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Tuesday, May 21, 2013

May 21, 1990

As the sun rises up on another day, I am saddened to hear of the devastation that occurred yesterday in the town of Moore, Oklahoma. A powerful tornado swept through the community turning homes to rubble and making a direct hit on an elementary school. At the time of this writing, I am still unsure of what the death toll is, nor do I know the full extent of the damage, but based on what I am witnesses in various news reports, it does not look good. Thoughts and prayers go out to the people of Moore, Oklahoma. We're all sending our thoughts to all of you in this terrible time.

Today is May 21, 2013, and in this edition of the Tuesday Timeline, we're going to look at a particular television show. But rather than focus on how the show began, we're going to discuss the ending. Because anyone who watched the end of this particular series will know just how shocking and unbelievable the finale ended up being.

Of course, before we do that, we have to talk about some of the other events that took place on May 21 throughout history. Let's begin with celebrity birthdays.

A very happy birthday to Alice Drummond, Heinz Hollinger, Ronald Isley, Bobby Cox, Hilton Valentine (The Animals), Bill Champlin (Chicago), Jonathan Hyde, Leo Sayer, Al Franken, Mr. T, Janice Karman, Stan Lynch, Judge Reinhold, Richard Appel, Carolyn Lawrence, Lisa Edelstein, Fairuza Balk, Ricky Williams, Gotye, Sarah Ramos, and Hutch Dano.

And, here are some of the significant events that have taken place on May 21...

996 – Otto III is crowned Holy Roman Emperor at the tender age of sixteen

1502 – The island of Saint Helena is discovered by Joao de Nova, of Portugal

1851 – Slavery is abolished in Colombia, South America

1856 – The community of Lawrence, Kansas is burned to the ground by pro-slavery forces

1881 – Clara Barton establishes the American Red Cross

1917 – Some 2,000 homes and businesses are completely destroyed in the Great Atlanta Fire of 1917

1924 – Richard Loeb and Nathan Leopold Jr. murder teenager Bobby Franks in a “thrill killing”

1927 – Pilot Charles Lindbergh completes the world's first solo non-stop flight across the Atlantic Ocean

1932 – Amelia Earhart becomes the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean, exactly five years after Lindbergh

1939 – The Canadian National War Memorial is unveiled by King George VI and Queen Elizabeth in Ottawa, Ontario

1946 – Louis Slotin succumbs to radiation poisoning following an experiment at Los Alamos National Laboratory

1972 – Michelangelo's “Pieta” is vandalized by Laszlo Toth, a Hungarian geologist who had a mental breakdown

1979 – Riots take place in San Francisco, California following the manslaughter conviction of Dan White for assassinating Harvey Milk and George Moscone

1981 – Irish Republican hunger strikers Patsy O'Hara and Raymond McCreesh die of starvation in Maze Prison

1996 – The ferry MV Bukoba sinks in Lake Victoria, killing one thousand people

1998 – Abortion clinics in Miami, Florida are targeted by a butyric acid attacker

2005 – Kingda Ka opens at Six Flags Great Adventure in New Jersey, making it the tallest roller coaster in the world

2006 – Race car driver Spencer Clark is killed in an auto accident in Albuquerque, New Mexico at the young age of 19

So, what date are we going back in time to this week?

The date is May 21, 1990.

At that time, Madonna's “Vogue” was topping the charts, “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” was still performing very well at the box office, and on a personal note, I was just finishing up the last stretch of third grade.

It was also the day that a long-running sitcom aired its last episode. But what made the series finale so unique was the fact that the last few minutes of the episode was kept so under wraps, and was so shocking that many people were still talking about it weeks later. In fact, this show's series finale is widely considered to be one of the most clever and memorable show endings ever broadcast in recent history.

And, we're going to get into the very reasons why Newhart's series finale was so memorable in a few minutes. But before we get into how the series ended, we should take a brief look back on how it all began.

Newhart was the second successful sitcom that had Bob Newhart as its star. He had previously struck ratings gold with “The Bob Newhart Show”, which aired on CBS between September 1972 and April 1978. On that series, Bob Newhart played the role of Dr. Bob Hartley. Four years after “The Bob Newhart Show” aired its final episode, Bob decided that he would try his luck with another sitcom on CBS. And, so, on October 25, 1982, the sitcom “Newhart” debuted its pilot episode. And, as it so happened, “Newhart” became an even biggest success than Bob's previous show, running two seasons longer than “The Bob Newhart Show”.

The premise for “Newhart” was simple enough. Bob Newhart played author Dick Louden, a man who earned his living by writing a series of do-it-yourself books. Originally from New York City, Dick and his wife Joanna (played by the late Mary Frann) decide to get away from the hectic city life and take a sabbatical in a rural town in the state of Vermont. Aesthetically, the town is absolutely gorgeous and picturesque, as the opening credits of the series showcase a beautiful lake and quaint streets.

(Fun Fact – Some of the footage of Newhart's opening credits was comprised of stock footage from the 1981 film, “On Golden Pond”.)

When the Loudons arrive in Vermont, they decide to run the Stratford Inn, a two century year old manor that doubles as a hotel. I'm a bit too young to remember the show's early years, but to me it kind of looks like one of those stereotypical bed and breakfast places you see in the brochures of many New England travel guides.

At first, it seems like a nice, cozy way to spend the rest of their lives. But as Dick quickly finds out, he and Joanna just happened to move to the one community where everyone appears to have some sort of eccentricity. Which would be fine if they were dealing with them one at a time. But together as a group? Well, that's enough to make a guy want to abandon the inn and host a local talk show at the television station.

(No, seriously, that's what Dick Loudon did beginning around season three.)

So, who are these quirky townspeople? Well, there was George Utley (Tom Poston), the handyman of the Stratford Inn, who doesn't appear to be the sharpest knife in the drawer. You also had Leslie Vanderkellen (Jennifer Holmes), a former ski bunny with a wealthy background who takes on the job of hotel maid to experience “normality”. Leslie was written out in season two, and in to take her place was her equally spoiled sister, Stephanie (Julia Duffy). Stephanie would later end up marrying Michael Harris (Peter Scolari), the producer of Dick's talk show whose annoying quirk was that he spoke in alliteration.

She sells seashells by the seashore indeed.

And, then there's Larry. Who has a brother Darryl. Who in turn also has a brother named Darryl. And, what's interesting about the trio (played by William Sanderson, Tony Papenfuss, and John Voldstad) is that Larry was the mouthpiece for all three of them for the entire series run. The Darryls did not speak until the very last episode of the series! Initially introduced as recurring characters, they became permanent fixtures in season three taking over the Minuteman Cafe from Kirk Devane (Steven Kampmann).

For eight seasons, this motley crew of characters caused much frustration and headaches for both Dick and Joanna, but they stuck with it, and planned on staying there for the rest of their lives.

But when the show aired its finale on May 21, 1990, it seemed as though the Loudons would not get their wish.

The finale, titled “The Last Newhart” begins as a wealthy Japanese tycoon visits the Stratford Inn, and is so charmed by the town's beauty that he decides to purchase the whole town to transform it into a golf course and resort! Most of the townspeople accept the huge payoffs that they are given to vacate their homes and businesses, but two people who refuse to go along with the rest of the crowd are Dick and Joanna. The two refuse to take any offer, and they refuse to leave their inn, so Dick and Joanna stay at the inn while everyone else departs.

Flash forward five years later to 1995, and Dick and Joanna realize that maybe it wasn't the smartest idea to remain in town. With the constant golf balls smacking against the walls of the inn, Joanna being forced to dress like a Japanese geisha, and the replacements for the departed staff being even more incompetent than the ones that worked there before, it was enough for the normally sane and rational Dick to get a little bit teed off. Perhaps the one event that sends Dick on a one-way ticket to crazy town is the fact that all of the former townspeople pay Dick a visit (even more odd and eccentric than ever before), and not one of them are interested in taking Dick's ideas seriously. So, Dick decides that he has had it, issues one final monologue to the entire staff, and opens the door to leave his life in Vermont behind...

...and then he gets smacked on the head by a golf ball and is knocked out cold.

But, if you thought that the series ended with Dick getting injured...well, just watch the last few minutes of the Newhart finale, and you'll see why the finale ending remains one of the most talked about series finales ever.

You see? The entire series of “Newhart” was all a dream! It was Dr. Bob Hartley's dream! A dream that lasted eight years, mind you, but it was all a dream! You know, looking back on it, I wonder if this was the producers way of poking fun at the dream season of “Dallas”. I don't know for sure if that's what the plan was, but it would have made some sense if that was where their heads were at.

Anyway, it was always intended for the series finale to include that final scene in which the bedroom set from “The Bob Newhart Show” was shown, and with Suzanne Pleshette reprising her role as Emily Hartley. But to keep the top secret finale plans a secret, the producers kept the secret from nearly everyone. According to some sources, only Bob Newhart and Suzanne Pleshette knew what was really going on. The other cast members were just as shocked as the audience was when the real ending was revealed. The producers even leaked a phony ending to the tabloids, which would have seen the wayward golf ball kill Dick Loudon, and Dick ascending up to heaven where he would have spoke to God in the last few minutes.

I thought that it was an ingenious move by the producers part. Nowadays, we live in a world where plot twists and character departures are spoiled with the click of a mouse button, so it makes it really hard to keep secrets on set. Even way back in 1990, there were always people who blabbed set secrets to reporters and tabloid magazines. For the production staff of “Newhart” to keep everyone guessing how the show would end until its finale was pure genius. And, for the whole world to react with gasps, open mouthed stares, and thunderous applause when Suzanne Pleshette came out of truly was something to see for yourselves. I don't think a show nowadays would get away with keeping a secret that huge. It just goes to show you that there was once a time in television where the cast, crew, and producers all worked together to create an entertaining finale that people would still be talking about nearly 25 years later. And, maybe one day, we will find a way to have that again.

So, that's what happened on May 21, 1990.

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