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Saying goodbye to ''Cheers''

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The taps are real, and the fridge behind the counter works, but the beer guzzled by Cheers‘ George Wendt as barfly Norm is fake, the nonalcoholic kind. ”You’ll notice,” says Wendt, ”the past few seasons I only begrudgingly take a sip now and then. That stuff is awful.”

Wendt’s taste buds may be the only entities around looking forward to the end of NBC’s Cheers this May, after 11 hit seasons. Over the front door (and usually out of frame), the sign says, ”Maximum Room Capacity 75.” But each week, some 30 million people tune in, making Cheers America’s most popular watering hole — so popular, in fact, that there is now a chain of seven Cheers airport lounges.

The secret of the series’ success, of course, is that inside Cheers ”everybody knows your name,” but the bar itself has remained comfortingly inviting through various subtle make-overs. ”When the show began,” says James Burrows, a cocreator and co-executive producer, ”the bar was only a setting. But after Diane (Shelley Long) left, the show became less about a relationship, so all the characters and the bar were moved forward.” According to art director Dahl Delu, the set originally looked ”like a sports bar, but when Rebecca (Kirstie Alley) took over (in 1987), it was redone like a corporate bar.” After Rebecca burned down half the place this fall, it was returned to its sports roots, and is now a pastiche of props old and new. For years Burrows refused to add personal mementos. ”But I figured screw it,” he says laughing, ”it is our show.” Among the hidden insider touches is a joke phone message behind the bar to Woody Harrelson (who plays barkeep Woody Boyd) from his former real-life flame Glenn Close: ”I want my records back. Now!”

If the Smithsonian should ask for a keepsake, Burrows says, ”they’re going to have to take the entire bar or nothing. It’s nonnegotiable. Because that’s what the show is about. The bar.”

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