Loni Anderson reminisces about 'WKRP in Cincinnati' before DragonCon

Posted by RODNEY HO/rho@ajc.com on his AJC Radio & TV Talk blog on August 22, 2011

Like the fictional radio station it depicted, sitcom "WKRP in Cincinnati" struggled during its run from 1978 to 1982. But like "The Brady Bunch" and "Star Trek, " it flourished in syndication.

It also turned actress Loni Anderson into a huge star. As the cool and collected secretary Jennifer Marlowe, Anderson made sure bumbling boss Arthur "Big Guy" Carlson did no harm as she fended off blowhard salesman Herb Tarlek's relentless advances.

Three decades later, the show's first season is available for free on demand on Hulu and is remembered fondly by fans, even those too young for the show when it originally aired.

"I was just at a Bed, Bath & Beyond, " Anderson said in a recent phone interview from her Los Angeles home. "A woman stopped me and said, 'I love you.' She looked like she was 30 years old."

Anderson and Howard Hesseman, who played pot-addled morning jock Johnny Fever, will be in Atlanta at DragonCon Labor Day weekend for a mini-"WKRP" reunion. They'll host panels about the show and sign autographs. (Her friend Barbara Eden, best known as the star of "I Dream of Jeannie, " persuaded her to come to DragonCon, Anderson said, because Eden had such a good time last year.)

The show was created by former Atlanta ad executive Hugh Wilson, who based some of the characters and antics on 790/WQXI-AM, then the powerhouse Atlanta top-40 station known as "Quixie in Dixie." (Today the station is known for sports talk.)

“He was our mad genius,” Anderson said.

Wilson, in an interview, picked Anderson for her beauty and she insisted she didn’t want to be stupid. “She was the oracle of the place,” Wilson said. “I never had to rewrite a line for her. She had such a definite look.”

Wilson has said the late, wacky "Skinny" Bobby Harper was the model for Johnny Fever. Fashion-challenged Herb Tarlock was a stand-in for long-time Atlanta radio executive Clarke Brown. ("I dressed like a total schmuck," Brown said Thursday. "But that was the fashion back then.") And Jerry Blum, the former general manager at QXI, was the inspiration for Carlson. (There's even a physical resemblance between Blum and actor Gordon Jump.)

The famous "WKRP" episode in which Carlson threw live turkeys out of a helicopter for a Thanksgiving promotion was based on a similar giveaway Blum did in the late 1950s at a Dallas station, though he used a truck. He told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in 1996 that he actually uttered the words, "I didn't know turkeys couldn't fly, " similar to Carlson's words on the show.

“I didn’t realize people would remember it a quarter century later!” said Wilson, who teaches broadcast journalism at the University of Virginia but is thinking of moving to Savannah and doing the same for SCAD. Even after three decades, Anderson said the surviving members of the show stay in touch, though the actors are scattered all over the country. “We’re still very much a family,” Anderson said. “Only Gordon is gone.” (He passed in 2003.)

In 1978, when the show debuted, “nobody was a big star. We all started at the same level,” Anderson said. “There was a real camaraderie and closeness, kind of like a first kiss. It was special.”

The show itself remains Anderson’s calling card. “I think women loved the fact I was sexy and smart,” she said. “I know it sounds crazy to people today but in 1978, when we came on, not many women were doing both in comedy.”

While the cast has reunited for various events, Wilson, who has a daughter in Atlanta but lives in Charlottesville, VA, has chosen not to join them. “He’s a gentleman farmer, enjoying his life,” Anderson said.

Anderson married and divorced Burt Reynolds many years ago and was very much a tabloid staple. Her life is much quieter now.  She said she's picky about what she wants to do acting wise and hasn't had a regular role in any show since 2006's "So Notorious" with Tori Spelling.

One interesting postscript about WKRP: the show used music by major artists but when it went into syndication and DVD, most of the classic songs were stripped out because of royalty costs. For instance, when you watch the originally “turkey” episode, Carlson enters the DJ booth and talks about Pink Floyd with Johnny Fever (something you can find on YouTube). But in the edited cut you see on Hulu, they don’t talk at all.

Music rights issues are also why season 2 to 4 have not been released on DVD. “The network wanted to do soundalikes,” Wilson said. “But we did real music. We did it on a 20-year-buyout. When they were up again, music rights were through the roof.”

[UPDATE: By 2014, they finally were able to get most of the music rights cleared so the entire series is now available on DVD. Apparently, the Beatles and Pink Floyd didn't make the cut, those greedy bastards! You can purchase it on Amazon here.]

[UPDATE: In 2017, the show - without much of the original music - is still available for streaming on Hulu.]

He watched one revised episode, he said he freaked out and hasn’t done so again.

The show was on 18 different time slots over four seasons, Wilson said. “When we were behind ‘M*A*S*H,’ we were in the top 5.”