Saturday, August 22, 2015

Happy Birthday, Valerie Harper!

Rhoda Morgenstern (played by Valerie Harper): [regarding a piece of candy] “I don't know why I'm putting this in my mouth. I should just apply it directly to my hips.”—The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Season 1, Episode 11, “1040 or Fight,” air date Nov. 28, 1970, teleplay by David Davis and Lorenzo Music, directed by Jay Sandrich

In my youth in the 1970s, Valerie Harper made America made America laugh uproariously delivering lines like this as Mary Richards’ tart-tongued but loyal sidekick on The Mary Tyler Moore Show. For the last several years, she has made the nation cheer her on in her indomitable fight against brain cancer. There are few entertainers that I wish more happiness than to her now, on her 76th birthday.

Most people alive during Ms. Harper’s heyday 40 years ago, I think, have some strong association with her. Mine came secondhand, through a male relative of mine. As a front-desk assistant at a college dorm in the Deep South, it was his responsibility to decide what TV show would air that night. Young people might find this unimaginable, but at that time people’s TV choices derived overwhelmingly from a single black box with rabbit-ear antenna, with choices dictated by just three networks.

One of those choices on Monday, Oct. 28, 1974 was ABC’s Monday Night Football, at close to the height of its popularity with Howard Cosell, Frank Gifford and Don Meredith. But the most eagerly awaited show throughout the nation, for the week leading up to that night, was its CBS rival, the spinoff given Ms. Harper after four seasons on The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Rhoda. And this wasn’t just any episode: Rhoda was getting married to the new man she had met when she returned east from Minnesota, Joe.

Little ol’ Rhoda bumped off big, bad MNF that night. (When the episode concluded, even Cosell welcomed viewers back to the game with a joke that he hadn’t received an invitation to the wedding.) That special hour-long episode was such a ratings bonanza for CBS that it was the second most-watched television episode of all time, surpassed only by the birth of Little Ricky on I Love Lucy in 1953.

But in the Southern campus where my relative was, the outcome was far more uncertain. The good ol’ boys there were whoopin’ and hollerin’ to see the Atlanta Falcons take on the Pittsburgh Steelers. Why would anyone want to watch a comedy centered on a New York woman?

Well, as someone who grew up in the New York area, my relative would. And it hadn’t escaped his notice that the campus coeds felt likewise.  As a large group gathered around his desk, he milked the moment of decision for all it was worth. When he made the announcement at last—“And the winner is…RHODA!!!”, a grateful pandemonium broke out among the women.

Any resentment among the small band of good ol’ boys became increasingly muted as time went on. And that, my relative felt, was a small price for the many smiling females who passed by his desk the rest of the year.

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