Archie and Edith Bunker have long had their place in the annals of American folklore; now they have their place in the annals of the Smithsonian Institution. Their famous chairs have been put under glass and on exhibit, and last night they were unveiled to an audience of Washington hoi polloi and the stars of "All in the Family" itself.
Jean Stapleton, Rob Reiner and Sally Struthers, along with series creator Norman Lear, all made the trip from Hollywood for the ceremony, but Carroll O'Connor, the great actor who plays the immortal Archie, had been ordered by doctors to remain in Los Angeles after a burst of high blood pressure sent him into a major nose-bleed backstage at Sunday night's Emmy Awards.
O'Connor was piped in by telephone however, so that he could tell the crowd over a loudspeaker. "This particular honor, where the Congress of the United States sees fit to honor our continuing play, is really a great thrill for me. No other honor done to Norman and us in the cast can possibly equal that and I thank you from the bottom of my heart."
Among those applauding him were Judge John Sirica, Sen. Barry M. Goldwater (R-Ariz), CBS Entertainment President Robert Daly and CBS Broadcast Group Chief Gene Jankowski, Reiner's wife Penny Marshall (Laverne of "Laverne and Shirley") and Rep. John Brademas (D-Ind.), who first wrote to Lear last year and suggested donating the chairs to the Smithsonian for permanent exhibit. Smithsonian Secretary S. Dillon Ripley told the crowd last night that "All in the Family" was as much as "social commentary" as a comedy and that it had stimulated audiences to re-evaluate their prejudices and attitudes, their dreams and ideals." He said the chairs came from "one of our nation's best-known living room."
Earlier in the day, the "All in the Family" crowd stood in our nation's best known Oval Office, where they met two more fans of their show, Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter. This turned into an orgy of mutual admiration, as Lear and the others praised Carter for his big peace special on TV Sunday night. It didn't hurt that Bette Davis was along - as a special correspondent for the "Dinah Shore" talk show - to join in the hurrahs. (Dinah tried to get Orson Welles to play reporter, but he was unavailable).
"The only thing I was hoping the other night when we signed the agreements," Carter said of his Israeli-Egypt "framework" accords, "is that we didn't interrupt 'All in the Family.'" Carter said the program has really changed the consciousness of our country" and told Lear the Carter family has "always enjoyed it" and found it instructive on "the attitudes of the American people."
The humid air of the afternoon became soppy with good will toward everybody. "I thank God I had the chance to be here," Davis told Carter. "Congratulations for everything. And you know, I never have seen the Oval Office before . . ."
Lear, whose twin puffs of white hair make him look like a creature out of Tolkien, is one of those huggy Hollywood types, so his first instinct was to grab the president's right arm. Then he retreated to a less demonstrative handshake. Later, at the Smithsonian, Lear acknowledged that the show with which he revolutionized American television has always had what Archie would call a bleeding heart.
"When we are asked, 'Has "All in the Family" had an effect on the attitudes of society, has it been a positive influence?,' we really cannot say," Lear told the crowd. "We hope so. We have intended so."
A plaque next to "The Bunkers' Chairs" declares that "All in the Family" has "consistently presented issues foremost in American consciousness. Intolerance in its many forms - frequently ethnic prejudice - was one of the basic themes." Without question, "All in the Family" is the most important television series of the 1970s.
The Smithsonian ceremony went well, considering that it was a model of disorganization. While guests munched quiches and shrimps, the stars of "All in the Family" were in another room of the Museum of History and Technology, posing for pictures in front of the chairs. A TV reporter kept asking them "How does it feel - " and so on, and at one point Stapleton said, "Well it's better than being in a wax."
Ripley told Stapleton, "You're just showing reruns now, aren't you?" and she said, "Yes, but we start our new season on Sunday night." It will be the first without Reiner and Struthers, who left the show at the end of its eighth season last spring.
From the sidelines, Reiner looked longingly over at the chairs - especially Archie's - as photograhers snapped away. "I remember when we put the patches on the arms there," he sighed, "and when we did that joke where I sat on it, and it broke, and we mended the legs." His eyes grew misty.
This season, Archie and Edith will be sitting on duplicates of the chairs, constructed by the art department at Tandem Productions at a cost, Lear estimates, of about $3,000. They had to go all the way to Scotland to find material to match Edith's chair. But the original chairs were picked up eight years ago at a Los Angeles Goodwill Industries store for a few measly bucks.
Now they are the property of the federal government and the people of the United States.
The chair-dedicating ceremony had its bumpy moments. Ripley repeatedly stopped in his remarks to ask, "Can you hear me?" and, discerning a chorus of "no's," grumped, "Whats happened?"
Finally, as he was heralding the TV show's "sense of realism," he declared, "If you can't hear me, there's no point in going any further." So he introduced Lear, who concluded his remarks by saying, "it is with pride that we present to you, the chairs of Archie and Edith Bunker of Queens, N.Y."
When O-connor was piped in by phone, he sounded decidedly Bunkeresque. "Can you hear us?" asked Stapleton. "Can you hear me?" asked O'Connor. "No," said Stapleton. "Well I hear you, can you hear me?"
This went on for awhile and then O'Connor explained his blood pressure problem to the crowd, took a poke or two - as is his favorite off-screen hobby - and then began describing how hard he had laughed in the hospital at a TV commentator reporting from the Mideast because she "looked just like Rona Barrett" standing in the sand in her jewels and gown. He laughed so hard his blood pressure went up a bit more.
"And you know what happens when you do that," said O'Connor. "Your nose and your nipples and you disgus all light up at once."
Struthers, at the microphone, instantly lapsed into the character of his daughter, Gloria, whom Archie always referred to as "Little Girl," and shouted scoldingly, "Dad-deee!"
All this was taking place while what Stapleton referred to as "a very poetic statue of George Washington" looked on from behind the podium.
At the White House, the absence of Archie Bunker clearly dampened the enthusiasm of a mob of photographers and TV reporters who were allowed to flood into the Oval Office for five minutes by members of the White House staff. Leaving the room under orders and at least one shove, the press ambled out through the open doors - Carter continuing to flash his xylophone smile at his guests - with one photographer asking, "Who were those people, anyway?" and Sam Donaldson of ABC News proclaiming, "My God, without Carroll O'Connor, it's hard to make that fly, but we'll manage somehow."
You see you can get the president of the United States almost any time, but Archie Bunker is a living icon.
The idea of making Archie's chair a matter of great personal concern to him (other characters were regularly thrown out of it) came to Lear from his own life. "My father had a red leather chair which was his territorial imperative," he recalled yesterday. "We uses to listen to Eddie Cantor on Sunday nights, and he'd sit in that red leather chair and control the radio dial. So on the first 'All in the Family.' I had Archie sit in the chair and control the television set."
Before the ceremony, Lear was asked if his late father was the model for Archie. Lear smiled his many-wrinkled smile and said, "We are all a little bit like Archie Bunker."