Long before ‘Treme,’ there was ‘Frank’s Place’
On Sept. 14, 1987, “Frank’s Place” — a 30-minute sitcom set in New Orleans — debuted for a national audience on CBS. Telling the crawfish-out-of-water story of an Ivy League professor (Tim Reid) who moves to New Orleans when he inherits a classic Creole restaurant, it was intended to capitalize on the Cajun craze sweeping the culinary word. Right away, though, it was clear that it was different from other sitcoms. Shot on film and with one camera, as opposed to the three video cameras used by most sitcoms, it boasted a sophisticated visual style. What’s more, it didn’t feature a laugh track. Critics loved it, but audiences weren’t sure what to make of it, and it was cancelled after a single season.
“Frank’s Place” is but a memory, having never been released on DVD due to lingering music-rights issues. “That music now costs a fortune,” Reid said in 2011. “It would cost more to put that music in the show now than it would to pay for all the actors that we had.” Its influence, however, can be felt in the number of popular TV shows that employ its laugh-track-free style today, such as “Modern Family,” “Arrested Development” and “The Goldbergs.”
- The fictional restaurant featured in the show was called Chez Louisiane, a tribute to the real-life Chez Helene, which inspired the show’s creators when they visited town to conduct research.
- In addition to serving as consultant to the show, Chef Austin Leslie of the local restaurant Chez Helene also provided the inspiration for the show’s fictional chef, named Big Arthur — right down to his trademark captain’s hat.
- The show’s theme song was Louis Armstrong’s “Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans?” Obviously borrowing from NBC’s “Cheers,” the title sequence played over sepia-toned photographs of New Orleans.
- Although set in New Orleans, the vast majority of “Frank’s Place” was shot on a Hollywood soundstage.
- Former LSU football walk-on Don Yesso landed a role on the show, as an assistant chef named Shorty La Roux, after sharing a flight — and a pack of cigarettes — with “Frank’s Place” producer Hugh Wilson, who was on his way to New Orleans to do research for the show. At Wilson’s urging, Yesso auditioned for network suits, who weren’t so sure about him, but Wilson insisted, knowing that the Yatty Yesso was as New Orleans as they come.
- In its single season, “Frank’s Place” was nominated for five prime-time Emmys, including for outstanding comedy series. It won three, for outstanding writing in a comedy series (Hugh Wilson), outstanding sound mixing for a comedy series or special, and outstanding guest performer in a comedy series (Beah Richards).
- Before it was called “Frank’s Place,” the show operated under the working title “N’Awlins.”
- “Frank’s Place” was the first network TV series to be set in New Orleans since the hourlong detective drama “Longstreet” aired on ABC in 1971. That show, starring James Franciscus as a blind insurance investigator, ended after 11 months.
- While Tim Reid played the title character, he wasn’t the only Reid in the cast. His real-life wife, Daphne Maxwell Reid, played a recurring character, a mortician named Hanna Griffin.
“Frank’s Place” is recognized by critics as a landmark TV series mainly for its aesthetic style, which saw it daring to tinker with the established sitcom formula. More importantly, though, New Orleanians recognized it as ground-breaking for its willingness to push past the stereotypes, making an effort to showcase the real New Orleans rather than presenting the easy, clichéd postcard version. Not only did it feature a main character who was black, but it often dealt with issues of race, in the process painting a compelling portrait of black, working-class New Orleans. “Frank’s Place” didn’t just look like New Orleans, though. It sounded like it, too, as producers regularly wove music from local artists into the show. Although it lasted just one season, the legacy of “Frank’s Place” lives on in such series as David Simon’s “Tremé,” which expressed its admiration for the series by featuring Tim Reid and Don Yesso in cameo roles in 2010.