Throwback Thursday: When John Travolta Was Not Safe for Boston

In the midst of the busing crisis, Boston's ABC affiliate decline to air "Welcome Back Kotter."

Credit: ABC, via Wikimedia Commons

Credit: ABC, via Wikimedia Commons

We’re in the month of new network TV shows, and while some of them may offend our artistic sensibilities, network affiliates probably won’t have to go out of their way to tailor the schedule to Boston’s politics.

That wasn’t always the case. In 1975, ABC premiered a new sitcom, “Welcome Back Kotter,” centered on teacher who returned to his old high school to teach a rowdy group of students, among them a young John Travolta. When the show first premiered, it didn’t air in Boston, where the ABC affiliate WCVB declined to pick it up to their schedule.

The star, Gabe Kaplan, recalled to USA Today, “they were very scared over something nobody else in the country noticed: the ethnic background of all the different kids.”

While the rest of the nation probably wasn’t entirely color blind, integrated classrooms were of particular note in Boston that fall. In 1974, a judge ordered that Boston racially integrate its schools by busing students to different schools. The ruling set off protests and riots, and by September 1975, WCVB might have been concerned that “Kotter’s” depiction of a happily integrated classroom would irk some viewers.

But the show was an immediate ratings success, and five episodes later, the Boston affiliate relented and put it on the air. By June of 1976, the Boston Globe was calling Travolta “TV’s newest sex symbol.” That same year, Kaplan came to the State House as part of a young voter registration drive. He “toured the State House … amid similar flurries of excitement, strolling through the marble corridors like the Pied Piper, with a throng of agitated adolescents trailing behind him,” the Globe reported. For Boston, busing and reintegration remained a controversy. But here, as in the rest of the country, “Kotter” was a hit.