Three Decades of "Fame"
by Philip Chien
The 2009 movie "Fame" continues almost three decades of the "Fame" phenomena. The concept is simple - high school students who want to become dancers, singers, and actors. The action takes place at the High School for the Performing Arts in New York City but could take place inside any high school orchestra, dance class, or theater club.
The Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music and Art and Performing Arts is a real public high school in New York City and it does have a strong emphasis on the performing arts - dancing, music, and acting. But it's nothing like the fictionalized version of the school portrayed in the movie and television series and many of its students joke about how different the fictional school is from real life.
"Fame" started life as a 1980 movie by avant garde director Alan Parker and writer Christopher Gore. It was a cult hit, winning Oscars for both the best original score and best original song. Among others the movie stared a young Paul McCrane (with a full head of hair) over a decade before he became "Rocket Romano" on "ER."
The movie follows a handful of students through their high school years going through the same problems every teenager experiences - hormones, peer pressure, the desire to succeed, and taking chances. It's something anybody can relate to even if you're tone deaf and have two left legs.
"Fame" made Irene Cara a star and lead to her writing and performing "What a Feeling", the signature song for "Flashdance."
Two years later the movie became an NBC TV series. Debbie Allen, Gene Anthony Ray, Albert Hague, and Lee Curreri made the transition from the movie to the television series. While extremely similar there were many changes from an "R" rated movie with drugs and sex to a family television series. For example, one of the subplots in the movie is Montgomery's homosexuality. Montgomery has no scenes where the topic of sex or orientation comes up in the television series. Leroy's character evolved from an illiterate gansta to a student with a bad attitude about school and learning proper grammar.
One of the most significant character changes was Lydia Grant, played by Debbie Allen. In the movie she was a judge in the dance audition with just a couple of lines, but she was the star of the TV series as the lead dance teacher.
The series had moderate ratings in the United States but was an amazing success in England, and often referred to as "America's response to the Beatles." After two seasons NBC decided to cancel it because of its bad ratings. MGM decided to continue to make episodes and market "Fame" as a first run syndicated series, primarily because of its international success. Four additional seasons were filmed.
"Fame" was the first hour-long drama with black leads, actors Debbie Allen and Gene Anthony Ray. It was also unusual with the large number of mostly original musical numbers every week making it an extremely complicated series to film. The show had two sets of dancers and if you look carefully you can notice different dancers in the background in different episodes. Some of the background dancers would occasionally get speaking lines or even episodes where they were featured. Many of the shows featured complicated production numbers with the students doing a school play (musicals of course) with a variety of costumes and sets. One of the most memorable, "Desdemona," was an adaptation of Shakespeare's "Othello." Only two of the 136 episodes over the six year run did not feature at least one song sung by a cast member.
When the series was on the air several albums were released on vinyl and cassettes. Only one, "The Kids from Fame," has been reissued as an audio CD.
The first season was released on DVD in 2005 but is now out-of-print due to a change in distributors. The first and second seasons have been released on DVD to coincide with the new movie with a suggested retail price of $39.98 U.S./$54.98 Canada. The only special features are a 30 second promo for each episode, a promo for the 2009 movie, English captioning for all of the episodes and French captioning for the season one episodes. No director's commentaries, featurettes, or behind the scenes materials.
The promo materials claim that the season 1 and 2 DVD set includes all 38 original episodes from the first two seasons. That's incorrect - it's missing one of the most important episodes, "The Kids From "Fame" Live." It was a live concert featuring many of the cast members performing on stage at the Royal Albert Hall in London England. That concert/episode was released on home video (VHS) in 1982. Other concerts were filmed in Israel and New York in later seasons.
One reason the London concert may have been left out is music rights. When a television show is made a license is obtained from the copyright owner for each of the songs. While most of "Fame"'s songs were original many were popular songs (one episode used several songs from the 1939 classic "Wizard of Oz"). When a series is released on DVD rights have to be obtained for all of the songs. If the studio already owns the rights (the original songs and songs produced for other properties owned by the studio) then it isn't a problem. But for outside music the cost for the DVD rights may be prohibitive. In some cases substitute music may be dubbed in, in other cases it may not be practical. Sometimes there's a disclaimer on the DVD that the music has been reedited, sometimes it's done without informing the consumer. The London concert was primarily original "Fame" songs but also included Debbie Allen doing a jazz number.
The "Fame" DVDs are edited for musical content and it is not stated on the packaging. In the episode "Childhood's End" Leroy has to play "Happy Birthday" on a cello to prove to a cop that he didn't steal it. In the original show Leroy tries - very badly - and says it's the black version of "Happy Birthday". But on the DVD you just see Leroy attempt to play a couple of notes before the cop stops him. "Happy Birthday" is copyrighted and legally any time it's performed commercially the Warner Music Group (the current copyright owners) demands a payment. There are other musical edits on the DVDs - but this example certainly stood out.
No word on when seasons 3 through 6 will be released on DVD; or if the handful of concert episodes can be released as a separate DVD. Presumably the studio is waiting to see how successful the new movie is before making that decision.
The talent of the "Fame" actors varied widely. Of the original cast Erica Gimpel was probably the best overall dancer and singer. Gene Anthony Ray's dancing was incredible. Valerie Landsburg had the most talented singing voice. Lee Curreri was the best musician, although Lori Singer was amazing on the cello in the few episodes that permitted her to showcase those talents. However Singer certainly was not a talented singer (pardon the pun) and could barely dance. She noted in an interview while the show was on the air that the producers originally wanted her character to be a dancer but when she saw how well the other actors danced she begged the producers to let her character concentrate on music instead. Certainly the cast was more talented than the "Monkees" or "Partridge Family" which both used replacement singers for their recordings.
Most of the regular cast were relatively unknown actors and dancers doing their first television series. A significant exception was Janet Jackson as student Cleo Hewitt in season 4.
Marguerite Pomerhn Derricks is the choreographer for the 2009 movie. She was one of the background dancers in the TV series and introduces herself during the London concert. She says, "Hi, I'm Marguerite Pomerhn and yes, blondes do have more fun - especially in London."
Only two of the student-actors remained with the series for its entire run - Gene Anthony Ray and Carlo Imperato. As with most television series set in high school environments the show just ignored that they had actors in their 20s or even 30s playing high school students who never seemed to graduate.
There were four cast members who you never saw and rarely got credit for their work, the background singers. Oren, Luther, Julia, and Maxine Waters provided the background vocals for each of the songs. Their only on the air appearance was when they were introduced during one of the concert specials.
In the later seasons Debbie Allen was staring in a Broadway play and starting to direct and produce other television shows. As a result Miss Grant doesn't appear in some episodes, only appears in token scenes, or only appears in scenes where she could be filmed while doing her other jobs.
Many famous song and dance actors, including Ray Walston, Art Carney, and Gwen Verdon appeared on the show and had excellent music and dance numbers.
Several soon-to-be stars appeared in background roles in the "Fame" TV series, including one of the stars of the new movie - Bebe Neuwirth. She played dance teacher Phyllis Turner in the fifth season episode "Stage Fright." Amazingly this connection is not mentioned in the publicity materials for the new movie.
Other actors who went on to fame after "Fame" include Fran Drescher ("The Nanny") as a student in the pilot episode and a very young Nancy Cartwright appearing in a live role before she went on to fame - or perhaps infamy - as the voice-over actress who performs Bart Simpson's voice.
After the series ended in 1987 it went into second run syndication. Two versions were syndicated - hour and half hour versions. At that point television stations were not as interested in hour long shows so the producers decided to also create a half hour version. To make them fit into half hour slots all of the subplots were removed, along with the musical numbers! It was still an okay drama but often confusing due to missing scenes; not to mention that one of the key reasons for the series's success was the musical numbers.
MGM tried to reboot the "Fame" franchise in 1997 with a new television series, "Fame L.A." It never had the energy of the original series and only lasted for one season. A live musical, "Fame Forever," was produced in 1998. It's still performed by community theater groups and occasionally by professional tours.
"Fame" came back in 2003 in a drastically different format. Producers thought a music-dance contest would work as a reality television show. Debbie Allen was one of the judges but that's about as far as the connection with the original movie or television series. It wasn't a big success, but the concept of a talent contest reality show succeeded with "American Idol" and "So You Think You Can Dance."
Is there a future for "Fame" beyond the 2009 movie? It depends on how much of a hit the movie becomes. Maybe lightning will strike twice and it'll be a megahit in England.
Photos from the 2009 movie and DVDs copyright MGM and used with permission.
Screen captures from the author's personal collection.
Order Fame: The Complete Seasons 1 & 2 from Amazon.com.
Order The Kids From Fame Live at the Royal Albert Hall [VHS] from Amazon.com.
Order the Kids from Fame (T.V. Show Soundtrack) from Amazon.com.
Order the 1980 movie Fame from Amazon.com.
Order the 1980 Fame soundtrack from Amazon.com.
Order the 2009 Fame soundtrack from Amazon.com.
Debbie Allen dance academy website.
Lee Curreri's website.
Valerie Landsburg's website.
Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music and Art and Performing Arts in New York.
"Fame Forever" fan website.
A music video tribute to Gene Anthony Ray.
About the author
Philip Chien has been a "Fame fanatic" since the series premiered in 1982.
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