Bewitched's Holiday Ep "Sisters at Heart"
TV series that stretch out over many seasons often include holiday episodes. Sometimes producers avoid them and that might be a good thing. In this installment of Advanced TV Herstory, we ‘re going to review a holiday episode you very may well have never heard of. I selected it for this year’s holiday theme for its context in American history, the story behind its development and of course, the role a woman played in ensuring this important message was well delivered.
Yes, like a technicolor time capsule, the sweetheart show of syndication Bewitched, starring Elizabeth Montgomery produced a holiday episode in 1970 that tells a story not so much of Christmas, but of the idea that in America, children don’t see division in differences.
First, a bit about Bewitched. It aired for 8 seasons, from 1964 to 1972. Think about what a changing landscape America was at that point. The end of the baby boom was in diapers when it began. It lasted clear through the Vietnam War, through the Civil Rights Movement, many U.S. missions to space and the assassinations of President Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Bobby Kennedy and Malcolm X.
Bewitched survived Green Acres and Hogan’s Heroes, and shared a few seasons on the air with the Mary Tyler Moore Show. Bewitched had something special and with children playing an important role in the Stevens household, I think they were a factor to the shows longevity as well as its messaging.
Bewitched starred Elizabeth Montgomery and was produced by her second husband, William Asher. Montgomery was the daughter of acclaimed film actor Robert Montgomery – she was a second generation Hollywood star who was just a few years older than Liza Minnelli and Candice Bergen.
Montgomery was a veteran of stage, TV and film before Bewitched premiered in 1964. In a video posted to bio.com of the Biography series, she credits the show’s eight years as an incredible training ground that prepared her for the hundreds of TV roles she played after Bewitched.
As was the case with most sitcoms of the 60s, there are few actors of color throughout the series. Yet the series in a sense had everything to do with the acceptance of diversity and the lengths to which someone will go to subvert their own identity in order to fit in. In this case, witch Samantha tries each and every day to live as a mortal in her marriage to Darrin.
And when their children, Tabitha and Adam are both born with magical powers, the show yielded countless conversations about differences and trying to fit in. Think about it, this was quite a stage for progressive plots in the American living room, as programming suitable for a freshly bathed 6 year old.
Creating fare suitable for audiences that spanned 6 to 76 years of age, the show wasn't known for its sophisticated story arcs. Who needed clever plots or deep meaning when you had a laugh track and Agnes Moorhead as Endora and Bernard Fox as Doctor Bombay?
In 1969, according to the wisdom of Wikipedia, a young teacher at an almost all African-American high school in Los Angeles, took action to learn more about her 9th grade students’ reading and comprehension. She had already learned through a poetry section that their reading skills were low, so she used the storytelling of their favorite TV shows to jump start their comprehension and interest in writing.
As it turns out, their favorite shows – remember this is 1969 – were Julia (about an African-American widow raising her son as a single, working mother), Room 222, a show about a racially diverse high school that co-starred two African-Americans and Bewitched.
The teacher contacted all three shows in an attempt to illustrate how she was using their shows to increase comprehension, an important fact given a bit less half of them, according to Wikipedia, read at a 3rd grade level. Only Elizabeth Montgomery and William Asher replied to her letter.
I have to note that the Wikipedia page on this is quite complete. It’s fortified by quotes from noted Elizabeth Montgomery biographer Herbie Pilato.
Montgomery and Asher paid for the class to tour the studio and were so impressed by the experience that they wrote a teleplay that formed the basis of Sisters at Heart.
The work was submitted to Montgomery and Asher without the holiday tie-in. Barbara Avedon, one of the earliest and most accomplished women TV writers in the business, was assigned to prepare the story for production. Pilato wrote in his 2001 book Bewitched Forever, The Immortal Companion to Television’s Most Magical Supernatural Situation Comedy,
Avedon expressed amazement over the script the students produced. She promised the students no changes would be made to the script unless they approved. It was because of her recommendation that the story was reformulated as a Christmas episode.
Regular listeners of this podcast will likely recognize the name of Barbara Avedon – she was one of the two Barbaras to guide the formation and scripting success of Cagney & Lacey, and she also wrote for shows Gidget, Maude, Fish and Love American Style.
So, in short, here’s the story, which I encourage you to view on Dailymotion.com. It’s the only location online that I found that contains the entire episode.
Tabitha Stevens is joined for a few nights’ visit by Lisa, the daughter of another McMahon & Tate advertising executive. Lisa appears to be about Tabitha’s age and is African-American. During Lisa’s stay with the Stevens family, the girls get bullied at the playground by another girl who professes there’s no way Tabitha and Lisa could be sisters because they have different skin color.
This comes to Samantha’s attention when the girls are discussing friendship and siblings.
Now while Lisa’s parents are out of town, Darrin Stevens is charged with landing the Brockway account. We find out that Mr. Brockway of Brockway Toys is old school and generally seems to have no problem asserting the power of his company.
Brockway gets to the Stevens home, to be greeted at the door by Lisa. Remember, this plot was developed by a group of 9th grade African Americans – not professional writers. But the episode contains twists and turns you've never seen before.
Moments later Lisa rejoins Tabitha, whose nose is still a bit out of joint about the bully who proclaimed that she and Lisa could never be sisters. Tabitha works some magic and applies large spots to her own skin and Lisa’s.
The clock to undo the magic and return the girls to normal starts ticking for Samantha, who has to figure out how to undo the spell before Lisa’s parents come to pick her up. There’s even more conflict when Brockway tells Larry he’s not sure Darrin is the right one for the job – not saying outright that his impression that Darrin’s marriage is mixed. Larry Tate invites Brockway to the company Christmas party which will suddenly be relocated to the Stevens residence, just so Brockway can see how all-American Samantha and Darrin are.
Spots on face, Brockway’s bias, it’s a stronger message than we’re used to for a 22 minute sitcom holiday episode.
After consulting Dr. Bombay, Samantha gets a grasp on the spot problem…
And then there’s a showdown at the Christmas party led by none other than Larry Tate. He shows himself to be a progressive manager and business owner when he comes to learn the source of Brockway’s apprehension about Darrin is his belief that Darrin is married to Dorothy Wilson, Lisa’s mother.
Larry tells Brockway McMahon and Tate doesn’t want him as a client. Darrin asks Samantha to intercede – to teach Brockway a lesson in way that doesn’t include Larry’s name calling. Samantha does so and Brockway leaves – nearly catches the guy’s coat in the door as it slams.
Upstairs, with her house filling with party guests, Samantha spends a little more time with the girls.
So you think everything turned out for the best, right? Tabitha and Lisa have bonded as lifelong sisters, her parents are none the wiser and Larry Tate earned the Best Boss Award for standing up to Brockway. That’s not the case, as there was a little hangover from Samantha’s spell from the night before. Brockway shows up at the Stevens’ residence on Christmas Day.
Wow! Talk about self-awareness coming from the mouth of a middle aged white male character?
In all of his books about Elizabeth Montgomery, author Herbie Pilato quotes her as saying that this episode Sisters at Heart was her favorite one of the whole series.
Maybe this podcast segment and this one episode of Bewitched will cause you to look at the series in a while new light. What other subtle messages did Montgomery and her husband William Asher embed in the plots that were soaked up by American kids of all backgrounds?
I’m thrilled and not a bit surprised that the power couple assigned Barbara Avedon to work the script so it would be ready for production. I wonder whether the teacher who wrote to a handful of popular shows, to only be answered by the Bewitched people – is she still alive? She’d be about 70 today. What other ways did she use TV storytelling to engage her students?
If you’ve got 22 minutes, go to dailycommotion.com and watch the episode “Sisters at Heart.” Jot me a note at firstname.lastname@example.org if you thought it was the best holiday episode you’ve ever seen. Or even, if after viewing it, you too think that the little girls’ clothing and this one wrap dress with geometric pattern that Samantha wears to the party is pretty much the most excellent apparel you’ve seen all day. And Elizabeth Montgomery’s hair, which is simply profound.
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A final note about the two women mentioned frequently in this installment. We lost Elizabeth Montgomery to colon cancer when she was just 62 years old – in 1995. Her career was illustrious and she was nominated for a number of Emmys for Bewitched and other television movie roles. In 1995 she was posthumously awarded the Women in Film: Crystal and Lucy Award.
Barbara Avedon was a television writer most well-known for her collaborative work on Cagney & Lacey. She passed away at the age of 69, in 1994. In all, we lost two fine, talented ladies too soon. I bet they had some great stories to tell and lessons to share.