40 Years Ago: Fame

May 16, 1980 was the national release date for the hit movie Fame. This film and the eponymous TV series that followed (1982-87) were highly inspirational to me as a teenager, and no doubt to thousands if not millions of others. Set at New York’s High School of Performing Arts (now known as Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School), it follows a group of kids who are studying to be actors, singers, dancers, and musicians (and one stand-up comedian). For performing arts nerds like me at the time it was like being seen. More than that: since the franchise spawned stars and hit songs it added glamor and VALUE to dreams most people considered Quixotic. “A COMEDIAN?” I recall an aunt asking in horror and bewilderment when I told her what I wanted to be, as though I’d said “I’d like to grow two heads and start a sea colony at the bottom of the Marianas Trench”. The show let you tell yourself at any rate that your dreams and belief in yourself were valid. Yet even while it filled your head with notions, it also let you know that dreams don’t come true automatically. “Fame costs” we were reminded at the top of every episode. And sometimes it doesn’t come at all.

The break-out star was Irene Cara, who had hits with the title song, as well as “Out Here on My Own”, then later with the Flashdance theme. (Cara’s gotten a shout-out here before. As a little girl she had performed on Ted Mack’s Amateur Hour). Debbie Allen played the dance teacher and was the show’s choreographer. Anne Meara, already a star, played the English teacher in the film; she was replaced in the series by Broadway pro Carol Mayo Jenkins. Barry Miller, who played aspiring (though not very good) stand-up comedian Ralph in the film (remember the scenes at Catch a Rising Star with Richard Belzer?) went on to win a Tony in Neil Simon’s Biloxi Blues. Paul McCrane, later of the Robocop films and E.R. (as surgeon “Rocket” Romano) played Montgomery MacNeil, a sensitive gay kid with a full head of frizzy red hair — the polar opposite in every way from his E.R. character. The film and the series both shared some stars unique to the franchise: Lee Curreri as the groovy piano student Bruno and Albert Hague as his stern classically-oriented music teacher Mr. Shorofsky seemed kind of at the heart of the thing, with that classic age old artistic antagonism between experiment and tradition. Gene Anthony Ray as the streetwise Bronx dancer Leroy was one of our favorites. (I was sad to learn that Ray later descended into a life of drugs and homelessness. He contracted HIV and died of a stroke in 2003). Some others I remember liking on the series included Valerie Landsburg as Doris, and Carlo Imperato as Danny Amatullo.

Another bit of catnip for me on the show (as we wrote here) was the backdrop of New York City. Since the film and show came out around the time of my first trips to New York, and was on during the same period as Taxi, another show about a bunch of New Yorkers with dreams and aspirations, it was sort of all of a piece to me — it built a case for the inevitable. And the school, like the city, was full of kids of every race, ethnicity and persuasion. Who WOULDN’T want to live in a place where everyone was exotic and interesting somehow, where there was something to learn about the world in every single casual conversation? Apparently, as we’ve learned to our dismay (and cost) in the past few years, there have turned out to be MILLIONS who DON’T share an automatic interest in any kind of human diversity, in fact they scorn and despise it. And as a result, as I write this, it’s all under threat: hopes, dreams, diversity, culture, art. Oh, don’t worry. I’m someone who believes the flame of enlightenment will burn forever as long there are people to tend it. It’s just going to be harder than usual for a few years — probably extremely hard.

To put some wind under your wings for the task, I give you the “Hot Lunch Jam”: