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

Best of the 'Burgh 2016

Best of the 'Burgh 2016

We scoured the region to bring you 53 items we’ve deemed this year’s “Best of the ’Burgh,” as well as 8 stellar local Instagram accounts you don’t want to miss.
See Yinz: PittGirl Says Goodbye

See Yinz: PittGirl Says Goodbye

After writing for seven years about the city for Pittsburgh Magazine and pittsburghmagazine.com, Virginia Montanez is discontinuing her blog and column.
Restaurant Review: Whitfield at Ace Hotel Pittsburgh

Restaurant Review: Whitfield at Ace Hotel Pittsburgh

The restaurant at Ace Hotel in East Liberty hits some high notes as it finds itself.
Pride of McKeesport: WNBA Star Swin Cash

Pride of McKeesport: WNBA Star Swin Cash

During her final season of professional basketball, Cash remains ferocious on the court and selfless everywhere else.
Edit ModuleShow Tags

The 412

Pittsburgh-Area Fireworks 2016: When & Where to Watch Them

Pittsburgh-Area Fireworks 2016: When & Where to Watch Them

You can get your fill of fireworks all weekend long, if you know where and when to look.
This Dog Can Talk, and He'll Make You Think

This Dog Can Talk, and He'll Make You Think

Watch the web series, shot and edited in Pittsburgh, that inspired ABC's “Downward Dog.” The TV show also will be shot and edited in the Steel City.
Downtown Restaurant Owners Win Big

Downtown Restaurant Owners Win Big

Richard DeShantz and Tolga Sevdik of the Richard DeShantz Restaurant Group are among the regional winners of the EY Entrepreneur of the Year Awards.
Feeling Hot! Meteorologists Predict Sweaty Summer For Pittsburgh

Feeling Hot! Meteorologists Predict Sweaty Summer For Pittsburgh

Ready for 90-degree temperature weather? What you need to know about summer 2016.

Sign Up for the 412 e-Newsletter

 

Our new, 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

Best of the 'Burgh 2016

Best of the 'Burgh 2016

We scoured the region to bring you 53 items we’ve deemed this year’s “Best of the ’Burgh,” as well as 8 stellar local Instagram accounts you don’t want to miss.
See Yinz: PittGirl Says Goodbye

See Yinz: PittGirl Says Goodbye

After writing for seven years about the city for Pittsburgh Magazine and pittsburghmagazine.com, Virginia Montanez is discontinuing her blog and column.
Restaurant Review: Whitfield at Ace Hotel Pittsburgh

Restaurant Review: Whitfield at Ace Hotel Pittsburgh

The restaurant at Ace Hotel in East Liberty hits some high notes as it finds itself.
Pride of McKeesport: WNBA Star Swin Cash

Pride of McKeesport: WNBA Star Swin Cash

During her final season of professional basketball, Cash remains ferocious on the court and selfless everywhere else.
Idol Find: Pittsburgh Rapper Teams Up with Dad Jimmy McNichol for New Show

Idol Find: Pittsburgh Rapper Teams Up with Dad Jimmy McNichol for New Show

Research led Kellee Maize to discover she is the daughter of the former teen singing sensation. Now she and McNichol are teaming up to develop a television series to help other parents and children find each other.
Daytripping: Rating the Roller Coasters at Cedar Point

Daytripping: Rating the Roller Coasters at Cedar Point

One day, 18 roller coasters, four queasy stomachs, two cheeseburgers, one fried dough … whew.
Edit Module

Edit Module

Edit ModuleShow Tags

On the Blogs


This Dog Can Talk, and He'll Make You Think

This Dog Can Talk, and He'll Make You Think

Watch the web series, shot and edited in Pittsburgh, that inspired ABC's “Downward Dog.” The TV show also will be shot and edited in the Steel City.

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
James Beard Foundation Celebrity Chef Tour Stops In Pittsburgh

James Beard Foundation Celebrity Chef Tour Stops In Pittsburgh

Justin Severino and Hilary Prescott Severino of Cure and Morcilla organized the event, which featured celebrated chefs from DC, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh.

Comments


Not just good stuff. Great stuff.
The Best 7 Spots in Pittsburgh to Watch the 2016 Euro Cup

The Best 7 Spots in Pittsburgh to Watch the 2016 Euro Cup

Grab your kits, scarfs and get ready to watch the Euro 2016 Pittsburgh-style. We'll show you where to go to get your fan on.

Comments


Beer Cults and Brick Ovens: An Evening at Fuel & Fuddle

Beer Cults and Brick Ovens: An Evening at Fuel & Fuddle

The restaurant and bar in Oakland welcomes college students and locals alike.

Comments


Mike Prisuta's Sports Section

A weekly look at the games people are playing and the people who are playing them.
Bucs' Biggest Problem Easier to Identify than Solve

Bucs' Biggest Problem Easier to Identify than Solve

As the Pirates try to climb out of a demoralizing slump, one factor has emerged as the team's biggest shortcoming.

Comments


Style. Design. Goods. Hide your credit card.
Add a Bygone Beacon to Your Living Room

Add a Bygone Beacon to Your Living Room

Vintage signs can add a pop of personality to your decor.

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.
Demons, Orcs, Hipsters and More at the Multiplex

Demons, Orcs, Hipsters and More at the Multiplex

Reviews of "The Conjuring 2," "Warcraft," "Maggie's Plan," plus local movie news and notes.

Comments


Everything you need to know about getting married in Pittsburgh today.
Noah’s Ark Nuptials: One Couple’s Kennywood Wedding

Noah’s Ark Nuptials: One Couple’s Kennywood Wedding

The restoration of the iconic Noah’s Ark whale entrance came just in time to be the backdrop for this Pittsburgh couple’s wedding.

Comments


The latest tips and trends to refresh your home.
Purple Reign: PPG Paints Unveils 2017 Color of the Year

Purple Reign: PPG Paints Unveils 2017 Color of the Year

Violet Verbena’s grey-purple tones are playful, elegant and calming. Plus, get the history behind some of Pittsburgh's architectural wonders.

Comments


The hottest topics in higher education
Summer Robotics Camp Offered to High-School Students

Summer Robotics Camp Offered to High-School Students

The camp is a collaboration between two area universities and is open to students entering grades 9-12.

Comments