Budding Writer, 1979: Turnabouts and Toppers

Reading Time: 3 minutes
The sun burns through the clouds at sunrise in North Hero, Vermont, February 9, 2023. By Howard Fielding. Offered under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0.

In a change of pace, the entire journal entry for this date in my first year as a freelancer was about writing, so here it is:

A mild day, with my spirits warming up as well. Robert Huminski of the Bradford Journal-Opinion was pretty helpful and encouraging and promised to get in touch when a position (part-time) opens up in 2-3 weeks. Meanwhile, [campus radio DJ] J.T. suggested that I get in touch with WNNE-TV to offer reviews … not a bad idea, considering I’ve been thinking of it for some time. And a book I read today implies that 90% of all articles written on a go-ahead get published, so I feel somewhat better about TV Guide.

Otherwise, there are always other possibilities. For example, I gave some more thought to my Christmas Carol “Good King Wenceslas” — contrasting the rich and poor in northern New England. Some other ideas flowed today as well.

I also discovered that Turnabout had its origins in 1933 with Thorne Smith’s novel. Smith was a Dartmouth alum who also wrote the “Topper” stories and was known in his time for his wit and ability to write a good adult fantasy. I think I’ll read some of his works. He would seem a kindred spirit and an interesting model.

Howard W. Fielding
Journal, Volume II
21 February 1979

If that all seems to have come out of the blue, let me add some context. Several times in these journals I had mentioned freelancing or writing part-time for a local newspaper, but this one, based in Bradford, Vermont, was a half-hour or more north of where I was living. That would mean both a strategic problem (how to show up for assignments) and a financial one (how to pay for gas).

I thought it was an old title, but I was only partly right about that. Bob Huminski was from New Jersey, like me. He bought and merged the United Opinion of Bradford and the Woodsville (N.H.) Journal only two years before. He and his managing editor, Tom, were looking to groom someone as reporter and editor when Tom moved on to the daily Union Leader in Manchester, N.H. Counterintuitively, neither newspaper hyphenated its name. I’ll have more on the JO in future posts.

Earlier, I mentioned Christmas Carols in passing a few times earlier in my journals. I envisioned a collection of short stories prompted by titles of well-known carols. I had started a bit on “Good King Wenceslas” and drafted another on “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” but abandoned both. It’s still a good idea. I may get back to it someday.

And then there was Turnabout. This odd and short-lived series on NBC was another mid-season replacement, at about the same time as the campus comedies. Today we would recognize it as a “Freaky Friday” trope. A husband and wife trade lives, the way Mary Rodgers’ mother and daughter do in her 1976 book and four — count ’em, four — Disney movies. That book and the first movie were no doubt an inspiration for the Turnabout TV series.

The series was flat, sexist, and not very funny, which explains why NBC canceled it after seven episodes. But an adult fantasy had potential in a market where Bewitched and I Dream of Jeannie had been successes earlier. My housemate R and I gave it a try. When we read the closing credits, we looked at each other and asked incredulously: “Based on the BOOK by … ?”

The next morning I headed to Dartmouth’s Baker Library to see if it had a copy. It did. There was a whole Thorne Smith collection — in the alumni authors section!

Smith, Dartmouth 1914, was best known for the Topper books (and movies and TV series) about a banker who sees two playful ghosts. Wikipedia describes him as “best known today for the two Topper novels, comic fantasy fiction involving sex, much drinking and ghosts.” My kind of guy!

His string of successful adult comic fantasies came out in the 1920s and ’30s and continued in reprints and films in the 1940s and ’50s. His The Passionate Witch (published posthumously in 1941) inspired the TV series Bewitched.

Smith used the walk-in-my-shoes body-swap trope long before Rodgers and Freaky Friday, and a few years before P.G. Wodehouse in Laughing Gas (1936). But Thomas Anstey Guthrie, writing as F. Anstey, beat them both with the father-son tale Vice Versa (1882). That’s been remade several times in the movies, too.

Since rediscovering him in this blog post, I’m reading his last book, The Glorious Pool, about a 60-ish couple, man and mistress, who discover that the swimming pool in her backyard has become a fountain of youth. The story is said to have inspired the 1985 Ron Howard film Coccoon, which is a much more complex science fiction plot. Much has changed in 90 years since publication of The Glorious Pool, including attitudes toward alcohol, immigrants, and aging.

Or maybe not …