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.

July is the Perfect Time for Berry Picking

berry1

Ken Berry was born in Moline, IL in 1933. After watching a group perform when he was 13, he decided he wanted to be a dancer. He loved Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly movies, especially Easter Parade, Royal Wedding, and On the Town. At 16, he traveled with the Horace Heidt Youth Opportunity Program, performing in small towns for 15 months.

berry12

He went into the army at Fort Bragg and was in the artillery. He was then moved to an entertainment division under Leonard Nimoy. During his second year, he won the All-Army Talent competition which allowed him to appear on Ed Sullivan in 1948. Nimoy encouraged him to move to Los Angeles where he made some connections for Berry. Both 20th Century Fox and Universal offered him jobs and he accepted the Universal contract.  In 1956, he opened for Abbott and Costello for their stage act. In 1957, Berry enrolled in Falcon Studios to study acting. He worked at the Cabaret Theater, making $11 per week. The same year he won Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Show.

berry6

In 1958, he received an opportunity to join the Billy Barnes Revue. While in the Billy Barnes Revue, Berry met Jackie Joseph, and they married in 1960. His work in the BBR led to several lucrative connections. Lucille Ball saw him and offered him a job with Desilu Studios for $50 per week. Carol Burnett also watched a performance and had him on her variety show. (In 1972, she would offer him the co-starring role with her in Once Upon a Mattress, a television movie.)

berry7

The first Desilu show he had a regular role on was the Ann Sothern Show. On the air from 1958-1961, Ann played Katy O’Connor who worked at a New York hotel. Originally, Mr. Macauley (Ernest Truex) was her boss, but he was berated by his controlling wife (Reta Shaw). Katy’s best friend from her previous show Private Secretary, which aired from 1953-1957, was Ann Tyrrell as Vi.  In this show, her name is Olive. The format wasn’t working, so Mr. Macauley the hotel owner, was transferred to Calcutta and James Devrey (Don Porter also from Private Secretary) took over.  Ratings improved, and the show was renewed for another season. During this season, Louis Nye was introduced as a funny dentist in the hotel who dates and marries Olive, and Berry played bellboy Woody Hamilton, replacing Jack Mullaney.  Most of the episodes revolve around the staff and guests of the hotel. As in Private Secretary, there is a lingering romance between Mr. Devrey and Katy throughout the run of the show. The ratings fell drastically in 1961 after the show was moved to Thursdays, and the network cancelled it.

In 1961, Berry obtained a job with Dr. Kildare, appearing in 25 episodes as Dr. John Kapish. Richard Chamberlin starred in the series about a doctor working in an urban hospital under his mentor Dr. Leonard Gillespie (Raymond Massey). In the third season, Dr. Kildare was promoted to resident and the series centered on his patients. The show aired until 1966, but Berry left the show in 1964. This was one of the shows that paved the way for Marcus Welby, MD and the medical dramas today including ER and Gray’s Anatomy.

berry13

He also appeared on several shows in the early 1960s: The Jim Backus Show, Hennesey, Ensign O’Toole, The Dick Van Dyke Show, Hazel, and No Time for Sergeants, among others.

berry3

In 1965, he was offered the lead in F-Troop. The show was set during the Civil War.  Berry played Will Parmenter.  At a critical moment during the Battle of Appomattox, Will gets credit for the defeat.  He is a private and was sent to get his commanding officer’s laundry. He was sneezing continuously, but the men thought he was saying “Charge,” so they did.  They won a decisive battle, and Will was promoted for his quick decision-making skills and bravery. He was then promoted to Fort Courage.

berry5

The cast had a crazy bunch of characters. The NCOs at the fort, Sergeant O’Rourke (Forrest Tucker) and Corporal Agarn (Larry Storch) are always scheming to raise money. The Hekawis tribe, with Chief Wild Eagle (Frank de Kova) worked on shady business deals with them. Although the officers manipulate Will, they are also protective of him. Melody Patterson plays Jane Thrift, Will’s girlfriend, who is always pressuring him to propose. The show relied on a lot of puns, slapstick, and running gags.

When F-Troop was cancelled two years later, Berry headlined the cast of Mayberry RFD as widower Sam Jones because Andy Griffith was leaving the show. Since Andy and Helen had married and moved away, Aunt Bee became Sam’s housekeeper. Sam and his son were introduced in Griffith’s final season when Sam is elected to the town council. Arlene Golonka plays Millie, Sam’s love interest. The show was rated as high as 4th and only as low as 15th, so it continued to pull in good ratings, but in 1971, the show was cancelled in the general “rural house cleaning” that the network performed getting rid of any shows such as Green Acres, Beverly Hillbillies, Petticoat Junction, etc.

During the late 1960s and 1970s, he was on 14 shows including The Danny Thomas Show, The Lucy Show, Love American Style, The Brady Bunch, and The Love Boat.

berry18

The network developed a show Ken Berry WOW, a variety show that lasted five episodes that Berry was not wowed with. In 1973, Sherwood Schwartz wrote a pilot for a Brady Bunch spinoff called Kelly’s Kids. The concept of the show was that Berry adopts three boys, one white, one African American, and one Asian. No network showed an interest in the show.

One of the most unusual jobs he had occurred in 1976.  An album called “Ken Berry RFD,” where he sang, backed by a full orchestra, was released. He and Joseph divorced that same year. Joseph later remarried and continued to have a long and full career.  She appeared on a variety of sitcoms including Designing Women, Full House, Newhart, Love American Style, Petticoat Junction, That Girl, Hogan’s Heroes, McHale’s Navy, F-Troop, and the Andy Griffith Show. She also had a productive movie career, including Gremlins, The Cheyenne Social Club, With Six You Get Eggroll, Who’s Minding the Mint, and Little Shop of Horrors.

Taking a break from television, Ken went on the road, performing in stock shows around the country.  He also played Caesar’s Palace between Andy Griffith and Jerry Van Dyke.

berry16

He returned to television to join the cast of Mama’s Family with Vickie Lawrence. The show derived from a skit on the Carol Burnett Show which led to a TV movie called Eunice. It featured the Harper family and their neighbors and friends. The matriarch is Thelma Harper (Lawrence) who speaks her mind freely. She is hot tempered and sarcastic, but she loves her family as she berates them. And they typically deserve a berating. They move back in with her and are happy to have her clean and cook for them as well.

For the first season and part of the second, the show was on NBC. Thelma lives with her spinster sister Fran (Rue McClanahan) who is a journalist. After Thelma’s daughter-in-law leaves her family, they move in with Thelma. Her son Vint began a relationship with Thelma’s next-door neighbor Naomi Oates (Dorothy Lyman). Her children from the Burnett sketch, Ellen (Betty White) and Eunice (Burnett), along with hubby Ed (Harvey Korman) are seen during this time.

berry17

The show was cancelled after two years and went into syndication.  The reruns were so popular, 100 new episodes were ordered. A new set had to be constructed and some cast adjustments were made as well. Lawrence, Berry and Lyman were the only original characters on this new version. Since White and McClanahan were now starring on The Golden Girls, and Burnette and Korman chose not to return, a new character was created. Mitchel (Allan Kayser) was Eunice’s son who was always getting into trouble. Another addition was Beverly Archer who played Iola Boylen, Thelma’s neighbor and best friend.

Once Mama’s Family was cancelled the second time, Berry traveled around the country, appearing in “The Music Man”, “Gene Kelly’s Salute to Broadway”, and “I Do I Do” with Loretta Swit. He also went back to television for brief appearances on several shows including CHiPs, Fantasy Island, Gimme a Break, Small Wonder, Golden Girls, The New Batman, and Maggie Winters.

berry20

Berry also appeared in six movies including Two for Seesaw (1962), The Lively Set (1964), Hello Down There (1969), Herbie Rides Again (1974), Guardian of the Wilderness (1976), and The Cat from Outer Space (1978).

Guardian of the Wilderness was based on the life of Galen Clark who convinced Abraham Lincoln to make Yosemite Park the first public land grant. It covers a series of unusual adventures Clark had as he battled lumber companies to save wilderness land.  One of my favorite quintessential 1960s movies was Hello Down There.  Tony Randall and Janet Leigh star.  Randall is an architect who creates an underwater home.  To prove a family could live there, he cajoles his family to moving there for the summer.  His kids are in a band so they force him to take the entire band or no one.  Charlotte Rae is their housekeeper. Berry plays a rare role for him as the bad guy.

berry19

Early in his career, Ken appeared in a variety of commercials. From the mid-1970s to the mid-1980s, he was the spokesman for Kinney Shoes.

He appeared in two game shows, Hollywood Squares and Tattletales.  He also starred as himself on a variety of shows including Art Linkletter, Joey Bishop, Leslie Uggams, Jim Nabors, Julie Andrews, Sonny and Cher, Dean Martin, Laugh In, and Mike Douglas.

berry10

Berry retired in 1999. Berry loves cars and was an avid motorcyclist and camper.

Although Berry was never in a hugely successful series, he had a long and full career that any actor would be proud of.  Hopefully his well-deserved retirement has been fun and full of memories.

berry2