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Recreating CHEERS’ bar for the stage

Set of Cheers Live on Stage. Photo by Justin Barbin.
Photo by Justin Barbin

By Rob Walton

Few TV locations are as instantly recognizable as Cheers‘ Boston sports bar. There’s the Bradys’ groovy California split level with the open staircase. Monica and Rachel’s crocus-colored West Village apartment. But since Cheers seldom left the cozy confines of the Bunker Hill basement bar, it’s the one clear image we have of television’s popular and enduring series.

As familiar as Cheers the bar is from 11 years on television, it was no small feat to recreate it for the live theater. It seems like it should be easy. After all, as a voiceover reminded us at the top of every episode, “Cheers is filmed before a live studio audience.” So why not just use the original blueprints of the stage set and call it a day?

“There was nothing available to us,” explains CHEERS LIVE ON STAGE set designer Michael Carnahan. “The blueprints disappeared. They may be in some crew members’ basement and resurface at some point on eBay, but for now, we had nothing.”

Carnahan and his design team became digital detectives and video archeologists. They took thousands of screen shots from the TV series. By using Ted Danson’s real height and counting bricks from the floor, for example, they were able to glean exact wall heights. By counting the number of steps it took Rhea Perlman to get from the front door to Sam’s office, they were able to create an accurate floor plan for the CHEERS LIVE ON STAGE set.

“This is the first time I’ve created something like this, and you have a real responsibility to get it right. Everyone considers himself an expert on something they know from the past. I sent a picture of the model to my brother and within 30 minutes I got an email saying, ‘Where is the picture of Sam pitching behind the bar?’ You’re being entrusted with this property so you have to get it right. It’s a very beloved property.”

One crucial resource was at Carnahan’s disposal. The actual wood, brass and leather wet bar that Paramount custom built for the TV series was recently excavated from the studio lot and is being restored to go on exhibit at LA’s Museum of Television.  So Carnahan’s team was able to measure, photograph and replicate the actual bar.

“It is the one item where we tried to be slavish to all the original details,” Carnahan says. “Ours is a near exact replica, fully functional, with two working beer taps and running water. Sam and Coach are able to mix and pour drinks on stage. We’re actually using it as part of a VIP package. During intermission, audience members come through the backstage, enter the front door of Cheers, walk onto the stage and have drinks at the bar.”

For this reason the inside of the set is completely finished, 360-degrees, and not just two-dimensional stage facades. But, since CHEERS LIVE ON STAGE is a touring production, the bar must get broken down into pieces, able to be set up again in eight hours in the next city. Carnahan admits, “It’s a challenge to make a bar you can pick up and travel at the drop of a hat.”

After 10 weeks of research and design, it took 12 weeks to build the uncannily replicated set. There are 198 framed photos and objects on the walls, 48 liquor bottles, more than 200 glasses and 55 practical lighting fixtures. Michael’s two favorite props on the stage are one he acquired and one he created himself.

“We have an original 1926 National cash register that we had restored for the show. It’s fully working and makes the best sounds imaginable. We also had a cigar store Indian carved and painted to match the Indian that was by the front door of the TV show. It’s a terrific looking set piece.”

But it isn’t all slavish devotion to detail. Although the original Cheers was built in a cavernous 80-foot soundstage, in the TV broadcast you never see more than a foot over the actors’ heads in the basement bar. So Carnahan had to expand the set and add details to fill a 35-foot theater proscenium in a seamless way.

“On television, we only see eight feet of the set. We had to imagine all the set dressing above people’s heads and to make it still look like the Cheers bar that everyone remembers.”

Carnahan has some creative fun with lighting. “We have lots of specialty lighting built into the set so the hundreds of glasses glow, all the bottles at the back bar light up from the bottom and glow. There’s the famous jukebox and a piano that glows. And in TV, where you’d cut to commercial, the specialty lighting takes advantage of transitions.”

People have an emotional attachment to their TV families. Heck, Archie Bunker’s chair is enshrined in the Smithsonian Institution. Throughout 275 episodes of Cheers, we got to know the denizens of that downstairs speakeasy and felt as if we could be on an adjoining barstool, eavesdropping on conversations between Sam and Diane, hoisting cold ones with Norm and Cliff. We might not have noticed particular details, like the wooden cigar store Indian at the front door, the skull oars on the wall, the overhead Tiffany lamps, but they all added up to create TVs most iconic location: that ’80s bar where everybody knows your name.