On Thursday, May 19, 2011, there was a party on the set of Entertainment Tonight on the CBS lot in Studio City to say farewell to its host of twenty-nine years, Mary Hart. "I've never seen anything like this," said one of the crew members, a sound engineer, as he waited for the festivities to begin. Another person turned and remarked with delight, "They didn't do anything like this for Johnny Carson."
A caterer hurried to put his saw on the last touches of an ice sculpture featuring a large portrait of the guest of honor. Hundreds of balloons stood ready in nets hung from the ceiling. All the crew and staff members assembled wore yellow t-shirts emblazoned with "Mary's Last Show May 20, 2011." The champagne was flowing.
As Mary made her final entrance onto the set to a loud ovation, there to also greet her were four male co-hosts she had worked with over the years, Robb Weller, John Tesh, Bob Goen and Mark Steines. The cameras then rolled on a series of tributes recorded for the show to be broadcast the next day, capped off by a musical performance of "Unforgettable" by Natalie Cole, with the last word given to Mary. After the taping ended, one-by-one each of the hundred or so employees lined up to say their individual goodbyes. Some of the staff was admittedly in shock that the day had finally come. They knew it was at her choice to move on to a new phase in her life. She was ending it on her terms.
The first day Mary Hart walked onto a flimsy makeshift set for a fledgling new show, a good half of Americans of today were yet to be born, and Ronald Reagan was in his second year of his presidency. The stagehands had rolled a couple of easy chairs out onto a stage to go along with something that loosely resembled a desk. Behind the furniture, they brought in a simple wall backdrop to complete the preparation for the day's show. Out into the shadows they stowed the wheel contraption, puzzle board and other set props and decorations for the tenant that also shared the space, a game show called Wheel of Fortune. It was only fitting that everything was rolled in on wheels.
There was a lot of uncertainty whether this experiment called Entertainment Tonight, made possible with the advent of satellite technology would make it or be axed. On weekends, Mary got on planes to go market-to-market to help promote the show. It made the cut. And today, media historians give the fair share of credit to Mary Hart for her role not only in building the show into a powerhouse but also for pioneering the genre as a whole.
When Mary first took over as an anchor on ET, Steve Edwards came over to her as an old television host pro to give her some advice. He was filling in on the weekend show and saw her in action. He whispered, "You just have to tone it down a little. Your enthusiasm is a little too much." She thanked him, but didn't take his advice. A short while later, David Letterman was on a campaign when he first started hosting The Late Show on NBC. "She is too perky. She must be stopped." And who can forget Kramer on Seinfeld who went into convulsions at the sound of her voice. But the truth of the matter was Mary didn't change all that much. Adapt, yes, but change, no.
That sincere and joyful enthusiasm for the job she loved was at the core of why Mary Hart has always been a welcome friend into the homes of millions of viewers over more than a whole generation. As the balloons cascaded on the stage and the final curtain came down, no one felt like toning it down.