Gentle Ben: A Bear Hug for Everyone

As we continue our blog series about The Life of Pets, we feature a show about a boy and his bear: Gentle Ben. In 1965, Walt Morey published his novel, Gentle Ben. He had written adult books, but then his wife, a teacher, challenged him to write an adventure kids’ book similar to a Jack London story. Gentle Ben is the story about Mark and his bear Ben. He set the story in Alaska, where he had worked, and he said many of the characters were based on real people. He also said the story of a boy befriending a bear was also based on real stories he read and heard about. The book sold almost 3 million copies.

Photo: ebay.com

The Morey family owned some land which became the Walt Morey Park in Wilsonville, Oregon, a bear-themed adventure. An eight-foot statue of Gentle Ben is one of the park sights.

Photo: metv.com

The book became a movie on the big screen, and like Flipper, it moved to the small screen a few years later. In fact, the house for the Ricks family on Flipper is the same house used by the Wedloe family on Gentle Ben.

The television show debuted on CBS in 1967 and continued for two seasons, with 58 episodes. The series was produced by Ivan Tors who also produced Flipper, Sea Hunt, and Daktari. The TV show was set in Florida instead of Alaska. Tom Wedloe (Dennis Weaver) is a wildlife officer in the Everglades and he lives with his wife Ellen (Beth Brickell) and son Mark (Clint Howard, Ron’s brother) and his pet bear, Ben. Clint and Ron’s father Rance also penned a few of the scripts for the show.

Other characters showing up weekly included Hank Minegar (Robertson White), a local squatter, and Mark’s friend Willie (Angelo Rutherford).

Photo: DVDTalk.com

Like Flipper, there were several bears who played Ben, but the bear used most was Bruno, a black bear. Bruno had a good disposition and a variety of facial expressions. Bruno and his friends traveled from Canada because they had thicker coats which photographed better. They were declawed and most of their teeth had been removed.

Ben only made animal noises but they were spoken through Candy Candido, a voice actor and musician. I’m not sure why a kookaburra was used for Flipper and a human for Ben; you would think they could have used recordings of a dolphin and a bear. Bruno later moved to Hollywood to continue acting and died about 1980.

Most of the stories featured Tom’s work with wildlife and included animal management, children getting lost in the Everglades, weather disasters, and illegal activities such as poaching.

Gentle Ben was a great success and reached #2 in the ratings its first season. The popularity of the show was translated into a lot of merchandise including a board game, books, a stuffed bear, and comic books. The show was on Sunday nights sandwiched between Lassie and The Ed Sullivan Show.

During its second season, the show failed to even get into the top twenty. Lassie also suffered and received a significant drop in the ratings. I think the fact that the shows were on opposite Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color probably had a lot to do with its ratings drop. Also, if you liked animals you had to make a choice because Lassie competed with Wild Kingdom.

While the show highlighted family values and respect for nature, it was criticized for portraying wildlife as a pet. Ben even stayed indoors with the family sometimes. In 1971, National Park Service Officer John Hast recalled that “the television series Gentle Ben was the worst thing that ever happened to us. People saw this big, lovable bear on television and when they see a bear in the park, I guess they think it’s the same one. They don’t realize how wrong they are till they are bleeding.”

Photo: pinterest.com

I think kids from the sixties have fond memories of Gentle Ben, and many kids remember watching it. However, I guess the novelty of the show wore off quickly. You can only have so many things a real bear can do. Compare this show to Mister Ed where featuring a talking horse might seem far-fetched; however, that show lasted on the air eight years because Ed was as much of a character as anyone else on the show.

Shows like Flipper and Gentle Ben had their place, but they just didn’t have the memorable characters, quality scripts, or lush photography that might have extended their popularity. However, they are worth remembering and discussing. They prodded kids to imagine having their own special animal that only they could tame and love.

Flipper: Smarter Than Your Average Bear

We are in the midst of our blog series, Life with Unusual Pets. Today we are looking at Flipper.

Kelly, Nordin, and Halpin Photo: nostalgiacentral.com

From 1964-67, Flipper aired Saturday nights at 6:30 EST. The movie Flipper came out in 1963, and the television show was adapted from the movie. The premise of the television show is that Porter Ricks (Brian Kelly) is the Chief Warden at the Coral Key Park and Marine Reserve in Florida and a widower. He lives with his two sons, Sandy who is 15 (Luke Halpin) and Bud who is 10 (Tommy Nordin). Flipper, a wild bottlenose dolphin, is their pet. Flipper is a very intelligent animal who helps enforce regulations, performs rescues at sea with Porter, and “babysits” Sandy and Bud.

Photo: ranker.com

Additional cast members included Hap Gorman (Andy Devine) who was a carpenter and storyteller; Ulla Norstrand (Ulla Stromstedt) who was an oceanographer; and Ed Dennis (Dan Chandler), another warden.

Home on Flipper and Gentle Ben Photo: wikiwand.com

The show was filmed in Miami in cooperation with the Miami Seaquarium. Gentle Ben, which we’ll learn a bit more about next week, was also filmed there, and the families used the same home. The show was praised for its lush photography and colorful underwater scenes. The background music for underwater scenes was inspired by Ravel’s “Daphnis and Chloe.”

Photo: nostalgiacentral.com

The show’s theme was composed by Henry Vars, and lyrics were written by By Dunham. If you grew up in the early sixties, you will definitely remember this song:

They call him Flipper, Flipper, faster than lightning,
No-one you see, is smarter than he,
And we know Flipper, lives in a world full of wonder,
Flying there-under, under the sea!

Everyone loves the king of the sea,
Ever so kind and gentle is he,
Tricks he will do when children appear,
And how they laugh when he’s near!

They call him Flipper, Flipper, faster than lightning,
No-one you see, is smarter than he,
And we know Flipper, lives in a world full of wonder,
Flying there-under, under the sea!

The role of Flipper was played by at least five different dolphins. Susie was the primary actor, followed by Kathy, Patty, Scotty, and Squirt. The show used female dolphins because they are less aggressive and males tend to have more “fighting” scars, so female dolphins look more alike for photography. Surprisingly, the Flipper voice everyone remembers was an altered version of the song of a kookaburra bird. Some critics felt Flipper was portrayed as too intelligent. However, many scientists have stated that dolphins rank with chimpanzees and dogs as the most intelligent animals. They have a complex communication system and often live to be 50 years old.

During the first two seasons, Flipper was in the top 30 shows, but in season three the ratings declined. Both the boys felt they had outgrown their roles and wanted to leave the show. The last episode of season three has Sandy enrolling at the Coast Guard Academy and Bud going to an out-of-state private school. A new family moved into the area composed of a widow and her son and daughter; apparently, they would be Flipper’s companions for season four, but the show was not renewed.

Photo: mycomicshop.com

Flipper was one of the first shows to generate a lot of merchandise aimed at kids. At the time you could buy lunch boxes, comic books, novels, spoons, puzzles, a board game, a watch, and View Master reels.

Halpin must have enjoyed his time on the show. Following the cancellation of the show, he settled into a Hollywood career in marine services, working as a diver and stuntman for many shows including Miami Vice.

Flipper is one of those shows a lot of people have fond memories of watching with their family. There was really nothing groundbreaking in the show, and it was an average quality show—nothing to overly praise or denounce. In our current television schedule, we don’t have many of these family shows. Shows tend to be created for adults, teens, or kids but not all three. Maybe that’s why shows like Flipper, Gentle Ben, and Lassie are so warmly remembered from our childhood.

The Hathaways: Getting Paid to Monkey Around on TV

This month we are taking a look at our favorite unusual pet sitcoms. We start our series with a show that began in 1961: The Hathaways.

Photo: tvparty.com

This one-season show was on ABC. Elinore (Peggy Cass) and Walter (Jack Weston) Hathaway were a suburban Los Angeles couple who took in a trio of chimps (Candy, Charlie, and Enoch) which they were surrogate parents for. Walter was a real estate agent, while Elinore looked after the chimps. The chimps had their own bedroom and a full wardrobe of children’s clothing. Before becoming sitcom stars, the chimps had appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show, The Jack Benny Show, and a variety of commercials.

Photo: imdb.com

Rounding out the cast were the great Mary Grace Canfield as housekeeper Amanda; Elinore’s best friend and neighbor, Thelma Brockway (Barbara Perry); theatrical agent Jerry Roper (Harvey Lembeck); and Belle Montrose who was another neighbor (and in real life was the mother of Steve Allen). Montrose’s only other acting credits were for the two Disney movies, Son of Flubber and The Absentminded Professor.

Eleven different writers wrote the 26 episodes and four men took on the role of director. The show was on Friday night before The Flintstones but it went up against Clint Eastwood’s western, Rawhide.

The storylines were similar to other sitcoms from the early sixties. In the first episode, the Brockways move in next door and don’t like pets. In the succeeding episodes, Elinor winds up in jail for an unpaid parking ticket that Charlie pocketed before she saw it, Elinor is worried when they leave the chimps with a babysitter while they vacation in Palm Springs, and Elinor and Walter try to find their housekeeper a boyfriend.

The Hathaways with Jack Weston and Peggy Cass | Classic tv, And peggy, 60s  sitcoms
Photo: pinterest.com

It sounds like the type of show that would have been very popular in that era, but ratings were extremely low. In 1982, critics Castleman and Podrazik called the show “possibly the worst series ever to air on a network,” due to the “utterly degrading” premise, bad scripts, inept production, and the “total worthlessness” of the program. The pair wrote seven books about pop culture.

The show was specifically created to star the Marquis Chimps, and when that was shared in 1961, TV columnist Bill Fiset, wrote, “Heaven help us all? It may be that by the time you read this I’ll have taken the gas pipe, a victim of sheer frustration from trying to work as a serious essayist on a subject matter put into the hands of monkeys.”

Star Peggy Cass had mixed feelings. She admitted that she took the job for the money because she did not think the pilot would sell. While the show was on the air, she did an interview, stating that “Those chimps are natural comics. And believe me, they’re hard to top.”

TV When I was Born: 07/09/16
Photo: tvwhenIwasborn.com

Cass would go on to a variety of television series and guest appearances. She was a regular on the game show circuit and might best be remembered for more than 270 episodes of To Tell the Truth. Weston also stayed very busy on television till the 1980s. And the chimps? Don’t feel too bad for them. They continued to show up on variety shows, including numerous appearances with Ed Sullivan. Ironically, they appeared on more Ed Sullivan episodes than they did their own sitcom. When they weren’t working, they could relax on their Las Vegas ranch. I’m sure they were treated to many luxuries there since they were making a quarter of a million dollars at the peak of their career!

I’m a Writer? I’m a Writer!

This month we have been learning about some unique stories about television writing. I thought it would be fun to wind up the series learning a little bit more about what goes on inside the writers’ room and how you might get there.

Review: The Dick Van Dyke Show, “The Curious Thing About Women” | This Was  Television
Dick Van Dyke Show Photo: thiswastelevision.com

Since watching The Dick Van Dyke Show, I have always thought how much fun it would be to be part of a writers’ group for a successful comedy. Nothing I have ever read about the cons of the writing life—late nights, severe writers’ block, procrastination, writers’ arguments–has ever made me question whether this would be an amazing job or not.

So, what exactly is a writers’ room? It’s an office where writers of a television show get together to brainstorm the stories that make it on the air. Depending on the show, you can have two to twenty people in the room. There are other people in addition to writers who pop in and out. A script coordinator, staff writer, story editor, executive story editor, producer, and supervising producer are all positions that might be sitting in on a writing session. Writers’ assistants can take notes, do research, and then there are runners who make copies, get lunch and coffee, and schedule calls.

Just like police officers, doctors, or funeral directors, writers have a lingo all their own. So, let’s take a look at a few of these expressions. A bottle episode takes place in one location and often depends more on dialogue. A Gilligan cut is just what you might guess. It goes back to the show Gilligan’s Island which often showed a contrast in action: one character says Gilligan says nothing in the world will get him to climb that tree and the next scene shows him in the tree. A face heel is where a good guy is now revealed to be a bad guy. A Frankenstein draft is one that is made up of a variety of parts—multiple writers work on the script and then it is unified. A gorilla is a joke or scene that the audience will remember long after the episode is over.

Sitcom Writers Talk Shop: Behind the Scenes with Carl Reiner, Norman Lear,  and Other Geniuses of TV Comedy (9781538109182): Finn, Paula, Asner, Ed,  Kane, Carol: Books - Amazon.com

If you are interested in television writers, there is a great book by Paula Finn called Sitcom Writers Talk Shop. (It’s available on amazon.com and at most of your favorite book stores) Her dad, Herb Finn, was a television writer and, for all of you who think Ralph Kramden and Fred Flintstone seem similar, her dad Herb, wrote for both shows.

She has some great interviews in the book. If you read the book, you’ll learn a lot about the highs and lows of television writing. James L. Brooks–who wrote for Room 222, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Taxi, and The Simpsons—had some great insights.

James L. Brooks looks back at the making of his unforgettable films | EW.com
James L. Brooks Photo: ew.com

When asked about how you know you’re in the zone, he responded that “you hear your characters talking to you, and you’re taking dictation.” When asked about how it feels to work with a partner you get paired with, he said that you know you are a good team when “you don’t have an absolute sense of who does what.” When asked what was the best way to learn the craft of comedy, he said, “That’s obvious: It’s just doing it.” My favorite answer to a question of his was when he was asked if he could have found fulfillment doing a different job, he said, “I can’t imagine having done anything else. I never had the ambition to be a writer because it seemed impossible.” He went on to say that it’s a common feeling for writers that you do it for years and years and then suddenly, “somebody asks you what you do for a living, you can say ‘a writer’ without your voice catching or rising. Because it’s just an amazing thing.”

If you are a fan of MasterClass, you know they have a lot of great learning opportunities. One of their courses about writing for television is taught by Shonda Rimes. The MasterClass staff put together five tips for succeeding in a writers’ room. I would take it a step further and say they were five tips for succeeding in life. They are:

  1. Be useful.
  2. Be respectful.
  3. Be brave.
  4. Be collaborative.
  5. Be flexible.

So, if after reading this blog, you too think it would be fun to be part of the writers’ room, what is the best way to do it? Often writers start as assistants. You’re able to make contacts and see how the job is done from the inside. Of course, writing scripts and more scripts and more scripts until someone decides one of them is just what they need is another option. Many aspiring writers find agents who can try to sell the work for them.

Humor (and Hard Work) Inside 'The Big Bang Theory's Writer's Room
The Writers’ Room – The Big Bang Theory Photo: tvinsider.com

Sharing your work with as many people as possible is always a great way to get your name out there. Writer/Producer Lee Goldberg gave this advice in a post from November 2020: “The first thing you have to do is learn your craft. Take classes, preferably taught by people who have had some success as TV writers. There’s another reason to take a TV writing course besides learning the basics of the craft. If you’re the least bit likable, you’ll make a few friends among the other classmates. This is good, because you’ll have other people you can show your work to. This is also good because somebody in the class may sell his or her first script before you do, and suddenly, you’ll have a friend in the business.”

My best piece of advice if you want to be a comedy writer is to keep a journal. I cannot tell you how many times when I was researching television writers, they said some of their best shows came from real life. And during the years of researching for my blog, I have read quotes by many family members who said they often saw their private family life on the screen. There are some things you just can’t make up. Those situations can often become the basis of a television script. There are as many different paths to becoming a writer as there are writers in the industry.

WHAT IS A WRITERS ROOM?. 5 key points | by Filmarket Hub | Filmarket Hub |  Medium
Photo: medium.com

I wanted to end with a bit of inspiration that I received from James Brooks in Paula Finn’s book that he took from someone else, which is how writers work all the time. Anyway, I always struggle when trying to explain why pop culture is so important and why I choose to write about it. I often feel that I have to over-defend writing about television. His quote: “I forget who said it, but somebody terrific: The purpose of popular culture is to let people know they’re not alone.” Thanks to all of you for being not alone with me!

Sisters at Heart: A Gift to Bewitched and Its Fans

This month we are looking at stories about some unique television writers. Today we are looking at a large group of writers who were lucky enough to write an episode for Bewitched.

Photo: wikipedia.com

In 1969, Marcella Saunders, a young teacher at Jefferson High School in Los Angeles realized that her freshmen students were not able to read the short stories and poetry in their textbooks. She decided to try to teach them about writing using a television series. Her students were fans of Bewitched, Room 222, and Julia so she contacted the studios for each program. Bewitched was the only show to respond to her.

Saunders was able to meet with star Elizabeth Montgomery and her husband William Asher who produced and directed the show. She said most students at the school were unable to read, write, or comprehend at a high school level; 44% of students read at a third-grade level and less than 1% were at their ninth-grade level.

elizabeth-montgomery-bewitched
Photo: closerweekly.com

The Bewitched cast and crew invited the 26-member class to visit the set of Bewitched, and they paid for the transportation of the class from school to the studio. The students were impressed with their tour and decided to collaborate on a teleplay for the show with their teachers’ supervision. They wrote a script titled “Sisters at Heart” and presented it gift-wrapped to Montgomery and Asher. Montgomery and Asher were impressed with the quality of the script. Elizabeth said, “We’ve had bad scripts submitted by professional writers that weren’t as well written or creative.”

Barbara Avedon - Alchetron, The Free Social Encyclopedia
Barbara Avedon
Photo: alchetron.com

Asher said the script only needed a little bit of reworking and asked Barbara Avedon if she would work with the class. Avedon, who had written for a variety of shows including The Ann Sothern Show, The Donna Reed Show, Bewitched, and Cagney and Lacey, agreed. She visited the school and described the scene she entered upon: “I was horrified. Locker doors were hanging off their hinges. There wasn’t a blade of grass in sight.”

Avedon said that she explained that they had to expand the script to fit a full half-hour. She promised the kids that no changes would be made without their approval. To work with industry requirements, the final script credited the teleplay to Avedon and Asher and the story to the students who were all listed in alphabetical order. Asher produced and directed the episode.

The class was able to attend a production and rehearsal meeting. The State of California gave the high school a grant to allow students to participate in the filming and post-production work. Screen Gems, along with Montgomery and Asher individually, also contributed to the funding. Two additional trips were planned, allowing fifty students to visit the set. Asher sent 30 copies of the script to be used in classrooms.

Saunders considered the project a great success. She said kids who thought they could not write were now writing three pages of script. One of Dick Sargent’s favorite memories of the show was one of the high school students who was given the role of assistant director. At one point, the kid screamed “Quiet on the set.”

The show became the thirteenth episode of season seven; it aired December 24, 1970 and was rerun around Christmas 1971. Montgomery introduced the episode by telling viewers that it “evoked the true spirit of Christmas . . . conceived in the image of innocence and filled with truth.”

Photo: pinterest.com

So, what was the episode about? The concept is that Tabitha’s (Erin Murphy) friend, Lisa Wilson (Venetta Rogers), was visiting. Lisa is African American and Tabitha is Caucasian. Tabitha is excited that they get to spend a few days together and says they will be sisters. Lisa’s father Keith (Don Marshall) works with Darrin (Dick Sargent) at McMann and Tate. Darrin fails to land a million-dollar advertising account with a toy company owned by Mr. Brockway (Parley Baer) because Brockway is racist and when he stopped by the house, he assumed Lisa was Darrin’s daughter and his wife was Lisa’s mother Dorothy (Janee Michelle) because Lisa mentioned her father worked at the agency.

Samantha (Elizabeth Montgomery) takes the girls to the park and when they announce they are sisters, another kid tells them they can’t be sisters because they have different skin colors. Tabitha creates a spell so that both girls have spots in the other’s skin tone. When Samantha finds the girls, she tells Tabitha to reverse the spell. She can’t, and Sam realizes that Tabitha wants the spots to remain subconsciously so they can be sisters. She explains to the girls that their appearance does not prevent them from being sisters, so Tabitha is able to reverse the spell before Lisa’s parents arrive.

In the meantime, Mr. Brockway tells Larry Tate (David White) that he wants Darrin removed from the account. When Darrin and Sam host a Christmas party that Lisa’s parents are at, everyone is introduced and Mr. Brockway realizes Darrin is married to Samantha. Mr. Brockway says to put Darrin back on the account, but when Larry learns he originally removed him because he thought he was married to a black woman, Larry tells him they don’t want his business. To teach Brockway a lesson, Samantha puts a spell on him so he sees everyone, himself included, with black skin. Realizing how unfair he has been, Mr. Brockway returns to the Stephens to apologize and is invited to Christmas dinner, which is an integrated turkey, white and dark meat.

Elizabeth And Husband William Asher - Elizabeth Montgomery Photo (7716361)  - Fanpop
Photo: fanpop.com

Montgomery always mentioned this episode as her favorite. Of course, the entire series was about overcoming prejudice but it was witches who were stereotyped. The episode received The Governor’s Award at the Emmy Awards in 1971.

I love this story at so many levels. How great that a teacher cared enough about her students to think outside the box to help them learn to read and write, and that Montgomery and Asher cared enough about the kids to give them such an amazing opportunity. I would love to know if any of those students ended up writing for a living. What a fun experience! And what a great Christmas message. 

Mel Tormé Jazzed Up a Few TV Scripts

76 Mel torme ideas | music, great american songbook, jazz
Photo: pinterest.com

We are in the midst of our blog series about unique television writers. If I mention the name Mel Tormé to you, you probably think exceptional musician, composer, and singer. You might specifically mention “The Christmas Song” which he composed the music and cowrote the lyrics for. (His cowriter was Bob Wells.)

If I say think writing, you might be able to recall that he wrote several musical biographies including Traps- The Drum Wonder: The Life of Buddy Rich, The Other Side of the Rainbow: Behind the Scenes on the Judy Garland Television Series, or My Singing Teachers. You might have even read his autobiography It Wasn’t All Velvet or Wynner, a novel he wrote in 1978.

However, I’m guessing most of you don’t realize that he also tried his hand at writing scripts for television.

Melvin Tormé was born in Chicago in 1925. He was a child prodigy and first performed professionally at age 4 with the Coon Sanders Orchestra, singing “You’re Driving Me Crazy,” at a local restaurant.

He played drums in the drum and bugle corps of his grade school, Shakespeare Elementary. From 1933-1941 he had roles in several radio programs including “The Romance of Helen Trent” and “Jack Armstrong, All American Boy.” He wrote his first song at age 13. At age 16, his song, “Lament to Love” was a hit for Harry James.

Mel Torme & The Mel-Tones at Singers.com - Vocal Harmony A Cappella Group
The Mel-Tones Photo: singers.com

Tormé graduated from Hyde Park High School. Shortly after, he was a singer and drummer with a band led by Chico Marx from 1942-1943. In 1944, he formed Mel Tormé and His Mel-Tones.

Tormé took his stint in the Army, and when he was discharged in 1946, he returned to the entertainment business. He was nicknamed “The Velvet Frog” by DJ Fred Robbins when he sang at the Copacabana. He always hated the nickname.

During the fifties, he had a radio program, “Mel Tormé Time,” and he recorded a variety of albums. He primarily performed jazz but he loved classical music as well, preferring Delius and Grainger. He wrote more than 250 songs. In the sixties, he strayed into pop music.

Mel had his first television appearance as an actor in 1960 on Dan Raven. He showed up on a few different series including The Lucy Show. In the 1980s, he made nine appearances on Night Court and found a new generation of fans.

Mel Torme & Harry Anderson, Night Court (1991) | Movie stars, Harry  anderson, Singer
On Night Court Photo: pinterest.com

During his career, he tried marriage four times, but the first three ended in divorce. In 1996 he suffered from a stroke that ended his musical career. Three years later, he passed away.

No doubt, he had a full and successful career. He had a multitude of skills he experimented with during his professional life. I would like to spend some time looking at part of his career that is not well known. He did help with the writing for a brief time when The Judy Garland Show was on the air. In the late sixties he continued writing for the small screen.

In 1967, Mel wrote his first television script. His first successful episode was for the 1967 show Run for Your Life. It’s not a well-remembered show, but it aired from 1965-1968. It was about a successful lawyer Paul Bryan (Ben Gazzara) who learns he is terminally ill with two years to live. He decides to accomplish everything on his bucket list, and each week he talks about the people he meets and the places he visits.

The Frozen Image
The Frozen Image Photo: run4.us

Mel not only wrote the script for “The Frozen Image,” but he starred in the episode as well. The premise is that a married Las Vegas singer (Diana Burke) who doesn’t want to get old, hires Paul as her manager.

He must have enjoyed it because the next year, he wrote a script for The Virginian called “The Handy Man.” The long-running show was on the air from 1962-1971 and was set in Wyoming in the late 1800s.

In this episode, a legal fight over a strip of land between the Shiloh and Bowden ranch turns nasty. The Bowdens think Shiloh has hired a gunfighter who turns out to be a handyman.

The Virginian" The Handy Man (TV Episode 1968) - IMDb
The Handyman Photo: imdb.com

In 1974, Tormé scripted another story, this time for Mannix. From 1967-1975, Mannix solved a variety of cases. Originally working for a company, he starts his own business with secretary/friend Peggy Fair, whose husband, a policeman, had been killed. They also work with a police department contact, Tobias. Mel’s story, “Portrait in Blues,” features a couple of musicians, one of whom is almost electrocuted while performing.

Mannix" Portrait in Blues (TV Episode 1974) - IMDb
Portrait in Blues Photo: imdb.com

The last television project Mel worked on as a writer was a made-for-television movie called The Christmas Songs in 1979. With cowriter Thomas V. Grasso, Mel penned the script and starred in the movie with Richard Basehart, Billy Davis, Jr., Jo Ann Greer, Les Brown and His Band of Renown, Rich Little, Marilyn McCoo, Maureen McGovern, Sons of the Pioneers, Roy Rogers, and George Shearing. I could not find much about this movie, so if anyone remembers watching it or knows anything more about it, please let me know.

With all the success that he had in the music industry, I was amazed to learn Mel wrote for television. I stumbled across it by accident when I was researching Mannix and decided to learn a little more about his writing career. I could not find any other information about his writing career. I did reach out to his son Steve March-Tormé . He said that he had not realized that his father wrote television scripts but said, “I’m not surprised. He tried his hand at a lot of areas of the business and was almost always very successful at them. Very bright guy.” Steve’s stepfather, Hal March, was another celebrated television writer and star. (For more about Steve March-Tormé , see his website, stevemarchtorme.com.)

It’s been a lot of fun to learn more about Mel Tormé’s television writing career. As someone who only knew him for his musical skills, it was fun to see another side of the performer. As someone who has always thought it would be fun to write for a sitcom, kudos to him for trying something new and succeeding. Hopefully, he is an inspiration to some of us who think we have to settle for the space we are in now to reach out and try something entirely different–and to remember that the success is in the trying.

Jay Sommers Figured Out the Formula for Good Writing

I thought it might be fun to look at some unique aspects of writing for sitcoms in this blog series. This month we’ll take a look at a variety of writing subjects.

To begin this series, I wanted to learn a bit about a classic sitcom writer, and Jay Sommers came to mind immediately. He wrote more than 400 scripts.

Sommers was born in 1917 in New York City. Before veering into comedy, he attended the City College of New York and studied the not-so-funny topic of chemistry. Apparently, he had good chemistry with his girlfriend’s father who thought he was pretty funny. The dad was an executive with Bristol Myers and the company sponsored many radio shows.

Photo: rusc.com

In 1940 his relationship with his then girlfriend’s dad led to Sommers receiving an offer to write for Milton Berle’s radio show. Jay did not keep the girl, but he kept the career. He would go on to write for a variety of radio shows including The Alan Young Show, Eddie Cantor, Spike Jones, Lum and Abner, and Red Skelton.

In 1950 he became the producer, director, and writer for a show called Granby’s Green Acres. It only ran for two months, but it would inspire him to create Green Acres for television a decade later. The show was based on a book by S.J. Perelman titled Acres and Pains. The premise of the show was that a wealthy banker wants to become a farmer, so he and his wife move to the country. The banker was played by Gale Gordon and his wife was Bea Benardaret.

Gordon and Benardaret Photo: wikiwand.com

Sommers’ first job as a writer on television was for The Peter Lind Hayes Show in 1950; the episode starred Gloria Swanson. In 1951 he wrote for the Colgate Comedy Hour, along with an episode of the Buster Keaton Show.

1953 brought him recognition for an episode of Our Miss Brooks (“Clay City Chaperone”). He became busier in 1954 writing for My Friend Irma, The Red Skelton Hour, and The Great Gildersleeve.

In the late fifties, he contributed to Blondie, Bachelor Father, and The Donna Reed Show.

Sommers really came into his own as a writer in the sixties. Along with a few screenplays, he wrote for The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, The Jim Backus Show, Dennis the Menace, The Beverly Hillbillies, and Grindl.

Sommers enjoyed the most lucrative part of his career from 1964 to 1970, working on Petticoat Junction and Green Acres. Paul Henning had created The Beverly Hillbillies and Petticoat Junction for CBS. In 1965, the network asked Henning to come up with a new sitcom and said he did not have to film a pilot or give a pitch; they trusted him to develop whatever he wanted. Sommers suggested a television version of his old radio show, Granby’s Green Acres. With Gale Gordon and Bea Benardaret already committed to other shows, the hunt began for two new stars for Green Acres.

Tom Lester, last-surviving 'Green Acres' cast member, dies at 81 - National  | Globalnews.ca
Photo: globalnews.com Cast of Green Acres

In the television show starring Eva Gabor and Eddie Albert, the banker is replaced by an attorney. Oliver Wendell Douglas and his wife Lisa leave glamorous Manhattan and move to a run-down farm in Hooterville. Lisa considers their handyman Eb their son and they bond with all the neighbors including Fred and Doris Ziffel and their pet pig Arnold, general store owner and postmaster Sam Drucker, and the folks from Petticoat Junction.

During an interview with the Television Academy, Paul Henning said his contribution was casting, and he let Jay do most of the writing and producing. The show resulted in 170 episodes and was canceled in 1971 when CBS decided to do a “rural purge” and get rid of any shows that fit that theme.

In another Television Academy interview with Richard L. Bare, who directed Green Acres, he said that he was the only director, Jay was the only producer, and that Jay and Dick Chevillat did all the writing. He said that the only other person on staff was a secretary. And, he said things worked out great. He said today there are way too many people on the set and it gets confusing. 

More Hooterville favorites Photo: sitcomsonline.com

Jay continued writing in the seventies, but he did not write a lot. His shows that decade included Hot L Baltimore, Good Times, Ball Four, Alice, and Hello Larry.

Jay passed away in 1985 in Los Angeles from a heart ailment. It was very hard to find much personal information about Jay and no photos. I do know that at some point he married Barbara and they had several children. So sad that we don’t know a lot about some of the people who contributed so much to the golden age of television.

Jay Sommers left us much too early. He came out of a chemistry background, proving you don’t have to teach someone to be funny. He wrote for some of my favorite shows including The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, The Donna Reed Show, and Bachelor Father.

Photo: findagrave.com

Sommers worked on three of the most iconic television sitcoms in the 1960s: The Beverly Hillbillies, Petticoat Junction, and Green Acres. If you have been with me for a while, you know I never really cared for The Beverly Hillbillies. I really enjoy Petticoat Junction and I think it’s well written, but I think Green Acres was one of the best-written sitcoms on television. It’s not easy to write about quirky characters without them seeming unbelievable, but Jay did it. He created characters we fell in love with and truly liked. He produced and wrote brilliant scripts week after week for more than five years. They were clever, witty, and sophisticated without being over the top. His grave marker sums it up, “WRITER.” Thank you, Jay Sommers for introducing us to the good folks in Hooterville.

Arthur: Entertaining All of Us for 25 Years

Photo: arthur wiki-fandom.com

In 1996, one of my all-time favorite kids’ shows debuted. I admit I could only take so much Sesame Street, Caillou made me want to cover my ears with a blanket after 10 minutes, and don’t get me started on Teletubbies; I could not even make it through the theme song. However, one show I never get tired of is Arthur. I may or may not have been known to watch it even when I am the only one home.

Arthur was a 30-minute show, which consisted of two 11-minute stories with a live-action segment in between. The series was based on the books authored by Marc Brown. The series was developed by Kathy Waugh for PBS, and it’s produced by WGBH. Each show began with Arthur talking to the audience about a situation which is then explored in the story. We get to know Arthur, his family, and his friends intimately.

In a Scholastic interview, Brown said the character Arthur was born when his son Tolon asked for a bedtime story about a weird animal. He started going through the alphabet and an aardvark was the first animal that popped into his head. Tolon is now a producer on the show.

Photo: pinterest.com

The themes are the same ones that kids have to deal with in real life, some big and some small. During the 25 years that it has been on television, the show has covered bed wetting, dyslexia, cancer, autism, sibling rivalry, cheating in school, watching scary movies, divorce, fear of the dark, getting sick, and so many others. In a 2019 episode, Mr. Ratburn, Arthur’s teacher, marries a same-sex partner and Alabama Public Television declined to show the episode.

The series is fun to watch and presents issues kids deal with in a realistic, yet humorous light. Kids and parents can relate to the stories and characters. When Marc Brown described Arthur, he elaborated that “He is an eight-year-old aardvark who is navigating the mud puddles of life. You know, as we all are really. We all have obstacles and it’s how we handle them, and if Arthur can show kids that you can get through problems, solve problems, that’s really a good message for kids, it gives them confidence.” He added, “It’s a good message Arthur has, right, believe in yourself.”

What animal is Arthur? - How To Discuss
Photo: howtodiscuss.com

Arthur Read, age 8, lives with his mother Jane, father David, younger sister DW (Doris Winifred), and his baby sister Kate. His Grandma Thora is also around a lot as is his dog Pal. (Except for one episode, DW always wears a pink dress.)

His best friend is Buster. Some of his other friends include Francine, Muffy, Binky Barnes, Prunella, Sue Ellen, and The Brain. Even though the characters are all animals, they live in human homes and live life like most humans do. They live in Elmwood, which is a suburb of Pittsburgh. Brown grew up in Erie, PA and based many of the stories on his grade school life.

Arthur: PBS children's show to come to an end after 25 years
Photo: usatoday.com

I won’t get into the actors who provide voices for the various characters because there were many; some characters had more than five people playing them over the years. One interesting fact about that though is that DW was always voiced by a male.

I am not sure why but the first season of Arthur cost $12 million to create which is astounding to me. I tried to find more details about the reasons behind the big price tag, but I came up empty.

Photo: medium.com

One of the most memorable things about the show is the catchy theme song. Written by Judy Henderson and Jerry de Villiers Jr., “Believe In Yourself” was originally recorded by Ziggy Marley and the Melody Makers for the show.

The show featured a lot of guest stars over the years. Some of the more fun episodes included Fred Rogers as himself visiting Elwood City, Art Garfunkel as a singing moose, Yo-Yo Ma as a music rival, Alex Trebek as Alex Lebek, game show host, Michelle Kwan teaching Francine to skate, Larry King interviewing Arthur, and The Backstreet Boys in concert.

Photo: imdb.com

I truly just picked four of my favorite PBS kids’ shows to learn about this month, but it turns out they were all the longest-running shows on the network. Arthur is the longest-running animated series for kids and is second in animation overall to The Simpsons. The show received a Peabody Award and four Emmy Awards for Outstanding Children’s Animated Program.

Photo: theguardian.com

Last month the last episode of Arthur aired. While I’m sad to see it end, it surely had a great run. My boys read Arthur books and watched the show, my grandkids are reading the books and watching the show, and I’m hoping that my great-grandkids will enjoy the books and reruns of the show.

One of my favorite Arthur books and episodes was aired during Season 1 and is “Arthur’s Chicken Pox.” I think it’s one of my favorites because it is truly an ordinary but delightful look at an everyday event. I remember getting chicken pox at about Arthur’s age.

Thank you Marc Brown for creating such an eclectic group of characters and so many enjoyable stories and moments, and thank you PBS for recognizing what a great series it could be and funding it for two and a half decades.

 

 

 

Add Some Color to Your Life with Reading Rainbow

Reading Rainbow was an American 30-minute children’s series that was broadcast on PBS. The show began in 1983. Producing 155 episodes, the series aired new episodes until 2006 and then showed reruns until 2009.

How Reading Rainbow Inspired Me
Photo: bookriot.com

The show was developed to encourage children to read. Twila Liggett created the show with Cecily Truett Lancit and Larry Lancit of Lancit Media Productions. Lynne Ganek, Tony Buttino, and host LeVar Burton were also part of the creative team. The group met with Fred Rogers, Joan Ganz Cooney, and The Electric Company crew to explore ways to make television more engaging to fans. During an interview in 2003, Burton said “I think reading is part of the birthright of the human being. It’s just such an integral part of the human experience—that connection with the written word.”

Many educators found that during the summer, children lost a lot of their reading abilities because they were watching “uneducational” television and not reading. The producers of the show wanted to air a new program during the summer months that would keep kids excited about reading even when they weren’t in school. It was a great goal, but the show was often threatened with cancellation due to a lack of funding.

The show received more than 200 awards including a Peabody Award. Ten of its twenty-six Emmys were for Outstanding Children’s Series. It was the third-longest children’s show on the air right after, you guessed it, Mister Rogers and Sesame St.

LeVar Burton Asks Fans to Help Bring Back 'Reading Rainbow' | The Takeaway  | WNYC Studios
Photo: WNYC Studio.com

A topic was introduced in each episode and then a featured children’s book was read, often narrated by a celebrity. After the story, Burton visited places relating to the theme of the day. The show ended with book suggestions for kids to read. In an Esquire interview in 2019, Burton discussed why listening to books is so important: “It gives you the opportunity to, without the mechanism of reading, engage immediately in your imagination. When you’re reading, you’re multitasking. You’re reading and making the movie in your head. When you’re listening to storytelling, there’s no activity, there’s no multitasking—you’re indeed in your imagination as you’re engaged with the content of the story. It’s a shortcut for visualization.”

Steve Horelick was the composer of the theme song with Dennis Neil Kleinman and Janet Weir writing lyrics. The show had three versions of the song with the third version sung by Chaka Khan.

There are a lot of great stars who showed up to read to kids, including Ruth Buzzy, Julia Child, Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, Kermit the Frog, Peter Falk, Jane Goodall, and Run D-M-C.

Margret Aldrich in wrote an article in 2014, and she chose the top ten books from the series. It’s a great place to start if you want to find a couple of books to read to your child.

To Be A Drum read by James Earl Jones - YouTube
James Earl Jones Photo: youtube.com
  1. All the Colors of the Race by Arnold Adoff, read by Maya Angelou.
  2. Sunken Treasure by Gail Gibbons, read by Robert Morse
  3. On the Day You Were Born by Debra Frasier, read by Patrick Stewart.
  4. Amazing Grace by Mary Hoffman, read by Tyne Daly.
  5. Animal Café by John Stadler, read by Martin Short.
  6. The Magic Schoolbus Inside the Earth by Joanna Cole, read by Keshia Knight Pulliam.
  7. Paul Bunyan by Steven Kellogg, read by Buddy Ebsen
  8. Arthur’s Eyes by Marc Brown, read by Bill Cosby.
  9. Bringing the Rain to Kapiti Plain by Verna Aardema, read by James Earl Jones.
  10. Abiyoyo by Pete Seeger and Michael Hays, read by Pete Seeger.

So, why was the show canceled? According to John Grant, who is in charge of content at WNED Buffalo, the show’s home station, “The show’s run is ending because no one—not the station, not PBS, not the Corporation for Public Broadcasting—will put up the several hundred thousand dollars needed to renew the show’s broadcast rights.” And, just like that, the last chapter was closed for good.

Burton Calls On 'Star Trek' Fans To Bring 'Reading Rainbow' To The Next  Generation | KRWG
Photo: npr.org

Reading Rainbow was an essential motivation for kids to read. However, adults have to realize that they also have to make time for reading. Let’s allow Levar to have the last word. In that Esquire interview, he also talked about why all of us need to read:

“You need to make the time. You have time to eat; you have time to sleep; you have time to love. I think reading for pleasure is an act of self-care, genuinely. I really do, especially in today’s world. You’ve gotta turn off the news; you’ve got to create some escape time in your imagination. You have to feed yourself, people! Otherwise, we have a tendency to get locked into the circumstances of life, and less engaged in the solution aspect of ourselves. It’s really critical for us to read for pleasure. One of the miracles of the modern era is that on my iPad, and consequently, because of the Cloud, on my phone, I carry a library of reading material. I mean, literally a library. It’s so available. We just have to shift our awareness a degree in that direction.”

I Can Tell You How to Get to Sesame Street

In 1966 Joan Ganz Cooney and Carnegie VP Lloyd Morrisett had a goal to create a new television show for kids. Apparently, they were at a dinner party when Morrisett was telling Cooney that one morning he found his three-year-old sitting in front of the television watching the test pattern. He wondered if the “boob tube” could ever actually teach kids anything. After a couple of years of research, they created the Children’s Television Workshop. An $8 million grant from funding from several corporations (Carnegie Foundation, Ford Foundation, for Corporation Public Broadcasting and the US federal government) was given to the Workshop to develop the show.

Sesame Street announces new special tackling racism | EW.com
Photo: entertainmentweekly.com

The show debuted in November of 1969. I don’t remember much about the show, but I can tell you as a third grader I was incensed that we were forced to watch a show for toddlers. However, the show received high ratings and was lauded a success. (By 2019 there were more than 150 versions of the show produced in 70 different languages.)

Jim Henson - The Muppet Master — Carol Burnett with Gonzo and Kermit, The  Muppet...
Carol as asparagus Photo: tumblr.com

Carol Burnett appeared on the first episode. She said, “I didn’t know anything about it when they asked me to be on. All I knew was that Jim Henson was involved and I thought he was a genius—I’d have gone skydiving with him if he’d asked. But it was a marvelous show. I kept going back for more. I think one time I was an asparagus.”

The show adopted a fast-moving style that incorporated action, humor, color, and music. They tried to match preschoolers’ attention spans. Humans often interacted with puppets in the style of Fred Rogers.

Sesame Street dealt with a lot of controversial issues and life situations that affected kids. In 1982, Will Lee who played Mr. Hooper passed away, and the show had to deal with his absence. The episode discussed death and avoided saying Mr. Hooper died in a hospital, so kids did not equate hospitals with death. Fans consistently rate this episode as one of the most moving and memorable ones that they watched.

The Late Movies: Saying Goodbye to Mr. Hooper | Mental Floss
Mr. Hooper Photo: mentalfloss.com

The show was always sensitive to ensuring they had a variety of ethnicities and genders represented in the series. In 1970 the show was banned in Mississippi by the State Commission for Educational Television. An anonymous committee member said that it was because of the diverse and integrated cast. After a statewide protest, they finally reversed their decision three weeks later.

In 1981 the federal government withdrew its funding from the show. Sesame St. developed new revenue resources from books, product licensing, and magazine production.

The show began to struggle a bit in the 1990s, competing with a variety of shows for ratings. In 1999, Elmo was given his own segment, “Elmo’s World.”

The Not-Too-Late Show with Elmo | Sesame Workshop
Elmo Photo: sesameworkshop.com

In 2009, the show received an Outstanding Achievement Emmy for its four decades on the air. As of 2018 the show had won 189 Emmys overall (and 11 Grammy awards), more than any other children’s show.

In 2019, the series celebrated fifty years on television, having produced more than 4500 episodes, 2 movies (Follow that Bird and The Adventures of Elmo in Grouchland), 200 videos, and 180 albums.

Cooney credited the show’s high quality to Harvard professors Gerald Lesser and Edward L. Palmer. Lesser designed the educational objectives for the show while Palmer did the formative research and bridged the gap between producers and researchers.

Of course, the show would not be what it was without Jim Henson. Cooney met Henson in Boston; he was reluctant to join the show but agreed to bypass his performance fees for full ownership of the Muppets, splitting revenue from them 50/50 with CTW.

It seems like some fun facts would be in order:

In 2004 the Cookie Monster said his name had previously been Sid.

Kermit retired in 2001.

Big Bird Has 4,000 Feathers: 21 Fun Facts About Sesame Street That Will  Blow Your Mind
With Jimmy Fallon Photo: parade.com

Big Bird is 8’2” tall.

Oscar the Grouch was inspired by a combination of a two men Henson interacted with. One was a mean waiter and the other was a restaurant director at Oscar’s Tavern in Manhattan.

Carol Spinney who played Bird took his voice from a cab driver who used to transport him to the set.

The stripes on Bert and Ernie’s shirts are deliberate: Ernie’s horizontal ones appear more relaxed while Bert’s vertical ones make him appear uptight.

Sesame Street | History, Characters, & Facts | Britannica
Photo: Briticannica.com

Big Bird’s teddy bear is named Radar, for Radar on M*A*S*H who slept with a teddy bear.

The 847th episode, which was broadcast in 1976, featured Margaret Hamilton as the Wicked Witch of the West. Kids were so scared that the episode never aired again.

And of course, the answer to the question everyone wants to know. How do you get to Sesame Street? Take the R or V train to Steinway St. Stay on the back of the train and then walk west on 34th Ave. three blocks to 36th St. Turn left. The entrance to Kaufman Astoria Studios in Queens is half way between 34th and 35th Aves.

It’s hard to measure the impact the show has had on decades of children. A 1996 survey found that 95% of American preschoolers had watched the show by the time that they were 3 years old. In 2018, 86 million Americans reported watching the show as a child. As of 2001, more than 1000 research studies had been conducted regarding the effect of the show on American culture.

Cookie Monster and Oscar the Grouch... - The Walton Freeze | Facebook
Photo: facebook.com

While I was not thrilled to watch the show as a third grader, I did spend many hours watching the show with my children and appreciated the quality that went into every script. And, in answer to Lloyd Morrisett, can television ever teach kids anything worthwhile? Absolutely!