Remembering My History with the TV Sitcom Wings 25 Years After its Final Flight
On May 21, 1997, the tv sitcom Wings aired its final episode.
As strange as it may sound, discovering that show proved to be the beginning of a lifelong adventure. Together with my interest in computers, the emergence of the internet, and a desire to create, Wings helped jumpstart my career.
I explain it all in the video above, but here's a recap.
In early 1994, I started watching Wings by accident. It aired in syndication immediately before my favorite show, Quantum Leap. I'd occasionally flip on the television early, putzing about my dorm room, and I'd catch bits of Wings in the background. I couldn't help laughing at the jokes, and it slowly grew on me. Before long, it was mandatory viewing.
By the following year, my roommate and I watched Wings every hour we were home. While eating, while studying, while sleeping. The USA Network aired it between six and eight times a day, but that wasn't enough for us. We recorded episodes on VHS tapes and catalogued them with the goal of watching the entire series in order. Kids these days with their streaming services have it so easy. But this was more than binge watching. This was obsession.
By late 1995, my other roommate and I had started toying with the idea of building websites. How could we not? We were at the University of Illinois where a couple years earlier students had developed the world's first web browser, Mosaic. There was a lot to learn. We had no grand ambitions, no entrepreneurial instincts. (Amusingly enough, we would both eventually start successful businesses). We were simply intrigued by this new world wide web and wanted to understand it.
As I learned the basics, I had to decide what the focus of my website should be. Did I build the world's largest online bookstore? Or even the world's smallest online bookstore? Did I create Ebay or Yahoo! or Etrade? Nope. Never entertained such absurdity. Instead, I built an ode to a tv sitcom.
My little site gained traction quickly. I submitted it to all the search engines (something done manually in those days). I emailed the webmasters of every other Wings site and asked if they'd list my site on theirs in exchange for a link on mine? Eventually we called these Link Exchanges, then Blog Rolls, but the word Blog hadn't yet been invented. At one point, I was hitting 500+ visitors a month, which was insane given there were only like 501 people on the internet at the time.
In the summer of 1996, after the site had been live for a few months, I received an email out of the blue from David Lee, co-creator of Wings, complimenting me on the website.
That email lead to a friendly exchange about the show, about comedy, about writing and producing for television. I appreciated every bit of knowledge, experience, and advice he offered, and I couldn't believe someone whose name I saw on the tv screen was chatting with me about it.
I may not have known how to make money on the internet back then. I may not have known how big it would get. But I knew it was special, and I knew, if it allowed a nobody kid from a small town in Illinois to have access to Hollywood writers and producers in real time, it would change the world.
I was a college gymnast, and our team had plans to compete at both Stanford and UCLA in February 1997. I knew we'd have a couple days of downtime in Los Angeles, so I boldly asked David Lee if there was any way I could visit the set while in town. I didn't have much hope. After speaking with my coach, I knew there was only one possible day, a Friday, when I could manage a visit to Hollywood. David informed me they hold rehearsals on Fridays, and rehearsals are closed to the public. My slim hopes were immediately dashed.
BUT! He added, "Let me see what I can do."
He put me in contact with Lori Kirkland, one of Wings' producers. She helped arrange a visit. All I had to do was show up at the gates of Paramount Pictures at noon on Friday, February 28th, 1997, and she'd take care of the rest. But things are never quite that easy.
That fateful February morning, two men armed with an arsenal of high powered weaponry decided to rob a North Hollywood bank. As police closed in, the men opened fire on the streets of Los Angeles. A gun battle erupted. Automatic weapons. Armored vehicles. It was a disaster. Traffic backed up throughout the city as roads closed and a standoff ensued.
I, of course, knew nothing of it. I only knew, sitting in the back of a taxi in bumper to bumper traffic, that my chance to visit the set of Wings was in jeopardy. I was accompanied by my roommate, Brad Panozzo. He had helped me record all those Wings episodes, and he was the only person I knew who could match me in a Wings quote battle. Who else would I have taken? He was as stressed as I was.
We arrived at Paramount Studios 60-90 minutes later than expected. The security guard checked his clipboard, found my name, gave us a map to Stage 19, and let us enter.
So there we were, these two midwestern kids on the backlot of a Hollywood studio, strolling past sound stages like we belonged there but giggling incessantly because we knew we didn't belong there, hoping we hadn't missed our opportunity.
We knocked on the stage 19 door. It was the same stage where Laverne & Shirley had been filmed. Lori met us and steered us backstage to the audience seating area. Because we were late, the rehearsal had already begun, so we sat quietly and had our minds blown. We watched the cast rehearse the 168th episode of our favorite show. We laughed. We discovered secrets of the set mechanics (like walls that swiveled to create better viewing angles). There was so much to take in in too short a time.
And then it was over.
If we had arrived earlier, we might have had opportunities to look around or interact with the actors, but most of them disappeared immediately following rehearsal. Amy Yasbeck came up to the seating area to see a friend, and she put her hand on one of our shoulders and said, 'Hi, guys!" as she walked past. We said "Hi!" back, trying to be cool, trying to be nonchalant, trying to keep our jaws from dropping and our drool from drooling.
When we left the seating area, I think I briefly stepped in the terminal set, but I can't remember, and maybe that was Brad. It's all a blur. We weren't allowed to take photos, and we weren't allowed to linger. And my memory of those moments is rather untrustworthy.
Eventually Lori thanked us for the website and for being fans, and she showed us out the back door, but she didn't tell us we had to immediately vacate the premises. We loitered a bit, peeking around corners and behind walls. We found one of the Cessna 402 prop planes under a tarp with its wings folded up so it could be easily wheeled into the hangar for filming. We watched David Schramm leave the studio in normal clothes instead of his Roy costume. We considered running toward him to get an autograph, but dude probably just wanted to leave work without being pestered, so we didn't pester him.
And that was our Hollywood adventure. I still want to say thank you to David Lee and Lori Kirkland Baker for making it possible. I doubt either one of them remembers the gesture, but Brad and I still talk about it like it was one of our crowning achievements.
The final Wings episode aired three months later. A few months after that, I finished college and moved to Seattle. By the spring of 1998, I had used the web development skills I acquired building that Wings website to land myself a job at AT&T Wireless creating their first corporate Intranet HR portal.
So this 25th anniversary of Wings' final episode is as good a time as any to remember and reflect.
To celebrate, I fired up Microsoft Flight Simulator in VR and flew from Martha's Vineyard to the island of Nantucket. You can watch the video on my YouTube channel (or the video above). I'm more Joe Hackett than Brian Hackett, so nothing too exciting happened on the flight, and we landed safely.
I belong to a handful of Wings Facebook groups. Several other members remember my Wings site, which has been offline since 1998. "Are you THAT Kevin Koperski?" they ask. One of them has their name on the site's Quiz high score list, proving they visited regularly. And that got me thinking...
Could I bring back the site? Unchanged since 1997? An ode to an earlier era. Back when blink tags and scrolling marques were new enough to be only mildly irritating. Back when most online activity happened in Newsgroups, and there were few enough websites that search engines could easily categorize them all. Why not? Just for a little while. Just to offer a celebratory bit of nostalgia to those of us who remember those days fondly.
I knew the files resided in some folder in deep storage, so I set about locating them. The site was all basic HTML, and it works in modern browsers. I updated the media player, because whatever it used in 1996 had long since become obsolete. And I added an explanatory splash screen in case anyone stumbled on it unexpectedly. Other than that, I didn't change a thing.
Here it is. https://wings.kevinkoperski.com
Don't laugh too hard. It's not modern, but I think it holds its own against most sites from the time period. It's mainly a collection of show trivia. I remember deciding early on to focus on the world of the show instead of the cast and crew making it. My apologies to them, but I was learning as I went.
If only, after spending all those hour submitting it to search engines, I had thought, "There's gotta be a better way to build a search engine!"
But no regrets. I'm glad I built it. I'm thankful for everything it taught me and the experiences to which it gave flight. Without Wings, without the laughter, without everything I learned making that website, I might not be where I am today, and that's a hefty debt of gratitude to owe anything.
Long live Wings.