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A Funny Thing Happened on AMC's Wave of Nostalgia

March 30, 1997|SUSAN KING | TIMES STAFF WRITER

American Movie Classics' "Remember WENN" might best be described as the little series that could.

Everything about the show defies current television conventions. It's a half-hour comedy on a channel that otherwise shows old movies. It's a period piece, set in the 1940s. Its ensemble cast doesn't feature any stars. It goes for whimsical humor rather than for guffaws. It doesn't have a laugh track or a cynical bone in its body.

"We're really a small tadpole in a big sea," says executive producer Paula Connelly-Skorka.

And yet it's swimming with the larger fish. AMC's first original series has become one of the vintage movie channel's most popular attractions since premiering in January, 1996. "Remember WENN" has also won an Emmy for costume design and CableAces for cinematography and editing.

Last month, the show found itself competing with such high-profile network series as "Seinfeld," "3rd Rock From the Sun" and "Mad About You" for the Screen Actors Guild Award for best ensemble cast in a comedy series.

Set just before America's entry into World War II, "Remember WENN" focuses on the hard-working actors, actresses, technicians and producers at a small Pittsburgh radio station, WENN. It stars Christopher Murney, Melinda Mullins, Hugh O'Gorman, Amanda Naughton, George Hall, Tom Beckett, Kevin O'Rourke, Carolee Carmello and CJ Byrnes.

The series also has featured an array of guest stars such as Molly Ringwald, Donna Murphy, Roddy McDowall, Betty Buckley, Howard Rollins, Rue McClanahan and Irene Worth, who received an Emmy nomination for her performance.

AMC is currently repeating the first 26 episodes of the series and is gearing up for its third season premiere in June.

Connelly-Skorka acknowledges that producing an original weekly series was something AMC undertook cautiously. "We wanted to do it," she says. "But you are taking such a gamble when you go into a series game."

So "Remember WENN" was designed to have "the sensibility of our movies and create the same feeling for our viewing audience that our movies create," Connelly-Skorka says. "I think when you watch 'Remember WENN,' you always walk away with the sense of feeling good. It lingers with our audience."

AMC viewers have responded with warm enthusiasm expressed in letters and e-mail. There are three "Remember WENN" fan clubs.

Surprisingly, the nostalgic series is appealing to all age groups, not just older folks who remember radio's heyday before television. Mullins, who plays the prima donna radio star Hilary Booth, receives letters from 11-year-old girls who want to be just like her. And some young male fans have developed crushes on Amanda Naughton, who stars as WENN's enthusiastic and often fearless writer, Betty Roberts.

"I often get [from women], 'How do you get your hair that way?,' " Naughton says, laughing. 'Is it layered?' It's layers, curls and it's having a man doing it for me while I sit there! I thought, 'Last year, Jennifer Aniston; this year, everybody's going to be wearing Betty's hair.' "

Not that the actors have that much time to read their fan mail. Each 30-minute episode of "Remember WENN" is shot in just four days. "It's hard work, but everyone really likes each other," says producer-director Howard Meltzer. "We are going into our third season and everyone works really hard and likes what they are doing."

The series' guiding force is writer-singer-composer Rupert Holmes, who scored a huge pop hit in the '70s with his "The Pina Colada Song" and also won a Tony in 1986 for his Broadway musical "The Mystery of Edwin Drood."

An unabashed fan of old-time radio (especially "Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar"), not only has Holmes written 23 of the first 26 shows, he also composes and orchestrates all the music for the series.

"Not many people know this, but Rupert Holmes is god," Mullins says, laughing. "I have never seen anything like it. He created every bit of it and keeps it going episode after episode."

Holmes says he always thought the series had a chance to click with audiences because it goes against the grain of what's currently on television. "If people could just latch on to an episode or two, they would find it appealing because it's really doing a kind of comedy and tone of comedy that no one else is doing right now."

The comedy, he says, is character-driven. "The comedy comes out of this wonderful motley crew," says Holmes. "I feel as a comedy writer I no longer write the comedy. I sit down and figure out what is going to happen to these people and they come up with all the good lines."

With Hilary, Mullins says, "I get to play everything that any actor could possibly desire--would possibly desire. I feel spoiled."

Holmes says he writes the show in the machine-gun patter style of Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur's "The Front Page."

"It's the kind of comedy that used to be the mainstay of the Broadway stage," he says. "A lot of the really high-speed, frenetic Broadway stage farces of the '30s, '40s and '50s are now seeking refuge in shows like 'Remember WENN.' I write it as if I was writing a half-hour stage comedy of that period."

Holmes is thrilled that younger audiences are finding the bygone era depicted in the series "a very admirable world that would have been fun to live in. I don't know if that world ever existed. I wasn't around for it either, but it sure seems like a nice place to be."

"Remember WENN" airs Saturdays at 6 and 10 p.m. on AMC.

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