Soap: A Series That Bubbled Over with Controversy

We are continuing our series of Oddly Wonderful shows. Next week we look at a show that was a parody of life as a soap opera, and today we learn about a show that was a parody of a soap opera as real life, sort of. After making that crystal clear, let’s delve into Soap, a series which aired from 1977-1981 on ABC, originally on Tuesday nights at 9:30 ET. During those four seasons, only 88 episodes were produced, an average of 22 per year.

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Soap followed the lives of two families, the Tates and the Campbells. Throw in some melodrama, some ridiculous plots, some wacky characters, and some bizarre story lines and you have a truly unique sitcom. The show was taped before a live studio audience which would have been a fun event to be at.

The show was created by Susan Harris, who also was a writer/producer of The Golden Girls, Nurses, Benson, Empty Nest, and I’m a Big Girl Now. Soap was the working name of the show, but no one could come up with a better name, so it transitioned into the actual title of the show.

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Rod Roddy was the announcer for each episode. Most viewers recognize him as game show guru announcer for The Price is Right and The Love Connection. Casey Kasem, the host of the top 40 shows at the time was the narrator in the pilot. When he found out some of the upcoming themes of the show, he backed out, and they had to re-record the pilot with Roddy.

This was a very funny and controversial show. It took on many issues including racism, homosexuality, murder, religion, and family dynamics. The scripts were extremely witty and while there was some physical humor, most of it was intellectual. The fact that it made fun of soaps with its unbelievable plots and characters only added to the reality of the show in a strange way. Some of the shows included alien abduction, demon possession, kidnapping, murder, and insanity.

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The show starred Katherine Helmond as Jessica Tate and Cathryn Damon as her sister, Mary Campbell. Jessica was married to Chester (Robert Mandan) and Katherine was married to Burt (Richard Mulligan). They live in Dunn’s River, Connecticut.

The Tates were very wealthy and upper class. Like most soaps, both Jess and Chester have affairs with other people. They employ a butler/cook named Benson (Robert Guillaume). He was very sarcastic and spoke his mind freely. He can’t stand Chester or their daughter Eunice (Jennifer Salt), but he likes Jessica, their daughter Corinne (Diana Canova) their son, Billy (Jimmy Baio, brother of Scott). Benson was one of the most popular characters and he later got a spinoff, Benson which aired from 1979-1986.

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The Campbells are a working-class family. Mary has a son from her first marriage, Danny Dallas (Ted Wass). He is training to be a gangster. The Mob gives him the task of killing his stepfather, telling him Bert killed his birth father. Danny refuses and, he has to go on the run. Later he realizes Bert did kill the man he thought was his father, but it was self-defense. His hiding from the Mob results in him taking on a variety of disguises throughout the shows. Of course, in soap opera fashion, eventually he finds out his mother had an affair with his uncle Chester before he married Jess, and he is his real father. When the Mob boss’s daughter Elaine (Dinah Manoff) falls in love with Danny, he is safe. Mary also has a son with Bert named Jodie (Billy Crystal) who is gay and having an affair with an well-known NFL quarterback.

The first season ends with Jessica convicted of the murder of Peter Campbell (Robert Urich), who is Bert’s son from a first marriage. He was a tennis pro. The announcer ends the season by telling us that Jess is innocent, but one of five characters did commit the murder. We will find out who in season two.

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Some of the future subplots included Corinne dating a priest, Chester getting amnesia, Eunice having an affair with a Congressman, and Bert’s abduction by aliens.

Another popular character was Chuck Campbell (Jay Johnson) who was also from Bert’s first marriage. He is a ventriloquist and always has Bob, his dummy, with him. They dress alike, and while Chuck is quiet and introverted, Bob is loud, rude, and extroverted.

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Season two and three found the show on Thursday nights. It moved to Wednesdays in season four. The show was riddled with controversy before it aired and that continued to a lesser extent all four seasons. The controversy seemed to increase the popularity of the show. It was supposed to run five seasons and then end. The fourth season, like the prior ones, ended with several cliffhangers but after it aired, ABC cancelled the show. It cited low ratings, but there were always rumors that the sponsors were unhappy with the show, and they put pressure on ABC.

Soap’s reputation has increased since it went off the air. Time magazine panned the show before it debuted, but in 2007, it named the series one of the “Best 100 Shows of All Time.”

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Considering the low number of episodes produced each year, it’s impressive to see it garnered seventeen Emmy nominations. It was nominated for Outstanding Comedy Series three years; Richard Mulligan was nominated for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Comedy twice, winning in 1980; Cathryn Damon was nominated for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy Series four years; Robert Guillaume was nominated and won for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Comedy Series in 1979 (he was the first black actor to win the award); Jay Sandrich was nominated for Outstanding Directing in a Comedy Series twice; the show won Outstanding Art Direction in a Comedy Series in 1978; and was nominated for Outstanding Achievement in Video Tape Editing in a Comedy Series in 1978.

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The DVDs were released between 2003 and 2008.

A recent series, Trial By Error, reminds me of Soap in a more contemporary setting. Both shows relied on bizarre plots and clever dialogue, and they both work, producing very funny shows. They both produced fewer episodes a year than a typical sitcom. Watching an entire year’s worth of this type of comedy might be too much. The outrageous actions of well-developed characters kept the show fun and interesting.

Though it was a different type of comedy, it was not a show that I watched often. Like most of these shows, I’ve called “oddly wonderful,” I’m not sure I would want to watch it in reruns. It was a product of its time and might not hold up as well in 2019, although sadly, most of the issues Soap dealt with are still being dealt with today.

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The Secret Word is George Fenneman

I am cheating just a bit with this post. During this Oddly Wonderful series, I think I can push the envelope enough. You Bet Your Life was a very different type of game show. If ever there was a person who personifies oddly wonderful it was Groucho. But I really wanted an excuse to write about George Fenneman.

George Fenneman is best remembered for his role on Groucho Marx’s quiz show, You Bet Your Life which began on radio in 1947 and transitioned to television in 1950. The show went off the air in 1961, the year I was born. Obviously, I don’t remember the original show, but I saw it in reruns and always had a crush on George; I think it was his smile that always got me.

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George was born in Beijing (then Peking), China in 1919. His father was in the importing/exporting business. When he was not quite one, his parents moved to San Francisco where he grew up. After high school, he attended San Francisco State College. He graduated in 1942 with a degree in speech and drama. He took a job with a local radio station KGO for a short time. He married his college sweetheart Peggy Clifford in 1943 and they would stay married until George died. The couple had two daughters and a son.

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Poor eyesight and asthma prevented Fenneman from military action in World War II, but he was able to become a broadcast correspondent for the War of Information. In 1946 he was back in California, in the radio industry again. One of the shows he announced for was Gunsmoke. After the episode concluded, he would introduce Matt Dillon (William Conrad) to discuss the sponsor’s products which often was cigarettes such as L&M or Chesterfield.

Some of the other radio shows he announced for included The Orson Welles Show, The Eddie Albert Show, and the Hedda Hopper Show.

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He and Peggy were neighbors of Christian Nyby. In 1951, Nyby was hired as director for the film, The Thing from Another World. George joined the cast as in the minor role of Dr. Redding who has an important scene at the end of the film. It took 27 takes for him to get the speech right, and he realized he was better suited for radio. However, he would appear in two additional films, the little-known Mystery Lake in 1953 and How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying in 1967. While his voice was part of several other films, most notably in the original Ocean’s 11 as the man talking on the phone to Sheriff Wimmer.

Jack Webb had worked on broadcasts with George during the war. He hired Fenneman as announcer for his radio show, Pat Novak, For Hire. When Dragnet aired the same year, Jack took George with him. George, along with Hal Gibney took on the role of narrator for the show. They both continued with the show in 1951 when it moved to television. Dragnet was off the air for a number of years and returned to television in 1967. Fenneman was again hired as narrator with John Stephenson for that version. George was the one who was heard saying, “The story you are about to see is true. The names have been changed to protect the innocent.” Stephenson handled the closing narration. Fenneman was also cast as a news reporter in a variety of shows including Please Don’t Eat the Daisies, The Man from U.N.C.L.E., The Name of the Game, and on Batman in 1966 in the episode, “The Yegg Foes in Gotham.”

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On Batman

In addition to appearing on Groucho’s show on television, Fenneman was the host or announcer for several other shows. He emceed two games shows during his time with Groucho: Anybody Can Play in 1958 and Your Surprise Package in 1961. In 1963, He hosted a show on ABC titled Your Funny, Funny Films which was a cousin to the later Candid Camera and America’s Funniest Home Videos.

He was usually an unseen announcer on The Ed Sullivan Show, but in 1964, the night the Beatles were on the show for the second time, he did a spot on the air for Lipton Tea. From 1978-1982 he hosted a show on PBS, Talk About Pictures. In this show, Life magazine photographer Leigh Weiner and George interviewed respected photographers and looked at their best photos.

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With Leigh Weiner on PBS

He also was the voice for Home Savings & Loan commercials from the late 1960s until his death from emphysema in 1997. He also acted as announcer for shows such as Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, Donny and Marie, The Jim Nabors Show, and The Life of Riley.

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With Martin and Lewis

In 1993, The Simpsons aired an episode that spoofed Dragnet, and Fenneman can be heard on the show delivering his famous line about names being changed to protect the innocent.

Despite his large cannon of work as an announcer and emcee, Fenneman became a household celebrity when he went to work for Groucho on You Bet Your Life. One day George was standing on the corner of Hollywood and Vine. Robert Dwan, who had hired him at KGO Radio, came up and told him he was holding an audition for a new show for Groucho. Fenneman went up against thirty other announcers and won the job which paid $55 a week. He was hired just to do commercials. At some point, Groucho decided he should also be scorekeeper, as well as his straight man.

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When discussing Groucho, George said, “I have to say he was unique, and he was fearless. It was a great privilege to work with him for 15 years and to be his friend for 30.” After Fenneman’s death, Peggy did an interview for an article by Lawrence Van Gelder for the NY Times in June of 1997. She said that George was always a fan of Groucho and the Marx Brothers. She remembered them often going to the Golden Gate Theater when they were in college. They went to watch the Marx Brothers rehearse future movie scenes for comic timing. She remembered watching scenes from A Night at the Opera and A Day at the Races.

Groucho, known for his quick wit and acid tongue, found an agreeable and attractive man in Fenneman. When viewers queried George whether the show was scripted or ad-libbed, he always said yes. Actually, it was about 50/50.  Groucho was fed some lines from the interviews with the contestants, but he never met them ahead of time and was given the freedom to interject whatever comments he chose.

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George often took the brunt of Groucho’s humor. One time he had to inhale helium, one day he came down from the ceiling when the secret word was said in place of the usual duck, or he would be questioned about something on the show. For example, one evening each of the contestants was a very attractive woman and Groucho made it seem that Fenneman had set that up on purpose. One contestant mistakenly referred to George as Mr. Fidderman, and Groucho called him out to discuss his double life.

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George never knew what Groucho had in store for him. Often Marx would summon George from behind the curtain, and he always looked uncomfortable which was quite genuine. But Groucho had great affection and appreciation for him, calling him the perfect straight man.

At times on the show, George could also be quite funny, but he knew his main role was straight man, and he usually toed that line carefully.

George and Groucho remained friends long after the show was cancelled. They often got together before Groucho’s death in 1977 at age 87. Groucho never lost his sense of humor. At one of their last visits, Groucho was in very frail health. Helping Groucho get across the room, George lifted him out of his wheelchair and carried him. He had his arms around his torso and began to shimmy him across the floor. Groucho’s rasping voice said, “Fenneman, you always were a lousy dancer.”

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Although the shows have never been released in a chronological DVD collection, they are available. The programs were recorded in full and then edited to the desired length. On MP3 discs, some of the unedited tapes are available which provide a very different perspective than the aired show.

There are a few announcers still well known in the business. I think of Rod Roddy, Johnny Gilbert or Johnny Olson who have game show fame, but it is a career that is being phased out. There is something charming about watching the former announcers for shows promoting products and interacting with the stars. Harry Von Zell from the Gracie Allen and George Burns Show comes to mind or Don Wilson from the Jack Benny Show. Like rotary phones, transistor radios, and Polaroid cameras, they are fondly remembered from a slower and less technological period in history.

With this series being Oddly Wonderful, I am stretching it a bit by focusing on George. In our definition of oddly wonderful, he was definitely the wonderful.