Mary Hart: An Icon Of Modern Celebrity Steps Down After Nearly 30 Years

May 19, 2011
Originally published on May 20, 2011 10:26 am

After 29 years, Mary Hart is stepping down as host of the CBS show Entertainment Tonight – presumably with those legs once insured for a million dollars each. It's television's longest-running entertainment show, and Hart's been with it almost since the beginning. She helped create a kind of news that, like it or not, has come to permeate the culture.

Before Entertainment Tonight, regular folks weren't expected to be interested in the industry side of the entertainment industry.

"We were the first ones to talk about television ratings and box office grosses over the weekend," Hart pointed out during our interview inside her pastel-colored bungalow near ET's Studio 4 on the Paramount Lot. Now, that kind of news is just part of regular mainstream coverage.

If you read old interviews with Mary Hart, as with many celebrities, the same stories tend to crop up over and over. Mary Hart's been a dominant force in entertainment news for almost thirty years, so naturally, many of her stories are about interviewing celebrities.

That's why I decided not to ask her about her favorite celebrity interviews. It felt deeply boilerplate. Plus, I'd read about them all already. Her private dinner with the ever-so-shy Michel Jackson. Her tête-à-tête with Annette Funicello after the latter's diagnosis of MS. Her chats with other ailing celebrities, including Richard Pryor and Christopher Reeve.

But Mary Hart is so accustomed to talking about her favorite interviews, she went ahead and told me about one anyway. One I hadn't heard before. And it was such a good story, I couldn't resist putting it on the air.

"She was such a dear lady, she was already 91 years old," Hart exclaimed about the venerable stage actress Helen Hayes. "I was sitting in her living room, we had all of our lights and everything set; it was quite the setup in this charming little old lady's house. And all of a sudden one of the lights stands fell. Hit. Her. On. The. Head. She falls over onto her sofa and I'm sitting there going, 'Oh my gosh! We just killed Helen Hayes!'"

This is what makes Mary Hart impressive. She chose a great anecdote that she knew NPR's audience would appreciate. No wonder she's flourished in an industry often unkind to aging ladies. (Helen Hayes being another rather obvious exception.) Anne Helen Petersen, an academic who's studied the gossip industry and the rise of entertainment, says ET was smart to hang onto Hart.

"This is the 34-60 audience, this is really her prime demographic," Petersen observed of the age of the show's audience. "Mostly women, middle class."

For those women, Hart provided a likeable bridge to the stars. She combines former beauty-queen glamour with a goofy, self-deprecating sensibility that Hart herself defines as Midwestern. When I asked her if her persona took work, she was startled. "Golly! No! It's not work at all." She was equally affable when I wondered if she felt that ET bore any responsibility for creating an appetite for celebrity news that's resulted in obsessive stalkerazzi and the aggressive media entity TMZ.

"I think there is a meaner tone, and I don't just see it in entertainment news. It's just ... in general," she pointed out.

As Entertainment Tonight's backstage access and sneak previews are being supplanted by mean, lean multimedia formats, its audience is slipping away. (By around two million viewers over the past ten years, according to figures provided to NPR by the Nielsen Company.) As Mary Hart exits, for the last time, the blinking orange stage that set up a shift in American news programming, it is indeed the end of an era.

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We have one more big TV departure this week. Mary Hart is stepping down after three decades hosting "Entertainment Tonight" - and stepping, presumably, with those famous legs, once insured for a million dollars each.

NPR's Neda Ulaby visited Mary Hart at work in Studio City, California. And they talked about how entertainment news and celebrity have changed in the 29 years since Mary Hart has been on air.

NEDA ULABY: Mary Hart is gliding across "Entertainment Tonight's" blinky orange set, as she has over 7,000 times since she joined the show in 1982. Around her in the darkness lurk legions of boom operators, makeup artists and stage managers.

Unidentified Man: Five, stay turning; four, walking; three; two...

ULABY: Just a few minutes ago, two people from wardrobe literally sewed Mary Hart into a clingy red dress. She's wearing the highest, sparkliest gold high heels imaginable. But off set, in her pastel bungalow, Mary Hart comes across as the former schoolteacher from South Dakota she happens to be, and honest about how critics have always perceived her show.

Ms. MARY HART (Host, "Entertainment Tonight"): They love to put us down. Oh, that fluff. It was always the fluff. But I have always said, look at how much money people pour into their entertainment.

ULABY: Close to $3,000 a year for the average American family, more than gas or furniture - or education.

(Soundbite of "Entertainment Tonight" theme music)

ULABY: Back in the early 1980s, it was assumed that regular people did not care about the entertainment industry's industry side. Then came Hart and her co-host, John Tesh.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. JOHN TESH (Co-host, "Entertainment Tonight") How will you know what's happening in the world of entertainment today?

Ms. HART: Watch "Entertainment Tonight," and you won't miss a beat.

ULABY: That's an old ad, from 1988.

Ms. HART: We were the first ones to talk about television ratings, and talk about box office grosses over the weekend.

ULABY: Believe it or not, some station programmers were amazed to learn 20 minutes of entertainment news could be found to fill a half-hour show every day. Hart remembers a watershed moment for "Entertainment Tonight" in 1986.

Ms. HART: Way back when "The Twilight Zone" helicopter crash killed Vic Morrow and the two children, it was a terrible tragedy. But you know what? We were on the set. We were in the courtroom for the trial every single day.

Mr. SCOTT OSBORN (Reporter, "Entertainment Tonight"): Judge Brian Crahan will decide if there is sufficient evidence to order a trial. Scott Osborn, "Entertainment Tonight."

Ms. HART: That was when the networks had to sit up and go, wait a minute; we don't have that footage. We'd better call "Entertainment Tonight."

ULABY: Hart thinks this marks the moment when entertainment coverage really started seeping into mainstream news. At first, she says, "Entertainment Tonight" had no real competition. Then came the copycats: "Hard Copy," "Access Hollywood," even a whole network, E! And now?

Ms. HART: Today when you say who's your competition? you look around and go, uh, well how about USA Today, the newspaper? How about the "Today" show, "Good Morning, America," the "CBS Early Show"? They all want celebrity news. They know it sells because we proved it first.

ULABY: But having created a hunger for celebrity news, "Entertainment Tonight" is lagging behind in selling it. Right now, according to Nielsen, about 6 million people watch "Entertainment Tonight." Ten years ago, it was more like 8 million.

Anne Helen Petersen is an academic who's studied the show.

Ms. ANNE HELEN PETERSON: This is not the 18-to-34 audience. This is the 34-to-60 audience. That's really her prime demographic and mostly women, middle class.

ULABY: Who related to Hart's gentle goofiness, and made her an entertainment news icon. When Hart leaves "Entertainment Tonight," Petersen says it's the end of an era.

Ms. PETERSON: This is a show that's really, really important to the history of gossip and the way that the gossip industry works, and the type of information that the gossip industry itself found important.

ULABY: But what's important, Petersen says, has changed. "Entertainment Tonight's" sneak previews and backstage access are less compelling in today's obsessive, hyper-charged celebrity culture.

I asked Mary Hart if "Entertainment Tonight" might have laid the groundwork for "TMZ" and aggressive stalkarazzi. She said no.

Ms. HART: I think there is a meaner tone, and I don't just see it in entertainment news. It's just in general.

ULABY: Whenever she's not on set filming her last week on the show, Mary Hart seems to be doing interviews about her favorite interviews - Michael Jackson, Richard Pryor, Annette Funicello.

For NPR, she launched into an anecdote about Helen Hayes, the stately stage actress sometimes called the first lady of American theater.

Ms. HART: She was such a dear lady. She was already 91 years old. I was sitting in her living room. We had all of our lights and everything set. It was quite the big set-up in this charming, little old lady's house.

And all of a sudden, one of the light stands fell, hit her on the head. She falls over onto her sofa, and I'm sitting there across from her going, oh my gosh, we just killed Helen Hayes.

ULABY: Helen Hays survived. So did Mary Hart.

Neda Ulaby, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.