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Alice (TV series)

Alice was an American television sitcom series which ran from August 31, 1976 to July 2, 1985 on CBS. The series was based on the 1974 film, Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore. The show stars Linda Lavin in the title role, a widow who moves with her young son to start her life over again, and finds a job working at a roadside diner on the outskirts of Phoenix, Arizona. Most of the episodes revolve around the goings on at Mel's Diner.

Plot

Pilot Episode

Alice Hyatt (Linda Lavin) is an unemployed widow after her husband, Donald, is killed in a trucking accident, and with her young son Tommy (Philip McKeon) heads from their New Jersey home to Los Angeles so that she can pursue a singing career. Her car breaks down on the way in Phoenix, Arizona (from a presumed engine fire, as seen in later opening credits), and we meet her soon after she has taken a job as a waitress at Mel's Diner, on the outskirts of Phoenix. (The later seasons' exterior shots were of a real diner, named Mel's, still in operation in Phoenix.) Alice works alongside Mel Sharples (Vic Tayback), the grouchy, stingy owner and cook of the greasy spoon, and fellow waitresses and friends, sassy, man-hungry Florence Jean "Flo" Castleberry (Polly Holliday), and neurotic, scatterbrained Vera Louise Gorman (Beth Howland).

Each episode invariably started inside the diner, and most if not all subsequent scenes took place there as well. A frequent set for non-diner scenes was Alice's one bedroom apartment in the Phoenix Palms apartments. Tommy used the bedroom and Alice slept on the couch. Vera and Mel's studio apartments, and Flo's trailer were seen, but rarely.

The diner had its share of regular customers through the years, such as Tommy's basketball coach, Earl Hicks (Dave Madden), and Henry Beesmeyer (Marvin Kaplan), a telephone repairman who always made jokes about Mel's cooking. Henry's oft-mentioned but unseen wife Chloe was played by Ruth Buzzi in one episode. Celebrities playing either themselves or other characters were a hallmark of the show. (Please see "cast" section.)

Exit Flo

Polly Holliday left the show to star in her own spin-off series, Flo. In the episode airing February 24, 1980, Flo leaves to take a hostess job in Houston, Texas. (The spinoff show however took place in the character's hometown of Fort Worth, which she refers to as "Cowtown," as do many real-life locals. When visiting her family on the way to Houston, Flo decides to buy and run a failing road house bar.) Polly Holliday was never to make a guest appearance on Alice after beginning Flo, although flashbacks including Flo were shown in the final episode of Alice. Vic Tayback made one guest appearance on Flo.

Belle Enters and Exits

Diane Ladd, who received an Academy Award nomination for her portrayal of Flo in the film version (she lost to Ingrid Bergman), joined the cast as Isabelle "Belle" Dupree, a hard-edged but kind-hearted woman. She had been a waitress of Mel's in the past, and they had also had a romantic relationship of some kind. In spite of Ladd's Golden Globe-winning performance as Belle, the character never gelled with most fans. It has been said that Ladd clashed with her co-stars, and no flashbacks including Belle were shown during the final episode. In early 1981, Ladd exited the series, making one last appearance in which she telephones the diner to tell all that she took a job as a backup singer in Nashville.

Jolene Enters

Theatre actress Celia Weston then joined the cast as good-natured, boisterous truck driver Jolene Hunnicutt. Jolene arrives as she and her male driving partner are in the midst of an argument over his unwelcome advances, during which she throws and breaks many of Mel's dishes. Mel agrees to hire her "temporarily" to pay for the dishes, but she stays until the series ends more than four years later. Jolene often mentioned that she was a distant relative of Jefferson Davis "Boss" Hogg, which was Sorrell Booke's role on The Dukes of Hazzard, and he guest starred in one episode. Jolene also frequently mentioned her grandmother, "Granny Gums," who only had three or four teeth in her mouth.

As the series progressed, it focused more on character development, such as the hasty courtship and marriage of Vera and lovable cop Elliot (Charles Levin). Tommy eventually goes to college and is seen less frequently. In the final season, the character of Alice was absent several times due to Lavin's directing a number of episodes and playing the character of Mrs. Walden. The storyline began its end in the early summer of 1985, when country singer Travis Marsh (played by Lavin's real-life husband Kip Niven), discovering that he's falling for Alice, "kidnaps" her to take her to Nashville, telling her it's time to follow her dream there. Bewildered at the thought of her dreams finally coming true, Alice agrees, but not without extracting a promise from Travis to drive her back to Phoenix so she can get her affairs in order, including ending her current relationship with a writer.

Series finale

In the last episode, airing July 2, 1985, typical of sitcoms of the era, news of several life-changing events is revealed within a matter of minutes. Alice finally got a recording contract (after nine years of trying) and was moving to Nashville. Vera had become pregnant and decided to be a full-time mother, after Elliott had been promoted from officer to detective. Jolene's "Granny Gums" finally passed away and left her enough money to open her own beauty parlor in her hometown. But what would become of Mel's Diner with all three waitresses suddenly leaving simultaneously? By an amazing coincidence, Mel had just sold the diner for a large amount of money to a real estate developer and must close within days. He surprisingly gives each of his waitresses a $5,000 farewell bonus. Much of the remainder of the episode shows flashbacks to humorous and major events, and many of the big stars who had appeared on the show, including Polly Holliday. Finally, when cleaning out her things, Alice finds the "Waitress Wanted" sign that drew her to the diner nine years earlier. The series' regular customers, such as Henry, say their emotional farewells, followed by Elliot, and finally the principal characters Tommy, Jolene, Vera, and Alice giving theirs. The last thing we see is Mel putting up the "Closed" sign and locking up.

Ongoing Gags and Catch Phrases

Flo's catch phrase, "Kiss my grits!" was enormously popular at the time her character appeared on Alice. According to Polly Holliday, the line was originally written as "Kiss my honeydew!", but did not get any laughs. Another of Flo's catch phrases was "When donkeys fly!" Since her portrayal of Flo, Polly Holliday has refused to repeat her famous "grits" line.

Mel would snipe "Stow it!" at anyone he had qualms with, especially his waitstaff "Stow it!" was usually followed by either "Alice," "Vera," or "Blondie" (in reference to Jolene.) He would also bark "Bag it, Blondie!" to Jolene. Whenever Vera would make one of her dumb remarks, someone was bound to say, "Good, Vera." Belle had a catchphrase in "My little voice," which called her "Isabelle," which she usually used when starting to tell others what she thinks is best.

In a handful of episodes, Alice put on a double-breasted suit and a hat and assumed a husky voice in order to assume the fictional character of mobster "Sam Butler," a ruse that always managed to fool her intended target. The last season, Linda Lavin also played the role of Mrs. Walden, Vera's wizened and abrasive landlady of arbitrary foreign origin, once even playing both Alice and Mrs. Walden in a split-screen dual role.

The front of Mel's diner was often destroyed, to his horror, notably by Flo crashing a truck through it, Mel chopping down a tree which then landed in it, Mel accidentally having his diner targeted for demolition instead of the nursery school next door (which he had done for greedy reasons), and the girls landing a hot air balloon in the diner. Upon the girls crashing through the roof at Mel's in the hot air balloon, Jolene cries, "We went to the bad place and it looks just like Mel's!"

Mel was a stickler for tardiness. In the fourth season, Mel installs a time clock which ends up working to the waitresses' advantage due to significant overtime, and he finally throws it into the trash. Mel also had a strict rule against moonlighting, often leading to one, or in some cases, all three waitresses getting fired. But of course Mel always rehired them before the end of each episode.

Mel's food and cooking were constantly criticized by his waitresses and customers alike, especially Henry, who always blamed it for his indigestion. However, Mel's chili was popular and the point of several episodes. During the first season, a newspaper food critic (played by Victor Buono) dropped dead while eating Mel's chili, but it turned out that Peking Duck from a Chinese restaurant was to blame. Guest star Art Carney in one episode was to be the spokesperson for retail distribution of Mel's Chili ("Chili con Carney") but backed out when he discovered Vera was a distant relative with part ownership in the venture. The popularity of Mel's Chili also led to an appearance on Dinah Shore's talk show, which led to some bickering among the waitresses because Mel could take only one person along, but of course all ended up going. Mel refused to reveal his "secret ingredient" to Dinah and her TV audience during the cooking demonstration.

Flo was supposed to be in her mid-to-late 40s when the show premiered, but Polly Holliday was only 39. Alice was supposed to be 35, but Linda Lavin is just three months younger than Holliday. Vera was referred to as a "kid," presumably in her 20s, but Beth Howland was 35.

The shot of Vera with the "exploding straws" was the only one used during the opening credits for the entire run of the series, with the exception of the pilot episode, which had no scenes from Mel's Diner in the opening.

Cast

Opening titles cast members:

Other regularly occurring cast members:

Other notable guest stars: Eve Arden, Desi Arnaz, Fred Berry, George Burns (as himself), Robert Goulet, Joel Grey (as himself), Florence Henderson, Jay Leno Nancy McKeon (Philip's sister, appeared twice in different roles), Frank Nelson, Donald O'Conner (as himself), Ruth Buzzi (as Chloe Beesmeyer, Henry's wife), Jerry Reed, Debbie Reynolds, Telly Savalas (as himself), and Jerry Stiller

Theme song

"There's a New Girl in Town", music by David Shire, lyrics by Alan Bergman and Marilyn Bergman; performed by Linda Lavin. Several different arrangements of this tune were used throughout the series' run.

The Alice sets

The Mel's Diner set made changes over the years; in the pilot the diner contained a blue refrigerator, but in the series the refrigerator was a dirty stainless steel, then later was changed to clean and shiny stainless steel in 1979-81 and much later an even shinier stainless steel refrigerator and better appliances. However, the rest of the sets remained the same.

The men's and ladies' restrooms were confined to one room in the pilot and during the first season. From 1977-1985, there were separate restrooms with "Ladies" and "Men" written on them.

The storeroom was inside the diner where the Men's restroom would later be and said "Private" on it during the 1976-1977 season. The storeroom from 1977 to 1985 was confined to the back of the diner. Here, the waitresses took their breaks, had their lockers, and stored their uniforms. Mel also conducted his business from this space.

The payphone was a touch tone and was located on the left of the "Restrooms" door in the pilot episode. For the first season, it was moved to the right of the doors that led to the kitchen section of the diner. For the second season, it was moved to the wall between the two doors that became two separate restrooms and was replaced by a phone with a rotary dial. From 1978 to 1985, the phone was a touch tone and was located at a section that was a few steps away from the entrance to the diner.

In the first season, the diner was decorated in an Aztec and Cowboy motif to accommodate the feel of Arizona. For the second season, the walls had pink wallpaper with red lines on it. For the third season, the walls had wallpaper with orange leaves on it.

The pilot episode was taped at CBS Television City in Hollywood, CA. After this, the series was taped at The Warner Bros. Studios in Burbank, CA.

Differences between the movie and show's premise

Alice had many contrasts with the film on which it was based, Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore.

Movie TV series
Alice's maiden name was Graham. Alice's maiden name was Spivak.
Alice and Tommy had previously lived in Socorro, New Mexico. Alice and Tommy had previously lived in northern New Jersey.
Alice's late husband Donald was portrayed as abusive. Alice's relationship with Donald is never described, but she kept a photo of him displayed on the wall of her apartment for years after his death.
Alice's original plans were to move back to her hometown of Monterey, California to restart her singing career. Alice's original plans were to move to Los Angeles to restart her singing career.
The restaurant where Alice becomes a waitress was called Mel & Ruby's Cafe and located in Tucson. The restaurant where Alice becomes a waitress was called Mel's Diner and located in Phoenix.
Alice and Flo do not initially like each other and don't become friends until well into the "Tucson" segment of the movie. Flo takes on the role of "big sister" to the other waitresses, and she and Alice were best friends from the beginning of the series.
Alice's car never broke down; she ran out of money, and took the job at Mel and Ruby's temporarily to earn enough money to get them the rest of the way to Monterey. Alice took a job at Mel's because her car broke down when she and Tommy reached Phoenix on the way to L.A.
Mel was a widower, having been married to a woman named Ruby; hence the restaurant's name, "Mel & Ruby's Cafe." Mel was a middle-aged bachelor.
Alice and Tommy live in a nearby motel while she works at Mel's. Alice and Tommy move to the Phoenix Palms Apartments; the distance between her apartment and Mel's Diner is never revealed, but is presumably within walking distance, as it is mentioned that Alice and/or Tommy occasionally walk between the diner and home.
Alice meets and falls in love with a divorced rancher named David, whose wife left him and took their children; David becomes Tommy's guitar teacher. Alice does not get involved in a serious relationship until the last season.
Alice and Flo were around the same age. Flo was roughly ten years older than Alice.
Flo had blonde hair. She was in a crumbling marriage and her husband was not speaking to her. She had a daughter to support and flirted with and accepted passes from her male customers, but never dated any of them. She had a number of one-liners, including "You can kiss me where the sun don't shine." Flo had red hair, was divorced three times and had no children. She lived by herself in a trailer park, dated many men, and her usual catch phrase was "Kiss my grits!"
Vera had a low, quiet voice; she was taken to and from work by her father; she was shy and somewhat awkward, but was not "dumb". Vera had a high voice that was fairly loud; she lived alone in an apartment that was located at an unknown distance from the diner; she was extremely clumsy, and rather slow-witted.

Ratings

Year Rating
1976-1977 #30
1977-1978 #8
1978-1979 #13
1979-1980 #4
1980-1981 #7
1982-1983 Not in Top 30
1983-1984 #27
1984-1985 #27

Syndication

Alice was seen in reruns:

  • from June 1980 to September 1982 on CBS daytime;
  • on many local broadcast stations throughout the 1980s;
  • in the late 1980s on the cable TV network TBS;
  • sporadically from the mid-1990s until early 1998 on E! Entertainment Television;
  • on TNN from late June 1999 to January 2001.
  • The show returned to television on April 2, 2007, airing on the ION Television network weekdays at 7:30pm until June 22, 2007. The show was heavily edited to make time for additional commercials, with several minutes of important plot often haphazardly cut. The show returned to ION Television on November 24, 2007, with two back-to-back episodes at 7:00pm EST Monday through Thursday, and continued until the entire series' episodes had been aired. It was replaced by Family Feud on April 7, 2008.
  • Select episodes of Alice and Flo currently air for free on the internet at AOL's In2TV service. (link)

Commercial Episode Availability

On June 27, 2006, 6 episodes of Alice were released on DVD as part of the Warner Brothers' Television Favorites Compilation. The episodes were hand picked by fans at SitcomsOnline.com and are as follows:

  • Alice Gets a Pass, 09/29/76 - First non-pilot episode.
  • The Odd Couple, 02/26/77 - When Flo's trailer is stolen, Alice allows Flo to move in with her. Alice finds Flo's habits difficult to deal with.
  • Close Encounters of the Worst Kind, 01/22/78 - Alice's use of psychology causes tension among her coworkers.
  • Block Those Kicks, 10/22/78 - The waitresses decide to give up their bad habits in order to encourage Mel to give up his gambling habit.
  • Cabin Fever, 12/02/79 - The waitresses, Mel and his girlfriend unknowingly book the same cabin during the same weekend.
  • Flo's Farewell, 02/24/80 - Flo leaves Mel's diner for a hosting job at a restaurant in Texas.

Alice Season 1 is now available on Apple iTunes Store for downloading to your iPod. The current cost is $34.99 for the entire season or $1.99 per episode.

External links

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