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Thursday, May 13, 2004 - Page updated at 01:37 P.M.

Condo by condo, Seattle has become a lot like 'Frasier'

By Kay McFadden
Seattle Times TV critic

HARLEY SOLTES / THE SEATTLE TIMES, 1997
Kelsey Grammer plays piano during a rehearsal break.
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Whoever said art imitates life never watched a sitcom. Whether set in Dallas or Pittsburgh or the Los Angeles suburbs, most comedies barely reflect the places they've borrowed.

But in the case of Seattle and NBC's long-running hit "Frasier," make-believe has done more than mimic reality. It has predicted it.

Tonight "Frasier" concludes with a flourish. It has won more Emmys than any comedy in history and heaps of critical acclaim. KING-TV expects up to a half-million viewers here to watch the 8 p.m. highlights show and 8:55 p.m. finale.

Back in 1993, however, things were a bit different.

Locals scoffed when Dr. Frasier Crane (Kelsey Grammer) brought his condo-dwelling, wine-sipping, opera-going ways to an imaginary version of Jet City. The real Seattle was grunge and Gore-Tex and the great outdoors. As usual, Hollywood had gotten it wrong.

"Frasier" finale tonight


Highlights show: 8 p.m., KING-TV

Finale: 8:55 p.m., KING-TV

Yet 11 years later, a metropolis of increasingly urban and urbane preoccupations inhabits the spot where Jet City once stood.

Million-dollar condominiums have proliferated on Queen Anne Hill and in Belltown. From fashion-forward First Avenue to couture shops on Sixth, nary a plaid-flannel shirt is flaunted. The Washington Wine Commission reports 90 percent of the wine produced here is premium-priced.

Even more to the "Frasier" point, Seattle — once known for Pearl Jam and Nirvana — now has the highest per-capita opera attendance of any city in the nation.

Daphne:


"What's left for us in Seattle — ex-wives and ex-fiancés. A tangled mess of bitterness and hurt feelings."

Niles:


"Yes, but an excellent symphony and world-class dining."

"During my life, Seattle has transitioned several times," said KVI-AM radio host and former gubernatorial candidate John Carlson. "From a blue-collar manufacturing town to a hip place that celebrated cutting-edge trends to a young middle-aged city that is slowly coming to resemble the Seattle of Frasier Crane."

Carlson isn't the only local observer who's noticed the correlation.

Judith Chandler, author-events coordinator at Third Place Books in Seattle, said the city is more "Frasier" than many old-timers might think.

"They might protest, because it's hard to realize change," Chandler said. "But the show is full of theatrical and literary references in a town that loves the theater and reading. It's about brilliant, highly educated people that don't know how to ask for a date."

Niles:


"Belltown is sort of a sketchy neighborhood, wouldn't you say?"

Martin:


"Oh, Niles, to you a sketchy neighborhood is when the cheese shop doesn't have valet parking."

She added: "Look at Frasier's brother, Niles (David Hyde Pierce). He's so buttoned-up and then periodically has these giant emotional meltdowns. That's pretty much a classic Seattle type."

No doubt hometown loyalty and a certain amount of cultural recognition account for why "Frasier's" ratings in the Seattle-Tacoma market are twice the national average.

What appears to be extraordinary, however, are the consequences of that popularity.

Jeff Valcik is an associate broker who deals in high-end properties for Windermere Real Estate. He saw signs of the "Frasier" effect shortly after the show debuted.

Niles:


"Cancel the Millennium! Chez Henri has burned down!"

Frasier: "Burned down?"

Niles: "Yes! Apparently, Henri was caramelizing a huge crème brûlée in the shape of Puget Sound, when a sugar spark ignited a 30-foot papier-mâché Space Needle. They're already calling it the worst centerpiece disaster in the history of Seattle."

"It started happening around the time all those Microsofties were making money in the mid-'90s," he said. "They didn't want a house in the suburbs; they wanted to move to Queen Anne.

"And over and over, they'd tell me they wanted that cosmopolitan feel of 'Frasier.' "

Valcik recalled a series episode in which a dot-com millionaire moves into Frasier Crane's building and eventually decorates his apartment to look just like Frasier's.

"That's exactly what I got," said Valcik. "My upper-end dot-com millionaires, they didn't want funky. They didn't want to be classified as hicks. They wanted that décor, with the oak floors and the designer fixtures, and the Space Needle view."

The show's Space Needle view is famous in Seattle real-estate circles, partly for being an artful three-shot fabrication and partly for being what many wealthy newcomers seek. The phrase "Frasier's views" has joined the descriptive lexicon alongside "wood-burning fireplace" and "lanai." (The show is, in fact, shot not in Seattle, but on the Paramount lot in Hollywood.)

HARLEY SOLTES / THE SEATTLE TIMES, 1997
Moose, aka "Eddie" the Jack Russell terrier, awaits his cue.
To suggest Seattle has become its TV doppelgänger is not to imply we all own slip-on loafers and Jack Russell terriers. That would be like expecting everyone in Newark, N.J., to work in waste management and hang out at Tony Soprano's Bada-Bing.

Nevertheless, in the face of mounting evidence that fiction has foreshadowed fact, it's logical to wonder why. Do local citizens consciously set out to imitate a television show, a notion that sounds more like the science fiction "Outer Limits" than "Frasier"?

According to David Domke, communications professor at the University of Washington, the answer is yes.

Domke teaches and studies the effects of media on society. And his theory boils down to this: a TV-conferred identity becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

"When a show associated with a particular city becomes a hit, it projects that city's persona to large audiences," said Domke. "Viewers see 'Frasier,' and they expect that when they visit.

"Then the people who are here begin to find there's money to be made from fitting that image."

But that's only the first, most obvious, phase. It results in "Frasier" tours of Seattle, Amazon.com's listing of wine and coffee gear under "Frasier Crane's Seattle Faves," and Web sites like www.CounselingSeattle.com, a psychiatric referral service with a page devoted to "Frasier."

What happens next is more insidious.

John Mahoney, playing Martin Crane, the patriarch of the "Frasier" family, laughs at a joke from Kelsey Grammer during rehearsal.
"The power of media discourse is that people who are represented on a show almost have to fit that image or they begin to seem inauthentic to the visitors," said Domke.

"So say I'm living here and watching 'Frasier' or reading about it in The New York Times, and it seems pretty cool. The characters are funny, intellectual. The psychology of identity becomes powerful. It becomes hard to escape that identity."

Of course, the program has to make some sense. Seattle had left its brawny logging past behind with the 1960s TV series "Here Come the Brides." What it hadn't found was a show that connected to the city's future.

Enter "Frasier," a series that, in retrospect, was perfectly suited to emerging sensibilities.

Speight Jenkins, director of the Seattle Opera and a self-proclaimed huge fan of "Frasier," said the series always seemed like the real Seattle to him.

"I came here in 1983 and felt at the time that this was a sophisticated city," he said. "I never thought it was anything else, and in directing the opera, it never entered my mind to play down to the audience. 'Frasier' is such a Seattle show for the same reason; it never plays down."

Jenkins' only regret is that Seattle Opera didn't identify itself more with the series: "I had this kind of crazy idea that we should have put Frasier Crane on our board."

The confluence between fantasy and reality — embraced by some and resisted by others — is a constant feature of television, the most sensitive of media when it comes to trends.

Thin coincidence can result. "Frasier" has a Café Nervosa; Seattle has a Zeitgeist. Both are reminders of the '90s rage for labeling humble coffee shops with highfalutin' names. During the time Frasier Crane was a radio therapist, talk radio in Seattle grew from two stations to four.

And while wine was constantly flourished, uncorked and poured on "Frasier," the number of wineries in Washington went from 80 in 1996 to 275 in 2004.

Such similarities can be argued away as demographic window dressing. Every upscale city in America experienced such phenomena over the past decade.

Yet the relationship between "Frasier" and Seattle clearly runs deeper. It would be hard to envision the same characters or atmosphere in a show about Phoenix or Atlanta.

Maybe it's the blend of chilly surface with subterranean passion that makes Frasier and Niles Crane seem like convincing natives. Or the deflationary common sense of their father, Martin (John Mahoney) — a down-to-earth sort who reminds Northwesterners of roots that are fast being buried.

It could even be that British flair delivered by Daphne (Jane Leeves), who finally married Niles and whose first child is expected in tonight's finale. We are, after all, notorious Anglophiles, and would probably rush to agree with the BBC News reporter who referred to the show's "frosty friendliness."

Mainly, though, the "Frasier"-Seattle bond demonstrates that a show need not be literally accurate to be genuinely captivating. If a scripted series hits the right social and emotional chords, the rest will follow.

And, one might add, vice versa. No example of cause and effect is so convincing as that of how "Frasier" came to be in Seattle.

When Grub Street Productions began scouting a location for its "Cheers" spinoff back in 1992, the company knew it wanted to move the character of Frasier Crane away from Boston.

The producers settled on Denver. Then, as executive producer Peter Casey recalled, conservative activists in Colorado began lobbying against gay rights.

"Right away, we knew we didn't want 'Frasier' there anymore," said Casey. "We weren't going to give Denver all this positive publicity."

The producers considered and rejected San Francisco — too cliché. They discovered Seattle. They checked out the local politics.

"It seemed like this wonderful, tolerant, idiosyncratic place full of smart people," said Casey. "So we decided that's where Frasier Crane would live."

Casey's story reveals that as much as "Frasier" shaped Seattle, the reverse also was true. The setting gave a certain creative license to the writers, and it's difficult to imagine some episodes ever taking place in Denver, such as those featuring gender confusion and insider winks at the show's oft-noted "gay sensibility."

But all good things come to an end — and not just "Frasier" itself.

In recent weeks, reports in Daily Variety and other trade magazines have hinted that Frasier Crane may have another encore. Including "Cheers," the character has been played by Grammer for 20 continuous seasons, a statistic that ties James Arness' portrayal of Marshal Matt Dillon on "Gunsmoke."

Citing industry insiders, Variety said Paramount was pitching a spinoff to NBC — one that featured Frasier moving from Seattle to a new city.

Apparently even in imaginary circles, the unimaginable can happen. Grammer was known to welcome a 12th season before NBC nixed the renewal, and it's possible he might star in a sequel.

Without Seattle, though, what's the point? Given the prevailing sentiment in this town, Grammer might just as well pursue his other dream of running for office as a Republican. Geographically or politically, "Frasier" would never feel the same.

Kay McFadden: kmcfadden@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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