The Flying Nun: Soaring to Success Followed By a Crash Landing

This month we are in the midst of the series, “Girls, Girls, Girls.” Today we take a look at another sitcom whose cast was primarily female.

From 1965-1966, Gidget starring Sally Field was on the air. When it was cancelled after only 32 episodes, producers were scrambling to find another vehicle for Field.  Harry Ackerman, with co-producers Bernard Slade (who would create The Partridge Family and just passed away last week) and Max Wylie came up with The Flying Nun. They based it on a book published in 1965, The Fifteenth Pelican by Tere Rios. Beginning on ABC in September of 1967, the show continued through the fall of 1970, resulting in 82 episodes.

I did read that Patty Duke was the first choice for the show, so I’m assuming when she turned it down, they asked Sally Field. Apparently, they were trying to find a show for Field, but this show was not created for her. Field also turned it down, thinking it was a silly concept, so the producers went to their third choice, Ronne Troup, who would play Polly on My Three Sons. Troup began filming the pilot. Sally’s stepdad, Jock Mahoney, told her she should reconsider because she might not get another chance in show business if she didn’t accept the role. When Sally informed the producers that she had changed her mind, Troup was let go.

Photo: sitcomsonline.com

In the hour-long pilot, we meet Elsie Ethrington. Elsie, who grew up in Chicago, is arrested in New York during a protest. We learn that the rest of her family has chosen medicine for their vocation. (In a later episode, we meet one of her birth sisters who is a physican played by Elinor Donohue.) Elsie goes to Puerto Rico. She is impressed with the missionary work her aunt has been doing, so she ends her relationship with her boyfriend, a toy salesman, and becomes a nun at the Convento San Tanco, taking on the name Sister Bertrille. In one episode, Sister Bertrille watches home movies of her life and what we are actually seeing is footage from Gidget.

Photo: pinterest.com

One day Sister Bertrille, who is only 90 pounds, realized that the heavily starched cornette on her head, allowed her to be able to “fly” as the high winds picked her up. As she tried to explain to several people, “when lift plus thrust is greater than load plus drag, anything can fly.” Of course, a nun flying around town caused quite a stir. Field said she was humiliated by her directors as she was hung from a crane and moved around the set like a prop.

Photo: pinterest.com

The Reverend Mother Placido (Madeleine Sherwood) runs the convent. She is kind, but strict. Sister Jacqueline (Marge Redmond), who sees the humor in most situations, becomes good friends with Sister Bertrille. Sister Ana (Linda Dangcil) and Sister Sixto (Shelley Morrison) are also friends of hers. The other major characters are Captain Gaspar Fomento (Vito Scotti) who is a police officer that the nuns keep from learning about Sister Bertrille’s flying ability and Carlos Ramirez (Alejandro Rey) who owns a casino and is a ladies’ man. Ramirez was raised by the nuns, and they constantly try to reform him. He will not be reformed, but out of appreciation, he always tries to help them, and Sister Bertrille is constantly involving him in zany schemes or asking him to finance some plan of hers.

Photo: flickr.com

This was the first (and perhaps only) sitcom to be set in Puerto Rico. Although the pilot and opening and closing credits were shot in Puerto Rico, the show was shot at Warner Brothers Ranch in Burbank, California.

The producers were worried about how Catholics would react to the show. They asked the National Catholic Office for Radio and Television to serve as an advisor. The show actually was popular with Catholic religious leaders who felt the show “humanized” the image of nuns.

The show was also popular with viewers of every other religion. The first two years, it aired Thursday nights, competing with Daniel Boone. The sitcom was sandwiched between Batman and Bewitched. Although it was declared a hit immediately, the ratings eroded during the two years.

Photo: epguides.com

The producers had a hard time deciding on a focus for the show. During the second season it contained more slapstick comedy. The third season it went back to the warm and fuzzy feelings it used in the first season. For the third season, the network moved the show to Wednesdays and put it up against The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour which insured its cancellation. It didn’t help in the third year that Field was pregnant. She mentioned in an interview that “you can only imagine what a pregnant flying nun looked like,” and the crew had to hide her behind props and scenery.

Photo: thenewyorktimes.com

Critics never took to the show, but the public kept it on the air three times longer than Gidget. Many fans remember the series fondly. The plots were often heart-warming. In “With Love from Irving,” a pelican falls in love with Sister Bertrille. When Sister Bertrille is forced to go to the dentist for a toothache, Dr. Paredes puts her under hypnosis. The doctor gives them a suggestion that whenever they hear “red,” she and the Reverend Mother will switch personalities. In another show, Sister Bertrille wants Carlos to finance an expedition to find a bell that sunk long ago that was supposed to go to the convent because their old one is rusted and they can’t afford a new one. Carlos uses the opportunity to woo a young woman, but Sister Bertrille tags along. The girlfriend gets thrown overboard, but the bell is found in the end.

Relying on uplifting morals (pun intended) and Field’s delightful and talented performances, the show continued on the air. Marge Redmond was nominated for an Emmy as supporting actress. Unfortunately, she was up against Marion Lorne, who won it for her role of Aunt Clara on Bewitched.

TV Guide ranked the show number 42 on its worst tv shows of all times list in 2002. However, it continues to do well in syndication and has an international fan club.

Photo: ebay.com

While the show was on the air, it sold a variety of merchandise, including paper dolls, lunch boxes, trading cards, view master reels, a board game, and a doll.

Photo: ebay.com

Sally Field released a soundtrack LP with songs from the series in 1967. Dell Comics came out with four comic books based on the series in 1968.

Photo: ebay.com
Photo: ebay.com

I must admit I was not a big fan of the show. However, I have gone back and watched quite a few episodes for this blog, and it is better than I remembered it. Although the concept does sound as silly as Field thought, the show is charming and can be quite funny at times. Although it might not be in your top 25, it probably deserves a second look if you have not seen it for a while.

Photo: listal.com

Lofty Aspirations by Designing Women

This month we begin a new series—“Girls, Girls, Girls.” I am celebrating sitcoms that are based primarily on the relationships of women. We begin with a series that ran for seven years, resulting in 163 episodes. It revealed the joyful, disheartening, and disturbing details that occur in a long-term friendship. Today we learn more about Designing Women.

In September of 1986 a show debuted about not only friendship, but also about running a business, becoming independent, trusting in yourself, and living a truly southern lifestyle. We had watched shows about sisters before, about a workplace staff and how women rely on each other, but this show put it all in one place. Had this show been set in Chicago, Salt Lake City, or Boston, it would have been a totally different show.

Photo: pinterest.com

Julia Sugarbaker (Dixie Carter) owns a design firm and runs it from her house. Her shallow sister Suzanne (Delta Burke), who was a beauty queen and is still a diva, works there too, along with a divorced mother Mary Jo (Annie Potts), a naïve country girl Charlene (Jean Smart) and a black ex-con man named  Anthony (Meshach Taylor) who not only delivers furniture for the business but delivers his unique viewpoint as a male among women. For the seven seasons the show was on the air we got to know each of the characters intimately. We saw them fall in and out of love, get married, get dumped, love each other, hate each other, and learn about themselves as they went through all these changes together.

While Julia is the face of the company, Suzanne is a silent partner, Mary Jo is the head designer, Charlene is the office manager, and Anthony takes on a variety of duties that need to be tended to.

The famous exterior of the home/business was The Villa Marre, a Victorian mansion from 1981 that was located in the MacArthur Park Historic District in Little Rock, Arkansas. You can still drive by it today, and it’s listed in the National Registry of Historic Places.

Photo: pinterest.com

The Golden Girls (which we’ll look at in a couple of weeks), had premiered the year before Designing Women. You can definitely see a similarity in the two shows. Both were set in the south, the business was in Julia’s house while the older women friends lived in Blanche’s home. You can compare Dorothy to Julia and Charlene to Rose and, with a little stretching, Suzanne to Blanche. With a lot of stretching, Anthony and Mary Jo can be compared to Sophia; they’re more practical and always willing to offer advice, requested or not.

The sitcom was created by Linda Bloodworth-Thomason. She wrote about half of the episodes and was determined to include topics women were concerned about such as extra-marital relationships, body image, racial inequality, and terminal diseases. Although the show tackled many controversial issues, it was never preachy or judgmental. Linda’s husband Harry was an executive producer, so he also influenced the topics. The couple were friends with Bill and Hillary Clinton and voiced a decidedly more liberal viewpoint. This was especially tough on Dixie Carter who was a committed Republican.

Photo: sitcomsonline.com

Although the show was beloved by fans, critics weren’t on board, at least at first. Below is an excerpt from a New York Times article that ran September 29, 1986:

Like NBC’s Golden Girls, the new series Designing Women,tonight at 9:30, features four women with wisecracks to spare. Although they don’t live together in Florida, these women spend most of their time working together in a Victorian-type house in Atlanta. They are in the business of interior decorating.

The show was created by, and this evening’s premiere written by, Linda Bloodworth-Thomason, who also shares the executive-producer credit with her husband, Harry Thomason. The fictitious firm of Sugarbaker & Associates is headed by Julia Sugarbaker, a glamorous widow who is far from ready to become a blue-haired little old lady. Dixie Carter plays Julia as a graduate of the Beatrice Arthur-Elaine Stritch school of dripping sarcasm. Julia’s three partners are her man-hungry sister Suzanne (Delta Burke), whose alimony checks are filed alphabetically; the recently divorced Mary Jo (Annie Potts), who refused alimony, thinking capital punishment would be more appropriate, and dizzy but shrewd Charlene (Jean Smart), whose latest boyfriend is named Shadow and, for some unexplained reason, is walking around with a bullet hole in his pants.

This, then, is the basic mix, no less promising than any other in a season that continues to give white, middle-class parents to all sorts of minority children. Tonight, Suzanne discovers that her gynecologist is retiring. Let him go,” advises Julia, he’s paid his dues.As it happens, Mary Jo’s former husband is a gynecologist. Suzanne visits his office and promptly returns with the news that they have fallen in love. Julia observes: If sex were fast food, there’d be an arch over your bed.’ . . .

Ms. Bloodworth-Thomason is no Susan Harris, whose crackling humor keeps The Golden Girls popping steadily from week to week. On the other hand, Designing Women has a first-rate cast.  . .

Now, it’s all a matter of figuring out where Designing Women goes from here. Mary Jo’s first husband, a major character this evening, isn’t even mentioned in next week’s episode, which revolves around not interior design but beauty pageants. And sure enough, Julia gets another scene in which she witheringly tells off another icky character. Already the show looks like four terrific actresses in search of a workable sitcom.

I was surprised to learn that none of the actresses auditioned for their roles. Bloodworth-Thomason had the four lead actresses in mind when she wrote the pilot. Smart was the only non-Southern native, having been raised in Seattle. Anthony was not intended to be a regular. He was supposed to have a one-time role but when asked to improvise with the lead characters, the producers were so impressed with the result that he was written into the show, becoming the first cast member to receive an Emmy nomination. All in all, the show would earn eighteen nominations.

Photo: amazon.com

The cast members’ real marriages intertwined with the character’s relationships. Hal Holbrook played Reese on the show, Julia’s beau, and the two were married in real life. Gerald McRaney beat out John Ritter for the role of Suzanne’s ex-husband Dash.

Photo: broadway.com

Although they were exes on the show, they married in real life. Richard Gilliland won the role of Mary Jo’s boyfriend J.D., but he won the heart of Jean Smart whom he married in 1987.

Photo: zimbio.com

The show began its run on Monday nights on CBS, following Newhart, and it got decent ratings. For whatever reason, CBS began moving the show all over the place. The ratings went down when it was moved to Thursdays against Night Court and then Sundays up against the movie of the week on both ABC and NBC. CBS was planning on cancelling the show but a public letter-writing campaign saved it from its fate. After receiving 50,000 letters, the network returned it to the Monday night slot again. It was often in the top 20, and always in the top 30 through mid-1992. In late 1992, the network moved the show to Fridays where it again decreased its ratings. The network then cancelled the show in 1993.

It was hard to blame the network for its eventual cancellation though. The cast went through too many changes and the show lost its original charm and focus with so many replacements. In 1990, Delta Burke appeared on a Barbara Walters special and stated that the set was not a happy one. She accused the Thomasons of manipulating her. After that Burke began showing up late and sometimes not at all. The writers had to write two different scripts, one with her and one without her. Some people blamed it on McRaney’s influence, but whatever the reason, her co-stars took the brunt of her difficulties, having to learn two scripts while continuing to fulfill their contracts. They decided as a cast that they could not continue working with her, and she was let go. Julia Duffy, Jan Hooks, and Judith Ivey were all brought onto the show as possible characters, but they were not popular with the audience.

Photo: greginhollywood.com

Burke and Carter had been close friends up to this point and the situation destroyed their friendship, at least temporarily. Later they were able to somewhat repair the strained relationship.

I know it sounds like déjà vu, but as I have to add in many blogs, there is a rumor of a revival of the show for 2020. This past August, CBS confirmed that the show will be debuting again next year.

Like most shows, Designing Women had its highs and lows. Once Burke became difficult to work with, the chemistry on the show was never recaptured. When it was good, it was very good.

Photo: fanpop.com

While Julia was a proper southern lady, once her fiery rage was aroused, she could put anyone in their place and she did it well over the years. During season two, the firm is hired by a gay man who is dying of AIDS and wants help designing his funeral. The staff become close to him and learn a lot about HIV. A wealthy client of the firm tells Julia that AIDS is “killing all the right people” which earns him one of her most scathing put-downs. While episodes like this one are heart-breaking, many episodes are just hilarious. In a very funny moment in season three, it is not Julia’s tongue that gets the laughs, it is another body part. As she is participating in a charity fashion show, her dress gets caught in her pantyhose, and she ends up mooning 1200 of Atlanta’s most prestigious citizens, including the mayor. Not many series can excel with such a range of topics, emotions, and comedy skills.

DESIGNING WOMEN. Dixie Carter as Julia Sugarbaker. Image dated 1987. Copyright © 1987 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved. Credit: CBS Photo Archive.

If you find yourself with a free week-end or a night with no plans, take some time to watch this award-winning show. Just stick to the first four seasons, so you don’t have to watch its disappointing decline.