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Connections to our area

There have been several deaths of celebrities that have made the news during the past several weeks, but three in particular stand out — not only because of how they touched many lives on different levels, but because they had a connection to our area.

No look back at the work of Fred Willard, Phyllis George or Annie Glenn, could, however, be complete without remembering how they were involved with our communities.

Willard, who died May 15 at the age of 86, was known for the style he brought to comedic roles in a career that stretched from the 1960s until shortly before his death. The characters he portrayed most often made us laugh — think Buck Laughlin, the dog-show announcer in the film “Best of Show” or Ed Harken, the television station news director in “Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy;” his portrayal of Willard J. Fredericks on “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno;”or any of the characters he portrayed more recently in “Everybody Loves Raymond” and “Modern Family.”

They were, according to The New Yorker, characters who were “gloriously out of their depths,” as Anita Gates chronicled in an obituary that appeared in the New York Times.

His big break, though, came in 1977 when he landed the role of Jerry Hubbard on “Fernwood 2 Night.” Hubbard was the sidekick to Martin Mull’s Barth Gimble on the talk show parody which was a spin-off of Norman Lear’s soap opera parody “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman.”

Both of the syndicated shows were set in what was described as being the “fictional” town of Fernwood, Ohio.

Except residents of our area know that Fernwood is not in any way fictional — it’s that little unincorporated area that sits near the entrance to Fernwood State Forest along Fernwood Road.

The shows had relatively short runs. “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman” lasted from January 1976 through May 1977, while “Fernwood 2 Night” ran from July 1977 to September 1977. They aired five days a week, and attracted enough attention that people from around the United States and the world, for that matter, became interested when they learned there actually was a Fernwood — and wondered how life there compared with how it was portrayed on television.

Among who helped share the story of Fernwood with the rest of the world was Marian Houser, the retired longtime city editor and community editor of the Herald-Star. She had the opportunity to write about Fernwood in a freelance piece she wrote for a tabloid, after clearing the assignment with her bosses at the paper.

“I went out and talked with Orrie Ennis, who was the defacto mayor of Fernwood,” Houser said. “There’s really not much there but the old store that sits near the railroad tracks. I remember I got a picture of a dog lying in the middle of the road in front of the store.”

There was nothing wrong with the dog, added Houser — it was just enjoying some peaceful time on a quiet afternoon.

Houser, who grew up not too far away from Fernwood in the Bantam Ridge area, said that store had played a vital role in the community.

“That was the only store I would see for six months at a time,” she remembered.

Merle Jeeter, who was portrayed by Dabney Coleman, was the mayor of the fictional Fernwood, and was a guest on the show.

Jerry and Barth didn’t stay in Fernwood for too long — their show moved to Southern California in its second year and took a new name — “America 2-Night.”

If you have never seen an episode of “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman” or “Forever Fernwood,” which the show became after title star Louise Lasser left the series, you can find them on DVD — they aren’t available on any digital platforms. It’s even harder to find an episode of “Fernwood 2 Night” — it’s not streamed either and was never released in any other format. And it’s likely it won’t be available soon — the show included a lot of music, and rights issues remain a tricky proposition. If you look hard enough online, you can find segments or an episode that had been saved on Betamax or VHS tape some 43 years ago and posted.

George, meanwhile, who died May 14 at the age of 70, is remembered as a former Miss America, a pioneer who helped open doors for women to become sportscasters and the former first lady of Kentucky.

George was among the first female sportscasters and had two stints on “The NFL Today” on CBS, with the first running from 1974 to 1978 and the second from 1980 to 1984. She worked with Brent Musburger, Irv Cross and Steubenville’s own Jimmy “The Greek” Snyder.

Snyder and George often felt that Musburger didn’t allow them to have enough air time on the show. That led to growing tension among the cast, which led to Snyder punching Musburger in front of Peartrees Bar on New York’s East Side. The exchange came at the end of a discussion that actually started earlier in the day in the studio and continued even after the staff headed out for drinks and dinner.

“From what I heard, Phyllis was putting pressure on Brent all day for more air time,” a source at CBS Sports said in a story that was written by John Carmody and appeared in the Oct. 29, 1980, edition of The Washington Post, “and that made both Brent and Jimmy sore … but Jimmy got even more mad because to him it looked as though Brent decided in her favor.”

And Glenn, who died May 19 at the age of 100, will forever be remembered as an advocate for people who had speech disorders and other disabilities as well as the wife of the late John Glenn, the celebrated astronaut and senator.

Glenn and her husband are fondly remembered by Houser, who had the opportunity to meet the couple when she covered their trip to Wintersville to dedicate a playground in Silver Stream Knolls.

“They were very gracious people. Everything you ever read about him — he was it,” she said. “They were very down to earth. She was quiet and shy, which was likely because of her stutter, but she loosened up a bit.”

Glenn gave her an autograph for her son, Bobby, Houser added.

Willard, George and Glenn — three people who represented very different professions but who each had a connection to our region, whether they realized it or not.

(Gallabrese, a resident of Steubenville, is executive editor of the Herald-Star and The Weirton Daily Times.)

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