Set in the 1970s, this ensemble comedy follows a traditional Irish-Catholic family, the Clearys, as they navigate big and small changes during one of America's most turbulent decades. In a working-class neighborhood outside Los Angeles, Mike and Peggy raise eight boisterous boys who live out their days with little supervision. The household is turned upside down when oldest son Lawrence returns home and announces he's quitting the seminary to go off and "save the world." Times are changing and this family will never be the same. There are 10 people, three bedrooms, one bathroom and everyone in it for themselves.
The series is inspired by the childhood of creator/executive producer Tim Doyle, who also narrates in voiceover and was touted for the comedic but realistic portrayal of family life in that era. Production Designer Michael Whetstone and Set Decorator Claudette Didul SDSA International embraced the challenge of ensuring the accuracy of the environment and home life. SDSA International Executive Director Gene Cane points to small period and culturally correct details, such as in this Catholic parish/neighborhood, each of the homes portrayed had some of the same religious artifacts. In particular, we see a framed embroidered cross and the praying hands framed print in the Cleary
living room, also on a wall in a neighbor’s house and in an old folks home
A precise slice of life.
Didul shares some of those details and behind-the-scenes notes, and in the photo gallery above, Whetstone joins her in revealing aspects of their creative process for the series.
Karen Burg, Editor
Notes from Set Decorator Claudette Didul SDSA International...
“We had a terrific set decorating team for the pilot and the series with the amazing buyer help from John Bradley and Karen Riemenshneider for the pilot and for the series, Caryn Marcus and Melissa Licht. Everyone went beyond the call of duty to shop for period correct items including appliances, fabrics, bedding and lighting.”
“When you do period shows, it’s like ‘archeological’ set decorating. We had a 5-day shoot each episode, and you hoped the scripted items would be easy to find...especially when you overlapped with Props and Wardrobe! We were lucky enough to have a great prop department: Andy Grant on the pilot,, Ian Sheibel for Episodes 1-6 and Skip Torvinen, Episodes 7-23. Our Costume Designer, Susan Michalek, was wonderful and always helpful. The collaboration throughout was inspiring and made for a joyful adventure.
All in the family...
“We used a few reference pictures from Tim’s family photo album that actually showed one of the 3 piano-sized organs that his mother had in their lifetime in the house...and a few of Michael’s family photos, predominantly of his family’s dining room, which had the classic-looking Ethan Allen maple furniture. I was even able to find a bar cart and hutch cabinet that looked similar to what Michael grew up with in his childhood home. That maple furniture was still very prominent in the 1972 Sears catalog, as well as the Harvest Gold side-by-side fridge. This was particularly significant because Tim was emphatic that unless the network requested specific holidays to be depicted, we were perpetually in the summer of 1972. Another challenge!”
“For research, we used several different years of Sears catalog and other period books from the 1950s, 1960s and early 1970s, plus old magazines, like California Homes
from that era. The Bill Owens books (SUBURBIA) were also a tremendous help.”
Pilot – shooting on location...
“For the pilot, Michael found a location in Studio City, a ranch house built in the 1930s, that we had a short time to paint and wallpaper, and a day to dress! This included swapping out the refrigerator, the kitchen faucet, the light switches and all of the overhead lights and sconces, inside and outside.”
“The bunk-beds boys’ bedroom
in the location house had a full-sized mural we couldn’t paint over so Michael built a false wall to cover that.”
“The living room
had a huge white bookcase wall with a TV wall unit that would be period incorrect, so Michael had construction cover it with wood paneling, including inside the shelves...and we were able to place the organ in front of that and shoot from behind the wall.”
“John Bradley found a working organ on Craig’s list. Sitting by the organ in the Cleary
living room is a large collection of sheet music from the 1960s and earlier, that I discovered at an amazing estate sale our location manager, Chester Wong, found when scouting locations. We were fortunate enough to get approval/clearance from ABC Studios to use Ebay, Etsy, Craigslist and estate sales, in addition to our essential prop houses.” *
“One thing many set decorators know, it is very difficult to pull together character-related period items for a pilot where you usually only have 3 weeks to shop and bring it all together. You want to fulfill a director/creator’s vision quickly, and sometimes (or often) you do not have the set available or location quite yet determined, which adds to the challenge to figure out what furniture will work best!"
"Our director had a certain vision for the interior that, when translated, required the sofa in the living room to be a certain size to seat at least 3 people, but small enough to walk around from both sides of the room.”
From location to stage...
“Once the show was picked up, Michael had to re-create the location house on stage, as well as a backyard
and a functioning garage
, a duplicate back porch AND eventually a duplicate kitchen
with double stove, fridge, kitchen cabinets and all of the smalls that were in the stage kitchen. He also created 3 tree houses: for the stage, the back yard and a location tree house he built to take to an Encino yard to act as the neighbors’ yard.”
“Caryn Marcus dove in to help source and purchase the garage pieces. We traveled to City of Orange and to Whittier to try to find old workbenches and cabinetry, not to mention a lot of tools and smalls to place all over. We even found a working early-1960s compressor from Glass Horizons.”
“For throughout the whole house, both the pilot and the series, we shopped for period correct books and board games, particularly to fill the living room shelves. Lots of framed embroidery. All bedding, including sheets, was vintage...all of the photos are in period frames. Tim’s mother loved to collect cute religious figurines and she loved plastic flowers, so we were always on the search for those to dress into the shelves all over the house and on her beloved organ.”
“As we progressed through the season, the gags increased, so sometimes we would have to duplicate furniture to break, light fixtures to swing from, bedspreads to spill wine on.
The vintage pieces took quite a work out.
Boisterous is an accurate term!”
*Didul notes the essential resources SDSA International Business members provide.
For this series, particularly:
Omega|Cinema props (lighting, all drapery and furniture upholstery/manufacturing)
Pinacoteca Picture Props
History For Hire
Hollywood Studio Gallery
Hollywood Cinema Arts
Loveseat Vintage Furniture
Practical Props (purchase and rental)
Dazian Creative Fabric Environments
Alpha Companies Motion Picture Rentals