Clarissa Explains It All: The Most Fun Kid on TV

This month’s blog series is all about the Teen Scene. We are going to start and end the series with Melissa Joan Hart.

What Ever Happened to Sam From Clarissa Explains It All? - E! Online
Cast of Clarissa Explains It All Photo: eonline.com

Those of you who grew up in the 1990s or, as in my case, had kids growing up in the 1990s, will remember Clarissa Explains It All. My son Shawn loved this show, and I began watching it with him and actually looked forward to tuning in.

Mitchell Kriegman created this show for the Nickelodeon network. From March of 1991 through October of 1994, 65 episodes were produced. As a personal aside, Kriegman also created Bear in the Big Blue House. With kids growing up in the nineties and 2000s, can I say Clarissa Explains It All, Bear in the Big Blue House, and Arthur were a breath of fresh air compared to most of the kids’ programs on television at that time.

Clarissa Darling (Hart) is a teenager who lives with her brother, Ferguson (Jason Zimbler), whom she finds extremely annoying, and her parents, Janet (Elizabeth Hess) and Marshall (Joe O’Connor), whom she likes a lot. She also has a best friend Sam (Sean O’Neal) who happens to be a boy. Clarissa also has a pet alligator named Elvis.

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Like George Burns in his 1950s show, Clarissa often addresses the audience directly. The plots had to do with things all teens are sweating out like first crushes, training bras, getting a driver’s license, cheating at school, etc. Another unusual feature of the show was Clarissa explaining the theme by using a fictional video game or a news segment. Clarissa has pretty liberal parents, so sometimes she has to do her own punishments or life lessons. For example, in one show she mistakenly takes a piece of lingerie from a store. Her parents don’t punish her because it was an accident, so she spends the episode trying to fix the situation.

Clarissa’s character makes the show. Although she is a teenager, she is witty, sarcastic, realistic, and a lot of fun to be around. Kriegman says the role of Clarissa was between two actresses, Melissa and another girl. He thought the other girl really seemed to be “Clarissa,” but he said Hart “was so charming and she just lit up the screen. Because she did that, I could load her up—make her really quirky and different. She could make it play.”

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Clarissa also has a creative fashion look. Her unique style was created by Lisa Lederer who came from the magazine industry. Lederer didn’t want Clarissa to look like a tomboy or a weird girl: she wanted her to be able to express herself. She said, “It felt like what we were doing was creating this girl in a more real way, to represent the way that girls—that people—normally dress.” Her clothes were all about expression. She did influence people. Girls’ clothing at the time was pretty matchy-matchy, but an ABC executive told Kriegman that his daughter came downstairs in mismatched items and leggings. He asked her what that was all about and she said “I’m dressing like Clarissa.”

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Her brother Ferguson is a mischievous guy who is always trying to spy on her. He loves money and is often trying to come up with schemes to get some. Like Alex on Family Ties, he considers himself a loyal Republican. The show emphasized that sibling rivalry was just part of the family’s life, nothing to make a moral of. Kriegman said writers got extra points if they came up with a good sibling rivalry story.

Sam is very bright and loves skateboarding. His parents are divorced. He lives with his dad, a sports journalist because his mother “ran away” to the Roller Derby. Sam is often seen climbing a ladder to her room introduced by the same guitar chord. Kriegman explained that this was a way to get him into the house to interact with her quicker and there was never any connotation that they were in a relationship.

That bedroom set was the most complex one on the show. On the wall there is a They Might Be Giants poster. In Kriegman’s stylebook for the show, he said there was a science experiment in one corner regarding watering plants with club soda, Perrier, and Evian. There was also a dollhouse made by Marshall for Clarissa, as well as a collection of hats, and hubcaps. Kriegman said that he had a specific idea for the look of the room. The designer wanted it to be a girly room and insisted on painting it pink. So, after it was painted, Kriegman informed the designer that now they were using black car paint to paint checkers all over the wall.

Sam and his ladder Photo: imdb.com

As a funny aside, Kriegman made a rule that no purple could be used on the set. No, he was not anti-Minnesota Vikings. The explanation was odder than that. He said he didn’t mind purple, but he had advice from someone in the business who told him to make an executive rule and stick to it, so that was his executive rule. He said it became a bit of a challenge for set and clothing designers to sneak in purple when they could.

Clarissa’s mom is often sought out by Clarissa for life advice. She works at a children’s museum and is an environmentalist and a proponent of vegan and organic food. Her meals were often mentioned in the episodes. Her dad was an architect who often designs very unusual buildings with creative shapes, often tourist attractions. Like the Keatons on Family Ties, Marshall and Janet were hippies in their earlier life. He typically refers to Clarissa as “Sport” and his advice is not as sage as his wife’s.

Part of the fun that surrounds the show came from Kriegman’s background. He was a short story writer and had worked on a variety of shows including Sesame Street and Saturday Night Live. He wanted the audience to be able to get into a 13-year-old’s mind to understand the events she was experiencing. One of the writers on the show was Suzanne Collins who went on to write The Hunger Games. Some other writers include Michael Borkow who wrote for Roseanne, Malcolm in the Middle; and Friends, Becky Hartman Edwards who wrote for The Larry Sanders Show; Glen Eichler who wrote for the Colbert Report; Peter Gaffney who wrote for The Simpsons; and Alexa Junge who wrote for Friends and The West Wing.

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Rachel Sweet sang the theme song which was a melody singing “na na na na na na” with snippets of “Way cool” or “Just do it,” or “All right! All right!” Perhaps she was a fan of Matthew McConaughey. Kriegman said Sweet was a friend of his and he did not give her any direction for the song.

The show was nominated for an Emmy Award in 1994 for Outstanding Children’s Program. It was beat out by Kids Killing Kids/Kids Saving Kids. Avonlea was also nominated that year, and I would emphasize that neither Clarissa or Avonlea was really a children’s program; it was great viewing for everyone. Also, Hart, O’Neal, and Zimbler all received Young Artist Award nominations; Hart won three Young Artist Awards during the run of the show.

The show continued to have great ratings, but the network canceled the show because they felt Clarissa was getting too old. The cast didn’t have any warning that things were coming to an end. They spent about 70 hours on each episode, so they spent a lot of time together and were very close. Some of the crew helped Melissa with her school projects, and the cast threw a high school graduation party for her. Kriegman said that “adults and kids got together Friday nights after the show was done and had the best party. Everybody was so happy to be with each other.”

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I have great memories watching this show with my kids and repeating one-liners from the show. It had realistic but humorous plots, fun and memorable characters, and interesting dialogue. It appealed to both kids and adults and to boys and girls. Kriegman said that “The idea that you do something 20 years ago, and everybody still remembers it–not just remembers it fondly, but passionately, and cares about it—I just love it. It’s the most satisfying thing in my career.”

The show was refreshing and witty. Clarissa once said, “Maturity is a boring state of mind.” If that’s true, no cast members or television viewers were very mature during an episode of Clarissa Explains It All.

Laughing and Crying with Charlotte Rae

This week we are winding up our series of favorite female actors with Charlotte Rae. If you remember last week we learned about June Lockhart. Charlotte was born a year after June and died a year before her, and their careers were very similar. Both were actresses for more than six decades, appeared in Broadway, movies, and television.

Rae was born in Milwaukee, WI in 1926. Her parents were Russian Jewish immigrants. Her mother Esther had been friends with Golda Meir since childhood. For her first ten years, the family lived above her father’s tire business. In 1936 they moved to a home in Shorewood. At age 16, she became an apprentice with the Port Players, a professional theater company that came to Milwaukee for the summer. After graduation, Charlotte did some radio work and did some performing with the Wauwatosa Children’s Theatre.

Charlotte Rae Obituary - Death Notice and Service Information
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Although she never completed her degree, Rae attended Northwestern University. She and Cloris Leachman became friends there. She also met Agnes Nixon, Charlton Heston, Paul Lynde, and Claude Akins. In later years she would always recommend wanna-be actors get a degree first.

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In 1948, she moved to New York City where she performed in theater and nightclubs. She worked at a variety of clubs including the Village Vanguard and the Blue Angel. During her early days, a radio star told her that her last name of “Lubotsky” would not work well, and she replaced it with her middle name of Rae.

In 1951 she received her first television job on Once Upon a Tune. She would appear on ten other drama theater shows during the fifties. In an interview with Milwaukee Talks in 2016 she said, “When I started out, I wanted to be a serious actor, I never thought I’d get into comedy.”

The same year, Rae married composer John Strauss. They had two sons, but in the mid seventies he came out as a bisexual. Rae was not interested in an open marriage, so the couple decided to divorce in 1976.

Songs I Taught My Mother

Charlotte also loved singing, and she released an album in 1955, Songs I Taught My Mother. Rae also loved being on the stage. In the seventies, Vanguard Records went out of business, and Rae was able to buy back the album for $5000.

She would have stage roles in “Three Wishes for Jamie” in 1952, “The Threepenny Opera” in 1954, “Li’l Abner” in 1956, and “Pickwick” in 1965 among others. Later in her career she would also appear in several off-Broadway shows.

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In 1958, she got a break with a guest spot on The Phil Silvers Show which led to her getting the part of Sylvia Schnauzer, the wife of Leo Schnauzer (Al Lewis) on Car 54 Where Are You when it debuted in 1961. Her husband John did the music for the show. Apart from that role, most of the other television work she did in the sixties was in drama series.

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Rae also appeared in 14 big-screen movies. Can I take a shameless plug and say that one of my favorite Charlotte Rae roles is in Hello Down There? This movie from 1969 screams IT’S THE SIXTIES from the moment it starts until it ends, but it’s a great sit-back-and-just watch movie. If nothing else, it has an amazing cast including Tony Randall, Janet Leigh, Ken Berry, Jim Backus, Merv Griffin, and Richard Dreyfuss among others.

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The seventies were her busiest decade of work. She started with a recurring role on Sesame Street as Molly the Mail Lady. During the early seventies you could see her on The Partridge Family, McMillan and Wife, Love American Style, and The Paul Lynde Show. I always appreciated her character on The Partridge Family. When Danny is thinking about quitting school to get on with life, she plays his very smart and creative guidance counselor.

In 1974 Rae moved to Los Angeles. She did guest spots on All in the Family and Good Times, both Norman Lear shows. In 1975, she became a regular on Lear’s show, Hot l Baltimore. She played Mrs. Bellotti, whose son lived at the hotel. The show was a bit controversial and was cancelled after the first season.

During the remainder of the seventies, Rae kept busy working for a variety of genres. You could have seen her on The Flying Nun, Barney Miller, The Rich Little Show, All’s Fair, CPO Sharkey, Family, The Eddie Capra Mysteries, and on her friend Cloris Leachman’s show Phyllis.

In 1978 Norman Lear was working on Diff’rent Strokes about a single father who adopts two brothers whom he raises along with his daughter with help from his housekeeper. Lear signed Rae on as the housekeeper. Charlotte wanted to do the series, but as she related in a Television Academy interview, she was under contract at CBS when NBC made the offer. She had a few weeks left on her CBS option. The network offered her the role of a lady sheriff on a new western but it didn’t ring true to her, and she didn’t want to do it. While she was filming an Eddie Capra Mystery episode, she drove over to explain her predicament to Lear. He said that Bud Grant owed him a favor and he did indeed get her out of the contract.

One episode on the first season was “The Girls’ School” when Edna Garrett is asked to help out at Kim’s private school called East Lake. She does but at the end of the episode decides she’d rather be working in the Drummond home.

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In an interview with the Television Academy, Rae said she thought she was going to be fired from Diff’rent Strokes. She noticed her lines getting fewer and fewer and when she was called into talk with the producer, she thought that was it. However, they proposed a spinoff show for her based on “The Girls’ School” episode called The Facts of Life. They wanted Edna to become housemother for the boarding students at the school. It was a prestigious private school now called Eastland. The writers were focusing on issues affecting high school age girls including weight gain, dieting, depression, drug and alcohol use, dating, mental illness, and other subjects that kids that age deal with. Rae said the show was about growing up, family, love, and working out problems. “I had a lot of input with issues like suicide, divorce, death. I’m really very proud.”

Charlotte was a single mother and afraid to lose her Diff’rent Strokes income on a possibility that might not pan out. The producers wrote into her contract that if the show was cancelled, she could return to Diff’rent Strokes, so she agreed.

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The first season gained some fans, but ratings were so-so. For the second season, some cast changes were made and the show was moved from Fridays to Wednesdays. The show finished in the top thirty that year, and Rae became a household name. In 1982, Rae received an Emmy nomination. (She lost to Carol Kane from Taxi.) During the 1984 and 1985 seasons, Rae asked to be used less. She felt that the girls were older and would rely more on each other than a housemother for discussions about life issues.

When discussing the character of Edna, Rae explained “I want to bring in as much humanity as possible, as well as humor. I’ve tried to make her a human being with dimensions. The way they write her now is with a great deal of sensitivity and understanding. But I don’t want her to be Polly Perfect, because she must have human failings and make mistakes. She’s also a surrogate mother to the girls. I told them I wanted to be firm with the girls because I know it’s important. Parents must lay down ground rules for their children to help them grow up and to learn responsibility for their actions. They must learn to stand on their own two feet.”

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No doubt that this show took place in the 1980s
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Rae wanted to do more theater and she wanted to travel. When she decided to leave the series, Cloris Leachman replaced her in the role. The two-part finale of the eighth season had Edna Garrett marrying and moving to Africa with her husband to work for the Peace Corps. Her sister Beverly (Rae’s real sister’s name) comes for the wedding and then decides to stay with the girls at school. Cloris Leachman was signed on for two seasons. At the end of her time, she was willing to continue for another season, but cast members Nancy McKeon and Mindy Cohn were ready to end the show and take on new projects. It was not the end of the show, however. In 2001 a television reunion movie aired with much of the original cast. In 2007 the entire cast was invited to the TV Land Awards where they sang their old theme song.

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Charlotte took on several other roles after leaving the show. During the eighties and nineties, she appeared on The Love Boat, St. Elsewhere, Murder She Wrote, Sisters, and Alex Mack among others.

She was busy until she passed away, and continued to act throughout the 2000s, including an appearance on King of Queens, and a recurring role on ER. Her last acting credit on television was in 2014’s Girl Meets World.

FACTS OF MY LIFE (HARDBACK) By Charlotte Rae & Larry Strauss - Hardcover **NEW**

In 2015, Rae wrote her memoirs with her son Larry. At many of her book signings, adults came to purchase the book and told her over and over that they had been latch-key kids and saw Edna as a second mother to them. A description from Amazon sums up the book:  “Charlotte Rae’s career spans more than seventy years, from the golden age of television to Shakespeare in the Park, the New York Cabaret scene of the late 1940s and 50s to her hit series, The Facts of Life and well beyond. Off stage and screen, Charlotte’s life has been one of joy and challenge, raising an autistic son, coming to terms with alcoholism, the heartache of a broken marriage, the revelation of a gay husband and the sudden challenge of facing middle-age with financial and emotional uncertainties–a crisis she ultimately turned into the determination that brought her stardom. The Facts of My Life is the first opportunity for Charlotte’s fans to explore the fascinating story of her extraordinary life: poignant and hilarious, a story of courage and triumph, one that speaks for a generation of women breaking barriers, taking on challenges, overcoming personal tragedy, and paving the way for others.”

Rae suffered from several health issues. In the early seventies, she joined Alcoholics Anonymous which was a critical part of the rest of her life. In 1982, she had a pacemaker implanted. It worked well for thirty years, but then stopped, requiring surgery for another smaller device. She also had open heart surgery to replace her mitral valve. Pancreatic cancer ran in her family, so she was screened often and when she was diagnosed with cancer, it was early so she had six months of chemotherapy and was then declared cancer free. In 2017, she was diagnosed with bone cancer. She died at her home in 2018. Todd Bridges from Diff’rent Strokes, tweeted, “You were loved by everyone on our show.”

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Charlotte said she never minded fans coming up to her because she realized that in being a television actor you were in people’s homes. “It was an intimate relationship.”

She said she wanted to be remembered as someone who took people out of themselves into a different world and allowed them to laugh or cry, and that would make her happy because we need as many laughs as we can get.

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Thank you, Charlotte for making us cry a little and laugh a lot.