Barbara Eden, <EM>Harper Valley PTA</EM> Barbara Eden, Harper Valley PTA

Question: A friend and I were talking about, of all people, Barbara Eden. Was Harper Valley PTA really her first show after I Dream of Jeannie? If so, what happened to her during the time in between?

Answer: Good question, Brian, and Ms. Eden herself didn't have an answer for you when interviewed in 1981. "I don't know," she said when asked why 10 years went by before she again starred in a series. (Jeannie was canceled in 1970 and Harper Valley debuted on NBC in 1981.) "It wasn't a question of not being wanted. The shows they found just didn't work."

No, they didn't. In fact, three networks and at least a dozen of TV's most creative types tried to come up with a series for her, while she earned high ratings doing variety specials, singing appearances on The Tonight Show, a successful run in Las Vegas and 13 TV-movies. The verdict: "We should never have canceled Jeannie," Mort Werner, a programming executive with NBC when that hit was axed, admitted.

Others stepped in. ABC got in touch and tried to make something happen. "Jeannie was too tough an act to follow," Marty Starger, an ABC programming staffer at the time, said. "We never could seem to top it."

And so it went. Industry types decided Eden was too old-fashioned. Barney Miller's Danny Arnold came up with a show called The Toy Game for ABC, but it didn't fly. "I had in mind something more contemporary and a little sophisticated," he said. "Barbara played a divorcée, and the story had to do with her attempts to adjust. But they didn't want that. Smacked of 'sensationalism,' they said. They were still thinking in terms of Jeannie."

Eden didn't let it get to her. "I like to act," she said. "I know I have an audience out there, but let someone else do the worrying." She used the free time to get her personal life in order, divorcing her first husband and marrying Charles Fegert, a Chicago newspaper executive. For his part, Fegert was happy to make the social scene with his pretty, famous wife in tow while she raked in the bucks with the aforementioned work plus a gig as a spokesperson for L'eggs pantyhose. But that didn't mean he was happy with what others had done to her career. "Why [the networks] didn't recognize they had a hot commodity there I'll never know," he said. "No question she was hot. Las Vegas knew it. Madison Avenue knew it. Why, the product manager of L'eggs himself says she had the highest level of correct brand identification of anybody in this kind of advertising. Why not in TV [series]? It offends my business sense."

The dry spell lasted until 1977 when Cincinnati theater magnate Phil Borack decided to make a movie out of the 1968 hit song "Harper Valley PTA," which told the revenge story of a woman, wronged by gossip, who got back at the gossipers in nastily satisfying ways. (Those of you who find the song-to-screen concept odd were probably not '70s-era fans of Peter Frampton in Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, Robbie Benson in Ode to Billy Joe or Kristy McNichol in The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia.) The film, with Eden as the vengeful Stella Johnson, cost $1.25 million to make and it grossed $25 million. Yet the TV types still weren't impressed until the movie aired on network TV in 1980 and earned a 42 share. Suddenly everyone was interested, and Harper Valley became a series.

Of course, those of you who know your TV history also know what happened next: Stella got her groove back on the small screen, but not for long. Harper Valley PTA launched in January and was shortened to just Harper Valley in the fall. The following August, it was shortened to nothing at all.