A decade before AMC began to make its name as a home to highly rated and critically acclaimed TV shows, a tiny series set in a World War II-era radio station ran on the network from 1996 to 1998 before vanishing into the ether.
“Remember WENN,” a half-hour comedy-drama that aired on Saturday nights, made its debut 20 years ago on what was then known as American Movie Classics. It is now nearly impossible to find the show. “WENN” is not available to stream or on DVD. The only traces of it are bootleg YouTube clips. AMC’s first show remains one of its lost shows.
AMC is well known today for buzzy hourlong dramas like “Mad Men,” “Breaking Bad” and “The Walking Dead.” But in 1996, its viewership was mostly made up of older viewers and cinephiles. “You have to understand, we were doing so many things that were never done before,” said Rupert Holmes, the show’s writer and primary creator, sitting in his agent’s New York City office on a recent afternoon.
He continued: “AMC was primarily a subscription channel for classic movies. And when Ted Turner decided he should make his own network, TCM, to compete, AMC realized that it needed a property that it owned. So they branched out into making one original show. We became AMC’s first experiment.”
It was also Holmes’ first foray into television. The writer and singer of “Escape (The Pina Colada Song)” (1979), he had spent years writing plays and novels and musicals, including his Tony Award-winning Broadway musical adaptation of Dickens’ “The Mystery of Edwin Drood” (1985), before he was approached by Howard Meltzer, a television producer who had directed the music video for “Escape,” to work on “WENN.”
Meltzer said AMC had the idea to do a half-hour comedy about an old-time radio station, believing that it would fit right in with the channel’s classic film selections, and went to Holmes because, as he said: “Howard knew I had an obsession with vintage radio. I’d spend hours listening to programming from the Golden Age.”
The resulting show was a warm, wholesome portrait of American radio, complete with Art Deco microphones, authentic period costumes (down to the lingerie) and a sound effects wizard named Mr. Foley, who never spoke one word of dialogue.
Holmes had never tried writing a teleplay before. “I didn’t really know what I was doing,” he said, “so I treated it like theater. In the end, I was writing the world’s longest play.”
His description is accurate; “WENN” feels like a screwball theatrical farce. Every scene was set inside the Pittsburgh radio station, leading to a lot of swinging doors, backroom scheming and snappy dialogue being hurled back and forth.
Because “WENN” shot in New York, it used a stable of largely unknown Broadway actors to fill out the ensemble cast. (Betty Buckley and Patti LuPone were among several of the show’s better-known guest stars.)
“We called ourselves off-Broadway TV,” said Kevin O’Rourke, who played the debonair con man Scott Sherwood. “We were used to working long hours for no money; we were used to working as a company. I actually used to joke that the writing was on the wall for the show when they started to pay more than my Broadway quote. During the fourth season, they raised our salaries from $1,000 per episode to $2,500. That’s when I knew it was over.”
Holmes said the show’s skimpy budget was a blessing in disguise, letting him write without much network intervention. “I got to develop story arcs without telling anyone,” he said. “And by the time they gave me notes on a script, I would call them and say, ‘These are wonderful notes, but we shot this yesterday.’ ”
He continued: “There were episodes that I wrote in 72 hours before sleeping. One of them is called ‘If I Die Before I Sleep’; I knew I would have to write it over two nights, so I made the episode about the cast trying to beat the Guinness record for performing radio without sleeping.”
Broadcast on a network that had never aired a scripted weekly series before, “WENN” wasn’t the easiest show to track down. “The fans we did have just adored it,” Holmes said. “Because the tone was so gentle, and sweet, and unlike anything else on television. We were unabashedly sentimental, and never vulgar.”
“I used to call it the best-kept secret in cable,” Meltzer said. “The first season when we were nominated for a SAG award for best comedy ensemble and we hit the red carpet, no one knew who we were.”
After four seasons and more than 50 episodes, the show was canceled in 1998. Meltzer says the news was devastating. “A new person came to take over AMC, and he only spent about 40 minutes on our set,” Meltzer said. “He canceled us on the beginning of a three-day weekend, and we only found out from a fan site.”
That person was Marc Juris, who now heads WE tv, a sister channel of AMC, which he left in 2002. He says that while “WENN” was “an experiment that in the long run paid off,” he felt that he needed to make room for a different show that more closely reflected the network’s classic-movie culture. “The Lot,” a drama about a Golden Age film back lot, made its debut in 1999 and lasted two seasons.
All that Holmes and Meltzer want today is the ability to give fans old and new a chance to somehow experience “WENN.”
They have not had any luck. “I went back to AMC a few years ago, couldn’t even get a box set put out,” Meltzer said. “No one even knew where the contracts were.”
In 2007, nine years after “WENN” went off the air, AMC rebooted itself as a prestige player by offering the debut of “Mad Men,” a show that many new viewers perceived as the network’s first original series. Holmes says he cannot bring himself to watch “Mad Men.” It hits a bit too close to home for him.
“It is a period piece that they marketed as their first-ever original series,” he said. “But it wasn’t their first. We were their first. And I know that acknowledging us hurts the narrative, but Disney made cartoons before Mickey Mouse. Ultimately, I don’t blame them, but I still want to strangle them.”