Al Burton, 91, Dies; Sitcom Producer With an Eye for Youth Culture


Al Burton, a television producer who began his career in 1949 with a show about teenagers in Los Angeles and later helped develop programs as diverse as “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman” and “Win Ben Stein’s Money,” died on Oct. 22 at his home in San Mateo, Calif. He was 91.

His daughter, Jennifer Werbe, confirmed the death.

Over nearly 60 years, the upbeat Mr. Burton started the Miss Teenage America pageant; worked on sitcoms like “The Jeffersons” and “Diff’rent Strokes” for the producer Norman Lear; and was the executive producer of “Charles in Charge,” a comedy series starring Scott Baio.

He began working with Mr. Lear in the late 1960s, booking dancers and musical acts for a variety special that he produced. A few years later, Mr. Burton pitched an idea for a half-hour comedy that Mr. Lear rejected. But, Mr. Burton recalled, Mr. Lear asked him to explore an idea that became “Mary Hartman,” the soap-opera satire, starring Louise Lasser as a neurotic housewife, that was briefly a five-nights-a week sensation.

“He said, ‘I want people who like soap operas to get addicted to it,’” Mr. Burton was quoted as saying in “The Producers: Profiles in Frustration” (2004), by Luke Ford. Mr. Burton explained that Mr. Lear wanted people “to call their friends after they see it and say, ‘There’s something here you’ve got to see.’”

Mr. Burton said he and Gail Parent wrote a 27-page synopsis of the series. But after it was spurned by CBS, NBC and ABC — and before it was successfully syndicated nationally — Mr. Burton asked Ben Stein, the stone-faced economist and former Republican speechwriter, whom he had met at the Aspen Institute, to watch a videotape of the show.

Mr. Stein raved about it in The Wall Street Journal in 1975, almost five months before the series went on the air, sealing his friendship with Mr. Burton.

“Al was my Jay Gatsby, showing me the lushness of life in Hollywood — just what I wanted to see,” Mr. Stein wrote in The American Spectator shortly after Mr. Burton’s death. Mr. Stein, who became known in Hollywood for his memorable bit part as the droning teacher in “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” (1986), discovered in Mr. Burton a lunch partner (lunch was often kosher hot dogs) and adviser.

In the mid-1990s, Mr. Burton conceived “Win Ben Stein’s Money,” a quiz show in which Mr. Stein competed against three contestants; if he got an answer wrong, money was deducted from his pay. The series, which ran from 1997 to 2003 on Comedy Central, featured Jimmy Kimmel as Mr. Stein’s original co-host.

Alan Burton Goldstone was born on April 9, 1928, in Chicago and grew up in Columbus, Ohio. His father, Chester, managed a dime store, and his mother, Isabelle (Olenick) Goldstone, was a homemaker who as a teenager had danced in vaudeville.

While in high school, Alan traveled to Los Angeles to attend a six-week summer course in radio and television at U.C.L.A. that proved inspirational. Shortly after starting his studies in communications at Northwestern University in Illinois, he was a candidate for a scholarship that was endowed by the ventriloquist Edgar Bergen, an alumnus. Following an interview with Mr. Bergen, he got the scholarship.

Mr. Burton left for Los Angeles shortly after graduating in the late 1940s, intent on meeting with Mr. Bergen. But Mr. Bergen was on tour, so instead Mr. Burton headed to a local station, KLAC-TV, hoping to be hired as a page. When he was told that he looked too young for the job, he tracked down the station manager to tell him his programming was ignoring a local minority: teenagers.

The manager hired him — without any salary at first — to host, write and produce “Tele-Teen Reporter,” a news show about teenagers in Los Angeles. It lasted several years — Mr. Burton was eventually paid and given a budget — and inspired him to produce other youth-oriented programs on stations in Los Angeles.

He parlayed his interest in youth culture in the 1960s into annual Teen-Age Fairs, which featured performances by musical acts, including the Beach Boys; booths with products for the teenage market; fashion, surf, beauty and car exhibitions; and what became the Miss Teen USA pageant.

“We’ve done extensive research throughout the country to determine what teenagers want to do and see, and their interests are more varied than that of their parents,” Mr. Burton told Valley Times Today, a Los Angeles-area newspaper, in 1963, during the first of several fairs he staged in Los Angeles and other cities.

In 1964, he developed “Hollywood à Go Go,” a weekly music-variety series that for two years featured artists like the Rolling Stones, Nancy Sinatra, James Brown, Freddy Cannon, Nancy Sinatra and Dee Dee Sharp.

Almost a decade later, when Mr. Burton went to work full time for Mr. Lear and Bud Yorkin at Tandem Productions to develop shows, he was known for his strong eye for talent. Glenn Padnick, the former president of Embassy Television (as Tandem was renamed), recalled how Mr. Burton engineered “The Facts of Life,” about four teenagers at a girls’ boarding school, as a spinoff from “Diff’rent Strokes,” which followed the story of two African-American youngsters adopted by a rich white man.

“NBC was so hard up at that moment that they wanted to spin Charlotte Rae off ‘Diff’rent Strokes’ after one season,” Mr. Padnick said by phone. “It was a totally fraudulent idea, but Al turned it into a wonderful series that went on for nine years.” Ms. Rae’s character, Edna Garrett, moved from being a housekeeper in “Diff’rent Strokes” to the housemother in “The Facts of Life.”

And, Mr. Padnick added, “Fernwood 2 Night,” the fictional talk show starring Martin Mull and Fred Willard that was spun off from “Mary Hartman” in 1977, was “entirely Al’s baby.”

Mr. Burton’s love of music led him to collaborate on the theme songs to “Diff’rent Strokes” and “The Facts of Life” with Alan Thicke and Gloria Loring.

Mr. Burton’s other TV producing credits include “The New Lassie,” a reboot of the series about a heroic collie, which ran in syndication from 1989 to 1992.

In addition to his daughter, Mr. Burton is survived by his wife, Sally (Goldberg) Goldstone, and two grandchildren.

By the late 1980s, Mr. Burton had begun to think that television needed more decency and morality.

Reacting to the vulgarity of shows like “Married … With Children” and Morton Downey Jr.’s combative talk show, he told The Christian Science Monitor in 1989, “These shows want to keep stretching the frontier of where taste is, but wind up reflecting stuff in American that I don’t want to reflect, because it ends up just being gross for gross’s sake.”

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