Before CHEERS: A Look at PARK ST. UNDER

Welcome to a new Wildcard Wednesday and the entry that I’ve been teasing for the past few weeks! With coverage of Cheers having just concluded on Sitcom Tuesdays, I’ve made it my mission to complement those posts by highlighting other shows that dealt primarily with characters in a bar. Three weeks ago we discussed Duffy’s Tavern, the 1940s radio program co-created by Abe Burrows, father of Cheers co-creator James Burrows. A few months ago, I shared some of my thoughts on Archie Bunker’s Place (1979-1983, CBS), the unfortunate extension of All In The Family that focused on Archie and the happenings at his bar. And two years ago, if you can remember back that far, I screened and discussed two episodes of The Corner Bar (1972-1973, ABC), a two-season summer replacement that’s best remembered for boasting the first homosexual regular on primetime. Now we come to another show that needs to be discussed, particularly in relation to Cheers. It’s called Park St. Under. But if you haven’t heard of this one, don’t worry — most haven’t. You see, the only people who’ve seen this series are those who lived in Boston from September 1979 to May 1980. Intrigued? I was.

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Park St. Under was a local production by ABC affiliate WCVB-TV, a Boston station that was right in the middle of a creative peak that was fostered, in large part, by General Manager Robert Bennett, future President of Metromedia Broadcasting, which purchased WCVB in 1982. Under Bennett’s guidance in the ’70s and early ’80s, WCVB gained a reputation for innovation, with a wide variety of 24/7 programming that included news, talk, games, and yes, scripted content. The best known original program produced by WCVB is probably The Baxters, a seriocomedy with a unique format: the first half was an original performance, while the second half featured a dialogue between audience and panelists about the show and the issues explored therein. Created by Hubert Jessup, The Baxters began as a local program in 1977 and was purchased after two years by Norman Lear, who took the show to Hollywood and sold it into first-run syndication for the 1979-80 season. (Lear then sold the show to a Canadian company, which recast and produced the show from Ontario for another year.)

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As The Baxters was transitioning from the Boston market to the national market, Bennett decided that WCVB should tackle another scripted series, this time a straight situation comedy. He explained how the idea developed in a 1983 article for Broadcasting Magazine: “Laverne & Shirley was being offered to us by Paramount… and they wanted $32,000 a half hour… and I’m sitting there with my program manager and I said, ‘Before I pay $32,000 for that program, we’ll do one ourselves.’ And with that the Paramount guy got up and walked out, and my program manager, Bruce Marson, said, ‘You weren’t serious about that, were you?’ Well, I really wasn’t; I’d said it more out of pique. But I didn’t want to lose face with him, so I said, ‘You’re goddamn right we’re going to do it.’ And the next thing I know we were sitting around the table, talking about doing our own situation comedy… I wanted to see it if could be done. Could a television station do it?” On Monday September 24, 1979, at 7:30pm on Boston’s Channel 5, Bennett proved that it could be done, as Park St. Under debuted.

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Created and produced by Jessup, Park St. Under was set in an underground Boston bar and focused on the establishment’s staff and regular patrons. New episodes were taped in Needham in front of a live audience on the Saturday before they aired (that’s a two-day turnaround). Headed by stand-up comic Steve Sweeney as bartender Augie Antonelli, the cast consisted entirely of local performers, many of whom came from The Next Move theater company. There was Karen MacDonald as affable waitress Bonnie Muldoon, Brad Jones as kooky shrink Harvey Dorfman (author of the book “Success Through Fear”), and Lanie Zera as flighty cook Maxine, whom Augie hired in the pilot after she initially tried to mug them at gunpoint. Also among the regular cast was Jim Spruill as world-weary MBTA driver Marvin. With known Boston actors playing quintessentially Boston characters, the show established itself a reputation as being directly attuned to the tastes and sensibilities of the city. Scripts incorporated many Boston references, while the lyrics to the theme song were altered every episode in conjunction with the weekly news. (See the example below.)

Associate Producer Cathy Perron, who had worked on The Baxters and is now a professor at Boston University, was responsible for editing this topical open. When I spoke with her last week, she was eager to discuss the work of both Hubert Jessup, the “driving force” behind Park St. Under, and WCVB General Manager Robert Bennett, whom she ardently credits for developing the station into the creative force it was in 1979 and encouraging its talent to experiment with all different types of programming. As evidenced before with The Baxters, Boston was just as enthusiastic as Perron when it came to having another show tailored just for them and early reviews were glowing. The Boston Globe called the series “the freshest, funniest sitcom in town,” and the city’s press praised the production for the opportunities afforded to Boston performers. But despite the local attention, Bennett was dissatisfied with the results he was getting, believing that the writing, to put it mildly, “wasn’t terrific” and the production values were only “fair.” Furthermore, how could Park St. Under ever hope to get the national exposure of The Baxters while being so myopically geared towards Boston?

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Bruce Marson’s solution was to retool the series and between the months of December 1979 and March 1980, many changes occurred. Hubert Jessup was replaced by a producer from Manhattan, and several of the stars, including MacDonald, Jones, Spruill, and Zera, opted to leave the series and return to the theatre. Other recurring players found their roles beefed up, including future Chronicle host Ted Weinstein as cocky ladies man Vito, local actress Chloe Laemon as ditzy waitress Rhonda, and the sturdy Charles C. Welch as an elderly barkeep, Fitzy. By February 1980, Augie found a new head waitress in the form of Casey, played by New York actress Pamela Lewis; Casey was a perky perfectionist with a photographic memory — everything Augie wasn’t.

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The alterations eventually became insurmountable to Sweeney, and he opted to depart the series in the spring. His replacement for the final handful of episodes was New York actor Lou Criscuolo as the bar’s wise new owner Nick DeMarco. With this final switch, local appreciation for Park St. Under was diminished. Nevertheless, Bennett was not fazed by these comings-and-goings, maintaining that the offerings at the end of the run were the ones of which he was most proud, citing them as, unlike the first 15 or so, “network quality.” (It also bears mentioning that the budget increased from about $10,000 per week at the start of the season to about $15,000 per week at the end — and the product looked noticeably better as a result.)

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Although Cathy Perron recalls that the production turmoils had convinced all involved that a second season was unlikely, interviews with Bennett over the summer of 1980 indicate an intention to continue with Park St. Under in the fall. The reason it never materialized was later attributed to the actor’s strike that began that July, which seemed to quash any forward momentum, even after the series won a Gabriel Award for its final episode. But Park St. Under‘s story doesn’t end there… cut to two years later when Perron, then at WPRI in Providence, received a call about a series on NBC with remarkable similarities to Park St. Under. Set in a Boston bar, Cheers featured an attractive masculine bartender and a perky new waitress who gets the job because of her good memory. Furthermore, there was a dark-haired waitress with an attitude problem, an elderly bartender, and a patron who always visited the bar in his uniform. The folks from WCVB were shocked and Bennett, who had sent tapes of the show to ABC and never heard back, believed that their series had been seen by people affiliated with Paramount, which co-produced Cheers. NBC and Cheers have long denied these allegations.

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But Bennett decided not to pursue legal action because it looked like NBC’s show was going to be cancelled soon anyway, and putting up a fight may have proved more trouble than it was worth. Some have also speculated that raising a fuss might have hurt Bennett’s ability to ascend into a position in a national market, where his ambitions resided. And while some, like Park St. Under writer Arnie Reisman, were vocal at the time about how similar the shows were, Cathy Perron was and remains less convinced, citing the scarcity of truly original ideas as making a link unprovable. Park St. Under wasn’t the first show set in a bar and it won’t be the last, and in all of those cases, there have been similarities — a fun-loving bartender, a cute waitress, oafish clientele, etc. Plus, with a weekly budget 1000% greater than WCVB’s, most of the folks involved feel that Cheers, even if the show had any awareness of Park St. Under, only improved upon the idea.

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Now, having screened two episodes myself, one with the original cast and one with the final cast, I’m more inclined to concur with Perron, for while some of the archetypes for the characters are conspicuously similar (Diane Chambers seems like a mix of Bonnie and Casey, Coach looks a whole lot like Fitzy, and the presence of a regular shrink in both shows seems suspect — even if Frasier was added later), there’s no comparison in writing. While Burrows and the Charles Brothers came from Taxi, a show born from the MTM style of comedy in which character always trumps story, the scripts from Park St. Under seem more interested in the content, the weekly story, itself. This is likely a result of the station’s prior association with Norman Lear, whose works, as we’ve explored before on this site, were almost always about something, with the characters serving as a means to achieving the scripts’ rhetorical end, thereby resting an episode’s success on its ability to connect the two logically and comedically.

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From what I’ve seen, Park St. Under was trying to be like a Lear sitcom. For instance, in the 10/29/79 episode, entitled “Halloween Party,” the central premise involves an aged woman who’s been kicked out of her condo, and the discussion about elderly displacement, specifically in Boston, forms the crux of the dialogue, while in the 05/26/80 episode, entitled “Nick Gets A Heart Murmur,” the show’s last outing and the one for which it won a Gabriel, the story involves Nick’s fear of his own mortality after he’s diagnosed with, you guessed it, a heart murmur. In both cases, there’s something the episode wants to address, but in the process, the characters don’t get the exploration that you’d traditionally wish. (However, the 1980 episode is slightly better than the 1979 in revealing relationships and individual characterizations within the 23-minntue running time.) Of course, coming to this show and anticipating a quality to match Cheers would be a mistake, especially because Bennett freely cops to hiring cheap writers and commissioning scripts for less than 10% of the weekly budget.

But there is a difference in quality between the 1979 and 1980 episodes. As a production, the 1980 installment, a clip of which can be viewed above, is head and shoulders superior to its predecessor. With more money thrown into the set and the accompanying aesthetics, seamless cinematography that’s likely a result of the New York influences, and actors like Criscuolo who have more polish, Bennett is right — you could believe that Park St. Under is a network show. The same couldn’t be said for the 1979 episode, which looks and feels like a local production with a shoestring budget, just trying to get by and entertain you for 30 minutes, without pausing long enough for you to notice how much work it’s taking. And yet, the latter is inherently more enjoyable for several reasons. (Please see a clip of the ’79 episode below.)

First, the 1979 performers had worked together before either in the Boston theater scene or on other WCVB ventures, so there’s a history and an evident chemistry among them that’s not duplicated by the later cast. Second, the show seems to have less to prove to its audience; it’s not trying to be a network series, as it is in 1980, and entertaining us is the episode’s primary objective. (It even makes time to give one of the regulars, Karen MacDonald, a chance to show off her vocal chops outside of the theme song, which she sang every week.) Third, the local sensibilities infuse the show with an energy that’s totally absent by the final episode. From the dialogue, which includes references to the Red Sox and the Celtics, to the characters, whom you never doubt are a part of the city, the 1979 Park St. Under is authentic. It’s Bostonians entertaining Bostonians. In 1980, the removal of the Boston flair expectedly leaves us with characters who have no history and no flavor. They’re slightly more defined within the weekly happenings, but we’ve gone from something bold to something timid. And it’s a sad difference for a show of these origins.

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And while my impressions of both episodes and the research I’ve done have left me believing Park St. Under doesn’t have a legitimate claim for impacting Cheers, at least not as it pertains to Burrows and the Charles Brothers, who owe more to MTM and Duffy’s Tavern than anything else, I do think the series serves as an illustration of the untapped potential that existed and still exists within local markets around the country. WCVB-TV was the only station in 1979 producing this kind of ambitious original programming, and as far as I’m concerned, when they catered to their local audience at the beginning of the run, they succeeded. (Just think what else could have happened had Park St. Under been a hit!) Furthermore, WCVB is creative harbinger for what was to come in the ’80s, as the major broadcast networks (all of which I absolutely believe knew about Park St. Under, even if Cheers’ producers didn’t) faced rising competition from outside sources — in this case, cable. By illustrating that it didn’t take a major network to produce an entertaining original program, WCVB-TV ushered in the age in which we’re still living today, where TV’s possibilities are limitless.

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Come back next Wednesday for another Wildcard post! And tune in on Monday for discussion of another forgotten musical comedy!

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