I know these places, both of them, as well as I know any place I’ve ever been … and, yet, I’ve never been in them. I can tell you, with my eyes closed, where you’ll be if you turn left or right, or where you’ve come from if you’ve come from this direction or that, but I’ve never turned in any direction there, or come from or gone to any place anywhere near them … but, I could draw you a floor plan, or map, and be accurate to within inches. That’s because, although I never dwelled there, never even set foot there, I spent a good deal of my youth and equally misspent early adulthood there, with people I know so well that I can tell you what they’re going to say or do in any situation, even though I have never met them, or stood with them, or talked with them – yet, they have meant as much to me as so many of the people whom I have spent time with, which says something about other people, but more likely about me. And, possibly – likely – you.
Last week, within days of each other, Sam Denoff and Sherwood Schwartz died. They shared so much – both writers-producers, both songwriters, both Jewish guys from Brooklyn, both terrifically successful – yet, it is possible that they never met, not even in the small, incestuous Hollywood community that they both worked in for many years.
Denoff, with partner Bill Persky, and under the aegis of Carl Reiner, wrote “The Dick Van Dyke Show.” Schwartz was the guy responsible for (or, is that guilty of) “Gilligan’s Island.”
Almost certainly, neither man ever moved a stick of furniture on any of the sets where their ideas took form (tough unions out there), but it was those ideas, and the words that transmitted them, and the actions and movement that propelled them, that gave those artificial locales – the places I know so well – a real (or mannered simulacrum of) life, and arslocii.
Don’t close your eyes (it’s hard to keep on reading that way) but kind of close them and follow me through the door of 148 Bonnie Meadow Road, New Rochelle, New York. Come on, you know the way: down that single step (watch out for the foot stool!), the bedrooms in the corridor behind you, the living room with its sectional ahead of you, the kitchen with its odd shuttered pass-through just to your left. Merely a stage set – but it is in our brains because Rob and Laura threw their goofy show-off and show-biz-y parties there; Rob told Richie the facts of Rosebud there; walnuts (and Laura) poured out of the closet next to the front door; the Peters, whose baby Richie was definitely not switched at the hospital with, entered laughing there; Rob and Laura manically prepared for childbirth in their separate beds there. So much of that has placeness because of what Sam Denoff put down on paper, and how others interpreted it. Some obituaries for him stated that Bill Persky was the half of the duo who really “got” the Petrie home life and the Petrie’s marital relationship; it was Denoff, a slightly more acerbic wit, who gave us the best of the Alan Brady writers-room office material.
Here, too, take a stroll (perhaps bursting in, without knocking, with the soon-to-be-insulted, “yu-u-ch”-responding Mel Cooley): there, the couch; here, the upright piano; the desk and typewriter … but, here, too – and mostly – Buddy shooting off one-liners and zingers like a pitching machine; Sally polishing jokes, and opening up, self-deprecatingly, about her single life; Rob, trying to hold the madhouse together to get that week’s script finished on time, looking normal but being acceptably mad himself. In addition to providing us with one of TV’s first non-hospital, non-courtroom, non-police station, non-saloon or -wagon train workplaces, Denoff et al gave us sort of real people actually doing sort of real work in it, and giving young generations an image of what an ideal collaborative and fun workplace can be (thus, ruining millions of young lives when their expectations were shattered when they entered the reality of really real workplaces), and, similarly, what a collaborative and fun marriage looks like (with similar real-world disappointments). Denoff helped create an iconic place and ideal work (and home) situation that we could aspire to. It was a hopeful, Kennedy-era place where even the jerks were lovable because they were vulnerable and vainly silly. The Petrie home, the Brady office – they were places we not only wanted to be in, we were in them. We just didn’t have any lines.
Sherwood Schwartz did not deal in such a smart product, but it was calculatedly so and, amazingly, no less iconic. Say the words “a three-hour tour” (and, of course, say them twice) and, inevitably, the person you have said the phrase to will sing it back to you, suddenly acquiring the mock solemnity that signaled the foreshadowing of the shipwreck of S.S. Minnow on the apparently unmapped, off-any-radar island upon which Li’l Buddy, the Skipper, millionaires Thurston B. and Lovey Howell (don’t ask why they were taking a cheap boat excursion in the first place), Ginger, Mary Ann and the Professor would be constrained to in their ridiculous and often surreal escape attempts and equally pea-brained stabs at creating a functional society comprised of boneheads (but enough about current politics). Completely artificial-looking and soundstage-bound though it was, we know that place too well for our own self-respect. Half-close your eyes again: there’s the beach area where cockamamie rescue plans failed time and again, the living areas with their thatched roofs and hammocks, the Professor’s lab-hut – ah, yes, there they are, stuck in your brain cells like gravel lodged in tire treads, with no one or nothing but age and death to remove them.
As we wrote last time, what creates placeness is that intersection of the alluring and irresistible force and that ineffable thing we call chemistry, added to empathy and a kind of hard-wired recognition that borders on precognition. The genius of Sam Denoff and Sherwood Schwartz was knowing and writing about exactly where that intersection can be found: where people we know and like and understand come together to be with us in a way that is safe and comforting and knowing and knowable, true without being in any way real – in a family unit, nuclear or extended, in an archetypal setting, to create a placeness that is somehow little short of home.