In the fifth episode of HBO's Treme, there was a familiar face playing a judge during a brief scene in a courtroom. It was Tim Reid, the actor probably best known to baby-boomer America as DJ Venus Flytrap in WKRP in Cincinnati — but in New Orleans, he'll forever be remembered as the star and co-creator of Frank's Place, the 1987 comedy that many critics and locals felt captured New Orleans like no show before it. Despite fond remembrances, Frank's Place has barely been seen since its original airing on CBS (no DVD set has been released) — so the May 24 benefit screening of two original Frank's Place episodes at the New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts will be the first time they've been seen by most people in more than two decades.
The impetus for the screening, says Treme writer Lolis Eric Elie, was Reid himself, who owns the master tapes of Frank's Place and cooked up the plan with Treme creator David Simon. "Frank's Place was revolutionary in the history of New Orleans television," Elie says, "and I think we're all surprised it didn't have the impact on television more broadly."
Frank's Place, which lasted 22 episodes, featured Reid as a Boston professor who moves to New Orleans to run his late father's 7th Ward restaurant, Chez Louisiane (based on chef Austin Leslie's real-life Chez Helene). Mixing comedy and drama, Frank's Place was shot on film with a single camera and without a laugh track, a common approach on cable today but something very different for a 1980s network program. Subtle, sly and unwilling to engage in stereotypes of any kind, the show was also steeped in Louisiana music, from the Louis Armstrong theme to the many songs interspersed throughout.
Critics and the audiences who managed to see Frank's Place loved it (a writer for the Baton Rouge newspaper The Advocate "put it in the company of a great American novel"), but CBS — uncertain as to the show's appeal in an era when cookie-cutter sitcoms like The Facts of Life and Who's the Boss? were crowd-pleasers — moved its time slot six times in one year before canceling it outright without explanation. Pained and angry, Reid quit the business for a while.
"I sold my house," Reid told Gambit for a 2008 cover story about Frank's Place. "I bought a farm in Charlottesville [Va.] and for one full year I didn't have a television in my house. I drove around on my tractor. I stayed out of show business for three years."
The NOCCA screening (which is presented by HBO and Treme and co-sponsored by Gambit) will also include a panel discussion about Frank's Place, featuring Reid along with the show's co-creator and producer Hugh Wilson. Also on the panel will be Elie, a former Times-Picayune columnist whose documentary Faubourg Treme: The Untold Story of Black New Orleans, featured real people very much like the fictional characters of Reid and Wilson's 7th Ward. Like many of its fans, Elie has not seen Frank's Place since its first airing on CBS.
"I would like to remind people of this very important show," Elie says, "and while I don't think it would influence the possibility of bringing it back into circulation, I hope this screening will remind people how good the show was.
"In the best of all worlds, this screening would be a catalyst to get it onto DVD."
HBO'S TREME PRESENTS "FRANK'S PLACE": A SCREENING AND CONVERSATION WITH TIM REID, HUGH WILSON AND LOLIS ERIC ELIE
Mon., May 24, 6:30 p.m.
New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts, 2800 Chartres St.
Tickets: $20; available at franksplace.eventbrite.com