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Frames of Reference; Ellis Island

Part of New Television Workshop.

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Frames of Reference
Ellis Island
Series Description

“Frames of Reference” was a series that began circa 1978. Half-hour shows were produced to showcase commissioned and already created works. It was around this time that the focus of the Workshop shifted, to concentrate more heavily on creating works for broadcast. During its time, “Frames of Reference” was the focus of the Workshop’s national arts programming effort. In an attempt to raise funds and foster collaboration, Workshop personnel approached and visited several public television stations nationwide. The major collaborative relationship was with WGBH’s “sister station,” WGBY (Springfield, Mass.). Among the featured artists were Meredith Monk, Remy Charlip, Trisha Brown, and Peter Campus. In 1981, “Frames of Reference” was packaged and offered to PBS, during what is known as “flex time” and was broadcast by WGBH, WNET (New York), and WGBY (Springfield, Mass.). “Frames of Reference” ended as a series ca. 1983, because of a lack of funding. Series release date: 1978

Program Description

Haunting, reflective piece on Ellis Island and the immigrants who passed through there. Black-and-white, near-static shots of actors and actresses realistically portraying turn-of-the-century immigrants are combined with color shots of a modern-day tour guide conducting a tour of the buildings. Re-creations of the medical examinations the immigrants underwent and the conditions they lived through are filmed in the run-down buildings of Ellis Island before restoration was started. Elements of modern dance are also incorporated, as contemporary dance groups often interact with the immigrant re-creations. Ethereal music and chanting accompany the piece, adding to the piece’s reflective tone. Particularly beautiful is a three-minute dance scene performed by what appear to be the ghosts of immigrants.

Asset Type

Broadcast program

Media Type


Ellis Island (N.J. and N.Y.)
Emigration and immigration
Film and Television
Susan Dowling (Producer)
Monk, Meredith ()
Chicago: “Frames of Reference; Ellis Island,” GBH Archives, accessed April 20, 2024,
MLA: “Frames of Reference; Ellis Island.” GBH Archives. Web. April 20, 2024. <>.
APA: Frames of Reference; Ellis Island. Boston, MA: GBH Archives. Retrieved from
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