Fans and actors salute 'MASH'

Times Staff Writer

Where were you the night that the finale of the comedy TV series "MASH" aired 25 years ago to a record-setting number of viewers?

Most of the people gathered in a woodsy-fragrant clearing in Malibu Creek State Park on Saturday morning could tell you where they were while watching that famous episode. Some, alas, could not; they would be the ones who hadn't been born 25 years ago.

But they could all look across to the chaparral-covered mountains and recognize the backdrop for the show's opening scene of helicopters flying in as the melancholy theme song played. They pointed up the grassy slope to the place where the injured would arrive to be cared for by the characters of the 4077th Mobile Army Surgical Hospital.

And they grinned in delight as they posed for pictures next to the replica of the camp signpost with its medley of wooden arrows pointing to the hometowns of MASH personnel.

For this group, the clearing was sacred ground -- and not just because it's the archaeological site of a Chumash village. It was the outdoor filming location of the beloved TV show about a Korean War MASH unit that presaged the now-routine melding of comedy and drama in television. Devoted fans -- both original and DVD-raised -- hiked in or hitched bumpy rides in vintage military vehicles Saturday for a tribute to the show and its panoramic location.

"It's like Graceland; I love it," said Stephanie Ouellette, a 24-year-old actor who came with her friends, Jenn Morrison, 24, and Giancarlo Damiani, 23, also actors. Morrison and Ouellette were nurtured on reruns and DVDs of the show.

"I think Hot Lips is awesome," Morrison said. "She's so spunky."

No one seemed more moved than the actors who became stars as a result of the show. That included Hot Lips herself, who still sports near-platinum-blond hair in long curls.

"It's thrilling to be honored in this way," said Loretta Swit, who played Maj. Margaret "Hot Lips" Houlihan. "I think if I had to sum it up, what we're most proud of is that we made everybody come together. And I think this will also bring people together."

One of the "MASH" directors, Charles Dubin, 89, as well as producers Gene Reynolds and Burt Metcalfe, all took turns at the microphone. William Christopher, who played Father Mulcahy (the boyish MASH priest is gone but that lilting voice is still there) spoke, as did actor Jeff Maxwell, who called his character, the cook Igor, more "biscuit" than "role."

"It brings back so many memories," he said, squinting toward a hillside. "I was drunk up there."

The audience of about 300 people laughed appreciatively.

"No matter who you were on the show, you were really part of a family," Maxwell said.

Actor Mike Farrell, one of the more famous members of the cast (he played B.J. Hunnicutt) said that he and some of his "MASH" cohorts regularly dine together. He thanked the people who came to the park.

"It's wonderful to see all you willing to trek out here for the memory of this show," Farrell said.

And it is a bit of a trek. From the front entrance of the park it is a two-mile hike, albeit a gentle one. The reward -- in addition to the scenic journey itself -- is the site, which has been groomed and dotted with some of the show's artifacts. There is an old ambulance that was used in the show, and the path to the camp's helicopter pad has been restored. The sites of some of the show's tents will be outlined by ropes on posts.

But the most significant artifact is the location itself -- once owned by Fox studios, which sold it to the state in 1974 but continued to shoot there. ("MASH" ran on CBS from 1972 to 1983.)

Park docent Brian Rooney spearheaded the yearlong effort to tame the unruly brush that had overtaken the area. "The ambulance over there was completely covered in brush," said Rooney, 44, whose day job is in marketing at Penske Motor Group; his weekend labor of love was restoring the "MASH" site. "There are bigger "MASH" fans than I, but I'm totally motivated to share things with the public."

State park service folks seemed to feel the same way.

"Welcome to North Korea," Ron Schafer, California State Parks Angeles District superintendent, said to the assembled crowd.

"South!" came the shouts correcting his historic reference to the location of the MASH unit.

"Actually, welcome to Malibu Creek State Park," Schafer said; he noted that the state park system wanted to restore the "MASH" site "as part of the cultural history of America."

Farrell, a longtime human rights activist and opponent of the death penalty, took the opportunity to tweak Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger for proposing budget cutbacks in state parks spending while moving ahead with a new death row at San Quentin State Prison.

"All of you need to contact the governor and tell him, 'You're spending $136 million on a new death row. It would be better just to spend that on state parks,' " Farrell said. There was a brief silence. "I don't mean to get political," he deadpanned as the crowd chuckled.

"The legacy of 'MASH,' " Farrell said at one point, "is that war hurts; blood is not spilled without cost."

Dotting the scene were vintage military vehicles from the 1950s, '60s and '70s. The enthusiasts who own them -- and regularly drive them in parades -- came to the tribute to provide atmosphere as well as rides.

Just-retired Marine Cliff Smith, 38 -- "I grew up on 'MASH' " -- had his own take on the show's theme: "I think the message is they were there to help the people who were wounded. Everybody was there to help in their own way."

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carla.hall@latimes.com

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