Sunday, July 04, 1999

WKRP's back on the air

Wacky gang in Cincinnati-based sitcom finds a home on Nick at Nite

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Clockwise from lower left, Loni Anderson, Richard Sanders, Frank Bonner, Gary Sandy, Gordon Jump, Tim Reid, Howard Hesseman. At center, Jan Smithers.
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        Dr. Johnny Fever, Venus Flytrap and Les Nessman will be back living on the air from coast to coast Monday.

        WKRP in Cincinnati debuts on Nickelodeon's Nick at Nite with a week-long marathon of the top 40 episodes, unofficially enshrining the wacky radio comedy as a TV classic on the channel that airs I Love Lucy, Mary Tyler Moore, Happy Days and Newhart.

        “It's a thrill to be on Nick at Nite with all the best TV comedies,” says Loni Anderson, who will co-host the marathon with Howard Hesseman.

        “To think we created a piece of humor that would be considered among the TV classics is great,” says Gordon Jump, who played station manager Arthur “Big Guy” Carlson during the show's four-year run on CBS (1978-82).

        What made WKRP a success were great writing and the distinctive, nutty characters created by Hugh Wilson, a former Atlanta advertising executive who modeled the staffers after Atlanta radio pals. He had never been to Cincinnati, but wanted a Midwestern location for the show, says Bill Dial, former WKRP story editor and executive producer of the 1991-93 WKRP in Cincinnati revival.

Meet the gang
        They're eager for a new generation of viewers to meet the crazy 'KRP gang:

  • What: WKRP in Cincinnati marathon (40 shows)

  • When: 9 p.m.-1 a.m. Monday-Friday

  • Where: Nick at Nite

  • Next week: The 88 WKRP episodes will air in sequence weekdays at midnight starting July 12.

        • DJs Johnny Fever (Mr. Hesseman) and Venus Flytrap (Tim Reid).

        • Nerdy newsman Les Nessman (Richard Sanders).

        • Sexy secretary Jennifer Marlowe (Ms. Anderson).

        • Leering salesman Herb Tarlek (Frank Bonner).

        • The bumbling boss (Mr. Jump), always fearful of his mother, who owned the station.

        • And new program director Andy Travis (Gary Sandy) who dumped elevator music for rock 'n' roll.

        “I think the shows are timeless,” says Ms. Anderson, who watched several WKRPs with her son, Quinton, 10, before taping the Nick at Nite introductions.

        “He laughed out loud with me, so that's a good sign that kids will enjoy them,” Ms. Anderson says. She still receives about 200 WKRP fan letters a week “from all corners of the globe.”

        People have told Mr. Jump that “they worked with a guy like Les Nessman, or they bought a car from a guy like Herb Tarlek., The characters were so identifiable — one bubble off plumb — and so close to real life. And the show had the unique ability that any one character could carry an episode. It was truly an ensemble piece,” says Mr. Jump, a Dayton, Ohio, native who worked for Dayton's Channel 2 in the early 1960s.

Show highlights
        Many memorable WKRP moments will be shown during the marathon:

  “Baby, if you've ever wondered,
  Wondered whatever became of me,
  I'm living on the air in Cincinnati, Cincinnati WKRP.
  Got kind tired of packing and unpacking,
  Town to town, up and down the dial,
  Maybe you and me were never meant to be,
  Just maybe think of me once in a while.
'm at WKRP in Cincinnati.
        • Jennifer's date with Les when he receives the Silver Sow Award (11:30 p.m. Tuesday), and her date with Herb (11 p.m. Wednesday).

        • The hiring and firing of Cincinnati Reds manager Sparky Anderson (10:30 p.m. Wednesday).

        • Les' traffic reports from a biplane that buzzes the Roebling Suspension Bridge (9:30 p.m. Thursday).

        • Dr. Johnny Fever going disco (11:30 p.m. Thursday).

        • Venus explaining the atom to a teen-ager (9 p.m. Friday).

        • The famous “Turkeys Away” episode, when Mr. Carlson dropped turkeys over a shopping mall parking lot days before Thanksgiving (10 p.m. Monday).

        “As God is my witness, I thought turkeys could fly,” Mr. Carlson explained after the promotion backfired.

        Larry Jones, Nick at Nite general manager, calls the turkey drop “one of the funniest moments in television history.”

        For almost 20 years, the turkey episode has provided Mr. Sanders with seasonal employment. He has toured the country in November dropping stuffed animals, Ping Pong balls, coupons or other promotional items to crowds below.

        Similarly, Mr. Jump has been recognized for two decades as Mr. Carlson, even though he has appeared regularly on TV for 12 years as the lonely Maytag repairman.

        “Even when I do personal appearances for Maytag, about 60 percent of the people know me as the "Big Guy,'” he says.

Familiar locations
        To establish a Cincinnati flavor, every WKRP opened with scenes of Fountain Square, Fort Washington Way, the city skyline and old WSAI-AM tower in Price Hill during the theme song (“I'm living on the air in Cincinnati, Cincinnati WKRP”).

        Then the camera zoomed in on a top floor window of the old Enquirer Building, 617 Vine St., where the station was supposedly located. (They called it the Osgood R. Flimm building).

        Only a few times were stars here for location filming. But the city instantly adopted the show, sending Queen City posters, pennants and postcards to decorate the set. (WKRP in Cincinnati coffee mugs, T-shirts and hats still can be purchased at the Cincy Sport Shop in the Omni Netherland Hotel building at Fifth and Race streets.)

        WKRC-AM (500) even altered the theme song, to “WKRC in Cincinnati,” and played the jingle frequently. That has led to 20 years of confusion by out-of-towners who think that WKRC-AM or WKRQ-FM were depicted in the sitcom, says Dave Mason, WKRC-AM operations director.

        According to Enquirer stories in 1978, Mr. Wilson chose the call letters to stand for C-R-A-P. Then he picked “Cincinnati” because it sounded good with WKRP.

Popular in syndication
        Putting WKRP on Nick at Nite is a fitting tribute for the show that was prematurely canceled after four seasons. CBS executives realized their mistake too late, when WKRP reruns beat ABC Monday Night Football and NBC's Little House on the Prairie that fall, Mr. Dial says.

        By that time, Mr. Hesseman and Ms. Anderson were committed to other shows, and Mr. Sandy was starring in Pirates of Penzance on Broadway.

        So WKRP kept living on the air in reruns, one of the few TV shows that became more popular in syndication than its network run.

        “I always knew it would be a classic, from the first time we read the script,” says Mr. Sandy, a Dayton native who has done 500 plays since WKRP was canceled. “It's fabulous to be part of some semblance of TV history, coming back on a channel with Lucy and Mary Tyler Moore.”

        “It was a great tragedy that WKRP was canceled. Golly, what a shame,” Mr. Jump says. “The shows hold up very well. I look at them now and say, "That's pretty decent comedy ... and pretty doggone good writing.'”

Hollywood not kind to Sandy
Where the WKRP actors are now
Where would the WKRP characters be now?

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