Tune in Tonight: "Blansky's Beauties"
It seems that the era of sitcom spinoffs has come to an end. While reality shows seem to spread faster than e. coli, most TV comedies in recent years just don’t spawn the way they used to. Even The Big Bang Theory, despite its baffling popularity, only birthed a little worm baby of its very own last year. In the 70s and 80s, though, if a sitcom made it past one season, there was a better than good chance it would end up getting a spinoff, sometimes more than one. The Cosby Show begat A Different World, The Mary Tyler Moore Show begat Rhoda (and Lou Grant, and Phyllis), Diff’rent Strokes begat The Facts of Life, The Golden Girls begat Empty Nest (which in turn begat Nurses), Cheers begat Frasier (and the less successful The Tortellis), Growing Pains begat Just the Ten of Us. A few, like Benson (birthed from Soap), outlived their predecessor, but many, like Mr. T and Tina (birthed from Welcome Back, Kotter), disappeared after less than one season.
Outdone only by All in the Family, which sired an incredible seven spinoffs (one of which premiered fifteen years after All in the Family ended its run), Happy Days boasted five: the fondly remembered Laverne & Shirley and Mork & Mindy (both of which eventually got their own animated spinoffs), and the not at all remembered Joanie Loves Chachi, Out of the Blue, and Blansky’s Beauties.
Like a lot of failed spinoffs, Blansky’s Beauties had a tenuous connection at best with its predecessor: the title character, Nancy Blansky (played by Nancy Walker), appeared in a single episode of Happy Days as a cousin of Howard Cunningham’s. Now, hang on, this is where it gets a little complicated–-though the episode of Happy Days Nancy appeared in took place in the early 1960s, Blansky’s Beauties takes place in the present (well, 1977). Nancy appears to be the same age, implying that she is not just related to Howard Cunningham, but Dr. Who as well. Also a time traveling immortal is Arnold (Pat Morita), the hapless owner of the Happy Days gang’s favorite diner, who joins Nancy in late 70s Las Vegas. When Blansky’s Beauties tanked, Arnold was sent back in the portal to 1960s Milwaukee. But it gets a little weirder still–-Nancy has a nephew named Joey, played by Eddie Mekka, who is an identical younger cousin of Carmine Ragusa from Laverne & Shirley (meaning that, somehow, though it’s never mentioned elsewhere, Carmine is related to the Cunninghams).
Even weirder than that, when Blansky’s Beauties was canceled, two other cast members, Scott Baio and Lynda Goodfriend, were tossed through a rip in the time-space continuum and reborn on Happy Days as Chachi Arcola and Lori Beth, Richie Cunningham’s future wife, while at the same time playing retooled versions of their Blansky’s Beauties characters on two other equally ill-fated versions of the same show.
Confused? Imagine trying to write all that out so it makes sense. It all seemed to be an awful lot of trouble just so that Garry Marshall could produce a show about beautiful babes trying to make it on the Las Vegas showgirl scene. Try he did, three times, and each one was a complete failure (the final attempt, Who’s Watching the Kids?, was also responsible for giving Jim Belushi his first television role). While Who’s Watching the Kids? and the second attempt, Legs, focused more on the showgirls themselves, Blansky’s Beauties focused mostly on Nancy Blansky, who acted as the den mother for the girls, keeping them in line and organizing their stage appearances with wry humor and grudging affection.
The personalities of the showgirls are established right in the opening credits: Sunshine (Lynda Goodfriend) is the ditzy one, Arkansas (Rhonda Bates) is the too dumb to live one, Hillary (Taaffe O’Connell) is the blonde bimbo, and Bambi (Caren Kaye) is the other blonde bimbo. When they’re not dancing (though the dancing scenes consist of stock showgirl footage interspersed with shots of audiences politely applauding), they’re hanging around their apartment in bikinis, or playing softball in tiny shorts and pantyhose. Adding a little much needed testosteroni to the mix is the previously mentioned Joey and his brother Anthony (Scott Baio), a 12 year-old scumbag who speaks almost entirely in double entendres.
In this episode, the girls are all atwitter at the news that a millionaire sheik, who describes his home country as “the Cleveland of the Middle East,” is in town and planning to see their show. Bambi immediately sets her cap for him, declaring “I bet I can make his carpet fly.” Vaguely racist jokes, along with later referring to the sheik as “El Sheiko” is what passes for humor in Blansky’s Beauties.
The sheik, of course played by an American actor using a broad “open sesame” accent, is immediately entranced with the bold, brassy Bambi, who hopes to set him up as a sugar daddy. However, he has other plans–-he wants to marry her and whisk her back to his country, where he declares that she’ll be part of his harem, because there are only just so many tired even by the 70s ethnic stereotypes one can fit into a half hour TV show.
Nancy catches wind of this nefarious plan and comes to the rescue, which involves disguising herself as Bambi, despite being twenty-five years older and nearly a foot shorter. A lot of tiresome physical comedy ensues, Arnold shows up to distract the sheikh's henchman (who, according to the IMDB, appeared in the very next episode as an entirely different character), and in the end, scared away by Nancy’s silent, possibly gangster boss (played by the brains behind this operation Garry Marshall himself) the sheikh agrees to leave Bambi alone. As a sign of no hard feelings, he leaves Nancy with a gift. Can you guess what it is? Go ahead, guess. If you guessed “a magic genie lamp,” go ahead and get an ice cold Dr. Pepper, or whatever else you’d think would make a fine reward. Nancy rubs the lamp and wishes for Rock Hudson. Comedy!
The fact that he was given three chances to try to make this garbage into gold proves how much free reign Garry Marshall was given on 70s television. Eleven more attempts at creating another hit like Happy Days and Laverne & Shirley would prove successful exactly once, with Mork & Mindy. Some other notable stinkbombs during this period included the previously mentioned Out of the Blue (another Happy Days spinoff involving a one-off, never before or again mentioned character, this time an angel), an Americanized version of Are You Being Served? that never made it past the pilot stage, and Makin’ It, a comedy that capitalized on the success of Saturday Night Fever two years after it came out. There was even a plan at one point to give Carmine “The Big Ragu” Ragusa his own show, enthusiastically titled Carmine!; regrettably that never came to pass. Marshall eventually left TV production for feature films, and maintained that not terribly impressive batting average through the rest of his life, with smashes like Pretty Woman and Beaches in such questionable company as The Other Sister, Georgia Rule, Valentine’s Day, and the “S&M club as wacky sitcom premise” Exit to Eden. He found a formula--bland, white, and inoffensive--and stuck to it, and if something didn't work he just moved onto the next project with virtually no deviation. That kind of tenaciousness is admirable, when you think about it.
Original airdate: March 19, 1977