Down at the Station
by Terry Ryan (American Movie Classics Magazine)A Day on the Set of Remember WENN
August 1997If Jeopardy's Alex Trebek ever says, "The answer is Remember WENN," you can bet the question is "What is one of the freshest, most original shows on television?" Maybe its gentle, subtly amusing nature has a special appeal to someone like me, who once wrote for such broad, boisterous sitcoms as Sergeant Bilko and Car 54, Where Are You? So when American Movie Classics Magazine invited me to visit the show's set and write about it, I was delighted. Especially since I rarely got to drop by any sets back thenI was always holed up in the office working on my next script.
Case in point: In 1957, Sergeant Bilko's Phil Silvers presented his writers with an Emmy Award. As he handed over my statuette, he sized me up and said, "Do I know you?" He got a big laugh, but I don't think he was kidding.
Before I head for the set, though, a little background might be in order. Shown on Saturday and Wednesday nights at 9: (ET), Remember WENN is now into its third season. It's competed with Seinfeld and 3rd Rock from the Sun for the Screen Actors Guild Ensemble Cast Award, has received the CableACE Award for cinematography and won an Emmy Award for costuming.
How did they do it? Very deliberately. First, producers Paul Connelly Skorka and Howard Meltzer decided the most apropros subject for AMC would be a radio station from, of course, the Golden Age of Radio. Then they got Rupert Holmes, the singer-songwriter of the 1979 hit "Escape (The Piña Colada Song)" to develop the pilot. Say what? It's not as strange as it seems; the rocker had long since given up tropical drinks for the intoxication of Broadway, writing a musical adaptation of Charles Dickens' unfinished novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood (he finished it), and two straight plays, Accomplice and Solitary Confinement. Plus, he's an old radio buff, he penned WENN's plaintive theme music and played its soulful clarinet lead as well. Holmes wears more hats than Dr. Seuss ever thought of.
Holmes and the producers didn't want the typical sitcom with a laugh track or live audience. They wanted an air of authenticity to prevail so the show could segue from comedy to drama seamlessly. No laugh track meant Holmes could do throwaway lines, at which he is so adept, instead of always having to go for the big boffola. (Okay, you young folks: "throwaway" means "low-key," "boffola" means "big laugh.") Also, since WENN would be seen beside classic movies, they decided it should have a similar look; they film the show rather than videotape it and have tinkered with the color to give it a period feel.
Which brings me to the cast, which a subway train did last Wednesday. As I entered the studio on the outside of Manhattan, I found myself in a waiting room outside the hair salon. Needless to say, hair is an important element on a show like this. Chipper Carolee Carmello, who plays Maple, emerged with her own auburn tresses sculpted into swirls, held firm with hairpins and hair spray. She said it takes them two hours to do her up ever day, and invited me to touch her hair and see how bone-shattering it was. I declined, since everything I touch breaks. Amanda Naughton was waiting for her Betty Roberts' wig, to wear over her naturally short hair. Two hours saved. Betty's as smart offscreen as she is on.
Next I got a tour of the set. It's all therethe reception desk, hallway, green roomas if they've built an entire radio station on the sound stage. "The green room," says Ms. Carmello, "is so big and comfortable that sometimes we find ourselves sitting around, talking there, between scenes, like it was a real green room."
As I approached the station's lifelike studio, I could see that a scene was being filmed. There was the lovely Joanna Kerns, the mother from ABC's Growing Pains, in her new career as a director. Before long, filming paused while a plane flew overhead. I couldn't hear it, nobody could, but the hypersensitive sound equipment not only picked up the plane but probably the in-flight movie as well.
When filming resumed, I decided to go trolling for some backstage gossip. It wasn't before I had my first scoopinvolving Christopher Murney, WENN's "Man-
Cunning trickery! They deserve to be exposed.
Likewise Tom Beckettwho plays Mr. Foley, the radio sound man who never talkstalks. His vowels are dulcet and his consonants crisp. But he sacrifices all that for his act and a regular paycheck. Was there nothing authentic about the man? "My mustache," he countered. "It's real. It's so thin, an artificial one would be too delicate to paste on and stay."
My next expose was genial Mary Stout, WENN's organist, Eugenia. I'm a pianist and for the life of me, I couldn't figure how she always looks to be actually playing the organ, with her fingers on the notes I'm hearing. She made me promise not to tell, but it works like so: Rupert Holmes told her to strike any keys, and he'd write music to fit. She does and he does, but you didn't hear it here.
I was beginning to realize that under the placid exterior of the Remember WENN operation was a hotbed of deception. I wasn't at all surprised, therefore, when Melinda Mullins, who plays the vain, haughty Hilary Booth, turned out to be a sweetheart. "I was in one of the last episodes of M*A*S*H," she told me, "and the atmosphere on that set was exactly like the warm, friendly one we have here." I think she even stifled a tear as she said this. Disgusting.
As I was about to leave, Betty Roberts was easing her pretty fingers into a pair of white kid gloves' perky Maple was about to apply mascara from a little [word?], and cocky Scott Sherwood was adjusting his fedora at a rakish angle. Another scene was in the making. I wasn't going to miss this, It was the first chance I'd had to stick around a TV sound stage since I can't...er...(go ahead, say it) Remember WENN.
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Colorful Radio Days Live Again on Remember WENN
by Joanne Weintraub (The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel)
August 11, 1997Remember when men wore fedoras, women wore silk stockings and radio was the last word in home entertainment?
I don't, but I've become a fond and frequent visitor to that vanished era by way of Remember WENN (Saturdays, 8 p.m., repeated Wednesdays, 8 p.m., AMC), a half-hour comedy-drama that begins its third season this week.
There's nothing else like it on TV. Think of a black-and-white movie from the '30s or early '40s, with all the snappy dialogue, snazzy clothes and unashamed sentiment, only in bright, blooming color. Forget realism; real people aren't this glib, resourceful or indefatigably nice. But who needs a steady diet of realism?
WENN is a fictional Pittsburgh radio station whose extended family includes Hilary Booth and Jeffrey Singer (played by Melinda Mullins and Hugh O'Gorman), the glamorous, eternally squabbling acting couple; Mackie Bloom (Christopher Murney), "the man of a thousand voices" who can impersonate an emperor one minute and sell Cup o' Comfort Cocoa the next; and Betty Roberts (Amanda Naughton), who started as a bashful, bumbling production assistant and soon, of course, was running the show.
If the actors' names aren't familiar, it's because their extensive creditsare largely in theater. There's something wonderful about watching a large, accomplished ensemble whose members haven't shown up on Chicago Hope or General Hospital.
Extraordinary attention to the look and feel of 1939 has won the show an Emmy for costumes and a CableACE for cinematography. Even the women's lacquered pin-curls are straight out of your mother's old snapshots, or maybe your own.
Last season's cliff-hanger ending brought back station manager Victor Comstock (John Bedford Lloyd), who was supposed to have died helping the British in the newly ignited war. This week Victor reveals the truth, though not to everyone. Cue the organ music and hold onto your hat.
The episode features a zesty guest shot by Malcolm Gets (Richard on Caroline in the City), the first of several star turns planned for the season. Harry Hamlin is next up on Aug. 23 and Jason Alexander, who seems to have been born to wear a fedora, will do his bit Oct. 11.
The creator of Remember WENN is Rupert Holmes, who also wrote the theme song and played its wistful clarinet solo. Who would have expected all that from the man whose previously best-known contribution to pop culture was "The Piña Colada Song"?
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Remember WENN Player Remembers His Early ATL Days
by Tom Dorsey, TV and Radio Critic (The Courier-Journal, Louisville, KY.)
August 14, 1997People who attended Actors Theatre of Louisville during the 1969-70 season may recognize a familiar face if they tune in the season debut of Remember WENN this weekend.
The AMC cable series, about an understaffed and overwhelmed Pittsburgh radio station in the 1940s, kicks off its third year Saturday at 9 p.m. with Christopher Murney returning as Mackie Brown. [sic]
Murney said he joined Remember WENN on the spot "when they sent me a script and I fell in love with it."
Murney wasn't as sure about signing on with ATL 28 years ago. Jon Jory, who had just become the theater's producing director, had worked with Murney at Pennsylvania State University. He asked his former student to join the Louisville troupe.
"I had an offer to go with the Guthrie, a nationally known theater in Minneapolis," Murney recalled. "I asked Jon why I should come to a new theater in Louisville?"
"Will they let you direct there?" Jory asked.
"What day do you want me there?" replied Murney, who wanted to do it all.
He remembers rehearsing one ATL play in the morning, directing another in the afternoon and playing in a third in the evening. "It was a wonderful experience; I couldn't work enough," he said.
Reviewers, who described him as a delightful imp, agreed that Murney was an enthusiastic worker. One critic said watching him perform was like being inside an exploding popcorn popper.
He had a reputation for doing anything to get into a role including rolling around on barroom floors to get grungy, according to one story.
His recollections of Louisville, including memories of some bars, are among the fondest of his career. He especially had memorable nights "at a great jazz bar near the river," though the name of the place eludes him after almost three decades.
ATL lived up to his every expectation for a performer who likes to think of himself as a "founding actor" at ATL.
"We were at the old (Illinois Central) train station in those days. It was before all the waterfront development you have now. Louisville was a funkier town in those days."
Murney lived on Longest Avenue and among his nicest memories are knocking around Cherokee Park, walking along the Ohio River and the people.
"I loved the people. I still have friends I made there that I've maintained over the years," he said.
Among those friends are the people who built ATL. "It was the volunteers that made that theater go. We were always going to some cocktail or tea party - anything they arranged to raise money to put on a show." That financial squeeze was similar to the one at the fictional radio station in the AMC series, he said.
Murney, described by The New York Times as "the man of a thousand voices," likes Remember WENN because it's reminiscent of radio's heyday and those great voices that captivated listeners. "They were all stage-trained actors who knew how to use their voices," he said.
He has used his voice speaking as one of the major characters in Ken Burns' The Civil War on PBS. He also has found time to do 15 films, like Barton Fink, and lots of television, including The Equalizer and M*A*S*H.
He has played several Shakespearean parts in the United States and Europe over the last two decades.
Murney, who lives in upstate New York, is seen only briefly in the premiere of Remember WENN Saturday, but he has bigger sequences in later chapters.
Surprisingly enough, much of the mail the show receives is from young people fascinated by 1940s radio. "There are Web pages and Internet fan clubs for the show," he said.
Murney eventually moved on from ATL to New York and Broadway but returned to direct in the 1970s. Along the way he got married and now has three grown children. Does he think he could ever repeat that hectic season at ATL?
"I could," he said, "but I have picked up golf instead to occupy my free time in my later life."
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Recalling Memories of Old-Time Radio
by Doug Nye (Philadelpia Inquirer)
August 14, 1997By the time Amanda Naughton came along, the golden age of radio was part of the distant past.
But that didn't keep her from understanding what American Movie Classics' Remember WENN was all about.
"The first time I read the script, I got it right away," said Naughton, who plays Betty Roberts on the much-acclaimed series about life at a small Pittsburgh radio station in the days just prior to World War II.
Naughton might not have been around during radio's heyday, but she was very familiar with those sounds of yesteryear while growing up in New York. You can credit her father for that.
"He is a big radio buff," Naughton said during a recent telephone conversation. "He has albums and tapes of old broadcasts, and he used to play them for us.
"And when we vacationed in the summer, there was a radio station in Rockport, Mass., that ran many of the old shows like The Shadow, The Green Hornet and others. I just listened and took it all in."
Remember WENN has managed to capture the feel and atmosphere of that era, and the result is one of the most entertaining and absorbing half-hours on television. The series, which returns for a third season Saturday at 9 p.m., has won Emmy and CableACE awards. It's the brainchild of Rupert Holmes, a Tony Award-winning writer-composer who also happens to be an avid collector of old radio shows. Obviously, his work on Remember WENN has done a lot to contribute to its look.
Naughton also believes the chemistry among the cast members has been one of the keys to the show's success. "I know it sounds cliched, but there is an atmosphere of family on the set. We really support each other. We get along so well."
In Saturday's episode, the 27th of the series, Betty is shocked when station manager Victor Comstock, supposedly dead, reappears. Malcolm Gets, of Caroline in the City, guest stars as world explorer Cutter Dunlap, and AMC host Bob Dorian makes an appearance.
Future guests include Harry Hamlin (Aug. 23) and Jason Alexander (Oct. 11). Seventeen new episodes are planned for this season.11). Seventeen new episodes are planned for this season.
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Remember WENN, (AMC) 6 p.m. Saturday
by Irv Letofsky
August 15, 1997It's already the third year of 1939 but perhaps time moves slower in Pittsburgh. That's where our favorite radio station operates in Remember WENN, AMC's brightly '30s-looking and brightly played comedy.
Creator-writer Rupert Holmes never seems to run out of ideas. But in this third-season opener, his script is comedy thin (replays too many jokes, then re-replays them) and his plot overrich.
We can't ever hold much against WENN. The characters are wonderfully warm and wacky, and it was, we can now see, a time of delicious innocence.
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Witty Melotraumo Returns on AMC
by Kinney Littlefield (The Des Moines Register, Inc.)
August 15, 1997Make room for marvelously witty melotrauma. Classy radio-days comedy Remember WENN begins its third sassy season on AMC at 8 p.m. Saturday.
At radio station WENN in pre-World War II Pittsburgh, stars and staff suffer perils rivaling those of Pauline. In season-opener "In the WENN Small Hours" we get a new dose of silly secrets, romance and Pittsburgh pranks, as we learn that WENN station manager Victor Comstock (John Bedford Lloyd) is very much alive - but shh, don't tell. And Caroline in the City star Malcolm Gets does a neat guest turn.
As buzz builds on Remember WENN, it is becoming a sought-after showcase for celebrity cameos. On Aug. 23 Harry Hamlin (L.A. Law) stars as a playwright who tantalizes Hilary (Melinda Mullins) with a new play. Jason Alexander (Seinfeld) joins the wacky fun on Oct. 11further proof that WENN is one of the best comedy offerings on TV.
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The Man of a Thousand Voices Tells Allby John Martin; Journal-Bulletin TV Writer (The Providence Journal-Bulletin)
August 15, 1997WENN is the best radio gig Christopher Murney has ever had.
Sure, the building is pre-World War II, the equipment is old, the hours are long and all that live programming rattles the nerves. But he works with a great bunch of people. And besides, howmany radio stations reach millions of people coast-to-coast?
Never mind that WENN is make-believe. Murney, a Point Judith native, is only pretending anyway.
Murney plays Mackie Bloom, "The Man of a Thousand Voices," on the American Movie Classics original series Remember WENN.
"I never worked in radio. Never did," he said in a recent conversation. Murney is, however, a man whose voice has taken him far. He has been a voice-over spokesman for such companies as IBM, Coca-Cola, Canon, HBO and PBS. And one of his most eloquent roles was as the voice of Elijah Hunt Rhodes in Ken Burns's The Civil War.
Murney's extensive stage resume includes Shakespearean performances in the U.S. and Europe. On Broadway, he's performed in Mack and Mabel and Tricks, for which he earned a Clarence Derwent Award. On film, the New York-based actor has had roles in Barton Fink, Last Exit to Brooklyn, The Secret of My Success and The Last Dragon.
Murney, 51, began his career in the summer of 1965 at Trinity Rep - Trinity Square back then - while he was attending the University of New Hampshire. In between performances of The Time of Your Life and Valpone, he was a lifeguard at Narragansett's town beach. He'd transferred from URI to UNH, where he received a B.S. and a B.A. Then, it was on to Penn State University, where he earned an M.F.A. Was it fate that a man of letters would find his way to WENN on AMC?A '30s setting
Remember WENN, which last year was honored with a Screen Actors Guild nomination for Best Ensemble Comedy (in the heady company of Seinfeld, Mad About You and 3rd Rock From the Sun), launches its second season tomorrow at 9 p.m.
Set in a Pittsburgh radio station at the end of the 1930s, the series is a treat for old-time radio fans. Murney's kindhearted Mackie Bloom is an all-purpose announcer who, among other things, pops in and out of the daily lineup of radio serials. Murney, who was working on another project when the episode was filmed, is seen only briefly in tomorrow night's show.
"I was only available for one day when they filmed the season premiere, so that's why you'll see me, literally, walking through, saying one line and leaving," Murney said. "Mackie becomes conspicuously more apparent in the weeks to come."
The show is filmed in a small studio in Queens. This is cable, but it's not HBO. Which means AMC operates on a tight budget.
"People work very hard and very quickly," Murney said. "We shoot as many as 36 setups a day. We just did one episode last week, and we worked 16- and 18-hour days. We ended up on Saturday morning at 6:30 after starting on Tuesday. Some of the scenes we shot should take two days to shoot. We're shooting them in three hours. It's on the fly. Sometimes, rewrites are coming in right as we're shooting."
But Murney believes the results are impressive. To save money, the show is shot on 16mm film - not the 35mm stock used in Hollywood films. Through digital processing, a slightly grainy, 1940s film look is achieved, which is perfect for the nostalgic series.
One of the things that Murney likes most is that he's on a channel that doesn't show commercials.
"Because it is a full half hour, there's a better opportunity to round out two storylines - as opposed to 22 minutes. It doesn't seem like a lot, but those 8 extra minutes make a difference."
And the narrative flows more smoothly than in commercial sitcoms, which are interrupted for ads, promos and news breaks.
"You've got to go out with a kick and come in with a kick, because they've got to go sell something. Then, you have to come back and remind everyone what they're watching."Outside Providence
Murney still has ties to Rhode Island. His brother Jay lives here and has been hired as assistant location manager for Michael Corrente's Outside Providence, which begins filming here this fall.
Their late father was co-owner of M&M Oil Co. before going into the restaurant business, running Sweet Meadows Inn in Narragansett.
A confirmed Easterner, Murney lives in New York, owns a home upstate and avoids Hollywood.
"I like living where I can drive for an hour and be in the mountains," he said. "In L.A., you drive for an hour and you're still in the suburbs."
He'll still work in Hollywood for a few weeks for the right offer. But he's encouraged by increased activity in the East.
"The East Coast industry is picking up," Murney said. "I'd love to work with Michael Corrente. I like his stuff, and it certainly is the Year of the Independent and it has been for a while.
"Remember WENN is an example. It's a television show, but if you did it as a feature film you could shoot it in 28 days for a reasonable amount of money."
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Way Back WENN
by P. John Griffin (Sarasota Herald-Tribune)
August 15, 1997Remember WENN, one of the best reasons to own a TV set these days, is back for a whole new season, starting at 9 p.m. Saturday.
Fans of this original AMC comedy set in the '40s have been dangling from the edge of a proverbial cliff since the end of last season when Comstock (John Bedford Lloyd), long presumed dead, seemed to be alive and kicking. Was it a dream or merely a plot twist worthy of any soap?
Series writer Rupert Holmes (the "Piña Colada Song'') keeps the story lines twisting while guest stars like Malcolm Gets and Harry Hamlin add flair to this charmer.
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Remember WENN Returns with Cheeky Aplomb
by Matt Roush (USA TODAY)
August 15, 1997Charm is a rare commodity on TV. Cleverness without cockiness is even less common.
So when someone says, "It's the good old days all over again" during the farcical third-season opener of Remember WENN, the nostalgic show's fans will easily relate.
They've come to depend on series creator Rupert Holmes' unassuming, gentle wit in shaping the romantic and comic misadventures of the staff at a Pittsburgh radio station in the wartime '40s. In this week's cheerfully improbable scenario, he explains last season's cliffhanger: the surprise return of presumed-dead (in a London air-raid bombing) station manager Victor Comstock (John Bedford Lloyd).
His stunned and smitten protegee, Betty (Amanda Naughton), must hide his presence from all the others, a situation imperiled when Victor is recognized by a cocky world-traveling journalist (Caroline in the City's Malcolm Gets).
The mild touches of intrigue and mystery mostly disappear by next week, when the focus turns to WENN's resident diva Hilary Booth (Melinda Mullins), a lapsed Broadway belle who sniffs a comeback in a script by a pretentious admirer named Euripides Moss (guest star Harry Hamlin, enjoying the buffoonery).
"I have to be seen to be believed," Hilary proclaims. No one contradicts her.
Moments like that, corny but not too quaint, give WENN its winsome glow
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WENN Returns For Its 3rd Season
by Rob Owen, TV/Radio writer (The Times Union, Albany, NY)
August 15, 1997Call it the little cable series that could. AMC's Remember WENN, returns with a new season of episodes Saturday at 9 p.m.
Set in a fictional Pittsburgh radio station in 1941, Remember WENN mixes British farce with American screwball comedy for a commercial-free half-hour of family-friendly viewing.
In the show's first season finale WENN station manager Victor Comstock (John Bedford Lloyd) was presumed dead in London after a bombing raid. In the second season finale writer Betty (Amanda Naughton) discovered Victor alive and well in his office.
As the third season begins viewers learn Betty wasn't dreaming when she saw Victor, but the mystery surrounding his reappearance is only partially explained while Betty tries to conceal Victor's miraculous return from the rest of the WENN staff.
Malcolm Gets from Caroline in the City appears in this week's episode, and future guest stars include Peggy Cass (Aug. 23) and Jason Alexander (Oct. 11).
Also, in the Aug. 23 episode, look for Harry Hamlin as a writer whose play is interpreted in different ways by husband and wife performers Jeffrey Singer (Hugh O'Gorman) and Hilary Booth (Melinda Mullins).
Hilary thinks it's a tragedy, while Jeff wants to inject some light moments. As frequently happens on this show, the WENN gang invents "new" terms (interns and reruns have been thought up in past episodes).
Jeff calls the production a "dramedy," while Hilary suggests calling it a "comma."
Albany native Carolee Carmello stars in the series as former showgirl Maple LaMarsh. This season she isn't playing the organ as much but instead has more opportunities to mix with the WENN actors in front of studio microphones.
Witty, charming and filled with remarkably complex comedic dialogue by series creator/writer Rupert Holmes, Remember WENN continues to be one of the best shows on TV.
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A New Season Brings Guests to Radio WENN
by Carol Bidwell (Los Angeles Daily News)
August 15, 1997Romance, secret identities and the perils of war set the tone for the third season premiere of Remember WENN, American Movie Classics' Emmy and CableACE award-winning series.
Malcolm Gets, who plays Richard on Caroline in the City, will portray globe-trotting explorer Cutter Dunlap on the season opener, which airs Saturday.
Harry Hamlin, who starred on L.A. Law, will appear as a playwright in the August 23 show. Jason Alexander, who plays George on Seinfeld, will appear October 11, and Joanna Kerns, who starred in the sitcom Growing Pains, will direct the September 6 episode.
This season's first episode will continue a story line started last spring. Just before the show's summer hiatus, Victor Comstock, the station manager, died. (Or did he? After all, this is television.) When Victor reappears at the station, everybody is shocked. Or are they?
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New Season for Remember WENN
by Tom Scanlon (The Seattle Times)
August 16, 1997Remember WENN, which begins its third season tonight on AMC (6 and 10 o'clock), rivals The Larry Sanders Show as the most sharply written, well-acted show on cable television. Both are bright rejoinders to those who insist the tube is utterly brain dead.
While Garry Shandling's HBO show is hilarious in a savage and very current way, WENN has a sweet, purposefully anachronistic tone to its humor.
Created by Rupert Holmes, who wrote "The Pina Colada Song," the AMC show takes place at a Pittsburgh radio station, circa 1940. A large ensemble is led by Melinda Mullins and Hugh O'Gorman, who play the married radio actors who dig asides into each other's ribs.
While the acting is superior, it is the crackerjack writing that carries WENN to memorable levels.
In the season opener, the show's distinguishing repartee (almost always clever, rarely forced) is in place, with an added spice of poignancy. A legendary character who was presumed dead turns out to be involved in some very dicey anti-Nazi business.
Luxuriously styled after the old movies that regularly play on AMC, Remember WENN has a striking visual quality. Rich lighting, splendidly detailed costumes and vivid photography give it a cinematic feel.
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Cable TV Series Breathes Life into Spirit of '30s Movies
by Diane Werts (Newsday)
August 19, 1997Is there another show on television as well-crafted as Remember WENN? This AMC original series (starting its third season at 9 tonight) looks great, sounds great, moves great, practically tastes great. (Seems as if there's always food involved, whether it's Juicy Fruit gum, pig's feet or pickled beets.)
The prewar era - that's World War II, of course - comes alive in a Pittsburgh radio station brimming with well-dressed dames, debonair men, busybody loudmouths and more fashion sense than the last 10 Oscar nights put together.
But more than that, this half-hour comedy/drama/mystery/musical has heart, lotsa heart, heart from here to the hoosegow - that's "jail" for those of you who don't speak the language Remember WENN remembers so well. It's never saccharine but often bittersweet, the kind of sentiment that leaves you with lingering longings and a sly grin on your face from its dexterously effortless construction. Just like the movies from the golden era it celebrates.
Creator Rupert Holmes (Broadway's The Mystery of Edwin Drood) proves himself an American treasure in succeeding where the likes of Peter Bogdanovich (At Long Last Love) and Stanley Donen (Lucky Lady) have failed in capturing the style, spirit and savoir faire of the '30s films that practically define the word Hollywood.
Yet Holmes is doing it on a small-screen scale of intimacy, with a crackerjack sense of tube timing. Catch tonight's third-season opener resolving the spring cliffhanger when former station manager Victor Comstock (even the names are delightful) seemed to return from the dead.
Is Comstock (John Bedford Lloyd) really back from the rubble of a London bombing raid? What would that mean for Betty (Amanda Naughton), his wide-eyed, idealistic young staff writer of undying devotion? Or Comstock's successor, Scott Sherwood (Kevin O'Rourke)? Or his old station, which was being used by a sponsor to transmit the codes of Nazi saboteurs!
The season's second episode Aug. 23 only amplifies the delightfully theatrical archness that cements the time period - the precise elocution, the sparkling repartee, the irony and cleverness, as hissing husband-and-wife actors Jeffrey (Hugh O'Gorman) and Hilary (Melinda Mullins) plot their Broadway ascent with backing from disparate husband-and-wife sponsors Louis Zorich (Mad About You) and Peggy Cass.
It's criminal to give too much away in either case, except that Holmes' scripts remain authentically toned and amazingly devised; the guest stars chew the scenery with beaming relish (Malcolm Gets of Caroline in the City played a world explorer Saturday, L.A. Law's Harry Hamlin is a playwright this week); and the series' technical production (it's filmed in New York City) is one of the medium's true wonders.
Pay attention to Holmes' subtle musicfrom that merry/melancholy clarinet series theme to each week's astute underscoreand its beautifully faded Technicolor tones (the film is manipulated to look like an old-time movie).
But just what is Remember WENN? Is it a comedy? A drama? "A dramedy," suggests Jeffrey. "Or a comma," snaps Hilary.
Never mind the defining. Remember WENN is unmistakably, as another character says, the cat's meow.
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Hamlin's Really a Comic He Says So, Seriously
by Scott Williams (New York Daily News)
August 26, 1997Just once, Harry Hamlin would like to be taken seriously as a comic actor.
"I love doing comedy, but people rarely call me up for those kinds of roles," the L.A. Law mainstay said. "They think I'm a slicer and dicer," he said of his reputation for meticulous dramatic work.
Happily for him, AMC's Remember WENN made the call, and he's pulling out his comic chops this week on the poignant comedy set in a 1940s Pittsburgh radio station. He portrays a playwright who's fine-tuning his next play on the WENN airwaves.
"It's a really awful play, and Euripedes Moss is a very arrogant and ineffective playwright," Hamlin noted.
Crafting the character was easy, he said, since series creator Rupert Holmes wrote Moss as a phony from Hoboken who speaks in a stagey, affected manner.
"My first acting coach was like that, always speaking in these grand tones, so we based the character on that," Hamlin said.
Hamlin rarely works that simply.
Before his L.A. Law days, the actor's career had died largely because of a 1982 movie, Making Love, in which he played opposite Michael Ontkean and Kate Jackson as the Other Man in a homosexual triangle.
"That movie pre-dated the AIDS epidemic, and homophobia had a lot of its classic elements in place," Hamlin said.
The film sank and took him with it. Thus it was a year later he leaped at the chance to audition for the role of Stanley, opposite Ann-Margret, in a made-for-TV version of A Streetcar Named Desire.
He flew to New Orleans and couldn't find the Brooklynese accent Marlon Brando used in Streetcar on stage and in the movie. Real New Orleanians, he found, sound different.
"It's a wonderful accent. They call it Yat as in, 'Where y'at?'" he said. "It also sounds nothing like Marlon Brando's rendition."
Hamlin hit the French Quarter with a tape recorder, looking for locals.
"I worked my way across the whole Quarter," Hamlin recalled, "and I ended up in a dive at 5 a.m., sitting next to a real Stanley Kowalski, a Polish trucker from the Ninth Ward. In Yat, that's Da Nint' Wuad."
Alert, refreshed and steeped in New Orleans, Hamlin went back to L.A., where he offered an authentic Yat version of Stanley for the audition.
"The director didn't like it, Hamlin said with a weary laugh. "In fact, he practically went ballistic, he hated it so much."
"He ended up hiring Treat Williams, whose performance was much closer to the Brando interpretation, he said.
"That probably was a wise choice, because Brando did such a fine job."
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Civilization on Rupert Holmes
by Don Aucoin (Boston Globe)
September 1, 1997Remember WENN is such a terrific show that I've decided to forgive its creator, Rupert Holmes, for writing that abominable "Piña Colada Song" back in the 1970s.
Holmes' loving spoof of old-time radio, which airs on the cable channel American Movie Classics, has no laugh track because it has something better: actual humor. It's a cure for what ails you if what ails you is the adolescent witlessness of most TV sitcoms. But don't take my word for it: Check out Terry Teachout's astute appreciation of Remember WENN in the current issue of Civilization.
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The Case of the Missing Laugh Track
by Terry Teachout (Civilization magazine)
September 1997A Russian èmigrè once seized my lapel over lunch and informed me, in the ripest possible accent, that the half-hour situation comedy was TV's only truly original contribution to the art of storytelling. (To get the full effect of this splendid pronouncement, imagine its being spoken by Boris Badenov.) Although he had his history askew—sitcoms began in the days of radio—his heart was in the right place. From I Love Lucy to King of the Hill, much of the best of what network TV has had to offer during its first half-century has come in the form of 30-minute playlets, with continuing casts, whose sole purpose is to make you laugh. Situation comedies are to television as Westerns are to movies: Some are wonderful, some appalling, most indifferent, but taken together, they do more than anything else to sum up what the medium is all about.
The history of the sitcom also says something about how American culture has changed since 1948—the year network TV came into existence. The average sitcom used to be as bland as mashed potatoes; now it's as coarse as rock salt. Not long ago, I watched three back-to-back sitcoms in which jokes, none of them especially funny, were made about masturbation. This seemed to me so improbable that I wondered briefly if I'd imagined it, but a TV critic happened to see the same three shows and reported on them a few days later, confirming my suspicion that commercial television has outrun all possible attempts to satirize it. Even the better sitcoms tend nowadays to return compulsively to the subject of sex, and while I hate to sound prudish (on second thought, actually, I don't), it strikes me that there is more to life, and to comedy, than what the bed-happy characters on Moonlighting referred to as "getting horizontal."
A gentle reminder that such is indeed the case can be seen each Saturday at 9:00 p.m. EST on American Movie Classics, a cable channel that devotes most of its airtime to the likes of Katharine Hepburn and Fred Astaire. Two years ago, AMC decided to get into the sitcom business, and it asked Rupert Holmes, whose career has ranged from Broadway shows to pop songwriting (he's the man who wrote what everybody calls "The Piña Colada Song," though the title is really "Escape"), to create its first original series. Holmes responded with Remember WENN, a low-key, low-budget sitcom about the staff of a Pittsburgh radio station circa 1940.
Remember WENN isn't a commercial hit, at least not by network standardsmere cable channels can't muster audiences sufficiently large to crack the Nielsensbut its viewers are all but cultish in their loyalty. "Oh, that's the smart show," said a very hip writer for a very hip magazine when I mentioned that I was a fan. And so it is: smart and funny and touching, as well as so retro that it's almost countercultural. Most other sitcoms are videotaped in front of a live audience whose chortles and guffaws are electronically enhanced; Remember WENN is filmed, movie-style, on a closed set, and the only laughs you hear when watching it are your own. The cast contains no stars (though celebrity guests are turning up with increasing frequency), and the scripts contain nothing naugh-tier than an occasional "damn"; instead, Holmes serves up charm, sentiment and a healthy dose of good old-fashioned door-slamming farce. "I wanted," he explains, "to cross Fawlty Towers with Father Knows Best." The recipe may sound eccentric, but the results are irresistible: I've been telling friends about Remember WENN ever since its debut, and they never fail to fall for it.
What makes WENN work is the utter self-assurance with which Holmes and his sterling cast undertake each week to put a fresh spin on the perfectly obvious. The characters are straight out of Sitcom 101: the spunky scriptwriter, the avuncular station manager, the blasé receptionist, the actor of a thousand voices, the over-the-hill actress and her philandering husband, the sound-effects man who never speaks a word. Nor is there anything particularly original about the stock situations in which these stick figures find themselves enmeshed: In one episode, the entire staff of WENN is placed under quarantine and forced to live at the station for a week, a plot device first seen on TV around the time J. Fred Muggs was stealing scenes from Dave Garroway. Yet that episode of Remember WENN was among the series' most memorable—proof that there are no stale ideas, only stale writers.
A typical example of the quiet way in which Remember WENN goes about its funny business is a recent episode in which the hoity-toity Hilary Booth (who almost always wears a hat) and her unfaithful husband, Jeff Singer (who almost always wears an ascot), kiss, make up and decide to take a whirlwind train trip to Mexico to get married again. First we see them before the trip, cooing lovey-dovey dialogue in the break room: "I don't think I can keep my hands to myself!" "If I were to go strictly with my primitive emotions, they'd have to call in the police!" (This is as blue as Remember WENN gets.) Then, three scenes later, the furious posthoneymoon couple comes storming back into the station, exchanging the very same linesonly this time, it's through clenched teeth. And since there's no laugh track to slam the point home, Holmes trusts you to get it all by yourself.
As if to add to its air of determined unfashionability, Remember WENN is filmed not in Hollywood but in Queens, New York, in an ancient brick warehouse whose only mark of distinction is a turquoise sign identifying it as the home of Broadway Stages. I visited the set recently and found myself in the midst of tightly organized chaos. "Prior to Broadway," the 28th episode of Remember WENN, was being shot (it airs August 23), and the joint was jumping. "Have you ever been on a TV set before?" a serious-looking man whispered in my ear. "Just rememberwhen they say 'Quiet!' they aren't kidding." Somebody shouted, "OK, stand by. Rolling." A bell rang twice, and I froze in my tracks. "Speed. Take seven. And…action." Then I heard a strangely familiar woman's voice. "A certain sponsor will have me six feet under if a certain star doesn't show within the next 10 seconds," it said, and I thought, "That's Betty!"
It was, of course, Amanda Naughton, who plays Betty Roberts, WENN's spunky scriptwriter. But fact and fiction are sometimes hard to disentangle when you're on the set of a TV series. In order to save money, each episode of Remember WENN is filmed in its entirety with a single camera on a single-unit set—a life-size replica of a small-time radio station—erected in the middle of the huge warehouse that is Broadway Stages. The set looks just like what it purports to be, so much so that it can be highly disorienting to sit down in an art deco chair, pick up a magazine and realize that you're holding a 1940 copy of Screen Guide ("See How Much of a Ham Errol Flynn Is"). It's even more confusing when you look up and see Betty Roberts and Hilary Booth chatting in the hallway, dressed in period outfits and looking just like themselves. You know Betty and Hilary—you see them every week—and for a moment, you forget that the spunky scriptwriter and the over-the-hill actress are actually Amanda Naughton and Melinda Mullins, two real-life people who are paid to read lines written by Rupert Holmes, another real-life person who is sitting in an office miles from here, busily batting out next week's script.
Naughton knows the difference between fact and fiction: She has acted both on and off Broadway for most of her adult life. She also knows a dream gig when she sees one. "Yes, it's a job, but there could be worse jobs," she says with a huge grin, the enthusiastic words tumbling over one another. "The hours are long and you get tired, but it doesn't really feel like a job job. It never has. When I got the audition and read the script for the first episode, I said, 'Dang, I really want this!' It read so beautifully that I laughed out loud, just reading it to myself. Rupert's scripts aren't har-de-har-har and the door falls off the hinges and everybody falls down and somebody gets a pie in the face. It was such a thrill to see something of that quality."These words are music to Holmes's ears, for the things Naughton praises about Remember WENN are exactly what he tries to do each time he sits down at the word processor. For Holmes, the fact that WENN has no laugh track is a symbol of what sets it apart from other sitcoms. "It's not just that you don't have to put up with that annoying, Benzedrine-induced mechanical laughter," he says. "The tempo of the show can also be very different. You don't have to say to the audience: This is funny, that's funny. You can get away from hard-core jokes. You can throw away stuff. Sure, we still do all the farce things, and I find that there are often a lot of seamy emotions lurking beneath the surface of the show. But there's a civility to it all—like the old TV comedies, Dick Van Dyke and Your Show of Shows and The Honeymooners, where people behaved like adults and were witty without having to fall on their faces."
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From the 1997 Fall Preview TV Guide, Changes in Returning Shows Article
September 1, 1997AMC
Remember WENN: As World War II heats up, so do events at the Pittsburgh radio station where this series is set. Head writer Betty (Amanda Naughton) finds herself at a professional crossroads when she is offered a job at The New Yorker; performer Jeffrey (Hugh O'Gorman) finds himself at a romantic crossroads with station diva Hilary (Melinda Mullins) when a trip to London places their relationship in flux. Look for guest appearances by Boyd Gaines, Harry Hamlin, Daniel Davis, and Jason Alexander.
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Remember WENN Blazes New TV Trail
by Nancy Jalasca Randle
September 10, 1997From the moment Remember WENN's opening credits roll, it's clear you're in for something unique. The grainy montage unfolds in slow-motion, pictorially peeling away the pages of time. Sepia images of radio's golden age magically appear; the music sets a nostalgic mood and a graceful pace. The characters seem to beckon you to join them in those halcyon days.
While networks strain for success by cloning the familiar, this American Movie Classics comedy series, which began its third season last month, chooses to go its own way. A Tiffany show in a Woolworth's market, Remember WENN marches to the beat of a different drummer. It does so by design. "I'm trying to go completely against the grain of our times," says composer and author Rupert Holmes, the visionary behind the show.
Remember WENN takes place in a small station in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, at the outset of World War II. Amanda Naughton, Melinda Mullins, Hugh O'Gorman, Christopher Murney, Kevin O'Rourke, George Hall, Tom Beckett, Carolee Carmello, CJ Byrnes and Mary Stout star as the actors, actresses, technicians and producers who valiantly get the live radio showsno easy taskon the air.
An expert on the glory days of radio, the multiple Tony Award-winning Holmes (The Mystery of Edwin Drood) worships at the altar of the medium that reigned supreme in America in the 1930s and '40s. He calls radio the "theater of the imagination" and marvels at its ability to send a chill up the national spine "from Maine to Sacramento."
No Sledgehammer Used
Holmes created the personalities, the plots, the musical theme and the original score for Remember WENN's bygone world. He did so to pose an alternative to what he calls the Beavis and Butt-Head point of view: sledgehammer comedy that relies on outrage for success.
In an age of cynicism, Holmes' life-affirming, lighthearted evocation of radioland offers humor grounded in character and the vicissitudes of human nature. More amusing than funny, it is sweet but never cloying, civil but never boring.
"I'm trying to take the friskiness of a stage farce and combine it with a kind of honest sentimentality," says the series' writer and composer. "I embrace what we now think it is cool to turn one's back on."
There is no laugh track on Remember WENN. It is shot on filmnot videoand technologically enhanced to emulate the Technicolor movies of the 1940s. Instead of stars, it features accomplished stage actors. Well-developed characters are as important as plot. Even the way people talk is different. In this place and time, words matter. And using them correctly and with flair matters most.
The speech ranges from snappy dialogue a la The Front Page and a politeness that reflects society's appreciation for courtesy to colorful turns of phrase that smack of the times. When was the last time you heard "nervous Nellie," "famished," "what the heck," "malarkey," "swell" or "gosh"? And the manner of speaking is always just a little "high-flown," as Holmes puts it.
"People weren't ashamed to show that they'd come out of the gutter and could sling words with the best of them," he explains.
"The decision to take the creative road less traveled is paying off, both in honors and in popularity. The series has received several award nominations and won an Emmy for costume design and CableAce awards for editing and cinematography. In February, "WENN" received a nomination for a Screen Actors Guild Award for best ensemble cast in a comedy series, competing with such big-budget shows as Seinfeld and 3rd Rock From the Sun.
WENN also has attracted an impressive array of guest stars. In the '97-'98 season Whoopi Goldberg, Jason Alexander and Harry Hamlin join a list that has included Molly Ringwald and the late Howard Rollins.
WENN spawned three fan clubs and has become one of AMC's most popular attractions. It draws the expected viewers over 50 and the unexpected teen-agers, who carry on lively Internet debates about characters and plot points in Remember WENN chat rooms.Star Break
Actress Amanda Naughton stars as Betty Roberts, the spirited writer of the show who frequently saves the day. On her dressing room door hangs a photo of Rosalind Russell headlined "The Original Working Girl" and a still of the late Jimmy Stewart. "He's the man I thought I'd marry when I was a little girl," Betty confesses.
The photos provide a thumbnail sketch of the collective soul of WENN's characters: an amalgam of Russell's His Girl Friday and Stewart's You Can't Take It With You with a generous dash of British farce. These lovable screwballs are the reason for Remember WENN's faithful following.
Holmes wanted viewers to feel close to his characters, as though they were watching them from the wings. His choices always aim to nurture the viewer's notion that they have the inside track on this band of stalwarts. So he put the station in the Midwest, stocked it with performers who were local heroes instead of big-time stars, and then showed the chinks in their armor.
Whether it is prima donna Hilary Booth's revelation of a fall from stage performance grace, or Betty's touching idealism, or Mr. Eldridge's dotty and endearing misinterpretations, their vulnerability is the tie that binds the past to the present. "All these people are what we are," Holmes says, "with one layer of armor removed." Their dreams, their successes, their failures, and their troubles cross the time divide.
"I always felt if I plotted it the right way, it would be a place that people would want to go to. It really works best in a continuing series when there is a family there, and you feel you are a member of it. And for that half-hour you feel you are in a place that protects you a little bit. While you're there, the world just evaporates."
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Remember WENN, Saturday Night on American Movie Classics
by Jean Prescott (The Biloxi Sun Herald)
October 8, 1997Despite impressive Broadway credentials, Jason Alexander was a stranger to most of us sofa spuds when he bumbled into our living rooms nearly a decade ago as Jerry's pal George on Seinfeld.
All we know is George, though Alexander also voices USA Network's feathered loser, Duckman.
Perhaps fans of Alexander's stage work will be unfazed by his characterization of Alan Ballinger, mentalist extraordinaire, in Saturday night's new installment of Remember WENN (9 p.m. ET on American Movie Classics). But Seinfeld fans will be doing double-takes all over the place.
Ballinger//Alexander is suave and debonair. He has charm. He has hair!
And he catches the eye of WENN's resident diva, Hillary Booth (Melinda Mullins), whose disintegrating personal life makes her particularly vulnerable.
For the benefit of those who've never watched this Emmy and CableACE-winning comedy half-hour, it is set in Pittsburgh just prior to World War II and focuses on the actors, actresses, technicians and producers at radio station WENN. Understaffed and overwhelmed, they bravely attempt to supply listeners with a daily lineup of live programming.
Ballinger, a guest artist, impresses half of Pittsburgh with what seems to be mental manipulation ("Well, you can't do card tricks on the radio," he confesses). What appears to be magic, though, is merely math; nevertheless Hillary is smitten. At least she is until someone recognizes Ballinger as a scam artist, and then Hillary gets even as only she can.
Alexander, whose Broadway buddye Rupert Holmes created Remember WENN, also directs the episode, and he slips into this stellar cast like a missing puzzle piece.
Remember WENN would be a great Saturday-night habit to get into, but even those unprepared to commit should tune in this weekend just to see George with hair.
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Thanks to Jason Alexander, Unappreciated WENN Looks Even Better
by Tim Feran (The Columbus Dispatch)
October 9, 1997Remember WENN, the little series that could, makes up in clever production values and droll scripts what it lacks in a budget.
In its third season, the series is getting a boost from famous friends: The added glitter of high-profile guest stars may yet turn Remember WENN from a favorite of critics and devotees into a broader success.
Malcolm Gets (Caroline in the City) has already appeared as globe-trotting explorer Cutter Dunlap, and Harry Hamlin (L.A. Law) as playwright Euripides Moss.
For next season, Whoopi Goldberg is reportedly ready to visit the hard-working, motley staff of the pre-World War II radio station in Pittsburgh.
This week's episode, "Nothing Up My Sleeve," might be the best: Jason Alexander plays the great mentalist Alan Ballinger, star of Magic Time.
"I explore the boundaries of the mind," he says in a pseudo-mysterious murmur to "millions of listeners."
Then he astounds them with "a card trick minus the cards."
"You're another Houdini," a WENN staff member gasps.
When the mentalist points out that, because Houdini was an escape artist, "You're comparing apples and oranges," the unabashed staffer declares, "Well, you're just as much a fruit as he is."
Most impressed is tantrum-prone Hilary Booth (Melinda Mullins), an ex-Broadway star.
Sparks fly as the "master of all things mental" makes a move.
Alexander, best-known to TV viewers as George Costanza on Seinfeld, might be a revelation to those unaware of his background as a Broadway performer.
In a wig and beard, and a magician's cape and suit, he lends an oily assurance to the role that is sublimely hilarious.
That he also directed the episode underlines the range of his talent.
A Remember WENN character may crack that "the great mentalist" does everything "tele-
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Alexander's a Smoothie on WENN
by Steve Hall (The Indianapolis Star)
October 10, 1997Could this really be Jason AlexanderSeinfeld's loser George Costanzaon Remember WENN?
This character's suave! Debonair! A ladies' man!
He even has hair!
But Alexander - veteran of TV, movies, theater and even cartoons (he's the voice of Duckman) - does indeed appear as Alan Ballinger, mentalist extraordinaire, in this charming Remember WENN (3 1/2 Stars) at 8 p.m. Saturday on AMC. He also directed the episode, which was wonderfully written by series creator Rupert Holmes. It boasts the fast-talking, witty repartee you thought went out with screwball comedies in the 1940s.
For the benefit of those who've never watched this Emmy and CableACE-winning dramedy, Remember WENN is set in a Pittsburgh radio station in the 1940s. The actors, technicians and producers struggle daily to give listeners a lineup of live programming.
Guest artist Ballinger impresses listeners and the WENN staff alike with what seems to be mental manipulation"You can't do card tricks on the radio," he confessesbut is actually math.
Ballinger hopes one plus one equals hanky-panky. Station diva Hilary Booth (Melinda Mullins) is smitten with the smooth-talking mentalist.
She's emotionally vulnerable, since she recently discovered her husband, Jeffrey, was still married to someone else. "That shameless hussy," hisses a co-worker. "I prefer the term 'disease-ridden trollop,'" sniffs Hilary.
She and Ballinger have romance on their mindsthat is, until a friend recognizes Ballinger as a con artist. Then Hilary gets even in her inimitable way.
As a director, Alexander is unobtrusive but effective, keeping the episode well-paced and all the actors in peak form. As an actor, he slips so easily into radio station WENN and Ballinger's snazzy suits that you'd think the mentalist's photo had been hanging in the lobby for ages. George who?
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Amazin' Jason is On the Air!
by David Cuthbert (Times-Picayune)
October 10, 1997Since hitting it big as George Costanza on Seinfeld, Jason Alexander has literally been working overtime to assure us that George is not all he can do. He sang and danced in a TV Bye, Bye Birdie and on Evening at Pops, played flunky to a monkey in Dunston Checks In and brightened the bleak film version of Love! Valour! Compassion! as Buzz, the HIV-positive musical comedy queen.
Now he pops up on AMC's charming Remember WENN series as both guest star and director of tonight's episode, "Nothing Up My Sleeve." Alexander playswith a great deal of flamboyant flourish"The Astonishing Ballinger," a magician playing Pittsburgh's Hippodrome Theater in 1941. While in town, he's picking up some extra change on radio station WENN doing a show called Magic Time. If a magician on radio sounds unlikely, just remember that a ventriloquist on radio seemed absurd, too, until Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy proved otherwise.
For his first bit of hocus pocus, Ballantine actually does a card trick over the air. And if you play along with him, you'll find out that it works.
Ballantine says he is not a magician, but "a mentalistI explore the boundaries of the mind," to which another character cracks, "He sounds like a dime novelist marked down to a nickel."
But station diva Hilary Booth (Melinda Mullins) is a sucker for Ballantine's banter; she falls for him like an Acme anvil in a Road Runner cartoon.
However, there is talk that Ballantine is not just a mentalist but a mental case named Alan Brixton, a lady-killer whose specialty is wooing female celebrities, playing mind games with them and then revealing their most personal secrets as part of his act.
Will Hilary be humiliated on the air? Or will she turn the tables on the unprincipled prestidigitator? And does the half-pint Houdini have one final surprise up his sleeve? To find out the answer to these and other trifling questions, tune in to the next delightful chapter of Remember WENN! (Organ music up.)
As a director, Alexander favors some amusingly outre camera angles, but otherwise is a straightforward storyteller. As a performer, he demonstrates effortless rapport with every member of the WENN ensemble cast with whom he has scenes, particularly George Hall as old Mr. Eldridge.
And creator-writer Rupert Holmes displays yet again his gift for snappy repartee that's very much like that of the movies of the era.
Make no mistake, this show is not much more than a droll vignette, but one that is expertly produced and performed.
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Hair Today, George Tomorrow
by Ellen Gray (Philadelphia Daily News)
October 10, 1997Remember when Jason Alexander had hair?
American Movie Classics probably hopes Seinfeld fans who've never seen George in a really bad hairpiece and a goatee but have always longed to will tune in for this week's Remember WENN, in which Alexander plays a radio psychic.
But the network's nostalgic soap opera, already a cult hit, is probably too sentimental for the must-see-TV crowd. Death is sad here, love is lasting, and radio is the center of the known universe.
Set in a Pittsburgh radio station in the late 1930s, WENN follows the lives and loves of the station's staff, including head writer Betty Roberts (Amanda Naughton), "Man of a Thousand Voices" Mackie Bloom (Christopher Murney), diva Hilary Booth (Melinda Mullins), Hilary's sometime husband Jeffrey Singer (Hugh O'Gorman) and my favorite, the sound man, Mr. Foley (Tom Beckett), who appears to have taken a vow of silence.
Thanks to creator Rupert Holmes' vast theater connections, WENN from the beginning has been able to engage in some impressive stunt casting. Sunset Boulevard star Betty Buckley has been a guest star, as has a pre-Townies Molly Ringwald and actress-singer Patti LuPone.
Alexander's the second NBC star to visit in recent months; Malcolm Gets (Caroline in the City) played a famous explorer in the season premiere.
Alexander, chewing scenery like it's going out of style, portrays mentalist Alan Ballinger, who visits WENN, we are told, after making a splash in Athens and Rome. "Sure, he's a big hit in Georgia and upstate New York," grumbles Mackie. "But this is Pittsburgh. This is the big time."
It doesn't take long to discover that Ballinger is not all he appears, but along the way, there's a dash of romance, a soupcon of intrigue and one really good mathematics-based card trick that you might want to tape so you can memorize it and try it out on your friends.
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Young Fans Tune Into Remember WENN
by Daniel M. Kimmell (The Boston Herald)
October 11, 1997As the only situation comedy on the American Movie Classics cable channel, it's not surprising that the punningly titled Remember WENN is bathed in a certain nostalgia.
Set at a radio station in the early 1940s, the show features characters who put on the broadcasts that were staples in the pre-television era. Why, then, is the show gaining an audience of college students who can't even remember when TV was in black and white?
Melinda Mullins, who plays dramatic actress Hilary Booth on the show, finds it mystifying. On the Internet, discussion groups and Web sites created by fans are proliferating. "There's a fantastic e-mail thing going on about the show. There's a Hilary and Jeff (Singer, her character's estranged husband) museum, and four different fan clubs. Considering there's hardly any publicity, it's amazing," she said.
As to why younger audiences are tuning in, she credits the quality of the writing. "I don't know what they're nostalgic for," she joked of her younger fans.
The show is the creation of Rupert Holmes, a writer, singer, songwriter and music producer. Holmes has worked with Barbara Streisand, and won Broadway's Tony Awardsfor book, music, and lyricsfor The Mystery of Edwin Drood. His Remember WENN scripts have attracted several guest stars to the show, including Whoopi Goldberg, Patti Lupone, Betty Buckley, Harry Hamlin and Jason Alexander (the Seinfeld star, who appears in tonight's episode).
Mullins plays a dramatic star with high-strung emotions, who is always preparing for her return to Broadway. "Some people would call her a bitch," allowed Mullins, who nonetheless sees her as sympathetic. "She gets through things with some arrogance and a bit of dignity."
Hilary is put through a lot on the show, including the discovery that her husband secretly divorced her to marry someone else. Mullins played the scenes at the same time she was going through her own divorce. "Thank you very much, Rupert," she said ironically. The timing was apparently coincidental.
The low-budget show does have one major advantage over its network rivals: no commercials. That means not only no interruptions, but more time to tell the story and develop the characters. "Rupert is watching us at the read throughs and writes to us," explained Mullins. "When we have a guest writer we might question something, but Rupert will step in before I have a chance to complain."
New episodes are airing through Nov. 1, and then in February they begin taping season four. In the meantime, Mullins does commercial voice-over work to pay the bills, auditions and sometimes drops in on a friend to check out the Remember WENN action on the Internet.
"I'm kind of tempted," she said about getting her own computer, "but I'm resisting so far."
Remember WENN airs Saturdays at 9 p.m. on the AMC cable channel.
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Hall's Gertie Writes a Script; WENN Spoofs Casablanca
by Douglas Durden, Times-Dispatch Staff Writer (The Richmond Times Dispatch)
October 31, 1997Gertie, Remember WENN's well-meaning receptionist, comes out from behind the switchboard at 9 p.m. tomorrow in an episode titled "From the Pen of Gertrude Reece."
A year before the movie Casablanca, she's written Rendezvous in Rabat, a radio play set inside a Moroccan bar featuring an American soldier of fortune, the girl he still loves, and a patriot trying to escape the Germans.
"If we don't tell it, someone else will," says Gertie, thrusting her script into the hands of Betty Roberts, WENN's head writer who usually saves the day, or at least the broadcast.
There's no better place for a Casablanca spoof than American Movie Classic's gentle comedy about a struggling radio station set in Pittsburgh in the early 1940s. (Locally, AMC is on MediaOne's Channel 27, and Comcast's Channel 20). And there's no one more surprising to write it than Gertie.
Gertie Reece is played by Margaret Hall, Broadway actress and former Richmonder with familiar ties to the city and Virginia. She grew up in the Fan, attended St. James's Episcopal Church, went to William Fox Elementary School and Thomas Jefferson High School, and graduated from the College of William & Mary.
On Remember WENN, which premiered in January 1996, Hall plays a character best described as a "gal," a hard-working, plain-speaking and simply dressed widow of a certain age.
But, over the telephone, Hall sounds regal. Perhaps it's all those Broadway credits including Becket, High Spirits, Mame, Sunday in the Park With George and Lettuce and Lovage.
"I've written a whole biography for Gertie," said Hall, asked to fill in the blanks for her character. "I haven't even told Rupert." (That would be Rupert Holmes, creator and writer of the show.)
"Gertie was married when she was about 16 to a young man who was a bicycle mechanic who worked on the railroad. He was killed the day before the Armistice.
"She's never remarried, but she has a rich social life. She sleeps in a hair net to keep her waves in. She's afraid of only one thing - losing this job. She loves it."
And what's not to love? Gertie is part of WENN, a radio station whose small, overworked staff toils every day to present live radio.
In addition to Gertie and Betty, played by Amanda Naughton, WENN's staff includes Hilary Booth (Melinda Mullins), self-styled star of the station, and her now estranged husband Jeffrey Singer (Hugh O'Gorman); Mackie Bloom (Christopher Murney), man of 1,000 voices; Mr. Eldridge (George Hall), absentminded handyman; ex-general manager Scott Sherwood (Kevin O'Rourke); and Mr. Foley (Tom Beckett), speechless sound effects wizard. All of them show up in tomorrow's pun-filled Casablanca spoof.
"It's a nice place to work. It really is. People who watch the show say it has a great sense of family among the people who work there. And it's like that on the set."
Remember WENN, AMC's only continuing series, has slowly but surely developed a loyal following drawn to its comedy, characters and '40s setting.
"It's the script; it's Rupert's writing," said Hall, explaining the appeal of the show.
Compared to other scripts, "it's the difference between taking the edge of your knife and striking crystal and a jelly jar. They're very true, they are very gentle. They are very loving and they are charming."
Hall describes Gertie as the "truthsayer" on the show. She's also the most authentically dressed.
"I said I would like her costumes to repeat because she wouldn't have the money to have a different outfit every week."
Hall has added her own touches to her vintage wardrobe, including a watch she inherited from her aunt, Mary Chappell Hamilton, which she alternates with a watch that belonged to her mother, Charlotte Chappell Hall.
Although her stage credits are many, Hall didn't get interested in drama until after college.
"I was very shy and I was a little shy about trying out for things. I was an English major in college with a minor in fine arts."
She studied acting after college, including with Lee Strasberg. But it wasn't until she got a job with a stock company in Hamilton, Bermuda, that she realized acting was what she wanted to do.
"I told my mother, 'I want to be an actress.' She said, 'Well, my darling, as I understand it, there's not much security in that field. But if that's what you want to do, I'll back you to the wall.'
"Momma was one of those rare people who knew how much space she filled up and filled it with grace and wit and charm. She was as at home frying chicken for hungry actors as she was in an elegant apartment in New York for a reception.
"My first Broadway show was Becket. I was fortunate to work with [Laurence] Olivier. Momma used to come backstage to visit me. All the stage hands knew her. She was at ease there as anywhere else. She and Olivier used to talk about gardens. If I'm good at anything, it's because of her."
Hall is married to Gil Rogers, featured in CBS' Guiding Light. She is no relation to Remember WENN's other Hall, George, who plays the station's elderly handyman.
"George is so dear. He has more energy than anybody. One week, he had a birthday. I don't think I should tell you which one. He opened in Brigadoon, did six radio commercials and did Remember WENN. And did them all well. He's not the doddering Mr. Eldridge you see. He used to dance with Martha Graham; he was among her first male dancers. He can still do a buck and wing. And he moves like a dancer."
And does Tom Beckett, the actor who plays the tight-lipped Mr. Foley, ever speak?
"Indeed he does," Hall said. "One week, when we had lots of lines, I said, 'I don't think Mr. Beckett should be paid as much as us.' But he speaks in 'From the Pen of Gertrude Reece.'"
Well, sort of. The fact that he does and he doesn't is all part of the unusual charm of Remember WENN.
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Media Musings: Cable Worth Watching
by Dave Berkman, (Milwaukee Shepherd-Express)
November 6, 1997
[Entry #5:]Remember WENN" (AMC). A dramatic series about an independent radio station in the late '30s. It requires some suspension of disbelief to accept that with its staff of one writer and an ensemble company of six performers, the station produces a mix of programming equal to what the major networks were offering. But its charm lies in its wonderfully evocative re-creation of the naiveté and innocence of a time not that long ago.
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Squib from Wired on Russell Means
November 11, 1997No one who lived through 1973's armed takeover at the Wounded Knee reservation in South Dakota would believe the event's ringleader, Russell Means, has become...a Hollywood player? "Never even remotely in my mind did I think I'd be part of the entertainment industry," the famed Indian activist says, laughing. "And now I write music and screenplays and produce CD-ROMs. I have my own production company." Add his guest-starring on AMC's nostalgic series Remember WENN (Sat.), and it appears Means has abandoned the Indian (his preferred word) cause. But, he notes, even acting follows a political agenda. "I grew up in the heyday of Indian killers [in films]," Means says. "Every role I choose and have chosen is an excellent role for Indian people." And he hasn't softened. Asked about the possibility of a Wounded Knee memorial, Means promises that "if it's a government monument, I'll destroy it. I'll consider it an act of war."
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Here and WENN; Former Pittsburgher is Among Creative Forces Behind AMC's Pittsburgh-Based TV Series
by Adrian McCoy (The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette)
December 21, 1997American Movie Classics' series Remember WENN is set in a fictional Pittsburgh radio station. So is it any surprise that someone on the show's creative team is a former Pittsburgher?
Paula Connelly-Skorka, director of original program development for AMC and executive producer of Remember WENN, grew up in Shaler and attended the University of Pittsburgh and Point Park College, where she studied film. After graduating in 1980, she headed for New York, where she started out as a negative cutter and was involved in the restoration and preservation of Casablanca and The Maltese Falcon.
She moved on to Viacom Entertainment, where she was vice president of development and production executive for the D'Antoni Productions Group
"I was the movie-of-the-week queen," she recalls. "I loved it there. I was doing the disaster or accident or woman in jeopardy of the week. You kind of look at the dark side of life working in that kind of situation.
In 1994, Connelly-Skorka was hired to develop series for AMC. "It's a great job. There are no creative boundaries. You can go wherever you want as long as you're being true to what the channel's all about." Along with co-executive producer Howard Meltzer and creator Rupert Holmes, she was involved with Remember WENN from its conception.
AMC took the plunge into original series production with the period series about a '40s-era Pittsburgh radio station and the people who perform or work there. Meltzer was a friend of composer/writer Holmes, a big-time radio buff who has written many of the scripts and the music for the show. That's how the birth of radio station WENN came about.
"The show is designed as a one-act and not a TV series. We're not playing to a commercial break. We don't have a laugh track," Connelly-Skorka says. "We really try hard to stay in the period: We have an audience that, if we do make a mistake, they certainly let us know."
In developing the series, they researched the history of radio, both here and across the country, to make the show accurate and faithful to the period. While Pittsburgh has a long and important history in radio, the show is not based on any particular station, like KDKA or KQV, two of the earliest stations to start commercial broadcasting. "We didn't want this to be a big station. We kind of wanted them to always have a struggle. Pittsburgh, being a city but not New York City, was a perfect place."
Connelly-Skorka's formative years here have had an undeniable effect on the show. "There are references in every single episode to Pittsburgh," she says. Her aunt used to own Bell's Restaurant in Monroeville Mall: There is a Bell's Restaurant on the show. The character of WENN station manager Victor Comstock lives in Shadyside.
Connelly-Skorka attributes the show's appeal to several factors. One, she says, is that it reflects the movies the station runs, keeping the same kind of production values viewers see in the films.
Remember WENN is shot on film instead of video. The single-camera technique is appealing to guest directors, Connelly-Skorka says, and it was something she insisted on to keep the visual quality of the show consistent with that of the films on AMC.
"Video really didn't belong on this channel with these beautiful movies. I thought if we were going to get into the serious game and not be completely criticized by the press and our audience, we had to develop something that was going to feel natural when you went off a movie and on to the series. So I fought to have the show done on film." Because film is more expensive, they compromised by doing fewer episodes in the beginning to stay within the show's budget.
The series has attracted major talent as guest stars and directors - among them this season Jason Alexander, Harry Hamlin, Daniel Davis, Malcolm Gets and Russell Means. Next season's guest stars include Whoopi Goldberg, Kelsey Grammer, Jonathan Frakes and Alexander, who's returning to direct. The show is in negotiations with Lauren Bacall to play the mother of Hilary Booth, one of the characters.
For newcomers to the series, the current season goes into reruns in early January. Connelly-Skorka says this year's upcoming season cliffhanger is "our best ever," but will say no more about it.
Connelly-Skorka has plenty of pilots for other period series in the works at AMC. Next up is Paramour, about a Hollywood photoplay magazine, which probably will air in April.
In January, they'll start production on The Lot, a show about life on a movie studio in 1937. The Lot is structured like Upstairs, Downstairs, with characters ranging from the technical crews to the studio executives, and will track the rise of a young starlet through the studio system. Other projects in the works include a private eye story and a series about the residents of a Hollywood apartment complex.
There are other new projectslike motherhoodin the coming months for Connelly-Skorka. She has been married for six years and her first baby is due in April.
She comes home often to visit her mother and other family members who still live in the area. "If I could do what I do in Pittsburgh, I'd be living there. I miss it very much." She may be doing thatoccasionally anyway. Because of the expense of shooting in New York, she is exploring other cities as optionsincluding her hometown.
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