The Flying Nun
Who could have guessed that a show once considered to be a flop by its own developer would not only thrive for three seasons on television, but would still be treasured by thousands of loyal fans 30 years later? September 7th will mark the 30th anniversary of The Flying Nun, which first premiered in 1967. Starring Sally Field, fresh from her stint on Gidget, the show's premise about a nun who flies seemed too unbelievable by Bernard Slade who developed the series from Tere Rios' novel The Fifteenth Pelican. "I had no faith in The Flying Nun and left as soon as we got Sally off the ground," he explained. But Screen Gems Producer, Harry Ackerman, best known for I Dream of Jeannie and Bewitched, thought differently. It so happened that Ackerman was looking for a vehicle for Sally Field after the demise of Gidget. He pitched the idea to the president of ABC-TV. The enormous popularity of magical characters like Jeannie and Samantha proved that even improbable events could become TV success stories. As a result, The Flying Nun was scheduled to air the following season.
When the pilot episode was being developed, Sally Field was considered a favorite for portraying the flying lead character, Sister Bertrille. Her petite 5' 2" frame and enthusiastic charisma were the perfect blend to fill the habit and wing-tipped coronet. In order for the audience to believe in the concept of a flying nun, Bernard Slade felt that Sally was needed to bring a human quality to the role. Sally wasn't exactly thrilled about jumping into another television project after Gidget, however, and initially declined the part. She was 19 years old and took the early demise of Gidget very hard. Nevertheless, Screen Gems decided to film the pilot with their second choice, actress Ronnie Troup, best known for her role three years later in My Three Sons as Polly Williams. Before the series aired, however, Sally was persuaded to accept the role and soared into TV history.
The original pilot was never used and was re-shot with Sally as the unique nun assigned to the Convent San Tanco in San Juan, Puerto Rico. With her strong determination and creative problem-solving skills, Sister Bertrille set out to face earthbound dilemmas and leave an indelible mark on the citizens of the community. The San Juan citizens, as well as the other occupants of the convent, weren't quite prepared for the magnitude of her sudden talent. Each episode was centered around Sister Bertrille's capability of taking flight whenever the San Tanco winds stirred up. The combination of her light 90-pound body weight, lengthy coronet wingspan, and powerful wind current allowed her to soar like a bird. The unlikely phenomenon was explained as a simple case of aerodynamics and "lift plus thrust." Whenever the wind was just right, she simply tilted her coronet and let the current carry her off.
In the beginning, Sally Field didn't want to play the part. "I didn't want to play a nun," she stated. "I thought Gidget was the best show there ever was. I still want to be Gidget." Sally wasn't thrilled that Sister Bertrille wouldn't be "allowed to kiss or show her belly button." It was completely opposite of the care-free, teenage portrayal of the role she loved.
Studio executives knew Sally wasn't enthusiastic about her role and tried to lift her spirits whenever possible. When she mentioned casually that she would someday like to drive around in a Ferrari, Screen Gems surprised her with a Midnight Blue Ferrari 330 convertible on her birthday.
In retrospect, Sally recently said playing the part was a "good experience."
"I was 19, 20, and 21 years old at the time and was dressed in a nun's habit all day long. I didn't want to be a nun. How much fun could that be?" she said. She did, however, like being on the set during the late sixties. "It was the end of a fabulous era in television. First there was Bewitched, then The Flying Nun, I Dream of Jeannie, The Monkees, and the Partridge Family. And we were all in a line. It wasn't like today when you have your own motorhome as a dressing room and never see anybody. When we went to the makeup department, we were all in a big room where everyone came in around 6:00 a.m. You knew what everyone ate for breakfast and what they did the night before."BIRDS OF A FEATHER With the release of The Flying Nun on Columbia-Tristar Home Video and reruns soaring onto cable TV, many fans have become reacquainted with the series. There are some viewers, however, who have remained loyal enthusiasts ever since the show was originally on the air. Jeff Michael has been a devoted fan of the show since its inception. He is a singer/songwriter from New York and has made an award-winning music video inspired by The Flying Nun called "I Want to Fly." Captivated by earlier tales of human flight, such as those in Peter Pan and Mary Poppins, Jeff was immediately drawn to Sister Bertrilles' airborne antics. As an 8-year-old his passion was so strong, he regularly received Flying Nun merchandise in lieu of an allowance.
"When I was a kid, I didn't get an allowance. My mother would buy me something she knew I'd love, like the Flying Nun comic book. One of the most vivid and colorful memories I have as a child was when my mother bought me one of the comics and left it on the piano. When I saw it, I got so excited that I locked myself in my room and read it three times."
Jeff's passion for the show eventually led him to start "The International Flying Nun Fan Club," which is currently celebrating its 10th anniversary. "I never thought about running a fan club because I didn't know what to do," he said.
"The club came about back in 1986 when I had a theme party for a group of about 75 people. I'm an entertainer by profession, so I wanted the party to be entertaining and raise a few eyebrows."
As a result, Jeff decided to invite his guests to his 1st Annual Flying Nun Party. "I took out my memorabilia, made hats, buttons, and balloons just for the event," he explained. "Everyone had a great time, and several people wanted to join the fan club. I told them there wasn't one, and a guest suggested that I start one. I thought it was a great idea."
Jeff ran an ad in a local collectibles' magazine to get in touch with other Flying Nun fans, because he had no idea how to start a fan club. He received dozens of responses, one of which outlined how to contact the National Association of Fan Clubs.
"I didn't think it was going to be so much work," Jeff admits. "It is definitely a labor of love. I don't do it for the money or recognition. I do it because I like it."
As a prerequisite to beginning the club, Jeff
was advised to contact Sally Field directly and ask for permission.
Jeff has never met Sally Field, but is proud to mention the numerous letters he has received from the star. One letter in particular stands out above the rest. "She was extremely pleased when I told her I was using the novel The Fifteenth Pelican as a learning tool for a local children's reading program. She wrote back and was thrilled. I show children how books can inspire them as a reader. I read the novel and became absorbed in it. I based my music video "I Want to Fly" on that experience.
"The kids can see the connection between
my reading a novel and turning my ideas into a video. When they read, maybe they too
can get an idea and do something creative with it. Imagination is the best gift
because they can do anything with it."
Sally Field was so touched by his involvement, she sent Jeff a large packet with enough signed photos for every child in the program. Jeff may very well be Sally Field's biggest fan, but doesn't collect memorabilia from any of her other television or movie projects.
"I'm a huge fan and enjoy watching her mainly in interviews because she's so funny. I've always seen her as a comedic actress. I'm not trying to pigeon-hole her because she's a wonderful dramatic actress as well. She does both fabulously, but I enjoy her when she's funny and campy, like her character in Soapdish. I do have to say she can also be deadly dramatic. She's got the best cry in the business."
Jeff Michael doesn't consider himself a devoted fan simply because he resides as the fan club's president. He also prides himself as the head of The Flying Nun preservation society. "I probably have the biggest Flying Nun collection, but I'm still looking for original props and costumes from the show. I want to preserve and archive them," he explains.
When asked what his family and friends
think about his hobby, Jeff paused and thought for a moment. "Deep down they're
very supportive. They think it's bizarre and wacky, but not in a bad way. I
make them laugh, like when I was on the Joan Rivers' Show. How many people
get the chance to go on TV in full Flying Nun garb?"
The three other dolls stand at 11", 14" and 18", all of which feature the same white habit and coronet with a generic face that was not modeled after Sally Field's likeness. The 11" doll was actually featured in episode #48 were Elsie's (Sister Bertrille) old boyfriend, Randy, visits the convent and gives her a doll version of herself as a parting gift. The doll seen on the show had a jet motor on its back because Randy wanted to market a flying doll. The rare 11" Hasbro doll recently sold mint-in-box for a staggering $1,000 in Toys Scouts 2nd Annual Movie and TV Auction. If you're a fan and have extra money to spend, you may find some additional memorabilia for auction in the future. You can contact Toy Scouts at 137 Casteron Ave, Akron Ohio 44303.
Hasbro also produced a bagatelle game, Marble Maze Game and a Stitch-a-Story embroidering kit in 1967. The bagatelle game is a hand-held pinball game with a clear plastic front and an illustrated background. A ball is launched from a pullback spring lever and can land in a variety of receptacles for scoring. One of the more difficult collectibles to find, its value is $80-$100. The Marble Maze Game is similar in style, except the ball is moved freely by tilting the game's base. The object is to follow the numbered receptacles in sequence from 1 to 40. It is worth $60-$80. The Stitch-a-Story kit includes two colorful pictures to embroider with multi-colored thread and a needle. It's value is $50-$75.
Lunch pails are certainly a popular collectible today and fans will have to scour antique malls, collector swap meets and toy shows to find the three different versions produced by Aladdin in 1968. The most common of the three is the metal style, which features beautiful color illustrations of scenes from the pilot episode. With a matching metal thermos it can be found for $100-150 in excellent condition. A very different box is the all-vinyl white version that sports a cartoon drawing of Sister Bertrille flying over the town of San Pueblo. The thermos contains the same illustration as the box, with a white background and light blue top. The square vinyl box and thermos are very scarce and together can easily fetch over $300. The last version is a light blue vinyl brunch bag. It is similar to the vinyl box, but is an oval-shaped cylinder with a long black handle and zipper top. It's more readily found and is valued at about $200.
THE SOUND OF MUSIC
"Who Needs Wings to Fly?" That is the name of the instrumental theme that began each of the 82 episodes. What many people don't know is that Sally Field actually recorded a vocal version of the song that didn't make it onto television. Fans of the show have seen many episodes with Sister Bertrille singing her way through a scene. For example, in the pilot episode she was faced with the difficult task of teaching a group of orphan children, but didn't have the proper tools or supplies. When all else failed, she broke into song and took the children through the streets of San Pueblo singing the happy tune "Felicidad."
"Felicidad" was released as a single by Capitol Records with a picture sleeve of Sally Field in full costume. The single is also featured on a full-length album with many additional songs from the show. "Sally Field, Star of The Flying Nun" can be difficult to find, even in used record stores and is worth about $30-40. There is also sheet music for "Felicidad" valued at $15-$20, and a songbook with the music and lyrics from the album valued at $30-40.
The singles "You're a Grand Old Flag"/"Golden Days" and "Month's of the Year"/"Gonna Build a Mountain" were recorded, but never made the cut for the final album. The later of the two contains additional vocals by Madeleine Sherwood (Reverend Mother Plaseato) and Marge Redmond (Sister Jacqueline). Despite the album's catchy tunes and Sally Field's notable efforts to push her vocal abilities to the limit, Sally's recording career crash-landed and she never released any other songs.A CONVENT OF MEMORABILIA Several other toys were made that include a board game by Milton Bradley, four comic books by Dell, five paperback books by Ace Books, View-Master reels and a set of 66 trading cards by Topps. All of these items can be found without much effort. The most valuable of the bunch is the set of trading cards. Originally sold in 5-cent wax wrappers, the cards contain color photos taken from early episodes during the series' first season. Each card is outlined in blue and contain puzzle backs. If found individually, each card is worth $2-3, with a set selling for $150-$200.
Other paper products include a boxed paper doll set, three paper doll booklets, and a coloring book by Saalfield. The 11" x 14" boxed set contains five paper dolls - Sister Bertrille, Mother Superior, Sister Jacqueline, Sister Sixto, and Carlos Ramirez. The three booklets are very similar, except for the variations in artwork on the covers. The coloring book was printed and distributed in the United States, but a Spanish version entitled "La Novicia Voladora" was marketed as well. The paper doll box and booklets are worth about $30-$50 each, while the coloring books are valued at $25-$30.
Summing up the rest of the over 50 different collectibles made is a blonde Sister Bertrille Halloween costume and a flying toy by Rayline. Of all the memorabilia, the Halloween costume is perhaps the most disturbing to collectors. Sister Bertrille with blonde hair? Despite the obvious error, the costume still demands a hefty sum at $80-$100.
The flying toy is also in demand by collectors mainly due to its function. It's always fun to find toys that actually relate to a program. Unlike the View-Master, lunch boxes or paperback books, this toy actually flies. Advertised as "easy to operate, simply pull the string and up she goes," the 4 ½ " plastic figure could dip, soar, and glide just like the character on television. The toy comes packaged in a colorful photo window box and contains the caption "Come Fly with Me" signed by Sally Fields - obviously not authentic, considering Sally doesn't spell her last name with an "S". Unfortunately, the mistake is forever marked on this collectible as well as a few of the trading cards.
Production mistakes aside, the overall collectibility of Flying Nun memorabilia remains steady and has actually seen an increase in recent years. Jeff Michael cites the recent release of the show on video as a catalyst for the popularity. "I've always had a love for the show," he says. "When the videos were released I was excited. The show is fun-filled fantasy and people get a lot of enjoyment out of it."
Who says no one would believe that a nun could fly?