Sunday, June 30, 2013

On Call, Vol. 1, No. 1 - Medical Seminar: St. Elsewhere... Emphasis on Education, Awareness, Prevention

From On Call: The Official Newsletter of the St. Elsewhere Appreciation Club, February 1997, volume 1, number 1.

Most television programs are designed for pure entertainment, while others offer a moral. A few programs even challenge us to think, and some provide topical information. But St. Elsewhere was and still is unique because it meets all of those criteria.

Above all, St. Elsewhere was a pioneer in addressing and dealing with a host of topical and/or controversial diseases and disorders, and making us more aware in the process.

Executive Producer BRUCE PALTROW told ON CALL: "In all honesty, I think what you start out to do is try to make a very good program that's appealing to an audience, that will bring people in, that you want them to care about the characters and, first and foremost, we're storytellers. So first you've got to make a good show. In those days you did an awful lot of research. I read an awful lot of JAMA, The New England Journal of Medicine, and science sections of the New York Times because I was always looking for stories. You would always try to come up with stories that would be compelling and entertaining storytelling, but that would educate people in a way that they hadn't been educated before, and do it in ways that were dramatic. I feel that if you're fortunate enough to make a good show and you have an opportunity to be on television - I think there's a greater responsibility that you have in order to make it count."

On Call, Vol. 1, No. 1 - Medical Histories: The Birth of St. Eligius

From On Call: The Official Newsletter of the St. Elsewhere Appreciation Club, February 1997, volume 1, number 1.

The story of how St. Elsewhere came to television is filled with twists, turns and ironies. not unlike the series (and the hospital) itself. In the late 1970's, MTM had begun to abandon its half hour sitcom format in favor of hour long dramas. The ratings successes of The Waltons and Dallas encouraged and validated this shift in strategy. Lou Grant led the movement in 1977 and The White Shadow followed in 1978. The latter was produced by Bruce Paltrow and written in part by the then unknown Steven Bochco. Also on the White Shadow payroll were two story editors - Josh Brand and John Falsey. According to Grant Tinker, all of these men hungered to develop "their own next assignment", and all were thinking of a hospital for the setting. Josh Brand, in particular, wanted to make Cleveland the location for a pilot - this, because of the experiences recounted to him by a friend who worked at the Cleveland Clinic.

Meanwhile, a similar idea had been floating around NBC. The project was originally titled "Operating Room", and Fred Silverman reportedly offered Grant Tinker and MTM a shot at producing "OR" as a series. Paltrow, Bochco, and Mark Tinker (Grant's son). then formed the team to produce a pilot.

Bochco dropped out of the project and went on to produce Hill Street Blues. For years critics have argued that St. Elsewhere was simply Hill Street in a hospital, but in point of fact, development of "OR" (and Brand's research in Cleveland) had begun before Blues reached the air in 1981. "OR" essentially became St. Elsewhere when Paltrow and Tinker joined forces with Brand and Falsey and incorporated Brand's research in the process. As the project evolved, a series pilot was begun, but then drastically overhauled.

NORMAN LLOYD: "The pilot was stopped in mid air. Bruce was unhappy with the way it was going and he was unhappy with some of the casting. For one thing, Auschlander had originally come from Vienna and had a Viennese accent. We had to drop that. He was also unhappy with the photography which was too pretty - too romantic... The cameraman was very good, but it didn't have the roughness Bruce wanted."

Two of the cast changes involved the characters of Dr. Westphall and Dr. Fiscus. Character actor Josef Sommer was the original Donald, but was cut from the never seen, unfinished original pilot.

Howie Mandel as Dr. Wayne Fiscus
NORMAN LLOYD: "Josef was a very good actor, but the quality was not what Bruce wanted, so he got Ed Flanders, who, in my view, there was no finer actor in America."

HOWIE MANDEL: "I was actually a replacement. When they shot the pilot for this they shot for 7 days, and then tore down and re-cast some of us. Then I came in and auditioned... luckily, they had not seem my comedy (laughs)."

NORMAN LLOYD: "It was an inspiration on the part of the producers that they DID put Howie in the part. Today's film goers will also be surprised to learn who was originally cast and then fired in the role of Wayne Fiscus. I ran into the original Fiscus one day, David Paymer. He said 'I've always wanted to write Bruce a letter thanking him for firing me because it was the only way that I was able to get into a feature, and then my career took off (City Slickers, Quiz Show, et al)."

And so, St. Elsewhere was recast and re-shot and the pilot was delivered to NBC. The series premiered on October 26, 1982. But like many newborns, it was "closely monitored". The story of how St. Elsewhere was "cancelled", then "resuscitated", in the next issue of On Call.

To learn more about St. Elsewhere, see Gary Yoggy's article in Television Chronicles magazine and look for Robert Thompson's new book due out this spring.

Originally produced by Longworth Communications.

On Call, Vol. 1, No. 1 - Common Carrier: Take Me to TV Land!

From On Call: The Official Newsletter of the St. Elsewhere Appreciation Club, February 1997, volume 1, number 1.

Last summer, Nickelodeon launched a new channel for nostalgia buffs, called "TV LAND". TVL's line-up consists solely of vintage television shows and old commercials (new ads will be allowed beginning this fall).

When TVL premiered, St. Elsewhere appeared twice daily at 3:00pm and 11:00pm, with five episodes running back to back at the end of each week diring the wee hours of Sunday night, and a single episode on Saturday morning. In October of 1996 TVL realigned its schedule and moved SE to one showing per day at 7:00am.

By early November TVL had cycled through all 137 episodes and had begun a second run (which will end in May). A 4:00pm time slot was added, and at present we are back to our original "prescribed dosage" of twice daily.

And so, thanks to TV LAND we can watch St. Elsewhere seven days a week. Of course it would be nice if our friends at TV LAND would restore St. Elsewhere to its familiar (NBC) 10:00pm time slot, but we certainly don't want to look a gift channel in the mouth! Still, we will keep pushing for the change. Also, if you are currently unable to receive TV LAND, we strongly urge you to lobby with your local cable company.

If your requests fall on deaf ears, please e-mail SEAC, and give us the name of your cable company, and we will issue letters to them and to their corporate office. If all else fails, we suggest you purchase an 18-inch satellite dish from DSS which is now available for about $150 after rebates. The audio and video quality is far superior to cable, and you can receive hundres of channels. So don't feel you're at the mercy of your local cable operator - get TV LAND today and tune in to St. Elsewhere!

Originally produced by Longworth Communications. Note from editor: Just to be clear, this is from 1997, so this stuff no longer applies, and is presented here for the sake of historical preservation.

Saturday, June 29, 2013

On Call, Vol. 1, No. 1 - Club, Newsletter Celebrate St. Elsewhere Anniversary!

From On Call: The Official Newsletter of the St. Elsewhere Appreciation Club, February 1997, volume 1, number 1.

Welcome to the premiere issue of "ON CALL", the official newsletter of the St. Elsewhere Appreciation Club. First of all, SEAC is NOT a traditional fan club. Our founding members are business owners, medical professionals, broadcast veterans and others who are committed to keeping St. Elsewhere on the air, including helping to grow the subscriber base for Nick at Nite's TV LAND channel.

SEAC members will not be asked to organize conventions and dress up as characters from the show. Instead we will be focused on access to, awareness of, and appreciation for a television series that provided not only quality entertainment, but also had a pro-active, positive impact on quality of life, through its treatment of medical and social issues.

Of course, SEAC will be a vehicle for baby boomers to celebrate the series and to stay current with news of cast and crew. In so doing those of us in our 40's and 50's will also try to encourage membership and viewership by a whole new generation of St. Elsewhere fans. So scrub up and enjoy our first issue of "ON CALL", in this the year of St. Elsewhere's 15th Anniversary!

Originally produced by Longworth Communications.

Very Special Thanks to Friends of the St. Elsewhere Experience

I am indebted to Ben Douwsma for filling out my video collection and Chris Otto for On Call: The St. Elsewhere Appreciation Club newsletter.

One of the best things about blogging is interacting with people who share your interests. That's especially valuable when there isn't much out there about your interest, like in the case of St. Elsewhere. That was one of the reasons I started this blog--to share what I had learned. From what I could tell, there weren't any other active sites devoted to compiling phenomena about the show.

So I am especially grateful to have been graced by the generosity of new St. Elsewhere friends. Last year, I wrote a post about the three episodes in my collection where the soundtrack failed. A fan named Ben Douwsma read the post, contacted me and offered to send me a DVD containing his copies of the episodes I was missing. I reciprocated by filling the holes in his collection. Thank you very much, Ben, for helping complete my episodes.

On Call: The St. Elsewhere Appreciation Club
The other wonderful thing that happened recently comes courtesy of Chris Otto, whose blog Papergreat was featured in an early post on this blog. He had written a post in celebration of St. Elsewhere's 29th birthday in October of 2011, and that's where I first learned of The St. Elsewhere Appreciation Club and its newsletter, On Call. It was produced for seven issues in the late 1990s by James L. Longworth, Jr., and featured several pieces that involved interviews with cast and crew.

Chris had copies of the seven issues, and upon connecting with the St. Elsewhere Experience, he graciously offered to send me photocopies of the newsletters. I am pleased to announce that these copies arrived in the mail recently.

I will be transcribing these newsletters one article at a time, and I will be adding a page that compiles links to all the articles in each issue. These are truly a treasure trove of St. Elsewhere trivia and stories, and I'm pleased to have the opportunity to share them with the world.

So thanks to Ben, I will now be able to offer a complete picture of season six. You just can't miss episodes of St. Elsewhere and get the whole experience, especially given how often characters refer to events that happened in previous episodes. They amped up this approach as the series progressed, I think. I haven't counted how often that happens or anything like that. (I really ought to start a list of things to look for the next time I run through the series.)

And thanks to Chris, we'll all get to enjoy the great stories, trivia and behind-the-scenes information that James L. Longworth assembled in On Call. To honor their contributions, I have given them a permanent tribute in the right sidebar, in a new section called Friends of the St. Elsewhere Experience.

Also, I'd like to thank everyone who has been leaving comments lately. It's always great to hear from other fans. Your voices make the site better!

Monday, June 24, 2013

A Response to the Question, "Should I Give St. Elsewhere a Chance?"

To those who have heard about the show and wonder what the big deal was--here's what to look for in watching St. Elsewhere.

A scene from season one, the Joshua Brand-John Falsey era.
A while back, I came across a discussion forum for former St. Elsewhere showrunner Tom Fontana's gritty 90s police drama, Homicide: Life on the Street where a poster, underwhelmed by the episode of St. Elsewhere he caught in reruns, asked other posters if it's worth watching more of the show. I can't find the post anymore, so it could be gone. If anyone tracks it down, they are welcome to post the link in the comments section.

Then recently, I got a Google Alert for a similar page on Reddit, where a user asked if the two Joshua Brand-John Falsey creations St. Elsewhere and Northern Exposure were worth watching all the way through.

I posted my response on the Reddit page. You might not expect this from the proprietor of a fan site, but I wouldn't recommend the show to everyone. It's really not for everyone's tastes or sensibilities. But if you get it, the show's pretty damn good.

If you're here on this website, odds are you that have watched St. Elsewhere and are looking to have your memory refreshed. So I don't need to preach to the choir. One thing to consider is that it's not easy to even see the show. You can watch it on Channel 4OD in Britain, but not in North America. There are only a few cable channels that show reruns (including iChannel in Canada).

On DVD, you can buy the first season, which I feel to be the weakest and not really representative of what made St. Elsewhere special, but not seasons two through six, where the show takes off. If you're not inclined to buy bootleg DVDs of the complete series, you can't access it.

If you're open to watching television from a bygone era and you like getting hooked on a series with continuing storylines and long-range character development, St. Elsewhere is quite rewarding. If you've got a quirky sense of humor, relatively sophisticated cultural sensibilities, and knowledge of baby boomer culture, there's a lot to like.

Denzel Washington, Stephen Furst, and Howie Mandel as
doctors Chandler, Axelrod and Fiscus.
If not, you might at least be interested to see a medical show where Denzel Washington, Mark Harmon and Howie Mandel were some of the doctors on staff. I would hope that's at least slightly interesting. I think it's a damn strange mix of actors, but not really, considering they were basically unknowns before St. Elsewhere.

If you like weird or crazy stuff happening, St. Elsewhere has a lot of that:
  • A patient dies folded up in a hospital bed ("crushed like a clam")
  • A doctor's wife slips in the tub and dies, and her heart ends up in a transplant patient in the hospital
  • One of the doctors commits a string of rapes and is murdered by a vigilante
  • A doctor gets shot and spends an episode in the afterlife, where he runs into dead characters
  • A doctor accidentally kills his mother-in-law by sending her a severed head in the mail and inducing a heart attack
  • A doctor's parents, previously thought to be dead, turn out to have been spies captured in the Bay of Pigs invasion
  • A male doctor gets raped in a prison riot, and is stalked by the assailant after his release
  • A mercy killer stalks the hospital and is never caught
  • The whole show turns out to be a fantasy dreamed up by an autistic child who watches a lot of TV
St. Elsewhere's dialogue is filled with puns, inside jokes, and references to pop culture, often thrown into serious scenes; guest stars frequently have lines that refer to their other work. In their biggest stunt casting move, they cast five of the original Tonight Show players as parents of the residents: Steve Allen, Jayne Meadows, Bill Dana, Louis Nye, and Tom Poston.

The show celebrated the tragedies and triumphs of life, commented on religion and politics, and explored the challenges and limitations of healthcare. It's as rich as a great novel, and was widely honored for its writing, including two Emmys and a Peabody. And there are a ton of great acting performances from cast and guest stars. Emmy awards for acting were bestowed upon Ed Flanders, James Coco, Doris Roberts, William Daniels and Bonnie Bartlett, and nominations went to Ed Begley, Jr., Christina Pickles, Piper Laurie, Alfre Woodard, Edward Herrmann, Steve Allen, Jayne Meadows and Lainie Kazan.

There are video clips of St. Elsewhere out there if you look for them. You can watch the saga of Mrs. Hufnagel on this playlist as an example of how they made a great story out of a bit part.

I intend to keep more clips, stories, retrospectives and features coming, all to celebrate the many things I've enjoyed while taking in the world of St. Eligius. That's how I'll make my case.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Retcon Alert! Father McCabe Is Alive and Well and Living in Arizona

Just noticed a pretty glaring continuity error, probably the only big one in the series.

Alex Corey (Jeff Allin) tells version one: Father McCabe
died while posing for his portrait.
Recently, I was browsing the Wikipedia entry for the show King of the Hill when I came across the term "retcon", which I had never heard before, but which refers to a phenomenon with which I am familiar. "Retcon", a verb, is a portmanteau of the term "retroactive continuity", which refers to "the alteration of previously established facts in a fictional work."

St. Elsewhere pulled a pretty big retcon, and I'm glad they did. In the third season episode, "Give the Boy a Hand", we are introduced to one of my favorite recurring characters, local artist Alex Corey (Jeff Allin). Alex has been hired to paint a portrait of St. Eligius's Chief of Services, Dr. Daniel Auschlander (Norman Lloyd), to celebrate his long tenure as the hospital's head administrator. The portrait is to hang in the chapel alongside that of Father Joseph McCabe, who founded the hospital in 1934, according to this scene.

I watched St. Elsewhere's seasons in reverse order on the Prime cable channel back in the nineties, and until I saw this episode, I had wondered just how the hell this guy ended up painting Dr. Auschlander's portrait, judging by his three subsequent appearances. Alex Corey is a very serious artist. He resents the assignment, and he's not shy about sharing his feelings. His father painted the portrait of Father McCabe, so he was given the job. In between gripes, he tells Dr. Auschlander that his father was amazed at how perfectly still Father McCabe could sit. That is, until the elder Corey discovered that his subject had died.

This version of events stands until the following season, when the history of St. Eligius was explored in the multiple-Emmy-winning two-part episode, "Time Heals". It starts off with a flashback to the hospital's grand opening in 1935. We learn that Father McCabe, rather than dying in his chair as an old man posing for his portrait, departed the hospital in 1955, dismissed after the hospital was sold to the City by the Catholic diocese, and was re-assigned to Arizona. Edward Herrmann earned an Emmy nomination for his guest appearance as Father McCabe.

Father McCabe (Edward Herrmann) is still alive, though
not exactly kicking, one year later.
Father McCabe returns in the season five premiere, "Where There's Hope, There's Crosby", so there's no doubt that his presumed demise in season three has been re-written. He comes to St. Eligius from Arizona suffering from ALS and about to take up residence in a nursing home. He is paralyzed, depressed, and he wants to be euthanized until he is inspired to carry on by a heartwarming encounter with Dr. Westphall's autistic son, Tommy.

These days, I'm accustomed to having back episodes of my favorite TV series at my fingertips, so I have to think back to my younger days to remember how they used to broadcast network TV shows. A few new episodes, then a rerun or two, either from a previous season or the current one. They'd spread out the twenty-two episodes from September to May. You'd see the old episodes again, but few people had VCRs back then, so it wasn't like you were expected to go back and look up what happened.

So I'm thinking stuff like this wasn't as big a deal back then, unless you were an obsessive detail hound like me. I feel the poetic license was justified in this case. Edward Herrmann as Father McCabe is a great addition to the show's mythology. After "Time Heals", they changed the portrait of Father McCabe in the chapel to resemble Herrmann. It's clear that the "Time Heals" version is the preferred version of events.

Update, February 1, 2014: Spotted another one... In season two's "Vanity", the voice-over in the TV documentary on Dr. Craig mentions that St. Eligius became a public hospital in the late forties. That got re-written in "Time Heals" as well.

Drs. Westphall and Auschlander regard the original portrait
of Father McCabe in "Breathless".
Update, February 21, 2014: The Father McCabe story actually changed twice, I've discovered. Early in season three, in the fifth episode, "Breathless", Daniel is in the chapel communing with the portrait of Father McCabe (he feels remorse over his handling of the nurses' strike and discovering that longtime maintenance supervisor Rawly Moreland is suffering from asbestosis from working at St. Eligius) when Dr. Donald Westphall (Ed Flanders) enters.

Daniel asks Donald if he ever met the man, and Donald says 'no'. (In "Time Heals"--Father McCabe is a mentor to the troubled young Westphall.) Then he states that McCabe founded the hospital in 1932.

Ah, things were so much simpler before we had all this digitization!

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