One Night at the Firehouse

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(Pictured: L to R, Richard Pryor, Lou Gossett, David Cassidy, Shirley Jones, and Susan Dey in a still from “Soul Club.”)

I found this post in the archives the other day. 

January 29, 1971: The Partridge Family is in its first season, part of ABC’s fondly remembered Friday night lineup. The family’s #1 hit, “I Think I Love You,” is still on the radio, and in another week their followup single, “Doesn’t Somebody Want to Be Wanted,” will bubble under on its way into the Hot 100 and eventually, the Top 10.

On this particular Friday night, the Partridges have a problem. They’ve been booked into a club in Detroit, but it isn’t the posh hotel ballroom they’re expecting—it’s an old firehouse in a neighborhood they clearly find questionable, even nobody comes right out and says so. They park the bus, they go inside, and after a minute or two, one of the owners of the club slides down the pole. The actor on that pole had been knocking around big-time showbiz since his first network TV appearance in 1964. He appeared several times on The Ed Sullivan Show doing Cosby-style standup, nothing like the revolutionary character-based material that would make him a household name beginning in 1974.

In the Partridge episode “Soul Club,” Richard Pryor and Lou Gossett play brothers who have opened the Firehouse as a neighborhood social club where “our people” can meet and hang out. They were expecting the Temptations to perform, but a booking agent screwup sent the Temps to Tucson and the Partridges to Detroit. Neighborhood boss Heavy, from whom Pryor and Gossett have borrowed the money to start up, is the one who orchestrated said screwup, and he threatens to call their note.

While hanging out in the club office (decorated with a Jimi Hendrix poster and one for famed California underground radio station KPPC), the Partridges get an idea: a block party, at which they’ll play, in hopes of making enough money to keep the club afloat. Keith says, “I’ve got an idea for a new song! It’s an Afro thing.” Pryor arranges it for a string section, which Danny recruits from the local Afro-American Cultural Society, and which is intended to stand for the local chapter of the Black Panthers. The block party is a hit (even if Keith’s song, “Bandala,” is about as African as Keith himself), the note is paid, the club is saved, and the Partridges promise to play there again someday. Palms are slapped and awkward soul shakes are exchanged, Danny is made an honorary member of the Afro-American Cultural Society complete with revolutionary black beret, there are laughs all around, and we fade to black.

According to David and Joe Henry, authors of Furious Cool: Richard Pryor and the World That Made Him, “Soul Club” was a backdoor pilot for a future series starring Pryor and Gossett. It’s hard to know how serious the backdoor pilot talk really was. By 1971, the time was surely right for a TV series focused on African-American characters, but a series set in a club that supposedly attracted national acts would be tough to sustain without actually getting some of those acts to appear. (In addition to the Temptations, the name of James Brown is also dropped in “Soul Club.”) At that point, Gossett had more acting experience than Pryor, having previously co-starred in the Revolutionary War series The Young Rebels. Pryor was already earning a certain reputation for trouble. In her autobiography, Shirley Jones remarked that Pryor was “drugged up” during filming. He would return to small TV and movie roles for another three or four years.

TV historian Tom Hill ranks “Soul Club” at #81 on his list of the 100 best TV sitcom episodes of all time. In an era when popular entertainment prized “relevance,” it certainly had that, even while swaddled in a blanket of Hollywood cheese. And it’s one of those grand collisions between pop-culture icons you’d never expect to mention in the same breath.

If you watch, be sure to notice to the way the Black neighborhood is portrayed at first as an alien world, in which the Partridges are meant to stand for the viewer, who is presumed to be a fellow white suburbanite. (The idea of whiteness as the default condition of humanity is textbook white privilege.) “Soul Club”‘s attempt to bridge the gap between the white folks watching and “our people” is the kind of “relevance” that helped move network TV toward more inclusiveness, but it also reveals just how far was left to go in 1971.

5 thoughts on “One Night at the Firehouse

  1. mikehagerty

    Until I clicked the link to watch, I had no memory of that episode at all. But, in fact, I did watch it when it aired the first time.

    In my defense, I was 14 and Susan Dey was on the show.

    There were other kids and there was a bus or something, too, right?

  2. Brian L Rostron

    There are so many bizarre elements of this episode that I caught one time on Antenna TV. One I remember is Danny setting off to find a violin (because nothing screams African rhythms like a string interlude) because he remembered seeing a sign for the Afro-American Cultural Society when they entered the neighborhood and a cultural society has to have violins lying around, right? And didn’t the Partridge Society offer to play at the neighborhood club before the block party idea and nobody showed up? And who drives a school bus from California to Detroit for one gig?

    1. JP

      Considering that several soul hits in 1971 used string sections even more than most white pop hits, that’s not such an unusual concept. But for a neighborhood block party, it might be.

  3. mackdaddyg

    I must admit that “Bandala” is a favorite song of mine. The fact that they elongated it for the tv show by repeating the first verse just made a guilty pleasure even more pleasurable.

    I mean, sure the plot was a bit ludricous, but it was 1971.

  4. JP

    (a) I was tempted to place the blame on manager Reuben Kincaid. The Partridges, on the show, were supposed to be one of the hottest bands going, yet they had a weird gig itinerary. Mostly adult supperclubs with the occasional anomaly, like this firehouse owned by Richard Pryor and Lou Gossett.

    (b) The Partridge Family did deal with racial issues on the show, but it was usually as the punchline to a joke where African-Americans were usually “othered.” Danny suspects he was adopted, so he rings the doorbell of a house he thinks is his real family. A black man answers the door; cue laugh track. Laurie lands a column in a local newspaper, which botches her picture so bad it makes her look, in her estimation, like Al Jolson; cue laugh track. Keith asks Chris and Tracy what they want to be when they grow up; one of them responds, “Negroes.” Laugh track, cut to next scene. And then there was the Pryor-Gossett show under discussion, which is one crude culture clash on top of another. I’m sure the scriptwriters assumed they were breaking new liberal ground for the 70s, but it still came off more stereotypical than anything. Even watching the reruns as a kid, half a decade after they were originally broadcast, I thought this episode and those scenes were kinda f****d up.

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