Dear Belled Readers:
This New Year, our thoughts, our prayers, our memories, are still largely
intertwined with the events of September 11. This year -- that day
especially -- will live in our hearts forever, reminding us of the courage
with which we are all capable and the impact that courage can have when
united with others. For this, our last issue for the year 2001, we present
our retrospective of "The First Day of the Last Decade of the Entire
Twentieth Century" and offer our heartfelt wishes for a happy, prosperous,
and peaceful 2002.
The First Day of the Last Decade of the Entire Twentieth Century
Be sure to check out the Episode Summary from Columbia Tri-Star for this episode. The summary page includes all the quotes referred to in this segment, as well as pictures, commentary, and facts.
ANTHONY: You know something? You *are* the Twentieth Century.
MISS MINNIE: Oh, I'm just a thread, little thread, in the tapestry.
It was "The First Day of the Last Decade of the Entire Twentieth Century," not only in title, but in fact, when Designing Women aired this special one-hour episode on January 1, 1990. Today, twelve years later, this episode is one of the biggest fan-favorites of the series, eliciting an emotional response perhaps only matched by "How Great Thou Art."
In its historical context, there was much excitement in the air for this particular New Year and Designing Women captured the essence in the episode title. Though the Columbia Tri-Star pre-production description focuses on the significance of the occasion (including everyone assembling at Miss Minnie's bedside after she passes away, singing Auld Lang Syne), there were several changes over the course of filming and finalizing the script, and there is little in the episode itself that is New Year-centric. Still, Dolly Parton and Beah Richards as Miss Minnie made memorable appearances and added star power, and, of course, this episode heralded the birth of Charlene's baby, Olivia.
This New Year's Eve we revisit the episode. If the test for an episode's classic status is its ability to not only grab an audience but cause that audience pause as they reflect on their own life at any given time (even twelve years later), then there is no question why "The First Day of the Last Decade of the Entire Twentieth Century" is not only a fan favorite, but a classic episode in a classic television series.
As the episode opens, Mary Jo and Julia discuss their upcoming plans for New Year's Eve; it seems the ladies will all be single on this occasion with Reese visiting his daughter and Bill on a mission, so they decide to all go together to see the newly-released Steel Magnolias, starring Dolly Parton -- an especially fitting film for the ladies of Sugarbakers. What sets out to be a simple plan for a quiet New Year's Eve, however, under the care of Linda Bloodworth-Thomason who wrote the script and Harry Thomason who directed it, essentially tells the story of the most elemental human condition -- our need to mark the moment when a new life comes into this world and a lived life passes.
By this point in the series (Season 4), Charlene was firmly established as the "dreamer" character whose listening heart often brought her to other worlds in her sleep. Having watched The Grapes of Wrath the night before, she tearfully tells Bill how much Henry Fonda reminds her of her grandfather and how moved she always is by his speech at the end. With photos of her family far away and some having passed on all around her, it's fitting that when she drifts off into sleep, the memorable Henry Fonda "I'll be there" speech from this film takes on new life in her dream. Dolly Parton is even present as Charlene's Guardian Movie Star there to soothe Charlene's sadness over the realization that so many of the people she loves will not be there to see her baby girl come into this life and grow up: "You just remember that tomorrow, when you meet your daughter, on the first day of the last decade of the entire 20th century, you'll be meeting the person that'll be holding your hand when it's your time to go. And even then, Charlene, she won't be alone. They'll be there."
A short while later, with Bill's plane grounded preventing him from being with Charlene, she goes into labor; but at the hospital as she's wheeled into the labor room with her family of friends gathered around her, Dolly's words are echoed by Julia, calling out to Charlene as she's wheeled away, "If you need anything, we'll be here."
This is the episode that introduces Vanessa Hargraves, who appears as Anthony's New Year's date. In spite of the fact that the character makes only three more appearances -- all in Season Four -- Vanessa is well remembered by the audience as Anthony's girlfriend over the series. And, of course, who can forget Bernice making quite a splash, wearing her Christmas tree skirt and calling an ambulance to get through the blizzard to the hospital to see Charlene give birth? But not even the birth of Charlene's baby is as memorable as the few scenes in which Miss Minnie Bell Ward tells her life-story.
By the time Julia follows the humming of Auld Lang Syne to the hospital room of 102-year-old Miss Minnie, we've watched what is otherwise a rather typical (typically good, of course) episode of DW. Then, in just a moment, this woman who has lived more than a century captures our attention and our hearts, with her openness and joy, reminding us of the changes of the last 100 years and all of our hopes for the coming years. With the New Year upon them and the birth of Charlene's baby imminent, Julia, Mary Jo, and then Suzanne, and Anthony all gather around Miss Minnie's bedside as she recounts her life. Suddenly, these remarkable characters are all speechless as are we watching.
In just a few short moments at the end of this episode, Beah Richards as Minnie Bell Ward gives what is arguably one of the most poignant performances of the Designing Women series, culminating in the birth of Charlene's baby with the background music of Somewhere Out There. Her entire family and lifetime of friends having passed away before her, Miss Minnie has made a special request of the hospital to be in the maternity ward so she can be close to the babies at the end of her life. And, in the end, she has many people around her. Previous strangers who are touched by her life even in its last few moments; many more people even who are watching in the audience as she says her last words.
This New Year's Eve, Miss Minnie's last words seem especially appropriate as we all reflect on a year of tremendous heartache and awakening. Since the first airing of "The First Day of the Last Decade of the Entire Twentieth Century," this episode has aired countless times -- every time moving even more countless viewers to moments of reflection and even tears. This New Year's Eve, this episode is especially fitting and we at "Belled" can think of no better way to end than to let Miss Minnie speak for herself. In fact, she speaks for all of us.
MISS MINNIE: I thought as I got older, the bold outlines of truth would be revealed to me, but it hasn't happened. When I was young, I was in such a hurry. And now, I've been here a hundred years. And, it seems like only yesterday I held my babies in my arms. I'm glad to be going home. It's been a long time since I've seen my family. And I wish for all of you, all the love and happiness I had in my life -- and I hope the world keeps going toward freedom. And I hope that people everywhere can learn to live together in peace. As my Pappa used to say. . . "We ain't what we should be, we ain't what we gonna be, but at least we ain't what we was."
**Photo credit: Columbia Pictures Television
Courtesy of Designing Women Tribute
...Howard The Date
"After Howard made the 'applause box' for the ladies of Sugarbaker's, he patented the idea and put them into mass production. They were an instant hit! Everybody wanted a little box to put on their dresser that would applaud and cheer for them at the end of a long hard day. Howard's name swept the country, he won national media attention because of the applause box...he became an overnight sensation in the world of useless gadgets. Because his invention was so popular, Howard is now a millionaire, bubbling right under the top fortune 500 and definitely someone Suzanne would date if he were about 30 years older. He found a surgeon who could correct his chronic nose-bleed and now lives in Boulder, Colorado where he dates not one, but two tall blond super-model type women (sometimes one at a time and sometimes as a unit). But no matter how rich and famous he gets or how many beautiful women he dates, Howard will never forget the four women who inspired the invention that got him to where he is today...he is forever grateful to Mary Jo, Julia, Charlene, and Suzanne for being his date, his friends, and his muse." (submitted by Meredith)
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 'The First Day of the Last Decade
of the Entire Twentieth Century'
(93) What was Suzanne's Christmas gift to Bernice?
(94) Why did Bernice's New Years date cancel on her?
(95) What movie did Charlene fall asleep to before Dolly met her in her dream?
(96) What song did Vanessa keep singing loudly in the hospital?
* Answers will appear in the next issue.
Trivia Answers from Issue #23
(89) What is the name of the song that Anthony sang to Etienne as they sat in their matrimonial thrones?
Love Me Tender
(90) What did Julia sing to Phillip that he thought was so sexy?
On A Slow Boat to China
(91) What song did Charlene and Bill dance to on their first date?
I'll Be Seeing You
(92) What song did Charlene assume Julia was going to sing when she got up to perform at her son's wedding reception?