June 2 to September 3, 2000 in New York
June 16 to September 17, 2000 in Los Angeles
In January 1976 Norman Lear introduced television audiences to Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman, an offbeat soap opera that doubled as a parody of the genre. The Museum of Television & Radio is pleased to present a marathon screening of the entire 325-episode series as well as daily highlight packages featuring some of the best-known Mary Hartman moments, including her battle against "waxy yellow buildup," her breakdown on The David Susskind Show, and her friendship with Gore Vidal.
This is going to be one lengthy post, so you've been warned. The headlines for those not into reading novellas are:
The Museum of Television and Radio "Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman-Reunion, Reunion" event was really special. Louise Lasser (do I need to identify her as "Mary Hartman?") was amazing looking. She had lost all of the weight that she'd had in the movie "Happiness" and her hair was blonde, shoulder length and attractive. I was a bit afraid of her, so that I stayed my distance, but I got to meet Greg Mullavey ("Tom Hartman"), Al Burton (show creator), Debralee Scott ("Cathy Shumway"), the actor who played Heather's detective/babysitter (forgive me I'm going blank here), Graham Jarvis ("Charlie Haggers") and of course, Claudia Lamb ("Heather Hartman")(more to follow...). The headline for me personally is that Mary Kay Place, who wasn't scheduled to appear, flew in and I got to meet her and talk a bit. I was overjoyed.
On my plane ride home, I was so wired that I wrote down everything that I could remember. I can't say that my memory is perfect, and I welcome any corrections or differences of opinion. The stuff is just thoughts as they came to me, so that it isn't sequential. I didn't take notes at the show since I wanted to enjoy it. Having said all of that, I have a ton of stuff recorded and think that I did fairly well considering the state of mind I was in (elation).
So, here's the scoop. I went to the museum Sunday to see what they had on file to view. Oddly, there weren't many things to view on MH2 (for the uninitiated, "Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman"). They just had the stuff that used to be available on those "Best of Mary Hartman" tapes. So, instead I looked for Louise's "Saturday Night Live" appearance, which wasn't there. Then I looked for Mary Kay Place and there were only a few things (I watched her 'thirtysomething' appearance and the MH2 episode, "The Chicken Soup Disaster"). I ended up seeing an old "Untouchables" episode that had nothing to do with my trip, but it was available (Liz Montgomery's Emmy nominated episode).
The museum was showing every episode of MH2 through the end of Sept. This is in a larger viewing room instead of the private viewing consoles where I saw the above. Unfortunately for me, the series has just begun and the 4 episodes screened that day were part of the Lifetime TV package that I have on tape. I would have liked to have seen some of the classic moments like the "Dinah!"/Loretta or Christmas tree and Martin Mull scenes. Even though I'd seen the offered programs recently, I did enjoy seeing them with an audience who understood.
The museum is closed on Mondays and Tuesdays, so that I didn't return until the seminar.
Claudia called me and we made plans to have an early dinner on Tuesday (thanks, Jessie for giving her my last name!!). Before I go any further, I have to comment on what I hope will be a continuing friendship with Claudia Lamb. Without going into too much detail, we "got" each other and have far more in common than just MH2. Claudia is eloquent, bright and very funny. She can back up her opinions with fact and is way over the "kiss, kiss, let's do lunch" Hollywood thing.
Surely, I would have been able to be one of the hangers on who stayed after the seminar and met the actors. However, having Claudia with me was such a bonus. She brought personal insight, trivia and such a level of depth to the experience that wouldn't have been possible without her. For that I am pretty darn grateful. Thank you, Claudia.
So, now the meat and potatoes. Claudia and I got to the museum just slightly later than we had wanted and we sort of rushed into the lobby (where I probably offended Debralee Scott when I asked if she was in line for the will call!). There was a man there who took Claudia to another area while I picked up my ticket. He told me to go to the elevator to another floor. I was surprised that no one stopped me. Anyway, I got off the elevator and there's this line of MH2 celebs walking toward me through the corridor. I didn't even recognize Louise as she looked so different! But Greg was immediately recognizable and then I saw Mary Kay. I had no idea whether or not I would have a chance to ever speak to her again, so I just started talking. As I recall, I said, "Ms. Place, I have a web site devoted to you." She looked pretty surprised (kind of like, "Where's security?") but was polite and reminded me that she wasn't on the web. She asked me for the web address and I told her I'd write it down for her. She said that she'd go to a friend's house to check it out.
Well, the group that passed me was on its way to the lobby for a group picture. I was told to wait for the next trip down, but Mary Kay went to the rest room and arrived back just in time to ride down with me and the museum rep. She seemed to be more comfortable with me since she realized that I probably wasn't a stalker. I think that I must've told her that I was Claudia's companion.
So, in the lobby, everyone was asking where Claudia is and I assured them that she was there, and right then she showed up and let me tell you, it was a real joy to see them all embrace. There was a real sense of family with these people (many of whom haven't seen each other in over 20 years). It almost brought a tear to my eyes.
Claudia sort of took up the responsibility of arranging the actors and other creative folks there so that family units were together (the Haggers, the Hartmans).
Then we all went into the auditorium for the seminar. I was one of three panelist's guests (one of the other was Ron (don't know his last name), the detective for Heather. They put us in the back as the event was sold out and there weren't any seats up front. Museum people had commented that this event was the most attended since the museum had opened in Los Angeles. The panelists were seated in the first few rows.
The event started with a brief intro from the moderator and a fun clip montage that featured all of the panelists, plus a wonderful scene with Dabney Coleman and MKP, a tender scene with Victor Kilian and Louise, Dennis's heart attack (gut bustingly funny), the chicken soup disaster with Blanche and Leroy, a little Jimmy Joe Jeeter and Doris Roberts as the faith healer with Loretta. We saw some Clete Meisenheimer and our favorite Slouchy Sally (the MH2 egroup nickname for Heather), in THE famous slouch scene with the Coke can and the straw. The audience reaction to Heather was this wonderful, collective "I loved this" kind of vibe, which Claudia says she didn't recognize from the front row. We saw some of the Susskind show and the milestone Nielsen box in the mental institution scene. Of course, it all started with "Waxy, yellow buildup." In the interest of time, I guess that they left out a number of important moments (I can think of Mae Olinski, the Shumways, the Gimbles, Roberta the social worker, Mac from the diner, Charlie's testicle accident, etc.). The audience loved the clips, however brief they seemed.
Then the panel was introduced. First was Gail Parent, who was a show producer, then Ann Marcus, head writer and Al Burton, creative supervisor. Next were our own Claudia, then Debralee, Graham, Mary Kay, Greg and Louise (who had broken her foot and had a walking cast).
The moderator talked to the panelists one by one starting with Gail Parent. He moved on to Ann Marcus and then Al Burton. Then each actor was allowed some time in the reverse order that they arrived to the stage. The rest of this is basically what I can remember in no particular order.
1. Graham Jarvis was delightful with his rambling musings about the nature of the show's unpredictability and mistakes. He spoke of how the actors would block their scenes in the mornings and then leave for lunch while the camera men would set up for those scenes. When actual taping took place, it was common for the joke to appear off-camera, which Graham cited as a plus, creating that sense of mystery about what the hell the show was about. He also spoke of the natural reaction a man might have if he were playing a romantic scene with a beautiful young actress, namely, Mary Kay Place. The remark, however embarrassing to MKP, drew great laughter. Graham complimented her on how she chose to just punch him in the shoulder and move on to the next order of business, neither making him or her feel uncomfortable about it.
2. Debralee Scott spoke about how the cast worked not only as a repertory group, but that they were actually a family. She commented that like all families, they laughed, fought, made up and dealt with all of the challenges that a real family might have had to meet.
3. Claudia Lamb commented that she received a wonderful education from the show's actors and writers about professionalism. She spoke eloquently about how everyone treated her with respect on the set regardless of her age.
4. Mary Kay Place spoke about the role of Loretta and how she was cast. Originally, while working for Norman Lear's office for the show "Maude," Lear asked her to see what she thought about the role of Cathy Shumway. Mary Kay respectfully honored the role as a great part, but that she just had to play Loretta. And that was after a slew of voice lessons to get rid of her native Tulsa twang. She said that it was a dream job for her since she got to be on such an original show--and write songs. She called that originality "Martian." (Huge laugh)
5. Louise Lasser talked about turning down the role 5 times. She joked that she was out of a job and had no prospects, but that she continued to turn it down. The meetings with the producers got to be so regular that she came to look at them as a great ("unpaid") job. However, she got worried about the fact that she wasn't called as per the "schedule" after the fifth meeting. Finally, she thought, "maybe it'd be a good thing to work 52 weeks a year." That drew groans and laughter from all of the panel.
6. Gail Parent discussed the show's inception and how on a treatment for the show Norman Lear's own handwriting read, "Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman" in the margin.
7. Louise talked about how the show's overwhelming message of consumerism gone amuck was prophetic. She cited fast food and the Gap as examples from today.
8. Al Burton talked about developing the show at all three networks and being dropped by all three. He talked about the novelty of bringing the show to the viewers through syndication. He thanked those 25 independent station owners that took the chance.
9. The moderator asked whether Louise "got it" in relation to the character's nuance. Louise said that she didn't. But after a while, the light bulb went on while filming or working on the pilot.
10. Louise discussed the way the "Heather" character was named. She was given carte blanche to name the daughter. She chose "Heather" because she figured that Mary would have given the child the most beautiful name that she could think of (in direct response to the plain Jane name of Mary). She then (rather comically) let "Heather" roll off her tongue, just the way that she did in the '70's. She also discussed how she insisted that they let Claudia act like a kid on the set. That allowed for all of those wonderful fidgeting and slouching and "busy" scenes. Claudia commented that she really appreciated that (and to me at our dinner she said that it distinguished her from most of the other TV kids at the time).
11. Greg spoke about getting cast as Tom and said that he and Louise worked really well together.
(Quite honestly, if Greg said anything more, I just don't remember it. Most of the time he was just agreeing with this or that other panelist comment. Still he was polite and there seemed to be a genuine affection with him and Louise on stage.)
12. Graham (again rambling) spoke of how Lear had originally considered Charlie Haggers to be a younger man. After spending time with Graham and his 11 years younger wife, Joanna, Lear "got the idea" to cast an older actor. Also, Graham joked that he had been the stereotypically balding, middle-aged guy since he was 22 (another big laugh). He remarked that he never thought that he'd get the chance to play a romantic lead. He was thrilled to get that opportunity. He talked about not knowing who was going to play Loretta and seeing Mary Kay get out of her little yellow car at the lot and grab a pile of books. Since she was dressed in a suit, he thought she looked like a nice writer. He was delighted to find out he'd actually get to act with this woman that had grabbed his attention.
13. Ann Marcus spoke of her prior work in TV comedies, but that she had fallen in the ghetto of soap operas. She looked at MH2 as a way to get out of it.
14. Mary Kay talked about the frustration she'd had in episodic TV comedies. She didn't enjoy resolving whatever situation in 22 minutes. Working on MH2 was a "freeing" experience as she got to build a story for weeks or even months. She spoke of how Louise created so many levels, or a density, to the story lines and the Mary character.
15. In relation to Mary Kay's word "Martian," Louise amended that to mean (I'm guessing here as I forget exactly) special or unique.
16. The moderator was really interested in his watch and only allowed 3 or 4 questions from the audience. I hope that I remember these correctly.
a. One woman asked about the way in which Louise "got" the Mary part's joke. Louise just said that it was like some of those jokes that have to be told and maybe thought about before you get it. She just did.
b. I think that one of the other questions was about how the Loretta character branched out to other media (her albums). I know that at some point she was talking about how record labels were approaching her with deals. She was wary. She didn't want to do "Laverne and Shirley Sing the Hits of the '50's." Eventually, Emmylou Harris got involved and that convinced her to do it since she felt assured that it would be done right. She spoke of how terrified and lucky she felt trying to start a career in music.
c. Another question was about the daily grind. Debralee responded that there had always been soap operas on TV, but that adding the element of comedy created a whole new level of exhaustion in getting these daily shows made. Louise chimed in that the panel was basically in every episode and that in the first year they filmed 5 shows a week and in the second year it went to 10 shows a week due to station demands for product. By comparison, Debralee commented on how current TV comedies work 4 days and finish a show on a Friday and go home for the weekend. On today's shows, they film three consecutive weeks and then have a week off. Louise said that they filmed for 8 weeks and then had one week off. Louise also clarified that soaps usually have so many characters on them that it's rare for soap actors to experience the daily burnout that was felt on MH2.
d. I think that one of the audience questions was about censors or creative freedom. Both Mary Kay and Graham again talked about how free they felt not having to answer to "suits." Louise said that there was only one thing that never made it to air (due to censorship). She and Greg agreed that it had something to do with an orgasm. (Side note: Ann Marcus tried to disagree with the concept that they censored an orgasm story line since the show did talk about that subject from time to time. Both Greg and Louise quickly responded that there was something specific to this scene and settled the matter.)
17. At one point, the whole panel was talking about props and the little things that the actors would do that weren't scripted. Louise and Debralee talked about a scene in Mary's kitchen (where else?) where Mary was supposed to be lining a cabinet with shelf paper. Louise laughed that she'd never even been in a kitchen until this show (and seemed pretty sincere!). When it came to this scene, the paper rolled out of the cabinet and she just shut the door and tore the excess paper off. She also talked about stirring the pot on the stove for the first time in her life on set.
18. One of the clips showed Dabney Coleman and Mary Kay in a room at the Bide-awee Motel. It was darn obvious that Merle Jeeter had designs on our ever lovin', naive Loretta, who believed that they were there to discuss songs for a religious radio program. At one point, Dabney (unscriptedly) reached over and brushed a "stray hair" from the breast area of her dress. Mary Kay remarked that she'd had no idea that he was going to do that and since it was a splendid touch, they left it in.
19. Louise talked about always bringing her little dog to the set (which was against the rules according to Claudia as Gene Autry who detested dogs owned the lot!). In one scene, Tom and Mary had read how to pleasure each other in a sexuality book and were both standing on their bed. The scene was getting fairly "involved" and out of the corner of Louise's eye, she saw her dog in the Hartmans' bedroom. She just looked at Greg and deadpanned, "Did we get a dog?" (It wasn't left in.)
That's pretty much what I remember from the panel discussion. They got sort of abruptly finished as the moderator decided that time was up. Everyone stayed around afterward for at least a few minutes to speak to the audience or other guests. It was amazing how accessible everyone was (even Louise to a small extent). I spoke to Graham and to Greg, both of whom were generous and kind. Debralee was not as friendly to those whom she didn't know, but she was accessible to the fans and signed autographs. She spent more time with showbiz folks, though.
Obviously, for me, meeting Mary Kay was just amazing. Mary Kay was signing autographs and talking to fans. One guy, Jim, was really intent on having his photo taken with every panel actor. He asked me to photograph him with MKP. I of course said, "sure," and she agreed to pose. I asked him to take a pic of me with MKP (I didn't bring my camera in from the car because the museum has tons of prohibitive signs regarding cameras or recording devices) so that he could mail me a copy. The photos from the event are all from Jim's camera, so thanks again!
Mary Kay then asked if I had the web site address, and of course, I'd forgotten to write it down. I struggled to write it and messed it up and then ended up rewriting it and handing her a sorry, torn piece of green paper with the info.
Besides the above-mentioned fan, there was another guy there who was a true MKP fan (who may have asked the Loretta audience question). He had both of her LP's, the two Best of laser discs and this really great (authenticated by MKP) "resume" thing that was just hilarious. It was a one page list of credits that included "M*A*S*H" and "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" as well as "60 Minutes." It was obviously typed with a manual typewriter, had entire lines whited out and retyped and was basically just pitiful. She said that, yes, it was real, but she had no idea what the "60 Minutes" thing referred to. She thought that she must've worked in the office for something. She asked where he got it and he said that people just throw things out in loads in Hollywood and somebody retrieved it somewhere.
He was lucky enough to get autographs on both laser discs from all of the actors and Mary Kay signed both of her LPs. Since I was pretty much a loser when it came to autographs and pics, he agreed to take another photo of me with MKP and I took one of him with her and another later with him and Greg. Although we seemed to have a great rapport, he has not yet mailed me any copies of the photos he took, but promised to do so.
I figured that since I got her autograph when she was on the show, I wasn't really desperate for that. Instead, I opted to try to not act like the over zealous fan that I might've appeared to be. I praised her work on "The Rainmaker" but totally forgot to mention my beloved "Elaine" from "Manny and Lo." I did mention that I had flown in from Miami for the event. I also asked if she remembered and actor named Jeff Thomas who played bit parts on MH2 as the piano player for Loretta. Jeff is my mom's first cousin and played Dolly Parton's ("Doralee's") husband in the movie "9 to 5." My great aunt used to tell me that he was on the show but I never saw him when he was on and wondered if it was just a one time thing or that it might have been overplayed a bit. But, since the Lifetime thing, I was pretty sure that the guy in the demo-recording scene was Jeff, but he's changed a lot and I wasn't altogether sure. Remember, I was like 10 years old when Jeff did this scene. Anyway, Mary Kay said that "Sure, I remember Jeff! Did you see him in the clip (which was shown at the event)?" I said yes, as I knew it to be the guy from my tapes (I feel pretty awful not knowing him, but he is my second cousin and we've lived on different coasts for all of my life). She asked what he was doing and I said that the last that I'd heard he was doing radio voice work. She then gave me a family update and told me that she'd heard he moved to Las Vegas! Guess that I need to call my aunt.
Then, Claudia joins the little group of MKP fans and commends me for my silly (my adjective) web site. Claudia had this really cool book about MH2 written by Ben Stein. She got all of the cast to sign it (save for Louise, quelle damage!)
The museum folks were trying to force us out by then, so that I knew that my time was limited and gave up on asking the 323 or so questions that I would have had for MKP. I regret not getting out that I would like to write to her and finding a valid address (I've written two unanswered, and I'm assuming unread letters to an address that I have for her). Instead, I was just happy to meet her and communicate in what I felt was a meaningful way. She was warm, open and just beautiful in her golden outfit. Having had no expectation that she would even be there, I couldn't have been happier.
To wrap up (finally they all say!!) Claudia and I were invited to have coffee with Al Burton, his wife Sally and several of his assistants and interns. Claudia was particularly happy as she had tried to have lunch with Mr. Burton and his hectic schedule prevented that. He won an Emmy last year for "Win Ben Stein's Money." So, Claudia got to have her personal reunion with him. He was just sweet and funny and took deserved credit for the Nielsen box idea. We also talked about how they never received any product placement compensation on the show since that allowed for the freedom to have Froot Loops and Freakies cereals together in the Hartman kitchen. And to settle all of those bets out there, Al said that yes, it was a TV that killed the child Reverend Jimmy Joe Jeeter in his bathtub!