Karen Hall:
You've Come a Long Way, Baby

By Kimberly R. Clifton, 2005.

Karen Hall

She took her first breath one full month before she was supposed to. And while this confused three pound preemie lay in the floorboard of her parents' Pontiac, hospital orderlies ignored her…whisking only her mother into the emergency room. It wasn't until an attendant screamed “Y'all, this baby's alive!” that things really got going.

The year was 1956 and Karen Hall was coming…whether we were ready or not. Which is exactly how she's lived her entire life.

Before I go any further let me stop and say that I get to brag again. A year ago I wrote about my other cousin, Barbara Hall, the author of nine novels and creator of Judging Amy and Joan of Arcadia. What you may not know is that before Barbara's plane ever touched down at Los Angeles International in 1982, her sister Karen had already taken Hollywood by storm.

Karen's wanted to write since she was 6 years old. It began when her Chatham Elementary teacher, Edith Smith, gave this assignment: Write a story.

First-grader Karen asked, “How do I do that?” To which Ms. Smith replied, “Write three sentences and make something happen.”

The rest of the class groaned. Karen grinned, scribbled her first story and hasn't stopped writing since.

Following her graduation from William & Mary, Karen temporarily postponed her dream to write professionally. She was awarded a fellowship from the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts to study at the University of Virginia, which earned her a Masters in Fine Arts. During that time, she cooled her heels writing spec scripts for TV shows…made possible by an opportunity of a lifetime while at William & Mary.

It was during her undergraduate work that she took a three-week trip to Hollywood with students from the University of Richmond. Karen attended writing seminars hosted by Earl Hamner, creator of The Waltons, and Alan Alda, star of M*A*S*H. Hamner told her “For every 100 people who write a spec script, maybe two will make it.”

She chuckled and said, “Oh, good. So, that means me and one other person.” And make it she did.

Impressed by Karen's talent, both Hamner and Alda kept in touch with her when she returned to Virginia. It was with their encouragement that she decided to move to California.

In college, Karen had always dreamed of writing for M*A*S*H. And only one year after her UVA graduation, her scripts were being aired. Her success was so quick that a new term used at W & M to describe someone who makes it so big, so fast is called “Pulling a Karen Hall.”

Needless to say, Karen has had a lot of “firsts” in her life. The first year she lived in California, she became story editor of Eight is Enough. About the same time, one of her first M*A*S*H scripts, “Father's Day” was celebrated as the show's 200th episode.

Recommended by Alda, Karen was later hired as the first and only woman staff member on M*A*S*H, landing a job as story editor.

Later while M*A*S*H was on hiatus, she wrote a freelance episode, “Officer of the Year,” for Hill Street Blues. Not only was this show aired, it was nominated for an Emmy. Subsequently, Karen was hired as Executive Story Editor and for the second time in TV history, she was the first and only female writer on staff.

She was listed in the first Esquire Registry as one of “100 Men and Women Under 40 Who Are Changing America.” Her first novel, a supernatural thriller, Dark Debts, resulted in Paramount's grabbing the film rights as soon as the book first hit the shelves.

And there's one more “first” I can't forget to mention. She married her first true love, Hargrave graduate Chris Walker, and they and their children, Juli and Caleb, currently live in Beverly Hills.

As I highlight her illustrious career, I regret that this column will not do it justice. She's also written/produced for TV shows: Moonlighting, Northern Exposure, I'll Fly Away, Roseanne, Grace Under Fire, and was most recently the executive producer for Judging Amy. Presently, she is the consulting producer for Third Watch.

This Chatham, Virginia native has written many TV movies and mini-series including: Tough Love starring Bruce Dern and Lee Remick, The Betty Ford Story featuring Gena Rowlands and Bradley Whitford, as well as The Women of Brewster Place, with Oprah Winfrey, Cicely Tyson, and Robin Givens.

To date, her work has resulted in a combined total of eleven Emmy and Writers' Guild Association nominations, as well as numerous other awards.

I can't believe so much time has passed since we were kids. Growing up we used to act out our favorite TV shows, even writing new scripts for the ones we enjoyed the most. The thing is, I thought we were just playing.

But in 1979, I realized we weren't. I remember racing home from my cashier's job at Western Sizzlin in Danville to watch Karen's work in California. This was long before VCRs and TiVo, so I had to be sure to get back in time.

“Hurry,” my mom called out the door to me as I pulled in the driveway. “You're going to miss it!”

And I had. I had missed the entire show. But I really wasn't interested in the actual episode. What I wanted to see rolled across the set as I walked in the room…Written by Karen L. Hall. My heart skipped a beat when I touched her name on the screen.

She had done it.

Danville pediatrician Dr. Jefferson Beale always called Karen his miracle baby. And he was right.

Seems a girl taken from a floorboard wasn't supposed to make it. I guess somebody forgot to tell her that.

Seems a girl taken from Chatham wasn't supposed to make it…in Hollywood. I guess somebody forgot to tell her that, too.

In August, 1979, family members helped Karen clean up after the yard sale that funded her move to California. To be honest, we were anxious about her being out there all alone. But her mom, Flo, the one who nursed her to life…and nurtured her through life…set us straight.

“Listen here,” she told us. “Let her go. If this works out…great. And if it doesn't…so what. The same plane that takes her out there can bring her back.”

And soon one will be bringing her back. Well, at least for a few days anyway.

Join me on March 30, 2005, at 3:45 p.m. when Karen presents “Walking on Water: Writing as an Act of Faith,” to The Wednesday Club, Danville, Virginia. The program is free and is open to the public.

Karen Hall: From preemie to producer, this baby's come a long way.


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