Vin Di Bona
“As a documentarian, I still think I'm showing little documentaries of American everyday life. They echo the American spirit.”
Vin Di Bona, founder and CEO of Vin Di Bona Productions and television producer of America’s Funniest People, MacGyver, Entertainment Tonight, and America’s Funniest Home Videos; excerpted from an interview with the National Museum of American History, March 3, 2017.
From elocution lessons to show business
When I was eight years old, my mom enrolled me in a class with Mrs. Walker in Pawtucket, Rhode Island. Mrs. Walker taught both elocution classes and etiquette classes, and I started elocution and dramatic lessons. She also had a wonderful radio show that she did on Saturday mornings on WPAW in Pawtucket. It was an AM radio station, and we did dramatic readings and plays. That was my beginning, and then I kept working with dramatic and elocution people. When I was 14, I starting doing summer theater in Rhode Island. I did the Warwick Musical Theater with both Ginger Rogers (Annie Get Your Gun) and Zero Mostel (High Button Shoes). I worked with Burgess Meredith and Martha Scott in The Remarkable Mr. Pennypacker. I was a stage manager, a singer, a dancer, whatever they needed me to fill in.
In my early career, I was a singer. Johnny Lindy was my singing name because my dad owned Lindy’s Restaurant and his name was John. The songwriter was Jimmy Crane and he had a couple of major hits, including Timi Yuro’s Hurt. I went to Nashville and recorded in the same studios where Brenda Lee, Connie Francis, Patsy Cline, and Floyd Kramer recorded. It was the old Owen Bradley Studios, which was the place to record in Nashville. It was a great experience, and I went around to all the record shows on the East Coast, and my record became very popular in New England. While performing on all the TV stations, I got interested in TV.
On the influence of parents
My mother was a great theatergoer. She and her cousins would take the Merchants Limited train to New York from Providence, and she would take me as many times as possible. I remember seeing Mary Martin and Ezio Pinza in South Pacific. I saw Richard Burton in Equus. I saw Robert Preston in [The] Music Man. So these were really amazing musicals and plays. My mother fostered a great relationship for me in the arts. On Saturday mornings I’d go to the Rhode Island School of Design to take art classes, and my grandfather was a master tailor, so arts and fashion have been a pretty important part of my life. To this day clothes and cars are my big passion.
My dad was an amazing guy. He only had a seventh-grade education and, with a partner, he opened up the first all-electric diner in America in 1938. He bought his partner out in the mid-’50s and turned the diner into a restaurant, banquet hall, and cocktail lounge in which I used to sing. He bought a piece of property in 1949 for $5,000, and today we own a city block because of that purchase in Cranston, Rhode Island. One of the biggest CVS stores in New England is on that property. At a major event, my dad was the kind of guy that could talk to a waiter and Senator Pell in the same breath. He had this ability to make friends anywhere, and I think I got a little bit of that. My junior high school was about a mile and a half away from my dad’s restaurant; and so, in the afternoon I’d pop in and sit at the counter. Traveling salesmen would come in for a coffee break and I would be sitting at the counter, so I’d wind up talking to all these different guys. I learned how to listen, which put me in good shape when I started producing documentaries, and I learned how to ask questions. I also realized that everybody likes to talk about themselves. Those were the lessons I learned that became part of my experience as a documentarian later in life — and it came from sitting at the counter; it really did.
On Emerson College and catching the television bug
After high school I went to Emerson College, a school that is so dear to my heart that today it’s the corporate love of my life. I remember when I walked out of the school after graduation, I said, “If ever I can build a control room for this school, I’m going to do it,” and I have. Emerson gave me courage; it gave me a sense of purpose; it taught me never to take no for an answer, within reason. I was president of my class for a couple of years, I managed the radio station, and I think, even to this day, you can categorize Emerson students as street fighters. We have that passion, but we also have the drive.
At Emerson, I started out in radio in the first year, and the second year I took a television course. It was a simple 30-second spot where you faded up from black. I was petrified and it was nightmarish for me, pulling it all together. In radio, you’re your own best critic and you’re your own engineer, but in television you’ve got 12 other people. So I said, “I’m going to practice.” I stood in front of a mirror, and I pretended I was the director in the booth and doing all this stuff and it was perfect. The bug hit me, and that’s all I wanted to do from then on.
On getting into documentary filmmaking at UCLA
I wanted to tell a story about people or a person or community that needed wrongs to be righted. My second film was about a black shoemaker here in downtown L.A., and he was a one-man band in his own store. We talked about when he was “coming up” and trying to make ends meet. For years he had popcorn and water for lunch and that was it. And as he talked about his experience, I photographed him stripping a sole off a pair of shoes and resewing and reheeling the shoes. That was the film. It was very simple. My graduate film was about hobos in the Santa Barbara area — itinerant guys who wound up in a rescue mission. They can only stay three nights a month and it was pretty dreary. I spent time in the rescue mission at night and then spent a lot more time out on the tracks with them and in the fields by the rail yard. The film ended with my sound man and me hopping a freight train while it was rolling and the camera on my back was also rolling. I was the filmmaker and my partner, Mike Hall, was an ethnomusicologist. He wanted to do the project because we recorded original hobo songs. We found two or three people that would be the real genuine deal and got some great songs.
On the diverse path from documentaries to America’s Funniest Home Videos
I left UCLA and went to work at WBZ in Boston, where they hired me to do documentaries. For eight, nine years I did pretty much all their specials. Once a month, we would produce and direct a documentary that would address an issue in the community. There were three of us on the team, and they are still the dearest friends of mine.
In the midst of that, this group of friends and I ended up producing a magazine show for the black community called 1672. We interviewed Martin Luther King’s mother for Mother’s Day and everything else in between. Then in 1977, I came to L.A. and started at KNXT, where I did Down at the Dunbar and Zoot Suit. And then I directed a documentary on gangs in East L.A. for the show Insight, with Father Elwood Kaiser. I was stage manager on Wheel of Fortune. I did football shows in Las Vegas. I did a lot of little things, all while I was working with Channel 2, doing specials. I won several awards as I was doing all of this, so I was building a reputation. And then I got Entertainment Tonight. I was the show’s producer and as such I hired Mary Hart. A year later, Henry Winkler, who was a fraternity brother of mine from Emerson, asked me to read a script for MacGyver, and I wound up line producing that for about a year and a half.
I decided it was time to run my own company, and I found the show from Tokyo Broadcasting System called Animal Crack-Ups. It was basically Wild Kingdom meets Hollywood Squares. I pitched it 136 times before I finally sold it. Three years later, we ran out of footage for that show, but Tokyo Broadcasting showed me this variety show. They asked me what I thought and I said, “Well, variety’s dead here, so I think we should just run home videos and a contest.” And that was America’s Funniest Home Videos. I pitched that once and sold it in four minutes. That’s the craziness of our business.
For the pilot, we had amassed 1,800 tapes, but our hit ratio was 100 to 1. So we just squeaked through. We had this one video of a lady in a green leotard stuck in her dishwasher. Her hair got caught in the flywheel when she was trying to take the dishes out, and her husband had a video cam, and they’re having a huge argument: “Help me!” And he said, “No, I’m shooting.” “Help me!” “No, I’m shooting.” And that became our most famous video.
On the advent of the internet and YouTube
When it all started, I was at a car show and I went back to my hotel room, I turned on the TV, and it was CBS News. “There’s something new,” the news anchor said, “it’s called the internet, and there’s something new called YouTube on the internet. You can accumulate things and you can send and you can share. We want to show you some of the things that you can see on YouTube.”
They ran six clips, and four of them were mine. I went nuts. For the next five years, we tried to sue. We did lawsuits and take-downs, and it really didn’t work. Then we realized, Hey wait a minute, we can promote the hell out of this, and it could really increase our viewership. We can create stuff and we can monetize stuff. It wasn’t until I threw in the towel and said, “I’m looking at it the wrong way,” that we realized our potential. Right now we have one of the most powerful social media departments of any show on television. We have over a billion hits a month and a very loyal social media family.
On the Boston Red Sox and Elvis Presley
I was at the 2004 Red Sox game where they won their first World Series against the St. Louis Cardinals. I felt very badly about it because I could afford to go to St. Louis and buy an expensive ticket, and I'm saying to myself, “I know there are at least 10,000 people in Boston that would do anything to be here. And they're avid fans, but only because I could afford it, I'm here.” However, I did call my daughter, and FaceTimed her from the game! She's an avid Red Sox fan, and it was pretty amazing.
One of my dear friends, Chris Beard, produced Elvis’ black-leather-jacket special. I’ve heard many stories about that special. One of my favorite Elvis songs is “Return to Sender.” I don’t know why, it just tickles me. I lost my voice. I used to have a really terrific range in my voice, but my voice went; however, I sang at my wedding 11 years ago, and I practiced and practiced and practiced. We started out with a 10-piece orchestra, and, as I kept getting a little bit better, we wound up with a 22-piece orchestra and singers. I said, “If I'm going to do it, I might as well do it right.”