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Wrong witch in Salem

WITCH WHIMSY and grim historical truth have struck a balance in Salem for years. But a 9-foot bronze statue of the late Elizabeth Montgomery riding a broom as the star of the show ''Bewitched" would weight the scales with TV treacle.

The idea comes from the TV Land cable network, which has placed statues of television characters in four other US cities. Mary Tyler Moore's Mary Richards stands in Minneapolis. Bob Newhart's Chicago psychologist, Dr. Robert Hartley, sits on Michigan Avenue, and Jackie Gleason's bus-driving Ralph Kramden is outside New York's Port Authority Bus Terminal. While these three seem an iconic fit with their surroundings, statues of a young Ron Howard and Andy Griffith as Opie and the Mayberry sheriff have no connection to their site in Raleigh, N.C.

Montgomery has the same problem in Salem. She played a modern-day witch, and a couple of the show's episodes were filmed there, but the series was set in no-nonsense Westport, Conn.The larger point is that Montgomery was a glamorous star of a comedy, and that her giant likeness in a park at the corner of Essex and Washington streets is the wrong image for a town with such a tragic history.

True, she is included in Salem's Witch Museum, along with Agnes Moorehead -- who played Montgomery's mother on the show -- and Margaret Hamilton from ''The Wizard of Oz." But the actresses are a small part of one exhibit called ''Evolving Perceptions," showing the images of witches through history. The museum provides a fundamentally serious look at persecution and injustice, as do the Salem Witch Trials Memorial and a walk up Gallows Hill, where five men and 14 women were hung for nonexistent crimes.

It's understandable that city officials are enthusiastic about a huge landmark that they feel will be a tourist attraction. Building and maintenance costs will be paid by TV Land, which is also cleaning up a town park that will be the setting for the statue. The plan got the green light from the city's Design Review Board and is expected to be approved soon by the Salem Redevelopment Authority.

''I see this as something like the Red Auerbach statue in Boston," Mayor Stanley J. Usovicz Jr. told the Boston Globe. ''It's a place where people will stop, get their picture taken, and have a little bit of fun while they're visiting Salem."

But Red Auerbach was a real person who coached real championship Boston basketball teams. A happy fictional TV witch in a place of so much historical sadness could soften realities for some people -- especially children, who get enough mixed messages from television. Better to keep Montgomery in reruns, and out of the park.

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