By MIKE CHAIKEN
If all goes well, Connecticut and a Connecticut real estate developer will become the next big stars of HGTV.
And a Bristol woman is part of the team that made it happen.
Gwen O’Donnell of Bristol and her partner Jonathan Wareham, who together are the principals of Wareham O’Donnell Productions, are the creative forces behind “The Morse Code,” a new reality series that was marketed to the HGTV Network last week in Los Angeles.
A red carpet event was held in New Haven on Nov. 24, where the pilot episode was screened for family and friends of O’Donnell, Wareham, and the star of show, Richard Morse.
O’Donnell, a graduate of the University of Southern California, said she became part of the project when “I was contacted by Richard Morse, who is a real estate developer (in New Haven), artist, and designer. He wanted to put together a pilot together for HGTV. My partner Jonathan Wareham and I have done these before in Los Angeles…. We were the people for the job and we did it.”
O’Donnell, who served as director and producer, said of the star, “He’s a house flipper, but with the way the real estate market the way it is you have to be more than a house flipper to have a show now. He also works very closely with the contractors. He’s an artist. He’s a designer. He literally will go into a distressed property knock down all the walls, re-envision the whole thing, and re-create it from scratch.”
Asked about the genesis of “The Morse Code,” Morse explained, “It actually it’s a new journey for me. The next leg of my journey.”
And it’s been a long journey for the Connecticut resident.
“It started when I was 6-years-old and I made a fort underneath a forsythia bush way in the back of my yard. I staged it with furniture that I stole from my friend’s grandmother’s garage,” said Morse. “I sold that fort to another kid in the neighborhood for a Big Wheel and a bag of Snickers.”
After that first taste of real estate sales, he also took an interest in interior design. Morse said, “When I was 8 or 9 years old, I started rearranging the furniture in my room relentlessly. When all of the other kids were out in the street playing field hockey and touch football, I was up there rearranging my furniture. Feng shui had not even come to this country yet, but I knew the principles at 8-years-old.”
The journey continued for Morse. “When I was 11 or 12, I designed and built my first piece of furniture— a floor to ceiling wall unit… I had a place for clothes, my stereo, my records…. My desk had a pull down front so I could close it up and hide all the clutter and all my art supplies and my books.”
Later, Morse explained, “I got rid of all my furniture and floated it in the middle of the room with no headboard, nothing. I got a white faux fur rug and a black bean bag chair. Minimalism had not hit yet but at 11-years-old, I knew what minimalism was.”
Then when it was time to enter the real world rather than play time, Morse said, “I bought my first piece of real estate at 21 and I pounded all the nails, did all the painting, and knocked out all the walls put it back on the market, without even knowing what I was doing, made money, and I was hooked.”
O’Donnell said as the episodes progress beyond the pilot, “With each property, there’s a story that goes along with it. In this case (in the pilot episode), the house he was working with had some inherent issues that were quite dramatic.”
But like many reality shows, O’Donnell said “The Morse Code” also will address the main character.
“There’s the element of his personal life,” said O’Donnell. “He’s married to his husband Norman. He has two children who attend Brown University. So there’s a lot of interesting family dynamics that go along with the show, which also follows his business ventures.”
Morse said that family life is part of the spice that goes with making “The Morse Code” interesting for audiences. “I’m a gay man in an interracial relationship. I think that’s a little different. I have two grown children in college that I try to see whenever I can, which is challenging with their schedules,” said Morse.
Additionally, Morse said, “What makes ‘The Morse Code’ different is the all-around talent level of me. It’s not just flipping houses. It’s not just real estate sales. It’s design work. It’s home staging. It’s all of that rolling into one and I actually do that work. I do the design. I track down the houses. I find them and I resell them. In the end, I do it all. I wear all of the hats.”
During the screening in New Haven, the pacing of the pilot for “The Morse Code” moved along briskly in its 22 minutes. But there was a lot of work involved in pulling together those 22 minutes, said O’Donnell, a St. Paul Catholic High School alumni.
“We shot for maybe eight or 10 days on and off during the different stages of the house, and the development of the property,” said O’Donnell.
And if the series is picked up by HGTV, O’Donnell said you can’t really use the amount of work involved in the first episode as the template of how much production will be involved in future episodes. “It just depends on the flow of the episode. If it’s going to be about a whole house or it’s just a shorter episode dealing with the family.”
“Let’s just put it this way,” said O’Donnell who recently moved back to Bristol from Los Angeles, “many, many, many hours get shot for a 22 minute pilot.”
There are many shows on television about flipping houses. But none take place in Connecticut. And Connecticut does have its challenges when it comes to flipping, said Morse, who focuses on the New Haven area. The first episode finds Morse taking on a property on Perkins Street in New Haven.
“I definitely have my guidelines exactly in terms of what… price point I have to be on to buy a distressed property,” said Morse. “I know driving down the street what (a distressed property is) going to be worth when it’s all done.”
“I have to stay within those very strict parameters,” said Morse. “There’s no emotion. It’s strictly numbers. What do I buy it for? What does it need to cost to rehab? And what it will sell for.”