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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 to last.

A space you wouldn’t trade: Mary Richards’ apartment on The Mary Tyler Moore Show

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 less interesting.
   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.

Art

  • The Ben Shahn poster seen in the first season is available through www.allposters.com. Search 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.

    Furnishings

  • 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 the problem.
  • 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.
  • Accessories

  • 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 1960s–1970s 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 are expensive.
  • 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.

    Sources

  • 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 Publishing 1989.
  • 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 in Atlanta.

     

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      Article copyright ©2002 by Sandy McLendon. Site copyright ©1998–2001 by JY&A Media. All rights reserved. This site is not connected with ABC, News Corp., Twentieth Century-Fox and MTM Enterprises Inc. or their divisions. Site broadcast from San Antonio, Tx.