The garment industry used to be a thriving part of the American economy but, well, what are you going to do when Big Business sees that it can increase profits by shipping off good-paying jobs overseas so that they become ridiculously low-paying jobs? As a result, one of the additional victims of capitalism as it relates to the garment industry has been television and its viewers. When the garment industry was alive and thriving, so were shows that told stories taking place there. Those shows have become increasingly rarer since outsourcing became the name of the game.
At the time of its premiere, “Seventh Avenue” was more than a show, it was a minor event. Following in the wake of the success of “Rich Man, Poor Man” and “Roots” networks took to adapting best-selling novels in a way that had been impossible before the arrival of the miniseries as valid way of presenting a short-term self-contained story. “NBC’s Best Sellers” was the name of the anthology presentation of four different novels in miniseries form and “Seventh Avenue” told the story of the rise of a poor kid from the Lower East Side to the heights of power in the garment industry during its heyday of the late 1940s and 1950s.
The first American TV show to focus on a police woman seems like a natural for an investigation into the garment industry, especially since she works as an undercover cop for the NYPD. Dressed for the kill finds Officer Casey Jones (yep, not making that up) posing as a model to investigate a little case of murder in the then-thriving garment district of the Big Apple.
Needles and Pins
Sounds like a show about a guy name Needles and another named Pins. They’re cops! Except that the duo at the heart of this show were named Nathan and Harry and they were partners who owned Lorelei Fashion House. Basically what you had in “Needles and Pins” was an office comedy that provided a glimpse into the daily lives of those working for the type of business that used to be a vital part of the New York economy. The cornfed new girl from Nebraska was a talented designer struggling to get used to the fact pace of the big city. “Needles and Pins” also provides an education in the how pattern makers, fabric cutters, salespeople and secretaries all worked together to keep a small fashion house from losing ground to its competitors.
The Walter Winchell File
Ever seen the incredible movie “Sweet Smell of Success” before? Remember the self-possessed newspaper columnist who thinks he controls the strings of the entire city that was played to knowing perfection by Burt Lancaster? Well, that guy was based on real life NY columnist Walter Winchell. Winchell tried to make the leap from newspaper to TV a few times, including “The Walter Winchell File” in 1957. This anthology show dramatized actual criminal cases that Winchell had covered in his newspaper column. One of these stories about a diffident little garment industry worker named Sy Bellson who had the kind of luck that results in witnessing a murder. For the ramifications of this happenstance to have full impact, you must understand that the garment industry was pretty much under the thumb of the Mob. And murders in the garment district tended not to be the type you wanted anyone to know you witnessed. Unless, of course, you are one of the invisibles who suddenly finds himself with the opportunity to make an impression on someone of the caliber of Walter Winchell.
Off the Rack
One of the last dying gasps of garment industry entertainment on TV also revealed how the industry was changing from that heyday of the post-WWII boom. “Off the Rack” transferred the action in the garment industry from its New York base to Los Angeles. This show also implicated the effect of aging on the garment industry in America by positioning itself as a situation comedy with the death of an aging partner as its starting point. Sam Waltman thought he was going to be facing the same situation that many of those who started out in the industry following World War II actually had to face: running what had been a partnership all on his way. He wished! The situation was far worse than that: he now had to continue running the business with the abrasive widow of his old friend as his new partner.
“Don’t cut velvet in the spring.” That is the only thing that Michael Steadman knows about the garment industry despite the fact that his father owned Steadman Knits and Casuals. While “Thirtysomething” is not about the garment industry, it does portend its future in a few episodes that comment upon what happens in an industry very dependent upon the concept of family business when younger generations don’t wish to enter into the family business. Upon his father’s death, Michael learns that his brother has not only been struggling in his attempt to take over the family business, but that it is likely going to have to file for bankruptcy. An amazingly portentous story arc.
The last really great long-time story arc focusing on the garment industry features another exhibition of the sadly underutilized dramatic acting abilities of Jerry Lewis as well as memorable performances from Ron Silver and Stanley Tucci. Filling for injured star Ken Wahl in this particular story arc of “Wiseguy” is Anthony Denison as John Raglin. This five-episode storyline plants provides insight into yet another reason behind why the garment industry is no longer thriving in America. Eli Sternberg is so desperate to find a way to save his own fashion business from going down the same road as Steadman Knits and Casuals that he turns to mobster Rick Pinzolo. Eli is about to find out what any number of businessmen in any number of industries have discovered in real life: you don’t do business with the mob.