Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted: And All the Brilliant Minds Who Made The Mary Tyler Moore Show a Classic
“. . . radiates a palpable warmth.”
Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted would have been better published a few months back, during the full winter chill, for it radiates a palpable warmth.
Just as the cover rather lovingly emulates the Technicolor wording of The Mary Tyler Moore Show’s title sequence, the text reminds us again and again of just why the television show and its central character, Mary Richards, were so beloved. As creator Alan Burns described its premise while pitching it:
“Mary is open and nice. That’s why she’s in trouble. It’s also why she’s still single. If she had been less open she could’ve maneuvered that doctor into marrying her. In the world of the seventies, openness is for national parks; niceness is for Betty White, who can turn a buck with it; and trust is something the President asks for and doesn’t get. Lest you be left with the picture of Mary with warm apple pies cooling on her windowsill, singing duets with her pet squirrel, that’s not our girl. It’s just that she seems especially wholesome when contrasted with those around her. (We’ll let you in on a secret that’s for our eyes only. Mary is not a virgin. This becomes a very wholesome quality when you realize that Rhoda is not a virgin many times over.) . . .
“This series will, as we hope you have noted, be comedically populated. But it is clearly about one person living in and coping with the world of the 1970s . . . tough enough in itself . . . even tougher when you’re 30, single, and female . . . when, despite the fact that you’re the antithesis of the career woman, you find yourself the only female in an all-male newsroom.”
In this brief thumbnail, creator/producer Burns identified the nub of what set The Mary Tyler Moore Show apart from all that had come before: the idea that a woman could be thirty and single and the only woman working in an all-male environment and, in spite of this, she could thrive in a manner that That Girl would have never thought possible.
The Mary Tyler Moore Show created a new paradigm in television programming. In almost exactly in the same media moment in which Archie Bunker loudly demanded a reevaluation and recalculation of societal norms when it came to race and class, MTM quietly suggested that June Cleaver’s pearls had been packed away in the attic that the we, as a culture, were all the better for it.
Through 7 seasons and 168 episodes, with a total of 29 Emmy Awards (only Frasier has topped it, with a total of 30, although it had a total of 11 seasons in which to accomplish the task) the show became of gold standard of television programming—something well worth celebrating.
And here the issues begin.
Simply put, the book’s title, Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted, itself creates a set of expectations in the mind of the reader before the first page is turned.
Expectations that this will be the sort of book that will contain an episode by episode guide in the back. Expectations of Veal Prince Orloff and “The Fabulous Ms. Hempel” Beauty Pageant and Chuckles the Clown being shucked to death by an elephant while marching in a parade and wearing a peanut costume. Expectations of a book that will allow the reader to wallow once again in the dream of life in 70s Minneapolis.
Expectations of a book that is lighter than air—a fast, funny read.
In many ways, Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted delivers on these expectations. The reader is given the full history of the program, the expectations that were put upon the show itself before it even debuted, the negative buzz that surrounded the production. And how the show, like other greats (notably, Seinfeld and Cheers), came close to not surviving long enough to find both its voice and its audience.
And, along the way, author Jennifer Keinshin Armstrong shares a wealth of anecdotes and tidbits. The reader, for instance, learns:
—That actress Valerie Harper who played Rhoda had three favorite actresses: Anna Magnani, Anne Bancroft, and Maureen Stapleton
—That it took an entire day for producers Allan Burns and James L. Books to get an orange cat named Mimsie to “roar” in order to create an MTM logo patterned after the MGM lion
—That actress Cloris Leachman (Phyllis) disliked actor Gavin MacLeod because when the two worked together previously on The Road West, MacLeod had accidentally slapped her too hard during a televised fight. During a dinner at the end of the first week of shooting she insisted, “I won’t sit next to Gavin MacLeod because I hate his guts.”
—That Mary Tyler Moore herself resisted taping the episode entitled “Chuckles Bites the Dust” because she found the material to be “too sad.”
—And that, during the taping of the final episode at the closing moment when Mary Richards is the last to leave the newsroom and turns off the light, “the crewman who was in charge of dimming the lights was so enraptured that he forgot to do it, so the final few seconds had to be reshot.”
But the true focus of Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted does not go, as it should, as the title promises, to Mary Tyler Moore herself or even to the eponymous series.
Instead, the author has framed her tale so that the heroines of the story are a band of women writers named Treva Silverman, Susan Silver, Pat Nardo and Gloria Banta to whom all too many pages of biographical information are given. Indeed, strangely enough, the book even opens with Ms. Silverman playing the piano in a bar in the Manhattan theater district and Mary and Lou and company don’t figure into the tale until well after Silverman “meets cute” with James L. Brooks.
Which is all well and good, given that the fact that The Mary Tyler Moore Show was groundbreaking not only for its content, but also for the opportunities it ultimately created for women in Hollywood:
“Female TV writers became all the rage as Mary Tyler Moore’s popularity soared in its third season. The image of comedy writers was changing from swearing guys in alpaca sweaters and pinky rings to women in miniskirts with typewriters. When Laugh-In started in 1968, its writers worked in a hotel room across from the studio and thus claimed they ‘couldn’t have a woman in that environment.’ The sketch comedy series was still on the air, but its male-centric writing staff suddenly looked like a relic. Executives across Hollywood were saying, as Treva Silverman put it, ‘We’re going to do a story about women and we’re going to have women writers and women producers and women actresses. It’s women, women, women. Get Barbara she’s a woman! Get Linda, get Mary.’”
Jennifer Heishin Armstrong’s handling of the material relating to the lives of the women writers and directors (and those of the male producers and creators as well) lacks the crackle of the pages of the book dedicated to actors and to the production itself—the brief description of Mary Richard’s studio apartment (“She’d have a hideaway bed, not having much of a choice in such a small apartment. A French armoire would show off her impeccable taste. A Wooden M on her wall would signify that the place was hers, and only hers.”) unleashes a wave of nostalgia for the reader—makes the book a surprisingly slow read.
In the end, Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted is not the book the reader expected it to be, that the title promises it to be. Nor is it the book that it could have been, one that retains its celebratory stance for the achievements of the show, both creatively and societally, while still maintaining a pace and sense of humor that could have kept Sue Ann’s chocolate soufflé fully raised when served.
Admittedly, when the reader opens the cover, he finds that the title does go on a bit longer to include And All the Brilliant Minds Who Made The Mary Tyler Moore Show a Classic, but even here, those “brilliant minds” are given second billing.
In the end, a sense of full disclosure on the part of the publisher would have demanded that the book more rightfully be called Treva and Susan and Pat and Gloria—but that would have most assuredly had a lesser appeal.