- Associated Press - Saturday, October 31, 2015

CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) - Matt Browning knows it’s a little odd that he maintains a fan website devoted to the old NBC sitcom “Empty Nest.”

It’s maybe a little stranger that he’s been running the site for 17 years.

Smiling, the 34-year-old Logan native nodded and agreed, “It is, isn’t it?”

For those who’ve forgotten or never caught the show the first time around, the comedy “Empty Nest” ran on NBC from 1988 to 1995. The show was a loose spin-off from “The Golden Girls,” developed by “Girls” creator Susan Harris.

“Empty Nest” revolved around the lives of recently widowed pediatrician, Dr. Harry Weston, played by Richard Mulligan, his grown daughters Barbara and Carol, played by Kristy McNichol and Dinah Manoff.

Lisa Rieffel later joined the show as Weston’s youngest daughter, Emily.

The show featured several related characters including David Leisure, who played the family’s womanizing, occasionally obnoxious neighbor, Charlie. Park Overall worked for Mulligan’s character at the hospital and the characters from “The Golden Girls” made regular appearances.

Estelle Getty, who played Sophia on “The Golden Girls,” was a series regular.

The show was a solid hit. During the first three years of its run, “Empty Nest” remained in the top 10 most watched shows on the air, but began to slip during its fourth season, and fell further after McNichol left the program, not long after, retiring from television.

Browning grew up watching the show with his grandma.

“My grandma loved ‘The Golden Girls,’ just like everybody’s grandma did,” Browning said.

“Empty Nest” came on after.

“So, Saturday nights, I would watch ‘The Golden Girls’ and ‘Empty Nest’ with my grandma,” he said.

This went on for years.

While he liked “The Golden Girls,” Browning was always more of a fan of the spin-off.

“I thought they had a cool dog,” he said. “I liked their house.”

But he particularly liked the actress Park Overall and her character, Laverne. Overall is from Tennessee, and her sassy character carried with her Overall’s accent.

“She sounded like me,” Browning said. “She sounded like someone who could live across the street from me.”

The show portrayed Laverne as Appalachian, but in a strong, positive way. She was funny, but she wasn’t stupid.

“There was some stereotypical humor, but she wasn’t just a joke,” he said.

It made him love the show that much more.

As the show was in its later years, the internet began to take off and in 1997, Browning found himself browsing online, looking up television shows. Fan sites had cropped up for almost everything, but nothing for “Empty Nest.”

So, in 1998, at the age of 17, Browning built EmptyNestOnline.net, EmptyNestOnline.net, a fan website for the show through Yahoo’s Geocities program.

“I was just a kid,” he said. “I didn’t know what I was doing.”

He learned as he went along, maintained the site through college at WVSU, and while he worked on his Masters degree from WVU.

Other fans contacted him. Some of them fed him information and the site continued along.

“The audience just grew,” he said.

Even when he updated the site intermittently.

“If a member of the cast was doing something noteworthy, I’d update,” he explained. “But I’d go long periods of time without adding anything else.”

Eventually, he started getting occasional messages from crewmembers, who liked that someone remembered the show they produced.

Lately, Browning has been putting together a quiet reunion between fans and the cast. He’s interviewed several of the actors, including Leisure, Manoff and Overall, to talk about their memories of the show and what they’ve been doing lately.

“I reached out to Park Overall through social media,” he said. He sent her a message, explaining what he did and what he wanted.

She sent him one back, telling him, “Honey, that was a long time ago, but I’ll talk to you.”

Browning said she was a lot of fun and answered the call with, “You’re calling from West by God Virginia!”

He told her, “Yes, ma’am, I am.”

Overall shared a lot of stories with him about the show, though not all of them ended up on his website.

“Some of them were a little off-color and risqué,” he said.

After talking to Dinah Manoff, he was contacted by David Leisure.

“In our conversation, (Manoff) told me she still talked to David. I asked her if she wouldn’t mind passing along my information to him,” Browning said.

The funny part, he said, was he spoke to Manoff on a Friday. On the same day, Leisure ran across an interview on Browning’s website with associate producer Doug Smart and then dog trainer Joel Silverman told him about the site.

He got Browning’s email from Manoff and sent Browning a note saying he’d love to talk about the show.

“It was just meant to be,” Leisure told Browning.

Everyone remembered the show warmly and spoke well of Mulligan, who died in 2000.

Browning said there are plenty of others involved with the show he’d like to speak to, particularly McNichol, but that seems like a long shot.

“She’s very private,” he said.

Still, he has reached out to her publicist. Anything is possible.

Finding “Empty Nest” is still kind of difficult.

While “The Golden Girls” has been in syndication from the moment it left NBC’s lineup, “Empty Nest” hasn’t fared as well. After a couple of year in re-runs in the 1990s, it essentially vanished.

An associate producer of the show, Doug Smart, told Browning, “We sort of fell into a black hole.”

There isn’t even a DVD collection available, but Browning said fans still seek it out and sometimes they find his way to his website.

“Most of the time, I have a couple of hundred visits in a month,” he said. “But when the show aired on the Hallmark Channel for four or five months in 2011, suddenly I was getting, like, 10,000 hits a month.”

Recently, the program joined Laff TV and Browning said his numbers have spiked again.

“Unfortunately, we don’t have it here,” he said.

The website is not the only thing Browning does. In fact, he calls “just an interesting hobby.” Browning serves as the Director of Communications at WVSU and has an agent shopping a young adult novel around to publishers.

“I’m just riding that to see where it goes,” he said.

But Browning still loves the show.

“It was very well-written show and Richard Mulligan was a great actor,” he said. “It was funny and I loved watching it with my grandma.”

Visit Matt Browning’s website at EmptyNestOnline.net.

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Information from: The Charleston Gazette-Mail, https://wvgazettemail.com.

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