With A Blink of An Eye (And A Twitch of Her Nose) [VIDEO]
To hardcore fans, the classic comedy Bewitched was about more than just a cute blonde who could work things out in 22 minutes or less with just a twitch of her cute little nose. It was a show whose basic theme was about bigotry and tolerance, long before it was "cool" for television to approach such subjects. It was about a truly "mixed marriage" between a witch, Samantha and her mortal husband, Darrin Stevens. It was about society and how it "wasn't ready" to accept the marriage of two people from such different back-grounds. It was about an intolerance.
But by 1970, the comedy had pretty much run its course. They had already, at the time inexplicably, replaced the original Darrin Stephens, Dick York, with a much taller, relaxed Darrin, played by Dick Sargent (Elizabeth Montgomery would later explain in her autobiography that the switch was necessitated by York's chronic back pain). The series had been at the top of the ratings for the first five years of its run, but ratings began to drop after the unexplained Darrin switch in the shows sixth season.
By 1970 fewer eyes than ever were on the long-running show. That gave executive producer, Harry Ackerman, director/producer William Asher and the show's star, Asher's then wife Elizabeth Montgomery the exact platform they needed. With the show's ratings falling, they did the unthinkable in an era where TV was still unpolitical...they made a statement! The made an experimental Christmas-themed episode, which took the fading show from TV Guide to the front pages.
More than just a standard TV comedy Christmas show, the episode "Sisters at Heart" aired December 24th, 1970. The episode took the normally light-hearted fantasy-comedy into a more real life story-line, with a story about racism, incorporating the issue by allowing a group of inter-city high schoolers to write the episode.
The idea was hatched not far from Columbia Pictures/Screen Gems Studios, where the show was shot, when Marcella Saunders, an English teacher at L.A.’s Thomas Jefferson High School, reached out to several studios, looking to encourage her 10th grade students reading and writing, through television and movies. Montgomery and Asher responded by inviting the class to the set. And, as a thank you, they invited the group to collaborate on a storyline for the show, a story about black-and-white friendship that became the 1970 holiday episode.
Set on Christmas Eve, twin stories revolve around 6-year-old Tabitha Stephens’ friendship with a black friend whom she calls her sister. Tabitha’s ad-exec father Darrin was forced to deal with a bigoted client who comes to mistake the “sister” for Darrin’s actual child and thus the product of a mixed-race marriage. Disapproving, he cuts business ties with Darrin, referring to him as “unstable.”
Montgomery introduced the episode, telling viewers it evoked “the true sprit of Christmas …conceived in the image of innocence and filled with truth.” And while “Sisters at Heart” serviced the show’s fantasical legacy, it also offered up an in-your-face storytelling for its time. Literally. One scene featured the white cast in blackface to underscore Darrin’s client’s racism.
All 26 students were listed in the end credits as writers. Praised by critics and educators, the episode was given the Emmy Governor's Award in 1971. In her biography, Montgomery called the episode her favorite of Bewitched’s 254.
At the end of that Christmas Eve episode, Montgomery returned out of character, to wish viewers “a happy and peaceful new year.”
Even with the simplest of gestures, she seemed to embody the word "peace". The message in this episode is as clear to all today, as the day it first aired, 45 years ago. The message is the same to all, no matter your race, creed, color, or whether you are a witch or a mortal.
Just simply, from me to you, Merry Christmas, one and all.
videos courtesy of youtube.com/Sheri Zampelli