Saturday, January 1, 1994

A Tale of the Seventies

Originally written by Armistead for TV Guide in January 1994.

PBS, famous for such British-made epic dramas as Upstairs, Downstairs; Brideshead Revisited; and The Jewel in the Crown-will broadcast yet another this week Armistead Maupin's Tales of the City, a sweeping period saga whose literary origins can be traced directly to the vegetable department of a San Francisco supermarket.

Let me backup a little. It was 1974 I'd come to the local Safeway as a reporter for a weekly paper to follow up on a tip I'd received. According to my source, hordes of "swinging singles-as we once so quaintly called them-descended upon the store every Wednesday night in search of romance.

Sure enough, the place was overflowing with dudes in puke shells and eager young women in rhinestone-studded, brushed-denim pantsuits. The veggie section seemed particularly active, so I headed there, full of probing questions: When did this all begin? What's the best pickup line? Why Wednesday night? For some reason, no one would talk me.

I settled on a fictional shopper to explain the phenomenon to my readers. I named her Mary Ann Singleton (as in "single town") and made her a reluctant but hopeful participant in the Safeway mating ritual. After several grim encounters, she meets the man of her dreams by the snow peas-only to discover that he's there with the man of his dreams.

The story was a hit. It struck such a nerve with single women, in fact, that I was asked to submit more episodes, following Ms. Singleton on her various adventures as a new girl in town. When the paper folded five weeks later, the most vocal protests came from readers wondering what had happened to Mary Ann.

Encouraged by this response, I eventually pitched the idea of a daily serial to the editors of the San Francisco Chronicle. To my amazement, they accepted, so in 1976 "Tales of the City" was launched, and I was faced with the daunting prospect of writing 800 words a day.

I brought back Mary Ann, of course, and found her a nice place to live: a rambling old wooden apartment house with a partial view of the bay. Her landlady, Mrs. Madrigal, was a motherly middle-aged free spirit with a cloudy past and a fondness for naming the marijuana plants she grew in her garden.

The other tenants at 28 Barbary Lane were Mona Ramsey, a bright, Brillo-haired cynic learning to lower her expectations; Brian Hawkins, an amiable but amoral lawyer-turned-waiter who picks up women in Laundromats; and Norman Neal Williams an awkward, fortyish outsider par to clip-on ties. Six weeks into the series they were joined by Michael "Mouse" Tolliver-a sentimental young Southerner who is unapologetically gay. His arrival was a source of grave concern at the newspaper. Expecting a backlash from suburban subscribers, my editors held their breath, mumbling dire warnings about "the limits of tolerance."

They were dead wrong. In fact, when Michael met a handsome gynecologist at a roller rink and brought him home to Barbary Lane, suburban housewives actually wrote me to say how much they wanted the romance to succeed.

As the series progressed, my characters took on minds of their own. I was almost as surprised as my readers when Mrs. Madrigal herself, normally such a homebody, embarked on a tender love affair with a most unlikely suitor.

"Tales" succeeded in a way I'd never dreamed. Reading installments aloud became a watercooler ritual, and readers whose newspapers had been mangled by a neighborhood dog or drenched in a downpour wrote to tell me how frantic they'd been to find a replacement.

For a long time I attributed all this madness to local chauvinism, but I was happily mistaken. When I collected "Tales of the City" into a novel of the same name in 1978 (with five more to follow in the eighties), I found people all over the world who could relate to my characters. Fans at book signings in Sydney or Edinburgh or Iowa City would introduce their friends to me as "my Mary Ann" or "my Brian" or "our Mrs. Madrigal." The novels had become a kind of shorthand for explaining the dynamics of their own free-form urban families.

When Warner Bros. took an option on "Tales" in 1979, I celebrated by having a T-shirt made that said "Soon To Be A Major Motion Picture"-a hugely premature act, if ever there was one. Within days studio executives began to let me know that "certain minor adjustments" would be required before the property could be offered to the American public.

Michael Tolliver, for instance, was OK for a campy walk-on but could never be shown in an intimate moment with another man. Furthermore, Mrs. Madrigal's friendly practice of taping joints to her tenants' doors might have been acceptable on the printed page but would not do on the screen. In other words, they wanted my intricate plotlines but not the nonjudgmental spirit that had rendered them interesting in the first place.

I met with similar squeamishness when HBO acquired the property in the early eighties. By then, Reaganism was in full bloom and the onset of the AIDS epidemic had created an ugly backlash in Hollywood against anything regarded as remotely gay. After several excruciating attempt at "updating" the material, "Tales" was eventually shelved. Over the next decade, the property was rejected by every major network and studio in Hollywood I finally resigned myself to the notion that my work would never be translated into film.

Then, in the early '90s, only weeks after I'd ended the series, help arrived from a most unlikely source. Channel 4, the British network that commissioned the films "Howards End" and "The Crying Game," agreed to fully fund a six-hour miniseries. Even more miraculously, the story would be filmed exactly as written, with its loopy seventies spirit intact in an eloquent and poignantly funny script by Richard Kramer of thirtysomething fame. Filming took place last spring in Los Angeles and San Francisco with a remarkable American cast headed by Olympia Dukakis as Mrs. Madrigal. Tales was broadcast in Britain last fall to critical and popular acclaim, prompting PBS's American Playhouse to obtain the U.S. rights.

Looking back on these past two decades of false starts, I realize there was never a better time than the present for "Tales" to reach television. The seventies, after all are back in a big way. Teenagers have embraced the era's garish clothes and music and its live-and-let-live doctrines as if they'd been invented yesterday. And some adults who once trashed the seventies with a vengeance have begun to admit to a growing nostalgia for a time when status wasn't everything and sex wasn't potentially fatal

So, "Tales of the City" once so relentlessly "now," finally found its niche as a costume drama about a simpler time, an extended joy ride into the past.

If you'd like to come along, I'll meet you in the vegetable department.

(c) 1994-2001 Literary Bent LLC. All rights reserved.

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