As a gay man of a certain age, especially living in the Twin Cities as a young man, The Mary Tyler Moore Show was like a beacon of possibility. So many gay men moved from the Dakotas and Iowa to Minneapolis and started new lives here, leaving behind family sadness or worse, and created new families and new history in Minneapolis. “You can have the town, why don’t you take it,” was a siren call to those who hoped for something better, and thought they deserved love and snowy redemption.
I remember my parents watching the first season of The Mary Tyler Moore Show and snidely opining throughout that it would never catch on, never be a hit, because MTM was just recycling her Laura Petrie schtick, and who the hell wanted to see that. That’s the sort of baseline cynicism and disregard for romance that was my upbringing: I was only preparing to escape from a deadly repressed suburb to the city (life and art throwing imitation around: the scathing Ordinary People was written by a woman from Minneapolis), but I was as much Mary Richards as all the other gays who’d escaped Fargo, practicing here before moving on to Chicago, L.A., or New York.
I studied Mary Richards’ apartment as though it held the clues to the origin of life, and in a way it did. She was all about style, and proud self-representation. She was interested in sophisticated things: the symphony, the opera, but she ate in coffee shops, and scrimped for a cheap winter get away to a tourist trap villa in Mexico. She was real, and wryly funny, self-deprecating, kind to a fault, but scrappy when she needed to be. She relocated for opportunity, and to escape a stifling life she didn’t identify with: she was what I understood and felt, even though at the time, if I’d proclaimed her a hero, I’d likely have been locked up.
Her romance (and it was) with Rhoda exemplified how to not fear or push away flamboyance or the warmth and value it brought to a distracted professionally-driven life. Again, studying Rhoda’s apartment, which may as well have been a furnace with its reds, oranges and fuschias, I was reminded that I could never be as wholly polished and preppy as Mary’s idea of aspirational living, and that some chaos and disorder (not to mention proud ethnicity) was a legitimate choice. They were rife with symbolism, Mary, Rhoda, and their apartments, even the early battle Rhoda waged for respectability and Mary’s lease. At the time, those who assimilated and passed were far more likely to get the rewards, even in urban conclaves of gays, and already, the flamboyant were cast as the best-friend Eve Arden types or worse: as an accessory to demonstrate “tolerance.” This played out a few times in their relationship, each envying and resenting the other a little, and it was like fuel for life, watching their love keep the conflict in check.
I longed to lose myself in my work like Mary did: I wasn’t a journalist, or an office worker: oddly enough my career started in retail as a window dresser and display artist, so I was an peculiar hybrid of Rhoda and Mary. I loved having an inconvenient commute, a real slog in which I pictured myself in my own opening credits montage, on a city bus back to my apartment in Uptown, a short distance from Lake of the Isles, where a great deal of the opening credits were filmed, and where Mary’s “real” house stood.
My studio apartment (it kind of had a bedroom: it was a chilly, drafty three-season porch) had baskets hanging on the walls, the walls coated in lease-breaking paint jobs, and of course, a goddamn wooden “M.”
Everyone got the “M” reference, but I also had the little easel with the lion canvas on it, that perched on the bookcases that formed a step down in Mary’s studio apartment; this I constructed and painted myself, and no one ever recognized its significance or origin, which was fine: it was between me and Mary that I was copying her so blatantly and lovingly.
Mary Richards (and so by extension, MTM) taught me how to be graceful under pressure, to be honest and vulnerable, to walk away from most of the hostile, mean-spirited, crappily patriarchal family bullshit I’d been dipped and deep fried in, and that it was possible to reinvent myself for the better. Her aspirations were less about acquiring wealth and luxury (although as a design kid, I admittedly got carried away with aping the packaging of her life: I think I hoped that if I got that part right, the rest would follow) and more about living a rich life surrounded by people she loved. And romance.
I still get a twinge of that feeling, that sense of nervous, anything’s possible community I had with her and all the other Mary Richards baby gays, when I hear that opening, “bow-bow-bow” bass at the beginning of her theme song. In later years, my boyfriend of a decade and I would lie in bed at night and watch her on Nick At Nite, and we developed a silly ritual that meant a lot to us, the sort of thing that happens spontaneously and becomes the sort of glue that holds a relationship together. We even performed it by phone when one of us had to travel for work, and after we broke up and he moved away, had a couple of sad rounds of it across the country.
We’d narrate the opening of the show, in a lazy, rote way, and it was a little like reciting a prayer, had the same singsong, memorized quality that the Catholic Mass of my childhood was steeped in. There’s her name, her name exploded, Mary’s driving down 35, she’s looking pensively at her windshield, goodbye party, biting her lips, don’t get fresh, I’ve got flowers, she’s so pensive, here’s the parkway, her butch car, crappy skyline in an ugly morning, sun flares, zoom, zoom, that’s a Calder, that’s not here, striding along, fur coat at Isles, fur hat and swingin’ that purse in Kenwood, enough with the zooms, Donaldson’s ain’t cool, twirl, twirl, toss the tam, and... credits. (That was the first season opening: later seasons allowed us to intone, “toss the meat, Mary.”)
It was our nightly bedtime prayer, our acknowledgment of where we’d been and how we’d worked hard to be better people than our upbringings dictated, and that love was all around. Love will always be all around, as long as Mary is spinning around somewhere, spraying optimism and wary hope like a damn fire hose. That opening smoggy, ugly-morning skyline of the city: that’s my Ellis Island, and Twirling Mary is my Statue of Liberty. The peculiar, wonderful thing about Mary Tyler Moore: I don’t think she’d be surprised by any of this. She’d decline any credit, but she seemed aware, and to be able to enjoy the knowledge that she’d been part of something that was inspirational many times over, for many different people. She was the best.