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The last show of the first season of FAME was called “A Special Place”. The theme was that one of the teachers from the School of Arts was going to be dismissed in a budget-cutting move, and inspectors from the Board of Education were studying all the instructors to determine which one should go.
The kids were alarmed and the teaching staff were very upset. In a school like this, with a small number of students and all the classes getting together to work on productions everyone feels like one big family. The teachers and students alike are intense, dedicated, talented people and they're all as emotionally involved with one another, as tied up in each other's ups and downs and problems as parents and children in a real family.
The production staff uses the same writers and directors over and over again, so that they know the characters and the actors they're working with inside out, and this lends a certain personal touch to each episode. Some of the stories are inspired by real-life experiences of the actors themselves, things they've gone through in the past or things which are happening right now, and this brings real live emotion to the screen.
In “A Special Place”, it was decided that Mr Crandall, the drama teacher, would be the one to be made redundant. Teachers and students alike took the news extremely badly. It wasn't the loss of the drama classes that affected them, as these could easily be absorbed into another teacher's workload, but it was the loss of Mr Crandall himself. He was one of those rare teachers who inspires as well as demands, a no-nonsense person who was nevertheless full of gentleness and kindness. Everybody loved him and nobody could bear to think of his leaving the School of Arts.
So everybody cudgelled their brains to think of some way of saving his job so that he could stay. Finally, the rest of the staff suggested that they should all take salary cuts to make up the money that would have been saved if Mr Crandall had gone. The students think it's as a perfect solution and decide to show their support of the plan and their devotion to their drama teacher by staging a big song and dance production for him.
As nobody knows if the Board of Education will accept the staff's proposal, the production is also intended as a farewell to Mr Crandall in case he is forced to leave.
But there was also an extremely poignant double edge to this scene, for what the cast and crew knew and the audience didn't was that veteran character actor Michael Thoma, who played Greg Crandall, was nearing the end of a long, courageous battle against cancer. Thoma was an old friend of FAME's executive producer, William Blinn, and he asked writer Parke Perine to produce a special story to enable everybody on FAME to show Thoma the affection they felt for him.
The song “Starmaker” was chosen for the final scene because everyone agreed that it perfectly expressed the way they felt, both about Greg Crandall in the series and about Michael Thoma the actor in real-life. The cast had never put so much emotion into anything as they put into that “Starmaker” sequence in “A Special Place”. Not just the regular cast, but all the extras too, formed a semi-circle in the rehearsal hall, facing the band, with Bruno on piano, and the easy chair in which Mr Crandall sat. From the moment the first notes sounded and the first dance moves were made, no one could fail to be aware that something special and magical was happening. You just had to look at people's faces, the tears glinting in their eyes, the intensity of their expressions, to know that what they were showing were real, not acted or faked. Carol Mayo Jenkins, who plays the English teacher Miss Sherwood, and had worked closely with Thoma/Crandall throughout the series, looked as if her heart would break. In turn, Debbie, Carlo, Valerie and the other FAME stars took over sections of the singing, and each used their solo spot to project their own personal farewell to the brave, sick man who sat before them, whom they all knew they would never work with again.
Indeed, it was Michael Thoma's last role, and his last ever appearance in front of the cameras. A few weeks later, at the beginning of September, he passed away.
In their grief, the FAME team still managed to feel pleased when their tribute “Starmaker”, did so well in the charts. And no doubt one of the things which helped the record's sales was the re-showing of this sequence from “A Special Place” on “Top Of The Pops”, which helped the general public to realise the touching story and the genuine emotion which lay behind the song.
This interview was provided to me by Elaine Prescott.
The article above is from the Official Fame Magazines from 1983. The OFFICIAL FAME MAGAZINE was published by Beat Publications Ltd. and the interviews are copyright MGM/UA Entertainment Co.