Why Glenn Gould Loved The Mary Tyler Moore Show

MTM winter

If it’s true that Glenn Gould was as good a person as those who knew him said he was, then it’s no wonder he loved The Mary Tyler Moore Show.  Here was a 1970’s sitcom about a thoroughly decent, thoughtful and polite single girl, who worked as an associate producer at WJM, a friendly television news station in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

There it is, a program about a good person, living alone in the north and happily working in the field of media and communications.  It’s practically Glenn, well, minus Mary’s great sense of fashion.  Of course, Glenn was notorious for dressing in drab colours and, his shoes were, according to Lorne Tulk, almost always untied.  Glenn also wasn’t one for looking after his things.  Can you imagine Mary Richards, the main character, hauling around her typewriter in a green garbage bag?  This was how Glenn transported his special piano chairs.

Personal appearance aside, there are a great many similarities between Glenn and Mary.  Take for instance, their inability to tolerate violence of any kind.  In the episode, “You Sometimes Hurt the Ones You Hate” from season 5, Lou Grant, Mary’s boss, throws anchorman, Ted Baxter through a door for having endorsed a political candidate on the air.  Upset, Mary tells Murray Slaughter, her coworker, that she doesn’t believe in physical violence.  “The thought of someone being physically injured, I just don’t like it,” she says, “I never have.”

Glenn was very much the same way, particularly regarding animals and, in an effort to protect innocent fish from meeting their dreadful fate up at the Gould family cottage on Lake Simcoe, Glenn would bustle about in his motorboat, nicknamed the “Arnold S” (that’s “S” as in Schoenberg) stirring up great waves and frustrating those with rods in tow.

On the topic of animals, it appears from the opening credits of the show, that Mary also loved dogs.  Season 3 opens with footage of Mary lovingly giving a friendly pat on the head to a neighbourhood dog.  Those unfamiliar with Buddy, Sir Nickolson of Garelocheed (Nicky) and Banquo, need only perform a Google image search for the phrase “Glenn Gould dogs.”

That same third season intro features Mary participating in a number of Gouldian pasttimes, ranging from driving around in her car, to walking outside alone in nature during wintertime.  I can’t help wondering if Glenn’s love for the show had something to do with the outdoor photoshoot that he would have a few years later in 1974, with photographer, Don Hunstein.

Handily, the show’s intro can be viewed online:

Let’s be clear though, Glenn would never have been caught shopping for a loaf of bread in the afternoon.  A midnight run for Arrowroot biscuits however, yes, that’s more like it.

As regards the whole driving thing, it’s interesting to note that Glenn treated driving as a kind of piano practice session.  According to Lorne Tulk, Glenn would think of the dashboard as a kind of keyboard.  “Glenn knew where the notes were,” Lorne said, “he could ‘see’ them and visualize the jumps.”  Glenn might not have been much of a practicer at the instrument, but he sure did put in the time out on the open road.

Mary’s newsroom colleagues (Lou, Ted, Murray and, in the later seasons, Sue Anne Nivens) were likeable characters, none of which had much of a social life.  As such, they were more than colleagues, or for that matter, friends.  They were family.  This aspect of the show is present in all 168 episodes, not the least of which is “The Last Show” which aired here in Canada on March 18, 1977.  Glenn would have been forty-six.

I think a lot of why Glenn loved the MTM show, was because it involved a team of good, kind and caring people working in the field of media and communications.  In a nutshell, Mary and her colleagues were doing the kind of work that interested Glenn.  “The most interesting people to have around one,” he remarked in 1969, “are people who are in a position to make synoptic judgments, diplomats, foreign service people, people in communications, journalists sometimes if they don’t get too caught up in the clichés of journalism, but definitely not artists.”  Maybe it’s a bit of a stretch, but I really think that the MTM show validated for Glenn, a lot of what he was trying to do with his own work in the recording studio.  The show was also ridiculously funny, “Farmer Ted and the News”, “I Was a Single for WJM News” and “Chuckles Bites the Dust” from seasons 3, 4 and 6 respectively, being three of my favourites. 

For what other reasons might Glenn have loved the MTM show?  Take for instance, Mary’s love of music.  In both of her apartments (in season 6, Mary moved out of the quaint upstairs apartment she had in a beautiful old house and into a modern high-rise) we find a stereo system.  Ok, maybe there weren’t any Neumann U87 microphones or AKG speakers in Mary’s living room, but she did enjoy her records.

In the episode, “Ted’s Tax Refund” from season 6 for example, Mary’s stereo breaks down.  Lou comes over and gets the system up and running, after which Mary puts on a record of Schumann’s E-flat Major Piano Quintet.  Nice.

Mary at stereo 2
Happy Mary at stereo

Yes, it’s good to have Living Stereo!

Let’s get back to that whole idea of Mary being a good person.  I am certain that Glenn watched her show with a big smile on his face.  Incidentally, his dubs of the show are housed in the Glenn Gould Archives, at the National Library of Canada.  “Glenn worked very hard at being a good person.”  Lorne has repeated this phrase to me numerous times, as have a number of other individuals I have come to know, people who worked with Glenn in one way or another.  This was a man who left his entire estate to the Salvation Army and the Toronto Humane Society.  His life was devoted to the pursuit of ecstatic experiences and, to that end, Glenn viewed solitude as a prerequisite.

Glenn was also very much against competition and conformity (an obvious reason for his having loved J. S. Bach’s final work, Art of Fugue) and it was for this reason that he abandoned a successful concert career in order to devote himself to studio recording.  Here was a concert pianist who turned his back on giving recitals so that he could make radio and television programs, so that he could use technology not as a means of rejecting pre-existing material, but rather, to manipulate it in order to form new creative ends.

The episode that comes to mind here, is “The Outsider” from season 5, in which WJM hires a young hot shot to help improve ratings.  While Bob Larson does manage to successfully get the ratings up, the team realizes that, with his departure for bigger and better opportunities with the network, WJM may have went as far as it will ever go.  Feeling down about their overall place in the world of broadcasting, Mary rallies the troops, reminding them that ratings aren’t everything.  “What’s wrong with being a nice, friendly little station?” she says.  To be a good person, bringing kindness to others and without the need to always finish first or to make the most money, this is how Glenn lived.

One of the episodes that best sums up why I think Glenn loved the MTM show is “Ted’s Change of Heart,” from the seventh and final season.  After a mild heart attack brings about a change of personality for WJM anchorman, Ted Baxter, the rest of the news team take a deeper, more thoughtful look at life and why we are here.

Airing on October 23, 1976, the episode concludes with Mary, Lou and Murray at the window, taking in a beautiful sunset.  They’ve turned off the news and all of it’s violence and destruction, in order to have a little “ecstatic” moment.  This they do in the film room – a studio which looks not unlike those Glenn occupied at the CBC – amidst reels of film, projectors and such.  It is a moment of goodness, of not caring about ratings or competition.  It is very Glenn.

WJM sunset
WJM sunset 2

If you don’t already know this wonderfully made television show and, in particular if you admire the work of Glenn Gould, then I hope this little post inspires you to watch the MTM show.  When you buy your next book or box set of Glenn-related material, think about adding to the cart, a wonderful gift of love and laughter.


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