After writing about two shows that had a chance for greatness and didn’t make it—always a depressing subject—it’s kind of nice to be taking on a show that could never under any circumstances have been any good. This is Blansky’s Beauties, a late-season replacement series on ABC in 1977, co-created by Garry Marshall and perhaps the worst show ever to come out of his comedy factory. (But then again, I haven’t seen Me and the Chimp. That could be worse.) In its own awful way, it’s an iconic show of ABC’s golden era of 1975 to 1979, when the former third-place network rocketed to first place with a mix of promotional skills, smart casting decisions, and of course, “jiggle TV.”
Now, “jiggle TV” is a term you can’t escape when talking about ’70s TV, though exactly what it means has always been a little unclear. The term was used to imply that ABC and other networks were catering to the lowest, basest tastes of the public by displaying a lot of women in skimpy costumes, but wouldn’t that apply just as well to any episode of Star Trek or The Dean Martin Show in the ’60s? The difference in the Charlie’s Angels era was that the women who would once have been the special guest stars or girls-of-the-week became the leads—and that the promo departments, newly energized and with a mandate to sell the programs harder than they had in the past, started using bikini shots as the main selling point in as many promos as they could. (Bikinis and car crashes, basically, were the building blocks of the ’70s promo.) The point of the jiggle era was not really to have sexy shows—indeed, as many critics pointed out, Three’s Company and Charlie’s Angels weren’t particularly sexy. The point was to have scenes, or even just individual shots, that could convey the impression of sexiness to the casual viewer who happened upon a 30-second promotion.
Some producers found themselves disconcerted by the new prominence of the promo department at ABC, and their insistence that every episode have something they could promote. Garry Marshall sometimes chafed at this limitation too, but he understood its importance and effectiveness. He knew that a key factor in making Happy Days a phenomenon was the episode where Fonzie jumped garbage cans on his motorcycle, and the simple, easily-advertised image of Fonzie in his anachronistic Evel Knievel outfit; he knew that Laverne and Shirley was perfect for the new promo culture, with its slapstick set-pieces that could be teased during other shows. Blansky’s Beauties, starring Nancy Walker as a den mother to a bunch of Las Vegas showgirls, is like a sitcom made up entirely of stuff that could attract attention out of context. Motorcycle stunts, dances and songs, catchphrases, animals, wise-ass kids, and of course, bikini scenes. (Since this is a sitcom and they can’t show a swimming pool on the screen, characters are forever on their way to the pool or on the way back.) All thrown together whether or not it makes sense or not, for the sake of a viewing audience that—it was believed at the time—was less interested in plot than in eye-catching elements. The idea of the viewer who chose the “least objectionable programming” was sort of being replaced by an equally contemptuous idea of the viewer as a person who would grab onto whatever seemed the most sensational, whether or not the actual episode lived up to it. It was the Silver Age comic book cover theory of programming.
The only promo I could find (with the great Ernie Anderson, king of ABC voice-overs) is at 6:30 in this clip, and it’s a fair representation: a woman in shorts, guys with their shirts off, a Doris Roberts guest appearance, and a lame joke, all in 10 seconds.
But then if the elements of Blansky’s Beauties were randomly thrown together, so was the whole show. It basically seems to have started because of ABC’s contractual obligations to Nancy Walker, and here we get into a major element of ABC’s programming strategy. When Fred Silverman was at CBS, he admired the network’s ability to cultivate long-term relationships with major stars like Lucille Ball and Mary Tyler Moore and Jack Benny—true TV stars, the kind of people who might not do well in movies but were always welcome in people’s homes. ABC didn’t have many signature stars, so Silverman started trying to identify people who could be major stars, and signing them to long-term contracts. A lot of them were people who had played supporting parts on CBS, and one of them was Nancy Walker, a great performer who never quite made top-tier stardom on Broadway, and was best known as Rhoda’s mother (one of the most iconic Jewish mothers on TV, even though Walker wasn’t Jewish). ABC signed her to a big contract, and she left Rhoda after the second season to do a show for Norman Lear on ABC, The Nancy Walker Show. It started in 1976, quickly bombed, and was gone. But ABC still had Walker under contract, still wanted to do a show with her. So they gave her to their star comedy producer, Marshall, and asked him to do something.
So you have a show thrown together in a hurry to use an actor who had just flopped in another show, and who had never really been a headliner anyway. That was probably one of the downsides of Silverman’s strategy: it funneled large amounts of the network’s money and development to performers who didn’t always have star quality. And at least the network got the benefit of keeping those performers away from their competitors (in this case, crippling Rhoda by depriving it of Walker for a year). Some of the actors regretted it when the projects fell through, and they wound up being paid a lot of money not to appear on television: for a TV performer, a year off the air is a major career setback. Rob Reiner and Ron Howard were two performers who were signed up by Silverman and regretted the experience enough that they mostly got out of acting, taking control of their own careers by turning to direction.
But back to Nancy Walker. The speed with which Blansky’s Beauties was put together—as a stop-gap substitute for her other show—may have been reflected in the way it was cast: there was a lot of “spare-parts” casting, consisting of leftovers from other shows. Eddie Mekka, an inexplicable favorite of Marshall’s (it was his idea to use him on Laverne and Shirley, believing that this short dancer was going to be the next Fonz), played the identical cousin of his Laverne and Shirley character, living and working with his Aunt Nancy. After a couple of episodes, Marshall’s deserved favorite Pat Morita joined, playing Arnold from Happy Days. Because, you see, Morita had left Happy Days to star in his own show, Mr. T and Tina, only that show bombed, and he couldn’t go back to Happy Days because he’d been replaced by Al Molinaro. So Arnold became part of this show instead. Oh, and Mr. T and Tina had nothing to do with Mr. T. All very confusing.
One intriguing bit of spare-parts casting that was planned but didn’t work out: when the show was announced in the press, it was mentioned that one of the regulars would be Roz Kelly, playing Pinky Tuscadero from Happy Days. As fans of TV lore are generally aware, the story goes that Kelly was an ABC favorite who was supposed to become a regular on Happy Days, only to be dropped after one three-episode arc when the rest of the cast couldn’t stand her. She was supposed to be transferred to this new show, but instead Pinky appeared only in the pilot, and then disappeared. (Incidentally, the pilot, which Marshall directed himself, was single-camera; a studio audience was brought in for the rest of the series. Making Marshall the undisputed record holder for shows that started out single-camera and then converted, and I don’t think his record will ever be broken by anyone.) Exactly what happened will undoubtedly be revealed when we get to read the long-awaited Confessions of a Pinkette: The True Story of Pinky Tuscadero.
The Happy Days connection brings up one of the reasons why anyone remembers this show. Before it launched, Nancy Blansky appeared on a Happy Days episode—a clip show, so they weren’t wasting any important episode time—as Howard Cunningham’s cousin from Las Vegas. It was an example of the shameless cross-promotion that TV was famous for at this time; another example came a few weeks into the run, when we were treated to a whole episode about Nancy meeting Laverne from Laverne & Shirley. (Shirley didn’t show up, probably because she wasn’t played by a Marshall and therefore didn’t owe any favors Garry could call in.) People only talk about Blansky’s Beauties to ask two questions: 1) Does it count as a Happy Days spin-off even though it wasn’t conceived that way, and 2) When does it take place, because it exists in the Happy Days universe but doesn’t seem to take place in the ’50s. Or the ’70s. Or any time, really.
There’s nothing much you can say about the writing or acting on this show: the bad actors are bad and the good actors (like Caren Kaye, who worked consistently after this but never managed to land a hit show) are also mostly bad, because they don’t have anything to work with. You can survive watching an episode mostly by ticking off the writers’ attempts to create catchphrases and running gags. Story-wise, whenever Marshall did a show with a female lead, he was heavily influenced by his work on The Lucy Show (which required, as he has explained, a different style of writing than the more relationship-based comedy he did on The Dick Van Dyke Show), and the idea seems to have been to make Nancy a wiser, more sensible Lucy: one of her girls gets into wacky trouble and then Nancy pulls out a Lucy-brand zany scheme to fix it. As with Lucy, a lot of the writing is set up to put Walker in uncomfortable physical positions, running in and out of doors, wearing silly costumes, and so on.
And then, of course, to try and warm up Walker (who never seemed to radiate a lot of warmth) there’d be a “heartfelt” moment where the characters make a connection to the accompaniment of sappy string music. But none of it was any good. The only bit that sort of worked was a running gag featuring Marshall himself as the casino’s enforcer, “Mr. Smith,” who never says anything but intimidates all the other characters, and who, it is implied, is some kind of mafia-connected killer. That’s dark enough to be funny once or twice. But this is a Garry Marshall flop, so he ran it into the ground in the course of only 13 episodes. Oh, and of course there was a theme song by Charles Fox and Norman Gimbel, the kings of ’70s television’s non-specific, multi-generational pop sound.
And speaking of running things into the ground—and this is the other thing about Blansky’s Beauties that’s sort of memorable—neither Marshall nor Fred Silverman would give up on the series. They felt that they had a show there—though not with Walker, who went back to Rhoda where she belonged. But they liked the two showgirls who lived with Walker, Kaye and Lynda Goodfriend. And they liked Scott Baio, the wise-ass kid, enough to transfer him to Happy Days as a slightly different wise-ass kid. So when Silverman took over NBC, one of his first acts was to commission a new version of this show. It had Kaye and Goodfriend as sexy showgirls rooming together and trying to make it in the big city, and Baio around doing something or other, and it was called Legs. When NBC picked it up as a series, they told Marshall to tone down the sex stuff and add more men (including a young Jim Belushi), and so they wound up with a family show called Who’s Watching the Kids? This version lives on only in its terrible theme song, and in the memories of those who love and respect the Hello Larry/Supertrain era of NBC.
The switch from a titillating farce about showgirls to a show with “kids” in the title was an indication that the jiggle era was coming to an end and that broadcast TV was entering a more wholesome era. The ’80s would be a relatively polite and decorous time for the three established networks, defeating the attempts of various executives (including Silverman and Brandon Tartikoff) to bring back jiggle shows. But jiggle TV was rendered irrelevant by cable networks that weren’t bound by FCC restrictions, and promotion was toned down just a little in favor of more of a soft-sell approach. And shows like Blansky’s Beauties live on mostly as reminders of a time when ABC shows would do just about anything if it looked good in the promos. It’s just one of those bombs where it seems like the creators put all their energy into creating promotable material, and forgot to make the show. And in its own way, nothing exemplifies the excesses of ’70s television better than that.
Previously on 1970s Fun Flops: The Associates