Life in Fernwood: Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman and Fernwood 2-Night

As we wind up our series of “oddly wonderful” shows, we take a look at two shows that were set in the same community and may be two of the most unusual shows to ever air on television—Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman and Fernwood 2-Night.

If you read my blog often, you know I am not usually a fan of Norman Lear shows, and while these two series are very different from a typical Norman Lear show, unfortunately, I only enjoyed one of them. Lear’s shows were filmed at Metromedia Square in Hollywood. When he got ready to tackle these shows, there was no room left there. He arranged to rent space from KTLA which was across Fernwood Street. The staff started calling KTLA “Fernwood” which became the name of the town in Ohio where Mary lives.

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Lear said he created the show to deal with consumerism.

The original show was was a campy show but had likable and thoughtful characters. Like Soap, this show had a brilliant cast and satirized soap series. It was called Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman, because the writers said dialogue on a soap opera was often said twice. Lear filmed the pilot and offered it to the three major networks who all passed. The show began as a syndicated show (it began on 50 stations) and was only on from January 1976 till May 1977. Unlike Soap, this show produced a huge number of episodes, 325 to be exact. It aired daily on weekdays.

Like the Tates and Campbells, Mary suffered through bizarre plots and unbelievable story lines, including adultery, mass murder, disease, homosexuality, religious cults, UFO sightings, and a nervous breakdown.

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Dodie Goodman as Martha

Louise Lasser (who had been married to Woody Allen) portrayed Mary. She was married to Tom (Greg Mullavey). Tom worked at an auto assembly plant. Dody Goodman played Mary’s mother Martha. Debralee Scott played her sister Lorraine. The cast was rounded out by amazing supporting characters including Mary Kay Place as Mary’s best friend Loretta; Graham Jarvis as Charlie, Loretta’s husband and Tom’s best friend; Claudia Lamb as Heather, Mary and Tom’s daughter; Martin Mull as Garth Gimble who killed his wife; Dabney Coleman, Fernwood’s mayor; Gloria DeHaven who had an affair with Tom; Orson Bean as Rev. Brim, Shelley Fabares as Eleanor Major, a woman Tom falls in love with after Mary leaves him; Ed Begley Jr. as Steve; and Doris Roberts as Dorelda Doremus, a faith healer.

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Mary Kay Place as Loretta

Mary wore her hair in braids like Pippi Longstocking. One article described her as a life-size Raggedy Ann. She was indecisive and switched her emotions quickly and without reason. Mary went through one crisis after another until she couldn’t function anymore. One of the things that led to Mary’s breakdown was that she believed everything she saw on television and it made her crazy that she could not see the waxy yellow build up the commercials claimed was on her floor. She was also dealing with marital problems and boredom.

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Right from the beginning, the show displayed its weird story lines. In the first episode, the Lombardi family of five is murdered and the neighborhood tries to catch the Fernwood Flasher, who later turned out to be Mary’s grandfather. There were a lot of strange deaths in this show. Jimmy Joe Jeeter was electrocuted in the tub, Coach Leroy drowned in chicken noodle soup, and Garth Gimble impaled his wife on a bottle brush Christmas tree.

In 1977, Lasser decided to leave the show. The rest of the cast continued on and accounted for her disappearance by announcing that she had run off with Sgt Dennis Foley. The show then became Forever Fernwood.

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Later that year, Fernwood 2-Night was spun off. Martin Mull was now Garth’s twin brother Barth and was the host of a late-night talk show with Jerry Hubbard (Fred Willard) as his “Ed McMahon”.

One of my favorite things about this show was Frank DeVol, the composer, who played Happy Kyne with his band the Mirth Makers (Eddie Robertson, Tommy Tedesco, Frank Marocco, and Colin Bailey) on the show. Happy never looked happy; he had a side business, a fast-food restaurant called Bun ‘n Run.

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Alan Thicke was the head writer on the show. Lear thought it should all be improvised, but Thicke said it needed a balance of scripting with ad-lib.

In the same way Mary Hartman satirized soap operas, this show satirized late-night talk shows. The guests were a mix of real and fictional people. For example, Tom Waits appeared on the show when his bus broke down in Fernwood. I don’t remember a lot about this show specifically, but I remember thinking it was very funny.

Photo: sonypicturesmuseum.com

After the first season, the show was moved to California where celebrities would be more likely to appear on the show.

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I have never seen either of these shows in reruns and like most of the shows we learned about this month, I think they are better left as a remnant of the era they debuted in. Although few people seem to remember Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman, it was listed #21 on TV Guide’s list of best one-hundred shows in 2003. When thinking about the classic shows that had been on the air by 2003, that says a lot about what TV Guide thought about the quality of this show.

Lear had to tow a fine line on this show. With the types of crises Mary encountered and the bleak life that was portrayed of a housewife in Fernwood, Ohio, it was close to tragic. The exaggerated number of catastrophes and despairing situations kept it slightly in the humor genre. The demise of the show is often blamed on Lasser’s leaving, but in my opinion, it could not have continued to sustain viewers much longer than it was on the air. How many crises can be cooked up that hadn’t happened, and when did the tragic overtake the comedy for most viewers? Again, it’s a show best viewed in its decade.

In my rating of odd, wonderful, or oddly wonderful, I give Fernwood 2-night wonderful, and I’m afraid I have to give Mary Hartman an odd rating. It was a hard show to watch. If you wanted drama, there was too much humor in it, but if you wanted comedy, it was way too dark. I’d love to hear from you on your ratings for these two little-remembered shows.

It Only Takes One Episode to Get Smart

In the mid-1960s, spy shows were all the rage.  James Bond drew large audiences to theaters:  Dr. No in 1962, From Russia with Love in 1963, Goldfinger in 1964, and Thunderball in 1965. Inspector Clouseau was big at the box office too appearing in The Pink Panther in 1963 and A Shot in the Dark in 1964. If you were checking out books at the library, you probably would have read Len Deighton’s The IPCRESS File (1962), The Spy Who Came in From the Cold (1963), or Harriet the Spy (1964). On the small screen, The Avengers was ahead of the curve, premiering in 1961, but in the mid-1960s, we would see some of the classic television shows debut: Mission Impossible began in 1966, The Man from UNCLE showed up in 1964 and in 1965, The Wild, Wild West and I Spy got network approval.

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Another show came on the air in 1965 as well – on September 18, 1965, Get Smart was seen for the first time. Dan Melnick, a partner in Talent Associates thought a spy satire might be a good fit for their upcoming schedule. He recruited Buck Henry and Mel Brooks to write the show. The team took the show to ABC. ABC bought it but they wanted a few changes.  They wanted Tom Poston to take the role of Maxwell Smart. They wanted a dog on the show to add “heart.” Finally, they wanted Smart’s mother to be a major role and envisioned Smart coming home at the end of the episode to explain the case to his mother. Henry and Brooks said no to the mother, so ABC rejected the show and sold it back to Talent Associates.

Grant Tinker from NBC agreed to buy the show with the caveat that Don Adams star in place of Tom Poston.  And so, the creative talent of Brooks and Henry brought Maxwell Smart (Don Adams), Agent 99 (Barbara Feldon), and the Chief (Edward Platt) to life. The show would stay on the air for five seasons, producing 138 episodes.

The first four seasons were filmed at Sunset Bronson Studios.  In 1970, the show moved to CBS and the last season was filmed at CBS Studio Center.

Mel Brooks left the show after the first year, but Buck Henry stayed through 1967 as the story editor.

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Most of the administrative cast stayed with the show for its run. Leonard B. Stern was the executive producer for all the shows. Irving Szathmary was the music and theme composer, as well as conductor, for all five seasons. Gerald C. Gardner and Dee Caruso were the head writers for the series. Don Adams would get to direct 13 episodes and write 2 of them.

The show centered around the three main characters. Maxwell Smart is Agent 86.  He works for CONTROL, a US government counter-intelligence agency in Washington DC. Max is resourceful.  He is a adept marksman, has hand-to-hand combat skills and is extremely lucky. He uses several cover identities, but the one he uses most often is greeting card salesman. He insists in going by the book and this, along with his clumsy nature, cause problems for him.

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He and his partner Agent 99 take on world threats. We never learn Agent 99’s real name, although we think we have in one episode.  In “99 Loses CONTROL”, she says her name is Susan Hilton but at the end of the episode, we learn she was lying. Agent 99 is smart and competent.  Her father was apparently a spy as well.  (In real life, Barbara Feldon was also smart; she won on The $64,000 Question with the category of Shakespeare.) If you look closely, you will often see Agent 99 slouching, sitting, or leaning on something to conceal the fact that she was a bit taller than Adams.

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Their boss, Chief, whose real name is Thaddeus, is sarcastic and grouchy but also serious, sensible, and smart. He began his career as Agent Q and his cover name is often Harold Clark. Other CONTROL agents we meet during the series are Agents 8, 13, and 14, as well as Larrabee, the Chief’s highly inefficient and bumbling assistant.

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Their primary enemy is KAOS, an international organization of evil founded in Romania in 1904 (a Delaware corporation for tax purposes!). The two KAOS employees we see most often are Conrad Siegfried (Bernie Kopell), the VP for Public Relations and Terror and his assistant Shtarker (King Moody), whose personality can change from sadistic to childlike. While Siegfried and Smart are mortal enemies, they respect each other.  Sometimes they begin talking like old friends.  In one episode, they are discussing the flavor of cyanide pills each side has that month.  CONTROL is giving out raspberry, and Smart tries to give one to Siegfried.  Like CONTROL, KAOS has a bowling team to build rapport and fellowship among their employees.

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Another KAOS agent is Hymie the Robot played by Dick Gautier. Dr. Ratton of KAOS built Hymie for evil, but Smart manages to turn the robot into a CONTROL agent. Hymie is faster and stronger than any human.  He also has the ability to swallow any poison and then identify it. He has emotions and a need to maintain neatness.  Unfortunately, he takes commands literally; if Smart says “Get ahold of yourself,” he literally wraps his arms around himself.

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The opening sequence of the show is one of the most spoofed openings in television.  Smart walks through doors that continue to other doors. It was ranked as the number 2 opening out of the top ten by TV Guide viewers in 2010.

The show is still known for its catch phrases that became part of the American vocabulary including “Would you believe?”, “Sorry about that Chief,” “And loving it,” and “I asked you not to tell me that.”

The series is identified with its James Bond-like gadgets.  Telephones could be concealed in neckties, combs, and watches, but most often it is in Smart’s shoe which he had to take off to answer. Agent 99 has a compact phone and a fingernail phone which forces her to look like she is nervously biting her nails to talk on it.

The show features a bullet-proof invisible wall in Smart’s apartment which lowers from the ceiling; he often forgets to put it back up and runs into it. Cameras can be in a bowl of soup.  A laser weapon was concealed in a suit jacket button, the blazer laser. The Cone of Silence are two glass domes that cover Smart and the Chief when they talk about a case.  Smart insists on using it because it’s  regulation; however, they can hardly hear each other, but anyone on the outside can hear their conversation clearly and often reports what the other person said.

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Other weapons and aids for the spies included a parking meter telegraph, a perfume bottle radio transmitter, invisible icing, and a pencil listening device. Guns were hidden in a charm on a charm bracelet, in a pool cue, as a hairbrush, as a flashlight, and in a crutch. CONTROL even had gloves with fingerprints already on them – the fingerprints were KAOS agents so they would get the blame for a break-in.

Blowing up stuff is always good on a spy show and Get Smart had explosive rice; toothpaste that is really a fuse; an exploding wallet, ping pong ball and golf ball; and a horoscope book or lipstick case that contained knock-out gas.

Smart had several cars but his most famous was a red 1965 Sunbeam Tiger.  The two-seat roadster had a machine gun built in, a smoke screen, a radar tracker, and an ejection seat.  When the series went off the air, Don Adams received the car and continued to drive it for ten years.

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Get Smart probably had some of the most famous guest stars of any show.  Just a few of these celebrities include Steve Allen, Barbara Bain, Milton Berle, Ernest Borgnine, Carol Burnett, James Caan, Johnny Carson, Wally Cox, Robert Culp, Phyllis Diller, Jamie Farr, Jack Guilford, Bob Hope, Martin Landau, Julie Newmar, Pat Paulson, Tom Poston, Leonard Nimoy, Vincent Price, Don Rickles, and Fred Willard.

The show stayed true to its character through its entire run.  In Season 1, Hymie is introduced and the dog, Fang, disappears. In Season 2, we meet Siegfried. Smart and Agent 99 get engaged and marry in Season 4.  NBC demanded the change to boost ratings. In Season 5, they have twins.  Agent 99 continues working and is one of the first, if not the first, mother to be viewed as a working woman.  When the ratings did not increase, the show was cancelled. It went into syndication where it was very successful. Unfortunately, the DVD set was held up in legal battles and only came out weeks before Adams died.

Get Smart was one of the most clever and creative sitcoms ever airing on television.  It had `21 Emmy nominations including two for Feldon and won 7 of those awards.  Don Adams won best actor on a comedy three times and the show won best comedy twice.

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William Johnston came out with 9 paperbacks based on the series in the late 1960s and Dell Comics issued 8 comic books in 1966 and 1967. For the March 5-11, 1966 TV Guide, Andy Warhol designed a pop art piece using Barbara Feldon. Numerous collectibles were created:  board games, lunch boxes, dolls, and model cars.

The show produced many spin-off projects. The Nude Bomb was a theatre release in 1980 with Feldon and Smart reprising their roles. Get Smart Again debuted in 1989 as an ABC TV movie.  After its release, a show appeared on FOX starring Feldon and Smart again called Get Smart in 1995.  In 2008 a movie was made starring Steve Carell and Anne Hathaway. Don Adams was known to later generations as the voice of Inspector Gadget.

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Of course, everyone has their favorite episodes, but after reviewing several polls and interviews with Nick at Nite and other 50th anniversary celebrations, I have come up with these top five.  Take a rainy fall day and give them a peek. However, if we are looking just at titles, I have to give a shout out to “Spy, Spy Birdie”, “Bronzefinger”, “Impossible Mission”, and “Tequila Mockingbird”.

  1. A Spy for a Spy
  2. The Not-So-Great Escape
  3. Ship of Spies
  4. The Amazing Harry Hoo
  5. The Little Black Book

 

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Unfortunately, this is one of those shows that doesn’t get as much recognition and respect as it deserves.  Considering how much technology has developed in the last 50 years, the show is still up to date. The dialogue is witty; the characters are likable, even when they’re mortal enemies; and the show is just plain fun.

 

 

 

“Time to Get Things Started”

John Lennon said, “Reality leaves a lot to the imagination.”  That is especially true when looking at our two television shows today.  We are going to explore two shows that mixed reality and fantasy, or humanity and puppets more accurately.  Madame’s Place and The Muppets are both what they now call a mockumentary. Both shows featured a puppet hosting a late-night tv show, interacting with humans.  On Madame’s Place, Madame was the only non-human, while The Muppets blended muppets and humans throughout the show. We’ll also take a quick peek at the men behind the fantasy: Wayland Flowers and Jim Henson.

Madame’s Place debuted in 1982 while The Muppets began in 2015, 33 years apart.  Both shows lasted one season and featured celebrities interacting with the characters.  Both Madame and Miss Piggy had Jay Leno on their show. Both shows also went beyond the professional lives of their stars, featuring their personal lives as well.

Madame’s Place

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Madame lived in a large mansion. All 51 episodes included her three-person staff:  Bernadette Van Gilder (Susan Tolsky) who was her secretary; Walter Pinkerton (Johnny Haymer) who was an ex-boxer, now butler; and her niece Sara Joy Pitts (Judy Landers) who was a bit of a dumb blonde.   A young Corey Feldman appeared in half the shows as Buzzy St. James, the next-door neighbor boy.

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Madame clad herself in feathers and sequins. Madame was never described as politically correct, and she did not mince words with her staff or her nightly guests. She always had a witty comeback.

Some of the guests on her show included Frankie Avalon, Joyce Brothers, Scatman Crothers, Phyllis Diller, Eva Gabor, George Gobel, Arsenio Hall, Pee-Wee Herman, Jay Leno, Anthony Newley, Charles Nelson Reilly, Debbie Reynolds, John Schneider, William Shatner, Toni Tenille, Betty White, and Fred Willard.

I was surprised to learn that Wayland Flowers was actually born Wayland Parrott Flowers in Georgia in 1939.  He passed away in 1988 in California from cancer. He always performed with Madame, and their first break happened when they were cast on The Andy Williams Show in the mid-1960s.  They appeared on Laugh-In, The Hollywood Squares, and The Mike Douglas Show, as well as four years on Solid Gold.

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Flowers once said that Madame had a mind of her own, and sometimes what she said shocked him.

If you wish to see Madame in action, there are several youtube videos of her. Madame’s Place s0le13 is an episode where Madame holds a contest to determine her next (and 7th) husband.

The Muppets

Like Madame’s Place, The Muppets showed life on a late-night talk show.  The gang is all here. Kermit and Miss Piggy have ended their relationship, but it is obvious they still have feelings for each other.  The show is Up Late with Miss Piggy. Before the show went live, Kermit always said, “Time to get things started.”

Kermit is the executive producer; his best friend, Fozzy Bear, is the co-host; Gonzo is the head writer with fellow writers Rizzo the Rat and Pepe the King Prawn; Scooter is in charge of talent, Bobo is the stage manager; Dr. Bunsen Honeydew and Beaker are the prop handlers; Uncle Deadly is in charge of Miss Piggy’s wardrobe; Sam the Eagle is in charge of the network’s Standards and Practices; Denise, another Pig, and Kermit’s current girlfriend, is in charge of marketing; the house band is the Electric Mayhem; and we’re not totally sure what the Swedish Chef actually does. Rowlf the Dog owns a bar across the street and many of the characters retire there after the show to talk about the evening’s performances.

The show mixes humans and muppets.  For example, Fozzy is dating a human girl, and her parents don’t approve.

The show cleverly made fun of a lot of the late-night shows. Some of the guests who came to dish with Piggy included Christina Applegate, Elizabeth Banks, Jason Bateman, Jere Burns, Kristen Chenoweth, Laurence Fishburn, Josh Groban, Joan Jett, Mindy Kaling, Jay Leno, Willie Nelson, and Reese Witherspoon.

The show was cancelled after one year.  A lot of people complained about The Muppets living as adults in adult situations.  This was unfair criticism because the Muppets began as a show aimed at adults.

Jim Henson was born in Mississippi in 1936 and died in New York in 1990. He began creating puppets in high school.  While at the University of Maryland, he created a show starring Kermit among other now-unknown puppets called Sam and Friends, an adult show.  The show appeared in television in the Washington, DC area from 1955-1961.The puppets lip-synched popular songs and acted in sketches spoofing television shows.  Henson founded Muppets, Inc. in 1958. The Muppets then appeared on late night talk shows.

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In 1969, the Muppets moved to Sesame Street where they became famous. The Muppet Show was on television from 1976-81, and the crew made several movies including The Muppet Movie, The Great Muppet Caper, and The Muppets Take Manhattan.

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In the 1980s, Disney became involved with the Muppets and several television shows occurred (The Jim Henson Hour in 1989 and Muppets Tonight from 1996-98), along with a couple more movies. In 2004, Disney acquired all rights to the Muppets and made additional movies.

I’m not sure why neither of these shows made it to year two.  Maybe people just couldn’t accept the interaction of puppets and humans.  With The Muppets, I think some people who would have liked the show assumed it was for kids while people who assumed it was for kids were unhappy it was an adult show.

I found both shows a lot of fun.  They didn’t take themselves or celebrities too seriously. Another show I fell in love with that put kids’ characters into modern situations was the New Looney Tunes, but that’s a show we’ll explore in detail in a future blog.

 

I could not find an author for the following quote:  “It’s not reality that shapes us, but the lens through which your brain views the world that shapes your reality.” I don’t know about you, but in watching the news and reading newspapers (ok, almost no one reads newspapers anymore), I find reality is not a fun place to dwell in.  I will happily add a bit of fantasy.  It seems to produce a lot of great one-liners.

Piggy: I’m telling you this because we’re friends: we are no longer friends.

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Fozzie: I knew you wouldn’t approve it so I went over your head.
Kermit: I’m the boss.
Fozzie: Oh that’s right. So I went behind your back.

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Cousin Charlie: Well, if you need me I’ll be in my dressing room practicing my collection of one-liners.
Madame: Well, be sure to do a good job darling. They’re all in your face.
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Madame: These are my Summer Diamonds. Some are diamonds, some are not.