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Michael Gargiulo Dies at 95; Documented the Moscow ‘Kitchen Debate’

Michael Gargiulo, an Emmy Award-winning television director and producer who immortalized the impromptu 1959 “kitchen debate” between Vice President Richard M. Nixon and the Soviet leader, Nikita S. Khrushchev, in Moscow, died on Nov. 30 at his home in Manhattan. He was 95.

His son, Michael, an anchor for “Today in New York” on NBC, said the cause was congestive heart failure.

The made-for-television moment took place during a brief thaw in the Cold War, with the finger-wagging performances by Nixon, on the eve of his campaign for the Republican presidential nomination, and the pugnacious Khrushchev starting in the kitchen of a model home at an American trade fair in Sokolniki Park.

The two world leaders had been steered to the $14,000 “typical American house” by William Safire, who would later become a speechwriter for Nixon and an opinion columnist for The New York Times, but who at the time was handling public relations for a Long Island homebuilder. (It was Mr. Safire who gave the house the name “Splitnik,” because it was bisected by a walkway for spectators.)

The largely good-natured tit-for-tat escalated as Nixon and Khrushchev wended their way through the exhibition hall. They were headed for the studio and control room that Mr. Gargiulo (pronounced gar-JOOL-oh) and his team had assembled for RCA at the invitation of the State Department to promote American technological superiority in color television.

“As they were walking in, we were already recording,” Mr. Gargiulo recalled in an interview with his son in 2019. “They didn’t even know we were rolling.”

Through interpreters, the U.S. vice president and the Soviet leader conducted a guns-and-butter debate on the merits of capitalism versus Communism, which Mr. Gargiulo and his team shot, ostensibly so they could immediately replay it to demonstrate the wonders of color TV.

But while Nixon had been warned to be on his best behavior (so Khrushchev would accept an invitation to a subsequent summit meeting), neither official could resist a microphone and a camera.

Nixon acknowledged Soviet advances in outer space; Khrushchev, sporting an incompatible Panama hat and oversize suit, conceded nothing.

“In another seven years we will be on the same level as America,” he said. “In passing you by, we will wave to you.”

Mr. Gargiulo said the two men had promised that the debate would be broadcast in both Russia and the United States. But a few hours after it ended, he said, Kremlin aides demanded that he turn the original tape over to them.

By then, it had already been spirited out of the Soviet Union by NBC (which was part of RCA at the time) to be shared with CBS and ABC, but Mr. Gargiulo offered to share a copy with the Soviets. As a result, the debate was seen on both sides of the Iron Curtain that evening.

“It was what we call a virtual draw,” Mr. Gargiulo said of the confrontation.

The Moscow trip — on which he was accompanied by his wife, who was pregnant with their son — left him with warm memories as well as accolades.

“I never felt more patriotic,” he said. “This was world leaders taping on the sly and slipping it out of the country.”

“I can’t imagine anybody thinking that was not a turning point in both of our relationships,” he added.

Things ended up better for Mr. Gargiulo than they did for the debaters, at least in the short term. Nixon lost the 1960 presidential race, and Khrushchev was deposed in 1964.

Mr. Gargiulo accepted a Daytime Emmy Award from the actor John Gabriel and the model Cheryl Tiegs in 1978. He won 10 Emmys in his career, including a lifetime achievement award in 2015.Credit…Disney via Getty Images

He began his career by directing stage shows in the Catskills, then joined NBC in New York, where he became staff director of local programming. He directed the game shows “To Tell the Truth,” “The Price Is Right,” “Match Game,” “Password” and “The $10,000 Pyramid.” He also directed special events for CBS, including “All-American Thanksgiving Day Parade,” a pastiche of parade coverage from New York and other cities.

His final directing credit was the Tournament of Roses Parade on CBS in 2003.

He won 10 Daytime Emmys in his career, including a lifetime achievement award in 2015.

Michael Ralph Gargiulo was born on Sept. 23, 1926, in Brooklyn to Louis and Josephine (Talamo) Gargiulo. He grew up above his father’s restaurant, a Coney Island landmark.

He attended St. Augustine’s High School in Brooklyn and completed high school while serving in the Caribbean Defense Command of the Army Air Forces at the end of World War II. He graduated from the University of Missouri on the G.I. Bill.

In 1958, he married Dorothy Rosato. In addition to their son, she survives him, as do their daughter, Susan, who works for Nickelodeon, and three grandchildren.

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