perseverance shaped his life.
 

How did you get started at WQED?  
I was one of the volunteers before the station went on the air. I was freelancing as an artist/designer, and I went into the station looking for work. They told me very nicely and politely, “We could use you, but we can’t pay you because all these types of things are going to be done by volunteers.” But I was intrigued.

It didn’t take long to learn the action was in the studio, so I stuck my nose in whenever I could. It was a year later that I was hired [as] art director. The art department was in the basement; it had been a coal bin, and we literally shoveled the coal out, hosed it down and whitewashed it.

What sparked your interest in art?  
I was pretty good at drawing. My parents, in their wisdom, decided if I were ever going to make a living for myself, I would have to concentrate on what I could do — because there were a lot of things I couldn’t do.

One of your first assignments came from Fred Rogers.  
The first thing he said to me was, “You’re an artist. NBC has these three chimes. We’re going to have five. Do you think you could make me something that would work graphically?” . . . I came in the next day or a day or two after, and I had a sketch and a drawing. It never got built, and other things happened, and it was forgotten. But that was neat.

What made you decide to leave WQED?  
I had a lot of experience in set design. I had learned how to produce and direct . . . I was kind of ready to cut my teeth and move on. I went to New York City and came up against a stone. The nature of my disabilities was when people looked at me they didn’t really believe I could perform what I could perform. At WQED, as a volunteer, that wasn’t a problem. They may have held their breath once or twice when they saw me doing something, but they let me do it.

How did you come across the doctor who would perform your surgery?  
I decided to do a project [as part of a master’s degree program at New York University] that would attempt to teach deaf children with television. Nobody had ever done it. I had a whole list of places I wanted to contact [to fund the project], and one was the Institute for Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, a new unit of NYU. In the process, I found out what they were really doing there … I thought, “maybe I should go talk to somebody,” because in my lifetime I had been told by physicians, “You’re getting along OK. If it’s not broke, don’t fix it.”

I ended up talking to the chief of rehabilitation. I told him my story, and he told me to come down so we could talk about it . . . it became clear this was kind of an important thing for him because what we were dealing with here was making a body that had disabilities better, where most of his work was trying to recapture something of what was lost.

Did you have doubts about the surgery?
I had come to the position that I understood I was going to live my life alone, that there was no woman who was going to find an interest in me. I was going to have a hard time getting work, and I understood that. Then all of a sudden the doctor was telling me all this stuff I thought was not possible was possible, and that just threw me for a loop. The idea of serious surgery is something that any rational person would have fears about, but for a person with a disability, the quid pro quo is that you’re going to get rid of a disability, so it’s really a very pragmatic decision.

How did your life change after the amputation?  
[Before surgery], when people saw me on the street, their heads would turn; little kids would stare. All of a sudden I was anonymous. It was just wonderful. Nobody was staring at me. Nobody noticed my arm. I was standing straight. I was walking straight. I was just anonymous, and it was a privacy that I had never experienced before. 


Edit Module

Edit ModuleShow Tags

Hot Reads

Chuck Noll: A Man for All Seasons

Chuck Noll: A Man for All Seasons

Two years after Chuck Noll’s death, University of Pittsburgh Press prepares to publish the first definitive biography of the legendary Pittsburgh Steelers coach. Pittsburgh Magazine is proud to share an interview with author Michael MacCambridge and an exclusive excerpt of “Chuck Noll: His Life’s Work,” scheduled for release in October.
The Changing Face of Campus in Pittsburgh

The Changing Face of Campus in Pittsburgh

Renovation is under way at nearly all of our area colleges and universities. For students heading back to school this fall — and their parents — we offer this crash course on the highlights of these projects and their projected benefits.
Fall Fashion: In the Black

Fall Fashion: In the Black

The little black dress, and shirt, and pants, never go out of style. Add mystery to your wardrobe with these easy-to-accent autumn staples.
Apteka: A Taste of Home

Apteka: A Taste of Home

Kate Lasky and Tomasz Skowronski bring top-notch vegan, eastern European cuisine to Bloomfield.
Edit ModuleShow Tags

The 412

Old Farmer’s Almanac: Winter in Pittsburgh Will Be Warmer, But…

Old Farmer’s Almanac: Winter in Pittsburgh Will Be Warmer, But…

In its 225th year, the reference book on weather suggests we tune up our snow-removal equipment.
Chris Jamison Releases His First EP

Chris Jamison Releases His First EP

The Ross native finished third on NBC's “The Voice” in December of 2014.
Up Close Photo Gallery: 10 New Perspectives of Pittsburgh

Up Close Photo Gallery: 10 New Perspectives of Pittsburgh

Zoom in on the places that make our region so fascinating and diverse.
 You Now Can Purchase Wine at a Pennsylvania Grocery Store

You Now Can Purchase Wine at a Pennsylvania Grocery Store

The Giant Eagle Market District in Robinson becomes the first store in the state to offer direct-to-consumer wine sales.

Sign Up for the 412 e-Newsletter

 

Our daily e-newsletter is curated by the editors of Pittsburgh Magazine and is designed to give you the very best Pittsburgh has to offer -- delivered directly to your inbox.

Sign me up!
* Email
 First Name
 Last Name
  * = Required Field
 
Edit ModuleShow Tags
Edit ModuleShow Tags

Hot Reads

Chuck Noll: A Man for All Seasons

Chuck Noll: A Man for All Seasons

Two years after Chuck Noll’s death, University of Pittsburgh Press prepares to publish the first definitive biography of the legendary Pittsburgh Steelers coach. Pittsburgh Magazine is proud to share an interview with author Michael MacCambridge and an exclusive excerpt of “Chuck Noll: His Life’s Work,” scheduled for release in October.
The Changing Face of Campus in Pittsburgh

The Changing Face of Campus in Pittsburgh

Renovation is under way at nearly all of our area colleges and universities. For students heading back to school this fall — and their parents — we offer this crash course on the highlights of these projects and their projected benefits.
Fall Fashion: In the Black

Fall Fashion: In the Black

The little black dress, and shirt, and pants, never go out of style. Add mystery to your wardrobe with these easy-to-accent autumn staples.
Apteka: A Taste of Home

Apteka: A Taste of Home

Kate Lasky and Tomasz Skowronski bring top-notch vegan, eastern European cuisine to Bloomfield.
Talk of The Tahn: City of Beer

Talk of The Tahn: City of Beer

There are plans afoot for a international museum of beer to be built and staffed right here in Pittsburgh.
Pitt vs Penn State: Resumption of Hostilities

Pitt vs Penn State: Resumption of Hostilities

After an extended hiatus, the storied rivalry between the Pitt Panthers and Penn State Nittany Lions returns in September to Heinz Field.
Edit Module

Edit Module

Edit ModuleShow Tags

On the Blogs


Old Farmer’s Almanac: Winter in Pittsburgh Will Be Warmer, But…

Old Farmer’s Almanac: Winter in Pittsburgh Will Be Warmer, But…

In its 225th year, the reference book on weather suggests we tune up our snow-removal equipment.

Comments


Pittsburgh, only cooler
PittGirl: How You Should Grade A Squishy Tongue

PittGirl: How You Should Grade A Squishy Tongue

Kennywood Park opens soon and new this season is the return of the famed whale at the entrance of Noah’s Ark. In the name of science, PittGirl paid an early visit to test the squishiness quotient of the whale's all-important tongue.

Comments


All the foodie news that's fit to blog
See How Pittsburgh Chefs Are Giving Back

See How Pittsburgh Chefs Are Giving Back

Some of the city's top chefs and bartenders are organizing events to raise awareness about food waste and hate crimes in our community.

Comments


Not just good stuff. Great stuff.
The 5 Best Comic Shops in Pittsburgh

The 5 Best Comic Shops in Pittsburgh

These comic book shops offer more than just your casual Batman or Spider-Man choices.

Comments


New Industry Public House Location Up to Par

New Industry Public House Location Up to Par

If you’re in need of a dining option that’s not a national chain while visiting the Robinson area, this is one to keep in mind.

Comments


Mike Prisuta's Sports Section

A weekly look at the games people are playing and the people who are playing them.
Le'Veon Bell Talks The Talk But Can’t Walk The Walk

Le'Veon Bell Talks The Talk But Can’t Walk The Walk

The Steelers running back emphasized his latest suspension resulted from missed random drug tests, and not a relapse into the marijuana-induced haze that got him jammed up last season. But if you lack the maturity to grasp the consequences of your actions (or, in this case, inactions), does it really matter?

Comments


Style. Design. Goods. Hide your credit card.
Custom Made: The Surmesur Suit

Custom Made: The Surmesur Suit

Straight out of Canada, the custom menswear store opens its first U.S. location in Pittsburgh.

Comments


Sean Collier's Popcorn for Dinner

The movies that are playing in Pittsburgh –– and, more importantly, whether or not they're worth your time.
Hipsters in Iraq, Cops and Robbers in the Old West

Hipsters in Iraq, Cops and Robbers in the Old West

Reviews of "War Dogs" and "Hell or High Water," plus local movie news and notes.

Comments


Everything you need to know about getting married in Pittsburgh today.
The Lucky Ones: Katie Doré and John Potter

The Lucky Ones: Katie Doré and John Potter

Want even more Real Pittsburgh Weddings? We'll be bringing them to you throughout the fall, beginning with this lovely and lucky couple.

Comments


The latest tips and trends to refresh your home.
Put a Lid On It! The Container Store Coming to Pittsburgh

Put a Lid On It! The Container Store Coming to Pittsburgh

The store famous for carrying storage and organizational products is set to open at the revamped Block Northway in Ross Township.

Comments


The hottest topics in higher education
Two Events Planned for Prospective Waynesburg Students

Two Events Planned for Prospective Waynesburg Students

A fall visitation day and a Saturday information session aim to allow interested students a look into life at the university.

Comments