A lot of people know Rick McMahan as the advertising director of The Bridge. The publication is celebrating its 30th year anniversary this year, and McMahan has been with it for almost half of that time, having worked there since 2009. But not everyone knows McMahan began videotaping goings on at the Statehouse back in 1973 — 50 years ago.
McMahan has a close-knit family including his wife, Stephanie, their son and his wife, grandson, and twin granddaughters. Smiling photos of the McMahan clan pepper their Facebook posts.
Additionally, his longtime relationship and marriage to Stephanie McMahan has been key to his professional career as a videographer. Videography was new when it replaced film production in the 1970s. But Rick and Stephanie soon found themselves tinkering with the new technology. They both attended Goddard College (where they met) and soon found themselves working together in the school’s photographic dark room in the basement of the Martin Manor house before getting into video recording.
They also found themselves using what was then — as McMahan calls it — “revolutionary video gear.” The first video McMahan made was a ‘people-on-the-street’ interview-style presentation about the energy crisis in 1973 when “the big rumor was that gasoline might actually get to as high as 89 cents per gallon,” McMahan recalled.
Then, on Dec. 7, 1973, McMahan went with “my then girlfriend and now my wonderful wife, Stephanie” to the Statehouse, where he did the video recording and she did the interviewing of Ethel Wheaton — then-assistant to the Sergeant-at-Arms. Wheaton also gave a tour of the Statehouse during the interview. The resulting black-and-white video was not of great quality, but it lives on in the Vermont Historical Society archives. The camera had trouble adjusting to lighting nuances, which caused an “almost strobing effect,” McMahan said, adding the poor quality could also be attributed to the age of the tape.
“It was the first time I’d been in the Vermont Statehouse ever in my life.” This was before David Schutz, longtime Statehouse curator, came on the scene in 1979 with the mission of restoring the Statehouse to its original look of 1859, when it was built.
McMahan noted the Statehouse he got to know is the third Vermont Statehouse. The first one, designed by Sylvanus Baldwin and built in 1808, was torn down when it started to deteriorate and the legislative body began to outgrow it, according to “Vermont’s Three State Houses: A Brief History,” posted on bgs.vermont.gov. The second was built in 1838 from an Ammi Young design, and was built on higher ground because of a recurring problem of flooding from the Winooski River. But even though it was made mostly of Barre granite, it was burnt to destruction due to a wood-burning heating system “on a cold night in January 1857.” All but the granite walls were ruined. McMahan spoke of the building’s history, but noted how he got to know “version three” of the Statehouse.
The changes McMahon saw unfold spanned personnel, lawmakers, and physical appearance. For example, there is a chair known as the Constitution chair built from timbers obtained from the U.S.S. Constitution. It had antlers that were broken off in 1973, which Schutz restored by getting permission to get more wood from the U.S.S. Constitution and repair the antlers. McMahan also noted how Schutz had the entrance to the House of Representatives chamber changed to be more historically accurate. Additionally, the house speaker’s podium now has a false wall with a portrait of George Washington that wasn’t there in the early 1970s, McMahan said.
And speaking of portraits, one feature of observing Statehouse decor is tracking the portraits. The building contains portraits of previous presidents of the United States, including Vermont-born Calvin Coolidge and Chester A. Arthur. Arthur’s portrait moved from upstairs to downstairs, McMahan recollects.
McMahan also interviewed former Gov. Howard Dean in front of his flannel-shirt clad portrait (dubbed “L.L. Dean” by the late Seven Days political columnist Peter Freyne, according to McMahan). Dean was known for his frugality, McMahan said, and never flew first class in favor of coach.
McMahan recalls one of his Statehouse interviews with the late Cornelius (Con) Hogan in which Hogan told a story about a Vermont State Trooper traveling with Gov. Dean on a flight to Washington D.C. When the armed, plain clothes trooper got up to use the lavatory, a nervous flight crew waited by the door, then admonished him for abandoning his prisoner mid-flight. They had assumed since he was accompanied by a trooper he was in custody, McMahan said. The trooper had to explain, “that’s not a prisoner, it’s the governor of Vermont,” the story goes. McMahan got this story from videotaping an episode of ‘Authors at the Aldrich’ Library series when Hogan released his book, “Met Along the Way” published in 2005 by Sutter House publishers. McMahan said this type of mistake also happened with Gov. Madeleine Kunin he learned when videotaping her in front of her portrait for his video series, “Under the Golden Dome.” She told McMahan that if you had a police escort, you were suspected of being “some kind of miscreant.”
McMahan also videotaped Republican Governor Richard Snelling; Democratic Speaker of the House Ralph Wright; then-Washington County Republican Senator Phil Scott; Democratic speakers of the House Gaye Symington, Mitzi Johnson, and Shap Smith, and more for “Under the Golden Dome.”
McMahan recalls interviewing Democratic Sen. Dick McCormack on March 11, 2020 when McCormack said, “Gee, Rick, I think something is about to change here.” That Friday, March 13, 2020, Gov. Phil Scott declared the emergency lockdown response to the COVID-19 outbreak and the Statehouse was closed for business. The governor did not lift all COVID restrictions until over a year later, on June 14, 2021, according to governor.vermont.gov.
In the last video McMahan shot at the Statehouse on May 5, 2022, curator Schutz unveiled the portrait of Alexander Twilight. Twilight, a former legislator, educator, and minister, was the first person of African American descent to serve in a United States legislature, according to middlebury.edu. (Twilight earned his college degrees from Middlebury College.)
The McMahans celebrated the 50th anniversary of videotaping inside the Vermont Statehouse with state Curator David Schutz on Dec. 7, 2023. Stephanie McMahan was there to photograph the event.