Steambath KCET 1973 PBS classic!
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Steambath KCET 1973 PBS classic!
by Cary O'Dell

WHEN PBS GOT NAKED!

Steambath Art Metrano+ Bill BixbyTo find non-cable TV’s first example of on-air nudity, one would not naturally look to public television.  But, yes, that is where it was.  In 1973, over the national airwaves, on the channel then best known as the home of “Sesame Street,” PBS went full-frontal across America’s small screens.

The program in question was titled “Steambath.” 

“Steambath” began its life as a stage play written by Bruce Jay Friedman, who stated after its debut that he got the idea for it after eating some bad Chinese food.

As the title suggests, the play is set within the confines of a steambath where an eclectic group of men AND women have gathered and spend the majority of the play schvitzing and wrapped only in white towels.  As the comedy/drama unfolds, the lead character of the play though learns this is not an actual steam bath at all but is, in fact, heaven or, at least, the afterlife where the recently-departed meet, chat and with the help of God--in this case, presented in the persona of a Puerto Rican bath attendant--make peace with their existence, past and present. 

As can be further ascertained, with most of the onstage characters barely concealed for the duration of the play, happenstances of nudity was not hard to find within the production.

Nudity in the New York theater was not an unheard of thing by this time.  Established, long-running shows like “Hair” and “Oh, Calcutta!” (both with their share of exposed flesh) had each already bowed on the boards by this time.  So, hence, “Steam’s” heat did little to ruffle too many Big Apple feathers. 

But it also didn’t attract that many audience members either.  After a tumultuous rehearsal period, the show--starring and directed by Anthony Perkins--opened on June 30, 1970 and closed 128 performances later.

But, a couple years later, on the other side of the country, “Steambath” got resurrected.  And got a lot more attention.

Steambath KCET production with Ed Asner + Bill BixbyLA-based PBS station KCET, in 1970, began helming an ambition slate of dramas for public television stations across the country.  These productions, shown under the umbrella title of “Hollywood Television Theater,” were an array of ambitious and prestigious works.  The series began with the acclaimed drama, “The Andersonville Trial,” directed by George C. Scott and starring Jack Cassidy, Richard Basehart and William Shatner.  Later titles included “The Last of Mrs. Lincoln” with Julie Harris and “Monteserrat” with Rip Torn and Geraldine Page.

Then, in 1973, KCET announced that they were produce a TV version of “Steambath.” 

 

That, after such serious, high-brow entertainment like “Mrs. Lincoln” and “Andersonville,” KCET decided to option "Steambath” seems odd especially as the New York stage version was not a success in terms of either box office or critical response.  Nevertheless, into made-for-TV undertaking got underway.  The announced cast for the program was to include TV familiar Bill Bixby (in the lead), Valerie Perrine, and Jose Perez as the bath attendant/God.  The rest of the cast consisted of a group of stalwart film and TV characters actors including:  Herb Edelman, Kenneth Mars and Art Metrano.

Already scheduled on many PBS outlets throughout the country, just a couple of weeks prior to its, um, unveiling, PBS must have gotten a little nervous—for, in April of 1973, they presented a closed-circuit airing of the program to their affiliates and then left the decision to air it or not up to each of them individually.

Steambath 1973 PBS Jose Perez + Bill BixbyOnce screened by station managers, a number of PBS stations quicky yanked “Steambath” from their schedule, hastily replacing it with something—anything—else. 

As it had on stage, the TV version of “Steambath” featured some plain-as-day nudity.  Via her role, Valerie Perrine became the first US actress to bare her breasts (albeit briefly) over broadcast television.  Later, two bare male backsides are also visible during the program.

But, interestingly, by this time, PBS was not adverse, nor untested, in regard to nudity.  Since PBS imported many of is program from the UK—where over the air TV has fewer content restrictions—US public television had already show bare body parts in programs like its highly successful “I, Claudius” series.  But, for some reason, US-born nudity was just a step too far for many affiliates.

But it wasn’t just the nudity that was problematic.  Within “Steambath” there was some adult  and unseemly language—including the utterance of a gay slur—as well as two gay characters and, of course, the depiction of “God” in the personage of a Puerto Rican steambath attendant.  So there was a little bit to unsettle everyone.  (And this was supposedly after 20% of the original play got re-written already!)

In the end, of the 143 PBS stations across the country at that time, the great majority of them steer-cleared of “Steambath.”  In the end, only 40 stations carried it and, even then, most chose to air it in late-night supposedly—hopefully—away from children and more “sensitive” viewers.

But for those PBS stations—most of them in the major cities—that decided to air the program, they were richly rewarded for their gumption.  Many garnered their station’s highest-ever ratings ever as audiences turned in to be stimulated, to see what all the fuss was about or because they had such a strong commitment and curiosity to New York absurdist theater.  (Enjoying the high from the original airing of the program, a few PBS stations across the nation even re-aired it again—an “encore,” if you will—later in the year.  See it again!  Or, if you missed it the first time!…)

The day before and the day after its original airing across the country, it seemed everyone had an opinion about “TV’s first R-rated comedy.”  By and large, though not rapturous, reviews of the program were positive with many critics appreciating the rabid farce of it all.  But public reaction was decidedly more mixed.  Not long after “Steambath’s” airing, a Philadelphia newspaper published some of the letters from viewers it received.  Some wrote in calling show “enjoyable,” some called it “garbage.”

The division among the public, the program being blacked out of some parts of the country and a lack of uniform critical support soon regulated “Steambath” to something of an interesting footnote in TV—and public TV—history.  Though the special was nominated for two Emmys that year—for “Outstanding Special” and for “Outstanding Writing (Adaptation)”--“Steambath” did not become a hugely notable broadcast.  It also didn’t became a stand-out credit among any of its cast members, nor did it usher in a rash of similar “adult” themes.

Interestingly, however, once cable TV became a thing, “Steam” rose again.  In 1984, Showtime launched one of its first original series.  And, you guess it, it was “Steambath.”  It was reworked as a TV series by producer Joe Byrne.

For the series, Jose Perez repeated his earlier role while Robert Picardo, Al Ruscio and Janis Ward filled out the cast.  Notably, guesting in one installment was actor Dick Shawn who was once slated to star in the original NY staging of the show back in 1970.

Since this “Steambath” was on pay-cable and not broadcast, it didn’t have to shy away from flesh or foul language.  In fact, it could embrace it!

But despite these liberties, the cable channels were yet good at creating sustaining series.  And after just six episodes, this “Steambath” got shutdown, thus bringing to an end (for now) TV’s unique relationship with this property and its bit of scandal.


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