September 11, 2012

Pop Culture Reunion: The Facts of Life

Lisa Whelchel on "Survior"
On this season's reality TV show "Survivor" which premiers this week, one of the participants is former child actress Lisa Whelchel, who is a former Mickey Mouse Club Mousketeer (though she was from an earlier generation than the Britney/Christina/Justin graduating class) perhaps best known for her portayal of "Blair Warner" on the 1980s Norman Lear-created sitcom "The Facts of Life".  Although Ms. Whelchel has largely stayed out of the spotlight in recent years to raise a family, she has become known for Evangelical Christian prosthelytizing (much like another child actor from the 1980s sitcom "Growing Pains" Kirk Cameron) although she's largely avoided making any controversial statements (and we learned from People magazine she's recently divorced, hence she may have done so to keep her Hollywood employment options open).  Interestingly, one connection between Ms. Whelchel and "Growing Pains" is that the man who played Dr. Alan Seaver (Alan Thicke) on "Growing Pains" actually co-wrote the memorable theme song for "The Facts of Life" (along with his then-wife Gloria Loring who sang the theme song, note that this couple also wrote the theme song for the show's predecessor "Diff'rent Strokes").

You can listen to that catchy theme-song below, or by visiting http://www.televisionhits.com/factsoflife/soundlibrary.html.



Indeed, the theme song for "The Facts of Life" was one of the better-written ones according to my recollection, although in today's television market, the era of theme songs longer than just a few soundbytes seems to be relegated to history.  There are a few, but it's more common to have a just few notes such as those used in the TV show "Glee".

In recent years, "Survivor" has, in an effort to boost falling ratings, added C-List celebrity contestants including Ms. Whelchel and retired Major League Baseball second baseman (for the San Francisco Giants) Jeff Kent, to the cast.  This season, "Survivor" goes to the Philippines, a country where the U.S. maintained Naval bases during the Vietnam conflict during the 1960s, but also a country that uses English as an official national language (as well as the language of government and instruction in education).  Although technically a developing country, the Philippines has one of the highest literacy rates in the developing world and The New York Times recently reported (see http://nyti.ms/QhFYdO) that the Philippine economy is set to become Asia's newest bright spot, in spite of dramatic slowing in countries such as China.  Although it's not trouble-free, the country has advantages including a relatively young population, and it surpassed India last year as the world's leading provider of voice-based outsourcing services like customer service call centers.  Yet this is where this season of "Survivor" is taking place.

Comedian Daniel Tosh (best known for his TV show "Tosh.0") has a funny yet relevant quote in his stand-up act (which is available for purchase on his CD "True Stories I Made Up", or you can download the MP3, see http://amzn.to/Oo83nu for info. on how to buy it) which aptly describes how "Survivor" might be seen in other countries:

"We wonder why other countries hate us: we have a game show in our country called 'Survivor'; that's a game in our country - where you can win a million dollars for surviving 30 days in a place where people already live." by Daniel Tosh

Anyway, without getting too far off topic, today's post is about a cast reunion for the show Lisa Whelchel is perhaps best known for: "The Facts of Life".  Some brief but relevant background on that show.  Norman Lear, a man best known for his blockbuster seventies sitcom "All in the Family", but he also created and produced many character-based shows and spin-offs during the seventies and eighties, many of which deserve postings in their own right.  The star of that show was Charlotte Rae Lubotsky (known better as simply "Charlotte Rae"), an American actress originally from Milwaukee, WI.  She attended Northwestern University with several other well-known film and TV celebrities from the the same era, including Cloris Leachman ("The Mary Tyler Moore Show"), Paul Lynde ("Bewitched") and Charlton Heston ("The Ten Commandments").  Charlotte Rae was a veteran of theater, she even appeared in a stage production with Bea Arthur (who later went on to star in "Maude" and "The Golden Girls" on television, see a related post at http://goo.gl/oK0S1), along with other TV celebs including Ed Asner, Jerry Orbach and Jerry Stiller in a revival of "Threepenny Opera".  Ms. Rae was even nominated for a Tony award in 1966, although she never won the Tony (or and Emmy, for that matter, in spite of being nominated several times).

In the late seventies, NBC was losing to both CBS and ABC in sitcom ratings, so Fred Silverman, future producer and former head of CBS, ABC, and NBC, turned to Norman Lear, who was hot from his success with "All in the Family", "Maude", "One Day at a Time", "The Jeffersons" and others, for help.  "Diff'rent Strokes" came first, but when an opportunity to feature actress Charlotte Rae in her own show, "The Facts of Life" was created, in part, based on her concept.

Ms. Rae first appeared as Edna Garrett on "Diff'rent Strokes" as a housekeeper for the wealthy New York businessman Philip Drummond (played by Conrad Bain, better know for his preceding television role as Dr. Arthur Harmon, who in the words of Wikipedia, was "a stuffy, sardonic Republican whose views clashed with those of Maude; in lieu of Archie Bunker, Arthur was Maude's foil").  Mr. Drummond had a daughter Kimberly (played by Dana Plato), and adopted the two African American sons, Arnold (Gary Coleman) and Willis Jackson (Todd Bridges), of his late, previous housekeeper from Harlem. Charlotte Rae was only on that series for the first season, as her character was spun off into "The Facts of Life".

The character Edna Garrett went from housekeeper to housemother to a group of girls at a (fictitous) private girls' boarding/prep school called Eastland (see also my post on a reboot of The Official Preppy Handbook at http://goo.gl/G5fFi). In the first season, there were MANY, MANY girls in her care, including a pre-pubescent Molly Ringwald before she found success as a member of the "Brat Pack" in John Hughes' films during the eighties.  But the show shifted focus primarily on four very different students: the smart, but insecure and slightly heavy Jewish girl Natalie (Mindy Cohn), the wealthy and vain WASP-y Blair (Lisa Whelchel), the talkative and energetic African-American Tootie (Kim Fields), and the urban tomboy Jo (Nancy McKeon, whose real-life brother Philip played Tommy Hyatt on "Alice", see my post on that show HERE). Reportedly, Charlotte Rae actually helped discover actress Mindy Cohn, whom she met while researching her role at a private school in Bel Air, CA.

As the show progressed, it evolved to grow with the core characters, who began as grade-school kids, but ultimately would graduate from Eastland and go to college.  Like other Norman Lear programs, "The Facts of Life" had it's good and bad points.  I think authors Gael Fashingbauer Cooper and Brian Bellmont, in their book "Whatever Happened to Pudding Pops?" (see my post on that at http://goo.gl/jAIF0) really covered it with the right mix of nostalgia and sarcasm:

The Facts of Life

The Facts of Life theme song urged viewers to "take the good" and "take the bad," and true to form, the show dished up plenty of both.

Among the good? Tootie meets Jermaine Jackson. Natalie hires an incompetent Blair for a job at a taco joint. Late-season housemother Beverly Ann has a Twilight Zone–style nightmare where the girls are all horribly murdered. (Seriously!)

Among the bad? A first season featuring approximately eighty million classmates, all of whom get two minutes of airtime, even Molly Ringwald. George Clooney's mullet. Annoying Australian Pippa. The random '80s-ness of the musical guests. (El DeBarge? Stacey Q?) The preachy issue-oriented episodes, covering everything from book banning to breast cancer. The groaner punch lines from comic Geri Jewell as Blair's cousin.

But the four main girls had a friendship that felt real, and the fact that dowdy Natalie, for one, didn't exactly fit the Hollywood star mode only lent to the show's charm. And although Mrs. Garrett's advice was corny, she was still a way cooler mom figure than Carol Brady. Still, it was fairly obvious she was running some scam. One wrecked school van does not eight years of indentured servitude make.

X-TINCTION RATING: Gone for good.

REPLACED BY: An embarrassing Thanksgiving reunion special aired in 2001, sans Jo. Seasons of the original show are slowly trickling out on DVD.


Now, for the part you were waiting on while I rambled on about this show: the TV cast reunion which aired on ABC's "Good Morning America" on April 12, 2011.  To watch, you may view below or by visiting http://abcn.ws/XfqGiu.


ABC Breaking News | Latest News Videos

The cast was also reunited for the TV Land Awards in 2012, see https://youtu.be/vjl81LEuUmQ for the clip.  By the way, for the record, five seasons of "The Facts of Life" have been released on DVD, which also means they've been digitized and could potentially be delivered via streaming, too.  I would recommend visiting Amazon.com for more info. as that retailer has virtually all seasons of DVD for sale, and would likely have any digital versions for streaming if those are available, too.

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