Star-Spangled Nights

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(Pictured: Michael Conrad, Tina Louise, and Fred Grandy in a 1973 episode of Love American Style.)

The Decades Network does a binge every weekend, with continuous episodes of a single series. Last weekend, it was Love American Style, which anchored ABC’s legendary Friday night lineup of the early 70s, along with The Brady Bunch, The Partridge Family, Room 222, and The Odd Couple.

(Digression: Love American Style premiered on Mondays in September 1969 and moved to Fridays in January 1970. That classic Friday lineup didn’t fall into place until September 1971, and it lasted two seasons. Other shows that ran on ABC Friday nights during Love American Style‘s heyday included The Flying Nun, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, Here Come the Brides, Nanny and the Professor, and That Girl.)

We didn’t watch Love American Style at our house regularly. We either went off to bed around that time, or were watching or doing other things. But it was hard to miss, because ABC ran it on weekday afternoons between 1971 and 1974. If nothing else, its theme song would have been familiar because it frequently appeared in ABC promos.

(Digression: during the first season of Love American Style, the theme was performed by the Cowsills. After that, it was billed to the Charles Fox Singers, who were actually the Ron Hicklin Singers, who were among the busiest performers in Hollywood, doing advertising and radio jingles and studio backup gigs. They also provided all of the Partridge Family voices not belonging to Shirley Jones and David Cassidy. Charles Fox was the prolific composer of the theme music, and of dozens of other  pieces of music you know. The opening of the show, with its fireworks and heart-shaped graphics featuring head shots of the episodes’ stars, is one of the most iconic in all of 70s TV.)

Love American Style was an anthology series.  Apart from the Love American Style players, a handful of actors who appeared in short vignettes that often opened or closed the show, there was no regular cast. Each episode contained at least two and sometimes three separate stories. Nearly every familiar TV face of the 60s and 70s did a Love American Style at some point; the shows are also heavy on actors who appeared on other ABC shows of the time. Given that the stories ran maybe 20 minutes at the outside and were often shot on one set—and also considering how flimsy the plots sometimes were—it couldn’t have taken more than a day or two to make them. And so it must have been a fairly easy paycheck: any halfway decent Hollywood veteran could have done a Love American Style as easily as falling out of bed.

And in fact, falling out of bed was a Love American Style plot point. The show came along at the height of the sexual revolution, and it must have seemed pretty bold, at least to Mrs. and Mrs. Average American. Practically everybody’s horny, and practically everybody is gettin’ some, or they will be eventually. But looking at it from 50 years’ distance, it’s remarkably chaste. There’s lots of mistaken identity and unfortunate coincidences before people disappear under the covers. And as they do, the scene fades to black and we go to commercial.

Love American Style isn’t an easy thing to binge on. The laugh track is loud, the music cues can be obtrusive, the acting is often broad and silly, and stories based largely on embarrassment of some kind get tiresome after a while. Certain unspoken assumptions are in place for nearly every episode, and they look really sexist 50 years later. Men act as if women are an incomprehensible alien species to be placated by any means necessary. Women, whether married or single, are played as either befuddled and shy or slinky and tempting. (In one episode we saw, Sandra Dee played both, as a woman with two personalities.)

Watching a few episodes of one of the lightest of lightweight 70s TV shows isn’t the same as doing deep cultural anthropology, but it seemed to open a door or two. Beyond gender politics, Love American Style reveals a lot about how the early 7os looked: fashion, hairstyles, home decor, the cars we drove, etc. That stuff isn’t an exaggeration: it’s very much the way it really was.

11 thoughts on “Star-Spangled Nights

  1. “Men act as if women are an incomprehensible alien species”
    I remember this attitude as seeming quite common when I was a boy. It seems to be much less common today, thankfully (although my intake of current pop culture is limited, so perhaps I have it wrong).

  2. Willie

    “Love and the Television Set” (later retitled “Love and the Happy Days”) was arguably the most famous episode of Love, American Style which aired on ABC-TV on February 25, 1972. The only Happy Days series regulars who appeared in this episode were Ron Howard, Marion Ross, and Anson Williams. No Fonz, either. Mr. C was played by Harold Gould.

    1. Yup, that’s pretty much the one thing everybody knows about “Love American Style” if they know anything at all. It was one of the episodes we saw last weekend, and it’s nothing special. ABC passed on it as a pilot in 1972, but after Ron Howard starred in “American Graffiti” and the movie became a big hit, the network took a second look at it and bought it then.

  3. I was 13 when “Love American Style” debuted—-in exactly the right hormonal zone.

    Of course, the show would be a much bigger success a few years later, when they put the vignettes into a format that included a regular cast of characters to anchor it—-and called it “The Love Boat”.

  4. Gary Omaha

    I never was a fan of the laugh track. If the show isn’t “filmed in front of a live audience” just who is supposed to be laughing? I know, I know, it’s to encourage viewers at home to laugh along. But boy does it sound hokey! Thankfully, many current shows — at least those not “filmed in front of a live audience” — have omitted the dreaded laugh track.

  5. SteveE

    One episode I remember enjoying showcased Rich Little. He played (yes) an impressionist named Jackie who is full of confidence offstage as long as he’s still doing impressions. In the episode, his new girlfriend is trying to get to know him, but he keeps slipping into Kirk Douglas and Erroll Flynn and other he-men. Only when she makes it clear that she wants to see the real Jackie beneath the facade does she learn that he is shy, lacking in confidence and dull. She decides she’d rather be with “Kirk Douglas” and the others, and he reverts to his full confidence and it fades out.

  6. John Gallagher

    I always preferred the Ron Hicklin singers version of the show open. I also preferred the vocal versions of the That Girl show open and close. But, that’s another story.

  7. Wesley

    The original idea for the show, according to TV Guide, was that a story would start with a pair or two of lovers, then one of them would appear in the next playlet (I think they called it that), as would another and so on. The promiscuous theme didn’t sit well with ABC executives, who told the producers to refashion it instead.

    Love American Style nearly was cancelled when it debuted in 1969 when it was up against NBC Monday Night at the Movies and The Carol Burnett Show. ABC moved it to Fridays midseason where it flourished until the fall of 1973, where the lousy lead-in of Adam’s Rib combined with huge ratings for The CBS Friday Night Movie (it got great ratings for showing Planet of the Apes movies, for one thing) led Love American Style to be unceremoniously cancelled midway through the 1973-74 season.

  8. Paul Harner

    With shows from the 60s and 70s, laugh tracks play a role in the personality of the series, like an actor. While unintentional, it’s almost a molecular bond now. Especially the Paul Henning/Jay Sommers shows like The Beverly Hillbillies and Green Acres.

    It’s also extremely likely that all of the people recorded on said laugh tracks are dead now.

  9. If my memory serves me correctly, some “Love, American Style” shows had just two episodes within the show. You could tell by the number of guests starring in the show during the opening credits if they would have 3 or 2.

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