They may have moved on to successful jobs in the television industry, but the three panelists who sat on the freshly painted stage in the Playhouse Theatre on Friday said they will never forget how Penn State shaped their career paths.
The College of Communications and the College of Arts and Architecture co-sponsored the informal “Happy Valley to Hollywood” discussion featuring renowned small screen innovators Gerald Abrams, James P. Jimirro and Carmen Finestra— all of whom have earned the university’s Distinguished Alumni Award.
The discussion was moderated by Amanda Gifford, Class of 2004, who now serves as the program director for National Afternoon and Evening Radio on The ESPN Radio Network.
When College of Communications Dean Douglas Anderson took the stage to introduce Gifford and the panelists, he didn’t hide his admiration for the individuals’ accomplishments, speaking on behalf of the college as being “forever grateful” for having them as part of its legacy.
“They’re a product of this institution,” he said. “All of us are so proud and pleased to be able to claim them.”
Anderson also said the trio of producers was originally supposed to be joined by a fourth panelist, Don Bellisario,Class of 1961, who would go on to co-create Magnum, P.I. and NCIS among other hit shows –– but recovery from recent surgery forced him to pull out.
With this, Gifford began grilling the panelists by asking why each of them chose to attend Penn State in the first place.
“It was the only college that would accept me,” Abrams, known for his work on the Emmy Award-winning miniseries “Nuremberg” and the FX original film “44 Minutes,” said.
Jokes aside, Abrams said he thought the university would be “a really interesting venue” to pursue his education.
“I never regretted for a moment coming here,” he said.
Finestra, who wrote for “The Cosby Show” for several years before co-creating “Home Improvement” in the early 1990s, said it was the chance to meet students from different backgrounds that drew him to Penn State.
“The people I met here helped me a lot to see a different world,” he said.
The panelists also talked about making the transition from the East Coast to Los Angeles, a location Finestra described as being “a city on the move.”
However, Jimirro, who became the first president of the Disney Channel in 1983, stressed that while he now operates in Los Angeles, having easy access to places while living in Manhattan “was a lifestyle that just worked.”
“My heart is still back in New York,” he said.
When the discussion came to a close, a number of communications students in attendance were left with a new outlook on their majors, including Matt MacMurchy.
“It wasn’t necessarily mandatory for class, but it was definitely something [professors] encouraged us to come to see,” MacMurchy (senior-film/video and Spanish) said. “I think this was a really great opportunity to get some firsthand advice from people who have been successful in the industry.”
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