book reviews

A review of Inside Fame on Television: A Behind-the-Scenes History, by Michael A. Hoey…

Lately, I’ve been overdosing on 80s era television. I don’t know why I do this so often, especially since I didn’t have the greatest childhood. A lot of people enjoy being nostalgic. I think our memories have a way of softening the realities of the past.

One of my favorite memories from the 1980s was my devotion to the TV show, Fame, an hour long program about the students and faculty at the fictional “School of the Arts” in New York City. Based on the 1980 movie of the same name, Fame premiered in 1982 on NBC. I was in the fourth grade. After two years on NBC, the show was canceled, even though it won awards and was critically acclaimed. However, even though NBC passed on Fame after two years, it was popular enough that the producers brought it back in syndication, where it continued for another four years, finally ending in 1987.

Ahhh… music to my ears. This is an extended version of the TV show’s theme, sung by Erica Gimpel. The song was made famous by Irene Cara.

Although the “School of the Arts” doesn’t exist, the story was based on a couple of real life high schools for talented students in New York City. And because the show was about kids who wanted fame, it had a lot of singing and dancing in it. I think I liked the singing and dancing the most when I was a kid, but as I got older, I appreciated the stories more, particularly in the superior early seasons. Anyone who watches the later seasons of Fame will understand what I mean. It truly did jump the shark in a big way with some ridiculous plot lines and musical numbers!

Michael A. Hoey, author of Inside Fame on Television: A Behind-the-Scenes History, worked on the television version of Fame for five of the six years it aired. I happened to discover his book about a week ago. I was bored and doing some random Googling when I came across an excerpt of his book. Based on what I read on Google, I decided to purchase the Kindle edition, even though there were a couple of reviews that indicated that I might not enjoy it. I have a pretty high tolerance for bad writing, though… it’s definitely higher than my tolerance for bad singing, which I’m sad to say, was occasionally an issue on Fame. Seems like that show focused more on dancers than singers.

Anyway, Hoey has written a fairly comprehensive account of what went on behind the scenes on Fame. Some of what he wrote surprised me, and some stuff wasn’t at all a surprise. For instance, he writes that actor Billy Hufsey was a bit of a legend in his own mind, much like his character, Christopher Donlon was. That doesn’t surprise me. But then he shared a rather off color anecdote about why Mr. Hufsey didn’t want to wear a “dance belt”. The anecdote was funny, but then, I like off-color humor. I also had to look up “dance belt”, because not coming from the dance world, I didn’t know what it was or what it looked like. I guess I can see why some guys don’t like to wear them, even though they probably keep the family jewels safe and the audience’s sense of modesty safer.

For the most part, I thought Hoey’s book about Fame was interesting and well-written; however, there were quite a few instances in which an editor’s help would have been beneficial. For example, there was a character named Jesse Velazquez on that show. He was played by the very talented Jesse Borrego. On at least one occasion, Jesse’s name is spelled “Jessie”. Similar minor errors appear throughout the book. Same thing with Carol Mayo Jenkins, whose name is sometimes spelled “Carole” or the last name, Jenkins, is left off. These are minor but annoying glitches that a round with an editor would have helped clear from the manuscript.

Another thing I noticed was that Hoey wrote this book as if he was writing to friends. Sometimes he let his personal opinions about the actors and musicians come through in a surprisingly nasty way. He clearly wasn’t a fan of Janet Jackson’s. She was briefly on Fame during the third season and it was pretty clear that she wasn’t a good fit for the show, for whatever reason. I have read Janet Jackson’s thoughts on Fame, too, and she wrote that it was an awful time for her. Hoey writes that Janet Jackson was very rude to him and others and, at one point, he writes that “she performs when her health allows, but she’ll never be as big of a star as Madonna is”. Madonna, by the way, also auditioned for Fame and was passed over. I thought Hoey’s comments about Jackson were kind of mean-spirited and inappropriate, not to mention untrue. Janet Jackson isn’t as hot as she was in the 80s and 90s, but I would certainly never imply that she didn’t make it big. She definitely did.

Hoey also writes about actress/singer Loretta Chandler, noting that she has a “magnificent voice” and reminds him of Jennifer Hudson. But then, when describing an energetic dance number Loretta did as her character, Dusty Tyler, he points out the “she’s not a small person (putting it politely)”– that’s exactly what he wrote– which I thought was kind of rude. It’s true that Loretta Chandler is what the Germans would call zaftig, but I thought Hoey’s added comment “(putting it politely)” was unnecessarily mean and more than a bit rude.

Hoey writes that Cynthia Gibb didn’t seem to have that “sparkle” that some of the other players on that show had, then notes that she went on to work a lot after she was on Fame. She even played Karen Carpenter on the 1989 made for TV movie, The Karen Carpenter Story, and she was in a few big screen movies in the 1980s, including Youngblood with Rob Lowe. Hoey incorrectly describes Cindy Gibb’s all of movies as “made for TV”, but the truth is, she did do a few actual motion pictures that were in movie theaters. I got the sense that he relied a lot on his memory for this book which, I’m sad to say, isn’t always perfectly accurate. It would have been better if he’d double checked some things.

This book includes a lot of information about the writers, producers, and directors of Fame. That information may or may not be of interest to all readers. I am glad Hoey included some information about the powers that be, as it gave me some insight as to how the show worked. However, I don’t think most people who would want to read this book are looking for an exhaustive blow by blow of the behind the scenes people. A lot of people want to know about the people who starred on the show. Personally, I think Hoey included a pretty good amount of info on the players, but I see some reviewers on Amazon note that they got bored by all of the discussion about the producers and directors.

There are some photos included in this book, which aren’t as effective on Kindle as they probably are in the print version. I found myself looking on YouTube to find some of the episodes and clips Hoey mentions, which was fun for me. I especially got a kick out of watching Debbie Allen doing a dance number with her husband, Norm Nixon, who played for the Los Angeles Lakers and, according to Hoey, is NOT a dancer. They did some pretty good editing for this clip.

If you watch the distant shots, you can see that there’s a different guy doing the fancy footwork.

I liked that Hoey mentioned a lot of episodes and musical numbers. He also included some information about how Fame was once sold as a thirty minute show, forcing editors to remove plot lines and musical numbers so that it would fit in time slots. Needless to say, the thirty minute versions did not go over well at all. I happened to see a few of them back in the day and was glad to see them scrapped.

Hoey writes a bit about Michael Cerveris, who played Ian Ware, a British guitar player in the latter episodes of the show. I actually got to meet Mr. Cerveris once. In 1994, when I was a college senior at what was then Longwood College (it’s now Longwood University), I went on spring tour with the college’s auditioned choir, Camerata Singers. We did this tour every spring to recruit new talent. At the end of the week, we’d go to New York City for a couple of days and catch a Broadway show. That year, I saw Tommy, and Michael Cerveris had the lead role. Michael Cerveris is from West Virginia and he was friends with the acting teacher at Longwood, Pam Arkin (who I believe has since retired– I remember she first came to Longwood when I was a sophomore, back in 1991). Anyway, a few theater folks who were also in Cams sent a note backstage and we got to meet Michael Cerveris. I remembered him from Fame, but he’s now a successful Broadway performer. I tagged along with the theater gang because I was the only one with a camera. Below is a shot of me circa 1994, complete with 90s hair…

And yes, that is Michael Cerveris… that hair of mine is killing me!

Overall, I enjoyed reading Inside Fame on Television: A Behind-the-Scenes History. While I wouldn’t give it a five star rating, I do think it’s a good read for those who enjoyed watching Fame. I know I wasn’t the only one who loved that show. I miss TV shows that took me to a different place and forced me to suspend disbelief. Fame had some really good, hard hitting, well written episodes in the early years, but it did later become a pretty cheesy plot driven show, instead of the character driven show it once was. It probably went on longer than it should have, but even the crappy later episodes are guilty pleasures for me. And it’s always a treat to watch the super talented but sadly departed Gene Anthony Ray dance, or listen to Nia Peeples sing as she dances. This book makes me want to watch more Fame clips on YouTube, or even revisit the first two seasons of the show, which I managed to download from Apple TV. If you liked the show too, maybe Michael Hoey’s book would be good reading for you.

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