On a sunny Malibu morning that eventually gave way to a grey and cold afternoon, a group of fans, media, and former creative principals of the legendary TV sitcom M*A*S*H gathered for a dedication ceremony at Malibu Creek State Park, the location used for the exteriors of the show that ran for 251 episodes over 11 seasons on CBS and is still one of TV’s best-loved shows 25 years after its final episode aired.
Actors Mike Farrell (Dr. BJ Hunnicut), Loretta Swit (Nurse Margaret “Hot Lips” Houlihan), William Christopher (Father Mulcahy), and Executive Producers Gene Reynolds and Burt Metcalf all spoke fondly of the show, and shared warm memories of their time together. One anecdote in particular sums up the overall feeling of the day: when asked if working on M*A*S*H made him a better actor, the now-93-year-old Harry Morgan, who played the tough-minded but eminently patient Colonel Potter, was said to have replied, “No. It made me a better person.”
The site itself now sports an exact replica of the iconic hand-lettered signpost with arrows that pointed the way to Boston, Seoul, Coney Island, San Francisco, Tokyo, Burbank, Death Valley, Toledo, and Decatur – just like the one that stood in the center of the fictional 4077th Mobile Army Surgical Hospital compound. Al Pepito, Malibu Sector Superintendent for California State Parks, notes that the sign will only be displayed on weekends, when either park security or a docent is present, so if the M*A*S*H sign appears for sale on eBay, call Al immediately!
To aid the festivities, original M*A*S*H blueprints were provided by 20th Century Fox, and the actual locations of the set’s tents and structures were outlined with rope and wooden stanchions around the site. Vintage military vehicles and authentic set pieces were also donated for the event. Future plans include special overnight camping, and park officials are considering projecting vintage M*A*S*H episodes on a bed sheet. “In the past, a lot of people have been disappointed to come out to see the set and find out there was nothing much to see,” said Superintendent Pepito. “We want to bring back the rich history of cinema here.”
M*A*S*H is not the only celluloid icon the park has played host to. Indeed, the facility’s 6,000-plus acres have served as the backdrop for thousands of movie and TV scenes since 1927. It doubled for Wales in 1941’s best-picture Oscar winner, How Green Was My Valley, and was also the mythical Shangri-La in 1937’s Lost Horizon. In 1968 it served as the primate-run doppelgänger Earth in Planet of the Apes, and in 1969 a relentless posse in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid chased Paul Newman and Robert Redford over a cliff. But for all the park’s rich cinematic history, M*A*S*H fans by far constitute the largest group of visitors looking to connect with a favorite cultural touchstone.
M*A*S*H originated as a novel by Richard Hooker, based on his actual experiences as a wartime surgeon in Korea. It was then turned into a darkly comic film masterpiece in 1970 by the estimable Robert Altman, and starred Donald Sutherland, Elliott Gould, Sally Kellerman, Tom Skerritt, Robert Duvall, and Gary Burghoff (Corporal “Radar” O’Reilly), the only actor from the film to reprise his role on the TV series. Although irreverent by television standards in the early 70s, M*A*S*H the TV show by design had a markedly lighter tone than its cinematic predecessor. Overlooking the series’ bothersome and unnecessary laugh track and the unfortunate furay into sanctimony in its last couple of seasons, what constitutes M*A*S*H’s enduring legacy?
For a start, M*A*S*H was written and produced by some of the 20th century’s comedic masters, most notably Larry Gelbart. Although Alan Alda (Hawkeye Pierce) was clearly the show’s star, M*A*S*H brought ensemble acting to a new level in TV comedy. Along with a handful of other programs from the 70s like All In The Family, M*A*S*H also proved it possible to blend comedy and social commentary within a sitcom, as many of its episodes dealt, variously, with racism, politics, military intransigence, post-traumatic stress, and other topics that were once taboo on network TV. Was every episode brilliant? Again, the last two seasons were, for many of the faithful, hard to stomach, as one felt preached to and lectured at rather than entertained. But the majority of M*A*S*H’s 251 episodes hold up due to their whip-smart writing and sharp acting, a claim few other shows can make.
Brentwood resident Charles Dubin, who directed 44 episodes, the most of any director on the show, believes that the restoration of the site, in addition to being a beacon for M*A*S*H fans, is also important for the local community. “[The site] gives a wonderful sense of being part of a great event, a very important time in our history.” Mr. Dubin refers to the Korean War, a conflict of particular resonance to the Santa Monica/Malibu area due to its large Asian population dating back to before WWII. Although M*A*S*H is a quasi-fictional account of that conflict and often called into question the moral imperatives driving American involvement, the show, and now by extension the restored set, serves to remind us that many local residents willingly went to war to support what they understood to be the cause of freedom.
When asked how he felt M*A*S*H compares to most current TV programming, actor/activist Mike Farrell was dismissive, if not downright contemptuous. “TV has become cheapened as a result of the cowardice of the people running it,” said Farrell. He added that if M*A*S*H had any lessons to teach Hollywood’s creative community, they were certainly not taken to heart. Despite occasional notable exceptions, it’s hard to argue with Mr. Farrell’s essential point that TV as a medium has, by and large, failed rather miserably.
Still nothing, not even inclement weather, could put a damper on the ceremony at Malibu Creek State Park. M*A*S*H is an enduring part of American pop culture, and to honor it on the very ground that hosted the 4077th is a form of well-deserved poetic justice.