Thursday, May 31, 2012

New York Times Article on the VHS Boxed Set

From 1998, when the videotape boxed set The Very Best of St. Elsewhere was released.

Here's one from the New York Times archives, about how "St. Elsewhere Taught Us To Be Careful Watchers". In particular, this article refers to how season four viewers, watching "Cheek to Cheek", would have to remember how Mr. McAllister (Jack Bannon) ended up in prison for murdering his wife's killer, wannabe radical terrorist Andrew Rhinehardt (Tim Robbins, in one of his first professional roles), all the way back in the series' fourth episode, "Cora and Arnie". Those storylines will eventually receive posts of their own, unless I give this up.

Mr. McAllister (Jack Bannon) spots Footsteps of
Spring, not Johnny Jump-Up, on Dr. Westphall's
native plant poster.
More mention of Robert Thompson's Television's Second Golden Age, which had been published about two years before the boxed set came out. The "careful" watching referred to in the review's title was one of the things I enjoyed about St. Elsewhere when I started watching. Because of Prime's airing schedule in the 90's, I saw the seasons backwards, starting with 6, then 5, then 4, and then 1, 2 and 3. Though many people, when watching a TV show or reading a book, would hear a character refer to an event that happened before and be confused and therefore disenchanted, I've never had that problem. I'd just assume that I was the one who didn't know what was going on, make a reasonable assumption as to what they meant, and go on enjoying the story.

What made St. Elsewhere stand out, even compared to Hill Street Blues, was this awareness of its own history. I have an apparently freakish (I've been told) memory for details, so this kind of stuff really appeals to me. Upon this latest viewing, I've noticed that they don't really start with the references to past episodes until season 4.

Four seasons later, and Drs. Chandler and Kiley are
still debating: Johnny Jump-Up or Footsteps of Spring?
The example Thompson cites in his book is how on the episode following "Cheek to Cheek", Phil is buying flowers for Roxanne, and tells Kiley, "Roxanne loves Johnny Jump-Ups," to which Kiley replies, "too bad, those are Footsteps of Spring". In Cora and Arnie, after Katherine McAllister dies, Mr. McAllister is in Dr. Westphall's office, admiring the native plant poster Lizzie gave him because his office was too stark, and McAllister points at a flower and guesses, "Viola Tri-Color?" Westphall replies, "Johnny Jump-Up," and McAllister looks closer and reads that no, it's Footsteps of Spring. If you remember that scene, you're reminded of the drastic difference between the man then and now.

I received the Very Best of St. Elsewhere boxed set as a Christmas present in 2003, as it was the only legitimate video of St. Elsewhere on the market at the time. The selection of episodes was "Bypass" and "Cora and Arnie" from season one, "Drama Center" from season two, "My Aim Is True" from season three, "Time Heals (Parts 1 & 2)" from season four, "After Life" from season five, and "The Last One" from season six. This selection gives you two key episodes from the Rhinehart/McAllister story, plus the beginning, end, and aftermath of Peter White, ski-masked rapist.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Another New Page Added

Created a page with a list of episodes, which eventually might evolve into an episode guide.

I gave my fingers a workout, and created the shell of an episode list/guide. I based this initial list on the episode guide originally created for the web by Donna Lemaster, which is currently housed here. This was the one I first found online when I started watching the series in syndication.

I have hopes that eventually I'll add episode descriptions; I could always just copy the ones Donna created, but I'd love to develop my own. We'll see what happens.

I also now have screen capture capabilities. I have updated the "Cast" page so that all photos are either original promotional photos or stills from the credits. Still have to get better images for Barbara Whinnery and Alfre Woodard. (June 3, 2012--done).

Sunday, May 27, 2012

People's Article About The Last One

People magazine's article from May 23, 1988, two days before "The Last One" aired.

Great bit of memorabilia from People magazine's online archive... "Good Night St. Elsewhere" describes the cast and crew's reactions after shooting the last episode. "The atmosphere on Stage Three of the MTM lot in Studio City matches the peculiar mood of this peculiar show: black humor and blue punch lines, heartaches and headaches, sentimentality spiked with sarcasm."

The author also describes the show's evolution from a Hill Street Blues copycat to "a sanctuary of literate scripts and idiosyncratic sensibilities--General Hospital as it might have been created by Woody Allen."

Saturday, May 26, 2012

The Need for Closure

From season five, episode four, "Brand New Bag". Relying on someone else for closure is a sure way not to get it.

I had remembered this episode for the story where Elliott, in one of his most unprofessional moments, reacts with disgust to a patient who has to use a colostomy bag (Corinne Bohrer). But watching recently I was much more moved by the story that had started in the previous episode, "A Room with a View", and had its ultimate origins the previous season.

In season four, Dr. Westphall returns from Africa chock full of idealism and decides that the residents need to feel more of sense of service to humanity, so he creates the Community Outreach program, which requires the doctors to do ten hours of community service every month. The program has some disastrous results, with doctors suffering from abortion clinic bombings and prison rape.

Wayne Fiscus, on the other hand, is sent to do house calls for elderly shut-ins. Wayne is an E.R. doctor who loves the adrenaline rush of medical emergencies. He also hates being told what to do and resents authority figures, so having Westphall order him to spend time with boring old people who are running out the clock is like being handed a prison sentence. But Wayne comes around, learns a thing or two, and by "A Room with a View", he spends time with his elderly friends because he likes it. He visits one named Joe Ewell (George Petrie) and gets no answer when he rings the doorbell. Looking inside, he sees Mr. Ewell collapsed on the floor. He breaks the window with a lawn sprinkler to get inside, and calls for help.

Kathleen Lloyd
Kathleen Lloyd
Mr. Petrie has suffered a stroke, and his two grown daughters come to see him at St. Eligius. Joe Ewell has always favoured the older, bitchier daughter Lorraine, played by Kathleen Lloyd, who looked awfully familiar, so I looked her up to find I knew her from both Magnum, P.I. as A.D.A. Carol Baldwin, and from Hill Street Blues, as Howard's girlfriend, Nurse Linda Wulfawitz. The younger daughter, Katie (Christine Healy), has always longed for his approval. The stroke has rendered him unable to live on his own, but he doesn't want to spend his last days in a nursing home. Lorraine isn't willing to take him in as her hands are full with her own family, so Katie offers to care for him.

In "Brand New Bag", Mr. Ewell has moved in, and Katie is holding out hope that her bedridden father who can barely speak will show her some gratitude, and maybe even finally tell her he loves her. She was hoping they could use this time to finally have some kind of emotional connection. But it doesn't happen. Joe keeps asking for Lorraine, who couldn't be bothered to visit that day. Other than him at least recognizing her and letting slip that he thought of her as his pretty baby girl, Katie is left without any resolution when he dies.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Great Blog Post Elsewhere

I was stoked to see that there was such a thing as the St. Elsewhere Appreciation Club.

Very cool blog post I came across on the weekend, from October 26 of last year, the 29th anniversary of St. Elsewhere's debut on NBC. Contains scans of the scripts from the very beginning of the series, the first scene of the pilot, and the very end, the last scene of "The Last One". This October, it will be an even 30 years since TV audiences were introduced to the world of St. Eligius.

I would love to learn more about the St. Elsewhere Appreciation Club newsletter, On Call that was distributed from 1997 to 1999, right around the time I was watching the series in syndication. James L. Longworth, Jr., its creator, managed to interview key figures from the show.

Thank you, Chris Otto, for your post!

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Interview with G.W. Bailey

The A.V. Club's "Random Roles" interview with G.W. Bailey, who played Dr. Hugh Beale in season 1.

Came across this great interview from the A.V. Club with G.W. Bailey, who played St. Eligius's psychiatrist, Dr. Hugh Beale, a good ole boy from Mississippi, on the first season of St. Elsewhere. He left the show after one season, and this interview explains why. Turns out he didn't get along with executive producer Bruce Paltrow. After leaving St. Elsewhere, he landed his iconic role as Captain Harris in the Police Academy movies. He currently stars on the TNT series, The Closer.

The experience he relates may shed some light on some of the other cast turnovers of the show's six seasons.

Monday, May 14, 2012

New Page Added!

Took a few days to assemble, but I've finished my first stand-alone page.

While I've got all this inspiration (it ebbs and flows, believe me), I wanted to put together some informative pages about the show. The first one it occurred to me to create was one with all the cast, so I spent the last two days manually writing out the table code, searching the web for images to pilfer, and tweaking, tweaking, tweaking, until I had a rough layout that was good enough to publish.

I plan on adding links, and filling out a more complete list of recurring characters. I don't currently have the ability to do screen/video captures from the recordings of the show in my possession, so I had to settle for what I could find online. My god, was it ever tough to find period-appropriate pictures of Sagan Lewis, Jennifer Savidge and Barbara Whinnery. Slim pickings of late-eighties France Nuyen, too.

It's back to work for me tomorrow (I mean my day job), so we'll see how frequent my posting will be on here.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

"St. Elsewhere" - Theme by Dave Grusin

Information about the composer of the St. Elsewhere theme music, plus various versions of the tune courtesy of YouTube and some of his other theme songs.

The opening theme music to St. Elsewhere was composed by jazz pianist, film composer and twelve-time Grammy winner Dave Grusin. Grusin won an academy award for his original score for The Milagro Beanfield War (1988). He started getting TV scoring work in 1965, and got his first film score gig in 1967, shortly thereafter composing music for the soundtrack to The Graduate. Click these links for his IMDB profile and the Dave Grusin Archive.

Grusin's other notable TV themes include the shows The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, It Takes a Thief, The Name of the Game, The Bold Ones, Maude, Baretta, Good Times, and One Life to Live. His film scores include Three Days of the Condor, The Goodbye Girl, Heaven Can Wait, The Champ, ...And Justice For All, My Bodyguard, Absence of Malice, On Golden Pond, Tootsie, The Goonies, Ishtar, The Fabulous Baker Boys, Havana, The Bonfire of the Vanities, The Firm, Selena, and Hope Floats. (I don't feel like linking to all of these.)

It was the eighties, so as was common for the time, the theme music is performed entirely on synthesizers. I noticed that the theme for season five is a either a new recording or a remaster, probably a new recording; the synth sounds are less harsh, cleaner. The arrangement is exactly the same. There currently isn't a video for season five's theme on YouTube, so you'll have to take my word for it. Update, August 19, 2012: Season six's arrangement has a really annoying synth-triangle-like track that hits some really unpleasant high frequencies. By far my least favorite version.

The opening theme, season 1.

Here's a clip of the man himself, Dave Grusin, playing the theme on the piano with an ensemble of jazz musicians, the GRP All-Stars (GRP Records is the label he founded in the 70s). Featuring Lee Ritenour (guitar), Dave Valentin (flute), Ivan Lins (keyboards, vocals), Larry Williams (keyboards, sax), Abraham Laboriel (bass), and Carlos Vega (drums).

Here's a guy playing the St. Elsewhere theme with the pipe organ preset on a Roland Juno-G synth. I enjoy his arrangement. It's hard to capture all the polyphony with just ten fingers on two hands. On his YouTube post he warns that his improvised modulated outro at the end is his own improvisation.

This kid does a great arrangement of the St. Elsewhere theme for solo piano. I myself would have kept trying until I did a cleaner performance before putting it up on YouTube, but that's just me. And it's still good.

More are two pieces from his Oscar-winning score to The Milagro Beanfield War. I can totally understand why it won.

Grusin's theme music to Maude, with lyrics by Marilyn and Alan Bergman, performed by Donny Hathaway.

Grusin's theme to the Maude spinoff, Good Times, also with lyrics by Marilyn and Alan Bergman, sung by Jim Gilstrap and Blinky Williams.

Grusin and Morgan Ames's theme to Baretta, "Keep Your Eye on the Sparrow" sung by Sammy Davis, Jr. The first is from the actual Baretta opening credits; the second is an extended single that went to #1 in the Netherlands.

Grusin's main theme from On Golden Pond.

One's Grusin's theme from Robert Altman's revisionist film noir Philip Marlowe movie, The Long Goodbye, with vocals by Jack Sheldon. This movie was featured in a film studies class I took. Various versions of the theme keep popping up through the film. 

At one point during the film, Marlowe (Elliott Gould) is in a piano bar during the day, and there's a pianist practicing the tune because it's the latest hit that everyone wants to hear. That pianist is played by Jack Riley, who revived his character from The Bob Newhart Show, Mr. Carlin, in the season 4 St. Elsewhere episode, "Close Encounters", which crossed over the two series into the same fictional universe. He's in the psych ward when John Doe #6 decides that his true identity is Mary Richards from The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and he dubs Mr. Carlin as Rhoda.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Setting the Record Straight About a Few Things

Comment on a recent article about the show at A.V. Club, which will likely stay in Google's top ten results for "St. Elsewhere" for a while.

In preparing this blog, I came across a recent article about St. Elsewhere, part of a series of articles on A.V. Club where they profile shows that reached the 100-episode mark, which used to be the number after which episodes of a currently-airing show could be sold into syndication. St. Elsewhere celebrated its 100th episode by including a line about a patient named Cindy Kayshun who was still going strong after a hundred episodes of angina.

I take issue with a few things in this article. First of all, the author goes on about how St. Elsewhere stayed on the air because of an innovative strategy of citing demographics to sell the show to advertisers, and it was kept around because of its appeal to the 18-to-49 demographic. Robert Thompson's book, Television's Second Golden Age, tells the story a bit differently. Sure, its audience was skewed towards the 18-to-49's, but what kept it on the air, far from being simply a "vanity" project that "made the network look good", was that the show was actually NBC's fourth-most profitable series by the end of its run. By season six, it had started to win its time slot, climbing to a personal-best #49 in the annual Nielsen rankings. NBC was ready to green-light it for the 1988-89 season, but MTM Productions decided to call it day, as rising production costs and poor syndication sales meant that it would cost them too much to continue making it. Ironic given that they had wrap up most preceding seasons with episodes that could have doubled as series finales because they were perennially on the network's chopping block.

Friday, May 11, 2012

The Pop Culture Game Show

St. Elsewhere... Where TV went to get pomo, meta, and intertextual.

I have to give credit for a lot of what I'm going to write in this blog (if I keep it up) to professor Robert Thompson, who, if you're going to judge based on who most often gets called to be the expert academic analyst on TV shows about TV, is a leading authority among academics who study television, or in particular, "quality television". Here's another scholar's take on term "quality television", and why he doesn't like it. My opinion is that the "quality television" label is historically situated, and is not just a relational term, but cannot be used as a category beyond the specific time period in which it originated. The TVscape continues to evolve, and old labels and approaches don't apply the way they used to.

After falling in love with St. Elsewhere when I was in high school, I ordered Robert Thompson's book Television's Second Golden Age from Amazon because, according to my web research, it was the only book out there with any significant information about the show. That's probably still the case, and it was published in 1996. The book has a whole chapter devoted to St. Elsewhere, and one to Hill Street Blues as well. What I learned about the show in this book has had a significant impact on how I've experienced the series.

Thompson makes a good case that St. Elsewhere was more than simply "Hill Street in a hospital." The thing that pushed it into a new realm was its writing. The writers took great pleasure in making references to pop culture, particularly television shows. Watching the show was like a dramatic pop-culture game show, and you played by spotting the puns and references. "Intertextuality", or making references to fiction outside of itself, had been around in stories for a long time, but St. Elsewhere took it to extremes never seen before in television, and it's unlikely that any show will attempt to do anything like that again, lest it be accused of trying to re-invent the wheel (a wheel that today's audiences would likely have no interest in).


Not about the pilot episode; rather, this is the first post of my attempt at a tribute blog to one of my all-time favourite TV shows.

I recently came into possession of the entire run of St. Elsewhere, and as a fairly hardcore fan of the medical drama which ran from 1982 to 1988 on NBC, I am pleased to start writing about it. I guess I don't spend enough hours with my eyes on a screen as it is.

I don't know how long I'll keep this blog up, but I'm enjoying seeing the show again. I was too young to catch it during its original run; during most of the eighties, I was only allowed to stay up past 10 PM to hear the theme song from Dynasty and then it was straight to bed.

If you haven't seen the series and don't want any spoilers, then don't keep reading. Hell, I should put "SPOILER ALERT" in the description header. It's not the kind of show that requires the element of surprise to enjoy; I know some of you will disagree with that, but that's a nice thing about humanity--other people's opinions don't have to matter if you don't want them to. A lot of people have no use for what St. Elsewhere has to offer, and I have no problem with that. I enjoy surprises when they come, but I don't find them necessary for my pleasure.

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