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.