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“The Cut” is a weekly reporters notebook-type essay by an Ideastream Public Media content creator, reflecting on the news and on life in Northeast Ohio. What exactly does “The Cut” mean? It's a throwback to the old days of using a razor blade to cut analog tape. In radio lingo, we refer to sound bites as “cuts.” So think of these behind-the-scene essays as “cuts” from Ideastream's producers.

Norman Lear, forever in Ohio

Norman Lear sitting with a cane, tips his hat.
Chris Pizzello
Ideastream Public Media
Norman Lear set his soap opera parody “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman” in Fernwood, Ohio. In 1977, he created the spin-off, “Fernwood 2-Night,” starring three Ohio natives — Martin Mull, Fred Willard and Frank DeVol.

“Localize it.”

That’s the phrase that flashes in my mind anytime a major story breaks.

“What’s the connection to Northeast Ohio? What’s the regional impact?”

Easy questions for stories involving politics, the environment or education. In the arts & culture world, it doesn’t always pan out. Yet in the past few months, we explored Ohio-centric story angles related to Beyonce’s tour, the director of “Grease” and a long-lost TV show from the 1960s.

Of course, when legendary TV producer Norman Lear passed away Tuesday, I immediately thought of the hours I’ve spent enjoying “All in the Family,” “Sanford & Son,” “Maude” and his numerous other shows.

Then I thought, “Is there a local story here?”

Lear grew up in the Northeast and eventually moved to the West Coast. Those are the settings for his most successful shows, with the exceptions of “One Day at a Time” (Indianapolis), “Good Times” (Chicago)… and “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman.”

The nightly, syndicated soap opera parody lasted just two seasons but gained a cult following for showing the seamy underbelly of Fernwood, Ohio. I usually see it listed as “a fictional town in Ohio,” but Fernwood actually exists. It’s an unincorporated part of Jefferson County, near Steubenville and Fernwood State Forest, near the border of West Virginia and Pennsylvania. Apparently, the town had its own post office until 1929.

Why was the name chosen for a show produced in Los Angeles? Lear often said he was inspired by a “Time” magazine cover story on striking autoworkers in Ohio. (Browsing through the archives, could it have been “The Blue Collar Worker's Lowdown Blues” in the issue dated Nov. 9, 1970?) No Fernwood-specific explanation seems to exist.

Actors Fred Willard and Martin Mull sit beside each other. Scott Simon sits across from them.
Ideastream Public Media
Norman Lear cast two Ohio natives, Fred Willard (left) and Martin Mull, in his cult classic "Fernwood 2-Night." The actors were interviewed in Cleveland in 2012 by Scott Simon (right).

In 1977, the show’s summer replacement, billed as the first totally fictional talk show, was even more Ohio-centric.

“Fernwood 2-Night” starred Martin Mull (from North Ridgeville), Fred Willard (from Shaker Heights) and bandleader Frank DeVol (from Canton). Unlike “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman,” very little of “Fernwood 2-Night” (or successors "Forever Fernwood" and “America 2-Night”) has officially come out on home video. Episodes abound online, sourced from ‘90s VHS tapes.

This remembrance of Lear’s work isn’t just meant as a trivia time-trip. I hope it conveys how proud I am to live in Ohio - even when the subject is a bizarre, semi-forgotten TV show. It’s why I always try to find a connection between our state and major news stories. And in writing this, I feel the same way I did after watching many of Norman Lear’s shows: I’ve learned something... Fernwood State Forest looks like 3,000 acres of fun.

"The Cut" is featured in Ideastream Public Media's weekly newsletter, The Frequency Week in Review. To get The Frequency Week in Review, The Daily Frequency or any of our newsletters, sign up on Ideastream's newsletter subscription page.

Kabir Bhatia is a senior reporter for Ideastream Public Media's arts & culture team.