Tuesday, November 24, 2009

My Favorite 60s TV Show: That Girl

This essay is part of a series that ran yesterday on several blogs called My Favorite TV Show. Mine is late. If you want to check out the other contributions, go to pattinase.


In January of 1969 my stepfather moved us from Germany back to California. He had been an executive for an airline, but had quit to be a carpenter. I guess he wanted to get back to nature or his roots. That's the only thing I can come up with to reason why he decided on such a drastic change.

We ended up in the Sierra Nevada in a little town called Dorrington, way up Highway 4 and about an hour from Angels Camp. There was the historic Dorrington Hotel, a motel across the way, and a small grocery store next to the hotel. That was it. And tons and tons of snow. That winter, in fact, would break records for snowfall.

It was a shock for me and my sister, going from living fairly well on my stepfather's salary and being the center of attention in foreign lands, (we were "the American girls" who lived in the downstairs apartment) to living in a place that might have been on another planet. We went from being distinct and financially well-off to being no more special than any of the other kids and, worse, rather poor. Hal didn't get work right away, and so my mother went to work as a secretary. She had always worked as a secretary; it was the only job she had known and the only thing that I figured I'd be doing after I got out of school. College? That was for really smart, really rich kids.

The one consolation was that when we moved into the cabin on Ben Thorne Drive, that the television became my and my sister's property. Hal hated television and didn't want anything to do with it. And so the big console, probably manufactured in 1960, ended up in our bedroom.

So I settled in to watch the television for the winter. One night, a perky brunette with a hat with ribbons waltzed onto the screen. She was very pretty with the blackest hair and the thickest eyelashes and the biggest black eyes I'd ever seen. She was living in the big city, in New York. She was on her own and on her way to being an actress or a model. She had her own place. She strode through the streets of New York as if she owned the place and she knew how to fly a kite. And she had a boyfriend. She was That Girl.


She was everything I wasn't. She was gorgeous and I was a twelve year old with an overbite with, judging from my parent's financial situation, no chance in hell of ever getting braces. I already had acne spreading across my face and wore glasses with thick brown frames. Ann Marie, played by Marlo Thomas, was ditzy and talkative and kind of flied through life with a childlike wonder and enthusiasm that never wavered. I was quiet and withdrawn, shell shocked after being moved all over the European continent - four different schools in one year - and beginning to realize that my stepfather had a serious and sometimes treacherous drinking problem.

But it wasn't as if I watched Ann Marie, as she went through her mad cap life with her long suffering boyfriend Donald(comedic genius Ted Bessell), with jealousy. In fact, she opened up another life full of possibilities for me. A possibility that once I was out of school, I could go out on my own. Up to that point, I only had my two older sisters as role models, and both of them had married almost immediately after graduating from high school. Ann Marie was following her dream. I could do that - I could move to the big city and get my own apartment. And I could be anything I wanted to be.

Ann Marie navigated the big city with ease, her mini-skirts short enough to be sexy but not enough to shock middle America. She got into situations, yes, but always managed to get out of them (albeit not without the help of her Donald, who always seemed on the verge of having a nervous breakdown). She made friends in the city, learned several skills, and never, never forgot to smile. She was doing it, and though externally,she was a ditz, she really did have some brains. Even at twelve, I knew I was smart. If she could make it, I certainly could. I began to make my plans.

Now, looking back on the show, I imagine I'd probably shudder at Marlo Thomas's somewhat still very conventional role. The show premiered in 1965, and the woman's liberation movement was in its infancy. Yes, she was pretty, but she was so naive and a little goofy and still relied on Donald to get her out of scrapes, so she wasn't threatening to male watchers. Yes, she was out on her own, but she was still trying to do what pretty (translation: dumb) women were supposed to do: act and model. (I guess if she was trying to be a lawyer or doctor or even a banker it wouldn't make good television.) She wasn't married, but it was pretty much a given that at some point Donald would get some cojones and pick up Ann Marie, kicking and screaming in that squeaky voice, and carry her off to the altar. As for premarital sex, are you kidding me?

But still, That Girl showed me that women can go out on their own and be something other than secretaries or file clerks. They could navigate the urban jungle, make friends, and didn't have to be married in order to feel that their lives were whole. Mostly, seeing her cheery smile and sunny disposition was a haven for me, a twelve year old girl with the weight of the world on her shoulders.

Marlo Thomas got me through that winter and her reruns got me through several summers. Later she married Phil Donahue and supported various causes and much, much later, she played Rachel's mother on Friends, still looking great and managing to get some pretty sweet gigs on television. Looking back on it now, you could say that Marlo showed us how it could be done even after her big role in show business was long gone and she was old enough to be a grandmother. We could do it all and still stay feminine even when society thought we were past our prime - and even have some fun in the process.

20 comments:

Todd Mason said...

Wow. I did always wonder, as a kid watching the first pass of syndicated repeats, why she was so insecure, but she was nearly a pioneering character...glad the series helped open some options up...

Richard Prosch said...

I watched THAT GIRL every week with my mom, and loved it. Always wanted that kite from the opening!

Actually, the show is to blame for a misconception in my life as to what a first urban apartment on a meager income would look like. Mine were never so luxurious as AM's!

Bill Crider said...

My wife and I hardly ever missed that show. Always good for a laugh.

Melissa Marsh said...

Funny - I've never heard of this show, but it looks like great fun. And what a wonderful essay. Loved reading it!

David Cranmer said...

I never watched the show but I became enamored with Marlo when she appeared on The Phil Donahue Show. And I guess he was too. Intelligent, beautiful woman.

Laurie Powers said...

Thanks everyone. Yes, I know what you mean, Richard, about the apartment. She had some great clothes too. Melissa, it's a lot of fun - kind of I Love Lucy goes to New York without Ricky.
David - I think they're still married if I'm not mistaken.

Barry Traylor said...

Not as good as the Mary Tyler Moore show (but fun to watch) and of course Mary Richards came a bit later.

Walker Martin said...

I see most of the blogs do not discuss the shows that I found of interest growing up in the 1950's: Playhouse 90, Omnibus, Studio One, etc. Criterion just issued a box set of some of the best of these dramas titled THE GOLDEN AGE OF TELEVISION. There are other dvds out there such as the STUDIO ONE box set, etc.

Evan Lewis said...

Don't know how I did it, but between all the westerns and private-eye shows, I watched this too. Of course, I didn't know then it was a chick almost-a-flick.

Barry Traylor said...

I agree with Walker about shows like Playhouse 90, Omnibus, Studio One, etc. I watched all of these back in the 50's.

Laurie Powers said...

Playhouse 90 sounds vaguely familiar but the others don't. Judging by my blog, I'm surprised by the number of men that watched That Girl. There's hope for you guys yet!

Cap'n Bob Napier said...

I've seen episodes but didn't watch it regularly. What I saw didn't impress me. Here you have a struggling actress/model with an unlimited wardrobe, hair always perfect, and an apartment with perfect decor. Marlo wasn't hard to look at, but the squeak in her voice always made by teeth itch. Maybe if I'd been a young girl in need of a role model I'd have seen things differently. Sorry to be the wet blanket.

Laurie Powers said...

I can totally relate to your opinion. Role models can come in the strangest and sometimes irritating packages. And sometimes you don't recognize that they were a role model until years later.

James Reasoner said...

I watched this one pretty regularly, too -- and I've still got that blasted theme song stuck in my head!

Barry Traylor said...

"Playhouse 90 sounds vaguely familiar but the others don't. Judging by my blog, I'm surprised by the number of men that watched That Girl. There's hope for you guys yet!"

Well Laurie I was married and back then most people only had one tv set. At least we did not struggle over the remote. :-)
At least she did not mind me watching Star Trek.

Walker Martin said...

You know, at first I was surprised at the number of men who watched THAT GIRL, in fact I watched it also mainly because she was cute and sort of sexy.

But thinking about it, I now realize it was not because we all thought it was a great show, but because back in the pre cable days there were so few channels to watch. We had ABC, CBS, NBC, PBS, and maybe a couple UHF channels, so we almost had to watch what was shown because that was it! Not really many choices.

Now of course with cable, Dish, and Direct TV, we have our choice of over one or two hundred channels, not to mention all the dvds which are available.

Laurie Powers said...

Ah, the good ol' days of having nothing but network news on at six. We could start a whole new thread on Huntley and Brinkley.

Off topic, Walker: Do you know of any good books out there on the history of the romance pulps? I just finished Daisy's book, but it's more of a writing guide than an autobiography. Very little personal info. I have The Fiction Factory, but I know it's not a reliable source.

Walker Martin said...

Laurie, I wish there was a nice long book about the love pulps because the romance genre has been sadly neglected by scholars. Michelle Nolan recently published a book titled, LOVE ON THE RACKS, but it's about the love comics.

Concerning Daisy's book, maybe you might want to download the great photo of her in the Street & Smith offices, surrounded by cover paintings, a newstand rack full of love pulps, and her feet on her desk thinking about the next weekly issue.

Laurie Powers said...

I believe a book is in order. It would probably take 10 years to do the research, tho.

sage said...

I watched That Girl, too, I must have been around 12 or so. She was funny and I was old enough to appreciate her beauty.