Over the years, the set designers reused and
reupholstered Mary's furnishings, as would have been done in
real life. The chair shown served TMTMS from first episode
A space you wouldn’t trade: Mary Richards’ apartment on The Mary Tyler Moore
by Sandy McLendon
How a Hollywood set became the apartment of everyone’s dreams.
YOU’VE never been in it, but you know every inch of it. You saw it grow and
change over the years, and you were a little sad to leave it. Like millions
of other TV viewers, you love the Minneapolis studio apartment of Mary Richards,
and you feel it’s as much a part of your life as any "real" place
you’ve ever been.
The Richards apartment on TMTMS is one of the most
famous rooms ever built in America. One of the finest examples of a sitcom set
ever designed, it was the first of a new breed, and the standard it set is the
one sitcom set designers try to meet to this day.
The history of the apartment begins in January of 1970, nearly
nine months before The Mary Tyler Moore Show debuted on CBS. Its genesis
was in a 21 pp. "treatment" of the show written by James L. Brooks
and Allan Burns. The treatment was a rough version of the first episode viewers
would see in September, and it contained all the elements that Brooks and Burns
meant to establish as part of the series. The very first words of the treatment
were a description of the Minneapolis apartment where Mary Richards’ story would
begin; the most striking thing in it was a mention of the huge, sunny window
that would become so well-remembered.
Once the treatment was accepted by the network, TMTMS was
put on a fast track for development. In less than nine months, those 21 sheets
of paper turned into a cast, a crew, a production company, a soundstage full
of sets, and a number of highly polished, completed episodes delivered to CBS.
What happened along the way was amazing.
The set for Mary’s apartment was one of the most complex requirements
for the show. Not only did it have to be attractive, it had to show what kind
of person Mary Richards was, and it had to meet the numerous technical requirements
of sitcom filming. The design process began with a piece of good luck: the show
was set in Minneapolis, and the location scouts sent to find places that could
be filmed for the show came back with a bonanza. Minneapolis had beautiful parks,
a handsome downtown, and an up-to-date skyscraper (Midwest Federal Savings &
Loan) that could house WJM-TV.
Best of all, the city had a lot of picturesque turn-of-the-century
houses that could be chosen from, to represent the apartment house Mary supposedly
lived in. One candidate stood out above all the rest: a huge Victorian at 2104
Kenwood Parkway had exactly the kind of prominent window mentioned by Brooks
and Burns, and was highly photogenic. Its gingerbread and turrets made it perfect,
and arrangements were made with its owner to do location filming there.
The filming done at 2104 was of exteriors only, like the opening
credits shots of Mary Tyler Moore driving up to the house in a white Mustang.
As perfect as the house looked from the outside, there was a secret indoors.
Behind the window that would soon become so famous, there was, and is to this
day, nothing but an unfinished attic area. The window was measured and photographed
closely, however, so that it could be duplicated back at CBS Studio Center’s
Stage Two. With all this location material in hand, design and construction
of Mary’s apartment could proceed.
The team that made Mary’s apartment a soundstage reality were
TMTMS art director Lewis E. Hurst, Jr, set decorator Raymond Boltz, and
coordinator of set construction Lloyd Apperson. Of the three, Boltz would have
the greatest impact on what viewers saw; his work gave the show the visual style
it would become known for.
The design of the set centred around the window; Lloyd Apperson
duplicated it precisely, down to the iron railing on its balcony. The rest of
the apartment was designed around the needs of shooting and story points mentioned
in the script. The rent for the apartment—$130 a month—meant that it could not
be too fancy. Unlike other sitcoms in 1970, TMTMS was meant to be realistic;
there would be no excesses like the fancy house Lucille Ball couldn’t really
have afforded on a bank clerk’s salary in Here’s Lucy. The apartment
was conceived as a large studio, with a small kitchenette and a walk-through
closet leading to the bathroom area. The detailing chosen was in keeping with
the Victorian architecture of the real house at 2104 Kenwood Parkway, with elaborate
mouldings, and a brick chimney rising through the space. The paneling of beaded
boards gave texture to the walls, and an ornate Franklin stove evoked Minneapolis
winters and lent visual interest.
As realistic as all these choices were, the set had many features
designed solely to facilitate filming. One was something that would never have
been found in a real attic space: a sunken area in the living room. This gave
two levels to the set, making it more interesting when actors made entrances
and exits, as well as making it possible for every actor to be seen during Mary’s
infamous parties. Shag carpeting concealed the tape marks used to position actors
for camera moves. Another filming requirement was the height of the back wall—nearly
20 ft. This made it possible for the camera to pull back far enough to show
the entire set and yet not reveal the overhead lighting used in TV filming.
The kitchenette was especially complex. The small space was hard to light and
shoot in, so it was given a stained-glass window that could be raised or lowered
to reveal or conceal it. If the space was not needed in a particular episode,
the window could be lowered, saving the entire cost of lighting the area. To
facilitate camera placement in kitchenette scenes, the wall behind the sink
was "wild", meaning that it looked real and solid, but could be unbolted
and removed to allow over-the-sink shots, such as the ones seen in the episode
‘Toulouse-Lautrec Is One of My Favorite Artists’.
Outside the window was an exterior set that was a technical
marvel. It showed housetops across the street, and treetops outside the balcony.
The trees were left bare for winter scenes, but artificial leaves were wired
to them to represent other seasons. Unseen machinery could create snow or rain,
and special lighting could duplicate outdoor lighting at any hour of the day
or night, and any time of the year.
The real genius of the set was in the way it was dressed:
Raymond Boltz’s choices for furnishings and accessories defined Mary Richards
nearly as much as Mary Tyler Moore’s acting did. The room was anchored by two
items meant to establish Mary as a solid person: an expensive new hide-a-bed
in brown velvet, and a French provincial armoire that was the sort of thing
a young career woman would buy as a lifetime investment.
Mary’s budget constraints were symbolized by some furnishings
that could have been found in thrift shops and yard sales; these included a
set of pressed-oak Victorian dining chairs, a sheet-music cabinet by the front
door, and a pair of low upholstered chairs. A "with it" touch was
the mod wicker chair by the window, with a little space-age lamp next to it
on a table. A small desk was one Mary could have used as a child. Practicality
was lent by a semainier (a French lingerie chest) next to the closet
door, ready to hold scarves and underthings. On the right wall of the room,
Mary’s love of Country French was restated by a lavabo mounted on a walnut plaque.
Her free spirit was expressed with the famous letter ‘M’ supposedly salvaged
from a demolished building, and a wall-mounted jewellery chest offered practical
storage for desk accessories.
Mary’s education and intelligence were evident in her poster
version of artist Ben Shahn’s January 18th to February 12th. Second-hand
plates and mugs decorated a plate rail over the kitchenette’s pass-through,
showing that Mary could create beauty on a budget. Pillows, throws, and plants
gave comfort to Mary and her guests. Mary’s luggage – white Samsonite with French
filets in gold—showed her femininity. One touch that was appreciated by the
cast and crew was the pumpkin-shaped cookie jar; the prop men kept it stocked
with real cookies for rehearsal snacking.
The apartment set was successful from the beginning, but small
improvements and changes were made over the years to make it even better. The
window was double-hung in the first season, but it was changed to a French-door
arrangement the next year, so actors could get to the balcony easily. More steps
were added to improve access between the two levels of the set. And each year,
the changes that would have been seen in a real person’s apartment were made
to furnishings and accessories. The wicker chair by the window was replaced
with a skirted round table flanked by two French provincial chairs, and a baker’s
rack full of plants replaced the sheet-music cabinet. The lavabo migrated to
the wall behind the Franklin stove, and the Ben Shahn poster was replaced with
one by Toulouse-Lautrec.
Real-life events forced a change to the practice of using
2104 Kenwood Parkway for exterior shots. The owner had cooperated in the early
years, but public response to the show meant she had become overrun with discourteous
people demanding to see the house. To regain her privacy, and to make it impossible
for the TMTMS location crew to do any further filming there, the owner hung
a huge ‘Impeach Nixon’ banner from the balcony. The situation was resolved by
building a miniature house resembling 2104 for use in filming future exterior
scenes. Night-time lighting concealed the subterfuge.
By the time the sixth season was being planned, director Jay
Sandrich decided that the set had run its course. Mary Richards was getting
more successful, and could afford an apartment with a bedroom. It was also felt
that perhaps new neighbours could help the writers spin more new plots. This
never really worked out, aside from a few memorable appearances by Penny Marshall
and Mary Kay Place.
Despite the all-new set, the designers maintained realism
by reusing almost all of the furnishings and accessories from the former apartment.
Pieces were refinished and reupholstered, exactly as they would have been in
real life, and some items were "demoted" to use in Mary’s new bedroom.
Although attractive, the new apartment was never quite as successful as the
old. The living room was narrower and darker than before, and the lack of the
multiple levels found in the previous set meant that entrances and exits looked
Today, 27 years after it was demolished, Mary Richards’ first
apartment still exists in 122 episodes of The Mary Tyler Moore Show,
where it’s forever new and fresh. The one element of the set still around is
that letter ‘M’. Mary Tyler Moore owns it to this day. Whenever we see the set,
we all feel it’s "our" apartment; a place where we can make it after
all, a place where we can entertain dates, a place where we can have friends
over for Veal Prince Orloff. If we could rent 119 North Weatherly, Apartment
D, we wouldn’t change a thing.
Well, maybe the parties. Sandy McLendon
N.B.: 2104 Kenwood Parkway is a famous landmark in Minneapolis even today; tourist
guidebooks and bus tours make it easy to see if you’re in town. The house is
a private residence, not open to the public. If you visit, please enjoy the
house from the sidewalk or the street; walking onto the property is trespassing
and an invasion of the residents’ privacy.
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Shopping 119 North Weatherly
Some of Mary Richards’ favourite things can be yours, if you know
where to look. Here’s a guide to buying the items that can give
your life that TMTMS touch.
The Ben Shahn poster seen in the first season is available through
on Ben Shahn and look in the selections shown for the
title January 18th to February 12th.
The Toulouse-Lautrec poster seen in later seasons is another Allposters
selection. Search on Toulouse-Lautrec and look in the
selections shown for the title Jane Avril.
Pressed-oak dining chairs like Mary had are fashionable again.
Currently, many furniture stores carry them from a wide selection
of manufacturers in all price ranges. To get the look inexpensively,
you can get very good versions from Big Lots.
Baker’s racks are another easy find; check with nearly any
furniture store. They also turn up in thrift stores regularly,
but used ones are often rusted. A little spray paint will fix
Pier One is the place to get a wicker chest like the one Mary
used as a coffee table, but different versions are offered from
time to time. If you don’t find one similar to Mary’s right
away, be patient and keep going back.
Armoires cost a fortune new, but companies specializing in hotel
salvage sales often have them at reasonable prices. As a bonus,
armoires made for the hotel business usually are fitted with sliding,
swivelling shelves for TV sets.
The little space-age lamp beside the wicker chair seen in front
of the window in early seasons is known as a Laurel lamp. These
lamps are no longer made, but they turn up on eBay. Search on Laurel
lamp. Be prepared to pay big bucks for one in good condition;
they’re highly sought-after by collectors of 1960s modernism.
Mary’s Samsonite luggage can also be found on eBay. If your find
arrives in scruffy condition, a trip to your local luggage shop
will work miracles. Samsonite still supplies parts for its 1960s1970s
luggage, so no problem there.
The hourglass-shaped glass coffeemaker Mary uses in some episodes
is called a Chemex pot. These are still available in better
kitchenware shops, and on eBay.
Mary’s cute little Sony portable TV turns up on eBay all the time.
Search on Sony BW and you’ll find one within weeks.
Hold out for one in working condition; repairs on vintage electronics
That powder-blue phone Mary had is something else that eBay can
help you own. The search terms to use are blue phone
and blue telephone.
Metlox Potteries made the pumpkin-shaped cookie jar, and even
though the company is out of business, the cookie jar is another
item easily located online by searching eBay for Metlox pumpkin.
Antique fairs and malls sometimes have salvaged architectural
lettering, so you can find your own initial to hang on your wall.
To this day, TMTMS makes "M" the most sought-after
letter, so be prepared to pay well for a nice one resembling the
one on the show.
The Mary Tyler Moore Show web site, www.mtmshow.com.
Allen and Brown: Love Is All Around: the Making
of the Mary Tyler Moore Show. New York: Delta Division of Dell
The Internet Movie Database, www.imdb.com.
Bryars: The Real Mary Tyler Moore. New
York: Pinnacle Books 1976.
About the author
Sandy McLendon is a freelance writer whose career includes a real-life
reminder of The Mary Tyler Moore Show. For six years, he
was a cooking teacher like Sue Ann Nivens; he can sling Veal Prince
Orloff with the best of them. Magazines in which his work has appeared
include Modernism and Old House Interiors. He lives