November 5, 2012
Q: “What was Dorothy about?”
A: “Two weeks.”
– Archive of American Television interview with Bob Carroll, Jr.
In August of 1979, a situation comedy about a middle-aged woman who served as a sort of den mother for a quartet of rambunctious boarding school girls debuted on Friday night, in the 8:30PM time slot.
No, it wasn’t The Facts of Life. It was Dorothy.
Although the “summer tryout” was and remains an unusual method of launching a series, the networks that year, in their boundless imagination, used it to test-launch two nearly identical shows in the same month. The Facts of Life, on NBC, became a modest but long-running hit that lasted for seven seasons and enjoyed a strong syndicated afterlife. Dorothy, on CBS, vanished into obscurity after its initial batch of four episodes were broadcast.
The Facts of Life (which actually featured seven girls at the outset, pared down to four a year later) starred Charlotte Rae as the teacher / surrogate mother figure. Dorothy was named after its star, Dorothy Loudon. Both Rae and Dorothy Loudon were Broadway veterans – they knew each other, had vied for some of the same roles – but while Rae had become familiar on television as a character comedienne, playing regular parts on Car 54, Where Are You? and Diff’rent Strokes (from which The Facts of Life was a spin-off), Loudon was a pure theatre performer. She had made a brief splash on television in the early sixties, taking Carol Burnett’s comedy-and-songs slot on The Garry Moore Show, but before and after that Loudon stuck mainly to nightclubs and the stage. After fifteen years as a sort of Susan Lucci of Broadway, consistently earning the best reviews in a series of high-profile flops, Loudon had won a Tony Award in 1977 for her role as Miss Hannigan, the conniving head of the orphanage, in Annie.
Dorothy was a classic high-concept “package,” a Hollywood entertainment that attemped to fuse disparate but proven elements. Often those packages are assembled by agents, trying to get jobs for several clients at once, but Dorothy was the brainchild of a Warner Bros. executive named Alan Shayne. A former casting director (for East Side/West Side and N.Y.P.D.), Shayne had seen Loudon in Annie and thought she would be a natural to headline her own series. Even though Miss Hannigan was the villain of Annie, and not at all enthusiastic about little girls, it made sense to exploit the connection to the hit show by placing Loudon in a similar setting. Separately, Shayne was also taken with Linda Manz, the teenaged actress who had played Richard Gere’s sister in Days of Heaven (1978) and whose thick Brooklynese provided the film’s unusual narration. Manz (below) would play the most prominent of the girls featured in Dorothy, a tough-talking tomboy very similar to Jo (Nancy McKeon), a character added to The Facts of Life in its second season.
The third element that informed the construction of Dorothy was Alice, the blue-collar Linda Lavin sitcom that was at the time Warner Bros.’ most successful television property. Shayne, as the studio’s executive vice president in charge of television, oversaw Alice and drafted its executive producers, former Lucy writers Madelyn Pugh Davis and Bob Carroll Jr., to develop Dorothy. “They were my mainstays,” Shayne said in a recent interview. “They would, in a pinch, always save any show that was in danger.” The premise devised by Carroll and Davis – who shared a creator credit with Nick Arnold, a name that was not mentioned in publicity for the show and that Shayne could not recall – had Loudon playing Dorothy Banks, a former showgirl reduced to teaching music and drama at a run-down private school.
To direct, Shayne hired television’s top comedy director, John Rich (The Dick Van Dyke Show; All in the Family). Though Rich was been a director on Alice, Shayne had awarded the famed pilot director a royalty for every future episode of the show in order to screen the uneven early episodes and suggest some critical changes. (Alice ran for eight seasons and Rich probably earned more from a few hours’ work than some directors make in a whole career.)
With all those heavyweights involved, how did Dorothy turn into such a massive flop – grotesque and all but unwatchable even by the middling-at-best standards of lowbrow fare like Alice or The Facts of Life?
One clue may be in the chronology. Loudon committed to the Warner Bros. Television deal in 1977 or 1978, while she was still in the cast of Annie, but the show had to wait once Loudon committed to star first in Ballroom – a musical adaptation of the made-for-television movie Queen of the Stardust Ballroom – on Broadway. Only after Ballroom closed, earlier than expected, on March 24, 1979, did Loudon go to Los Angeles for Dorothy, and only then did “format and script work” commence on the series.
Loudon’s limited availability boxed the entirety of conception, writing, casting, and taping into a period of just over four months. Little wonder, then, that Manz’s character made no sense – she looked and spoke like a street urchin, but had a vaguely identified patron whose charity kept the school from closing, and therefore from expelling her – or that the other principal girls were barely developed beyond the teen-Charlie’s Angels stereotypes of blonde (Elissa Leeds), brunette (Michele Greene), and nerd (Susan Brecht). Shayne cast another broadway star, Russell Nype (Call Me Madam), as the spineless headmaster, but Nype seemed stiff and ill at ease, while the two actors who played Dorothy’s fellow teachers – Priscilla Morrill (French) and Kenneth “Kip” Gilman (biology) – were shrill and overbearing.
The process of casting Gilman was an example of the haste that went into assembling Dorothy. Davis and Carroll remembered him from Loves Me, Loves Me Not, a short-lived sitcom with Susan Dey, and hired Gilman without a formal audition. “The two of them were just the sweetest people in the world,” Gilman recalled. “They basically were saying, well, you’ve got the role, do you want to do this? They had a piano in their office, and just out of the enthusiasm of the meeting, I sat down and started fooling around, and I think that’s maybe where they got the idea that I might also be able to do some musical stuff with Dorothy. I don’t think they had that in mind originally, because I was the science teacher.”
To write the four episodes, Davis and Carroll assembled three pairs of comedy writers: themselves; Rick Hawkins and Liz Sage (The Carol Burnett Show); and Vic Rauseo and Linda Morris (Welcome Back, Kotter). All but Davis and Carroll were relatively new to the business, but the most of the jokes could have been pilfered from Buddy Sorrell’s gag file. (Some examples: ”While our students were looking at fish, Mimi and I were going to make a few waves!” “You shouldn’t be intimidated by Mr. Foley just because he’s headmonster … er, headmaster.”)
Loudon hinted at conflicts with the writers when she did publicity for the series, telling one journalist that she’d had to show them clips of her appearances on the Tony Awards broadcasts as a guide to the kind of material she could do. According to associate director Gary Shimokawa, Loudon clashed with the writing staff – “I think she just didn’t think they wrote to her, wrote enough to what she could do” – but found an ally in Rich (now earning his Alice windfall, it would seem). “I think John managed to keep her together on that, and she trusted him. He was a big personality as a director, and so I think that helped a lot,” said Shimokawa.
Even Gilman (below, with Loudon), who was inclined to focus on the positive and who sidestepped most of Dorothy’s behind-the-scenes conflicts, spoke out about the scripts:
Even though I was having fun with it, I [wanted] it to be a little bit more subtle and not as much on the nose. I remember saying something to John Rich, and I think Dorothy might have felt the same to some degree, that I felt that somehow we were doing like a radio show, where some of the jokes were – they had some crust on them. They were a little old. And John’s response to that, as the director, he said, “Well, you’ve got to understand, Kip, this is television, and these [gags] are like old friends!”
Since Loudon’s claim to fame was as a musical comedy star, one element that Rich had deep-sixed from Alice became central to Dorothy: an abbreviated but showy song or two in every episode. In the four produced episodes Loudon performed “There’ll Be Some Changes Made,” “Hard Hearted Hannah” (with Gilman), “Strike Up the Band,” “Keep Your Sunny Side Up,” and Gilbert and Sullivan’s “I Am the Monarch of the Sea” (with the girls). The selections were probably made by Loudon, who had used some of them in her nightclub act. “Changes” was one of two songs she had performed in a 1946 audition for the talent agency MCA that had launched her professionally, and she once described singing “Hannah” “on top of a piano in a bar in Troy, New York” as the worst job of her life. Loudon also performed Dorothy’s title tune, which was written by Bill Dyer and the distinguished film and television composer Billy Goldenberg (Duel; Columbo), who probably got involved because he had made his Broadway debut with the score for Ballroom.
The songs were arguably the show’s main draw but they created a plausibility problem, as Alan Shayne pointed out:
When we did Alice, we did a couple [of episodes] and it was a bomb. I mean, it wasn’t going at all, I thought, and one of the things John Rich said was – at that point, Linda Lavin was going to sing a number in each show – and one of the things he said was, “Let her sing on somebody else’s show, but not on Alice, because she seems like a loser. If she sings great, what is she doing as a waitress?”
Well, in a similar way, with Dorothy, it was more about her being a performer, and when she did her number, you kind of thought, “Why is she in this girls’ school?” But I loved her performing. I must say, I loved her when she sang.
But Shayne’s hoped-for successor to Alice died on arrival. “It simply didn’t work,” he said recently. What no one had told Shayne was something that the company of Annie had discovered very quickly: that Loudon, in the words of the show’s composer Charles Strouse, “really, genuinely, sincerely, hated children . . . . She was very ill-natured, in that respect.” Loudon would shoo away not only the many little girls in the show’s cast but also the dog, Sandy, whom she also despised. Doubtless she was less than thrilled that, in her bid for more widespread recognition, the baggage of Annie made youngsters an unavoidable part of the package.
While Loudon’s pedophobia might have been perfect for the larger-than-life hostility of Miss Hannigan, it couldn’t work for a den-mother sister to Mrs. Garrett. “Dorothy really didn’t like the kids, I don’t think,” Shayne said. “And although she was at war with the kids, you had to feel that she also loved them. That didn’t really work. Dotty was a tough lady, you know. She had a lot of hostility.” Loudon’s husband, a television arranger and composer named Norman Paris, had died unexpectedly just six weeks after she won the Tony for Annie, upending her personal life just as she reached her professional peak.
Kip Gilman also observed Loudon’s discomfort around her young co-stars, and thought that Manz – a casting director’s off-the-streets discovery whose experience up to that point had been limited to Terrence Malick’s highly idiosyncratic style of moviemaking – was especially ill-at-ease with the demands of performing comedic material in front of a live audience. Gilman suggested that, as a consequence of all that, the other three episodes may have been altered to reduce the girls’ roles and build up the screen time of the (still underdeveloped) faculty characters.
That was a miscalculation, since the juveniles were more appealing than any of the adults on display. The closest Dorothy came to being any good was in the premiere episode (it was the second one taped), “The Bookworm Turns.” Loudon was less manic in this one than in the other three, and it ends with a sweet moment in which she consoles her gawkiest charge (the appealing Susan Brecht, above) over an unrequited crush on Gilman’s character, Mr. Landis (also a totally implausible romantic interest for Loudon, who was old enough to be Gilman’s mother).
When Dorothy premiered on August 8, the publicity marked it as a lame duck. Loudon hemmed and hawed over whether she really wanted to do television or move to Los Angeles, all but publicly apologized for the writing, and suggested that if the show were renewed, the school setting might be dumped, and her character could make a return to the stage. But the reviews were surprisingly kind. Kay Gardella of the New York Daily News compared the show unfavorably to Our Miss Brooks but felt that “[s]till Loudon is a welcome addition to television.” Variety hedged: “Loudon was forced to work awfully hard for the laughs she got – but the point is, she got them.” Jerry Krupnick of The Star-Ledger wrote that “[t]he plot is ordinary, the rest of the cast is merely competent, but Dorothy Loudon is sensational.”
Only later, after the show was safely buried, did the knives come out. “Dorothy, you may recall … was a total disaster,” was how Krupnick reversed himself in 1983. “It was loud, frantic, senseless, unfunny – with Dorothy reduced to a desperate series of leers and triple takes.” On her website, Michele Greene (the only one of the four girls to have a durable career as an actress) calls the show “horribly idiotic.” Loudon herself must have realized, from the first moment she saw herself on screen, that no one had succeeded in scaling down her broad, stagy style. In later years, she told interviewers about a mortifying premiere party that she spent sitting in a corner, drinking wine. “Thank goodness nobody saw [Dorothy],” she said in 1982. “I watched the first episode and cried all the way through.”
Sources: Author’s telephone interviews with Kip Gilman, Alan Shayne, and Gary Shimokawa; Archive of American Television interview with Madelyn Davis and Bob Carroll, Jr.; Charles Strouse interview, Life After Tomorrow DVD (2008); John Rich, Warm Up the Snake (University of Michigan Press, 2006); Kay Gardella, “Loudon sounds off for songs,” New York Daily News; August 1, 1979; Kay Gardella, Dorothy review, New York Daily News, August 8, 1979; Jerry Krupnick, “Dorothy is dazzling in long-overdue return,” Star-Ledger, August 8, 1979; Arthur Unger, “‘Bound to have viewers begging for more,’” Christian Science Monitor, August 8, 1979; Stephen M. Silverman, “Dorothy has high hopes for her sitcom,” New York Post, August 14, 1979; Dorothy Review, Variety, August 15, 1979; Richard Christiansen, “Singing, clowning, touring, winning: Loudon’s dues are paid in full,” Chicago Tribune, September 12, 1982; Jerry Krupnick, “Dorothy Loudon: Musical comedy star adds a distinctive note to ‘Best of Everything,’ Star-Ledger, September 18, 1983.
This piece was an outgrowth of my work on a project of the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts to digitize Dorothy Loudon’s papers, which were donated to the Library following her death in 2003. I am also writing about Loudon for the Library’s blog.
As of this writing, the episode “Lies and Whispers” is available on Youtube, along with some clips from other episodes of Dorothy. The Paley Center for Media has copies of all four episodes in its collection.