‘Shangri-La Plaza,’ the Star-Studded, All-Musical Sitcom Time Forgot

On a single night in 1990, an oddball CBS pilot set in a real North Hollywood strip mall delighted and befuddled America before disappearing entirely
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It’s no question that 2020 has been rough. Well, “when it seems like the sky’s falling down/and you can’t get your aspirations off the ground/Don’t give up, you’re in luck, I know a place/where every man has a dream and every car has a space.” Those are the opening lyrics of the theme song to Shangri-La Plaza, perhaps the wildest Los Angeles-set TV show you’ve never seen. Originally produced as a pilot for CBS’ 1990-’91 season, the network decided to air Shangri-La Plaza as a summer fill-in program for one night only on July 30, 1990. Though it only lasted for one half-hour, Shangri-La Plaza is a unique entry in the annals of television history, an entirely sung-through musical comedy set and filmed in a North Hollywood strip mall.

For a failed pilot, Shangri-La Plaza has a stunningly stacked cast. At the top of the bill is Terrence Mann, the Broadway legend who by 1990 had already received raves in the original Broadway casts of Les Miserables and Cats, as Javert and the Rum Tum Tugger, respectively. Mann stars as Ira Bondo, a macho mechanic who works alongside his sensitive brother George (Jeff Yagher, Elaine’s musician love interest John Jermaine on Seinfeld) at their body shop in the mall. When Amy (Melora Hardin, perhaps best known now for playing Jan on The Office) takes over her late deadbeat ex-husband’s doughnut shop, both brothers are instantly smitten. The cast is rounded out by then up-and-coming jazz great Carmen Lundy in her only onscreen acting role as the doughnut shop’s lone employee, dance prodigy Savion Glover as a teen who acts as a rapping Greek chorus, Oscar nominee Chris Sarandon as the plaza’s landlord, and future Smallville star Allison Mack as Amy’s eight-year-old daughter. The latter two’s roles play differently in 2020 than they did in 1990: The naturally olive-skinned Sarandon’s character sports a cartoonish accent, which is particularly jarring as Hollywood reckons with its portrayal of BIPOC characters. Additionally, it’s surreal to watch Mack, who’s now known for her involvement with the NXIVM sex cult, as an excited kid. Two other actors appear in the show’s hyperactive opening credit sequence, but their roles were cut for time.

So, how did this eclectic cast wind up singing and dancing in a strip mall? The show was the brainchild of writer-director Nick Castle (director of The Last Starfighter, cowriter of John Carpenter’s Escape From New York, and Michael Meyers in the original Halloween), along with composers Craig Safan (Cheers, Stand and Deliver) and Mark Mueller (the theme song to DuckTales and Jennifer Paige’s 1998 hit “Crush”). While working together on projects like The Last Starfighter and Tap, the trio discovered they had a common passion. “The three of us loved old musicals. Nick’s dad was a choreographer who had done Royal Wedding and many other movies,” Safan says.

Their opportunity finally came when Castle’s friend Jeff Sagansky became head of CBS and was in search of new, unusual programming. Castle, Safan, and Mueller knew they wanted to make a musical, and started tossing around ideas until one suggested setting it in a mini-mall.

“At the time in L.A., on nearly every corner, there was a mini-mall popping up. It was a joke how many were being built,” Mueller says, adding, “It was an unlikely setting for a musical, which is precisely what we loved about it. It could be its own little campy, funny theatrical world.”

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The real North Hollywood strip mall used as Shangri-La Plaza during filming

Linda Safan

The trio, who dubbed themselves “the Schmaltz Kings,” knew from the start that the show would have to be different. Rather than having characters occasionally burst into song, they wanted the whole show to be sung-through so the audience wouldn’t find it jarring. “If you introduce something early enough, people accept it as part of the world,” Safan explains. As the music and lyrics served as the script, the trio have a unique “written and composed by” credit on the pilot. The pitch to CBS was just as unusual; the trio cleared off Sagansky’s desk, and with a keyboard and two speakers, they performed songs from the show in character. “Mouths were open. But I think it was so outrageous, all the suits laughed,” Mueller recalls.

With the network on board, it was time to cast. The unusual premise made it stand out among a sea of pilots. “My agent said it was a half-hour show about living in a strip mall and I said, ‘Count me in,’” Mann says. For Carmen Lundy, the audition came as a surprise. Though she’d done some stage acting, the jazz singer wasn’t looking to do any screen acting. “I went to visit some friends in L.A., and my agent found out I was in L.A. and sent me on an audition for this pilot. I was taken aback because I was on vacation,” Lundy recalls.

Castle, Safan, and Mueller knew they didn’t want to do the show on a set. “We thought a real mini-mall would be much more organic and a lot funnier,” says Mueller. After scouting out, in Mueller’s words, “every strip mall within 40 miles of L.A. that was new or unleased,” the crew found their ideal strip mall at the northwest corner of Vineland Avenue and Burbank Boulevard, across the street from the infamous neon clown at Circus Liquor. “The mini-mall had just been built and wasn’t occupied, so we rented it out for a couple weeks,” says Safan.

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The strip mall that was turned into Shangri-La Plaza today

Michael Darling

Jeremy Railton, the Emmy winning art director for Pee-wee’s Playhouse, oversaw the transformation of the unremarkable strip mall into Shangri-La Plaza, painting the exterior a garish pink and adding a fake second story and giant spinning doughnuts. One of the few contemporary articles about Shangri-La Plaza is an odd Washington Post article called “The Mall That Appalled L.A.” that quotes neighbors about how much they loathed the fictional strip mall. The over-the-top set is actually a great representation of the commercial design aesthetic of the era. At the dawn of the ’90s, the bright pastels of Deborah Sussman’s 1984 Olympics were still in vogue across the Southland, while Shangri-La Plaza also reflects the architecture of Jon Jerde, whose malls like the Westside Pavilion, CityWalk, and San Diego’s Horton Plaza all featured bright, popping colors and outlandish design elements. In fact, the set might have been too realistic: “I can’t tell you how many people pulled into the mall. We had to tell people all the time, ‘It’s a set…we don’t sell doughnuts,’” Hardin says.

Just before filming began, a complication arose when Savion Glover broke his ankle playing basketball days before filming started. “Can you believe it? The most talented tap dancer of his time and he couldn’t tap,” says Safan. Thankfully, Shangri-La Plaza’s choreographer was the brilliant Michael Peters, who had won a Tony for Dreamgirls and created the steps for music videos like “Thriller” and “Beat It,” so Glover’s crutches and full leg cast were just props for Peters and Glover to work into the choreography. “He treated it like that was my condition, like I was a dancer who used crutches. He taught me to treat it like it was part of my instrument,” Glover recalls.

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Chris Sarandon in the opening credits

CBS

Thirty years later, the cast and crew still speak fondly of the ten-day shoot. “This was early on in my adventure in show business, so it was like an amusement park. I was still learning, I didn’t feel like I was acting,” Glover says. Lundy found herself at ease thanks to it being a sung-through show. “What saved me was that I had the songs; if this was a straight acting role, I’d be a lot more nervous,” says Lundy. At times, the crew almost felt they were getting away with something. “It was one of those fun things where CBS is giving you a lot of money to make this silly show,” says Safan. According to Mueller, at the time, it was the most expensive pilot CBS had ever made, which might have doomed its chances of a series pick-up.

At the time, it was the most expensive pilot CBS had ever made, which might have doomed its chances of a series pick-up.

CBS executives loved the finished pilot, and the crew was told to take some time off before getting ready to start production on the series for the fall. Castle, Safan, and Mueller knew it would be nearly impossible to produce a TV season’s worth of original songs on their own. “I started interviewing composers and lyricists to form a whole stable of people like a writers’ staff,” says Safan. Unfortunately, the show was not a hit with test audiences and when the fall schedule was announced, Shangri-La Plaza was nowhere to be found. “I went to Hawaii thinking I was the executive producer of a show on CBS and when I got there, I received the phone call that we didn’t get picked up,” says Mueller.

“It was so sad; we were all really hopeful. It felt ahead of its time,” says Hardin, adding, “I was really wanting to get to know these people because I felt it could be a great family of people to work with. You don’t always feel that way.” Ironically, Shangri-La Plaza was not the only musical pilot in 1990; ABC had the now infamous flop Cop Rock and NBC had a proto-Glee series called Hull High. “That was purely coincidental. And a little annoying since we thought we were so ahead of the curve,” says Castle. While both were picked up by their respective networks, neither lived to see 1991.

The Los Angeles Daily News, declared it “as stunningly bad as it sounds and amusing in its own horrific way.”

When the pilot finally aired, reviews were mixed. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette called it a “treat,” while the San Fernando Valley’s paper of record, the Los Angeles Daily News, declared it “as stunningly bad as it sounds and amusing in its own horrific way.” The Times didn’t review the pilot, but a reader was so astonished by the show that he wrote a letter to the paper about how much he hated it.

While all are fond of the show they created, the cast and crew have similarly mixed feelings about the show’s one-off broadcast. For Lundy, the night of the broadcast was particularly memorable. “The night the show aired, I sung at a club in Santa Monica and was reviewed that night by the most famous jazz critic at the time, Leonard Feather,” says Lundy, adding, “I’m getting reviewed in the L.A. Times and my show is airing. It was a great way to land in L.A. on my feet.” For Mueller, the thing he most remembers about its local broadcast was the show getting interrupted by a high-speed car chase. “I just remember thinking, ‘What?! Our show just can’t get a break,” says Mueller.

Every so often Shangri-La Plaza pops back up in the cast’s life. “I did Chicago on Broadway in 2009 with Charlotte d’Amboise, [Terrence Mann’s] wife, and I was like, ‘Oh my god, I just adore your husband; I had such fun doing Shangri-La Plaza with him,” says Hardin. While some, like Mann, haven’t seen the pilot since it aired, it still comes up occasionally as a joke. “Someone might say at a party, ‘Hey, let’s watch Terry’s Shangri-La Plaza,’ and I go ‘Aww fuck, here we go,’” says Mann. Ironically, shortly before being contacted for this article, Glover had come across a photo of the cast on set in a file. While the pilot hasn’t reached cult status, it has attracted a small following since it was first uploaded to YouTube in 2008. Mueller says he’s sometimes contacted by people who’ve seen it on Youtube. He calls those viewers “a mini-cult of mini-mall music fans!”

One member of the mini-mall mini-cult is Scott Gairdner, a comedian and screenwriter who has discussed Shangri-La Plaza on the podcast he co-hosts, Podcast: The Ride. Gairdner found the pilot by accident. “My weekend entertainment typically is going on YouTube and searching a word and a year to try to find some kitschy nonsense. I must have done ‘pilot 1990’ and that led me to Shangri-La Plaza,” says Gairdner, who considers this one of the best things he’s found through this search method.

“The fact that you recognize a fair amount of the names in the cast and crew, I couldn’t wait to watch,” says Gairdner. He says he found it to be a “delightful and odd watch” and began spreading the word about the show to friends who were into musical theater and 1980s and 1990s mall culture.

While the Schmaltz Kings are proud of their show, they admit it wouldn’t have lasted long in the 1990 TV environment. “Tens of millions of viewers were expected, and truthfully ours was a niche show,” says Mueller. However, the creative team thinks a show like Shangri-La Plaza could still work. After all, recent years have seen musical series like Crazy Ex-Girlfriend and Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist.

“I think it would work perfectly today. Others have broken through with musical elements in their series and it’s not that unusual now to see something like this,” says Castle.

In an era when everything from One Day At A Time to Parks and Recreation is getting a revival, reboot, or reunion, who’s to say Shangri-La Plaza won’t come back?

“Maybe someday we’ll do a reunion special of Shangri-La Plaza, the pilot that was never seen,” says Hardin with a laugh.


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