The Cheers Conspiracy

Before there was the place where everybody knows your name, there was Park St. Under, an eerily similar local sitcom. Did it quietly serve as the basis for the most famous TV show about Boston ever made?

Photo illustration by Andrew Davis

A few days after the official start of fall in 1982, the headlines were a bleak reflection of life in Ronald Reagan’s America. Tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union were on the rise again, the nation’s economy was still dragging itself out of a recession, the Steve Miller Band’s “Abracadabra” topped the Billboard Hot 100, and the top-rated TV programs included The A-Team and Falcon Crest. Few knew it yet, but a new show was about to debut at the end of September on NBC. In time, an adoring fan base (especially in Boston) would lionize it as a new classic—a hallowed place on Thursday nights where everyone knows your name.

Cheers would go on to earn a special spot in the collective pop-culture consciousness, winning 28 Emmy Awards, lasting for 275 episodes spanning three presidential administrations, and seriously pissing off at least one late-night talk-show host when the cast showed up drunk for a live taping of The Tonight Show after the series finale (25 years ago this spring). It’s hard to think about a world where Cheers didn’t exist, and most people with any kind of connection to the show’s legacy, or to Boston, for that matter, wouldn’t want to try.

But three years before Sam, Diane, Frasier, Carla, and Norm, there was another group of quirky barflies on the airwaves around Boston. September 1979 marked the debut of Park St. Under, a show (stop me if you’ve heard this one) about a Boston neighborhood bar, led by a Red Sox player turned bartender; a short, dark-haired employee with attitude; a world-weary civil servant working for the local government; an absent-minded old-timer offering comic relief; and yes, even a local psychiatrist turning the show’s barroom into a regular place of both business and play. Produced in Needham on a modest budget, it has been touted as the first local, independent weekly sitcom ever made, and during its short run it revolutionized ideas of what an independent broadcast TV station could do. Perhaps most important, it was a hit with Boston audiences before it faded into the pop-culture ether.

While the world has all but forgotten Park St. Under, a few true believers remember it as a novel, hyper-local show—and insist that its legacy, to the extent that it has one, is as the sitcom that inspired (or was possibly ripped off by) a bunch of out-of-towners who made Cheers, the most famous show ever about Boston. The tale has persisted as a nugget of local trivia, an urban legend stoked by hometown pride that gets dredged up every so often, or gets posted on Reddit. It’s the “story that will not die,” sighed the Globe in 2001. Even the official history of Channel 5, which produced and aired all 36 episodes of Park St. Under between 1979 and 1980, reads: “WCVB is the first station in the country to produce a weekly half-hour sitcom. The program is said to be a precursor of Cheers.”

But was it? I decided to find out.

In many ways, Park St. Under’s fleeting success was a product of the times. In the late 1970s, local airwaves were filled with cheap, low-ambition, cookie-cutter schlock. While network TV was headed into an exciting new age, local stations mostly served as transmission points for big-budget shows in syndication. If profit was your motive, there was little incentive to dip a toe in the production game. In this wasteland, though, Boston’s ABC affiliate, Channel 5, stood out as a renegade.

Starting in 1972, when a progressive-minded brain trust of academics, industry professionals, and media idealists called Boston Broadcasters Incorporated (BBI) took over the station, WCVB had pursued the civic-minded mission of producing good, original TV that spoke to the needs and interests of the people and communities it served. And it was good TV. Under the guiding hand of founding general manager Bob Bennett, the station became a place of experimentation and innovation that pushed the bounds of what a local outfit was thought capable of. Enough of it worked that TV legend Norman Lear (of All in the Family fame) later told the New York Times that Bennett was “the best local broadcaster in the nation.”

It didn’t take long for WCVB to attract serious national attention from the networks. Its morning news show, Good Day!, which first aired in 1973, was such a hit that ABC used it as the model for Good Morning America, which premiered two years later. The Baxters, an “interactive” sitcom that split its time between the moral quandaries of a suburban family and an audience discussion, was picked up for national syndication by Lear in 1979. “It was a new venture, in some ways, for a local TV station to do that kind of prime-access show,” says Ted Reinstein, a reporter for Chronicle (another WCVB creation) who briefly had a role on Park St. Under. “They did outside the box.”

So why not try a comedy?

When Park St. Under premiered in September 1979, its appeal was steeped in the WCVB ethos: It would offer, in granular detail, a reflection of life in and around Boston, addressing neighborhood-level gripes and woes with people who looked and sounded like the same folks you’d find sitting next to you at any local bar. With plot points taken directly from the pages of the Globe and the Herald and a subversively brash humor-as-class-warfare swagger, it was like a big inside joke. And it was a revelation.

Viewers would get a whiff of this townie vibe right from the show’s opening theme—a bluesy shuffle accented by era-correct saxophone riffs and hometown-crowd-pleasing shoutouts, originally recorded on a four-track. And it’s damn catchy.

Bos-ton! Bos-ton!
The T’s running late/Heating on short
The taxes keep climbing/King’s holding court
Tuition increases/Students don’t cheer
Sports fans always cryin’/Wait till next year!
It’s true that living costs a lot/But no city’s got what Boston’s got
Big-city life gets too confusing/Find a place that’s amusing
Where’s that, you wonder?/Park St. Under

As the theme rolls, so do scenes of iconic Bostonia that changed regularly, such as the T slithering across the Longfellow Bridge, Haymarket merchants, a rookie Larry Bird driving in for a lay-up, traffic downtown as an MBTA bus rides the tail of a car. And naturally, the characters got their due during the freeze-frame actor introductions.

In the original cast, there’s Red Sox star turned Park St. Under bar owner Augie, played by local comic-on-the-rise Steve Sweeney, cursing at the sky over a parking ticket. Then, smiling over the top of a newspaper, is the flighty waitress Bonnie, played by Karen MacDonald, one of the founding members of the American Repertory Theater at Harvard. MacDonald also sang the theme, tweaking the lyrics each week to include some tidbit from the headlines, be it cutbacks in MBTA funding or the latest Red Sox implosion. “All stuff to make it topical,” she told me. Marvin, the droll MBTA driver, waves as he emerges from the actual Park Street T stop in full uniform. He was played by Jim Spruill, a local actor and beloved BU professor. Brad Jones as Harvey, the resident balding shrink who doles out expertise or gibberish to whoever’s bellied up to the bar, rounds out the original cast. Over time, characters such as Fitzy, a dimwitted elderly bartender played by Charles Welch (better known, perhaps, as the Pepperidge Farm guy), and the venom-tongued, dark-haired cook Maxine, played by Lanie Zera, joined the show. As the opening song fades, the camera takes us down the concrete stairs and into the eponymous bar.

Sure, it looked a little hokey and fly-by-night, but that’s only because it was, shot on a shoestring budget and tight deadlines. WCVB producers made each episode for $10,000 at a time when the cost of network sitcom installments was rising to $1 million apiece. Local and New York–based talent would arrive in Needham on Friday night and run through the script before shooting in front of a live audience on Saturday. Sunday was for editing, and every Monday night for the course of its life the show would air at 7:30 p.m.—a two-day turnaround. It was a manic, wild passion project.

The show was an almost instant hit. For the first time, Bostonian identity, ethos, and pathos had its own TV sitcom, and people loved it. Despite the rough edges, it spoke to people in the city. But the magic couldn’t last, and the program experienced one shakeup after another. Between late 1979 and March 1980, casting changes sent MacDonald, Jones, and Zera back to the stage, and Spruill returned to BU. Eventually Sweeney was replaced by Lou Criscuolo, who played bar-purchasing businessman Nick DeMarco, when the producers wanted a more professional actor. Scripts began targeting a national audience and soon the Boston feel disappeared, as did the local eyeballs. By June 1980, the show was killed for good. And that seemed to be that.

Only it wasn’t. In 1982, a friend of head writer Arnie Reisman who was working at an NBC affiliate in Washington, DC, told him about a new show planned for national debut in the fall and mentioned that he might want to take a look. He taped a copy and secretly slipped it in the mail to Reisman. It was the Cheers pilot. “It was pretty much a copy,” Reisman says. “We called over Bob Bennett and showed him the tape. You watched all the red go to his face. We thought he was going to burst a blood vessel.”

In an age when the whole history of pop culture seems to be just a Google search away, it’s easy to forget the things that are being lost to time—the bits of cultural ephemera that don’t quite make the cut for archives and digitization projects. In TV, for every defining show that’s carefully saved for future generations, untold others rot away or get tossed when storage is tight. When I first heard the theory that there was a Boston show that had been Cheers before Cheers, I fully expected to discover that I’d simply missed out on a well-known secret. Except I couldn’t find much information about it: just a dodgy Wikipedia page sourced to a dead link, a clip of the opening credits, and a grad student’s blog post that pulled all the rumors together. WCVB, I’d heard, had dumped its archives of the show. There was almost nothing to suggest that the sitcom had survived—outside of a dwindling collection of aging memories.

As my research led down one dark alley after another, I started to wonder if the legend of Park St. Under and Cheers was more like a game of telephone in which someone had overstated the similarities of the two programs and the story had gotten twisted over time. After all, there are only so many ideas under the sun, and setting a show in a bar—the kind of place where creative types spend a lot of time—and setting that bar in Boston, a town that’s no stranger to drinking, is not exactly revelatory.

Without an archive to go to for answers, I went to the next-best thing: the people who made Park St. Under. And they’re certain the creators of Cheers shoplifted their show.

“I was like, Are you fucking kidding me? ” Zera recalls thinking after watching Cheers debut. “Are they allowed to do that?

“We didn’t know all the details, but we heard from the people at WCVB about this new show that was a rip-off of Park St. Under,” MacDonald says. “We saw it and were like, Wow.”

“There was no question. It was a direct rip-off,” Sweeney says without hesitation. “It felt like a personal rip-off for me.”

Bob Bennett, who died in 2016, told the Globe: “It was heartbreaking to have it stolen.”

While there’s no shortage of accusations, there seems to be a dearth of definitive proof. Cheers director James Burrows has long denied his show was lifted from Park St. Under, maintaining that it was inspired by Duffy’s Tavern, a radio program created in the 1940s by his father, Abe, a Tony Award–winning humorist and writer. The troika of Cheers creators—Burrows declined to comment, and Les and Glen Charles did not respond to attempts to reach them—claimed to have modeled the Cheers bar on Boston’s Bull & Finch, which they visited while developing the sitcom.

After Cheers first aired, former Park St. Under cast members say, there were rumblings of lawsuits and other attempts to fight back. Bennett had been aiming for a job with ABC and had made a reel of WCVB programming that was circulated to network development offices, fueling theories that someone had seen it and lifted the idea for Cheers. In the end, though, no one thought they could win. And even if they somehow did, television is a tight business, and no one likes a troublemaker. “It’s a David-against-Goliath situation,” Reisman says. “Only David doesn’t even have a slingshot.”

Photo by Michael Hutcherson at Northeast Historic Film

Since the Cheers controversy never made it to a courtroom, I figured the only way to find out if it was a rip-off was to track down the original Park St. Under footage, if it still existed, and judge for myself. Turns out, it’s in storage in Maine.

In 2014, heaps of old WCVB tapes were slated to be hauled off to the dump. It was then that David Weiss, the director of Northeast Historic Film, a nonprofit archive in Bucksport, Maine, got a call from a friend and former Chronicle producer. A few years before, two artists named Michael Hutcherson and Gary Fogelson had created a retrospective show that highlighted WCVB’s heyday. The producer asked Weiss if the archive wanted the stuff bound for the trash heap. Weiss said yes, and the collection was plastic-wrapped, put on pallets, and shipped up to Maine in bulk. A room full of original masters of all sorts of WCVB programming was listed on the inventory of items, and Park St. Under was among the booty. But while the tapes are safe, no one has watched, let alone digitized, the entire collection.

Even though I couldn’t view the whole series, I was able to watch enough episodes—from both early and late in the run—to get a taste of what everyone was talking about. Take, for instance, the Halloween episode from the first season. The subterranean pub has a dark-wood bar with brass trim, and the exposed-brick walls are cluttered with typical Boston tavern junk. To prepare for the bar’s party, the place has been decorated with pumpkins, and Maxine, doing her gaudiest Julia Child, is conjuring “Quincy Market–Style Halloween Brew” (Kraft singles, the face oil of “out-of-towners,” some pot, a “splash, about two gallons or so, to taste” of Wild Turkey) when a despondent old woman schleps into the bar. She’s being forced out of her apartment in the South End, she complains, because it’s being turned into condos. Augie rolls his eyes and groans, “How’m I gonna get Quinzy Mah-ket types in heah with her type in heah?”

The resident bar shrink, Harvey, sidles up to her like Frasier Crane hearing the cries of a soul needing psychiatric expertise across the airwaves of Seattle.

Harvey: “Look, I’m Dr. Harvey Dorfman. I wrote the book Success Through Fear. [Audience laughs.]…I live in the South End, so perhaps I can help you. And I’m a psychologist, so I’m qualified to help you. And I’m sympathetic, so I’d like to help you. Can I help you?”

Woman: “Get lost. [Audience laughs.] I’m a victim of condo perversion.”

Harvey: “You mean condo con-version.”

Woman: “That, too.” [Audience laughs.]

It’s pretty standard sitcom stuff, if not the most polished, but then the episode takes a civics-lesson detour that never would have made it onto a network show. Bonnie remembers a new facet of the city’s rent-control laws that might help the old lady out. “Hey, White stole that idea from Timilty!” Harvey snorts, dragging in a wonky quibble from the mayor’s race between Kevin White and Joseph F. Timilty. They both call folks they know in White’s office on the bar phone, but the arc is never completely resolved.

Finally, the episode ends with Bonnie (“Dorchester’s own!”) delivering a peacocking performance of the Gershwins’ “I’ve Got a Crush on You” to Augie with a dash of early Sam-and-Diane-esque, will-they-or-won’t-they tension. Roll credits.

So, is it Cheers?

The similarities between the two make an argument for some kind of influence. The question of whether Cheers took something from Park St. Under, however, obscures something vital: As special as the little Boston sitcom was, and there’s reason to think it was truly loved, it was never going to be Cheers. It had its shot. ABC Entertainment president Tony Thomopoulos had met with Bennett and seen the show after hearing how cheaply the episodes were being made. He told Bennett, “I like them, but I just want to tell you they’re really not deserving of being on the ABC network level. But how are you doing them at that price?”

One reason, perhaps, why the legend lived on so long is that Cheers affirmed that there really was something great about Park St. Under. “I was possessed the moment I first saw Cheers,” says Robert Patton-Spruill, son of Jim Spruill, who was unflinching in his position that the show in one way or another was robbed by Cheers. As a kid, he relished knowing what he calls the “real story,” and takes pride in his father’s Park St. Under legacy. Had the series caught on nationally, he says the elder Spruill—the only African-American member of the cast—wanted to use it as a platform to talk about issues facing black and inner-city communities. “I mean, he represented ‘the diversity guy’ on the show,” Patton-Spruill says. Patton-Spruill proudly carries the conspiratorial torch for the show on behalf of his father, yet accepts it’s just one of those things. “The show has been off the air for 20 years,” he says. “There’s nothing for them to gain by saying on their deathbed: ‘Yes, by the way, I stole Cheers from Park St. Under.’ That’s never going to happen.”

To me, the things that are so lovable about Park St. Under—the local feel, the rough-around-the-edges inside jokes that make it seem familiar—aren’t the things that made Cheers such a hit. Cathy Perron, a Park St. Under coproducer who worked on every episode of the show, told me something to that effect. With its production woes and shoestring budget, she didn’t even think season two of Park St. Under was likely to happen. The claim that Cheers made off with a ready-made hit misses what the local show really was—the good and the bad.

Does this mean the legend is finally done? Doubtful. In fact, it’ll likely live on even if the old episodes ever make it out of storage and are digitized for the public. The claim that Cheers looted the show is just too juicy and has been part of local legend for too long to be forgotten entirely. Besides, nobody can hold a grudge like a New Englander.

And if nothing else, it makes for a hell of a bar story.