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Woodinville's Richard Sanders talks about "WKRP in Cincinnati"
Seattle Times DVD writer
Baby, if you ever wondered when "WKRP in Cincinnati" would finally hit DVD, you're not alone. Long one of the most requested, conspicuously absent titles, its first season is out this week (Fox, $39.98).
But while the sitcom radio station's mascot was a carp, some fans might be thinking WKRAP when they notice that rock music originally used in the show is missing — for the same reason the classic 1978 series took so long to arrive on disc: licensing costs for the songs were too high.
For perspective on all of this, I turned to eminent newsman Les Nessman, aka Richard Sanders, now 66 and residing in Woodinville. We watched the immortal "Turkeys Away" episode, in which a promotional gimmick results in a turkey holocaust that drives Les even closer to insanity than he already appeared to be.
Q: Is this the most popular episode?
A: Yeah, I think by far. And it helped us a lot, too, when it was first broadcast. Because no one knew "WKRP." They kept putting it in different places. They put it on Halloween night, but they ran it after "M*A*S*H," and "M*A*S*H" had a huge audience, so for the first time people saw the show. I think this show kind of kept us on the air, because suddenly people saw it and they liked it, so they tried to find it.
Q: What was your approach to Les?
A: He was just a stickler for the rules. Everybody else was kind of laid back — certainly Tim [Reid] and Howard [Hesseman], you know, Venus Flytrap and Johnny Fever. He was like the straight arrow. He couldn't believe the station had become rock and roll from what it had been, and he always thought his job was the most important job at the station anyway, because he was in charge of news, sports, weather, traffic and farm reports.
Q: And he was the five-time winner of the Buckeye Newshawk Award, for godsakes.
A: Right. And the Silver Sow Award.
Q: I forgot about the Silver Sow!
A: The coveted Silver Sow award!
Q: Where did the Band-Aids on Les come from?
A: When we were getting ready to shoot the pilot, I was putting this briefcase down backstage and stood up, and there was one of those barn-door lights that has the sides on it. So it sliced open my head! I'm bleeding and all that, and I said "We've got to do the pilot." "No, you've got to go to the hospital." So they rushed me over to the emergency ward and I said, "Don't make stitches." We went back and makeup said they couldn't put makeup on it because it could get infected. So we had to have a bandage.
So Hugh Wilson, the creator of the show, said, "We'll put a big bandage on, and then a couple of days pass and we'll have a smaller bandage on as the show goes on." And we put a line in to cover it like he fell down on the way to work, but they cut it out later in editing. So it wasn't explained. So we had this pilot with the guy with the bandage on with no explanation. So I said "That's perfect! Every week I'll come out with a different injury."
Q: How about the tape for your imaginary office walls?
A: The first time we showed that big bullpen where everybody had their desks, we figured that Les would be isolated some sort of way. So Hugh said we could tape off his desk. More and more it became everybody else had to establish the walls, the door and everything, and he was very particular who he would let in and out, and how they'd come and approach that room. Like Mr. Carlson had to knock and everything but Jennifer could even almost pretend it's not there.
Q: Speaking of Jennifer, with Loni Anderson around, were you constantly having to pick up your jaw?
A: Well, Loni was extremely nice all the time, was easy to work with, always showed up with her stuff together. The only time she couldn't do that is if she had an interview or something, if they were calling her away. But she was very professional. I've worked with people who were supposedly bombshell types or whatever, and they didn't show up, didn't know what they were doing, or they would avoid coming to work and it was a real pain. But Loni was always there and always nice to work with.
Q: Lotta guys with halfway unbuttoned shirts here.
A: Yeah. That's late '70s, right? The show started in '78, when we started filming it. A lot of people, especially Gary [Sandy]. You know Gary was always very particular about making sure his shirt looked good — and his hair.
Q: When wearing a leisure suit, how important is it for belt and shoes to match?
A: The costume department had a lot of fun with Herb — Frank Bonner played Herb — because they could make up these outlandish outfits. I think one of the lines was once, he looked like the back seat of a Volkswagen.
Q: What runs through your mind when you see yourself from that long ago?
A: Well, I think I was much thinner then.
Q: What are your memories of the late Gordon Jump?
A: Gordon was a very nice man. He was like our father figure, you know? We would go to Gordon for advice, and he would cook lasagna sometimes in his dressing room. His dressing room had a kitchen in it, because it used to be Mary Tyler Moore's dressing room. They used this same set.
Q: Did you bust up very often on set?
A: Doing the show? Not a whole lot. We really tried to go through. Occasionally something would happen. I was in a scene with Howard — it's supposed to be snowing outside the window and the snow machine, suddenly snow was snowing inside the office. [Laughs.] So we kind of looked at each other: "It's snowing in here!" So we had to stop. Certain things like that would slow us up, but we tried make it just like a show. We tried to keep it tight so the audience would stay with us.
Q: Do you think people will notice the missing music?
A: I think in certain shows it's going to be sorely missed because that was the thing that made it different than any other show about radio that had ever been on. We used actual music at the time, the music that everybody was listening to at the time — and sometimes before they were listening to it. It became almost like a radio station. Record companies would send us copies of their new releases and people would listen and decide.
A lot of times, Tim and Howard would choose the music they wanted to use and the writers would try to work around that. Sometimes songs would come out that people hadn't heard and they would become popular as a result of that. And because it was playing up-to-date music, then the disc jockeys all around the country the next day would talk about the show because they would talk about the music, too. So it really helped, hugely.
Q: Times sure have changed. Johnny Fever got fired from his previous job for saying "booger" on the air. Imus doesn't know how good he had it.
A: [Laughing.] Right, right. That was the big thing to say back, you know. Booger! And when he said that, the audience screamed. Not because it was shocking in those times, but the situation was funny.
Q: Do people say "Chi Chi Rodriguez" (as Les pronounced it, CHAI-CHAI ROD-RI-GWEEZ) when they see you?
A: Oh yeah. Chi Chi Rodriguez. Yeah, that was a big one, especially if I get around golfers. And I always expected sooner or later, because you always run into a lot of people, I think I almost ran into him once. I just wanted to ask him and apologize to him for making fun of his name and I hope he realized it was OK. I hope he didn't feel badly because of that.
Q: How do you feel about always being associated with Les?
A: Well, it's like the agent says when they call you up to say, "OK, the good news is you've got a series. The bad news is you've got a series."
Mark Rahner: 206-464-8259 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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