Women of MTM Pt 2 (Words, Casting, Fashion)
Thanks for tuning into this second in a series of three podcasts about the women of The Mary Tyler Moore Show. This segment will focus on the women writers & women assigned other duties – and how they all influenced one of America’s most beloved TV series.
Just as we did in the first segment, we’re going to apply the framework of Jennifer Keishin Armstrong’s book to learn more about these fantastic women. Armstrong’s book, entitled Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted, was published in 2013 by Simon and Shuster. It’s a must-have and a must-read, with a lot of application to life’s challenges and today’s TV industry.
I interviewed Armstrong a few weeks ago. Because her book contains elements of interviews she’s conducted with both women and men associated with the show, I knew she was the right person to bring this important chapter to Advanced TV Herstory.
While we covered a lot of ground in our chat, I was impressed by the degree to which she sought out and obtained interviews with the writers. In the first podcast of this series, she alludes to the fact that they were all so willing to share their stories and their perspective with her. Many years have gone by since the show left prime time. Maybe the writers thought there wasn’t anything more to say.
Well there is and Armstrong nailed it. It’s the perspective of the women writers and other women who saw the power and the potential of this 30 minute show - and gave it their all. Armstrong also underscored at least a few times in the interview that they really had no idea that what they were doing was collaborating to make a classic. She had heard that same blend of humility and work ethic repeated in her interviews with crew AND cast.
Which brings me to the lesson that is written between the lines of the show and Armstrong’s book – and that is, if everyone contributes their very best, day in and day out, you might just make it after all. That culture of empowerment and professionalism was set by creators James L. Brooks and Allan Burns. It was modeled by the cast, the woman who secured the cast to contracts of the series that was launched without a pilot episode and the writers and crew members who created memorable TV.
So, whether it’s caring for your kids while also checking in on your parents or showing up for work every day with a team that works as hard as you do, it all matters. People ARE watching. And while you’ll never be on stage holding an award (or maybe you will), you never really know heading into a project or phase of life just how you’re going to handle the challenges. You just accept them and do your best.
The women writers mentioned in Armstrong’s book wrote some of the most innovative, relatable content that had ever landed on TV. We’ll learn from Armstrong, however, they didn’t look at it that way. They were simply drawing on their own experiences, weaving it into scripts as content and finding out that it resonated with American women and girls. - - And was even well-received by American male viewers – which we know isn’t always the case with women-centric TV and film.
In addition to writers, we’ll learn more about the woman who assembled the talented, award-winning cast and two women who oversaw the evolution of fashion for the two most visible characters. I don’t expect you to recognize these women writers’ names. But I do hope you’ll celebrate their accomplishments and encourage any women you know who are funny or clever to develop that gift further… in some way.
You’ll learn a bit about Susan Silver, Jenna McMahon, Gail Parent, Marilyn Miller, Monica Johnson, Sybil Adelman, Charlotte Brown, Gloria Banta and Pat Nardo. Armstrong’s enthusiasm for their talent is infectious.
We’ll get profile of the casting director whose wand contained pixie dust – Ethel Winant and the lady responsible for Mare’s wash and wear, mix and match working woman’s wardrobe, Leslie Hall. Finally, we’ll learn why Mimi Kirk can claim credit for developing an American fashion trend as powerful as Jackie O’s Chanel suit and pearls.
Susan Silver, born and raised in Whitefish Bay, Wisconsin, started as a sitcom writer in 1970, with a Love, American Style episode. She wrote five episodes of The Mary Tyler Moore Show in 1971 and 1972, during the years when characters of Mary and Rhoda were still evolving – finding their respective voices and strengths.
Silver also wrote a single or only a few episodes for The Bob Newhart Show, Maude and The Partridge Family. She wrote for and story edited Square Pegs, that single season gem from 1982-1983 that featured a young Sarah Jessica Parker. In this clip of my interview with Armstrong, she refers to Treva Silverman, the first woman writer on MTM and who will be the subject of the third installment in this podcast series.
Perhaps Silver, raised in the Midwest, could relate to the character of Mary in ways that many of the writers, New York or New Jersey natives, couldn’t.
Silver has kept her hand in the TV and entertainment world. She’s offers commentary and smart TV talk on through her show Susan Says – Susan Silver on TV available on Robinhoodradio.com. Silver used the occasion of Armstrong’s book to write a blog post for the Huffington Post entitled “Mary Richards and I might just make it after all.
In it, she draws this important distinction, which Armstrong also bears out in her book.
I think back to those days and how Mary Richards and I were just living our lives and not "making a statement." The results of those lives paved the way for women who needed a role model in media, among them Oprah and Katie Couric. At the time, the producers wanted women's stories which were inherently different than men's; the references, the fact that women don’t "go get cleaned up," as one of the guys said, before I corrected him: We take a bath or a shower. These little nuances that put women's lives up on TV and gave birth to the women of today, be they Tina Fey or any other woman who created a sitcom and can trace their ambition to Mary.
One of the most rewarding aspects of presenting Advanced TV Herstory to you is to be able to connect dots of influence that otherwise go unnoticed.
On to Jenna McMahon, another writer originally from the Midwest. I have to give credit to Armstrong for her in-depth research in hunting down information about writers who we, even as advanced students of TV, might consider obscure. Jenna McMahon is one such writer, whose credentials included Emmy Award winning writing for The Carol Burnett Show, a longer writing influence on The Facts of Life and recurring work on Soap. There’s a bit more about McMahon’s career and her work as a writing team with Dick Clair on Wikipedia.
Armstrong shines light on perhaps one of only a few shows for McMahon wrote for MTM – Season 5, episode 18. But it was one that caused the show to step outside its safe, conservative lines – not so much intentionally, as naturally. Armstrong goes on to describe McMahon’s episode, entitled My Brother’s Keeper that introduced us to Phyllis Lindstrom’s brother.
Ben comes to town. Phyllis arranges 4 tickets to a Mozart concert, thinking she and Lars and Mary and Ben would attend together. At the last minute, Ben takes Rhoda.
What’s the worst
Armstrong recounts the significance of the entire episode and how it was that MTM Production’s culture of inclusion and diversity quite likely fed this relaxed approach to a break through episode.
Gail Parent was another writer who was shared across CBS projects, having also written on The Carol Burnett Show with her partner Kenny Solms. As you’ll hear from Armstrong, Parent’s reach extended beyond Carol and Mary and bore a direct impact on Rhoda.
With two Emmy statues and a Cable ACE Award on her mantle, Gail Parent’s work spans books, film scripts (Barbra Streisand’s 1979 The Main Event, co-starring Ryan O’Neal) and Confessions of a Teenage Drama Queen. Beyond the shows already mentioned, Parent wrote for Tracey Ullman’s Tracey Takes On and The Golden Girls.
Notice the trend of comedy writing done in teams. Going back a long way, those teams were usually pairs of men. Gail Parent and Jenna McMahon teamed up with men. And it was in the writers’ room of The Mary Tyler Moore Show that a pair of women, Marilyn Suzanne Miller and Monica Johnson, became key contributors.
Marilyn Suzanne Miller has writer’s credits for Mary Tyler Moore, Rhoda, Maude and Welcome Back Kotter. Then she landed squarely in the world of Saturday Night Live, writing on more than 130 episodes as well as creating material for tribute productions of the show’s early years and cast. She also produced 23 episodes of the very funny Tracey Ullman Show from 1990.
Monica McGowan Johnson leveraged her three episodes of writing on The Mary Tyler Moore Show to write for TV’s Laverne & Shirley and on the big screen, a strong contributor to Albert Brooks movies: Lost in America from 1985, The Scout, Mother and The Muse.
A second pair of women came together to contribute first to MTM and went on write on Rhoda,
Gloria Banta and Patricia Nardo. In 1974 they won the Writers Guild Award for Writing of a single episode for Rhoda.
As Armstrong recounts the interesting turn of events that brought Gloria and Pat to collaborate, you get the feeling it would make its own great throw-back TV show today.
1 Gloria Pat
Their legacy may be one of influence, particularly with James L. Brooks who went on to develop so many more shows that told stories with realism.
2 Gloria Pat
Brooks tipped his hat to these two talented women by bestowing their surnames onto Taxi’s main characters, Tony Banta, played by Tony Danza and Elaine Nardo played by Marilu Henner.
There are two more women who hold writing credits on The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Sybil Adelman and Charlotte Brown.
Adelman, originally from Winnipeg Ontario, lists MTM has one of her first writing credits in 1973. Season 4, episode 9 is Love Blooms at Hempels. Here’s Adelman and her writing partner Barbara Gallagher serving up some classic Mary Rho banter.
Armstrong recounts Adelman’s comments about writing for Norman Lear’s woman-centric show Maude. If you’ve been keeping score, you’re seeing a well-worn path of writers that wrote a few for both shows. Susan Silver, Jenna McMahon and Marilyn Suzanne Miller are three, in addition to Adelman. Also, it’s cool to note that Barbara Avedon and Barbara Corday, the women co-creators and screenplay writers of Cagney & Lacey wrote a Maude episode in 1974. Sorry, I just had to get that in and tease the fact that someday soon, Advanced TV Herstory will ratchet up it’s a-game and do an few podcasts on the show Maude.
In this clip, Armstrong draws comparisons and contrasts to the working environments and plot development of the two shows. One could start by saying Norman Lear’s pace and vision was very different from the world of Grant Tinker, James L. Brooks and Allan Burns. Then take the distinct contrasts of the leading ladies…
Charlotte Brown round out our list of writers profiled in this segment. Brown went on to a prolific career in TV, as a writer, director and producer. Armstrong describes how MTM Productions served as the launching point for Brown’s talent and energies.
Writer Charlotte Brown lists as one of her first credits a single MTM episode in 1972. She contributed to The Sandy Duncan Show and The Doris Day Show, then wrote a number of episodes for Love, American Style. Between 1972 and 1978 she wrote for 38 episodes of Rhoda and The Bob Newhart Show.
Director Brown found work on a number of shows throughout the 70s and 80s, most notably Rhoda, Archie Bunker’s Place, Cagney & Lacey and The Tortellis.
The series Rhoda became the home base for Brown between 1975 and 1978, during which she produced or executive produced 85 episodes.
If you’ve had the good fortune to tune into a Rhoda episode lately, I hope you arrived at the same conclusion as I did. It’s timeless. It forged a path different than Mary’s, but the two are complimentary. Rhoda evolved through major life moments at a much faster pace than Mary did. Okay, yes, this is leading me to pledge that an Advanced TV Herstory podcast on Rhoda is essential. There’s just so much there. – And that’s BEFORE you get to the fashion aspect.
In an interview found on the WHOA Network on YouTube, Charlotte Brown shared a bit about what life was like working for MTM productions and how the experience affected her career.
These writers were hired largely by Brooks and Burns, who set out to create a series that contained realism. The cast was assembled not by a casting director, but rather by CBS’s casting guru Ethel Winant. Again, we need to learn more about this amazing woman, who wielded a casting wand fully loaded with pixie dust. In this clip and also in her book Armstrong gives us a feel of Winant’s role in the show’s development.
Hmmm, who needs Mad Men for a retro series about male advertising executives when you have stories of the fabulous women behind the scenes of the creation and making of The Mary Tyler Moore Show? - or MTM productions? Or CBS, the Tiffany Network?
In addition to or leading up to her executive role at CBS, Winant was casting director for episodes from these shows from the 60s: Playhouse 90, which actually was 1958 to 1960; 21 episodes of The Twilight Zone (1960 and 61), The Wild Wild West – 15 epsiodes that aired from 1966 to 1968 and then The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Ethel knew her stuff.
Ethel’s husband was in show business and her three sons have careers in music, the theater or TV. In 1979 Ethel was awarded the Crystal Award by the organization Women in Film. The Crystal Award, initiated two years prior, honors outstanding women who, through their endurance and the excellence of their work, have helped to expand the role of women within the entertainment industry. Ethel Winant was a worthy, early honoree.
Okay, so had you been on the phone with Jennifer Armstrong and me, it’s likely you wouldn’t have gotten a word in, edgewise. With her book serving as a guide, I knew we had to pay full tribute to the writers, including Treva Silverman who is profiled in the last series installment, as well as those gift women who kept an eye on the show and its needs, from their vantage point.
To know and love the characters is to appreciate the performers, thank you Ethel Winant; the words, so capably assembled by a deep and talented stable of writers and finally, if you’ve got two eyes and like this show – you love the fashion.
So without further ado, let’s tip our tam to costume designer Leslie Hall, whose gift to America is the look that emerged from MTM via shows like MTM, Rhoda (or I should say, the two episodes of Rhoda’s wedding, the drama spinoff Lou Grant and Newhart (yes, we now know who was responsible for Joanna’s fuzzy sweaters).
Leslie Hall. Even her name sounds high fashion.
It’s a real treat when you have someone in your life with fashion sense and style confidence. As a gathering place for creative women who were at the forefront of the women’s movement, the series was fortunate to have Hall setting the tone for Mary’s look., To hear Armstrong tell the story, Mimi Kirk was as important to Rhoda’s metamorphosis as Valerie Harper was. Who, you ask, is Mimi Kirk?
Armstrong’s right. Learn more about the effervescent, age-defying Mimi Kirk at her website Youngonrawfood.com. On her bio page, Mimi shares with us that she’s been named the Sexiest Vegetarian over the Age of 50. She’s 75 now and shows no sign of letting up.
And now you know…
Thanks for listening to this installment of Advanced TV Herstory. It’s been a lot of fun and a terrific learning experience bringing snips of Jennifer Keishin Armstrong’s book to an audio presentation. MTM Productions was a workplace like none other. Its story merits telling and re-telling.
We have one more story to tell and that involves the biographical sketch of Treva Silverman that Armstrong weaves through her book. Silverman was the first writer for the show, drafted to the team at the very outset. Stay tuned for the third installment in this series and we’ll learn from Armstrong and other sources what it was like and what it took to succeed.
Audio clips for this podcast are from an interview with Jennifer Keishin Armstrong and pulled from the Mary Tyler Moore Show, season 4 episode 9 and season 5, episode 18, both available online. Go to WHOA network on YouTube to track down a brief but powerful interview with Charlotte Brown. More information on Armstrong and her book can be found at Jenniferkarmstrong.com.
Do you have feedback or memories to share? Please shoot a line to firstname.lastname@example.org. Find this script and past show scripts at my website cynthiabemisabrams.com. Subscribe to Advanced TV Herstory at my hosting site, libsyn or iTunes. Comments and reviews are appreciated. And if you know how to tie a headscarf like Rhoda, leave your contact info there as well.
I’m your host, Cynthia Bemis Abrams. Thanks for listening.