Rhoda Remembered

Rhoda Morgenstern Valerie Harper

Where Mary Richards was the girl next door, Rhoda  Morgenstern really was the girl down the block.

Never before in TV Land had I heard someone TAWK like Rhoda.

That voice, those dropped “r’s” so familiar, a constant in my “LawnGuyland” neighborhood and in my family could now be heard  emanating on Saturday nights from my RCA TV. She sounded just like my friends. And me.

Suddenly in 1970 in a sea of demure, blue-eyed wasp-waisted  WASP housewives there appeared this brash Noo Yawk woman. A Jewish woman to boot.

Here front and center was a loud, quirky, sassy woman with an eye for fashion. Sporting exotic headscarves, here was a real life girl, a relatable girl, a self depricting girl who worried  and struggled with her weight.  “The first thing I remember liking that liked me back was food,” she quipped.

To a 15 years old girl struggling with body image and weight, who spent her entire school year of 1970 jumping on and off a Deteco bathroom scale, Rhoda was a revelaton to me.

Fuhgeddaboutit

Played by Valerie Harper to perfection, that fictional  Bronx born beauty the daughter of Ida and Martin Morgenstern was unabashedly Jewish.

That was a big deal.

At the time networks insisted that American TV viewers would not accept series characters who were 1) divorced 2) from N.Y. 3) Jewish 4) have mustaches.  The Mary Tyler Moore show broke barriers with Rhoda. Though the producers changed Mary Richards from being divorced, with Rhoda they overrode the network on two other counts.

With that, the “Mary Tyler Moore” show was an original and Saturday nights were never the same.

Valerie Harper and Mary Tyler Moore on The Mary Tyler Moore Show

In 1970 in the midst of the bourgeoning feminist movements, and my teenage bourgeoning consciousness as a female, CBS introduced Mary Richards and Rhoda Morgenstern to TV.  Suddenly Saturday nights became must see TV, truly proving  she could take a nothing day and suddenly make it all seem worthwhile.

Sure by the mid 1960’s there had been some independent career girls on TV before. There had been Marlo Thoma as “That Girl” and Dianne Carrol as “Julia” the first African American woman who was a widowed nurse making it on her own. But generally career girls on TV and the media in general  were pictured primarily as husband hunters. No girl one wanted to end up a spinster and smart single gals knew a job could be a Space-age launching pad for snaring a husband.

But  both Rhoda and Mary had escaped their hometowns to explore an independent life. Mary was a kind of stand in for a new American female. When Mary Richards, single and gasp…30, moved to Minneapolis and started working as associate producer at the WJM-TV, she did something that no female character on television had done before.

She had left her fiancé, put her job before romance and made it clear that she would rather spend evenings alone than in a series of bad dates.

What made Mary Tyler Moore Show  so original was that it was the first sitcom where a female character’s primary relationship was with neither her family nor her male love interest but her friends and co workers. A female perspective was crucial to the shows  success so its no coincidence that the show was also one of the first shows to employ a stable of female writers.

Time Magazine Mary Tyler Moore and Valerie Harper

There had been TV female duos before.

Lucy and Ethel had  long been the gold standard of TV gal pals  but they seemed bonded by plots, and  schemes and even competitiveness, less by true intimacy.

But Mary’s and Rhoda’s friendship was supportive, substantial and affirmative.  “Mare” and Rhoda  had genuine feelings that they discussed openly. The girls often  fretted over their weight and appearance. But for the first time ever, these women were real. They had hopes, dreams, and ambitions.

It was this winning combination of girl next door and spunk that made it  easy to embrace to  introduce TV viewers to feminist consciousness and many were happy to see Mary and Rhoda embrace their  own power more fully as the show progressed. Whereas Maude another 70’s feminist icon was abrasive, gritty and in your face, Mary was both easy on the eyes and easy to digests. Feminism light, but no less important or powerful.

She proved to a whole generation of girls myself include  “you can have the town why don’t you take it. You’re gonna make it after all!

 

RIP Valerie Harper

RIP Mary Tyler Moore

 

 

 

5 comments

  1. Fabulous! I felt the same. We had just moved from Queens to the NJ suburbs when the show aired, so I felt that same familiarity with Rhoda. There were plenty of Jewish kids in my town, but over-all it felt very white bread, there was plenty of anti-Semitism and the first friends that I made there were not Jewish. I was often introduced by my closest friend as, “Hillary’s Jewish, but she’s one of the good ones.” I would stand there and nod and smile, so hungry for friendship that I would betray myself.
    I can remember the joy I felt deep in my heart and belly each Saturday night when I heard the first notes of that wonderful theme song. And what a double header with the Bob Newhart Show following it. Important to note another groundbreaker on the MTM show. Was the first show to have a female character having an active sex life outside of marriage and using birth control. Don’t remember the particulars, but there was an episode where Mary speaks to her mom on the phone after being out all night. Her mom asks if she’s taken her pill, referring to vitamins and Mary answered in such a way that it was obvious that “the Pill” had an entirely different meaning for her. So many great moments and lines. “And this is my date, Mr. and Mrs. Armand Lynton.” Great post Sally!

    Liked by 1 person

    • So glad this evoked wonderful memories for you. Saturday night was an incredible line up The Jeffersons, Mary Tyler More, Bob Newhart, and Carol Burnett. It was a wealth of riches. MTM was absolutely groundbreaking in portraying adult women with active sex lives without being married and it was more than ok. I remember well the episode when Mary stayed overnight at a dates house and then spoke to her Mom the next morning. That was really something. In all the years on “That Girl” Anne Marie only chastely kissed her boyfriend on the couch, there was never any intimation that they went “all the way.”
      It’s hard to imagine in the metropolitan suburbs like NJ that you could still feel some anti-antisemitism, but it does often lurk just beneath the surface.

      Like

      • It is amazing. And it was just happenstance that the first best friend that I made in NJ was Catholic. She was tall, blonde and beautiful and I felt lucky that she chose me to be her best friend. As my parents considered themselves Agnostics, neither my brother nor I were Bar or Bat Mitzvahed, this added to a feeling of being undefined. We definitely identified as cultural, NY Jews. We celebrated Passover and had a menorah right near our big, honking Christmas tree.
        Sadly our town, Edison, NJ, had an anti-Semitic under-current. “Come on! Loan me a dollar! Don’t be such a Jew!” Racism was overt. The African American kids we went to school with all lived in a housing project literally known as Potter’s. The boys who played sports hung out with the “Jocks and Rah Rahs,” but I don’t recall any true friendships between white girls, myself included, and black girls. The word Nigger was used often enough. Never by me in practice or thought and every time I heard it I felt my stomach lurch.
        I watched and loved all of the shows you named. Also watched That Girl, but I totally agree about the chasteness.
        I once got out of a speeding ticket thanks to Valerie Harper. I was living in Manhattan, the STAR magazine office was in Tarrytown, I had a phone interview scheduled with Valerie Harper and was running late. When I explained to the cop that I was worried I’d miss my interview with “Rhoda” he said, “No one could possibly make that up. I love Valerie Harper. Now don’t speed, but don’t miss your call!”
        A boy I dated in Junior high school went on to marry Bob Newhart’s daughter. His name is Joe Bonjiovi, and yes, he is the cousin of Jon Bon Jovi.
        Small, small world.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. That’s one of the best Rhoda stories I’ve been privy to! What a fantastic cop to be such a fan. Her appeal was massive! The suburb I grew up in on LI was 100% white, divided evenly between transplanted ex-urban Jews and Italians with a sprinkling of Germans. Racism was never overt because there wasn’t a diversity of race. The only ethnicity we were exposed to was the Chinese Laundry, and the weekly cleaning “girl.” There was never any real antisemitism, but occasionally I’d overhear an expression like “Jewing him down” or something like that. Very insular, but we were in the city constantly so I was exposed to a broader world.

    Like

  3. Here in the center of the USA, that “New Yawk” accent was part of the appeal of Rhoda to me. It was funny, brusque, even annoying at times, but it helped define the action as happening in the big city. THE big city!

    Of course, the program was written well, the actors perfectly cast. (Julie Kavner as Rhoda’s plumpish, unstylish sister was a perfect foil to the absolutely ravishing Rhoda, for example.) While it didn’t stop me from watching,

    I felt the program lost some steam with the addition of Joe the boyfriend, then husband. Nancy Walker, though? Perfect as Rhoda’s mother! Harold Gould added the needed touch of restraint and order in the world of the family but wasn’t one of those television “Bimbo Dads” who couldn’t tie his shoelaces without supervision.

    All in all, it was a balanced and amusing look at a realistically portrayed urban family, with an older daughter striking out to the stars. Very different, wasn’t it, from typical television fare?

    Like

Leave a Reply to hillaryshawaf Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: