(a recap by Will Kaiser)
Title: Ebenezer Sprague
Airdate: September 24, 1975
Written by Hindi Brooks
Directed by Victor French
SUMMARY IN A NUTSHELL: It’s yet another old-man best friend for Laura when she teaches an asshole to love.
RECAP: We open on Mr. Nelson the Gray-Haired Dude driving down the thoroughfare, accompanied by loungey Burt Bacharach-style jazz flute.
As he passes by, we see a new building is being erected. Any guesses who the pink-shirted guy building it is?
It’s Charles of course, with Mr. Hanson himself helping.
Hanson gets us oriented in what’s going on. They’re building Walnut Grove’s first bank! And the banker himself, a Mr. Sprague, is to arrive as soon as the project is complete.
“‘Ebenezer Sprague,’” says Charles. “Even sounds like a banker!”
The writers’ room must have been longing for the holidays, because this season we’ve already had a story based on It’s a Wonderful Life, and now we get a ripoff of that other venerable chestnut, A Christmas Carol. (A favorite of mine, but not of Dagny’s).
I guess that makes this episode a fitting one to do as we embark upon the holiday season here in the U.S.
(Wish it were a better story. . . .)
Interestingly, we know Charles has read A Christmas Carol, since he mentions it in “Christmas at Plum Creek.” Not realizing he himself is a quasi-fictional character on a TV series, he’ll be shocked when Sprague’s similarities to Ebenezer Scrooge go beyond name and occupation.
(But to be completely accurate, while moneylending is certainly one service they offer, Scrooge & Marley isn’t a bank. Dickens leaves the full scope and nature of Scrooge’s business unspecified.)
Anyways, Mr. Hanson says Sprague seems a difficult person, but he laughs and says who cares, they need a bank. He rolls with the punches these days.
This episode was written by a woman, Hindi Brooks, who also wrote for Eight is Enough and The Waltons, and who on this show would contribute the immortal script where Laura stuffs apples in her shirt.
Our own Victor French directs.
Charles is salivating at the prospect of borrowing money.
Hanson notes Sprague is precise in his ways and the agreement states the bank must be constructed within 21 days or they’ll be subject to a penalty.
“We’ll have it ready,” says Charles. “You bet you!” says Hanson cheerfully – an authentic Minnesota-ism you still hear today. (“His accent’s pretty heavy in this one,” said Olive.)
That night at the Little House, Pa smokes and does math, ol’ Four-Eyes – excuse me, Mary! – reads her huge book, and Ma uses Carrie as furniture as she winds a ball of yarn.
Oh, and Laura appears to be making a bomb or something.
Ma is just as confused as I was about this, but when she questions her, Laura says she’s actually making fishing bait out of leftover bread.
Pa slaps his pencil down and announces that’s it, he’s buying an additional 40 acres of property for farming.
Ma (quite reasonably) points out the family always has one foot in the poorhouse (to mix metaphors) and asks how they can afford it.
Sheepishly, Pa says once the new bank is open, he’ll be able to buy the land on credit.
Caroline, who two weeks ago let Charles’s hypocrisy about never going into debt pass, decides this time she just can’t do it.
In response, Pa says growing demand for goods in Mankato means he basically has to take out a loan just to keep up. It’s a logical fallacy; but it is interesting to learn Mankato is where the bulk of goods produced by the Walnut Grovesters goes.
We cut to Mary and Laura walking through a field pre-occupied by a large herd of sheep! (Something we’ve never seen before on this show.)
Anyways, the girls squeeze a lot of stupidity into a very brief conversation about how banks work.
OLIVE: This is ridiculous. They didn’t have banks then.
Cut to Carl the Flunky driving a black-suited man, presumably Sprague, in a wagon.
Although Carl is a local, the side of the wagon reads Winter & Webb Freight Co., Mankato, Minn.
Ebenezer Sprague the banker is played by Ted Gehring. He’s the first guest actor to be featured more than once on the show in different roles (though Carl the Flunky did play the deputy in “Survival,” I think; and of course there’s whoever played the late Mrs. Nelson and her identical twin sister Mrs. Johnson).
He also guest-starred on many TV shows, and was apparently a semi-regular on Alice, though I don’t specifically remember him from that. (I was pretty little when it was on.)
Anyways, correct me if I’m wrong, but I think Sprague is wearing the dandy’s hat from last week.
Sprague climbs down, barking an order to Carl as he does so.
He enters the bank building, which Charles is still putting together.
Mr. Hanson turns around and cries “Hello, Mr. Sprague!” with delight. Seriously, he appears ready to launch into “For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow” or something.
But I suppose increasing the flow of capital in the region means Hanson will have more flexibility if he gets screwed again by his own debtors (Baines Construction Company-style).
Sprague, a hard-faced man with little spectacles, silently examines the building. Finally he says, “I’ll have to take off one day for noncompletion.”
Hanson and Charles are surprised, but Sprague points out the contract states the building should have been finished by noon, and it’s 12:48 now and Charles is still a-hammerin’.
Charles looks down, no doubt remembering his own experience not taking contracts absolutely literally.
Charles, Hanson and Carl unload the wagon. When they’ve finished, Sprague doesn’t thank them, just says, “Good.”
Baffled by this cold fish, Charles nevertheless invites him to come for supper that night. Sprague expresses suspicion at this invitation and declines it, again without thanking Charles.
That night, Caroline lies in bed braiding her hair and making a curiously stilted speech in a weird breathy voice:
Miss Beadle says that every child, no matter how poor, should have a textbook. I think she’s perfectly right!
Blah blah, etc. She goes on and on, adding that because the girls have to share textbooks, Mary is “always having to hold herself back” (last week they were ready to flunk her, but okay) and Laura rushes through assignments sloppily.
Meanwhile, Charles is undressing for bed. His choice of bedclothes has little rhyme or reason to it: sometimes the nightshirt, sometimes topless and (presumably) bottomless, sometimes long-johns. His choices rarely seem related to weather or season.
Today’s a long-johns day. Pink, of course.
Caroline realizes Charles isn’t listening to her. She can tell he’s pissed about getting off on the wrong foot with Sprague.
Charles says he couldn’t believe Sprague thought he was trying to butter him up for a loan, then quickly confesses that is in fact what he was doing.
Caroline says he’s “only human” – an expression I couldn’t find the origin of, but I bet it’s anachronistic.
The next day, Charles drops Caroline off at the Mercantile before driving to the bank to talk to Sprague. Since all the buildings are mere yards apart, why don’t they just park the wagon and both walk? Oh well.
Mrs. Oleson, who’s wearing a new blouse, is going on about how nice it will be to have “another” person of “quality” in town now that Sprague’s here. She says she knows from experience how hard it is for such people to “live side by side with country folks.”
She even shoots Nels a dirty look, as if she blames him for uprooting her from civilization. I’d love to know their origin story.
Mrs. O, who is like some people I know in that her idea of making conversation is just saying out loud what she’s thinking in her head, says she wants to invite Sprague for dinner so he won’t assume all the Grovesters are bumpkins. Since Caroline says she’s heading to the bank right now, Mrs. Oleson invites herself along.
Perhaps recognizing this script is thin gruel, Katherine MacG overacts outrageously, fussing and sputtering as she gussies herself up for Sprague. (This is a Buffoonish Harriet episode.)
Meanwhile, Nels doesn’t say a word – hee. But he does give Caroline, his one true love, a helpless look as the ladies depart.
At the bank, Charles’s loan interview isn’t going well. Mr. Sprague coldly but not unreasonably tells him his property isn’t much collateral for the sum he’s asking.
Charles does that thing where he gets huffy because he feels he’s being accused of looking for “charity.”
But he’s interrupted by the arrival of Mrs. Oleson.
Mrs. O cuts Sprague off when he protests he’s in a meeting, and makes an ass of herself saying “educated people of quality” must stick together under the barbaric conditions of rural Midwestern life.
(Interestingly, Harriet says here she comes from “a city,” but doesn’t name it.)
Sprague replies, “Mrs. Oleson, I quit school when I was in third grade; my father was a farmer; I never saw a city till I was seventeen, and then I didn’t like it.” He firmly (but again, not unreasonably) tells her if she has legitimate business with the bank, it’ll have to wait a few minutes.
Rethinking her notion of inviting this prick for dinner, Mrs. O slinks away, tripping and clowning as she goes. I don’t know why they don’t have her explode on Sprague like she does with her friends. As I’ve remarked in the past, the writers’ treatment of this character is inconsistent, sometimes mystifyingly so. For some reason, she only tells off people who don’t deserve it.
Seemingly infected by MacG’s schtick, Karen Grassle does a comic pantomime of whispering to Charles that she’ll wait outside.
With these foolishnesses out of the way, Charles puts the question to Sprague, who says he’ll review the application and get back to him.
On the way home, Caroline complains about Sprague’s rudeness – though in fact he’s more cold or simply not polite than rude. Perhaps he’s wired a bit differently?
Charles says he’s pretty sure he won’t get the loan, but the two of them laugh about the treatment he gave Mrs. Oleson.
OLIVE: Oh, a Giggling Charles episode.
After the commercial, we see the clock at Sprague’s bank is striking three. Sprague locks the door just as someone rushes up seeking entry.
ROMAN: Mustache Man!
On the Mercantile porch, Mrs. Oleson is sweeping, but waves a desperate hello as Sprague drives by in a buggy. Why the hell does she care?
I was reminded of Deadwood, where a well-born character tells an obsequious service worker, “It must cost you sleep: the guests you drive off, the chances of thieving and bilking you lose, needing to rub against your betters.”
Anyways, Sprague ignores her. Observing his wife’s desire to rub, Nels dryly asks when Mr. Sprague is coming for supper.
Harriet changes her tune and scoffs, “I wouldn’t invite that ignorant farmer to dine at my table.”
Before Nels can laugh, she shoves the broom into his hand and orders him to finish sweeping.
It’s a potentially funny scene, but David Rose (who doesn’t have his best day in this story) ruins it a bit with cutesy music.
Back at the Little House, Laura is also sweeping. Mary coughs in annoyance and says she’s trying to read.
Then Laura sweeps a dust cloud right onto Jack.
DAGNY: Jack looks like Mr. Mugs.
DAGNY: They’re books for kids I had when I was little. It’s kind of Canada’s answer to Dick and Jane.
She’s hurrying through her chores so she can go fishing.
As she walks through a field to the watering hole (whether they’ll call it Cattail Lake or Willow Lake this time remains to be seen), she sees Mr. Sprague is also driving his buggy through. He’s not even using a road, which seems strange for a rule-valuer like him.
Although Jack is accustomed to horses, for some reason he starts barking at Sprague’s. Spooked, the horse takes off to some “hilarious” Copland-style square-dance music.
The horse eventually runs straight into a bunch of bushes. I don’t believe a horse, however spooked, would really do that, any more than it would run straight into an oak tree or a brick wall. (It would go around, right?)
Sprague goes all Miss Gulch on Laura, yelling he’s going to report her dangerous dog to the law.
Laura informs Sprague that Walnut Grove has no law, a fact of which he’d surely be aware already.
Laura notices Sprague is carrying fishing gear, but he sarcastically says it’s just for “beating off wild animals.” In middle school, we laughed our heads off at a book that had a line about carrying a club to “beat off” wolves.
Sprague takes off, but Laura finds him at her fishing spot. Very annoying music plays on the soundtrack.
Laura climbs out onto a log to fish, dropping or knocking something into the lake – I couldn’t tell what.
Time passes, and an aw-shucks trombone draws our attention to the fact that Laura has a bunch of fish, and Mr. Sprague has none.
She makes to leave, but pauses to offer Sprague some of her “dough-ball” bait.
This manages to get some emotion out of him, and he makes an exasperated speech saying he’s in fact an experienced fisherman who furthermore has done a great deal of reading on the subject.
Laura makes a dumb joke about how the fish must not have read those books, but it’s charmingly delivered by Melissa Gilbert, and Sprague cracks a smile.
We cut to Mrs. Oleson addressing what’s apparently a meeting of the Walnut Grove Women’s League.
DAGNY: That’s my favorite Mrs. Oleson ensemble.
Harriet is arguing against a proposed levy to buy the school some new textbooks.
A gray-haired lady applauds, whilst another woman looks shocked to her core.
Miss Beadle rises, and if you’ll pardon my saying so, she looks absolutely bangin’ in a new red tartan dress.
She says Mrs. O’s argument ignores the needs of the children, blah blah.
Caroline suggests having a fundraising drive reaching out to the wealthiest Grovesters.
A rather solid-looking dark-haired lady sitting next to Caroline asks how much they need to raise. We’ve seen this lady a few times; it took me forever to place her, but she was the mom whose kid faked the “five-day quinsy” in “If I Should Wake Before I Die.” (She also attended Miss Maddie’s funeral, if I recall.)
(Quite strangely, this character is billed as “Mrs. Kennedy” in the end credits. Since she obviously isn’t the mom of Christy, Kid Hideous, and Cassie that we met in “The Voice of Tinker Jones,” we must conclude she’s either Mr. Kennedy’s sister or sister-in-law.)
Miss Beadle says they’ll need copies of the McGuffey Reader (which was previously quoted but not mentioned by name in “School Mom”) and some other general texts. Total funding needed: $27.50 (roughly $550 in today’s money).
All the ladies gasp at this enormous sum, which seems an extreme response.
Caroline brings up her door-knocking idea again. The Bead says last year they divided the region into territories. She says she thinks she still has the assignments from last year, then picks up a piece of paper from her desk which lists them.
DAGNY: She just happened to have that on her desk?
WILL: It’s a TV convention. Like in “Brain of Morbius,” Morbius tells Solon to get the experimental brain case, and he says “I’ll have to look for it” then bends over and takes it out of the wastebasket he’s standing right next to.
DAGNY: Yeah, just like that.
Interestingly, after the meeting, Mrs. Oleson takes Caroline aside and says she thinks they shouldn’t ask Mr. Sprague for a donation. She makes a hard-to-follow argument about how it’s logical not to do so, but it’s clear she’s just scared of him.
Caroline basically says don’t worry, Harriet, I’ll do it.
WILL: If you think I’m deliberately leaving the townswomen under-described in the recaps compared to the townsmen, I’m not. It’s the damn bonnets! They make it really hard to recognize characters, especially at a distance. In a scene like this, where the camera is in the back of the room, it’s just impossible.
DAGNY: I assumed it was just your white male privilege coming out.
Caroline stops by the bank, where Sprague mistakes her for Mr. Hanson’s wife.
WILL [as CAROLINE]: “No, Dr. Baker is Mrs. Hanson.”
Sprague then insults Caroline, suggesting Charles sent his beautiful wife in to charm him into granting them the loan.
DAGNY: Um, it’s not quite that bad.
Gritting her teeth, Caroline goes on to make her ask. Sprague simply says no, casually, and walks back to his desk.
When pressed, he says he doesn’t feel the need to contribute, since he himself grew up without books and wound up being fine. (Seems an odd position to take, given the love of fishing literature he professed to Laura at the lake.)
Pissed off, Caroline huffs out. Well, what did she expect? We’ve seen this happen several times now with Mrs. Oleson. Caroline and Charles always get ready for people to behave badly, then seem shocked and angry when they do.
Back at the lake, Laura arrives to find Sprague fishing again.
OLIVE: Oh God, is she going to make him a better person?
Jack has not warmed up to Sprague.
DAGNY: Jack drives me crazy with the barking. I just can’t take it.
Laura suggests Sprague’s bait is too “fancy” and again offers him some dough-balls. He says he’ll try it, and whaddya know, he immediately catches a fish.
Sprague gives Laura a ride home, chatting about fishing as they go. I will say Gehring’s acting is quite fine as Sprague, and Melissa Gilbert has a ton of charm in this one.
Anyways, you can tell Sprague is relaxed, because a pronounced Southern accent has come out in his speech.
Sprague drops her off at a turn in the road. He thanks her for sharing her bait and actually apologizes for being a jerk the first time they met.
DAGNY: See? They’re friends now!
WILL: You like this one, don’t you?
DAGNY: I do.
OLIVE: It’s just Scrooge.
DAGNY: It’s not, though. It’s more like Daddy Warbucks and Little Orphan Annie. Plus we haven’t had a good Laura episode in a while. A real one I mean, not one where it’s pretending to be about her but is really about Charles.
WILL: Well, there are some more coming up soon. You have to sit through one more bad one, though.
Anyways, they make a fishing date for the next day. And at dinner that night, Laura shares some of the stories her mysterious new buddy told her. She says they’re “good friends now” and she’ll be seeing a lot more of him.
OLIVE: They’re not concerned about this? She’s spending every day with a creepy middle-aged man about whom they know nothing.
Ma says, “Maybe you should introduce your friend to Mr. Sprague” so “some of the niceness would rub off.” A preposterous comment, but I guess they have to reinforce that Laura has no idea who her fisherman friend is.
Ma goes on to tell how Sprague declined to make a donation to the school book drive today. “But he must be the richest man in Walnut Grove!” says Mary.
“Hey,” says Charles coldly. “I’m the richest man in Walnut Grove.”
Ma reluctantly goes on to detail Mr. Sprague’s insult. Pa does not drop everything to go kick Sprague’s ass, but only because Ma asks him not to.
That avenue blocked, Charles does the next best thing and forbids Caroline from going to the bank ever again.
DAGNY: That’ll show him.
The next day, probably, Laura and Mary are coming home from school. Mary says the Bead’s depressed because they aren’t making much progress with the book drive. Mary blames Sprague, saying, “People don’t want to give to the book fund if he won’t!” Which makes zero sense, but onward, people, onward.
They seem to be taking a very strange route home, picking their way through crags and crevices in some sort of ravine or gully.
Next we see Laura and Sprague back at the lake. Laura, who among other things shares with Mrs. Oleson the tendency to think out loud, is complaining how the new mean banker who’s come to town is ruining things for everyone.
Sprague plays it cool and keeps things in the realm of ideas.
In fact, here they have the classic liberal/conservative debate about helping people who are unable or unwilling to help themselves.
It’s pretty clear where this show’s sensibilities lie, to me, anyways.
Laura goes on to say her pa says the banker is a piteous rather than an evil man, since clearly he’s been hard-served by life and doesn’t understand the value of human relationships because he hasn’t got any.
Sprague is impressed Laura reads Emerson, and Laura says no, her pa reads him to her, and that’s why books are important, stupid.
The young Laura Ingalls Wilder’s taste in literature is heady and eclectic. Besides Emerson, her two most seminal texts at this point in the series seem to be the poetry of Tennyson and Dicky Bird Land.
Anyways, rather than being offended by Laura’s secondhand character analysis, Sprague smiles, laughs, and fishes.
In the buggy on the way back, Laura asks Sprague about his family history, and he tells her he’s always been too busy to start one of his own. Laura says there are a lot of old ladies in town who’d find him quite a catch.
OLIVE: He should just court her, I’m sure that would’ve been fine in those days.
We cut to school letting out one day (of our regulars, only Laura, Mary, Nellie, Willie, Sweet Colleen and two Nondescript Helens are there).
Mr. Sprague drives by in his buggy, and Laura waves.
Nellie’s jaw drops in shock, and she comes over and tells Laura what an idiot she is for not knowing her friend is the evil banker Ebenezer Sprague.
Back at the fishing hole, Sprague is fishing, smiling and waiting for Laura.
But when Laura comes stomping up, she gets right to the point.
A brief look of horror crosses Sprague’s face (Ted Gehring is really quite good in the part), but he tries to smile it away and says, “I – I didn’t think it mattered.”
Besides, he says, he doesn’t know who she is either. When she tells him she’s Laura Ingalls, he instinctively accuses her of trying to “sweet-talk” him into giving Charles the loan. (This is an expression that apparently wasn’t around until the 1930s.)
(How much time has passed since he arrived? Sprague told Charles he’d decide on the application in a few days; I suppose it’s possible his relationship with Laura has just come on fast.)
Laura struggles to keep herself under control, but her voice breaks as she says all she wanted from Sprague was “a best friend to go fishing with.”
And in truth, Sprague has been a better companion in that respect than that cookie-eating asleep-falling shoeless fool Johnny Johnson.
Anyways, Laura breaks up with Sprague and stomps away.
That night, Pa comes up to visit Laura in the loft. (He’s in his nightshirt this time.)
Laura is crying and apparently has told Pa the whole story.
Mary I guess is asleep (which I don’t believe for a second).
Michael Landon gives one of his trademark inspirational speeches.
Well, Charles goes back to bed and tells Caroline he’s had it with the havoc Sprague is wreaking upon his family. (I’d point out literally all of it was self-inflicted, but whatever.)
The next day, he Chonkies it to the bank first thing.
Sprague is finishing up with some kind of skinny gomer we’ve never seen before.
DAGNY: Is that Almanzo?
But no, Charles addresses him as “Mr. Taylor.”
Then Charles tells Sprague off and says he’s withdrawing his application. He lays it on thick about Laura considering Sprague her “best friend.”
Again, as a parent, it’s weird to me Charles would want Laura to be “best friends” with a middle-aged male semi-stranger he also hates. But it’s the Little House universe, people.
Sprague coldly says “I don’t need any friends” . . . but when Charles departs (after throwing a few more bombs), the banker watches him go and swallows hard.
That night, in his lonely bedroom (in the bank itself, presumably?), we see Sprague is drinking coffee and crying quietly.
It’s an (uncharacteristically) understated scene for this show; and it’s quite nice.
The real Quincy is chewing on his pencil, which Miss Beadle takes out of his mouth. (Hee.)
A small boy with a preppyish haircut says he doesn’t know how he’ll do his homework without his own book. Addressing him as “Johnny,” Miss B says, “You’ll have to go to the Kennedys.’” (At first I thought that was weird, but we do see in a minute Christy is there too.)
Nellie stands up and says she’s finished her homework in advance. Miss Beadle says perhaps in that case, she’d loan her textbook to a classmate.
“Mama says I mustn’t!” says Nellie hilariously, and the Bead, who’s clearly having one of her days where she’d like to drown everyone in the class, rolls her eyes and moves on.
She says there’s more math to come tomorrow, and everyone groans. Not-Joni Mitchell, who’s also back, makes a particularly rich expression.
Suddenly there’s a surprise arrival! Two strange men appear carrying a huge crate.
The kids talk a little; Miss Beadle screams, “Children, please, we’re still in school!”, which seems like an overreaction. I bet she’s looking forward to closing time today.
The Bead charges back to interrogate the men. “Don’t know what it’s in it, ma’am,” says one in a familiar boy-howdy voice.
Why in fact, it’s Captain Howdy, who we last saw being confused by the gambit of the lemon verbena! He’s partially shaved his facial hair, which is why I didn’t recognize him at first. Nice to see he’s still with the Postal Service.
They open the crate, and it’s full of books. All individually wrapped, which seems quite weird. The titles include the McGuffey Reader, which was on Beadle’s wishlist, and a complete works of Emerson, which was on Laura’s.
Shockingly, Laura abandons school suddenly, taking the book with her. I guess they were right around bell-time, if the Bead was handing out homework assignments.
She runs straight to the lake, where Sprague greets her with a nod and a “Good afternoon, young lady.”
She asks if he’s catching anything, and he holds up a bunch of fish and says, “Thanks to you.”
Laura holds up her Emerson and says, “Thanks to you.”
Sprague smiles and chuckles.
Laura says why don’t you come to my house and Ma will cook those for our supper.
Sprague accepts, and says there’s something he’d like to talk to Charles about anyways.
DAGNY: This is just like the saying “If you teach a man to fish.”
WILL: Is it?
DAGNY: Yeah. He thought she was teaching him how to fish, when really she was teaching him how to love.
WILL: I’m not sure that’s the point of that saying. . . .
DAGNY: Well, it’s under the surface.
ROMAN: Yeah, like one of those English-teacher tricks.
WILL: English-teacher tricks? What, you mean subtext?
WILL: Well, hold on, authorial intent doesn’t necessarily invalidate other interpretations.
ROMAN/OLIVE: Yes it does!
DAGNY: I think it just means not everybody is Margaret Atwood, writing with a symbolism dictionary.
Anyways, then we cut to the Little House. Sadly, they don’t give us a funny scene showing the family’s shock and horror when Sprague shows up (as there is with the Cratchits in A Christmas Carol).
But clearly all is well in the end. Carrie is even sitting on Sprague’s lap and beeping or booping his nose (depending on your regional preference).
Voiceover Laura wraps things up, and that’s it, we made it. Bum-Bum-Ba-Dum!
STYLE WATCH: Quincy Fusspot has a wacky new outfit.
Charles appears to go commando again.
THE VERDICT: This one’s really very dull, though the good performances by Gilbert and Gehring mean it’s not a total loss. And Dags loved it, so what do I know.
OLIVE: I think you actually liked that one too, Dad.
WILL: No I didn’t.
UP NEXT: In the Big Inning