Lessons From Late ‘60s TV


by Dawn McElligott

When I was a little girl, “I Dream of Jeannie” was THE show to watch. It had been conjured up as a competitor to ‘Bewitched” on ABC. But it was more fun. Jeannie was single, whereas Samantha was weighed down with motherly concerns. Jeannie was lively and enthusiastic. If her roommate, Major Nelson yelled at her she could turn into smoke and escape into her bottle. I loved her bottle. She felt safe there. The décor was exotic and uniquely her own.

The imaginative show inspired me to be a writer so I watched TV actively. I was always looking to see how shows were made in contrast to the children at school. They had lunchboxes advertising TV shows that I assumed they watched passively.

As soon as I learned to read I scanned the credits of “I Dream of Jeannie” and saw that it had been created by Sidney Sheldon. I inferred that for Sheldon’s name to be in the credits he had to have done much more than mutter “Why not a show about a genie?”

He must have also laid out a blueprint (later on I’d learn it’s a “bible”) in which a setting was suggested, recurring conflicts identified and characters had been created. It was a relief to know that as a writer, bibles would keep me from having to reinvent the wheel every week. The challenge was to come up with something fresh each week while still leaving everyone in pretty much the same predicament, hence the term “situation comedy.”

But I knew I had to grow up first so this wasn’t going to happen until 1982 or so. I began to worry: What happens if all the good ideas had been taken already before my arrival in Hollywood?! The thought filled me with dread.

My fears were greatly alleviated by discovering another late ‘60s TV series. Even as a five-year old I surmised that it was born out of a cheap camera trick: People in the foreground were made to look much smaller than their antagonists in the background: You guessed it, “LAND OF THE GIANTS.” (LOTG) Once a week my family gathered around the TV set to see the adventures of people created by Irwin Allen as they fought against people much larger than themselves.

A whole dictatorship thing was written up to add context and the conflict was happening in the far off year of 1983. The basic premise seemed contrived and the overall feel was campy. I wondered how it ever got green-lighted and why anyone else wanted to see it. However if my family gathered around the TV to watch it, then millions of other families did the same thing, which meant millions of dollars in advertising revenue!

To me, this meant that even if an unthinkable 12 years had to go by before I could get to Los Angeles, there’d still be a chance for me.

In hindsight, “LOTG” had certain charms that may have appealed to GI Generation parents like my own. Perhaps it connected to them emotionally. My parents had grown up in the 1930s when dictators were amassing power in Germany and Italy, obligating my father to fight in World War II. The threat of dictatorship was not at all absurd to them.

As far as being endangered by giants, my parents’ generation might have felt that they were now being dominated by their own offspring; baby boomers were taking over the culture at an alarming pace.

The lesson from “Land of the Giants” is that a show I don’t find appealing may seem quite promising to another. Were I to write a pilot and create a bible ,my intense self- criticism might relegate it to my sock drawer. However, with insights gained from “LOTG,” I’m more likely to show it to others. They might find value in it and with some touch-ups, I could submit my pilot and bible to the right people.

Often on the playground, when everyone else’s lunchboxes were on display I would wish, “If I could get a “LOTG” lunchbox , then I’d have a tangible reminder that sometimes, dreams do come true.” I would never tell anybody why I wanted it. Little girls in upstate New York didn’t talk about going to Hollywood. Today, elementary schools have TV studios and children give the weather report “on the air.” I was ahead of my time.

I wanted to develop a backup profession first, build a nest egg and write scripts in my spare time. If my parents objected to my showbiz ambitions it would be their problem. I’d be on my own financially. First I had to find a profession. That’s where “ROOM 222” came in. I loved seeing Karen Valentine inspiring teenagers to learn and to do their best work. I wanted to be that fun teacher who had trouble getting off the bus! (See opening credits).

French seemed like a better language to teach than English, the French degree being quite rare. Later, I would learn that it’s a rare degree because it seldom pays off. French teaching positions would prove difficult to obtain and when I worked it was only as a long-term substitute for another teacher.

My difficulties with foreign language teaching are beyond the scope of this article. Suffice to say that I was like many writers; well educated but failing at various day jobs. It’s a good thing my courses in both French and English pointed out numerous examples of writers who failed at everything until they wrote their winning piece.

Saving up to move to Los Angeles was difficult enough, but an article in Script magazine made me feel even more discouraged. Veteran writer, Larry Gelbart penned a scathing critique of Hollywood’s collective refusal to hire anyone writers over 25.

I hadn’t even left the East Coast and I was too already too old. ‘Fabulous, ‘I thought, ‘ I took time off to establish financial independence and for being a responsible human being, I’ve set myself up for age discrimination. ‘

By 1999, I’d saved up enough money to at least spend two weeks exploring the City of the Angels. I booked a flight through Priceline and flew out in June. I rented a tiny, little Kia Sephia and drove around. My first day in Los Angeles felt like the first day of my life. It was glorious. I could breathe. After making arrangements on the East Coast, I returned to the Golden State to live there in late July, 2000.

I worked day and night to afford a one-bedroom apartment in Anaheim. I kept telling myself to write while I lived on the West Coast but old fears caused me to make endless excuses.

The September 11th attacks, of course, changed the world forever. In addition to the lives lost, the California economy was ruined. I was no longer able to stay in the Golden State. I returned to my parents’ house on the East Coast to figure out the next step. I worked during the day as a reporter for the local tabloid and other publications.

During the past 14 years, I’ve been workshopping scripts through TVWriter.com for the feedback from LB and the rest of our classes. It also gives me regular deadlines, keeping me from postponing my writing into eternity. My first script, “Song of the Cosmos” was a semifinalist in Spec Scriptacular. The second and third scripts, “The Fool of Muncaster” and *“Lady of the Lake” were finalists in the same contests. *(LOTL was a finalist in last year’s SS and not so lucky this year.)

In 2011 I resolved to earn a Master of Arts degree in French to teach at the college level. To that end, I moved to an exurb of Philadelphia and enrolled at West Chester University. Something was different. I was able to earn much higher grades as a graduate student than I had during my undergraduate years. Maybe it was my work experience, life experience or even my high placements in Spec Scriptacular. One way or another, I felt much more confidence and graduated with honors.

During my last semester, I began shooting footage for a short documentary about my newly adopted town of Oxford, PA. I intended it for MiND TV, a not-for-profit broadcasting company in Philadelphia. The company solicits 5-minute videos from viewers, reviews them and broadcasts them. I’d interviewed five community leaders on camera, and shot b-roll footage.

I attended one of MiND TV’s one-day video production boot camps. I finished the Oxford video and sent it in. Alas, my five-minute documentary was not accepted. They wanted a lot more b-roll footage. I shot more and added it in.

Again it was rejected. They made more suggestions and on the third try, it was accepted for broadcast. MiND TV posted it on Youtube and began broadcasting it on TV in the summer of 2014. The station reaches an estimated 9 million households on the East Coast.

As far as day jobs go, I’m still struggling. My current gig is teaching Spanish part-time at a local community college. I am searching for a second job to work around the teaching position and starting my own business. I’m launching my own video production company where I’ll tape business owners, letting them tell their one-minute story to be posted on their websites.

Beyond my endless struggle to pay basic bills, I found time to do a second video. This time it was about my newest adopted municipality: Downingtown, PA. My second video was accepted on the first submission to MiND TV. The company has not, as of this writing, advised me when its first broadcast will be but I’m still glad to see it’s been accepted.

I’ve pursued a career in television all my life. It has been, like the song says “the unreachable star.” Yet I keep trying because “LOTG” taught me that what may seem worthless to some may be worth literally millions to others. I view age discrimination and other obstacles as bad weather. It’s better to carry an umbrella than to stay home because it’s raining.