By William Henderson
February 4th, 2013
Peekskill, a city in Westchester County, New York, is situated on a bay along the east side of the Hudson River, across from Hones point. Its population in 2010 was 23,583, according to that year’s census. And while I’ve never been there—and don’t think I’ve seen a sign for it while driving in New York state—I feel like I know it as well as I do the landlocked town where I grew up in Florida. And I’ve missed Peekskill without knowing I missed Peekskill, not until given the chance to return to a city I’ve never been during an eight-week marathon of home movies and picture shows this past summer. Thomas Wolfe may have penned the phrase that you can’t go home again, but turns out you can, when the home to which you return was actually never yours and was really where girls named Blaire, Jo, Natalie, and Tootie came of age, and the Garrett sisters, Edna and Beverly Ann, of Appleton, Wisconsin, engineered lessons about the facts of life.
When the television show Facts of Life aired its first episode on August 24, 1979, I was almost two-and-a-half years old. That year, Margaret Thatcher was elected Prime Minister of the UK, the average cost of a new home was $58,100, a Sony Walkman cost $200, and a gallon of gas cost 86 cents. Edna Garrett came to the Eastland School from her former job as a housekeeper at a Park Avenue home in New York City.
Re-watching that first episode this past summer—the start of what became a two-month odyssey through the television show’s nine seasons, two movies, and one reunion show—I found that the oddest part wasn’t how it handled a lesbian subplot (the only episode of its 201-episode run to mention anything gay), but how it could air today, though with more swear words and pairs of barely there peekaboo panties. The girls, ages 10 to 17, lived together at boarding school, and were cared for by an all-knowing housekeeper turned dietician.
What began as a large ensemble, with each girl given little screen time, refocused on four girls, one of whom joined the show during its second season: Jo, the girl from the wrong side of the track with the heart so big she has to ride a motorcycle and wear leather to hide it; Blaire, the wealthy daughter of parents with more divorces than she’d like to admit; Natalie, the chunky stand-in for America, the I-could-be-her girl who often got in the last word; and Tootie, a roller-skating African-American girl who only twice in nine years questioned why she wasn’t friends with other girls who looked like her. Edna remained, occasionally getting a juicy subplot, like a romance with the school chef. More often than not she was arbiter of battles about blow dryers and beauty queens.
I can’t remember the first episode of Facts I watched, though it must have been in the show’s twilight years after it was moved to Saturday nights. I know that I often had to watch it on a television in my parents’ bedroom because they watched something else on Saturday nights. And when I think about these Saturday nights, other shows stand in line with Facts, including Hunter and 227, though I don’t know if these shows aired at the same time, on the same channel, or ever were on the air during the same season.
The girls were pretty in a 1980s kind of way, and I felt I had something in common with each of them—Blaire’s snobbery, Jo’s hidden heart, Tootie’s mischievous streak, and Natalie’s humor. And chunkiness. And her wanting to be a writer. OK, so maybe I was more Natalie than any of the other girls.
Since Facts ended its run nearly 25 years ago, I’ve thought about it and wondered what the show’s stars are up to. Once in a while I catch myself humming the show’s theme song—and if you know the show, you’ve likely sang the song to yourself two or three times already by now. But I didn’t write fan fiction about it, or continue the story of girls caught between the good and the bad. It was just a show that mattered to me for a while and then it was over, like most good things are.
But when I discovered the entire series available online, I downloaded it, thinking that I’d watch it with one or both of my children when they are old enough to appreciate it. But I watched that first episode, and the second, and five more in a row. No commercials in these copies, so I got through the first seven episodes in less than three hours. I tumbled down a rabbit hole that night, because I knew that since I had started, I wouldn’t stop until I had reached its end.
Charo played herself in one episode, and Zsa Zsa Gabor played a world-renowned beautician named Countess Calvet who really was at the top of a prettier-than-most pyramid scheme, and the artist formerly known as Stacey Q showed up in two episodes as a singer named Cinnamon. She and Tootie wanted the same singing gig, and since Cinnamon sang the then-popular hit song, “Two of Hearts” by Stacey Q (you still with me?), she got it. She resurfaced later that season to usher out George Clooney, who largely went unused as a local handyman. He signed on as a roadie for the fictional Cinnamon, later joined ER, and the rest is television history.
Molly Ringwald played a student named Molly, though after spending the first year as a series regular, only showed up once in the second season, and then in its first episode. I met Molly Ringwald at a book-signing a few weeks after I finished re-watching the Facts of Life in its entirety. I mentioned I had, and she smiled and said that it had been a fun show, but I think she’s likely been trained to always smile and say that it had been a fun show and that she won’t show you her underwear and that she doesn’t have the same relationship with her movies that we have since she made them and can’t really watch them. Things she repeats when fans bring up work she did more than 30 years ago.
While Facts of Life has aged well, it was not structured like a sitcom circa 2013. The only arc to the girls’ storyline was graduating from Eastland, which all of them did during the show’s run, and then from college, which Blaire and Jo did before the show ended (Natalie took a couple of years off between Eastland and college, and Tootie was a couple of years into her college years when she accepted a proposal from her boyfriend toward the end of the series). Beyond school, the storylines did not continue week to week. Blaire and Jo acted like they hated each other but were really each other’s strongest supporter. Natalie and Tootie listened behind closed doors and had trouble keeping secrets. Edna, while she was part of the show, and then her sister, Beverly Ann, who joined after Edna left, ushered the girls through puberty and into adulthood, steering them from bad decisions when they could.
But what’s life without pitfalls? The girls had to learn you don’t just take the good; you have to take the bad too. So there were consequences when they stole the school van and snuck into a bar using fake IDs. And Tootie got in trouble when she rode a train into New York City by herself. And Blair almost-but-not-quite ended up engaged to the wrong man, and Natalie, in an attempt to keep her boyfriend, Snake, interested, decided to go all the way, the only one of the girls to have sex that we know of.
The show ended in a sea of missed spinoff opportunities. Blair bought and took over Eastland, opening it to boys. Jo got married and was considering a career in social work (she became a police officer). Natalie moved to New York City to become a writer, finding an apartment with other bohemian types, the kind made popular years later in Jonathan Larson’s RENT. Tootie got married and was leaving Peekskill and New York. Any of these stories could have continued the show, since you don’t stop learning about life when you turn 22. But the show ended, taking with it the fates of women who’d survived the 1980s, shoulder pads and all (not to mention the hairspray, the plastic bracelets, and the pink-neon clothes).
It’s not difficult imagining these girls growing into cell phones and the Internet, cosmopolitans and Manolo Blahniks. The former Eastland girls may not be the most famous television female foursome, but they sure loved their city at the time, Peekskill, population 23,583.
Soon to be 23,585, since I plan to bring my son, who is five, and my daughter, who is two, to Peekskill one day. They’ll start at the beginning, the arrival of a new housemother at a school for wayward and upwardly mobile girls. And my children may mock the large computers, answering machines, and corded phones in the show, if my children even know what a corded phone is when they’re old enough to watch. And they’ll watch until the very end, when the last fact left to learn is that everyone grows up and goes away and discovers that learning never ends.
About the author: William Henderson (@Avesdad) is a Boston-based writer. Pure Slush will release his first book, Second Person Possessive, a memoir, in 2013. He is a former contributor to the Advocate, former editor of the New England Blade, and has written for Huffington Post, The Good Men Project, Heavy Feather Review and Hippocampus Magazine, among others. He can be found at hendersonhouseofcards.com.
Television Winter 2013: Classic Hollywood