Soapy, Talky, Spanky

I once heard a whisper that the 1976-77 spoof soap opera Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman, set in the fictional town of Fernwood, Ohio, featured a scene in which the unscrupulous Mayor Jeeter (Dabney Coleman) spanks his wife Wanda (Marian Mercer).

But the trouble with soaps, even parodic ones, is that they are not only huge but homogeneous, making it difficult to locate a particular incident without already knowing more or less which episode it happened in.

Occasionally, these scenes found their way into newspaper roundups of soap goings-on. So, for example, we know that in late November or early December 1981, The Young and the Restless featured the following:

‘Nikki turned the other cheek in gratitude when Victor spanked her for being a sex tease.’

That’s stripper Nikki Reed (Melody Thomas), spanked by her future husband, mogul Victor Newman (Eric Braeden).

Likewise, in Guiding Light in early October 1982:

‘After giving Vanessa a well-deserved spanking, Tony quit Wired for Sound.’

She’s the spoiled heiress Vanessa Chamberlain (Maeve Kinkead), who had a fling with dance club manager Tony Reardon (Greg Beecroft).

Now, it’s all very well knowing that these ladies were spanked, and more or less when it happened, but getting to see the episodes themselves is often a taller order. Occasionally, in the age of domestic video, viewers might set their recorders to tape the daytime soaps while they were out at work, and not record over them afterwards. That’s how we are able to see a later spanking in The Young and the Restless (Episode 9403, May 21, 2010), in which Daniel Romalotti (Michael Graziadei) has an argument with Abby Newman (Marcy Rylan), estranged daughter of the aforementioned Victor, after she attempts to become famous by posing nude on social media. You may or may not be disappointed that I can’t show you her nude…

but at least I can show you her being spanked!

A quarter of a century earlier, some time in 1985, someone’s VHS tape was running when Tony Dimera (Thaao Penghlis) had a row with his wife Anna (Leann Hunley) on Days of Our Lives:

And in Santa Barbara, Mason Capwell (Lane Davies) has a disagreement with his future lover Julia Wainwright (Nancy Grahn).

The outcome is:

The moment ends with a ‘Don’t you dare!’ which, unusually, succeeds in preventing him from following through, which is a pity. It’s also a shame that nobody thought to make a note of exactly when the scene happened, so we don’t have any sense of the context, though it can be deduced from what they say that it’s early on in their relationship, so maybe 1985 or 1986.

And when we don’t have the scene itself, that kind of vagueness is a problem. Take this character, Rita Jacks (Patricia Morrow) in Peyton Place:

It is said that Norman Harrington (Christopher Connolly) took her over his knee and spanked her in one episode – but which episode? The series ran for five years (1964-69) and 514 shows…

Similarly, there was talk of teenage Michelle Fowler (Susan Tully)

being put across someone’s knee in an early edition of the British soap EastEnders (launched 1985 and still running), but what chance is there of tracking that down? And as for reports that a cheerleader was spanked in One Life to Live (1968-2013)… well, I’d love to see it if it actually happened, but there were 3,697 episodes, and I’ve only got one life to live!

And that brings us back to the problem we started with. Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman ran for 325 episodes, and then, minus Mary Hartman herself, was retitled Forever Fernwood and ran for a further 130 episodes in 1977-78. To watch the whole series from end to end, continuously and without a break, would take more than nine days; if you whittle it down by excluding episodes in which the Mayor does not appear, that still leaves 278 episodes (or just under six days), and reducing it further to only the episodes with Wanda Jeeter gets us to 248 (still more than five days’ continuous viewing). That’s a lot of time to invest in a genre that isn’t much to my taste, in search of a scene that may be nothing more than a phantom.

There’s a more certain reward if we turn to the series’ temporary summer replacement, which aired while the production team was rethinking the show to accommodate the absence of the title character. This was a spoof chat show, Fernwood Tonight (or, with a sardonic nod to the usual media abuse of the English language, 2-Night), supposedly broadcast to the nation live from Ohio, and combining jibes at the awful triviality of small-town television with satire about matters of wider public interest.

One of these was school corporal punishment, ruled legal by the US Supreme Court in April 1977 and so a topically controversial subject among parents and teachers alike. The July 7 edition of Fernwood Tonight invited the local high school’s principal, Marshall Petty (Dave Cameron), to put his side of the argument and reassure concerned families that school spanking, as practiced in Fernwood, was wholly humane.

The sketch involves him giving a demonstration, using a pupil selected at random to be spanked live on air: Debbie Dunbar, played by Kathy McCullen.

He contends that spanking is ‘a warm, pleasant experience’ which simply shows the recipient that somebody cares about her and her behavior. And it doesn’t hurt, because no paddles or straps are used, only the fleshy flat of the hand.

He is also at pains to point out that Debbie is an A student who has done nothing wrong, and is not being punished: it’s only a demonstration.

But afterwards, the show’s cheesy host, Barth Gimble (Martin Mull), casts just a little doubt on the claims that it doesn’t hurt a bit by thoughtfully providing a pillow for her tender sit-upon:

There follows a phone-in discussion in which both callers are irate: the first thinks there are better candidates for corporal punishment than an A student like Debbie; the next is angry because she is Debbie’s mother, nuff said – and the embarrassment of the moment crashes them out of the item.

But that wasn’t the end of Debbie Dunbar. In the very next show, on July 8, Barth reveals that there has been a lot of viewer reaction to the item: many callers were for corporal punishment, many were against and some ‘just wanted to see more spanking’. There was also a death threat from Ma Dunbar (Jan Stratton); but instead of killing Barth, she has been persuaded to come on the show with Debbie to talk it out.

Mrs Dunbar admits that she may have overreacted: she changed her mind after receiving several phone calls from people who had seen the spanking – and who wanted to offer Debbie lucrative modeling contracts, including an advertising campaign centered on her bending over in a pair of tight jeans. And that just goes to show that every concerned mother has her price, and perhaps also that sometimes a good spanking really can do a good girl good…

Debbie then gets changed for the show’s finale, performing as a cheerleader while Barth gives an excruciating performance of the Morris Albert song ‘Feelings’.

Her quick-working mom has already set up Mother Dunbar’s Star Agency, and now tries to pull off the same trick twice with her other daughter, Stacey (Stacy Steffans),

by spanking her during the closing singalong!

Barth’s efforts to promote Debbie in a showbiz career featured in a later show, which only revealed the young lady’s painful absence of talent. Maybe it would have helped if, instead of singing, she’d gone back to being spanked…

She didn’t, but the expanding Fernwood media empire had one last shot at the subject, in the spin-off book Fernwood USA, published in December 1977. This included a reproduction of the ‘secret scrapbook’ of Mary Hartman’s daughter Heather, including a nice picture of her high school principal dealing with ‘the creep who sits behind me in Social Studies’. The principal is Mr Hall rather than Mr Petty, but his disciplinary methods are not at all dissimilar…

The second one, by the way, is a smaller variant that appeared as part of the book’s cover montage.

Note: The original July 7 sketch may be viewable here. The talky part of the July 8 followup is here, and the final section, with Stacey Dunbar spanked at the end, is here. Good luck to anyone trying to track down any of the rumored and unlocated soap scenes; if you find them, please tell us!

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