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'Samantha' Spells Disrespect to Some

Some people fear plans for a statue of the TV witch character will trivialize town history.

May 31, 2005|Elizabeth Mehren | Times Staff Writer

SALEM, Mass. — Thanks to certain tribulations in 1692, this historic seaport north of Boston is known around the world as Witch City.

Salem treasures its supernatural reputation, marketing its witchiness to draw tourists. Along with witch walking tours and spooky cemetery excursions, dozens of small shops sell custom brooms and the latest styles in capes and cloaks. Two Salem pet boutiques offer pointy black hats for cats and dogs.

Witch plaques and statues abound in Salem. But when city leaders recently announced plans for a new bronze effigy -- a statue honoring the fictional witch Samantha Stephens from the television show "Bewitched" -- some in Salem felt the devil was at work.

"It is kind of disrespectful, because we are striving to get away from that TV image," said Melissa Coombs, 23, who said she has been a witch since she was 14.

Coombs, who works in a witch store, said: "This is a religion, not something to make fun of. As it is, people come into the store and think we can make stuff move for them."

The popular show ended its eight-year run in 1972. "Bewitched" was actually set in Connecticut. But a few episodes were filmed in Salem, such as when Samantha -- played by the late Elizabeth Montgomery -- attended a witch convention here. Executives at the TV Land cable network decided Salem was just the place to honor the perky housewife who moonlighted as a witch.

After all, the television executives reasoned, a fictional psychologist named Dr. Robert Hartley (aka Bob Newhart) is commemorated with a bronze-couch statue on Chicago's Michigan Avenue. A bronze image of Mary Richards, played by Mary Tyler Moore, tossing her tam stands on Seventh Street in Minneapolis.

A bronze statue honoring Jackie Gleason in his role as bus driver Ralph Kramden, from "The Honeymooners," greets travelers at New York City's Port Authority bus terminal. And in Raleigh, N.C., the real Andy Griffith presided at the dedication of a statue depicting Sheriff Andy Taylor and his son, Opie, headed off on a fishing expedition.

All were erected by TV Land.

"Our network is all about celebrating classic television. We put them on the air, and in these cases, we literally put them on pedestals," said Robert Pellizzi, TV Land senior vice president, in New York. "It's a fun way to get people to smile and think about their favorite TV shows."

Pellizzi said a trip to Salem last Halloween convinced TV Land executives that the "Bewitched" statue belonged there. He said the statue was aimed at "fun, pop culture" and was not a statement about history.

"This is not about 1692," he said, referring to the year when 19 citizens accused of witchcraft were hanged in Salem.

Before accepting TV Land's offer, Salem officials held months of meetings. A spirited debate also played out on the local newspaper's letters-to-the-editor page.

"Why not ask Hustler magazine to sponsor a statue of Hester Prynne which could celebrate the joys of adultery?" wrote one resident who objected to the Samantha statue.

But a regular visitor from the Midwest wrote that the statue probably would attract more witch aficionados to Salem.

"If Orlando, Fla., all of a sudden decided it did not want to be known as the city of Mickey Mouse, who would visit it?" asked Rhonda M. Janowski of Brunswick, Ohio.

When the city's design review board approved the project this month, many in town were relieved.

"It's probably going to be the best-looking statue in town," said Megan Kalgren, 20. Scooping herbs into little plastic bags to sell for "spell kits" at her mother's witch supply store, Kalgren said she had attended meetings about the statue and thought the opposition was ridiculous.

"A bunch of people were complaining, but I'm like, 'It's a statue, it's cute, get over it,' " Kalgren said.

A customer in Kalgren's store, Natasha Rooney of Rochester, N.H., said she was a witch and saw nothing offensive about honoring the television version. "I think it's cool," said Rooney, 16. "Salem is all about history, and even though the statue that is going up may not be historical, it fits right in with the town."

Salem Mayor Stanley J. Usovicz Jr. agreed: "Despite the unfortunate events in 1692," he said, "I think -- and many people here also think -- that popular culture and contemporary art in a historic city makes a great deal of sense."

The statue, portraying Samantha Stephens riding side-saddle on a broom, will be dedicated June 15. Pellizzi would not disclose the statue's cost.

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