Do You Remember...?
In an era which has revived nearly every forgotten touchstone of previous decades, there remains one television show that has yet to receive its due. It is hardly spoken of these days, despite the fact that it stayed consistently in the top 10 weekly for seven years. It has been conspicuously absent from syndication, and few of today's TV luminaries speak of it as an influence. However, if it were not for Celebrity Foreclosures!, the groundbreaking game show/docudrama that ran from 1976 to 1982, it is doubtful that television, and the media in general, would be where it is today.
The series was the brainchild of Frank J. Bastionwedge, Texas oil man and occasional television producer of renown. He had a brief success with the 1973-75 series Who Wears The Pants? According to Bastionwedge, his idea hit when he had noticed two trends in entertainment - the fantasy show and the disaster movie. "So I figured, why not combine the two?" said Bastionwedge from his iron lung in a recent, rare interview, "I wanted to have something between The Love Boat and The Towering Inferno. By calling in a few favors, and shaking some skeletons out of a few closets, I got my wish."
The premise of the show was unusual, yet simple: Every week, America would get to see houses and property foreclosed on. And who better to do it than Hollywood's biggest stars? The show would run live, as the week's celebrities would knock on the unsuspecting guests' doors and deliver the thrilling, tragic news in person. "The key was to get the surprised looks on their faces," Bastionwedge said, "I've seen enough train wrecks in my life to know what gets people's attention."
The show was held together by Derek Lucius Meriwhether. The imposing, 7' 3" host was found by talent scouts in a dank performance art space, the Terlet, where his one-man show, House On Fire/Monks! was running to rave underground reviews. "I knew he was the right man for the job," said Celebrity Foreclosures! director Mark Lingam, "He was very outgoing yet evil at the same time. When I told him the idea for the show he laughed for a solid 15 minutes. Then he stared me right in the face with his darting gray eyes. I don't think I've ever felt right about the world since then."
A typical Celebrity Foreclosures! episode would start with a short monologue from Meriwhether, which was described by various writers as "rambling," "sinister," and "pants-soiling frightening." Meriwhether was fond of such opening lines as "I am a man without a past, and my future doesn't include you," and "Hell has no name for me." His monologues would typically end with him challenging anyone in the studio audience to a bare knuckles match. Very few took him up on his offer, and those who did would receive an unholy beating. The hour-long show would feature three separate celebrities delivering three separate foreclosures, though there was the occasional dual celebrity outings (Steve & Edie and Donnie & Marie being two notable examples). The celebrities would be accompanied by local law enforcement officials, who were armed with cattle prods should the evictees prove belligerent. Meanwhile, back in the studio, Meriwhether would spit out comments about the miserable scenes being acted out before him, usually saying something along the lines of "Look at that jerk-off!" The show would close with an outro from Meriwhether, one which would inevitably be bleeped to satisfy censors.
Celebrity Foreclosures! entered the prime-time line up in late 1976 as a mid-season replacement for the faltering Lee Van Cleef vehicle Mexican Standoff. "First week was Flip Wilson, Richard Jansenn, and the guy from the 'That'sa spicy meatball' commercial," remembers Bastionwedge. Some critics denounced the show as everything from "sophomoric" to "savage" to "the embodiment of pure evil." Others championed its fresh outlook. "After a few years of shows like Good Times which told us that the poor are humane and funny," wrote TV Guide, "it's refreshing to get a program that shows them as the scum they are." Word of mouth spread quickly, and soon enough Celebrity Foreclosures! was the hottest ticket in Hollywood.
"It was the thing to do back then," said Lingam, "After Saturday Night Live, we were the hottest show to guest on. And we didn't make them do no crazy Conehead sketches, either." One of the hottest Hollywood feuds of the day occurred when Cheryl Tiegs and Farrah Fawcett fought over who was going to foreclose on the Metzger farm of Ames, Iowa in 1979. However, the show's crowning achievement had to be the season finale of 1978, when Paul McCartney and John Lennon were reunited to foreclose on the O'Neill house in Woodside, NY. "That was the greatest thrill of my life," said household head Sean O'Neill from the Jamaica Men's Shelter, "They came right up to my door and said in those great voices that sang 'I Want to Hold Your Hand' and 'Yesterday,' 'I'm sorry Mr. O'Neill, but we've come for the house.' I asked them if they could do a song for me, but then a cop cracked me in the skull with a billy club."
"I think what Celebrity Foreclosures! did for America is show that entertainment doesn't have to build you up," says Marshall Kalmus, media analyst for some magazine, "You didn't feel any better about yourself after watching Celebrity Foreclosures!, but at least you weren't that stupid asshole on TV getting thrown out on their ass by Robert Urich or Charo." Some accused the show for exploiting the misfortunes of others for entertainment value, a charge which the show's creators do not deny. "What's wrong with that?" insisted Bastionwedge, "What do you think the 6 O'Clock News is? And it's not like we left them high and dry. All the contestants got a free ham. The way I see it, if they didn't want to be humiliated on TV, they shouldn't be poor. End of story."
There seemed to be no stopping Celebrity Foreclosures!, especially when the aftermath of the 1980 elections sent the number of foreclosures skyrocketing. But like many of television's great shows, it soon collapsed under its own weight. In an effort to increase its already formidable viewership, Bastionwedge added a sexy wisecracking android named Gertie to share hosting duties with Meriwhether starting in 1981. He was less than pleased. "Meriwhether had pin-cushion dolls of Gertie in his office," recalls Lingam, "Unfortunately, I don't think voodoo works on robots." Meriwhether soldiered on in his position anyway, with only occasional tranquilizer OD attempts betraying any displeasure on his part. The viewing public was shocked on May 21st, 1982, when, during his closing remarks, Meriwhether attempted to snap his own neck with his bare hands. Unsuccessful, he then declared that he had found a "map to a magical realm," and that he planned to "use it to cleave this puny planet in two." He stormed off the stage, boarded a plane to Brazil, and has never been seen since. His name recently came up in FBI investigations involving the Unabomber.
"When Meriwhether left, that was it," Lingam laments, "Gertie couldn't carry the show by herself - she was only programmed for retorts." Celebrity Foreclosures! ended after seven seasons of misplaced anger and classy star cameos, and almost immediately faded from the public's consciousness. Rumors have abounded that a revival version is planned with Whoopi Goldberg, though they are soundly denied. "We could never recapture that kind of magic again without Meriwhether's brilliant brain, which I think is being held by the Centers for Disease Control anyway," Lingam insists, "And remakes are never as good as the original. Except for The New Munsters." Today's public will have to be satisfied with what Celebrity Foreclosures! begat: the genius of Cops, Real TV, World's Scariest Police Chases, and every other show where misery becomes Hollywood magic.
Next month: Do you remember...Iran-Contra: The Series
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