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Looking Back: 'Tales Of The City'

In anticipation of Netflix’s upcoming 10-episode installment of Tales of the City, we take a look back at Armistead Maupin’s original miniseries…
Tales of the City (1993) is considered to be one of the finest miniseries ever produced. Based on a novel (the first in a series of nine) by gay author Armistead Maupin, “Tales” harkens back to a San Francisco which no longer exists.
It’s 1976 and Mary Ann Singleton (a delightful Laura Linney), a naive young woman from Ohio, is vacationing in San Francisco. On the spur of the moment she decides to stay permanently. She quickly moves in to 28 Barbary Lane, an apartment complex run by Mrs. Madrigal (Olympia Dukakis), a friendly, middle-aged pothead who is very secretive about her past–she admits that there never was a Mr. Madrigal.
Barbary Lane residents include Michael “Mouse” Tolliver (Marcus D’Amico), a good looking if aimless young gay man who dreams of finding true love. Mouse’s roommate is Mona (Chloe Webb), an equally aimless bisexual woman who decides to move in with her ex-girlfriend Dorothea (Cynda Williams), a gorgeous Black fashion model who is also secretive about her past.
Mary Ann goes to work for Edward Halcyon (Donald Moffat), a wealthy ad executive trapped in a loveless marriage to his wife Frannie (Nina Foch). Edward finds the love he needs from Mrs. Madrigal. Meanwhile, Beauchamp (Thomas Gibson), Edward’s sleaze bag of a son-in-law, seduces both Mary Ann and Jon (William Campbell, who, unbeknownst to Beauchamp, is his long suffering wife’s gynecologist. Jon is also Mouse’s ex-boyfriend.
These are but some of the characters who populate the world which Maupin created. Over the course of six 50 minute episodes, we see them fall in and out of love, become involved in each other’s lives, and reveal their deepest secrets–the secrets revealed by Mrs. Madrigal and Dorothea towards the end of the series are doozies!
Tales of The City is Maupin’s valentine to the city he’s called home since 1971. Maupin, raised in North Carolina, was a young, closeted gay man when he moved to San Francisco to take a job with the Associated Press. He immediately became enchanted by the City By The Bay. It was OK to be gay there, even in the early 70s. In San Francisco people could be whoever they wanted to be. Many came to the city to reinvent themselves, to take on new identities, as Mrs. Madrigal and Dorothea had done.
It was in this San Francisco that Maupin came out in 1974. That same year he began Tales Of The City as a serial in The Pacific Sun, moving his stories to the San Francisco Chronicle when the Sun folded. The column proved to be so popular that it was eventually published as a novel, with many sequels following. The Tales Of The City miniseries, which first aired in 1993 and has just been rereleased on DVD for it’s 25th anniversary, is based on Maupin’s earliest stories.
The series is as charming as Maupin’s prose. The various storylines, some based on people that Maupin actually knew, are a delightful look back upon a time when San Francisco was a haven for people who didn’t fit in elsewhere. San Francisco in 1976 was a city of free love, a place where people could let their “freak flag” fly. Tales Of The City captures the era beautifully.
Dukakis is superb as Mrs. Madrigal, who considers herself a mother hen to her flock, the tenants of 28 Barbary Lane. In every scene she’s in, with every gesture she makes, it’s clear that Mrs, Madrigal is hiding something. Dukakis plays this alluring woman with an almost sensual air of mystery, taking charge of the screen every second she’s on.
D’Amico is also quite good as Mouse, one of the largest of the series’ several LGBT characters. Mouse is so cute, so sweet, and so unsure of what do to with his life that it becomes impossible not to love him. Mouse also serves as a sobering reminder of the double life many LGBT people had to lead forty years ago. Out, loud and proud to his friends in the city, Mouse scurries back into the closet when his parents come to town for a four day visit.
Tales Of The City was shot on location in San Francisco. The cinematography underscores the exquisite beauty of the city–the hills, the views of the bay, and those grand old Victorian mansions, many of which have since been razedto make room for condos as the current tech boom continues to overtake the city. For longtime San Franciscans the series will make them yearn for what was. For people who’ve never been there, Tales Of The City will make them want to pack their bags and move. It’s a shame that what they’re looking for is long gone.
Netflix’s 10-episode installment of “Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City” is slated to debut in 2019.

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