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Old 09-18-2019, 03:22 PM   #1
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Default Karen Valentine Talks‘Room 222’ as it Celebrates Its 50th Anniversary

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Actress Karen Valentine Returns to High School as ‘Room 222’ Celebrates Its 50th Anniversary
Entertainment
Sep 17, 2019 6:48 pm·
By Ed Gross

For fans of Classic TV, two lineups of programming from the early 1970s are likely to be considered the greatest ever. On Saturday nights CBS aired All in the Family, MASH, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, The Bob Newhart Show and The Carol Burnett Show, while Friday nights on ABC consisted of The Brady Bunch, The Partridge Family, Room 222, The Odd Couple and Love, American Style. Pretty amazing, isn’t it? And three of those shows — The Brady Bunch, Love, American Style and Room 222 — are currently celebrating their 50th anniversaries.

“I remember when Room 222 turned 30,” laughs actress Karen Valentine, who played student teacher (eventually promoted to full teacher) Alice Johnson on the show, “and I thought that was pretty amazing. And now 50? It’s pretty unreal. It’s, like, where did the time go?”

Room 222, which ran from 1969-74, is set at the fictional Walt Whitman High School, a Los Angeles school marked by its racial diversity at a time when TV was just beginning to deal with such things. Within Whitman High, the focus is largely on the title classroom and the history class taught by Pete Dixon (Lloyd Haynes), described by Wikipedia as “an idealistic African-American school teacher.” Other main characters include guidance counselor Liz McIntyre (Denise Nicholas), who is also Pete’s girlfriend; and principal Seymour Kaufman. Beyond the faculty, the show also delved into the school and personal life of a number of the students as well.

The series’ creative pedigree is pretty impressive as well. It’s created by James L. Brooks, who’s also the creator behind The Mary Tyler Moore Show and its various spin-offs, and Taxi; and one of its executive producers is Gene Reynolds, a guiding force of MASH.

“Room 222 just started so many things for me,” relates Karen. “It was the most amazing way to enter the business. Top-notch all the way and an amazing combination of people. It was a show where the stars just aligned. And for me, I remember going on an audition and met with a casting director at 20th Century Fox. I walked in and he didn’t even look up from his paper. He said, ‘How tall are you? What are the color of your eyes?’ and all the usual sort of questions you get asked, and, then, ‘Okay, thank you very much.’ I was dismissed, and I thought, ‘Well, I don’t think that went so well.’ Six months later I got a call from my agent saying, ‘You have a callback,’ and I asked, ‘For what?’ ‘Room 222.’

“I went out and met with Gene and Terry Becker, who was associate producer of the show, and I had my audition with Gene,” she continues. “When I got the script, I went, ‘Oh my God, this is really good. This is fun. This is today.’ It felt so right. And I remember when we did the pilot, everything just seemed to flow together perfectly with it.”


Class Is in Session

In its day, Room 222 was pretty different insofar as network fare was concerned. Besides the subject matter and, again, such a racially integrated school, it had as its lead an African-American. Prior to that there was Diahann Carroll as Julia and Bill Cosby teamed up with Robert Culp on I Spy, but for the most part that was pretty much it. On top of that, it was a half-hour show that ABC viewed as a comedy, and insisted that it should have a laugh track, even though it was obvious that it didn’t fit. “At one point Gene Reynolds fought to get rid of it,” Karen remembers. “He said, ‘People will know when to laugh. These aren’t set-em up jokes. It’s humor. It’s character. It comes out of the situation.’ And so he fought for that and losing the laugh track, I thought, was the best thing that happened for the show.”


The Writers Were Sent to School

Giving the show its power is the fact that the writers actually sat in classrooms before they were allowed to submit a script or a story idea. Karen emphasizes, “The research was done. The writers were actually going to classes, being in the school and touring the school so that they were in the milieu of what was gong on in those days. We did shows about Vietnam, we did shows about teenage pregnancy, kids that wanted to drop out of school, kids trying to make something happen and trying to get kids to study more — giving them money and certain perks depending on their grades. It was an amazing, innovative show that way, and I thought it really spoke to students. And I remember teachers loving it as well. It had a light touch, so it wasn’t preachy, but it also had its serious moments. It ran the gamut, which is why is was so good. You never felt you were saying lines that didn’t work.”


Shooting the Show

As she recalls it, each episode had a seven-day shoot, which would kick off with them doing a table read of the script, where everyone would give their opinion of what did and didn’t work. After that, the writers would go away and return for another reading later the same day. “Then we would block it,” Karen recalls, “so it was sort of like rehearsing a play in a way. We would go from set to set and do the different scenes. Then, on the second day of a particular show, we would film. So we kind of knew what we were doing at the get-go just from those table reads. It was very beneficial to the work.”


Emmy Winner Out of the Gate

And there’s no question that Room 222 was beneficial to her career: in its first season, Karen was nominated for and won the Emmy Award for Best Supporting Actress. “It was kind of mind-blowing to have that happen so soon, so quickly,” she laughs, “and to meet Carol Burnett and her saying, ‘Well, congratulations for this.’ It was, like, ‘Thank you.’ But that Carol Burnett would know me? Just incredible. I remember I was taking singing lessons at the time and I went to my singing class. Also taking lessons was Gregory Peck; I think he was doing Man of La Mancha. When he walked by, I was at the teacher’s piano and he saw me through the window and kind of mimed, ‘You did it!’ I was, like, ‘Oh my God. It’s Gregory Peck!’ How was it that I had the fortune to meet these stars and talented people from the get-go?”


Karen at the Get-Go

Karen was born May 25, 1947 in Sebastopol, California, and her career in acting and, particularly, television actually began when she found herself in the Miss Teenage America Contest, representing her local town of Santa Rosa, California. She went to Dallas to compete and won. “During the week,” she says, “you performed, you’re interviewed and you do all those things that you do. When it aired, we did a show, just like Miss America or Miss California. It all leads up to Miss America and I did a pantomime to Eydie Gorme’s ‘Blame it on the Bossa Nova,’ and it went over really well. They gave me a talent award, which they presented to me live on air, which I was not expecting. In those days, there were talent agents attending these things and a talent agent from CBS was there. Backstage he said to me, ‘You’re going to get a very big surprise, so don’t be shocked.’ Then, boom, we were pushed out on stage waving flags or whatever our number was and in the show, Bud Collyer, who was the host, stopped the show and said, ‘We have received a note from Ed Sullivan, who was watching this show, and he wants me to announce that she will appear on The Ed Sullivan Show two weeks from tonight.’ And the crowd went crazy. All the girls jumped on me and hugged me. It was like the biggest shock in the whole world. Two weeks later, lo and behold, we flew to New York and I was on his show. And he liked me enough that he invited me back!”


‘The Ed Sullivan Show’

Running on CBS from 1948 to 1971, The Ed Sullivan Show was the premier variety show on television, and is credited with introducing to America’s living rooms music acts like Elvis Presley and The Beatles, among many others. On her first appearance, Karen repeated the act from the Miss Teenage America contest. On the second, she was surrounded by dancers and given an orchestra to perform the song “You Can’t Get a Man with a Gun.” She admits that she was a nervous wreck and couldn’t find the right note to kick things off with. Getting through rehearsal, she collapsed in her seat, feeling terribly embarrassed.


Harry Belafonte Steps In

Emotional rescue came in the form of “Day-O (The Banana Boat Song)” singer Harry Belafonte, who walked down the aisle, sat down next to her and asked if she was nervous. When she said she was, he replied, “We’re all nervous.” Then he indicated the stage where the German Kessler Twins were dancing, and he said, “You see them? They’re nervous.” Notes Karen, “I said, ‘They don’t look nervous to me.’ He said, ‘Well, they are. Believe me.’ Harry Belafonte’s kindness was very uplifting and helped me build some confidence, but it was still nerve-wracking. When it was time for the show, he came out of his dressing room and started vocalizing. He kneels down in front of me, holds my hand and says ‘I’m so nervous. Hold my hand and give me strength.’ And I’m just, like, overwhelmed and giggling like a schoolgirl. So this was my introduction to showbiz.”


‘Dream Girl of ’67’

There, were admittedly a few rough years between Ed Sullivan and Room 222. Following high school, Karen moved to Los Angeles where she worked odd jobs while trying to secure work as an actress. It was during this period that game show producer Chuck Barris entered her life with Dream Girl of 1967 (“It was a show that I barely remember doing”) and, then, The Dating Game, where she was a contestant asking three bachelors a series of questions without being able to see them, and then has to pick one to go out on a date with. Well, while Karen thought it was all harmless fun, apparently her “choice” took things a little more seriously.


‘The Dating Game’

“That was awful,” she groans, “because the guy thought that this was really going to be a date, right? The Dating Game got more serious later where people would be sent on trips. I only got to go to the Ambassador Hotel to see a show, but the guy thought we were going to make out in the limo and it, was, like, ‘You know this is a first date, right?’ It was so sleazy. You’d go to dinner and then to a show, which is the prize I won, but the guy thought this was serious. I wanted to get out of the date. You know, ‘Save the money, who needs to go on a date? Let me do another show. Give me a shot at acting or something.’”


Back to School

In 1969 she was cast in the TV movie Gidget Grows Up (“She should never grow up,” Karen says with finality), which, of course, led to Room 222. Of that show, she says one of the things she enjoyed the most was the forward momentum of the characters; that they would grow and change, which was not a normalcy of television at the time. “There was an episode called ‘Alice in Blunderland,’ in which they made me an English teacher and had me teaching a class on my own. Before that I was always in the back of the class listening, learning and observing. Then I had to teach a class with Pete Dixon, because he was my mentor, so he sat in the back of the class and I taught. As a student teacher, I didn’t have a lot of confidence, so he thought, ‘Well, it’s time you do it on your own.’ He left the room and everything gets out of control. The episode was really well written and the emotional ride I took had me coming out the other end a little better, but still a way to go as a teacher.


Character Interactions

“The series gave different characters time in the spotlight,” Karen continues. “Specifically, I remember the relationship between Pete and Liz that developed, and their romance. There was an episode involving Mr. Kaufman’s son, the students would have shows focused on them. And, as a team, the four of us in the teacher’s lounge or the cafeteria were meeting up to discuss problems and getting four different points of view. That was always kind of in the mix, too.”


Cancelation

Although its first season was a bit rough in the ratings, things smoothed out to a great degree for Room 222, and the critics certainly loved it. But in the fourth year the ratings suffered a major drop, resulting in ABC cancelling the show mid-year, catching everybody by surprise. “Why things changed, I have no idea,” Karen admits. “ABC did have the kindness to come and tell us before we read it in the papers, because that’s how things were cut in those days: You just didn’t come to work the next day. But they did have the wherewithal to give us the word that it was happening, and it was sad … well, it’s always sad, but especially when you feel you have a good product and a good show, for it to be taken away. But in the end, the network made the decision to go in a different direction. That’s what they always say, ‘We’ve decided to go in a different direction.’”


‘Karen’: The Series

The season following the end of Room 222, the actress found herself starring in the television series Karen, which didn’t manage to connect with viewers in the same way as her previous series had. Of the show, she comments, “It was a half-hour, one-camera show with a hybrid tone, part dramatic and part comedic. Room 222 was also built on that model, but it dealt with school and student issues. Karen, created by Larry Gelbart and Gene Reynolds, used controversial political stories that were a savvy, humoristic reflection of then current headlines, post Watergate. The original opening titles were a take-off of the opening of the film Patton. Instead of George C. Scott, you had me marching up to an American flag background. Really clever, but never aired. It was changed to me riding a bicycle around D.C. The network envisioned something softer, more romantic and personal, and not too complicated, as opposed to an issue-oriented drama/comedy in the political arena. I’d say it was ahead of its time.”


Karen Goes in a Different Direction

Afterwards, Karen made numerous TV guest appearances and starred in TV movies as well as feature films. “Movies were a different animal, for sure,” she laughs. “You’re doing a lot of waiting around and then it’s a whole other technique. I did a couple of Disney films, one of them being The North Avenue Irregulars, which had a great cast. What I really enjoyed doing was the TV movie Muggable Mary, Street Cop, because it was such a departure for me. I played New York decoy cop — the first female decoy cop — and it was a real story. I did a couple of other dramatic things including a Starsky and Hutch, which was a forerunner to Fatal Attraction. I’ve got a crush on Hutch and I’m showing up where I shouldn’t be showing up and become a problem. On top of that, I always took summers to do summer stock and be on stage. I loved the theater a lot.”


Life — and ‘Room 222’ — Goes On

Karen’s career has spanned far beyond the confines of Room 222, yet the passion people (including her) feel for the show remains very strong. “I think for a lot of people it’s a part of their childhood and something they relate to,” she suggests. “The Paley Center in Los Angeles did a tribute to Room 222 and we were on a panel. It was Michael and Denise and myself, Gene Reynolds, Jim Brooks and it was packed. There were people in the audience who stood up and talked about the show and what it meant to him. Hearing those stories, I think that’s part of it. The other thing is, how did Ted Turner know that old movies were going to be as popular as they are now? That channel is going like gangbusters. There’s just a nostalgia factor that attracts you. It reminds people of good times, of wonderful times, and if they were having bad times, it was an escape from those things.”


Personal Reflections

And for her, Room 222 brings with it nothing but joyous memories. “Working with all of those people,” Karen smiles wistfully, “and to have that kind of experience first time out — the show just brings back the fondest and best memories in the world to me. It also kind of spoiled me, because it set the bar really high. So when other things come to you, you think, ‘What is this?’ It was different, you know? But I was fortunate that I did get material that was pretty fun and well done. But to have your first thing be something that was so special and groundbreaking, and that you felt meant something and was affecting people — how do you top that?”
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Old 09-19-2019, 12:23 AM   #2
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What a great interview and really nice of her to share her recollections.

I would sooo love for the entire series to come out on DVD or get picked up by Antenna. I was 14 when the show first aired. Karen’s right-time really does fly!
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