Saturday, 1 October 2016

Beth Howland: Alice’s sidekick

Beth Howland in her signature role
as waitress Vera in the 1980s sitcom "Alice"
It was a Sunday night staple on peasant vision, that had a special place in my heart. For years, the weekend ended at 10 p.m. Sunday night with the sitcom “Alice” on Channel 7.

I found out recently that Beth Howland, who played Vera, one of the waitresses in Mel's Diner, had died. It brought back memories of those Sunday nights

Sunday night special
The show was set in a roadside, truck-stop style restaurant called “Mel’s Diner” in Phoenix, Arizona. It centred on the life of Alice Hyatt, played by Linda Lavin, a single mother who takes a job as a waitress.

She worked for owner and cook Mel Sharples, played by Vic Tayback, who was a grouch but had a soft heart deep under all that fastfood grease. He also had a love-hate relationship with his mother played by Martha Raye. As much as he growled at her, she would growl back, and they definitely loved each other.

The show was set almost exclusively at the diner, chronicling the exploits of Alice, her son Tommy, Mel, their co-workers, and frequent customers. The waitresses kept changing. There was Flo, who eventually got her own show, then Belle, played by Diane Ladd, and Jolene, played by Celia Weston. Through all those changes was the dim-witted but loveable Vera.

Vera was definitely the comic foil, who really was not that bright, but had the heart of gold. Mel even called her "Dingy". One of my outstanding memories of Vera was the way she danced up a storm in a sequence in the opening credits, and had a pack of straws explode all over her in another.

The original waitresses from "Alice". From left are Polly Holliday
as Flo; Beth Howlnd as Vera; and Linda Lavin as Alice
Durable sitcom
Beth Howland played Vera the entire nine years of the show, from 1976 to 1985. Vera would go on to marry her boyfriend Elliott, and in the finale, she was pregnant and quit to be a full-time mother.

For years, “Alice” was also part of a powerhouse Sunday night line-up on CBS on cable that included “The Jeffersons”; “Archie Bunker’s Place”; and “One Day at a Time”.

The years after
Beth Howland was best known as Vera, but she also would have guest spots on shows in the 1980s such as “Fantasy Island” and “The Love Boat”, where seemingly every sitcom actor had a guest spot.

The full original cast of "Alice". From left are Polly Holliday
as Flo; Vic Tayback as Mel; Linda Lavin as Alice;
and Beth Howland as Vera; with Phillip
McKeon in front as Tommy, Alice's son
She was married to Charles Kimbrough, another sitcom actor of the 1980s. He played venerable news anchor Jim Dial on “Murphy Brown”. They were married from 2002 until Howland’s death on the last day of 2015.

Parting thoughts
“Alice” always had a special place in my heart, because Alice is also my mom’s name. I recall when my mom and I would talk about what was on TV that particular night, I would say, “Your show.” She would act confused, and ask which one? She always laughed when I said, “Alice”.

I also loved the theme music, which was sung by Linda Lavin, who played the title character “Alice”. In fact, Alice was actually a singer who, at the end of the series, finally got her big break with a recording contract. That's why she quit at Mel's Diner.

When I was a kid, my brother had left behind an old tape deck when he went off to college. It was his first tape deck, made of wood, and just massive. He set it up for me, and I often would tape stuff straight off TV. One of the things I recall recording was the theme from “Alice”.

When “Alice” was on Sunday nights at 10 p.m. on Channel 7, it was the last show before getting ready for another week of school.

As the minutes ticked down, I realized that school was just a few hours away. “Alice" signaled the end of the weekend and the beginning of a new week, which ended with the next episode of “Alice”.