On April 22, 2000, Entertainment Tonight aired its momentous Designing Women retrospective. Each of the original cast was featured in new interviews, sharing memories and anecdotes of their time on the series, coupled with informative background information on the show. The history section and articles on DWT dive heavily into the series history, but we at "Belled" thought it would be fun to share some of the ET highlights and cast comments with the fan club. Following the summary of the retrospective are some reactions from fans, and we'd still love to hear your comments as well, so please email Belled@topthat.net.
Also in this issue: A Performing Arts Center is dedicated to Dixie Carter, and we give you a sneak peek at Delta Burke and her wedding dress from the upcoming season finale of Popular.
The Real Designing Women
Designing Women Retrospective - April 22, 2000
DIXIE CARTER: It was a once-in-a-lifetime moment.
ANNIE POTTS: It was really sort of a ground-breaker.
JEAN SMART: It was nice because there was no ego at all.
DELTA BURKE: It was like a little band. Everyone has a different note to play,
and we all came together and made music.
Be sure to check out Designing Women Tribute for a full transcript.
It was like no other show on TV at the time. These Designing Women came along and slammed the door on centuries old stereotypes.
DIXIE: We were the first Southern women anybody noticed who had a grain of sense.
DELTA: Right off the bat it felt as if we'd been together for a couple of years and the banter was happening really fast.
DIXIE: At the first reading of the script, for example, when I heard Annie and Jean cut loose ... ::gasp:: ... I was just thrilled!
The special goes on to talk about how Designing Women came about, with the show written with Delta, Dixie, Jean, and Annie in mind, and how Linda Bloodworth-Thomason pitched it to the network without anything down on paper. Linda does not interview in the special, but her husband, Designing Women Director/Executive Producer Harry Thomason, does share his memories. ET claims that Linda wrote the entire first season herself, breaking records at the time, but in reality it was the second season that she wrote straight
JEAN: ...And she wrote them in longhand, as I recall, on a legal pad, and usually the night before we started rehearsing. And I loved the fact that Linda would give us these long, sometimes PAGE long monologues ..... [although] sometimes she would give them to us the night of the show! Luckily the four of us were like word processors, and we just learned them and spit them out.
According to ET, Hal Holbrook repeatedly turned down the part of Reese Watson until Linda played dirty.
HAL HOLBROOK: Linda came to me one day and said "Hal, do you really want someone else making love to your wife?" I said "Okay, alright alright. I'll be in it."
Meshach Taylor was the only black actor to audition for the part of Anthony, but he made a huge impression on producers.
MESHACH TAYLOR: When I went in to audition for it, there was nothing written at all, it was strictly improvisational. And by the way, that was not an audition for a series regular. That was only a one-time shot.
As the show climbed to the top ten, the lives of the cast changed; or at least their pocketbooks did.
DELTA: Dixie and I were just thrilled with the money.
DIXIE: Designing Women let me throw silk on the walls of my house, which I loved doing.
DELTA: Jean's saying "I don't know. I don't want the money to change my life." Dixie and I just want to go ::slap, slap:: "What's wrong with you?!" We called her the actress. Jean was the actress.
The topic turns to the show's cancellation in the first season. Having been moved all over the prime-time schedule, Designing Women's originally respectable ratings dropped, and CBS put the show on hiatus. Harry Thomason rallied the support of Viewers for Quality Television, and the cast pled to fans around the country to write in to CBS president Bud Grant.
HARRY THOMASON: And over 40,000 letters went to Bud Grant's office. The post office was making special deliveries to his office, and he was not a happy camper.
MESHACH: The way they saw that is every letter is equal to like 2000 people who feel the same way. All of a sudden, you've got a couple million people that are really pissed that the show is off the air.
Grant conceded and sent a limousine for the ladies to bring them to CBS, where a white flag flew signaling his surrender.
DIXIE: We were brought back, we were moved off of whatever horrible time we wound up, we were moved back to Monday nights, and from that moment on we were a hit.
Because the sitcom's co-creators were politically active, they made sure that Designing Women was one of the rare network series that tackled tough social issues, from racism to sexual harassment, and they tackled them hard. No topic was off limits. Writer and Executive Producer Linda Bloodworth-Thomason wanted to explore controversial subjects with intelligence and humor -- a new approach for sitcoms in the late eighties.
JEAN: I've always felt that if you're going to be funny, then be funny, and let someone else do the drama in another project. But I felt like Linda pulled it off, and we pulled it off, and those are the shows that people still often come up to me and say "Oh, that was one of my favorite episodes."
ANNIE: It was very much her soapbox.
DIXIE: Rape, AIDS, breast cancer, abuse, menopause .....
DELTA: It worked because the way that Linda's words are ... she was able to artfully combine the comedy and have the humor where people would actually laugh, and then just seamlessly blend on over into the emotional.
DIXIE: I would get to put forth some of Linda's political ideas or sociological ideas that were perhaps a little farther to the left than I was comfortable with. But, if I would say the things that Linda wanted me to say, I would get to sing in one show a season, at least.
The cast talks about life after Designing Women:
JEAN: It had become a very cushy 9-to-5 job, and I didn't want to get quite that comfortable yet. And if I was ever afraid of being typecast, boy it hasn't happened.
DIXIE: (re: Family Law) It's the best role I've had a shot at since Julia Sugarbaker. It's Southern, which means the notion that I can do something other than Southern, I guess, is gonna be -- well, nobody's ever gonna believe that.
ANNIE: If I go two more years on Any Day Now, I believe that will make it something like seventeen consecutive years in prime time series television, and (smiling) I think that's long enough.
There was something in the water on the Designing Women set, as the cast talks about the love that bloomed while shooting the series.
HARRY: From the first time Gerald McRaney walked on the set and Delta looked at him, everybody said "Uh oh, there's probably gonna be a wedding here." And sure enough, there was a wedding.
DELTA: (re: shooting the kiss) He took my face in his hands and kissed me, and he was so good -- the kiss -- I had to stop, I just completely forgot my lines and I couldn't keep talking.
RICHARD GILLILAND: The first day that I got there, we had the table reading and I just locked eyes with Jean, and it was kind of ... hello!
JEAN: I had never met him, and I just ... as Dixie would say "Got to have me some of that!"
DELTA: It really was like a cupid with the arrow thing -- it was very immediate. She got really girly. Jean's asking me all kinds of questions, like what's he like? Does he have a girlfriend? So what's the deal? You didn't go out with him, did you?
JEAN: I don't know if Delta knows that I know this, but Delta and Richard went out a couple of times a few years before Richard and I met, and she was very sweet and she never told me.
The special then dove into the controversial topic of the backstage war between the producers and Delta Burke. Comments made by Delta regarding working conditions on the set supposedly led to retaliatory statements regarding Delta having been suspended for delaying taping on several occasions. The war of words publicly escalated to the point that Delta's request to be released from the show led the Thomasons to replace her at the end of her contract.
MESHACH: She really would get so depressed sometimes that she couldn't stop crying.
ANNIE: The show had been running five years at that time, and the last year or more that we were on, it seemed like ten. It was hard to come to work and do the work, because there was all that other junk.
Delta admits that some of the tension probably came from all the press:
DELTA: It just does a number to you, and you can in no way be prepared for it because it's sort of like childbirth or Vietnam -- you can try to understand it, but unless you've been through it, you just really can't comprehend.
HARRY: It's to everybody's credit that Delta and Linda are still friends to this day. They did another show together, and I'm sure they'll work together again in the future.
Although there is no mention of Judith Ivey at all on the special, there is brief reference to Jan Hooks and Julia Duffy coming on in season six to replace the departing cast members. It was still a good show, and no one missed the fight, but they did miss the spark.
ANNIE: When Julia Duffy came in, I think that they made a mistake with that character. I think they made a character that wasn't very likable. I think that tarnished the show.
JULIA DUFFY: (re: leaving after one season) It was just something that seemed to be for the best. There was only one more year after that, but it certainly was not the easiest job that anyone ever had on that set, and so the one year was plenty.
Delta's weight gain was also addressed, with cast members sharing their memories of Delta's struggle, the rumors, and the tabloid torture.
HARRY: That's a myth that sort of lives on; that the studio, Linda or myself, or the network was on her about her weight. Nothing was ever further from the truth.
DELTA: In my twenties I always starved myself trying to be thin enough for the job because I was always being told "You're not thin enough," so that becomes the button on you to make you go just completely freaky. And that's what I did -- I panicked, trying to starve myself again, and I couldn't pull that off anymore. [The tabloids] are saying bizarre stuff, like I'm chasing Annie Potts around the stage trying to get a Snickers bar or something ... and she's locking herself in her room.
JEAN: I don't know how she handled it. I don't know if I could.
DELTA: Finally, I went to Linda and told her we needed to do a show about the weight. It was a wonderful moment for me. Suzanne changed. She became kind of this broad -- sassier, and her voice changed, her walk changed.
JEAN: In a way, Delta got funnier and funnier. In a way, it seemed to give her some sort of freedom, not having to be the beautiful one.
DELTA: I would get so down and so depressed, and figured I should just quit the business if I'm just this fat cow. And Annie would say --
ANNIE: -- It doesn't make you any less sweet, or any less funny, or any less beautiful.
DELTA: I just kind of shut down and didn't want to draw any
attention ..... "Please don't notice the fat girl over in the corner."
DIXIE: It was evident. We were all very close, so we all knew each other's business.
DELTA: I look at life now and I feel so secure and confident now. I'm such a different woman -- much happier. This is a wonderful time of my life, and the most powerful or beautiful I've ever felt.
When Sugarbakers finally closed the doors in 1993, reruns of the series had already been sold to 200 different U.S. TV stations -- at that time the widest distribution in history.
Some Fan Club Members' Reactions:
I could not wait to see the ET hour long look at "Designing Women" -- my FAVE show of all time!! I must say, I enjoyed it, but it only left me desperate for more. I thought that the format was rather "jumpy/" in that it was just little snips of interviews. It also concentrated on a lot of past issues such as the feud between Delta Burke and the Thomasons. However, it did seem that both parties have gotten past it and have maintained a friendship. I would love to have seen a program with a little more depth, but I was glad for any current program that gave us an update on the cast members. It was wonderful to see them all again. ~ G. Winget
I thought it was great and very informative. It was funny to hear Annie Potts say she would like to stop doing TV after "Any Day Now." She has been doing TV for 17 years straight now. I can't imagine a TV season without her on the air. And thank goodness Dixie Carter found "Family Law." She is the best one on the show. It is like seeing Julia as a lawyer. Anyway, I hope you all enjoyed it as well. ~ Tico626
I thought it was very good. Their treatment of Delta's firing was very well done. That was a difficult subject to tackle, since it had been so heavily publicized at the time. And of course, all the cast members looked very good in it. ~ Kristen
I did see the DW special on "Entertainment Weekend." I was only disappointed in that there really wasn't enough time devoted to Dixie Carter. As far as I am concerned, they should have concentrated the full show on her!!! In any case, it was certainly interesting to find out exactly why the show was canceled. And, wonderful to hear it from the horses' mouths, so to speak, replacing the horrible inaccuracies of the tabloid rumors, of the time. It was reassuring to discover that the ladies were not all "ego feuding" with each other, but were actually very supportive of each other and Delta Burke in her fight with her weight and her subsequent battle with the producers. (I always suspected, her leaving had the devastating effect from which the show was never able to recover. And, it just goes to show, once again, that we place too much emphasis on being beautiful and thin. Just how superficial are we?) ~ Susan
Also, did you know that the Designing Women Tribute was contacted in the making of the special? Although it wasn't credited, the picture of Etienne with her on-screen parents (Sherman Hemsley and Della Reese) was supplied by DWT, and it was evident that the original episode guide index was quoted from during the segment regarding controversial issues tackled on the series. We are very excited that DWT is such a source of information for Designing
Women. Thanks to everyone for the contributions that have made DWT such a mega-hit!
Performing Arts Center Named after Dixie Carter
Last December, Dixie Carter was both surprised and honored to learn that her home state of Tennessee would be constructing a new performing arts center and dedicating it to her. The Dixie Carter Performing Arts Center will consist of four buildings on a block in downtown Huntingdon, TN, and begins construction this spring. The Center is slated to open within a year of its construction and will be the home for drama, dance, concerts, lectures and other types of artistic events. Ms. Carter vows to continue to participate in the Center in all ways possible. She is pictured left in front of one of the buildings with architect David M. Schuermann, holding one of the several artistic renderings he presented at the announcement in December.
For additional information on the Center and continuing coverage, please visit the following section of The Cabaret: The Dixie Carter Performing Arts Center.
Two Weddings and a Funeral on the Season Finale of 'Popular'
This week Popular airs its season finale, which, according to the show's publicist, packs everything you've ever seen in a finale into one insane episode. Delta's character, Cherry Cherry, is set to marry Erik Estrada in a double wedding ceremony with Brooke and Sam's parents.
Details on the episode are sketchy, but the preview indicates that someone is
going to die. Since Cherry Cherry is the only person listed among the potential victims that is not a regular cast member, the possibility of Cherry buying the farm is pretty high.
The WB announced today that it would be picking up the series for a second season, but with Delta's busy fall schedule, Cherry Cherry would not likely be making many appearances next year.
"Belled" has gotten some inside pics of the secret episode and the wedding attire for Delta's character Cherry Cherry and her daughter Mary Cherry, so click the thumbnails to see the Cherry family's outrageous costuming, and don't forget to tune in to the WB this Thursday night to find out what happens -- though you may need some caffeine or a serious drink to keep up with the promised action.
...Mary Jo and Charlene
"Mary Jo still works at Sugarbakers. Her daughter Claudia is married and has recently had a baby -- with Mary Jo having a hard time dealing with the idea of being a grandmother. Quint is in law school, and Mary Jo and J.D. Shakleford started dating again and got married.
"Charlene and Bill moved back to Atlanta with Olivia, who is now 10 years old. They also have a 7 year old son named Bill, Jr. Charlene now works part-time at Sugarbakers while attending school to get her degree in
Psychology." (submitted by Jamie)
Don't forget to Email "Belled" with reader feedback and to tell us where you think the "Designing Women" characters would be today for future issues!
from DW History
(21) Which series was Delta contracted to that, coupled with CBS's reluctance to re-team her with Dixie, almost cost her the part of Suzanne?
(22) What TV series that Linda Bloodworth was involved in first paired Jean Smart and Annie Potts together and brought them to Linda's mind when she created Designing Women?
(23) A band led by the brother of what public figure provided music on the Designing Women set between takes?
(24) Which of Delta's co-stars was Matron of Honor at Delta and Gerald McRaney's "royal" wedding?
* Answers will appear in the next issue.
Answers from Issue #005
(17) Which episode did Linda Bloodworth-Thomason dedicate to the memory of her mother and mother-in-law?
"Old Spouses Never Die" -- which dealt with breast cancer misdiagnosis, an experience similar to the one that sadly led to the death Linda's mother-in-law. Her own mother had just died of AIDS through a blood transfusion.
(18) Which Designing Women character did she name after her mother?
Mary Jo's daughter, Claudia
(19) In which episode can Delta Burke's real life mother be seen?
Delta's real mother can be seen in "Come On and Marry Me, Bill." The camera pans in where she is seated next to Charlene's uncle in the congregation during the wedding ceremony.
(20) What was the name of the production company formed by Harry and Linda Bloodworth-Thomason?