Question: I've got a question that will set you up for a dirty joke, I'm sure, but when I was a kid I swear I had a Partridge Family love kit. I'm sure it got thrown out years ago, but no one else I know has ever heard of such a thing. Did I imagine it? Lisa M., Newberry, S.C.
Televisionary: Dirty joke? This is a family column, Lisa. I don't work blue what do you think I am? (As the old gag says: Don't answer that.)
No, you didn't imagine it. After the hit sitcom launched on ABC in September 1970, a wave of Partridge merchandise hit the American public, which bought it all and asked for more. A good portion of that wave was based on teen heartthrob David Cassidy (Keith), and it included a two-dollar "David Cassidy Love Kit." Those who bought said kit were the proud owners of "a life-size, full-length portrait; an autographed maxi-poster three times life-size; a complete biography & childhood photo album; 40 wallet-size photos; a secret love message from David and a lovers' card with his name & yours," according to an ad for the product in 16 magazine, which offered it.
How many fans scraped together a couple of bucks for the kit? Plenty. "It's the super-biggest thing we've ever had," Gloria Staver, who helped pioneer the teen fan-mag movement, told TV Guide in 1972 (not surprising, considering her use of the term "super-biggest," eh?). "I ought to know. I created it."
But the Love Kit wasn't the half of it. Don't forget the Partridge books, magazines, comic books, lunch boxes, dolls, love beads, three-dollar color photos, bubblegum, cereal, T-shirts, children's dresses, blouses, diaries and astrological charts. One kids' clothing manufacturer came out with an entire line of clothing, boasting in a press release that "fashions from the collection are frequently worn by Suzanne Crough [Tracy] and Susan Dey [Laurie]... and are directly identifiable with the show. Jeans, dresses and jumpers are printed with the bus which the family uses to travel."
A special Partridge Family magazine, published by Tiger Beat, sold briskly, as did memberships in its Fan Club. Four Partridge Family albums sold a total of 200,000 copies in a single day at $4.98 a pop. Six Cassidy singles sold more than a million each, with "I Think I Love You" moving 3.5 million on its own. And Screen Gems, which produced the show, got a cut of everything.
Surprise, though when talking to the press, executives from the company heavily downplayed how much they were raking in. (Never underestimate the power of Hollywood bookkeeping.) By '72, when the bucks were rolling in, the actors didn't see much of them. At the time, Danny Bonaduce's mom said her son received a merchandising check for "a couple of hundred dollars," but nothing more. Dave Madden, who played put-upon band manager Reuben Kinkaid, said he hadn't "seen a nickel." And even Cassidy's manager said the merchandising percentage of his client's yearly gross, the majority of which came from concert tours and records rather than his TV salary, was "less than one per cent."
And you couldn't invent a character better than the Screen Gems exec who was in charge of all the merchandise: "Honest" Ed Justin, whose business card read "Hone$t Ed." Hone$t Ed was a pro at complaining about how little the merchandise brought in. "I'm embarrassed," he says. "Things get wildly exaggerated. If I don't add a few zeroes I sound like a bum. Our royalties for the past two years have hovered right around $500,000. That is not a fantastic amount of money." According to Hone$t Ed, he wasn't "privy" to the balance sheets showing the exact financial take, and he had too much integrity to slap a Partridge Family logo on every possible tchotchke. "We have to be careful not to cheapen with too much merchandising," he said. "If we could grab every buck we were offered, we'd kill those Partridge kids."
To Partridge producer Bob Claver, the bucks they did grab were too much. "I fought this licensing thing," he said. "I don't mind the lunch bucket. I guess what I'm really disturbed about well, say there's a doll. I absolutely won't use it or anything else on the show." (There was a doll, in fact Patti Partridge sold for $12.95.)
Now, I don't know about you, but to me that's the big shocker right there a Hollywood producer willing to turn his back on money.
(And if all this talk of money is bringing you purists down, feel free to have a look at my last Partridge column, in which I discussed the two versions of the theme song.)