Evening Shade was a television situation comedy series about a contemporary Arkansas town. It was shown on CBS from 1990 to 1994 and was produced by Arkansan Harry Thomason and his wife, Linda Bloodworth-Thomason. Taking place in the rural town of Evening Shade (Sharp County), it was the first network television series set in Arkansas. The show, which starred Burt Reynolds, was filmed partially in Arkansas and represented the state in a positive manner. When seeking suggestions about a location and title for the show, it is said that the winning idea came from the Thomasons’ friend Hillary Clinton.
Created by Bloodworth-Thomason, who is from Missouri, the program was produced by Mozark Productions, of which she and her husband were principals. Besides producing the show, they wrote and directed several episodes. It debuted on September 21, 1990, and ran for ninety-eight episodes through March 23, 1994.
Evening Shade became a popular program known for small-town Southern charm. While the characters sometimes appeared eccentric, their portrayal was human and positive, not as stereotypical hillbillies or rednecks. It dealt with contemporary issues such as gender roles, mid-life pregnancy, and unemployment. It finished in the top twenty shows for two years straight. According to Nielsen Media Research, the show was rated fifteenth for the 1991-1992 season (higher than The Cosby Show) and nineteenth in 1992-1993 (beating Unsolved Mysteries and the Thomasons’ other creation, Hearts Afire). The show was canceled amidst falling ratings and the marital problems of star Reynolds and his then-wife Loni Anderson, who divorced in 1993.
Considered an ensemble, character-driven comedy, Evening Shade centered on Reynolds’s character, Woodrow Newton. Reynolds was no stranger to the state, having played Gator McCluskey in the movie White Lightning (1973), which was filmed in Arkansas. On Evening Shade, “Wood” was a retired professional football player who returned to his hometown in Arkansas to coach the local high school football team. His family included wife Ava (Marilu Henner), who was an attorney, and her father, newspaper publisher Evan Evans (Hal Holbrook). Regular cast members were Dr. Harlan Elldridge (Charles Durning), a cranky physician; Merleen (Ann Wedgeworth), the doctor’s lusty wife; Herman Stiles (Michael Jeter), a frail math teacher and assistant coach; and Ponder Blue (Ossie Davis), narrator of the show and owner of the Barbecue Villa restaurant, where the characters often gathered. Other notable cast members included Elizabeth Ashley as Freida Evans and Hilary Swank as Aimee Thompson. Toward the end of the series, several country music stars, including Kenny Rogers and Reba McEntire, appeared as themselves.
The 1990 People’s Choice Award went to Reynolds as Favorite Male Performer in a New Television Series. In 1991, he received the Emmy Award and in 1992 the Golden Globe Award for Best Performance in a Comedy. In 1992, Jeter received an Emmy for his work as supporting actor; Durning and Ashley also were nominated in that category.
Many references to Arkansas were incorporated into the show, including Reynolds’s character being a graduate and former Razorback football player at the University of Arkansas (UA) in Fayetteville (Washington County) and his wife’s being named Arkansas Attorney of the Year. Many exterior shots were filmed in the actual town of Evening Shade and other Arkansas locations, including the Wilson-Mehaffy House in Little Rock (Pulaski County), standing in for the home of the main characters. The Colonial Revival style house—a private residence at 2102 Louisiana Street that was named for its former owners, William Wilson and Tom Mehaffy—was built in 1883.
One of Evening Shade’s directors was Frank Bonner, who was born in Little Rock and raised in Malvern (Hot Spring County). Bonner previously starred as salesman Herb Tarlek on the television show WKRP in Cincinnati with Reynolds’s former wife, Loni Anderson.
In 1993, an hour-long pilot for an Evening Shade spin-off called Harlan & Merleen aired on CBS on July 13 and July 20, 1993. It starred Durning and Wedgeworth and was written by James Hampton and Reynolds, who also directed. After the initial airing, the network did not pick it up.
There is occasional confusion as to which town was used as the show’s setting. A 2005 state highway map lists two towns named Evening Shade: one in Hempstead County south of Hope and the other in Sharp County, bordering Missouri. The latter is the setting for the show.
For additional information:
“Evening Shade.” https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0098790/ (accessed November 11, 2021).
Reynolds, Burt. My Life. New York: Hyperion Books, 1994.
Arkansas State University
LOVE THE SHOW – Just watched the whole Season 1 over this Christmas weekend. I would like to get the other seasons, but I’m not sure where they are sold. The cast is great, great. Ossie’s voice is awesome. I miss shows like that.
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