TV URBAN LEGEND: The famous "WKRP in Cincinnati" turkey drop was based on an actual turkey drop.
Probably the most famous thanksgiving episode of any television sitcom is "Turkeys Away," from the first season of "WKRP in Cincinnati." The series was about a struggling radio station that changed formats from easy listening to rock and roll. The conflict (and thus, the comedy) came from the contrast between the people who worked for the station beforehand, bumbling but kindhearted station manager Arthur Carlson (Gordon Jump), sleazy ad salesman Herb Tarlek (Frank Bonner) and timid news reporter Les Nessman (Richard Sanders) and the new, young and hip hires, program director Andy Travis (Gary Sandy) and disc jockeys Dr. Johnny Fever (Howard Hesseman) and Venus Flytrap (Tim Reid).
The seventh episode of the series, "Turkeys Away" (which actually aired on October 30th, 1978, despite being the show's Thanksgiving episode), showed Carlson trying to take on more of a hand's on approach to prove that he still had what it took to run the station. He came up with a secret promotion for Thanksgiving. It was all hush hush until the end of the episode, where Nessman was on the street, reporting live when the event occurred. As it turned out, the secret project was that Carlson was having a bunch of turkeys dropped from a helicopter high up in the air into the crowd below. The trouble, of course, is that turkeys aren't particularly known for flying. Nessman called the drop in the style of Herbert Morrison's famous radio call of the destruction of the zeppelin called the Hindenburg in 1937, right down to Nessman echoing Morrison's famed cry, "Oh the humanity!" Whatever turkeys that survived then turned on the crowd and attacked.
When Carlson and Tarlek walked in, covered in feathers, Carlson was in shock but also apologetic.
As the episode ended, he uttered the famous line, "As god as my witness, I thought turkeys could fly!"
The episode was a classic....
However, reader Ed F. wrote in to ask if the story was based on a real life event.
There are different takes on that, Ed, but I think it is safe to say basically yes.
Stephen Bowie did an oral history for the episode on his excellent Classic TV History Blog, and there is a conflict between Hugh Wilson, the creator of the show and the showrunner of the show (and uncredited co-writer of the episode) and Clarke Brown, a friend of Wilson's who worked in sales for an Atlanta radio station (Herb Tarlek was roughly based on Brown, although obviously exaggerated to an extreme). Wilson based much of the show on that Atlanta radio station, WQXI, including the station's sales manager, Jerry Blum, who was partially the inspiration for Arthur Carlson.
Here's Wilson's take and here's Brown's take:
HUGH WILSON: I was allowed to see everything, and then Jerry Blum, the station manager, told me about a promotion – I believe in Texas, and I want to say Dallas, but I’m not sure – in which he threw turkeys out of a helicopter, and they didn’t fly. They crashed to the ground, it was just a horrible disaster, and he wound up losing his job over it. So I said to him at the time, “Jerry, I think you just won me an Emmy.”
CLARKE BROWN: The turkey drop was actually a real incident. It was at a shopping center in Atlanta; I think it was Broadview Plaza, which no longer exists. It was a Thankgiving promotion. We thought that we could throw these live turkeys out into the crowd for their Thanksgiving dinners. All of us, naïve and uneducated, thought that turkeys could fly. Of course, they went just fuckin’ splat.
People were laughing at us, not with us. But it became a legend. There were other stories of this nature that were embellished [on WRKP]; that one was really not embellished that much. Although the turkeys were thrown off the back of a truck, as opposed to how it was depicted on the [show].
HUGH WILSON: I didn’t dream up the helicopter. My memory is Jerry said a helicopter.
Jerry Blum's son, Gary, wrote in to give me the full scoop. Gary wrote:
Contrary to growing folklore and mythical embellishment, the actual "turkey drop" never took place in Atlanta or at WQXI. It was years earlier in the60's when Jerry was at a station in Dallas Texas called KBOX. No, there was no helicopter, but that embellishment made it fun for television I guess.For a radio promotion, they did attempt to throw live turkeys out of the back of a pick-up truck in a shopping center parking lot, and yes, it was amess. Over the years the story has grown to frozen turkeys or even live turkeys out of an airplane, but that is pushing it just a bit
Thanks for the info, Gary!
Now, even if Wilson and Brown exaggerated their stories, it is important to note that there have been turkey drops in various parts of the country going back decades before "WKRP in Cincinatti."
The most famous turkey drop occurs in the town of Yellville, Arkansas. The area is famed for its wild turkeys, so they town decided to begin celebrating their turkeys by having a special turkey day on the first Friday and Saturday in October. The event began in the 1940s, where they would drop turkeys from the roof of the town's courthouse.
In the 1960s, that changed to dropping turkeys from an airplane.
In 1989, the "National Enquirer" covered the event and they made the whole thing quite infamous for Yellville. As the "Enquirer" described:
One turkey slammed into a power line so hard the wire bent down about three feet before snapping back up. The bird hit the ground, shocked and dazed, and tried to walk . . . pitifully trying to run on two obviously broken legs before it was crushed to death by a pileup of kids. . . . After smashing into a tree and coming to rest on a branch, one of the birds was pursued by a gang of kids who captured and fought over it—using it in a grisly tug-of-war that ended when one boy tore the turkey’s wing off.
The newspaper also included a photo of the turkeys being dropped.
The national outcry led to the event no longer being sponsored directly by the town, but rather by a private group so that the event continued, just without the official support of the town. That kept up for decades until eventually outcry led to it stopping for a bit. However, they picked up again this year (one of the first batch of six turkeys died during the drop - the other five managed to glide to safety).
So while "WKRP in Cincinnati" played the whole thing for laughs, it really does go on in the country, so the legend is...
Thanks to Gary Blum, Stephen Bowie, Hugh Wilson and Clarke Brown for the information!
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