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HOWARD ROSENBERG

Raisins?! Sunbaked In 'Fresno'

July 21, 1986|HOWARD ROSENBERG

Time to get . . . serious .

An early scene in the future CBS miniseries "Fresno" will set the appropriate, uh, somber tone for the entire five hours: Battling for survival, Kensington Raisins has developed a revolutionary raisin that could destroy rival Cane Enterprises. No more will Americans have to put raisins on their breakfast cereal, for Kensington has developed a crunchy bran raisin.

It is the cereal.

"The industry hasn't seen an innovation like this in 75 years," ruthless Cane Kensington tells his supervisor. "We're not making raisins, Juan. We're making history."

Warring raisin dynasties in Fresno? Is this the stuff of sweeping saga or what?

The creator and executive producer of "Fresno"--a spoof of prime-time soaps a la "Dallas," "Dynasty" and "Falcon Crest"--is affable Barry Kemp, 36. "Tyler, Cane, Talon, Tiffany, China, Torch," mused Kemp, dreamily, citing some of his "Fresno" characters. "I love those names."

Starring Carol Burnett, Dabney Coleman, Charles Grodin, Gregory Harrison and Teri Garr, "Fresno" began production last week with two 100-degree days in the raisin capital itself and is now shooting in Los Angeles.

Written by Kemp, Mark Ganzel and Michael Petryni, "Fresno" is scheduled to air in November. But the drum roll has already started. Media galore were in Fresno for the start of production and a talk with Mayor Dale Doig, who has a five-line part in "Fresno" as himself, appearing at a costume ball as Yul Brynner.

With a big musical score and Bob Mackie costumes, the MTM-produced "Fresno" will have production values matching any prime-time soap opera. "Only the subject will be smaller," Kemp cracked.

"You see, the Canes and Kensingtons were best friends who banded together and bought this raisin ranch," Kemp explained, trying to manage a straight face. "But they eventually tore apart." The human tragedy.

The characters:

On one side is matriarch Charlotte Kensington (Burnett), struggling widow of Yancy Kensington, who was killed in a dehydrator accident 20 years ago. Cane (Grodin) is her amoral, J.R. Ewingesque son. Cane's wife, Talon (Garr), is a vixen.

On the other side is power-mad raisin baron Tyler Cane (Coleman), who is determined to control the industry and destroy the Kensingtons.

Another major character is a handsome, "shirtless stranger" known as Torch (Harrison), who appeals to everyone, especially that hussy Talon.

Charlotte also has a son named Kevin and an adopted daughter named Tiffany. Cane Kensington has a daughter named China and Tyler Cane has a niece named Candy Cane. There are also the Bobbs: ranch-hand Billy Jo, his wife, Bobbi Jo, and their son, B.J.

And watch out for Don Diego de la Pena.

Burnett, Coleman, Grodin and Garr can parody with anyone, and on paper, at least, "Fresno" plays to their comic strengths. But "Fresno" is more than parody, says Kemp. "It's different than a sitcom or 'Airplane!' or a Mel Brooks film. It has a comedy that's interesting and bizarre all to itself."

Its closest cousin appears to be "Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman," Norman Lear's often wonderful syndicated soap spoof of 1976-77 in which Coleman etched the memorable portrait of Fernwood Mayor Merle Jeeter.

The plot of "Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman" was equal to its satire, and the show's absurd premise was made all the funnier by being executed straight, without winking or snickering.

That appears to be the goal of "Fresno," too. "Even the promos and bumpers (breaks separating programs from commercials) will be straight," Kemp said.

"The power, the passion, the produce . . . will continue."

And before every scene, he said, the show's first assistant director tells the cast: "Remember, this is not funny."

Kemp, who created "Newhart" and wrote for "Taxi," had wanted to "have some fun" with nighttime soap operas for some time. But he wasn't sure what kind of fun. Then he heard that Fresno had ranked last in a survey measuring quality of life in 277 cities. And the next day, someone told him that Fresno was the world's raisin capital.

"The two things just clicked," he said. "I thought it would be a great idea to have people in Fresno be as passionate about raisins as the people in 'Dallas' were about oil and the people in 'Falcon Crest' were about wine."

Kemp interested MTM, then thought about his idea for a number of months, wondering if a "Fresno" could sustain as a series, and if it did, whether he would want to do it that long. When CBS expressed an interest in a comedy miniseries, everything fell into place.

As a result, Fresno will become a household name. Or joke.

Not all Fresnans share Mayor Doig's enthusiasm for the CBS miniseries, fearing that "Fresno" may ridicule Fresno as a place of only heat and hicks. An editorial in Thursday's Fresno Bee wondered if the miniseries would depict Fresnans as "clod-kicking bozos" and questioned Doig's decision to "dress up for a costume ball in a way that's bound to make him look silly."

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