Monday, October 19, 2020

A Trivial and Then Deeper Human Interest Dive Into Two of the Most Famous TV Black Sitcoms: The Jeffersons and Good Times -OR- Movin' On Up to an Upper East Side Deluxe Apartment In the Sky and a Sour Cabrini-Green Sugar Shack


The above picture is an image of a painting by William Hoffman, an artist born in Montana in 1924 who died in 1995 (age 70 or 71) .

The painting's name is uncertain. It is either Laguna Beach or La Jolla Beach. It was one of multiple Pacific seascapes on oil canvas that Hoffman painted-- not to mention others of Western-themed images including Native American portraits and snowy cabins.


But this otherwise-obscure painting by a semi-obscure artist who died 25 years ago actually has a curious claim to fame: A framed copy of the painting was featured as a piece of living room wall art in the TV show The Jeffersons, one of the great Black American sitcoms of all times.


Yes, and as the image directly above shows, it was William Hoffman's La Jolla Beach or Laguna Beach painting was affixed to the wall in that DEEE-LUXE APARTMENT IN THE SKY (12D) where George and Louise Jefferson lived during that show's 11-season run (and whence they had moved from Queens after being Archie and Edith Bunker's neighbors). The uncertainty in the name comes from the the (only) website where I found this information.


Above: The exterior of Park Lane Towers or, alternatively, The Park Lane, at 185 East 85th Street at the corner of Third Avenue. This is the building whose exterior is featured in the opening sequence of The Jeffersons.

To clarify, the building's name now might be The Park Lane rather than Park Lane Towers, at least based on the presumably up-to-date information in this CityReality website.

This New York Daily News article from last October about a botched building renovation with resulting lead and silica dust in the air has a headline pun on Louis's nickname "Weezy":


Directly below are Season 1 and Season 11 opening sequences as shown in YouTube videos. I've taken a series of "frame grab" screen shots from the Season 1 opening that are interspersed below along with one from Season 11 (the title card).


There is the obvious difference in the opening sequence each season in terms of the snippets of show shown while introducing the regular characters of in those seasons -- such as Zara Cully as Mother Jefferson in seasons 1 - 4 and the two different Lionels at different times played by Damon Evans and Mike Evans (no relation).


Another change starting in Season 3 is the title card position. As shown in the image directly below from the Season 1 opening, the title card originally appears in Seasons 1 and 2 over the old moving truck (more on that below).


Starting in Season 3, and as shown in a screenshot from Season 11 below that, the title card appears over George and Louise alighting from the taxi cab.


About the taxi cab alighting, that snippet of footage remained constant in the opening sequence throughout the 11 seasons, as well as an upward scan of the Park Lane Towers, although the placement varies of the upward scan. Directly below is a screen shot of the upward scan from Season 1 opening of Park Lane Towers.


The Season 1 and Season 2 opening sequence begins with a beat-up looking red-and-gray moving truck with the name "Olympic" on the side navigating the streets of mid-1970s New York City. I say that based upon the drab winter-gray city setting, steaming manhole covers, and vehicles on the busy streets including old taxi cabs.


And the moving truck clearly enters the driveway of Park Lane Towers. In Season 1 and 2, the opening sequence ends with the upward scan up to the top of the 35-story beige-brick structure.


Having said that, apparently the building that you see George and Louise entering as they leave the taxi is not the Park Lane Towers or any other building in New York City but rather a (presumably residential) building in Santa Monica, Calif., at least according to this New York Times article.


The article was written as a sort of retrospective on the show's opening and was written on the occasion of Sherman Hemsley's death. It focuses on how Park Lane Towers has always been known since the show -- even by the people who live in it -- as "The Jeffersons" building. The article actually goes into a bit of detail about the opening sequence:


An assistant to Norman Lear, who developed “The Jeffersons,” said on Wednesday that it was “likely” that the two stars had been filmed in Santa Monica. Footage shot in New York — of the building, of a moving van going from Queens to Manhattan trailed by a taxi — would have been interspersed with close-ups of Mr. Hemsley and Ms. Sanford.

But apparently, they were in a California cab pulling up to a California doorway. The close-ups were so tight that most viewers never noticed.


Part of what makes it convincing for me is that when you see Hemsley and Sanford in the back of a cab, it is a gray, overcast day just like in the opening shot. About their presence in the cab, it is supposed to represent their actual final move from Queens to the Upper East Side of Manhattan now that George -- an increasingly successful small businessman operating an expanding chain of drying clean stores -- had the means for him and Louise to get to "movin' on up."


Louise is teary-eyed at having just left behind the old neighborhood and her dear friend, Edith Bunkern the opening, it always has appeared to me that George asks her in his upbeat, brash, incredulous way, "WHY YOU CRYIN'??"


Keep in mind that Isabel Sanford was already playing the role of Louise Jefferson on All In the Family, but Sherman Hemsley did not appear on that show prior to The Jeffersons. Instead, George's brother, Henry -- played by actor Mel Stewart -- filled in.


The eternally memorable theme song of The Jeffersons' entitled "Movin' On Up" is eternally memorably sung by actress and singer-songwriter Ja'Net DuBois.

Ja'Net DuBois, however, is best remembered as playing Willona Woods, the over-the-top upstairs neighbor of the Evans family on one of the OTHER great American Black sitcoms of all time: Good Times. The picture at left is of her on Good Times in 1976.

Ms. DuBois died this past February of cardiac arrest at the age of 74, or 81, or 87...One of those.

Apparently, while her calendar birth date -- August 5 -- is known, the year in which she was born is not: It is variously put as 1945, 1938, or even 1932, hence the 13 spread in the estimate of her age at death. Ms. DuBois had four children by an Indian fellow named Sajit Gupta.


The Jeffersons' other claim to fame, of course, was having the first openly unapologetic interracial couple -- Tom and Helen Willis -- as the upstairs neighbors of George and Louise. Tom Willis was played by Franklin Cover and Helen Willis was played by the great Roxie Roker, who was a very decent person and who passed away too soon.


Producer Norman Lear chose her precisely because she was married to a white guy in real life -- producer Sy Kravitz -- by whom she is the mother of singer Lenny Kravitz. Lear was ultra-WOKE decades before the term ever came into existence.

Sy Kravitz and his wife, Roxie Roker, and their then-baby, Lenny Kravitz, probably late 1964 or early 1965.

*******

Finishing up on The Jeffersons' apartment trivia, here is a nice MeTV article about the makeover of apartment 12-D (at least the living room) between the 1970s and 1980s. That piece features some sample screenshots including one that also captures the above painting from the 1980s set:


Changing subjects here, the first draft of this entry here took a hard, harsh discussion detour into about how bad is New York City in 2020 as a result of the twin devastating punches of (1) Covid media hysteria-induced economic depression and (2) Democrat politician-fanned WOKE violent civil unrest and collapse of law and order combined with a war on the police that they are sponsoring in malovently lunatic fashion -- all for the sake of their Maoist-frenzied Cultural Marxist Revolution.


However, for the sake of this entry -- to include any future visitors trying to find answers to pressing questions such as "What's the name of the painting hanging in the Jeffersons' living room??" -- I'm going to keep things deeply and happily in the realm of 1970s / early 1980s pop cultural curios related to The Jeffersons and Good Times.

That being the case, I'd like feature a half dozen YouTube-based interviews of the actors from those two legendary sitcoms, namely, The Jeffersons and Good Times, including five Foundation Interviews -- stylized as FoundationINTERVIEWS.

The Foundation Interviews were conducted by the Television Academy Foundation and they are called the The Interviews: An Oral History of Television. At least one of them (with Isabel Sanford) must have been nearly 20 years ago (as she died in 2004). The main website is here.

A more detailed overview is available here. As explained there, it was in 1997 that the Television Academy Foundation officially launched the Archive of American Television to capture the stories behind the making of television and preserve them for future generations.

In 2017, the Archive was renamed The Interviews: An Oral History of Television.

For its part, the Wikipedia article refers to the Television Academy Foundation as the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences Foundation.

The main YouTube channel is here. To be clear, these are just snippets of the longer interviews -- most of which ran between a half hour and hour.


The first interview (see above) is with Isabel Sanford, who played Louise Jefferson. Sanford was actually more of a comic actress but she didn't get to play that kind of a role in the show. She died in July 2004 at age 86.

As an aside, I wish I could find one interview in particular of Isabel Sanford that happened, I figure, in the mid-to-late 1990s.

In that interview, she remarked about how she was sometimes confused by the public for Esther Rolle on Good Times. She dead-panned in her gravelly, low voice that she would hear people try to get her attention by calling, "MISS ROLLE ... MISS ROLLE ... " (over-emphasizing the "ROLL" part).

The second interview (directly below) is with Sherman Hemsley on how he developed aspects of George Jefferson's character to include his signature rapid strut.

Sherman Hemsley interview -- FOUNDATION Interviews

In explaining the strut in this interview, Hemsley reveals that he and Sanford did multiple takes of that walk into the lobby of their building -- each time a normal walk until one where he was intentionally exaggerating his motions, using a walk he had as a young man in Philadelphia walking through certain unfriendly neighborhoods.


The third interview is with Marla Gibbs, who played Florence Johnston, the wisecracking (by Season 3) live-in maid and George's nemesis. Gibbs, who is now 89, has had a long and distinguished television career to include playing the lead role in 227 (a show set here in D.C.).

Marla Gibbs interview -- FOUNDATION Interviews

In this interview, Gibbs discusses her observations on and real-life relationships with her main co-stars including Stanford, Hemsley, and Roker (with whom she was close friends).

**********

For the remainder of this entry, I would like to switch gears and focus on the other famous 1970s era TV Black sitcom, Good Times. In particular, I would like to feature several interviews with three of the show's main characters.


Good Times was notionally set in the now-vanished Cabrini-Green Homes in Chicago. This once-notorious 70-acre public housing complex infested with violent crime, drugs, poverty, misery, and dispair had the weird distinction of being located in the otherwise affluent Near North Side "Community Area" neighborhood, rather than in the Mogadishu-like war zone of South Chicago and its adjacent areas).


I say "notionally set" because while the complex was shown in the opening sequence, "Cabrini-Green" is never specifically mentioned in the show.

Part of the Cabrini-Green Homes public housing complex in 2005 before its demolition.

Based upon the opening sequence, this is the building where the Evans family lived.

*******

Good Times was a show about this intact Black family living amid the misery and dispair of the public housing complex set in the troubled 1970s. Again, I'm going to avoid present-day politics, but Chicago is in deep trouble like New York, Minneapolis, Seattle, Portland, San Francisco, and Los Angeles, among other giant, ungovernable "Blue" Democrat-run cities. Lori Lightfoot is nothing less than a catastrophe for her city.


By the way, the painting shown in the final freeze-frame / fade out of the closing -- a painting infered to be by the character J.J. -- is actually called The Sugar Shack and it was created in 1971 by the late artist Ernie Barnes. The Sugar Shack was also featured as the cover art of Marvin Gaye's 1976 album I Want You.

I think Barnes may have created a subsequent version of it, because Gaye's album appears as one of the banners hanging from the rafters in some versions of it.


Anyway, what follows are interview snippets of Jimmie Walker, who played one of the three children, James "J.J." Evans Jr.; John Amos, who played the father, James Evans Sr.; and Bern Nadette Stanis, who played another one of the three children, Thelma Evans.

Jimmie Walker interview -- FOUNDATION Interviews

This is a very interesting and frank interview about Walker's relationship with the other Good Times actors. Clearly, there was a lot of tension on the show's set -- with both John Amos and Ester Rolle resentful and even disliking the fact that J.J.'s buffoonish "DYNOMITE!!!" character took over.


It sounds like the original show concept was to have it as a spin-off of Maude since it was Esther Rolle's character, Florida Evans, in the Chicago public housing complex with her family rather than in Maude's house in Tuckahoe, New York. By way of explanation, Esther Rolle's Florida Evans was Maude's housekeeper and she was married to Henry Evans -- played by John Amos.


In the interview above, Jimmie Walker explains how he had zero interaction with Amos or Rolle outside of filming the show to the point of not even having their phone numbers. Esther Rolle died in in 1998 at age 78.

John Amos interview -- FOUNDATION Interviews (discussing why he was let go from "Good Times")

The John Amos interview -- two parts of which are featured above and below -- is really interesting. In the part above, Amos explains why and how Norman Lear fired him (for being a "disruptive factor"). He basically concurs with Jimme Walker's explanation of things. In the part below, he gives his side of the relationship he had at the time with Walker. (The two seem to have a cordial relationship now.)

John Amos interview -- FOUNDATION Interviews (discussing his relationship with Jimmie Walker)

Finally, I'd like to feature his nice interview with Bern Nadette Stanis. It is not from the Foundation Interviews series but rather from the Civil Rights-focused series His Dream, Our Stories. In it, she explains her own childhood in a public housing situation and overt racist attitudes and how that shaped her when she became famous for her role on Good Times.

OK, that's all for now. My next planned entry will be late tomorow night or Wednesday.

--Regulus

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