The midseason finale of FX's American Horror Story: Freak Show was chock-full of surprises for viewers. First off, the episode opened with Salty passing away peacefully in his sleep. Then Pepper was shuttled off to live with her awful sister, Lily Rabe resurfaced as Asylum's Sister Mary Eunice, and — in an episode ending flash-forward to Pepper in Briarcliff in 1962, we watched as the wrongly imprisoned caressed the cover of a LIFE magazine... the cover of which featured a glamorous black-and-white portrait of her former ringleader. "TV's Elsa Mars. She Still Owns Friday Night," proudly proclaimed the cover. But what TV did she own? What was on TV in 1962?
But first, let me just say: Wait, what? Back in 1952 (in which Season 4 mostly takes place), the only connection Fräulein Elsa believes she has to Hollywood is Stanley — who in reality is an unscrupulous con man picking her freaks off in order to sell their corpses to the Morbidity Museum. How the hell does Elsa end up a TV star? Who helps get her there? There are three possibilities surrounding that issue of LIFE, as I see it:
1. It's real.
2. It's another flash of what could come to pass, à la Stanley's murderous hallucinations.
3. It's just in Pepper's traumatized mind, as she wistfully imagines that the only person who ever actually cared about her managed to attain the happy ending that Pepper never will.
Real or imagined, it's fun to think of Jessica Lange's spotlight-craving character as a well-known television personality. What kind of show would Elsa have starred on? Looking back at what series were airing on Friday nights in 1962, here are a few options. (Remember that only three of today's networks existed five decades ago: ABC, CBS, and NBC.)
NBC Fridays 7:30-8:30 PM
It's easy to picture the German chanteuse getting her start on this variety show hosted by future Academy Award winner Don Ameche. The actor took a film crew and traveled around Europe, broadcasting circus and ice shows to the American public. Perhaps after Fräulein Elsa's Cabinet of Curiosities is finally closed down, Elsa returns to her native country in disgrace, only to be finally discovered by Ameche and his cameras, launching her to stardom.
ABC Fridays 8:00-8:30 PM
This ABC sitcom centered around Walter and Elinore Hathaway, "parents" and agents to the three Marquis Chimps: Candy, Charlie, and Enoch. Elinor was played by actress/singer/comedienne Peggy Cass (who was nominated for an Oscar for her supporting role in 1958's Auntie Mame). Perhaps in AHS's universe, Elsa won the role over Cass. Her experience working in a circus could certainly help her land a role that required regular interactions with a trio of monkeys!
The Twilight Zone
CBS Fridays 10:00-10:30
One of the two most famous shows airing on Friday at this time was without a doubt Rod Serling's sci-fi series The Twilight Zone. While Elsa couldn't have had a regular role on the anthology show, a couple of guest appearances might very easily have launched her to stardom — the series did the same for the likes of Veronica Cartwright (The Birds), Cloris Leachman (The Mary Tyler Moore Show), and Elizabeth Montgomery (Bewitched).
ABC Fridays 7:30-8:30
The second of Friday's two most famous shows, Rawhide (which starred a young Clint Eastwood) is television's fifth-longest-running Western. Surely if Elsa was"owning" Friday nights, it must have been with a part on the evening's highest-rated program? Then again, it's hard to imagine glamorous Elsa willing to get down and dirty in the Wild Wild West...
Don't Call Me Charlie!
NBC Fridays 9:30-10:00
A small-town Iowan veterinarian gets drafted into the military and stationed in Paris, where he has a series of uproarious encounters with his fellow soldiers and those zany locals. Can't you just picture Elsa Mars as a French femme fatale who steals the show from her mere mortal cast mates by simply walking on screen and smoldering? Please. Jessica Lange can do smoldering in her sleep.
77 Sunset Strip
ABC Fridays 9:00-10:00
Elsa so badly wants to end up in the City of Angels, so what better fit for her than a series that would let her live in Hollywood in both her reality and her fiction? This hour-long series focused on two secret agents-turned-private detectives who solve crimes in L.A. Elsa could easily find herself a place in this show as a Hollywood starlet who helps the pair solve crimes... and steals their hearts while she's at it, of course. Plus, I love the images of Sunset Boulevard that the title unavoidably conjures in my mind. Elsa Mars and Norma Desmond have more than a little in common.
ABC Fridays 7:30-8:00
This sitcom, based on the 1946 romantic comedy of the same name, focused on a young girl growing up in New England in the 1920s. Elsa could easily have played the blonde's mother, Nora Clayton — the show's period setting, with its use of jazz music, flappers, and silent movie cue cards ("The plot thickens!") would have made the aging actress feel right at home. But the real reason I have a suspicion this is the show that Elsa starred on? The 22-year-old actress who portrayed Margie was named Cynthia Pepper. Yep, that's right: Pepper. Coincidence...? Methinks not.
Images: Michele K. Short/FX; NBC (2); Sony Pictures Television; CBS Television Distribution (2); Warner Bros. Television; 20th Century Fox Television