This month we are looking at stories about some unique television writers. Today we are looking at a large group of writers who were lucky enough to write an episode for Bewitched.
In 1969, Marcella Saunders, a young teacher at Jefferson High School in Los Angeles realized that her freshmen students were not able to read the short stories and poetry in their textbooks. She decided to try to teach them about writing using a television series. Her students were fans of Bewitched, Room 222, and Julia so she contacted the studios for each program. Bewitched was the only show to respond to her.
Saunders was able to meet with star Elizabeth Montgomery and her husband William Asher who produced and directed the show. She said most students at the school were unable to read, write, or comprehend at a high school level; 44% of students read at a third-grade level and less than 1% were at their ninth-grade level.
The Bewitched cast and crew invited the 26-member class to visit the set of Bewitched, and they paid for the transportation of the class from school to the studio. The students were impressed with their tour and decided to collaborate on a teleplay for the show with their teachers’ supervision. They wrote a script titled “Sisters at Heart” and presented it gift-wrapped to Montgomery and Asher. Montgomery and Asher were impressed with the quality of the script. Elizabeth said, “We’ve had bad scripts submitted by professional writers that weren’t as well written or creative.”
Asher said the script only needed a little bit of reworking and asked Barbara Avedon if she would work with the class. Avedon, who had written for a variety of shows including The Ann Sothern Show, The Donna Reed Show, Bewitched, and Cagney and Lacey, agreed. She visited the school and described the scene she entered upon: “I was horrified. Locker doors were hanging off their hinges. There wasn’t a blade of grass in sight.”
Avedon said that she explained that they had to expand the script to fit a full half-hour. She promised the kids that no changes would be made without their approval. To work with industry requirements, the final script credited the teleplay to Avedon and Asher and the story to the students who were all listed in alphabetical order. Asher produced and directed the episode.
The class was able to attend a production and rehearsal meeting. The State of California gave the high school a grant to allow students to participate in the filming and post-production work. Screen Gems, along with Montgomery and Asher individually, also contributed to the funding. Two additional trips were planned, allowing fifty students to visit the set. Asher sent 30 copies of the script to be used in classrooms.
Saunders considered the project a great success. She said kids who thought they could not write were now writing three pages of script. One of Dick Sargent’s favorite memories of the show was one of the high school students who was given the role of assistant director. At one point, the kid screamed “Quiet on the set.”
The show became the thirteenth episode of season seven; it aired December 24, 1970 and was rerun around Christmas 1971. Montgomery introduced the episode by telling viewers that it “evoked the true spirit of Christmas . . . conceived in the image of innocence and filled with truth.”
So, what was the episode about? The concept is that Tabitha’s (Erin Murphy) friend, Lisa Wilson (Venetta Rogers), was visiting. Lisa is African American and Tabitha is Caucasian. Tabitha is excited that they get to spend a few days together and says they will be sisters. Lisa’s father Keith (Don Marshall) works with Darrin (Dick Sargent) at McMann and Tate. Darrin fails to land a million-dollar advertising account with a toy company owned by Mr. Brockway (Parley Baer) because Brockway is racist and when he stopped by the house, he assumed Lisa was Darrin’s daughter and his wife was Lisa’s mother Dorothy (Janee Michelle) because Lisa mentioned her father worked at the agency.
Samantha (Elizabeth Montgomery) takes the girls to the park and when they announce they are sisters, another kid tells them they can’t be sisters because they have different skin colors. Tabitha creates a spell so that both girls have spots in the other’s skin tone. When Samantha finds the girls, she tells Tabitha to reverse the spell. She can’t, and Sam realizes that Tabitha wants the spots to remain subconsciously so they can be sisters. She explains to the girls that their appearance does not prevent them from being sisters, so Tabitha is able to reverse the spell before Lisa’s parents arrive.
In the meantime, Mr. Brockway tells Larry Tate (David White) that he wants Darrin removed from the account. When Darrin and Sam host a Christmas party that Lisa’s parents are at, everyone is introduced and Mr. Brockway realizes Darrin is married to Samantha. Mr. Brockway says to put Darrin back on the account, but when Larry learns he originally removed him because he thought he was married to a black woman, Larry tells him they don’t want his business. To teach Brockway a lesson, Samantha puts a spell on him so he sees everyone, himself included, with black skin. Realizing how unfair he has been, Mr. Brockway returns to the Stephens to apologize and is invited to Christmas dinner, which is an integrated turkey, white and dark meat.
Montgomery always mentioned this episode as her favorite. Of course, the entire series was about overcoming prejudice but it was witches who were stereotyped. The episode received The Governor’s Award at the Emmy Awards in 1971.
I love this story at so many levels. How great that a teacher cared enough about her students to think outside the box to help them learn to read and write, and that Montgomery and Asher cared enough about the kids to give them such an amazing opportunity. I would love to know if any of those students ended up writing for a living. What a fun experience! And what a great Christmas message.