‘All in the Family’
Edith Bunker died in 1980, but Jean Stapleton soldiered on until just more than a week ago, when she died at home in her own bed, surrounded by her children, at the age of 90.
I was one of the many people – of all ages – who eagerly looked forward each week for the showing of “All in the Family,” back in the age when nearly every program could not be seen at least twice more on other channels, if the first showing was inconvenient, and there was no such thing as a VCR, let alone a DVR. It was an age of “Father Knows Best,” and “Leave It to Beaver,” when television showed us nothing but perfect families whose activities involved conflict only when Bud spied on Betty when she chastely kissed her prom date, but when such conflicts were easily resolved following a reasonable chat with Dad, who smoked his pipe throughout, then confessed to Margaret that he truly sympathized with both parties.
“All in the Family” centered around the far from perfect Bunker Family, who lived in a row house in Queens. Actor Carroll O’Connor got most of the attention, for his portrayal of Archie Bunker, the father of the family. Archie was a know-it-all worker on the loading dock of a large corporation. In many ways, he resembled Jackie Gleason and his character Ralph Kramden, the New York City bus driver who was perpetually getting into scrapes because of his own selfish ambitions and petty dishonesty, and whose tiny, hard-nagging wife was always being threatened with violence, although he would melt into a puddle of butter if she seemed truly angry or upset with him. But Archie said and did things Ralph would never have dared to say or do.
The true soul of the show, and the element which made it the top-rated show on television for five straight years of its nine-year run, was Ms. Stapleton, portraying Edith Bunker, Archie’s long suffering wife.
Archie would fire off a long string of negatives about “Your Coloreds and your Yids and your Cat-licks,” and then sweet tempered, soft hearted Edith would make a quiet statement, usually in terrible grammar, which demonstrated just how wrong he was, so clearly, even he had to realize it. At least twice, per 30-minute program, Archie would tell Edith to “Stifle yourself, would ya,” and nearly always she would do so.
The couple had a daughter named Gloria, who stood up to her father, while her mother nearly always cowed and obeyed. Gloria was played by Sally Struthers, who was then slender and perky, and had one of those voices which breaks every few words. Gloria was married to Mike Stivik, known by Archie as “Meathead,” and “the Pollock,” and the younger couple lived with Gloria’s parents, because Mike was still studying. Mike was played by Rob Reiner, and was a tree hugger and a protest sign waver who never agreed with Archie about much of anything.
The few times Edith ever stood up to her verbose, ranting husband usually involved some event in which he was unkind to Gloria and Mike. Edith loved Archie, even when he was at his most greedy, deceitful, and cruel, and when he plopped into his easy chair and demanded, “Get me a glass of milk, will ya?” she showed in every way that she was happy to be able to do it for him. Gloria would tell him to get it for himself, but Edith really saw getting it to be her place in life.
Archie and Edith were part of my parents’ generation. My father had the same tendency to plop and demand, and my mother ran to do his will, and nearly always wanted to do so. With her high pitched, screeching voice and her fluttery behavior, when the show is repeated on television today, young people who really never knew that generation see Edith as a doormat, as an unrealistic, clown-like figure. But those of us who knew and loved people of that generation knew her as Everywoman. Her sisters in real life were the inspiration why many of the men who fought World War II often had “Mother” tattooed on their arms, and no one ridiculed them or found Freudian meanings in the practice.
Television critic Robert Lloyd, writing in the Los Angeles Times, described Edith as a cross among Gracie Allen, Olive Oyl, and a macaw. Her voice could make us feel as though someone was running his fingernails across a blackboard, her stories go off on so many tangents, it’s difficult to remember who she was originally describing, and she often struck upon an unusual term, and nothing could make her abandon it. In one episode of the program, Archie made a rare foray into a supermarket, and was struck by a can of peaches, falling from a shelf. Edith just couldn’t bring herself to say “a can of peaches.” Instead, each time the offending can entered the conversation, she described them as “cling peaches in heavy syrup,” sometimes twice or three times in the same sentence.
When we interviewed Norman Lear, the genius who created All in the Family,” when he spoke at Chautauqua, last summer, he said he never thought of Archie as a truly bad person, nor of Edith as a poor example for women. He told me the Bunkers grew up as non-readers, in a world which had no television, few magazines, and very little opportunity to travel, even fairly short distances. “For 40 years,” he told me, “Archie and Edith rarely, if ever, saw anyone who didn’t speak and behave exactly as they did. They thought they understood the world. Then suddenly World War II came along and people often had to travel to very distant places and people were moving onto their very block, who were different races and different religions, and it made them afraid. They weren’t afraid that the new people would harm them, so much, as that maybe their lives were wasted, misspent, lived in pursuit of something they couldn’t or shouldn’t have.”
Jean Stapleton had a long and successful career, before she ever heard Edith’s name. She was born Jean Murray, and took her mother’s maiden name for the stage and films. The computer informs me that there was no family relationship between her and Oscar-winning actress Maureen Stapleton, with whom she was often confused, by the public.
She first appeared on the professional stage at age 18. Her biggest successes from the first 30 years of her career were major character roles in “Bells are Ringing,” “Damn Yankees,” and “Funny Girl.” She was in both the Broadway casts and the films of those shows. It was in “Damn Yankees,” that she first used the screechy voice we now think of as Edith’s.
She played Meg Boyd, a middle aged housewife whose husband is a mad devotee of the Washington Senators baseball team. Like Edith, Meg was no beauty, but she was a warm, loving person. Eventually, her husband sells his soul to the devil, in return for being magically translated into the body of a young, wildly talented athlete who leads the team to win the American League Pennant.
The husband — now played by Tab Hunter, in the film — comes to her door and asks to rent a room, and lonely and in need of cash, she agrees, not knowing that her husband, who she believes has abandoned her, but who she still loves deeply, is living under her own roof. It’s a performance which brings tears to most eyes, even 50 years after the film was made.
Stapleton’s ability to simultaneously portray to her audience decency, courage, and naivete, in “Damn Yankees,” inspired Lear, he would later report, to create the role of Edith as she eventually appeared, and to pursue the actor until she agreed to play the role, including the screeching voice which sounded completely unlike her own, rather dark mezzo soprano voice.
By 1980, the actor had been playing the role for nine years. When she did stage plays, during breaks in filming the show, people came to the shows, wanting to see Edith. Reviewers sometimes referred to her as Edith in print, rather than as Jean. When her last contract expired, she refused to renew it, even though Lear pleaded with her to do so and offered her major salary increases.
To deal with her loss, the name of the show was changed to “Archie Bunker’s Place.” Scripts had Archie lose his job on the loading dock, and mortgage the family’s home in order to purchase Kelsey’s Bar, the neighborhood tavern where he had often fled for refuge when wife and children got him down. In one of her last performances as Edith, the character learns that her husband had forged her signature on the loan application, in order to get the mortgage, and her feeling of betrayal is beautifully manifested, and touching.
Shortly after this, she disappeared from the program, and the scripts inform us that Edith has died of a stroke.
Jean Stapleton, on the other hand, continued performing. On Broadway and at regional venues, she played scripts by such demanding playwrights as Harold Pinter, Tom Stoppard, and William Inge. She appeared in several films, directed by Norah Ephron, including “You Got Mail,” starring Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan, and “Michael,” which starred John Travolta as an angel.
She did a touring, one-woman production, portraying Julia Child, called “Bon Appetite,” and often appeared on television series, including “Murphy Brown,” “Everybody Loves Raymond,” and Shelley Duvall’s “Fairy Tale Theater.” But to the end, whether elegantly gowned or dressed as a fairy tale character, people looked at her and saw Edith.
So, both Edith Bunker and Jean Stapleton are now gone from our cultural world, yet both remain among the best and the most precious elements of the artistic community.
The Broadway show “Book of Mormon” has gotten some of the biggest praise from both critics and audiences, in recent history of the Great White Way. In the coming week, the professional touring company of the show will be playing at Shea’s Performing Arts Center, in Buffalo.
Most of the eight performances are already sold out, or are very close to it. However, the show has a policy that in each performance it presents, 20 tickets are set aside to be sold at the last minute, before the performance begins. The last-minute tickets which normally sell for $96.50 are being sold for $25 each, using a lottery system. People wanting to buy them should be at Shea’s box office, beginning two and a half hours before each performance begins.
Name will be drawn at random, and each winner may choose to purchase one or two tickets for the performance which is about to begin. Winners must present valid ID to purchase.
Shea’s is located at 710 Main St., in the downtown Buffalo Theater District.
Many people who regularly attend the performances at the Stratford Festival, in Canada, are familiar with the performances of Cynthia Dale. Ms. Dale is a singer and professional recording artist who has performed many leading musical and dramatic roles on Stratford Stages.
This year, Stratford is introducing what they call”The Forum,” which is a festival within the festival. The Forum offers free or lower cost presentations to round out a visitor’s time in the community, without needing to invest in the more expensive tickets to the regular performances. One of the first productions in this season is a series of concerts performed at St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church, on St. Andrew’s St., in Stratford, by Ms. Dale and co-star Dan Chameroy.
Sadly, news of the concerts arrived after last week’s column went to press, so several of the concerts have ended, before I could share the news with you. However, if you can make plans quickly, there will still be performances Monday, at 7:30 p.m., plus Tuesday, Thursday, and June 18 and 21, at 2 p.m. Tickets are festival seating, and cost $45, in Canadian funds.
Other elements of the Forum include lectures, meet and greet opportunities with actors, panel discussions and debates, visual exhibitions, film screenings, facility tours, and more. For specific information, go to www.stratfordfestival.ca and click on “The Forum.”
The Buffalo History Museum offers a wide variety of programs, in June, in addition to their regular exhibits.
Offerings range from tours of the historic Hotel Lafayette to story times for children in the Japanese Gardens behind the museum building, to walking tours of the grounds of the world- renowned Pan American Exhibition, which made Buffalo the center of World Attention in 1901, especially when President William McKinley was assassinated while visiting the exhibit. Several exhibits and presentations celebrate diversity in the Buffalo Community, recognizing the contributions of gay and transgendered people to the community.
The third Friday of each month, in mild weather, the museum holds “Party on the Portico,” which features live performances by musicians, refreshments, and other program elements. Admission to the museum and some related activities are free to the public on the third Friday of the month, but there is an admission charge to the Party on the Portico.
For complete information, go to the museum’s web site at www.buffalohistory.org.
Each Thursday, through the end of August, the Burchfield-Penney Art Gallery invites the public to participate in their Watercolor Salons at the Burchfield. Bring your own watercolor materials, purchase a drink at the museum’s cafe, and spend the evening painting in watercolor, and discussion the medium with fellow participants and members of the staff of the museum’s International Center for Watercolor. Admission is $10 for members of the gallery and $20 for “not-yet” members. For additional information, go to the gallery’s web site at www.BurchfieldPenney.org, or phone 878-3549.
Throughout June there is a wide selection of docent tours, critique opportunities by gallery staff members, lectures, concerts, and other programs. Use the web address or the phone number given above for specifics.
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Those who can plan far ahead will be interested to know that the Center for the Arts at the University of New York at Buffalo will present a concert by famed Broadway artist Colm Wilkinson on Dec. 10, called “Broadway, Christmas, and Beyond.”
Wilkinson, who has portrayed the Phantom of the Opera, Jean Valjean, and many other heroic leading roles in musical shows, will perform many of the Broadway songs associated with him, plus holiday works, Irish hits, and popular big voice ballads such as Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.”
Tickets are now on sale, and are expected to sell out soon, which is why we’re including the information so early. Ticket prices range from $42 to $59. To purchase them, phone 888-223-6000, or go by computer to www.ubcfa.org. They make great holiday presents for musical theater lovers.
Speaking of the Center for the Arts, tickets also have recently gone on sale for a performance on Oct. 17 at 7:30 p.m. by the popular recording duo “The Piano Guys.”
The concert will include performances of music from the duo’s latest album, which was released in May of this year. Tickets are $32 for the general public, and $22 for students with I.D. from any educational institution.
Use the same contact information as for the Wilkinson concert.
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June 22, MusicalFare Theatre, of Buffalo, will present a quartet of short musical shows by local composers and lyricists which have been written in 24 hours. Exactly one day before the performance begins, the participating artists are given a topic, and write, cast, and stage their newly-created work for the public. Script subjects are based on the winning photograph in four different categories, from a photography competition which has recently been held.
The performance will take place at 710 Main St., in the former home of Studio Arena Theatre. General admission tickets cost $25. VIP tickets, which include superior seating, plus a party on June 21 and another one on June 22, cost $100 each. MusicalFare subscribers may buy regular tickets for $20. Students and professional actors may enter for $15.
To purchase tickets, phone 839-8540 or go to the company’s web site at www.musicalfare.com. VIP tickets are only sold via the telephone number given.
MusicalFare normally performs in their own venue, in the Buffalo suburb of Amherst, but this production will take place at 710 Main St.
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Visitors to Toronto who find their visit to be expensive, can enjoy a free films showing, each Wednesday evening throughout the summer, beginning July 3, at Harbourfront Centre, on the city’s Lake Ontario shore.Films shown will include a feature starring Wallace & Gromit, “Moulin Rouge,” “Little Shop of Horrors,” “The Triplets of Belleville,” and more.
The Aug. 28 film to be shown will be selected by audience voting.
Harbourfront Centre is a 20-acre site, located at 235 Queen’s Quay West, in downtown Toronto. Much of the programming there is free of charge or has only a nominal charge. Opportunities range from plays, dance programs, lectures, demonstrations, international festivals, and more. For more information, visit their web site at www.harbourfrontcentre.com, or phone 416-973-4600.