January 27, 2017

Mary Tyler Moore, R.I.P.

It was a strange experience, being in Minneapolis as I was on Wednesday when it was announced that Mary Tyler Moore had died. The reaction nationally was swift - she was one of the great figures in television history, from her time as the invisible "Sam" in Richard Diamond to her winning portrayal of Laura Petrie in The Dick Van Dyke Show to her eponymous sitcom, a trailblazer in casting as the show's lead an unmarried young woman striking out on her own in the frigid flyover city of Minneapolis. It was new, contemporary, groundbreaking. Her place had already been assured by the time she turned to movies and won an Oscar nomination for Ordinary People. A television legend was gone, and the nation responded.

In Minneapolis, however, it was not only Mary Tyler Moore who had died, it was Mary Richards. The coverage was personal; "Our Mary" was gone. It didn't matter that, aside from the famous opening credits and a few exterior establishing shots, the show had nothing to do with Minneapolis. What was true was that, in a television world dominated by New York and Los Angeles, The Mary Tyler Moore Show had put our city on the map. We've always had something of the need for recognition from others, their approval making us somehow legitimate. As Lileks put it yesterday, "It’s hard to understate how Minneapolitans felt . . . validated by that show. That was us. Yes yes no, it wasn’t, of course, but we knew where she was walking and running and shopping and smiling."

Yes. That's it, exactly.

You look at the "Open Tonight" in red neon to the right of Mary, between her head and beret: that's Dayton's downtown department store, before it became Marshall Field's, before it became Macy's, before it became closed. The places she touched became local landmarks: the building in which she worked (which, if memory serves, was actually home to an insurance company, but it seemed like a television station should have been operating out of there), the house in which she lived (which is now up for sale), the table at which she ate (in Basils; the plaque marking the "Mary Tyler Moore table," at which I've actually eaten, is still there). For years, no trip to Minneapolis would be complete without visiting them.

I remember my own feeling in 1970 when I read that her new show was going to be set in Minneapolis. There was a real excitement about it - imagine a big star like that picking us for her show! It didn't matter that it was probably the creators who'd made that decision; the point is that she made us feel good about ourselves.

A few years ago, when TV Land was still something of a retro network, they erected a statue of Moore on the Nicollet Mall, by the corner at which the hat toss had occurred. (As you can see by the photo at left, you have to strike that pose if you're visiting downtown. You just have to.) MTM came to Minneapolis for the unveiling, and then threw out the first pitch at a Twins game at the Metrodome. At the time, I thought there was something kind of cheesy about it all; Philadelphia had a statue of Benjamin Franklin, Boston a statue of Paul Revere, Minneapolis - Mary Tyler Moore. In retrospect, that was shortsighted of me. Those statues of Franklin and Revere, and countless others like them around the country, portray the contributions by those cities to American history. And so it is in Minneapolis as well; in some small way, we played some small part in a television show that remains a part of the American cultural fabric.* The statue's in a temporary location right now, while the Mall is undergoing renovation; throughout the day, people stopped by to pay tribute, laying flowers at the statue's base, having their picture taken tossing their hats in the air. It wasn't a flippant gesture by these people; I suspect she would have enjoyed it.

*Who, for example, can forget the funeral of Chuckles the Clown? 

Outside of her hometown and the neighborhood in which she lived, it's probably no exaggeration to say that nowhere was her death felt as keenly as it was in Minneapolis, a city that could only claim her indirectly. And why not? After all, the lyric of the series' famous theme song, a lyric quoted on the plaque at the base of the statue, asks "Who could turn the world on with her smile?" The world, yes, and also one city that never forgot what she meant to us, what she did for us.


  1. Lovely piece, Mitchell. I was not aware there was such a bond between MTM and her fictional hometown. Makes me want to visit!

    1. Come in the summer, David - we'll not only show you around, we'll let you bunk in our guest room! We'll have a great time!

  2. Looks like you'll be doing another post soon. Mike Connors (Mannix) has also passed away.

    1. MANNIX started up again in reruns on Me-TV at the beginning of this year, so I've been watching a few of the episodes where Joe Mannix played an employee of a detective agency called Intertect, with Joe Campenella, still living and a bit older than Connors, as his boss. As this first season, Joe went into business for himself with the late Peggy Fisher as his secretary.

      I'm not sure if this was planned or not, but this morning Me-TV reran a 1997 episode of DIAGNOSIS MURDER which had Connors as Joe Mannix, solving an unsolved murder left over from a 1973 MANNIX episode. 3 actors from the MANNIX episode came back as the same characters, and another character, a girl at the time, came back as a grown woman. Beverly Garland & Dawn Lyn, mother & daughter on the later seasons of MY THREE SONS, both appeared in the MANNIX episode but probably didn't have any scenes together then. Garland reappeared on DIAGNOSIS MURDER as her MANNIX character, but Lyn's character, the girl from MANNIX, was played by a different actress as a woman.

    2. MeTV has been running Diagnosis: Murder in original broadcast order since starting it up last year, so the Mannix 'belated crossover' was going to be on anyway.
      Why it didn't occur to the Me Gang to pull up the Mannix ep and run them back-to-back - maybe down the line some time ...

      This just in:
      Barbara Hale just passed on at 94.
      We have a Rule-Of-Three, and we're not out of January yet!
      As the old Chicago Tribune humor column almost said:
      Maybe The Year Will Get Better ...

    3. Sadly, you're right, YIH - I'll have that one up on Wednesday.

      Jon - those first-season episodes are fun, aren't they? They're seldom remembered in comparison to the other seven seasons, but I did like his interaction with Joe Campanella.

      Mike - my mother used to say the same thing about the rule-of-three. I can imagine who that third one might be, but I hope I'm wrong...

    4. Uhhh, Mitch ...

      (1) Mary Tyler Moore.
      (2) Mike Connors.
      (3) Barbara Hale.
      And the last two weren't even on the tabloid deathwatch. ("Sad Last Days")
      Anyway, that's the Rule-Of-Three.
      (Who were you thinking of?)

    5. Pardon the interruption (whilst you're rewriting your Wednesday piece to include Barbara Hale)
      (... and hoping against hope that nobody else cashes in between now and post time):

      I can't help but notice that Mr. Connors and Ms. Hale have not achieved all that much notice (or that many notices) on the misnamed "social media".
      I'm back to that time a few years back when it fell to me to tell you of the passing of Ed Nelson, in the wake of some more recently known celebrities.
      Whoever wrote "Absence makes the heart grow fonder" plainly is now out of date.
      Exhibit A being that I don't recall who it was who wrote it ...

  3. Interesting piece on the close tie the MTM show had to Minneapolis. I have a different perspective to that. I was a big fan of the MTM show (well, for the show and that whole great CBS Saturday night lineup) and was living in my hometown of Pittsburgh, PA during it's first run.

    The MTM episode "The System" first aired January 11, 1975. The synopsis was: "Ted invents a system for the weekly football pool that works and Lou goes in with him until the Superbowl." It was a timely episode because the next day, Sunday, January 12, 1975, was Super Bowl IX which pitted the Minnesota Vikings against ("my") Pittsburgh Steelers. If I recall correctly (I haven't seen this episode in awhile and don't own that season on DVD) during the episode they have the Vikings winning the Super Bowl. As a 13 year old viewer at the time (and a big Steeler fan) I wasn't too happy with that outcome. But, during the end credits Mary did a voiceover reminding the audience "This was a work of fiction, but if the Vikings did win the next day, "remember, you heard it first at WJM".

    Of course, I ended up happy the next day, so in my mind, I forgave the show. :)

  4. Error. The "open tonight" sign was on Donaldson's department store, not Dayton's. Mary was not on the Nicollet Mall for the hat toss but on 7th Street just east of Nicollet Mall with Donaldson's behind her.


Thanks for writing! Drive safely!