Decades after I moved away, I remain fascinated with the biggest, most iconic building in my hometown of Dearborn, MI — a glassy, semicircular high rise that once housed the Hyatt Regency. Back in the 1980s, traveling rock stars would stay there when their tours came through Detroit. Not that working class people like me knew much about those lux interiors. If you ask any Dearborn person over 40 what they remember most about the Hyatt, they’ll rave about the futuristic monorail that connected to nearby Fairlane Mall. But if you ask me my main association with that strange, shimmering edifice, I’ll start singing, “Life’s not the French Riviera! Believe me, life’s not a charity ball!”
Fans know I’m referring to the theme song from 1980s workplace sitcom It’s a Living. But there’s a very good chance you’ve never heard of this series before. It takes place in Above the Top, a restaurant on the highest floor of a swanky Los Angeles skyscraper. The show featured a crew of beautiful, charming waitresses juggling family, school, and their love lives while serving the clientele of a fine dining establishment. I could tell that the real-life Bonaventure Hotel — which was used in the show’s exterior shots — probably had one of those rotating rotunda restaurants, just like the Hyatt. So for me as a kid, the It’s a Living building and my town’s shiny, glass hotel were basically the same thing — the picture of mod ‘80s elegance.
And as far as kid me was concerned, adult women did not get any cooler than the waitresses from It’s a Living. For one thing they got to work in these beautiful matching low-cut gowns and heels (not at all practical for hustling on one’s feet all day, but what does an eight-year-old know about arch support?). They’d zip about their tables, spurning sleazy lounge singer Sonny’s pathetic advances, then dip into the kitchen to assemble salads and gossip. And then at the end of the shift, they’d all hang out in their fully furnished employee lounge, which completely ruined my expectations for what a break room would look like. They’d swap their beautiful waitress uniforms for extremely fashionable ‘80s attire (lots of chunky, oversized sweaters and scarves) as they exchanged zingers about each other’s boyfriends and spouses. Theirs looked like a perfectly wonderful workplace life to me, and that’s how I imagined it must be to wait tables at the fancy restaurant at the top of the Hyatt. I found their work life aspirational.
Revisiting the series now, I realize that the waitresses’ friendships were the real heart of the series, even more than the cool clothes and cushy lounge. Regardless of the various cast changes throughout the series’ six-season run (and there were several, especially after the show’s network run got canceled and it moved to syndication), each episode began with the waitresses walking arm-in-arm into work as the bonkers amazing theme song kicked off. It’s basically a Broadway show tune, and a really great one. The lyrics are all about how this working class gig may not make you rich, but who cares as long as you’re hot and spry?
Life’s not the French Riviera
Believe me, Life’s not a charity ball.
It isn’t all a great, big bed of roses
It’s not like showbiz
But the main thing I suppose is
We’re not the people you envy
Believe me, we know we’re doing okay
We may be less than wealthy
But better yet, we’re young and healthy
And anyone who’s young and healthy knows that that’s the way the traffic flows
We’ve no misgivings
It’s a living.
It’s weird to me that a show this fun failed on network TV. It’s a Living was a Witt/Thomas production, the same people who made The Golden Girls. I see a lot of similarities between the two shows’ sassy lady-centric vibe and frequent sex jokes. In 1980, many viewers found It’s a Living’s pilot episode too risque; when audience members freaked out over the waitresses’ frank discussion about premarital sex (young Vicki, played by Wendy Schall, is thinking about giving it up for her new beau), Proctor and Gamble pulled sponsporship. ABC kept pitting the program against megahit shows like Magnum PI, and it was cancelled after the second season. It’s a Living’s 40 original episodes found new life in syndication and the show returned with new episodes in 1985 (exactly when The Golden Girls premiered on NBC), featuring some original cast members and the same premise.
I remember watching those new episodes every Sunday afternoon on TV 20, an absolute gem in a time slot dominated by boring pro sports. This was probably the first show I really appreciated as an ensemble, because all of the characters were so memorable. There was cranky maitre d Nancy (Marian Mercer, as the boss everyone despised), who paraded about in ridiculous floor-length evening gowns as she scolded the ladies for coming in late or shirking their responsibilities. She was in love with deadpan chef Howard (Richard Stahl), who suffered her flirting with the same withdrawn disdain he aimed at everyone. Sonny (Paul Kreppel) was still there doing his lounge act and harassing the waitresses. And so was platinum blond Cassie (Ann Jillian); both wisecracking and horny, she was a perfect combo of The Golden Girls’ Sophia and Blanche. Flaky aspiring actress Dot (Gail Edwards) returned with the original cast as well as busy law school student Jan (Barrie Youngfellow), whose sarcastic edge made her the Dorothy of the crew. Crystal Bernard joined the cast as Amy (Crystal Bernard), a naive young lady from small town Texas who brought the Rose energy.
Much like The Golden Girls, I find It’s a Living more memorable for its bantering personalities than its plot lines. The one story I remembered quite well was a season 3 episode called “Dinner with Deedee.” In it, Jan is mortified when she has to wait on former grade school classmate Deedee (Jennifer Salt), who was always her number one academic competitor. Having narrowly beaten her rival for “Most Likely to Succeed,” Jan is embarrassed to be waiting on this woman who has since gone on to marry a wealthy, famous TV exec. She begs Cassie to take that table, then spends the rest of that night skirting past her old schoolmate. But then Jan runs into Deedee as she’s going into work the next day and lets her believe she’s become a powerful attorney. They agree to meet at the restaurant for dinner, which means Jan must enlist the help of her colleagues in pulling off this ruse.
Looking back, I think this episode stuck out for me because I didn’t know until then that anyone would look down on a service industry worker. Waiting tables was just a job like any other one, as far as my third-grade mind was concerned. What could be embarrassing about bringing people food, especially when you’re dressed to kill? The idea that any of these funny, beautiful women would feel less important than a lawyer had never occurred to me before. I remembered that Jan eventually came clean to Deedee, but her initial embarrassment was my bigger takeaway. That was my introduction to the hierarchies of traditional working class labor vs. professional managerial class jobs.
I’m pleased to say that when I recently rewatched this episode, the story deals with that tension in a pretty cool way. For instance, when Jan asks Cassie to take her table, she confesses, “I don’t want her to see that I’m doing just this.” Cassie shoots back, “What’s wrong with ‘just this’? It’s what I do.” At the end of the shift when Jan is decompressing from dodging Deedee all night, the other waitresses give her shit for behaving so ridiculously, calling her juvenile, stupid, cowardly, and short. But even though Jan is hiding the part of herself they all share in common, they still help her pretend she’s a high class customer (not a worker) when the titular dinner with Deedee finally occurs. That’s solidarity.
Perhaps that generosity from her peers is part of the reason Jan eventually admits to her former rival what she really does for a living. Or maybe it’s because Deedee turns out to be pretty cool and fun (also a great tipper, as Cassie noted the night before). Either way, the waitresses are so committed to Jan’s charade that they refuse to admit she’s their coworker even when she presses them to tell Deedee the truth. Finally Jan asks Dot, “Will you cover my shift tomorrow night?” To which Dot absentmindedly replies, “Sure, Jan.” It’s a sweet and funny moment, when Dot blows her cover because it’s just second nature to help her friend. Jan tells Deedee that she’s happy with her life, even if it’s not what she’d imagined when she was younger. And to her credit, Deedee doesn’t look down on her one bit. When she returns to dine at Above the Top the next evening, Jan insists on serving her. Cassie asks if this is about proving she has nothing to hide. Jan says, “Nope, I’m going for the tip.” Get it, girl!
I love returning to this show as an adult woman socialist. Season 3 has a bunch of great episodes, like the one where the waitresses join forces to defend Amy from a stalker, or when Cassie dates a cowboy billionaire with big McConnaughey vibes but later dumps him when he starts messing with her work life. There’s so much lady coworker solidarity! When I was a kid, I thought it would be so rad to work at the top of that glassy tower, wearing a pretty uniform, hanging in the lounge with cool coworkers I love. And I still adore those details. But now I also enjoy It’s a Living as a celebration of proletariat ladies who always have each other’s backs. We don’t get enough depictions of that in popular media.