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March 07, 1993|LIBBY SLATE | Libby Slate is a regular contributor to TV Times

On an episode of ABC's post-World War II drama "Homefront," the characters played by Ginger Szabo and Linda Metcalf were to meet for ice cream sundaes.

What creator-executive producer Lynn Marie Latham needed to know was whether whipped cream would be a sundae topping in 1947, the year in which the show is set. After some checking, she discovered not only that whipped cream was a topping in use in the late '40s but also that the machine used to dispense it was three feet long and had to be held by two people. The contraption didn't make it on camera, but the whipped cream did.

Such seemingly mundane details are a constant--and routine--concern for the creative and production team behind the series, which returns Tuesday for a seven-episode run. (At least one of two other episodes shot but still unscheduled may be aired later if ratings warrant, including a flashback re-creating the Auschwitz death camp.)

TV series, such as "Homefront," that take pride in their authenticity have to deal with attention to period detail week in and week out.

The producers can't rely on instinct; until production wrapped recently, they employed a full-time researcher. Even in post-production, Latham says, the research process continues.

"It never stops, with all the people who work here," she says. "Everyone helps each other: our prop master, Jim Zemansky; transportation captain, Allan Yamauchi; costume supervisors Lyn Paolo and Chic Gennarelli; production designer Dean Mitzner." And, adds Bernard Lechowick, the show's other creator-executive producer (and Latham's husband) "anyone ... would, in an emergency, be prepared to do phone research."

Among other questions that had to be answered: Were milk bottles in 1947 round or square? (Round.) Did cars have a hand brake that could be released? (Yes.) Did men walk around with their ties loosened and shirt sleeves rolled up? (No. And they always wore an undershirt or T-shirt under their dress shirts.) Did couples kiss openly? (No; even one family member putting an arm around another was considered too public a display of affection.)

Primary information sources include the Warner Research Collection at the Burbank Public Library and research libraries at the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences and Universal Studios. Latham and Lechowick's office at Lorimar on Warner Bros.' Burbank lot contains such tomes as John Henry Faulk's "Fear on Trial" for an upcoming episode on the Communist scare, Betty MacDonald's "The Egg and I" to glean a more lighthearted view of the time period, a dictionary of slang and even Dr. Benjamin Spock's classic "Baby and Child Care."

Shelves in the office of staff researcher Deborah Mack, a former teacher with a Yale degree, hold historic books and magazines along with videos of significant films of the 1940s. "Listening to dialogue gives the writers a sense of how people spoke then," she explains.

Producers often consult more personal sources as well. "If we meet people with gray hair who say they like the show, we talk to them," Lechowick says. "I was born at Saint Anne's, the name of the hospital in the show, and I called my mom and asked if they had black employees there then, and she said yes but that they didn't at roadhouses (another show locale)."

Similarly, Latham says, "My dad did murals in roadhouses, so I asked him if the phone was behind the bar. There are keen-eyed viewers who would remember and notice if something were done wrong."

When it comes to the Davis family or other African-American characters, Mack, who is African-American, sometimes calls on her parents' acquaintances.

For an episode on the introduction of television, due to air next week, Lechowick called a station in Ohio, where the series is set, for real-life details. "They said they couldn't sell air time for even $5," he said, "and that the major part of the day, they aired a test pattern, an Indian head set to music."

The production team has yet to be stumped in its quest for accuracy, in part because Latham and Lechowick conduct preliminary research before they ever sit down to write.

Their inquiries have turned up some unexpected revelations. "We did a season-long (story line) on the union," Lechowick recalls. "We talked to the Labor Archives and found that management had black janitors and spoke before them as if they were not there, so the unions used them as spies. None of us knew that, but it was common."

Even more, Latham says, "I was very surprised at how open the racism and sexism were in magazines. There was a government-sponsored ad about price control in Fortune that was sexist. And racism toward all groups was accepted. We incorporate that, for instance, in the character of Charlie Hailey, who says things about the races only because he's learned them at home."

Throughout, Latham and Lechowick say, they take care to respect the period, rather than look at it condescendingly from a 1990s sensibility.

"We try to write drama, emotions," Latham adds. "But if you write from your imagination alone, you'll run out of material in a month. If you write from life, you'll always have something. And that's where the details, the research comes in."

"Homefront" airs Tuesdays at 10 p.m. on ABC.

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