Hollywood Televsion Theater's 'Steambath'

KCET is celebrating its 50th anniversary year with a series of stories, reflections, and flashbacks, like this throwback below. For more and to participate in our next 50 years, join us at kcet.org/50.

KCET started its life in the middle of Hollywood, at 1313 Vine Street. From that first, humble location, the station began making television. One of the bigger national series that they began shooting over at the Vine Street location was "Hollywood Television Theater." Engineers who worked on those many productions tell the story that at times they had three plays in production on different sound stages. One stage would have the set going up or tearing down and two sets actively shooting. It was non-stop action. When we moved over to our Sunset Boulevard location in the early 70s, one of the first "Hollywood Television Theater" productions that was on the slate to be shot was "Steambath."

The production starred Bill Bixby, who played the character of Tandy. He was well known at that time for his roles in several television shows including, "My Favorite Martian" and "The Courtship of Eddie's Father." Years later, he went on to play Bruce Banner on "The Incredible Hulk." As the leading female actress, Valerie Perrine played the character of Meredith. Valerie is best known for playing Lex Luthor's girlfriend in the first two "Superman: movies. She started her career as a Vegas showgirl. José Peréz , a prolific actor, who was basically unknown at that time, was cast as the Puerto Rican steambath attendant, who happens to also be God.

I was not employed at KCET at the time this production was shot, but there was no lack of conversation about it when I did arrive almost seven years later.

My favorite story was the fact that they finally had to duct tape that towel onto Valerie Perrine to keep it in place. Every time I would pass one of the production photos in our administration building on Sunset Blvd, I would think about that fact.

The production holds the record as the first show on television to show brief full nudity and if it hadn't been airing on PBS, this would have never happened. Back in those days, the big three network censors were very strict about such things. I think we got the pass, due to the fact that we were an educational station.

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There were two versions of the program produced for PBS to appease the markets that felt like it was unsuitable to air in its original form. KCET, standing behind their work, did air the full unedited version here in Los Angeles, at least the first time.

I was working at KCET when we aired the show in 1984, on the occasion of our 20th Anniversary. The late Charles Impaglia was KCET's programmer at the time, and he once told me that he was working in 1973 for I believe, WNET and was on a committee that screened the program. He remembered saying at the time, something like "What are those people doing, out there in Los Angeles?"

KCET's production of Steambath 1973 | Bill Bixby, Jose Perez, Valerie Perrine

The story revolves around a group of people who find themselves in this steambath, with no idea how they got there or why they are there. Conversations go on and all the while there is this steambath attendant cleaning up and working around the room. As the production goes on, it is revealed that he is God and they are dead and the steambath is some sort of limbo.

"Steambath" was nominated for two Primetime Emmys in 1974 -- executive producer Norman Lloyd for Outstanding Special (Comedy or Drama) and Bruce Jay Friedmanfor Best Writing in Drama (Adaptation) -- but lost both to "The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman." This doesn't surprise me, since "Steambath" was so cutting edge at that time and I am sure the academy wasn't sure what to make of it. No matter what, I am sure it was a high honor just to be nominated.

An interesting fact, you can actually buy a DVD of this show. It is out there, if you take the time to query it. I am glad that our rich dramatic history contained cutting edge productions like "Steambath". Pushing the envelope, on occasion, is worth the risk.

This is another in a series of posts where Cathy Bower, KCET's broadcast operations coordinator, looks back at some interesting moments and events during the station's 50 years on the air. Read more entries here.

"Steambath" print ad via Shock Cinema Magazine.

About the Author

I am a Broadcaster by day and a blogger by night. I love to paint, cook and travel with my family. I am also the owner of a rescued cat, who rules our lives.
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