Valerie Harper had many years experience performing on Broadway and in theater in Los Angeles when she tested for the role of Rhoda Morgenstern. She was unknown to television viewers at the time, but that would quickly change.
The Mary Tyler Moore Show was an instant success, and viewers loved the character of Rhoda. After a few years, Valerie Harper went from playing a supporting player to starring in her own program. The Rhoda tv series also was a rating success for the first two seasons. This article looks back on this series that initially was so successful and the mistakes that were made that led to its cancellation a couple of years later.
Who Was Rhoda Morgenstern?
Rhoda was a native New Yorker, who moved to Minneapolis and became best friends with Mary Richards. Rhoda moved to escape a domineering mother and to assert her independence.
She had low self esteem and struggled with her weight. Although it seemed that Rhoda and Mary did not have much in common, they did become very close.
Rhoda worked as a window dresser. She loved her work, but it did not bring in much income. After living in Minneapolis for several years, she returned to New York for what was supposed to be a two week holiday. She met Joe Gerard and ended up staying in New York permanently. Mary Richards and Rhoda remained close friends and kept in touch with each other.
The First Two Years of the Rhoda TV Series
Rhoda was a beloved character, so CBS was not taking a big gamble by giving Valerie Harper her own series. Even so, they probably were not prepared for what happened with the first episode.
It finished the week as the top rated show. No pilot episode had ever finished at number one for the week until the premier of Rhoda. In fact, this is a record that still stands today, almost 40 years later.
The series got off to a wonderful start, and it was so well received that it often beat the Mary Tyler Moore Show in the ratings that first season.
Rhoda met Joe in the opening episode, and they were immediately attracted to each other. Joe was divorced and had a son, and was not anxious to remarry. However, he loved Rhoda and wanted to be with her, so he suggested they live together. At first, Rhoda reluctantly agrees. However, the first day she moves in she realizes she wants a commitment and would rather be married. So Joe and Rhoda become engaged and plan a small wedding at her parent's home.
The wedding episode between Rhoda and Joe was a huge event for 70s tv. This was the era before DVRs, so anyone who wanted to see the program had to watch it live. Millions of people did. In fact, it was seen by over 50 million, The only program that had attracted more viewers was the one where Lucy gave birth to her son on I Love Lucy.
Most people remember Rhoda having to take the subway to her wedding, as Phyllis had forgotten to pick her up. She ran down the streets of Manhattan and the Bronx in her wedding gown, veil and high heels. It was a classic episode that also featured Mary Richards and many of her Minneapolis friends.
Following the marriage, Rhoda and Joe settled into an apartment in the same building as her sister Brenda. She opened her own business called Windows by Rhoda, and seemed very happy in her new life. The viewers loved it also, and for two seasons the series was very successful.
Rhoda was also more confident in herself. She had blossomed considerably since her days in Minneapolis. She had enough confidence to be in business for herself, something that would have been hard to imagine a few years previously.
The Cast of Rhoda
David Groh was Joe Girard. Groh was relatively unknown when he got the role, and he had a very hard time when his character split up with Rhoda. Some people seemed to think it was for real, and Groh got a lot of angry mail. He was written out of the series after the third season, and Groh's acting career never really recovered.
Julie Kavner played Rhoda's younger sister Brenda. She was a very insecure soul, much like Rhoda had been. The two sisters were very close. I loved the character of Brenda. Kavner was with the series for its entire run.
Nancy Walker and Harold Gould played the parents, Ida and Martin. Ida was the domineering mother who tried to control her daughters, and Martin was the soft spoken, easy going dad. They were absent from the series in the third season and returned for the fourth. Their absence was explained by Ida and Martin being away on a road trip for the year.
Finally, Lorenzo Music was Carlton the doorman. He had the distinction of playing one of the most memorable characters from the 70s, yet never once was seen on camera.
Carlton made frequent wisecracks and always seemed to know everything that was going on in the building.
Why the Rhoda TV Program Ultimately Failed
After two seasons of Valerie Harper playing a happily married woman, the writers and producers decided to take the show in a different direction. Rhoda and Joe suddenly split up early in season three. Initially, they did want to save the marriage, and they went for counselling. Joe admitted that he never really wanted to marry, but did so because Rhoda had pressured him into it.
It's a mystery to me why producers felt they needed to have the characters end their marriage. The show had a winning fomula, but they decided to mess with it.
The results were not what they were looking for. Viewers were angry and millions of people quit watching. They tried other gimmicks, such as having a divorced woman move in with Rhoda, but nothing seemed to work. Gorh only appeared in a few episodes in season three, and after that was never seen again.
In the fourth season, Rhoda's parents returned. However, the damage had been done. Many viewers who stopped watching the show never came back. Ratings continued to deline, and it was cancelled in its fifth season. In fact, the last few episodes never even aired.
I absolutely love the first two years of Rhoda. I felt the way many others did about the break up of the marriage, and didn't find the program entertaining after that happened.
I give the show a 4.5 out of 5 stars for the first two seasons, and 2 out of 5 for the remaining ones.
Rhoda can be seen on Memorable Entertainment Television, also known as ME TV, on Thursday evenings. They air two episodes back to back at that time.