by Joan Mayher
Why she couldn't deny the black child who cried out to her.
Submitted by Windjammer
He stood on the set, stood tall, this black youngster who wore his pride like a badge of honor.
Elizabeth Montgomery sat not far away, studying him while he studied the new and alien world around him a world of white people and white success. It was the Bewitched soundstage, where dreams were turned into television realities that would effect and influence viewers around the world.
Elizabeth Montgomery Is a Creative Force
Raised in the ghetto, having had little contact with white people for most of his 16 years, he stood now, alert and tensed, surveying this place of television filmmaking he had never dreamed he would be allowed to visit much less have a chance to be a part. But that was before he had a chance to learn there were people like Liz Montgomery and Bill Asher in this world, people who care, who want to help, and who give more than idle lip service to such sentiments as "If more of us invited minority groups into our lives maybe we'd have a better chance to live.
Ghetto children, all of them. The boy Liz Montgomery watched so soberly, and his 23 school-mates who had come to visit the Bewitched set and who would leave the experience with hope, an awakening of excitement, and the confidence that, "if someone cares, gives you a chance, you can accomplish anything!'
All of his 16 years, raised in a ghetto, in the black section of Los Angeles, where he would be "educated" at Jefferson High School, an establishment, according to the Los Angeles Times, which has, "A lack of textbooks and supplies, a filthy building, broken windows, pill pushers and pimps on campus, gang fights, students on drugs and students struggling to stay off ... Like most of his classmates, that proud young visitor on the Bewitched set that day considered school to be merely a thing to be tolerated until one could get back on the streets again.
His teacher, 23-year-old Marcella Saunders, summed up the situation at Jefferson High when she said, "In one class only six students were reading at the school level. At Jefferson High, less than 1% were reading at the ninth grade level; 44% read on the third grade level and the other approximately 65% were either down or slightly up from that figure."
The problems didn't end there, revealed the concerned, dedicated young schoolteacher. She reported that in many of the students were not writing nor comprehending at high school level. If they could read the textbooks given to them, they often couldn't understand what they had read.
What was the answer? Was there an answer, any help for these young people? Was there a way to turn them on, to open up their minds to education?
She discovered the solution through Elizabeth Montgomery and her producer/husband Bill Asher and 24 black children found the world wasn't a cold, uncaring place after all.
Responding to a phone call from the teacher that informed her of teaching problems and the fact that Bewitched was the students' favorite show, Bill and Elizabeth invited the class to their Screen Gems set. But they did more than that. They made sure the young people would get there, these youngsters without cars, many of whom did not even have the money for bus fare to Hollywood.
Asher, a man of action, chartered buses for the class to bring them to the set. Not once, but on numerous occasions. And then he and Elizabeth proceeded to make sure each occasion would be a memorable one.
Her eyes lighting up when she talks about the visits and the inclusion into her world of the young strangers who were to so closely touch her heart, Liz reveals, They were so shy at first, withdrawn. But so well behaved! So courteous and polite!
The Ashers took them to the studio commissary for lunch, and soon the youngsters began to relax. Back on the set, they began to ask meaningful, intelligent questions. They had found something they were interested in. The apathy had vanished. They had been turned on, and wanted to know as much about this new world as Bill and Elizabeth could tell them.
Bill gave the young people copies of the script so they could follow the filming procedure. And later he sent 30 copies of other scripts to the high school for classroom use.
The reaction to this initial encounter with Elizabeth and Bill Asher and their Bewitched world?
School teacher Saunders says it was remarkable. "All of a sudden kids who could never write before, were writing three pages. Kids who could not read were now doubling up on scripts and fighting over who would portray Samantha and Darrin."
She asked the students to write compositions detailing the studio experience. The papers, the way she describes them, "were fantastic." They returned to the Bewitched set on three different occasions, and each time were welcomed warmly by Bill and Elizabeth Asher.
"Each time they seemed more interested, more eager to know about technicality of the production," reports Liz. 'What kids. Just marvelous. Outstanding!"
The Kids Join the Cast on the Set of #213
These, the same children who a few months earlier had been considered educational wipe-outs! But that was before they had something to learn for, the motivation to excel.
And then the motivation grew from outstanding to amazing when one student in the class suggested, "Why not surprise the Ashers with a present?"
A thank-you gesture for the Ashers, who had extended the hand of friendship. But what would be a fitting gift for a couple who had everything? What better than a Bewitched script written by the 24 members of Miss Saunders' class!
The script had to be something special the students decided. It had, beyond good writing and good grammar, to say something, mean something. And so the class worked together, searching hard for a plot. What they eventually came up with was a story about Tabitha meeting a new friend, and wishing they could become sisters. The girls, the class decided, wouldn't be white, wouldn't be black they'd be polka dot, a blend of both colors.
Tabitha and Lisa as "Temporary Sisters" in #213
When the script was completed, the students made a trek back to Screen Gems to present their gift-wrapped present to the Ashers.
Elizabeth recalls, "We were overwhelmed!"
Not only because of the magnitude of the gesture but because the script was so outstanding.
"Really," says Elizabeth, "we've bad manuscripts submitted by professional writers that weren't as well written or creative.
The Ashers decided that Sisters at Heart must be used as an actual Bewitched television segment a secret only they shared until they were sure the script could be used.
Bill hired professional writer, Barbara Avedon, to help expand the story into the necessary half-hour teleplay length.
Samantha and Darrin Keep A Racist Client In Check in #213
The students took part in the actual story conferences, the production meetings, and the rehearsal of the show.
And when, a year after they first presented their present to Bill, the show was filmed for a December 24, 1970 airing, those proud and happy high school students were right there to see their story translated to film.
Each time the Ashers met their young friends, the closeness grew. As Bill put it, "They're marvelous young people. They brought up questions that bowled me over.
He mentioned, too that, "This is just one tiny example of what can happen when you reach out a hand and care."
A dramatic example, and as it turned out, the story did not end with the filming of Sisters of Heart.
Everyone Loves the Happy Ending in #213
"We have remained in close touch with the children, reveals Liz. "We're convinced that many of them have bright futures now that the desire to achieve has been awakened in them."
An awakening, because someone cared, wanted to extend a hand of friendship and encouragement.
Elizabeth Montgomery is a person who dislikes talk show appearances. "They terrify me," she laughs. Yet, in spite of such terror, she made an appearance on Merv Griffin's show last December, to tell the story of these young black people who had become such an important part of her life. She couldn't be prouder of them if they were her children which in a way they are, for she has been partly responsible for the birth of their creation as aware young people.
What becomes of them now? "A fund has been created," explains Liz "and into this fund was placed the money they were paid for the Bewitched script. They've been able to buy new equipment for their school rooms, to acquire new teaching aids."
But more important than that, they've been turned on to achievement.
As one of the youngsters said, "We students at Jefferson High are never given a chance to prove what we are capable of doing because some feel we are too far gone to try to help. But there are people left who'll give us the chance to prove what we can do."
Elizabeth and Bill Asher proved that, and made the students realize that they were capable of accomplishing, of the fact, "We can do fine things if someone will just give us the chance."
Standing there on the Bewitched soundstage, tall and proud, there was one special student who watched with particular interest, and mumbled, "We're not going to blow it now not now that Mr. and Mrs. Asher have given us our chance."
Elizabeth and Bill Asher Off the Set of Bewitched