Jewish World Review July 25, 2002 / 16 Tamuz, 5762

Catherine Seipp

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Consumer Reports

Decorating realistically in LaLa Land | Few organizations are as obsessed with the meaning of money than the production design departments of television sitcoms.

Unlike one-hour dramas, which tend to revolve around the work world, half-hour comedies generally take place at home. So those in charge of sitcom scenery and decor spend huge amounts of energy thinking about how their fictional people live -- and whether what these characters can afford is at least on speaking terms with reality.

Oddly enough, it usually is. Movies may be larger than life, but television actually has a long tradition of accurately depicting life on a budget. If the unspoken sadness of "The Honeymooners" was that Alice and Ralph never had children, the obvious sadness was that they lived in an apartment with peeling paint and a sink in the living room.

Most of the time, set furnishings are quite believable -- even if the design staff has to argue about it with those in charge. Sometimes they lose.

Set decorator Diane Yates recalls working on "Grace Under Fire," starring the notoriously demanding Brett Butler. One script had Grace dating a soccer coach, which Yates figured in a Southern small town would mean a top salary of not more than $30,000-per-year.

"But she got pi--ed off when she saw how I'd dressed his house," Yates says. "She insisted, 'Grace would never go out with someone like THAT! He reads Tolstoy and Dickens!'" So Yates redid the set for someone making around $80,000 a year, complete with bizarrely unsoccerish details like a little framed portrait of Noel Coward in the corner.

"If your producer or star says 'I want,'" Yates explains, "you give them what they want."

Another veteran set decorator, Freddie Rymond, worked on the '80s hit "Family Ties" and remembers all the viewer calls that came in about the TV family's then-unusual Wolf kitchen range.

But the dad in the show was employed by a local public television station. Would he really have had such a high-end gourmet appliance?

"Gary David Goldberg (the show's executive producer) wanted the Wolf range, he had one at home," Rymond shrugs. "And when the show ended, it went to his house in Colorado."

Scenery furniture generally moves into a studio's general prop inventory at the close of a show's run. But if a studio doesn't feel like playing hardball, the cast and crew are allowed to buy favorite items at a deep discount from the original price.

After all, it is used furniture by then -- thus the free-for-all that can occur at the prospect of a bargain. The first thing producers sometimes do at the end of a run is padlock the set.

When a show is in the planning stages, the production designer -- who supervises all scenery including decor -- reads the script, meets with the producers, and then begins research: bringing in pictures of likely looks from magazines and books to subsequent meetings.

"And producers might bring in pictures too," says John Shaffner, production designer for "Friends" and "The Drew Carey Show."

After that comes sketches, a plain white model, and then the set decorator, who reports to the production designer, begins researching specific items -- bringing back pictures of everything from sofas to dishes.

"Last is working out the color scheme," Shaffner says. On "Drew Carey," for instance, that was established with a '40s-style green wallpaper, presumably picked out by the Carey character's mother when she was a bride.

"You could do this room for a thousand bucks in real life," Shaffner says, of the "Drew Carey" living room. "You'd go to the Salvation Army for the couch and spend $150; the rug you'd get from Grandma's basement.

For the set crew, though, it costs time and energy. They spent hours rummaging through piles of dusty prop draperies in "Wornout Brothers" -- as the Warner Brothers prop house is fondly known -- before finding green drapes that only sort of matched the '40s-style wallpaper.

"We couldn't be too matchy," Shaffner explains. The drapes needed to look as if Carey's mother had bought them on sale 20 or 30 years after moving into the house.

Probably the easiest assignment is creating a set for a character whose personality is already established and whose financial status matches that of his creators.

"Frasier," of course, is a spin-off of the erudite barfly psychiatrist on "Cheers." And so in the "Frasier" pilot, the living room couch was specifically described as a copy of the one in Coco Chanel's Paris apartment. One of the writers owned a Chanel couch himself.

No problem. As a successful psychiatrist and radio shrink, Frasier could well afford it. "'Frasier' is unique in that they simply don't question you about budget," says Roy Christopher, the show's production designer. "And boy, it sure pays off."

The set's original art alone cost around $75,000, including a $3,000 Robert Rauschenberg print, barely glimpsed in the hallway. And that budget didn't even have to cover the set's single most expensive piece, an $18,000 vase by Seattle glass artist Dale Chihuly, because it's on loan.

Still, like most everyone in the design business, Christopher is far more used to making sow's ears look like silk purses. He was shocked by the $7,000 price tag on the pair of bronze candlesticks his wife wanted to buy recently. "She told me, 'You're just going to have to realize what things cost,'" Christopher says.

Much of a set decorator's time is spent filling out a room with the mundane ephemera of daily life, even though viewers don't notice details like the copies of the Cleveland Plain Dealer that's flown in every day to the "Drew Carey" set.

But as assistant set decorator Joey De Rosa, who's helped texture that set with Cleveland minutiae, points out, the extra layer of reality "does help your actors."

Publicity departments are sometimes leery of letting reporters find out what set dressing costs, because they don't like the inevitable stories poking fun at how TV differs from life. But sitcom characters' decorating budgets aren't really all that least not when you enter the "let's pretend" mindset of the scenic designers.

This is a state as hypnotically absorbed as that of an eight-year-old busy with a dollhouse. Spend enough time poring over the details of TV scenery, in fact, and the stars of the show -- glimpsed wondering through between rehearsals -- take on an eerie, stick-figure-like aura of secondary importance.

Far more vital, when you're thinking about this sort of thing, is that spottily employed Monica of "Friends" could indeed have rented that spectacular Greenwich Village apartment. It turns out Monica inherited it, in all its rent-controlled fabulousness, from her grandmother.

This wasn't explained in the pilot, but later alluded to through jokes in subsequent scripts, Shaffner says, partly as a reaction to criticism in the press of these struggling characters' rather luxe housing.

Carey's wage-slave character, on the other hand, is so believable that it felt a little painful when he didn't take the $200,000 in lieu of the Batmobile he won in a contest. "But then there would be no show," points out assistant set decorator De Rosa.

The class structure of TV characters is, just like the characters themselves, necessarily sketched in a few broad strokes. "When you're rich in television, you're richer than rich," as John Shaffner puts it. "When you're middle-class, you're upper-middle-class. When you're poor, you're middle-class. But you don't want to be depressing. It's comedy!"

"The thing that makes this unique is it isn't interior decorating for design; it's interior decorating for character," says Shaffner. "So most designers love doing their own homes because you don't have to think about any character but yourself."

Eagle-eyed shoppers that they are, making a room look nice is far easier for these decorating pros than making a room, or any item in it, look NOT nice.

The trickiest item on the "Frasier" set, for instance, was Frasier's dad's recliner. Roy Christopher's crew couldn't find anything ugly enough in their usual haunts. So they finally took an old prop department Barcalounger, reupholstered it, and then ripped and taped it for authenticity.

It might look like something you'd tip the garbagemen to take away. But the chair's final cost was $1,500 -- as much as Frasier's beautiful dining room table.

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JWR contributor Catherine Seipp, who writes the weekly "Cathy's World" column for UPI and is a columnist for Pages, the books magazine, has also written features, commentary and media criticism for Mediaweek, American Journalism Review, Penthouse, Forbes, the Weekly Standard, TV Guide and Reason, from where this is reprinted. Comment by clicking here.

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