HARRY WEINER was nervous. Only 28 years old, Harry was the executive producer of a new NTC (National Television Company) sitcom, “The Matterhorn.” The Matterhorn took place in a fancy Madison Avenue clothing store with crazy customers and silly salespersons.
Five weeks into the new season, “The Matterhorn” was doing terribly in the ratings. It was ranked 59 out of 70 programs in the Nielsen ratings. Reviewers pronounced the new show “dead on arrival”, “sickening”, “juvenile”, “like warmed over pea soup.”
Harry’s work load was excruciating. He would drive, an hour each way, from his apartment in Brentwood to the NTC studio in Burbank.
He would get to work around 10 am. Immediately, Harry would get pounced on by schmoozers, agents, writers, assistants, emails, secretaries, publicists, producers, executives, guests. He barely knew how to manage his time. It seemed that every little problem was a top priority.
Some of these problems included: a strike by lighting technicians which threatened to darken the show on the night of taping; a pregnant head writer who objected to a line about abortion in the final script; a hypochondriacal director who feared getting germs on his coffee which had been served to him by an HIV positive production assistant.
Harry had arrived in Hollywood, 4 years earlier, with a recommendation from the Director of the School of Communication at Boston University. Harry had interned at Warner Brothers in the Director’s training program.
He had “tailed” a senior director on “Friends” for a year. Harry joined a “writers” group and met LISA SCHNITZER, the head writer of the hit show, MEET MEGAN ROONEY. Lisa liked Harry. Harry showed her a spec script he had written for MEET MEGAN ROONEY
Lisa read it ,liked it and hired Harry to be a staff writer.
To Lisa, Harry was reminiscent of her ex-boyfriend from Syosset. Harry played up his “eastern” background, continually reminding Lisa how close Toledo was to the Jersey Shore (only an hour and a half by plane.) They constructed a private reality of worldly and well read easterners in a dumb, ignorant, superficial, silly city. They were both destined for great things, Harry told her, and he pushed Lisa to develop new shows, new ideas and—- introduce him to her agent at William Morris.
Lisa was having trouble on MEET MEGAN ROONEY. The lead character didn’t think that Lisa understood her well enough— so ” Megan Rooney” told the executive producer to fire Lisa. Lisa came in– the next day– and found out she and Harry were gone.
Luck intervened. A 21 year old assistant at William Morris liked Lisa (because Lisa had a really great Tibetan tattoo on her navel drawn with henna ink) and the assistant recommended a pitch Lisa and Harry wrote about an expensive store on Madison Avenue with crazy customers and funny employees called “The Matterhorn.”
The pitch made its way to SIMON SHARON, the hottest television agent at William Morris. Simon was born on the day that the hostages in Iran were freed from captivity and considered himself destined for great things.
Simon liked Lisa. She was only a few years older than him and she had a nice butt. Lisa worked out at Simon’s gym and sometimes bumped into him there. Lisa thought Simon was cute, even though he had an annoying twitch. When he spoke, he turned his head on an angle, as if he were a basset hound who didn’t understand his master’s orders. One night, Lisa went home with him and they made love and quickly downloaded their intimacy into each other.
Things move fast in Hollywood, especially when you are under thirty and don’t know where you are going, but are determined to get there.
That summed up Harry, who teamed up with Lisa, post-coital Lisa, to pitch Simon on “The Matterhorn” sit com. Simon immediately christened Lisa “THE MEGAN ROONEY” writer and that was the equivalent of a master’s degree at William Morris. WM had placed many of their clients on the staff of the MEET MEGAN ROONEY show.
Disney agreed to finance THE MATTERHORN, with Harry and Lisa as executive producers. NTC bought the show from Disney and put it on their Tuesday night prime time roster. This Tuesday line up became infamous as “TUESDAY SCHNOOZEDAY” because the programs were so boring, so banal, so juvenile, so unfunny. They were written by young, unread, unschooled boys who thought toilet paper, tits and teenage tantrums were the quintessence of laughs.
Harry and Lisa desperately tried to make “The Matterhorn” more sophisticated. To make sure that the program had some Manhattan appeal, exterior still photographs of an 1889 Rococo Madison Avenue mansion were placed at the beginning and end of each ½ hour. The show was filmed in a dark studio in sunny Burbank but the program took place in New York. This was quite intentional. The most successful sit coms took place in New York City: MAD ABOUT YOU, SEINFELD, FRIENDS, etc.
The writers were graduates of Manhattan prep schools and Eastern colleges. The average writer was only 22 years old, but that was what they reported on their w-4 forms and some rumors went around that one writer was as old as 33.
The acting talent was top notch. William Morris placed the young, wacky and busty blond comedienne, VIVIAN VON VECTOR, as the head of the posh emporium. Her assistant was played by the plump and rosy cheeked CHARLES LEADER who was on Broadway last year as a gay baritone in “I’LL SING TOMORROW.” Other William Morris clients became guest stars including: YOLANDA CHUTNEY, an ex-Sri Lankan former stripper who was in an episode where the owner of The Matterhorn was embarrassed when he was caught on videotape with Yolanda in a sexual act by the store security.
Seven shows had already been aired as November sweeps came on. The Matterhorn was slipping further down the ratings barrel. NTC was impatient and doubtful about the show’s survival. Commercial spots, which originally sold for $250,000 for thirty seconds, now were discounted at $175,000. The Matterhorn was also an expensive show to produce with all the costumes, beautiful mahogany store interiors, antique furniture, crystal, perfume, glass props. It was a drain on the budget of NTC. Cancellation seemed at hand.
One balmy, misty November evening, Harry met Lisa at the bar of the HOTEL Peninsula in Beverly Hills. Lisa drank echinaccea flavored water while Harry opted for a pink grapefruit Kava herb cocktail to calm his nerves. Lisa heard from Simon that the NTC executives thought that the show lacked “ethnicity.” Simon said a New York show needed at least one Jewish character. All of the actors were white and Waspy, except for Yolanda, who was Sri Lankan. Who even knew where Sri Lanka was?
Harry and Simon agreed that it was the eleventh hour and time was running out. As Simon spoke to Harry, actress and client RHODA MOSKOWITZ walked in to the office. Rhoda had been huge at William Morris back in the 70’s when her New York, Jewish, schmaltzy and hamische voice charmed and annoyed audiences on such shows as: RHODA, MARY TYLER MOORE, BOB NEWHART, and THE LOVE BOAT. Rhoda was friends with Simon’s mother so this was more of a social call. Simon looked at Rhoda and thought that she might be the one to re-invigorate THE MATTERHORN.
Simon could only look at this 6o-year-old friend of his mother’s and laugh. She had black hair which she piled up like fancy croissant atop her head. She wore big glasses with dainty chains, a huge “chai” necklace, and several large rings with opals, diamonds, rubies, and emeralds. She preferred tailored clothing a la Ralph Lauren, with cashmere, fine woolens and Italian shoes to her liking. She was in excellent shape and followed a diet rich in fresh fruits, fish and eight glasses of water a day.
Rhoda had been on the stage in New York, and on the tube in LA. Now living in Sherman Oaks, CA she was asked by Simon if she would like to appear as a guest star on The Matterhorn? “Sure.”
Immediately, Simon’s brain waves started to spin with 15% commissions and the possibility of more to come.
Simon and Rhoda hopped into his Porsche and drove to the Peninsula. Harry and Lisa met Rhoda and Simon and the foursome decided to develop a character for Rhoda which would make the audience stand up and laugh, advertisers buy spots and the executives dance with delight. Simon, Rhoda,Harry and Lisa shook hands. Harry went home to try and dream up how to convince his boss that Rhoda was needed and more importantly, might just be the saviour of the show.
Just 31 years old, Helene Reisman had a reputation as one of the toughest S.O.B.’s at NTC. She was paid well over $1,000,000 a year and had put MEET MEGAN ROONEY on the air over the objections of her entire junior staff.
Harry met HELENE REISMAN at her large glass and synthetic white panelled home in Encino that evening. Harry pitched the idea of “Rhoda” while Helene played patty cake with her 3 year old son, O’RYAN.
She barely contained her glee at her young child’s smile, but grew angry as Harry laid out his plans for Rhoda.
Helene was blunt: “Listen I don’t like it when you say a typical Jewish older woman in New York who has a lot of money and is very demanding. It’s Anti-Semitic stereotyping.”
Harry grabbed a rattle and danced it in front of O’Ryan’s blue eyes. The child laughed and tried to grab it. Harry wouldn’t back down. “Helene, they’ve had successful Jewish characters on TV for years. You know them by name: Jerry Seinfeld, Paul Reiser, David Schwimmer. None of them admit being Jewish. It’s like a joke. Act Jewish, but don’t celebrate Jewish holidays, don’t wear a yarmulke, don’t let the audience know what they already know. It’s like its Ok to have a Jew on TV as long as he or she is in the closet.”
Helene cooled off. She picked up the baby and danced with some rhythm around the nursery. “O’Ryan, what should Mommy do? Should mommy say yes to the nice man?” O’Ryan seemed to point at Harry. “He likes you Harry. My son thinks you’re OK.” Harry smiled that broad, salesman’s smile ready to close the deal.
“O.K. Try Rhoda. If she doesn’t work, which she probably won’t, it will just be a one time thing. Don’t say I let you have an anti-semitic character on the show. Leave me out of it. If the ratings go up, then by god we either have a real dilemma or a godsend.”
With Helene (and O’Ryan’s)blessing, Harry was back at the studio for an all night session with Lisa and the writers to come up with a story which would eventually revolve around Rhoda as a pushy and wealthy woman who is furious when her grandson’s bar mitzvah suit is lost in the store’s alterations department.
The new character would be called MISSY MISHKIN, the doyenne of Park Avenue. Missy was no push over, had a strong Bronx accent, and was not above arguing with a sales clerk if she thought she had been ripped off, treated unfairly, or paid little attention to.
Rehearsals began. Vivian Von Vector put her best WASPy accent and superior attitude on. Charles Leader made sure that his vulnerable gay sensitivity was on full blast as the assault of Missy began on stage. After four days, Harry and Lisa were pleased with the chemistry between Rhoda’s guest character and the rest of the leads.
But Yolanda Chutney was disturbed by some of the dialogue. One late,fatigued Thursday night, the cast had been rehearsing all day. Yolanda asked if she could please not refer to Missy as “that demanding and annoying woman from Hadassah.” Yolanda had always been a liberal person, and had battled color prejudice her whole life as a darker skinned person with sub-continental hues. Harry refused to alter the line, and Lisa backed him up. Yolanda threw the script up in the air and walked right up to Harry and thrust her finger in his face.
“You as a Jew, of all people, should know how mean, how vicious these words sound. Are you gonna tell everyone that the dialogue is funny and that’s how you’re gonna worm out of it this bigoted bullshit?”
Harry was unmoved. “Yolanda, you are totally fuckin’ out of line. Missy is a fictional character who is only a guest star. She is not a representation of all Jews any more than Charles Manson is a stand in for the Christians!”
Rhoda Moskowitz stepped up to the plate to defend herself, her role and also score with Harry. “Listen Yolanda, I’m Jewish and believe me, if I thought there was anything wrong with this I wouldn’t do it.”
Yolanda seemed to be slightly comforted by these words, and besides an argument (by a lowly actor) on principle in Hollywood assumes a ridiculousness when arrayed against the necessities of work, money and the imperatives of executive power.
Yolanda picked up her script.”O.K. let’s just get this fuckin’ scene over with.”
At the Friday night dress performance, before a half empty studio audience, Harry and Lisa nervously watched as the first scene was shot. Director CAMERON SCHNITZER, a 24 year old MTV video editor, and Lisa’s younger brother, was confident and sure of how to direct his cast.
At Cameron’s personal urging, the costume for Missy was particularly elegant. A fur collared black knit suit with a velvet pill box hat anchored by a diamond pin, was sewn especially for Ms. Moskowitz. Missy would enter “The Matterhorn” with a retinue of servants: a driver, a maid, and her nurse. She would demand of Ms. Von Vector that the management provide a free bar mitzvah suit for her grand son or she would sue the whole store and possibly put it out of business.
Rhoda pronounced her words with the maximum nasal affect and made sure to drop her “r”s. Helene Reisman watched the show from the side of the stage and thought it stunk. She found Missy to be a cartoon. Helene blamed herself for the failure but outwardly she was livid at Harry and Lisa. Now Helene might lose her job in this universe of short memories, and her previous success would be buried under the defeat of THE MATTERHORN.
At one a.m., the show was finally wrapped. The cast went home, and Lisa decided that she was too tired to go out for a drink with Harry. Harry went up to Helene and kissed her, but she turned her face away. Helene just looked at him with wounded eyes. “I don’t know what you were thinking.” She turned and walked out of the studio and into the black Burbank darkness.
A week later, the show aired. NTC Executives had put the cancellation on hold, awaiting the pleas and the desperate bargaining of Simon,his bosses at William Morris, Harry and Lisa. Word from the affiliates was encouraging. One station manager in Cedar Rapids called to say that they loved this new character. The station director in Uttica said that callers were phoning in their approval for Missy.
Fate intervened again on the day of the airing. A pro-basketball player, RILEY HIGHCALF, was shot and killed outside of the mansion which served as the exterior location shot for “The Matterhorn.” Folks in Seattle, Seneca Falls, Peoria, Tallahassee, Denver, and the Ozarks were saying, “Did you hear that Riley Highcalf was shot outside of the that Matterhorn store?” Suddenly, a real life news event created a buzz about the show which the writers, the actors and the producers could not.
The show had been typically earning a 15 share but after the “Missy” episode, the show almost doubled its audience to a 29. Harry and Lisa arrived at work on Wednesday to find a huge vase of fresh flowers sent by Helene Reisman. A note to Harry read, “Sorry about my lack of faith. I have a lot to learn. Helene.”
Her humility touched Harry.
Emails were pouring into The Matterhorn WEB SITE. KCBS sent a crew over to interview “the return of Rhoda Moskowtiz” and KABC did an interview with Vivian Von Vector who could barely contain her “love” for Rhoda and delight at the old lady’s return to the small screen.
YAHOO.com suddenly had two chat rooms with MATTERHORN themes. Amazon.com contacted NTC to create a link between NTC’s web site and books about: RILEY HIGHCALF, PRO BASKETBALL, JEWISH WOMEN, MEGAN ROONEY, NEW YORK CITY, MADISON AVENUE, TELEVISION SIT COMS, CHARLES LEADER, YOLANDA CHUTNEY.
Three days after the “Missy” episode, a meeting was held in Helene’s office. Harry and Lisa were told that the show would be renewed for another six episodes, provided that Missy stayed. Rhoda Moskowitz jumped for joy when she found out that she would have a recurring role on the program, and Simon negotiated a contract for her paying $20,000 an episode with residuals and agreements to have Rhoda guest star on other sit-coms.
Everyone, it seemed, was happy. Ratings were up, NTC had new viewer interest and increasing advertiser revenues. The media jumped in to find out what the buzz was about. TV GUIDE did a small story about Rhoda’s return; VOGUE featured Charles Leader in drag; THE WALL ST. JOURNAL called NTC “the corpse who came in from the cold”.
Three more episodes were written with Missy as the main focus. One story was about how Missy took offense at a perceived anti-semitic remark by an employee of the store who accused Missy of being ostentatious after Missy spent $500,000 on a bar mitzvah cruise party. Another episode had an ALAN DERSHOWITZ look alike who dates Missy and defends serial killers just to get himself on television.
RABBI MARTIN NIER was the first clerical voice to speak up. The dean of Los Angeles rabbis, his congregation had many prominent members from the entertainment community.
His grandfather had been the chief Rabbi of Cracow and had perished at Auschwitz. Martin Nier was a Rabbi who had travelled the strange and wondrous route of the the 20th Century from shtetl, to concentration camp, to the freedom of America. The freedom which promised that the voices of the persecuted would never be silenced. Now those voices took a vulgar and warped transformation into sit com hatred and Rabbi Nier was outraged.
Rabbi Nier contacted THE ANTI DESECRATION SOCIETY and began to circulate a petition to protest THE MATTERHORN and the character of Missy in particular. He preached a sermon entitled, “WHEN LAUGHING BECOMES DEADLY” which begged that his congregants understand that even in humor, there were messages which preached hatred regardless of whether they were intended as entertainment.
Reviewers in the BOSTON GLOBE, THE WASHINGTON POST, THE CHICAGO TRIBUNE, MIAMI HERALD, all wrote about the show—which they generally thought had gotten funnier—but had somehow descended into the depths of meanness, vindictiveness, and anti-jewish scapegoating.
A particular warning came from THE CATHOLIC EYE, a conservative journal which wrote, “Our brethren in the Jewish faith cannot condone comedic hatred in the name of commercial success. For ultimately ideas conceived in the poison of bigotry pollute the author.”
While mainstream media fixated and debated upon the role of Missy and what she might or might not represent, the show jumped to third in the ratings. “It was unbelievable”, Helene said, “to see a show go from almost cancellation to the top of the game.”
Almost forgotten in the adulation, was the growing volume of hate letters pouring into the web site from around the country. At “www.matterhorn.com” such comments as, “you fuckin’ Jews deserve everything you have coming to you.” Other viewers were kinder. One 11 year old Nebraska girl wrote, “I used to be mad at my Mom for talking badly about Jews, but now I know cause of Missy, what my Mom is talking about.” At the University of Wyoming, Tuesday night Matterhorn parties the participants throw pretzels at the screen and shouted obscenities whenever Missy came on.
At the annual NTC affiliates meeting in January, there was huge exaltation and applause for Helene Reisman who told the audience, “We will not be bullied by the army of the politically correct telling us how we to portray our artistic creations.” Joined on stage by stars Vivian Von Vector, Charles Leader, Yolanda Chutney, and of course, Rhoda Moskowitz, the entire cast and creators received a 5 minute standing ovation. Surely, the furor would die down.
As spring rolled around, and the final episodes were shot, there was little doubt that THE MATTERHORN would be renewed. Harry was exhausted, but he suddenly couldn’t believe how ironic his luck was: he was now earning over $400,000 a week with the prospect of earning tens of millions from syndication sales. He would be rich forever. But his heart was heavy from his complicity in creating something that he knew might blacken his name and the reputation of his people.
Lisa was changing too. Once she had been a fairly devout Jew. She had looked forward to celebrating Passover with her friends. But this Spring, she hadn’t heard from her usual friends who conducted a seder and always had included her. Lisa went to see her girlfriend, MOIRA, a strictly Orthodox young woman who wore a veil outside of the house and walked her four children to shul every morning and kept a kosher house. If Moira fell out, then Lisa knew she might have made the fatal choice.
On a warm and smoggy Saturday, Lisa drove from her nice house in the Hollywood Hills over the mountain to the flat, hot plainness of Moira’s modest and mostly Orthodox valley neighborhood. Here, the timeless tableau of bearded men in dark suits said their morning prayers to the Almighty. Women dressed in modesty, with the children as the center of their lives. God was so present here, he supplanted the materialism, the artificiality that Lisa had come to expect of Los Angeles. Under these sturdy and rigid palm trees, respect for the Torah, the Ten Commandments, and the word of the deity were supreme.
Moira was only 27, but she had the dignity and repose of a 50 year old. She was alone on this morning, with her children at school.
She spoke: “So much to do about your program. I watched it myself just to see what all the fuss was about.” Lisa waited, wondering if Moira would point her finger at Lisa and indict her for inciting the hatred against the Jewish people which others had accused THE MATTERHORN of fanning.
Moira poured some hot tea for Lisa. It was served in a homely and old fashioned teacup. Lisa thought it could have been a teacup in a bubby’s apartment, circa 1920.
“Lisa, you obviously earn a lot of money. You can buy things. You have a beautiful car. Lots of nice clothes. You keep yourself thin…..” Lisa thought Moira was asking her at what price these goodies had been bought. But Moira had other things on her mind….
Moira asked:”So who are you dating?” Lisa was aghast. “Oh, nobody right now. I was seeing an exec at MGM last year. But he was so busy. And I’m so busy. You know.”
Moira wasn’t convinced. “You’re busy? What about me? I have four children. I’m 27 years old. And yet I have a husband, a home, a life.”
A life. It was that horrible phrase. A life. Moira had just put it out in the open. Lisa had a life. Or maybe she didn’t have a life. That’s what Moira meant. For what was life without a man, a family, children, a house, meals, memories?
Moira’s innocent and simple comment stung more than all of the months of incrimination in the press. Lisa was no anti-semite. She wasn’t guilty of anything. Lisa was just alone.
Moira seemed to offer no answer to Lisa about The Matterhorn. Lisa almost didn’t want to know what Moira really thought. Besides, hadn’t Lisa done as well as Moira? Lisa had a gorgeous home in the Hollywood Hills. She worked out five days a week and now had a personal trainer, a masseur and a dietician. Moira looked old, paunchy, frumpy—and she wasn’t even 30 years old! Lisa reassured herself that Moira was just jealous.
Back in Burbank, Harry was leaving the studio when he decided to check his email. There was a message from his mother in Ohio. She wrote that she was pleased that he was doing well, but she could not endure the social ostracization from her friends who were angry and hurt about the character of Missy Mishkin. She wanted to talk with him, but she couldn’t bring herself to dial the phone. She was a mother shamed.
The success, the money, the ratings, the fame—he had done it all for his Mom. No matter how wealthy he got, Harry never forgot his mother in Toledo. Her disapproval was the fatal poison which could turn him from an optimistic man into a fatalistic basket case.
Harry sat in his corner office and he breathed heavily upon the surface of his glass desk top. He took his index finger and on the mist which his hot breath created, he wrote the word, “JEW”. Never particularly observant, never one to identify with the bearded, the learned, the Orthodox—he now had constructed a box which he could not break out of. He had reached for commercial success by using the one poison forbidden to him.
The phone rang. It was his assistant telling him that Geraldo wanted an interview with him. Harry would not keep Geraldo waiting. The few seconds of introspection were closed and Harry prepared to say yes to Geraldo. The show would go on…..