Celebrating the Single Life: From Ann Sothern to Mary Tyler Moore

Today marks the beginning of National Singles Week. So, we’re taking a closer look at two women who were single and okay with it.

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In the 1950s, Ann Sothern starred in two sitcoms that were almost one and the same. From 1953-57, we watched her in Private Secretary. Susie McNamara was the assistant to Peter Sands at his theatrical agency. When it went off the air due to contract disputes, Susie moved to a New York hotel, and in 1958, she morphed into Katy O’Connor. The show ran until 1961, and Sothern brought three of her former cast members to the hotel with her with new identities.

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In 1970, we met Mary Richards. Mary is an independent career woman. She’d like to meet the right guy, but till he shows up, she’d rather be alone than in an unfulfilling relationship. Like Susie and Katy, Mary’s workmates become part of her extended family.

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Ann Sothern was one of the first, if not the first, single working woman to appear on a sitcom. Susie previously worked as an actress and was a WAC in World War II. Her best friend Vi (Ann Tyrrell) is the receptionist at the agency. Susie often meddled in her boss’s private affairs, especially his female relationships. She could be described as a bit ditzy, but she also ran the office and was very bright.

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Sothern was praised for her acting ability. She was nominated for Emmys three years in a row, but lost to Loretta Young in 1955, Lucille Ball in 1956, and Nanette Fabray in 1957. Lucille Ball, one of her closest friends, called Ann “the best comedian in this business, bar none.”

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To ensure she came across as a serious career woman, great care was taken with the set. It was a state-of-the-art office with the most up-to-date equipment. Connie Brooks, on Our Miss Brooks, was praised by teachers for her realistic portrayal of an educator. Similarly, Ann Sothern was a heroine to secretaries throughout the country. In real life, Sothern was a smart business woman. She invested her money well, owned a variety of companies and a large ranch. She produced Private Secretary and insisted it be preserved on film. As a result, it went into syndication where it was titled “Susie.” From 1987-1990, it aired on Nick at Nite, creating a new fan base for the show.

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The show holds up well. The scripts are a bit predictable and stereotyped, but it reflected the time. Susie McNamara gave young women hope that there was more to life than getting married and raising a family, although that was still an important role for women.

When Sothern was helping to run a posh hotel, Laura Petrie was at home, running her household. She gave up her dancing career to do so, but she was much more than a wife and mom. She and her husband were co-parenting at that time, and they were friends. She and Rob entertained a lot. Laura supported Rob’s friendship with Sally Rogers, one of his co-writers on this television show. She was a career woman who was very funny and smart, albeit lonely.

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Nine years later, The Mary Tyler Moore Show debuted. Laura Petrie had become Mary Richards, a single career woman making her way to Minneapolis. Mary lived alone, dated infrequently, and spent a lot of her time at work or with her new best friend who lived in the apartment above her.

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While we got to know Susie at work, we just got to know Mary. We saw her at her best and her worst. We saw her joyful, depressed, frustrated, angry, and saw her uncertainty as she navigated life alone.

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Mary’s coworkers became her family. Mary wasn’t ditzy, although she occasionally did a ditzy thing or two. She didn’t try to fix her boss’s problems; she had problems of her own, but she was always there for her WJM family.

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Mary would have liked to find the right guy, but until he came along she was satisfied with her life the way it was. She spent her money any way she wanted. She could wear her pajamas all day on Saturday. She had a fun, modern wardrobe. Work gave her great delight, and it also could be extremely stressful.

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Murray was her best friend at work. He and Mary shared a lot of life. We knew part of Murray was in love with Mary, but we also knew neither of them would ever act on any of those possible feelings since he was married.

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Mary was smart and funny. She was an assistant producer for the daily news. Her office space was not as elaborate as Susie’s. There was never enough money at work or at home.

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The times had allowed Mary to move to the city by herself and set up a home. However, even Mary Richards was not allowed to be a divorcé. The network vetoed the original script and converted Mary to a formerly engaged girl whose relationship fell apart. During the run of the show, her boss’s wife asked for a divorce, so the show still ended up featuring a divorced character.

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The Mary Tyler Moore Show was one of the best-written shows in television history. Like M*A*S*H and The Bob Newhart Show, the ensemble of characters drove the show and they were realistic and likeable. The show received 29 Emmys, including three years in a row for Best Comedy (1975-1977). The series tackled a lot of social issues during its run, including equal pay for women, marital infidelity, ethical behavior when Mary goes to jail to protect a news source,  dealing with death of a friend, and Mary’s sleeping pill addiction–real issues facing women at that time.

This was a sophisticated show. It was not predictable. Mary was nice, sometimes too nice for her own good. When everyone else called Mr. Grant Lou, Mary couldn’t bring herself to do it. We were always rooting for her. She had hopes, dreams, and ambitions, and a realistic attitude about life.

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It seems like a big leap between Susie McNamara and Mary Richards, but there were a lot of smaller steps in between. Marlo Thomas’s That Girl provided another smart, funny woman who chose to give up her teaching job to pursue an acting career in New York. Ann Marie was another link in the chain that helped move women forward. While she did have a boyfriend and became engaged during the run of the show, Marlo Thomas ended the show with their marriage up in the air.

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Mary’s life was more realistic than Susie’s. When the Ann Sothern Show ended, Katy and her boss (still played by Don Porter) kiss, and you know that they will end up married, and Katy will no longer be running the office.

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When Mary Tyler Moore’s show ended, everyone on the WJM staff was fired except the totally incompetent Ted Baxter. We don’t know what Mary will be doing, but she has choices. Perhaps she found another news job in a new city. I like to think she found a position in management at a local corporation. Maybe she fell in love with one of the employees she was supervising. I think when she retired and turned on the television, she was watching Murphy Brown’s FYI program, celebrating the leaps women were taking in the workforce.

 

 

Give Me Six Minutes, and I’ll Give You Supper: The Story of the TV Dinner

It’s TV Dinner Day so let’s learn a bit about how the tv dinner came about. Nothing brings back memories more than recalling eating TV dinners parked in front of a favorite program. Many of us have vivid memories of the family sitting down together, not at the table, but in front of the set to watch Gilligan’s Island or The Donna Reed Show. There were practical reasons for the invention as well. Women were entering the workplace, and tv dinners made meal preparation quick and easy.

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The definition of a “tv dinner” is a frozen meal that is prepackaged, typically in some type of plastic. Several decades ago it was cooked in the oven, and today it is primarily cooked in the microwave. It requires almost no preparation and usually consists of a cut of meat, a vegetable, and a dessert.

Originally, “TV dinner” was trademarked by C.A. Swanson & Sons in 1953, and it was called “TV Brand Frozen Dinner” and was packaged in an aluminum tray. In 1953, Swanson sold about 5000 dinners.

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The first Swanson dinner was a Thanksgiving meal with turkey, cornbread stuffing, peas, and sweet potatoes. Gerry Thomas, who worked for Swanson, claims he invented the idea, because Swanson was left with so many turkeys after the holiday season, but the Swanson family has challenged that assertion. Gilbert and Clarke Swanson stated they developed the concept and the process of synchronization, so the foods all cooked in the same amount of time.

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While there is still no definitive answer on the Swanson design, there is little controversy that the first frozen meal was developed by Maxson Food Systems, Inc. in 1945. They called their dinners “Strato-Plates” and they were made to reheat and serve on military and civilian airplanes. The food had separate compartments and usually were composed of a meat, vegetable, and potato.

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Jack Fisher’s FridgiDinners were introduced in the late 1940s.  These packages were sold to bars and taverns.

Four years before Swanson’s product came out on the market, Albert and Meyer Bernstein sold packaged frozen dinners in the Pittsburgh area. They were produced under the brand name of “One-Eyed Eskimo.” By 1950, they produced more than 400,000 frozen dinners. In 1952 the brothers formed Quaker State Food Corporation and expanded their distribution to more markets, all east of the Mississippi. In 1954, when Swanson TV dinners were sold nationwide, Quaker State had sold more than two and a half million dinners.

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Selling nationwide and promoted as a meal to eat in front of the television, Swanson tends to get the credit for the new fad. The pewter tray covered in aluminum foil could be heated in, eaten from, and then thrown away. It was cooked for 25 minutes in a 425-degree oven. It sold for $.98 and most people ate it on a “tv tray” in front of the television.

In 1960, Swanson added desserts, often apple cobbler or a brownie. In 1969, the first breakfast meals were marketed. Pancakes and sausage was the big favorite.

“Hungry Man” dinners were introduced in 1973. These tv meals featured larger portions. Mean Joe Greene from the Pittsburgh Steelers was the spokesman for these calorie-laden dinners. A typical Hungry Man meal contains a whopping 860 calories with 39 grams of fat and 1350 milligrams of sodium. In 1986, microwave meals became available, while the 1990s introduced special kid meals.

The production of these meals is highly automated. There are three steps to the process: food prep, tray filling, and freezing. In the first step, fruits and vegetables are washed and placed into a container to be steamed or boiled, or blanching, as we know it in the kitchen. This should destroy enzymes that can cause chemical changes in the flavor and color of some of the foods. Fat is trimmed from the meat and it’s cut into standard sizes. They are seasoned and cooked in an oven. The “filling lines” put the food into container compartments. Liquid nitrogen is used for cryogenic freezing. The nitrogen is actually sprayed on the food which boils when it comes in contact with the frozen food. Called “flash freezing,” the process is supposed to retain a higher quality of the food. Dinners are then covered with paper or foil and vacuum-sealed, so the food does not dry out. The dinners are stored at -18 degrees during shipping and storage.

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The freezing process might be safe, but there is much controversy about how healthy most of these meals are. The dinners are heavily processed with salt and fat to add back in flavor. Since they need a longer shelf life, partially hydrogenated oils are used. These are high in trans fats and are being banned in some areas. The dinners are typically less nutritious than fresh food and sometimes require questionable preservatives.

Today there is a trend to produce healthier versions of these meals. Weight Watchers, Amy’s, and Lean Cuisine are brands that have a better reputation for their ingredients.

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TV dinners have changed drastically since 1953. There is a much wider variety of items to choose from: pasta, Mexican, Thai, you name it. Many grocery delis now produce their own versions, typically made from scratch. They are much healthier, and their hefty price tag proves it. Swanson has retained only 10% of the annual sales.

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I read several statistics that said the average American enjoys, ok that might be a stretch, but the average American consumes 72 prepackaged dinners a year. In 1962, Swanson was afraid that the designation “tv dinner” would discourage customers from using the frozen meals for breakfast and lunch, so they dropped the designation. I thought it was amazing that we still refer to these meals as “tv dinners” almost 60 years later.

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It makes one wonder what our great grandchildren will be eating in another 60 years. Unfortunately, too many of them will be eating in front of the television rather than around a table discussing the day’s events. Perhaps that is the most nostalgic thing about the 1950s.

Get Ready to Be Bowled Over: The Greatest Bowling Episodes

Along with Labor Day this year, September 3 is Bowling League Day. It’s also a good reason for me to put together a list of my favorite bowling episodes. Bowling has been a staple on television since shows first started airing. Let’s look at a few of the best ones.

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Tom and Jerry

One of the first programs to be set in a bowling alley was Tom and Jerry in “The Bowling Alley Cat” from 1942. It was originally seen in theaters and later debuted on television. A play on the phrase “alley cat,” the animated show is directed by William Hanna and Joseph Barbera.

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This is a fun setting to watch the duo’s antics. Jerry hides in a bowling ball and then skates down the alley. Tom slips trying to catch him. Eventually Jerry makes it to the end of the lane and waves from behind a pin. Tom tries to throw a ball to hit him as Jerry has to jump behind different pins to keep from getting hit. Jerry bats one of the balls back to Tom using the pin as a bat. Tom’s thumb gets stuck in a ball as he tries to release it and he is propelled all the way down the lane. Quickly acting, Jerry pulls the pin setter down and Tom looks like one of the pins. Tom drops a ball on his foot at one point trying to get Jerry out of one of the holes. These escapades continue until Tom is sent down the alley again knocking over all the pins. Jerry hops onto the desk and records a strike on his scorecard.

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Ozzie and Harriet

In 1953, in an episode titled “Bowling Alley,” the Nelsons are sitting around the living room. David and Ricky decide to go play basketball. Ozzie and Harriet are discussing how many people have colds. Harriet thinks Ozzie is coming down with one. He feels fine, but then her friend Mary stops by. The girls decide to go to the Emporium shopping. When Harriet asks Ozzie to drive them, honest Ozzie feigns a cold to get out of taking them. His neighbor Thorny stops by and convinces him to go bowling because the high scorer for the day gets a case of Ginger Ale. It’s not Thorny’s night, and Ozzie beats him four games in a row,  winning a whopping $.20. Just as the guys are changing their shoes, Thorny spies Harriet, and they make a quick get-away. Relieved, they get home before her and no one is the wiser. Of course, Ozzie is the high scorer and the next day when the pop is delivered to the Nelson home, Ozzie confesses. He calls everyone he knows to brag about his achievement.  Harriet doesn’t have the heart to tell him that the high score was her game.

 

The Flintstones

One of the most famous bowling scenes is from The Flintstones’ third season, “Bowling Ballet.”  Wilma has her work cut out for her getting Fred off to his job. When the lunch whistle blows, Fred meets Barney to practice bowling. Fred feels he is out of rhythm and his timing is off. After driving into a fence, dropping a rock on a truck at work, and having a bowling ball hit his toe, he decides he needs help. Mr. Slate tells him the employees are betting double that his team will win the bowling championship. That night Fred sees a commercial for the Bedrock Dance Studio airing the promise to help someone get their rhythm back. Fred signs up for classes. A few days later, Fred calls in sick.  The girls spy him ballet dancing in the basement. Wilma assumes he’s been seeing another woman since he’s been gone every night. Betty promises that Barney will follow him that night to make sure it’s not another woman. When Barney calls Wilma and Betty to say Fred is dancing, they assume he’s with another woman and go to check it out. Fred’s secret is out. The night of the big championship, the team faces the Rockland Rockets. Fred’s first ball is a gutter ball.  Barney puts on some music so Fred can bowl while dancing ballet, and he gets a strike. The Water Buffaloes take home the first prize.

 

 

That Girl

That Girl’s “This Little Piggy Had a Ball” episode aired in 1967. The show begins with a group throwing their friend Sharon a surprise party for an award she won.  However, Sharon has been called to Hollywood for an audition, so she chooses Ann to accept the award for her. Don and Ann are supposed to go bowling, so Don agrees to write an acceptance speech for her while they’re there. While Don is writing, Ann reads a bowling magazine and reads an article about a man who bowls with his feet. While demonstrating, she gets her big toe stuck in the ball. No matter what they try, the bowl stays stuck. The owner throws away the magazine because Ann is the fourth person to get a ball stuck on their foot that week. He puts axle grease on her toe but nothing he does helps her. Ann is sure the fire department can help her. The crew was at a fire, and the underwater diver who was at the station cannot find a way to help her either. Ann makes Don take her to the hospital emergency room. The doctor she sees is convinced that his doctor friend set him up and this is a prank.  When he is convinced that she is a real patient, he diagnoses her with an excited toe and gives her muscle relaxers to help her toe come loose. She is supposed to take one every half hour but her neighbor Leon, an obstrician,  realizes she took three in the first hour and he decides to cut off the bottom half of the ball so there is a flat surface and put a cast over the the rest of it, so she can walk, and they sober her up. Rob Reiner and Terri Garr show up at the banquet as acting friends and give Ann a hard time about her cast. Sharon wins the prize, and when Ann goes up to accept the award, the ball and cast fall off.

 

The Odd Couple

In 1974 the question was “To Bowl or Not to Bowl.” Felix and Oscar’s bowling team, the Bon Vivants, are battling the Kingpins for the championship game. This is the first time in five years the Bon Vivants have had an opportunity to be in the final game. The episode begins with Oscar telling everyone they need to practice every night and complaining to Murray and Vinnie about how bad they were. Felix hates the pressure and quits the team. Oscar makes it clear he’s mad at Felix, and Felix tries to get him to talk it over. When Felix still says he won’t bowl, Oscar refuses to discuss it. The other team sticks to the rule that a bowler cannot be replaced. The next night, the boys play poker. Oscar decides to play without competition to teach Felix a lesson. Felix wins the round but since there is no competition, the next round goes back to even and no one wins any money. The guys discuss the fact that Felix always has an ailment when a competition is on the line. They decide his real problem is psychological. Murray brings a healer to talk to Felix whose back is hurting. After the guys leave for the bowling alley, Felix decides to go and bowl with the team. The other team is also short a man because on of their players is getting married, so they decide each of them can substitute someone but they can’t agree on two people they can use. Part way into the game both Felix and the groom show up to finish bowling with their teams. They are down to the final frame. Felix can win with his final ball, but as he gets ready to let it go, his back goes out and the teams start arguing. Felix lectures everyone. He rolls the ball down the aisle while laying down. He wins and the team is so excited they all run off so the losing team can buy them a drink, but they forget about Felix who can’t move and has to crawl off the lane.

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Laverne and Shirley

In another season 1 episode, “Bowling for Razzberries,” the girls are in the championship game in 1976. Laverne dislikes Karen, who gives tours at the brewery and torments her. Shirley convinces her to get even with Karen by beating her team at the company bowling night. Laverne coaches the girls about their abilities during practice. Laverne doesn’t criticize Shirley because she always over reacts and takes it personally. Shirley convinces Laverne to give her some tips and when she does, Shirley quits. Shirley realizes Laverne is coming down with a cold and tries to convince her not to practice with her fever. Leonard shows up with a pink ball and his fingers were stuck in there.  He made a comment about Karen’s body, and she slammed the ball on his hand. On the day of the championship, Carmine stops by to tell them he, Lennie and Squiggy bet on their team to win. Shirley calls the doctor to stop by and see Laverne. The doctor is young and good-looking. Laverne puts on lipstick while he scrubs up. He gives her some cold medicine and tells her she needs bed rest till Monday.  To keep Laverne inside, Shirley hides all her clothes while Laverne is sleeping and joins the team again. A sergeant comes collecting clothes for the needy. Laverne tells her she has no clothes, and the sergeant gives her her clothing, keeping her cape and hat. The Hot Shotz are playing the Big Shotz. Shirley finds and old lady from the brewery to fill in for Laverne. In order to participate in the game, Laverne decides to take the medication which leaves her muscles jerky. She shows up at the bowling alley in the sergeant’s clothing. Laverne gets worse as the night goes on. In the last frame, she needs six pins to win. Squiggy, Carmine, and Lenny carry her in her chair to the lane. She wins the game for her team but is too tired to tell Karen what she thinks of her. She asks Shirley to do it and Shirley congratulates her, using good sportsmanship. The next day, Laverne tries to convince Shirley to go to Karen’s house and give her the “razzberry” Laverne wanted to the night before. Shirley calls her on the phone and does so, making Laverne proud. There are a lot of similarities between this episode and The Odd Couple episode discussed above. That’s not too surprising since Garry Marshall produced both shows.

 

 

Ellen

In “Bowl, Baby, Bowl” in 1996, the cast ends up at the bowling lane. Paige and Spencer decide to meet at the bookstore since it’s located half way between the hospital and her studio. Before Paige gets there, Spencer gets called back to the hospital. To reward the employees for their good work at the store, Ed decides to take everyone bowling. Ed is very competitive and names his bowling ball “Rolling Thunder.” The rest of them are just there to have fun, and they goof around more than bowl seriously. They attract a crowd and in the last frame, despite her lack of skills, Ellen wins. After Ellen beats him, Ed gets mad. He cancels Ellen’s day off. When she tries to talk to him, he challenges her to a game of pool at his house the next day. That morning, Paige shows up at Ellen’s to surprise Spencer with breakfast. Before they can eat, Paige has to go to the studio and Spencer gets a page from the hospital. At Ed’s house, Ellen trash talks while playing pool.  Ed wins, but Ellen is a bad loser. The next morning at the bookstore, Ellen challenges Ed to who can drink the hot coffee the quickest.  After burning their mouths, they decide on a final game of bowling to break the tie. Ed’s young daughter Emily asks to bowl for Ellen in the final frame. After saying no, Ellen gives in and hands her the ball, talking about the fact that winning is not the important thing, how you play is. Emily granny rolls the ball and wins for Ellen. Ed and Ellen call a truce but when Ed’s wife takes the girls to the arcade, the game is back on as those two run to the arcade to beat each other. The show ends with Spencer and Paige finally getting some time together.

 

Modern Family

In “Knock ‘Em Down” in 2015, Jay agrees to sub for Cam’s bowling team. Cam conveniently forgets to mention that it’s an all-gay league. Cam wants to beat his nemesis Martin Sherman. Gloria and Mitchell are bragging about how late they will stay out since they are going out on a night on the town with Haley. Cam and Jay bet them $10 that they’ll be home before they are. As Mitchell and Gloria begin dancing, Cam tells them they’re dancing to the Antique Roadshow theme. When Cam tells Jay everyone has to be gay on the team, Jay says no one will ever believe he is gay. Martin approaches Cam and tells him he’ll beat him again and hopes to see Cam try to throw a chair that is bolted down like last year which hurt his back. Jay dislikes Martin and agrees to bowl. Martin questions Jay’s being gay, so Cam tells him to “up his gay game.” Cam tells Martin Jay is acting a bit weird because he has a crush on Martin. Jay really plays up to Martin to throw him off his game. Near the last frame, Martin tries to ask Jay out and he turns him down which keeps Martin from bowling well. After they win the game, Jay talks to Martin and tells him he turned him down because he’s not gay.  Martin thanks him for revealing it and then has Cam’s team disqualified.

Meanwhile, Phil can’t sell a house in the neighborhood because the house across the street has an obscene statue in the front yard. All the neighbors hate it, including the new neighbors whom Phil and Claire dislike. That couple ask Phil and Claire to go out to dinner, and they can’t find a nice way to say no. Phil and Claire consider the couple a bit “low class.” Phil and Claire are embarrassed that the neighbors they don’t like brought their own wine. But when they wave the waiter over for glasses and he takes it out of the bag, it’s a very expensive bottle that the restaurant doesn’t have. Then they mention their son is going to Julliard for piano playing and composing.  The neighbors say they can tie rope around the statue and haul it away. Phil gets in the car and tries to stop them. As he pulls off, he doesn’t realize he’s in reverse and he backs over the statue. A policeman stops by to talk about the statue; luckily Phil knows him and they aren’t questioned.

Meanwhile, Haley tells Gloria and Mitch that they can’t go out for a few hours because no one goes out till 10 and the band sometimes doesn’t go on till midnight. As Mitchell and Gloria wait to go out they are already falling asleep. They start dancing to stay awake. When Haley comes back with wristbands they are sound asleep. They get up and go to the club with her but realize they can’t stay up any longer and leave.

 

These episodes are a handful of the shows that aired during the 75 years between 1942 and 2015, but they are my favorites. Other shows that featured fun bowling episodes are Happy Days, Looney TunesMike and Molly, Roseanne, The Big Bang Theory, and The Brady Bunch.

If you can’t find any of these great shows to watch today, gather a few of your friends together and get a game of bowling in. Have a ball! Just keep your toes out of it.

The Teacher We All Wished We’d Had: Our Miss Brooks

We kicked off the month looking at the successful transition of Burns and Allen from radio to television.  There were many shows that couldn’t make the leap to the small screen, and several that did very well like The Jack Benny Show and I Love Lucy. Our Miss Brooks not only had a successful radio show, but when their television show debuted, the radio show kept going. Many of the cast members starred in both mediums. In addition, they made it to the big screen with a movie and a comic book.

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So, what enabled Our Miss Brooks to do what many shows could not?  Let’s look a little closer at the series and the behind-the-scenes work that kept the show on the air for four seasons, producing 130 episodes.

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Connie Brooks (Eve Arden) is an English teacher at Madison High. She and her principal, Mr. Conklin (Gale Gordon), do not always see eye to eye, but she is close to his daughter Harriet and Harriet’s boyfriend Walter (Richard Crenna) who gives Miss Brooks a ride to school. She wants to be close to Mr. Boynton (Robert Rockwell), the science teacher, but he is oblivious to her charms. She rents a room from Mrs. Davis (Jane Morgan) where she lives with Mrs. Davis’s cat, Minerva.

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We also get to know Fabian “Stretch” Snodgrass (Leonard Smith), basically a “dumb jock” who is Walter’s best friend and Daisy Enright (Mary Jane Croft), another English teacher who is Connie’s love rival for Mr. Boynton.

The show debuted July 19, 1948 on the radio. The show program was sponsored by Colgate-Palmolive-Peet for its entire run which ended in 1957. The first choice for Miss Brooks was Shirley Booth, and the show was titled “Our Miss Booth.” In Gerald Nachman’s book Raised on Radio, he states Booth concentrated too much on the disadvantages of being a school teacher to be funny. There is an audition with her from April of 1948 and while she sounds pleasant, she doesn’t have the sarcastic wit of Arden. The television show began in 1953 and was sponsored by General Foods.

 

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Our Miss Brooks was a ground-breaking show featuring a single woman (teachers were usually single, and marriage might have ended her career). She was not a scatterbrained female like Lucy or Joan in I Married Joan, and she was not a housewife like June Cleaver or Donna Reed. She was a bright, attractive working woman. Eve remembered her third-grade teacher fondly and tried to give Miss Brooks some of her qualities. Eve was known for her sassy movie roles; one of the things she appreciated about the character of Connie Brooks was that it allowed her to be a warm, fun-loving person who had a self-deprecating side.

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The show was a Desilu Production, so they shared equipment and crews with I Love Lucy, as well as a director (William Asher) at times, to save money.

The show was funny because it is based on believable characters. Connie Brooks has a great sense of humor. Many of the plots involve misunderstandings or her trying to keep Walter out of trouble with Mr. Conklin. Here are a few episode summaries.

Miss Davis unknowingly uses school funds to buy Connie a new dress. Now Connie must sell the dress to return the money. Mr. Boynton even models the dress for the kids.

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Mr. Boynton asks Connie to play the role of Mrs. Boynton. She is thrilled,  imagining what it could lead to, until she realizes he meant his mother, not his wife.

Walter is listening to his home-made radio. Storm warnings come over the air for Bombay. Miss Brooks mistakenly thinks it is for their area and takes precautions to evacuate the school and prepare for a hurricane.

Mr. Conklin is furious when his bike is taken at the grocery store, and he wants the thief punished. Miss Brooks finds out that a poor boy borrowed it for his birthday and then returned it to the store. She goes to great lengths to protect the youngster.

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Radio Mirror magazine nominated Eve Arden as the top-ranking comedienne two years in a row for her characterization of Miss Brooks. The National Education Association recognized her for her sympathetic portrayal of teachers.

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Eve Arden was nominated for an Emmy for Best Actress Starring in a Regular Series in 1954, 1955, and 1956—winning in 1954. Gale Gordon was nominated for Best Supporting Actor in 1955, and the show was nominated Best Situation Comedy in 1954 and 1955.

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Eve Arden had to fight the same battle many celebrities do when they have a hit show. She handled her fame of being known as Miss Brooks with grace and practicality. As she explained it: “I originally loved the theater. I still do. And I had always wanted to have a hit on Broadway that was created by me. You know, kind of like Judy Holliday and Born Yesterday. I griped about it a little, and someone said to me, ‘Do you realize that if you had a hit on Broadway, probably 100 or 200,000 people might have seen you in it, if you’d stayed in it long enough. And this way, you’ve been in Miss Brooks, everybody loves you, and you’ve been seen by millions.’ So, I figured I’d better shut up while I was ahead.”

 

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While the TV series never resolved the Boynton-Brooks romance, the 1956 film did. It was directed by Al Lewis, who directed many of the television episodes. In the movie, Miss Brooks is unaware that Mr. Boynton is saving money, so he can ask her to marry him. He is hoping to get a promotion to head of the department. In a subplot, Connie is having issues with a student who is failing her class. He has no friends because he is very arrogant. When she meets his wealthy father, she understands why he has no friends and she tries to help him.  Also, Mr. Conklin is running for Coordinator of Education, primarily to stop the other nominee, Superintendent Stone, who has threatened to fire Conklin. Miss Brooks decides to be Conklin’s campaign manager despite her butting heads with him most of the time. If Conklin wins, Mr. Boynton might be promoted to principal. In the end, Boynton finally proposes, only to have a chimpanzee steal away the ring.

 

Our Miss Brooks comic. (1956)

The movie was a box-office failure. After the movie, Dell Comics released a comic book titled “Our Miss Brooks.” In past decades, it sold for hundreds of dollars in mint condition. Today it can be found on ebay for under $50.

A fun fact I learned was that Eve Arden was born Eunice Quedens. When she was encouraged to take a different stage name, she looked over her cosmetic jar labels. She picked “Eve” from “Evening in Paris” and “Arden” from “Elizabeth Arden.”

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While many of the plots for Our Miss Brooks are predictable and not overly creative, it was a innovative sitcom. The scripts were well written, and the humor still works today. I could not find any channels currently broadcasting Our Miss Brooks, but it does appear on Me TV from time to time. The radio shows can be heard on Sirius Radio, channel 148. Of course, there are a variety of DVDs featuring the show. Add it to your list to understand why Eve Arden was so popular with women in the 1950s.

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The Actor Who Always “Dressed” Up: Jamie Farr

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Jamie Farr was born Jameel Joseph Farah on July 1, 1934 in Toledo, Ohio. His mother was a seamstress and his father a grocer. They attended the St. George Antiochian Orthodox Church.

Farr’s first acting success occurred at age 11, when he won two dollars in a local acting contest.

He graduated from Woodward High School with honors and was named most outstanding student. In addition to writing and acting in two variety shows, he was a member of the Drama Society, class president for three years, feature editor of the school newspaper, president of the radio class, manager of the football and basketball teams and a member of the varsity tennis team.

Before becoming a successful actor, he worked for a lithograph company, a post office clerk, an army surplus store clerk, an airline reservations clerk, and at a chinchilla ranch.

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After graduation he attended the Pasadena Playhouse where a Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer talent scout discovered him, offering him a screen test for Blackboard Jungle. He won the role of the mentally challenged student, Santini. He was drafted by the United States Selective Service into the United States Army, undergoing his basic training with the 6th Infantry Division, Fort Ord, California, he served for two years, with service in Japan and Korea. The dog tags he wore on M*A*S*H were his own. (Alan Alda also served as a gunnery officer in Korea.)

In 1958, Warner Brothers cast him as the co-pilot of a TB-25 in the Andy Griffith military comedy No Time for Sergeants, which also brought the young TV comic Don Knotts to motion pictures. Farr appeared as Thaddaeus in the 1965 film The Greatest Story Ever Told, along with minor roles in Who’s Minding the Mint? and with future costar William Christopher in With Six You Get Eggroll. He would also appear in Cannonball Run and Cannonball Run II.

 

In the late 1960s, he became a regular on the Red Skelton Show. He appeared in a variety of shows in the 1960s including Hazel, My Three Sons, Donna Reed, The Dick Van Dyke ShowI Dream of Jeannie, My Favorite Martian, Get Smart, Gomer Pyle, The Flying Nun, and Family Affair. Farr received roles in several commercials as well, including an ad for Wonder Bread where he says, “If it isn’t fresh, I’m outta business.”

 

During this decade, he also married Joy Ann Richards. They are still married and have two children.

He continued his television acting career through the 1970s appearing on a variety of shows including Room 222, Love American Style, Toma, Emergency, Barnaby Jones, and The Love Boat.

 

Image: Loretta Swit And Alan Alda William Christopher In 'M*A*S*H'

In October of 1972, he was hired to appear on one episode of M*A*S*H as Corporal Klinger. He wore women’s clothing, hoping to be discharged from the Army for a Section 8 discharge. He was asked back for the second season to appear in 12 episodes and became a regular cast member in the fourth season. When Radar left the show, and Klinger took over as Company Clerk, he stopped being fashionable and returned to uniforms. He said he did not want his kids to be made fun of because of his cross dressing. He was a resourceful and kind soldier. His character on the show was also from Toledo, and he often mentioned one of Farr’s favorite restaurants, Tony Packo’s Hot Dogs and talked about his love for the Toledo Mud Hens. (In 2017, he was inducted into the Mud Hens Hall of Fame.  A bobble head was given to the first 2000 fans to the game that night.) He continued with M*A*S*H until 1983 when it left the air.

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Along with Harry Morgan and William Christopher, he appeared in After M*A*S*H for two years. The show never got the fan base the original show had and was cancelled after 30 episodes.

 

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The cast of both M*A*S*H and After M*A*S*H were very close. On the death of Harry Morgan, Farr commented, “Harry was very special to all of us cast members. Not only was he a wonderful performer that made such a difference … he was a dear friend to every cast member. He was absolutely a pixie, a gremlin as mischievous as all get out. You couldn’t be around Harry for very long without wanting to embrace him and I think our Lord will feel the same way.”

 

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He also commented on William Christopher’s passing: “We are all devastated by our beloved Bill’s passing. I have known him for over 50 years. During the 1960s we lived in the same neighborhood in Studio City. My Joy and I would see him and his wife Barbara going for walks as we were going for walks. Bill and I did the very last Doris Day movie together, With Six You Get Egg Roll. We were both cast in the tv series M*A*S*H at almost the same time. He was a gentle soul and, in my opinion, probably the most under rated actor of all of us on the show. He was wonderful. During between set ups for camera angles Bill would read his Homeric book in Homeric Greek. He was a real egg head. He and his Barbara traveled the world and he would try to learn the language of the countries they were going to visit. He went to Egypt one year and tried his Arabic on me. He was better than I was. We used to imitate Bill on the set using his high-pitched voice. One time he came down with hepatitis, and when he returned to the series we had his actor’s chair painted yellow. Bill and I did a National Tour of the play “The Odd Couple” with Bill portraying Felix and me doing Oscar, Bill was at one time on the Board of the Devereaux Foundation for Autistic Children. It was a real honor to have had him and Barbara as friends and a great honor to have shared the tv screen with this gracious, talented and charming soul. May his memory be eternal. Rest in Peace Father Mulcahy.”

 

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Like many celebrities who were typecast in a specific role, Farr realized there were advantages and disadvantages to his fame. He said that “the benefits from stardom as Klinger outweigh any setbacks. It’s a double-edged sword. What makes you famous is what interferes with getting other roles. But there are things that never would have happened without M*A*S*H. There certainly would be no Jamie Farr Kroger Golf Classic.”

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Farr has always been generous with his hometown. The golf classic he discussed above is now the Jamie Farr Owens Corning Classic. The tournament has raised more than $6 million dollars for local children’s charities.

The city has shown its love for Farr as well. The park in Toledo where Farr used to hang out when he was younger was renamed “Jamie Farr Park” in his honor on July 5, 1998. About the park, he said, “I wanted to be an actor, a famous actor, and I wanted my hometown of Toledo, Ohio, to be proud of me.” Farr spoke to about four hundred admirers and was quoted in the New York Post: “Jamie Farr Park is certainly a highlight of my life and career.”

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Farr also made a gift of his scripts to the University of Toledo. The scripts were from movies and television, including M*A*S*H, After M*A*S*H, The Blackboard Jungle, With Six You Get Eggroll, No Time for Sergeants, Who’s Minding the Mint, among others. He also donated call sheets with each script. Call sheets list the personnel and equipment needed for each day of productions, the scenes being filmed, shooting schedules, and the scenes to be filmed.

Farr has also appeared in plays during the second half of his career. In the 1990s, Farr  played the role of Nathan Detroit in a Broadway revival of “Guys and Dolls.” Farr is still active in regional theater and guest-stars occasionally on television.

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In 1996–97 Farr went on a national tour with “The Odd Couple,” playing Oscar Madison, playing opposite his old friend William Christopher in the role of Felix Ungar.

Most recently he was in the national touring production of “Say Goodnight, Gracie,” a one-man show about longtime entertainer George Burns.

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Farr has also tackled being an author. In 1994, he published his autobiography, Just Farr Fun. With his wife, he also wrote a children’s book, Hababy’s Christmas Eve, a Christmas book where the story is told from the view point of the animals.

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Jamie Farr has had a successful and fun career. He has been a movie star, a television celebrity, an author, and a Broadway performer. He was not bitter about his role as Klinger but accepted the benefits that came with it and made the most of it. He has also been generous, raising money and publicizing Toledo. He truly sounds like a very nice man. It was fun to learn more about his life.

What’s Going On? Nothing. Then It Must Be Seinfeld.

August 13 is International Left Handers Day. Looking at classic television shows, there are plenty of famous left handers to celebrate including Pierce Brosnan from Remington Steel, Lisa Kudrow from Friends, Sarah Jessica Parker from Square Pegs, Goldie Hawn from Laugh In, Bruce Willis from Moonlighting, Mary Kate Olsen from Full House, Drew Carey from The Drew Carey Show and Whose Line Is It Anyway?, Tim Allen from Home Improvement and Last Man Standing, and Ed O’Neill from Married . . . with Children and Modern Family.

Any of these actors would be worth writing a blog on, but today we are going to concentrate on a show that featured two left handers: Jerry Seinfeld and Jason Alexander. Seinfeld celebrated the continuing misadventures of neurotic New York City stand-up comedian Jerry Seinfeld and his equally neurotic New York City friends.

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This show, always defined as being about nothing, was on for nine years, producing 173 episodes. The show featured one of the most unique concepts for a sitcom.  Like Burns and Allen, Jerry Seinfeld stars as himself, a comedian. He and three of his closest friends live in New York City and we get to listen in to their conversations, adventures, and boring daily chores. Each of the main characters has his or her own quirky traits.

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Debuting in 1989, the show was created by Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David. The characters were based on people they knew. Jerry’s best friend was George Costanza (Jason Alexander). His ex-girlfriend and now close friend Elaine Benes (Julia Louis Dreyfus) was often stopping by his apartment to discuss life. Cosmo Kramer (Michael Richards), known as “Kramer,” lived across the hall from Jerry.

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Jerry is usually the calm in the storm in the group, handing out advice and being the voice of reason. He is a germaphobe and a neat freak. He always has a box or two of cereal on top of his refrigerator and we often see him eating it. He also loves the Mets. Jerry was an Abbot and Costello fan in real life and if you watch the show closely, you will see many references to the show and the actors.

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George has been Jerry’s friend since high school. He has a lot of poor traits including being cheap, a liar, and often petty. He often uses an alias, Art Vandelay, as part of his elaborate lies. However, he is loyal to Jerry.  Other actors considered for the role were Danny DeVito, Nathan Lane, David Alan Grier, Kevin Dunn, and Brad Hall.

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Elaine is trying to find Mr. Right but has to date a lot of Mr. Wrongs to get there. She is sometimes to honest for her own good. She has several jobs during the course of the series. Dreyfus beat out Rosie O’Donnell, Patricia Heaton, Mariska Hargitay, Jessica Lundy, Amy Yasbeck, and Megan Mullally for the role.

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Kramer is his wacky neighbor. He wears vintage clothes and is a bit naïve, but intelligent and caring.  As Kramer (Michael Richards) became more popular, his entrance applause grew so prolonged, that the cast complained it was ruining the pacing of their scenes. Directors subsequently asked the audience not to applaud so much when Kramer entered.

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Another recurring character on the show is Newman played by Wayne Knight. Newman lives in the same apartment building as Jerry. He’s a mailman. He bonds with Kramer but doesn’t like Jerry at all.

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Many episodes are based on real life experiences of Seinfeld and David.  Characters and plots from past shows are often referenced or expanded on. Like real life friends who have inside jokes, several themes reappear. Plots are often everyday activities. In one show, Jerry, George, and Elaine spend the episode waiting for a table at a Chinese restaurant.

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Like Friends, it truly was an ensemble cast. While the audience loved Kramer, each of the characters was equally important. In a May 14, 2018 Variety story, authored by Scott Huver, who was reflecting on the popularity of the show, Jason was discussing the last episode. His quote sums up how crucial they all were: “And he (Jerry) said this really beautiful thing. He said, ‘For the rest of our lives when anybody thinks of one of us, they will think of the four of us, and I can’t think of any people that I would rather have that be true of.’ And as we all began to weep over the fact that Jerry had said that, that’s when they started calling our names and we had to go out and pretend that everything’s just hunky dory.”

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Unlike many other shows, Seinfeld was slow to gain a fan following. In season four, they finally it the top 30.  However, the show ranked number one for its entire final year.

Jerry Seinfeld received five Emmy Award nominations for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Comedy Series, but never won. The show was nominated for Outstanding Comedy Series from 1992-1998 but only won the Emmy in 1993.

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Jerry Seinfeld turned down an offer from NBC that would have made him one hundred ten million dollars for a tenth season of the show.  There was talk this past year about a Seinfeld revival. After watching Will and Grace’s revival, I’m not sure that’s a good idea. Rarely do revivals live up to their predecessor’s quality.

The finale was viewed by 76 million people. Many fans found the show offensive. The entire group of friends are taken to jail for violating the Good Samaritan law in Massachusetts. They watch an overweight man being robbed and instead of getting help, they mock him.

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None of the friends did the right thing, but perhaps Seinfeld and Alexander can be excused since they were left-handed. Finales are tough especially for a much-beloved show and this one did not do the show justice. In my opinion, it deserved a more creative going away party.

We All Love Gracie: The Burns and Allen Show

I am excited that today is my 100th blog, and I have saved a very special show for the occasion. Today you learn everything you ever wanted to know about the George Burns and Gracie Allen Show, one of my all-time favorites.

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The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show, which premiered on 12 October 1950, was one of the first comedy series to make the successful transition from radio to television. When George and Gracie started in show business, Gracie was the “straight man,” but George figured out quickly that the audience responded to her immediately. They switched roles and they never veered from the formula again. The Burns and Allen Show was the first domestic comedy set in a real couple’s home and the first television series to depict the home life of a working show business couple.

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CBS was lucky enough to have Burns and Allen on their radio and television networks. In 1930, an NBC executive told them the public would not accept them and Gracie’s voice was too squeaky! William Paley was a huge fan of their comedy and wanted them to try this new medium. The television show was very similar to their radio show. One of the first tag lines for the show was “You’ve HEARD them on radio, now SEE them on television.”

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Ralph Levy was the first producer/director. Previously he had worked on variety shows and sports events. When he and George first met, it was not a great first impression. He thought it was the craziest concept he had ever heard for a show. George considered him a bit of a young punk. They put aside their differences and not only became close friends but greatly respected each other’s business decisions. Ralph would leave in 1953 to work for Jack Benny. When Jack did not have weekly shows, Ralph was working for both comedians, but the jobs became too much for one person.

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Ralph Levy with George and Gracie

The show was broadcast on Thursdays from October of 1950 until March of 1953. From March of 1953 until September of 1958 when it went off the air, it was on Monday nights. Originally, it was staged live and broadcast every other week. In the fall of 1952, they decided on a weekly format. Shows debuting in New York were considered better commercial successes, so the first six episodes were set in the Mansfield Theatre in New York. The West Coast would not see the show until two weeks after the East Coast did. A kinescope was filmed with a 16 mm camera. Duplicates were made, and these shows were sent on kinescopes across the country. In December of 1950, the cast was allowed to go back home to California to film the rest of the series.

In 1951, George would broadcast all over the US with the placement of coaxial cables. George realized filming the episodes would allow for syndication of the show. The show continued for eight years, producing 239 filmed episodes.

Burns and Allen started McCadden Productions. It was named for the street where George’s brother Willy, one of the writers of the show, lived on. Willy was also their manager. They employed more than 300 people and would go on to produce many shows including Mister Ed and the Bob Cummings Show. George truly valued everyone’s opinion and anyone, even the janitor, could make comments and suggestions for improvements.

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It was a grueling schedule to stick to for eight years. George and the writers met Monday morning. Gracie had wardrobe fittings and studied the newest script. They had rehearsals on Tuesdays, and Wednesdays were typically 12-hour days with filming beginning after another rehearsal. Thursday was Gracie’s only day off. The writers met Thursday as well as all day Friday. On Friday Gracie went shopping for her next show’s wardrobe. George devoted Saturday to narrowing down the script to fit the shooting time. On Sunday George and Gracie met with the director at 10 am to go over the script. Sunday afternoon and evening (as well as other scattered times during the week) Gracie studied and memorized the script.

Carnation Milk became a sponsor immediately and would stay with the show for all eight years. Carnation was like another character on the series. Actors were pitchmen for the products and commercial breaks were often part of the show. Gracie had their milk in full view in her kitchen. Their prop man who helped with this for all eight years was Nat Thurman.

George took his writers off to Palm Springs to work on the new show. The head writer was Paul Henning who would later go on to write, produce, and direct many classic sitcoms including The Beverly Hillbillies, Green Acres, and Petticoat Junction. The other writers were Sid Dorfman, Harvey Helm, Willy Burns and George. The writers were truly funny.  One day Jack Benny sent George a telegram from London.  It just read “What’s new?” George and his writers took an entire afternoon to answer it. They told Jack everything that was new including restaurant menus.

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Paul Henning

The show would often begin with George doing a monologue with his trusty cigar that would explain the beginning of the plot to the viewers. George frequently spoke to the audience during the show. In later years, he would retire to his study to watch the show on his television, therefore knowing what was going on in his absence. The rest of the cast was oblivious to the fact he could do so.

The first show had a very simple plot which was the key to many of their episodes. Gracie and Blanche want to go to the movies. The boys want to go to the fights. George makes up a complicated card game that doesn’t really make sense. He thought the nonsense rules would confuse the girls who would get mad and quit. Instead, Gracie thought the rules made perfect sense and she won the game, dragging the boys to the movies.

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The Burns lived at 312 Maple Drive in Beverly Hills and their best friends and next-door neighbors, Blanche and Harry Morton, lived at 320 Maple Dr. The sets were copied from the Burns’ actual home. A shot of their real home was used on the show for exterior scenes. George continued to live in the house even when they became quite wealthy and George was still living there when he passed away at age 100.The house still exists today. They were not arrogant people. Gracie continued to wear the same $20 engagement ring George bought for her when they had no money.

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The edge of the Burns’ swimming pool which was sometimes seen in the live episodes was an eighteen-inch tank of water which was designed to be quickly rolled on and off the stage. Lighting tricks were employed to create the illusion that the shallow tank had depth. George used the pool in his asides to the audience. One time he was supposed to have fallen in, and he showed up dry and made a comment about how quick things happen on television. Later he has to go into the pool again. He once again is seen completely dry, but this time he says nothing and he wrings a bunch of water out of his cigar.

Starting in the fall of 1955, Burns and Allen would often reappear after the end of the episode, before a curtain decorated with the names and locations of the various theaters where they headlined in their vaudeville days. They would perform one of their routines, often discussing Gracie’s relatives.

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The theme music was “Love Nest,” composed by Otto Harbach and Louis Hirsch. It was written for a musical comedy show, “Mary.” There are lyrics, but only the instrumental version was used on the Burns and Allen Show.

Bill Goodwin and Harry Von Zell

Several staff members transitioned from radio with George and Gracie. Bill Goodwin continued to play himself, providing announcing duties. When he left in the second season to host his own show, Harry Von Zell took over the announcing duties. In real-life, Harry Von Zell had written several episodes of Wagon Train in 1957. The writers incorporated it into the show by having Harry pitch George ideas for western-themed shows. That year, George dressed like a cowboy from time to time and would say things like, “Meanwhile, back at the ranch.”

Bea Benaderet and Larry Keating

Bea Benaderet also moved from radio to television. She was Blanche Morton for the run of the show, but she went through several husbands (Hal March, John Brown, Fred Clark, and Larry Keating). George was extremely creative in his interaction with the audience. Hal March did the first seven shows; John Brown took over the for the next ten months; and Fred Clark was Harry through 1953 for 74 episodes. In a program “Morton Buys Iron Deer/Gracie Thinks George Needs Glasses,” Blanche is holding a catalog ready to hit Harry who spent $200 on an iron deer. George walks on stage and stops the action. He introduces Larry Keating and tells Bea that he is her new husband. They have a small chat about each other’s work. George stops them and says if they are that nice to each other, no one will believe they are married. He gives a cue, Blanche resumes her position, and hits Harry when he re-enters the scene.

Fred Clark, Hal March and John Brown

Bea and Gracie were close friends. Blanche truly loved Gracie and was extremely loyal to her. They laughed continuously. Bea also loved Gracie in their personal lives.

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George and Gracie’s daughter Sandra and son Ronnie also appeared in the show. In later years, Ronnie would become a regular. Ronnie became very popular; he and Gracie often covered for each other with George, and Ronnie was often busy trying to get her out of a bad situation. When he joined in 1955, the show moved back to New York. Harry Morton gets a temporary job there, so the Burns family went too. This change called for new sets, including the hotel where they all were living and Rumpelmayer’s sandwich and ice cream shop.

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Ronnie Burns

In the seventh year, the cast went back to Los Angeles. Fred de Cordova, who had taken over for Ralph Levy, left after three years to direct movies. Rod Amateau was brought on for the final two years.  In many ways, the seventh season was their most creative—this is when the “magic” TV screen appeared.

While the ensemble around them was incredible, the heart of the show was Gracie. Gracie always said that her character believed she was the smart one and everyone else was a little off. There was always a touch of reality in her logic. Gracie played her that way and the audience felt protective of her.

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Gracie was a bit of a perfectionist, but no one worked harder than her. If she had to perform a task on the show, she did it. In a New York Times article, she commented, “It makes me furious to see an actor go through the motion of writing an address on a piece of paper. They scribble it off in a second and you know they couldn’t have written anything.” Whenever Allen performed a task on the show, whether it was writing a name, sewing a handkerchief, or chopping up vegetables, she meticulously performed the duty while reciting her dialogue.

Everyone around her said she never blew her lines and was in almost every scene. George described her work ethic in his book I Love Her That’s Why: “On the set she gives absolutely no trouble and makes no demands. She arrives on time, does the job, jokes with the crew, and in general behaves less like a star than any actress I know.”

During the eight years that the show was on the air, Gracie Allen never appeared in the same outfit twice, and she had three costume changes in some episodes. Gracie Allen chose her own wardrobe. Jane Vogt was the wardrobe mistress for the rest of the cast. Bertha French was the show’s hair stylist and Gene Roemer did make-up. Gracie trusted Gene so much she typically slept while he got her ready.

The writers knew there were a few rules for writing for Gracie. Cheryl Blythe and Susan Sackett sum them up in their book Say Goodnight Gracie!: “(1) She thinks she is smart. (2) Keep her reactions consistent from week to week. (3) Her logic was illogical and her illogic was logical and then her reasoning worked.” Examples of her logic are: “Shorter cars use so much more gas. With a short car, you have to travel further to go the same distance.”  When the delivery boy tells Gracie he’s in a hurry because Mrs. Vanderlip is waiting for a chicken to make sandwiches, Gracie tells him she’ll wait a long time because it took her 2 years to teach their canary to sing.  Gracie keeps her clocks unplugged to save electricity. When she wants to know the time, she plugs it in.  Or take the time she froze a bunch of water; it will save her time when she needs it because she just has to defrost it.

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George gave Gracie most of the credit. Once he commented “You see, to be a straight man you have to have a talent, you have to develop this talent, then you gotta marry her like I did.” The audience liked George because they intuitively realized he adored Gracie.

George was the calm in the middle of the storm around him. Because he always knew what was going on, he remained relaxed when everyone else was confused. And the audience loved the fact that he shared information with them, so they were in on the fun.

Allen announced her retirement on February 17, 1958—effective at the end of the current season. Burns and Allen filmed their last show June 4, 1958.  The plot of the final program was Ronnie fearing he was going to lose his girlfriend to an exchange student. The filming was an emotional experience, although nothing was said about it being Allen’s last performance in the show itself. At the wrap party, Allen took a token sip of champagne from a paper cup, hugged her friend and co-star Bea, and said “Okay, that’s it.” After a brief last look around the set, she said, “And thank you very much, everyone.”

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“She deserved a rest,” Burns said. He explained that she had been working all her life and her lines were the hardest to learn. She had to memorize every word because some lines didn’t make sense.

Although Burns and Allen was never among the top-rated series, it maintained consistently high ratings throughout its eight seasons. The show received a total of twelve Emmy nominations: four for best comedy series, six for Allen as best actress and comedienne, and two for Bea Benaderet as best supporting actress.

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Inspired writing complemented the comic performances, making Burns and Allen an all-time classic. The show holds up remarkably well. The writers purposely kept topical and political humor out of the scripts. They also made sure there were no specific references to the 1950s, so the show did not sound dated in reruns. Their words can say it much better than I ever could, so here are some examples of their creative scripts.

 

Ralph Hanley: I’m here to help you with your income taxes.

Gracie: Oh, we’re glad, we got tired of paying them all ourselves.

 

Ralph: For medical you put down a full-length mirror, $50.

Gracie: That’s right, I got it for my father, so he won’t get pneumonia.

Ralph: How’s that?

Gracie: Well, you see, before he only had a half-length mirror, so when he went outside he forgot his pants.

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George: Would you ever think that such a beautiful mink coat would come from such an unattractive little thing that looks like a weasel?

Gracie: Oh, George, you’re just fishing—you know I think you’re handsome.

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Blanche: I just got a phone call from Lucille Vanderlip and she told me Margie Bates got a beautiful diamond bracelet from her husband.

Gracie: I can’t believe it.

Blanche: Why not?

Gracie: If Lucille’s husband gave another woman a diamond bracelet, you’d think she’d be the last one to mention it.

Blanche: Er . . . Gracie . . . you misunderstood me.

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Gracie: The night before last, George came home from the office feeling terrible.

Blanche: Probably flu.

Gracie: No, he drove the car.

 

My top ten favorite shows are:

#13, March 15, 1951: The Vanderlips are having a party. Gracie was hoping they would invite the Mortons but there is no room, so she and George decide not to go so they can spend time with Blanche and Harry. Once Burns and Allen decline, the Vanderlips call the Mortons because they now have room, so the Mortons happily attend.

#17, February 12,1953: On the train home from San Francisco, Gracie thinks one of the passengers is planning on murdering his wife. She reports it and confuses the cops who believe Harry Morton has killed Blanche who is missing. Blanche actually is off on a shopping trip.

#38, August 3, 1953: Gracie is a witness to a bank heist. Johnny Velvet, the gangster behind the crime (played by one of my favorites, Sheldon Leonard), kidnaps Gracie so she cannot testify in court. After a couple hours, he takes her back because she is driving him crazy. He decides to kidnap George instead, but his men keep nabbing the wrong guy.

#40, August 17, 1953: Gracie is shopping in a department store when she trips. The store wants to settle quickly before it turns into a big lawsuit. Gracie thinks they are trying to sue her for putting a hole in the carpet. The adjustor meets her and assumes the store is in bigger trouble because she now has a head injury.

#79, April 5, 1954: Gracie, known for denting the car, explains the new ding when she tells him an elephant sat on the car. No one believes her. When the circus owner comes to the house to bring her a check for damages, George thinks it’s a prank to convince him, so he tears up the check. George finally realizes an elephant did indeed sit on the car.

#90, August 2, 1954: George and Gracie decide they want to see a movie with some friends. They are having a tough time coming up with a movie that someone in the group has not already seen. They finally find one everyone can agree on, but then someone else stops by to go with the group and they have seen it.

#118, January 3, 1955: Gracie is talking with a woman in the post office. She wants to retrieve a letter she mailed asking her husband for a divorce. She wrote it when he refused to let her mother come visit. Harry Von Zell overhears part of the discussion and assumes Gracie is divorcing George because he won’t let her mother come. He finally convinces George to invite Gracie’s mother. When George learns the actual story, he fires Harry again.

#192, June 4, 1956: George has given his coat to Harry Von Zell to use because he’s taking a date to the Stork Club. George gets locked into the steam room at the club and can’t get out till morning. He tells Gracie why he didn’t come home, but someone returns his coat from the Stork Club, so she thinks he is lying. He has to bring over everyone who had been involved in getting him out of the steam room to convince her he is telling the truth.

#213, October 29, 1956: Gracie misunderstands a conversation, thinking that the Mortons are moving to Pasadena. Gracie decides she and George will move too and tries to sell their house. As a subplot, Ronnie’s fraternity initiation requires him to say the exact opposite of what people expect to hear for a day. Having Gracie and Ronnie there all day truly confuses George.

#219, Ronnie is dating a girl he met at the store where he works. He leaves his coat at her house and her mother drops it off for him. Gracie assumes the mother is Ronnie’s girlfriend. She decides to get Ronnie fired from his job so he is no longer working with the older woman. She also mentions his seeing an older woman to his real girlfriend, not knowing who she is. Luckily, George sees this on his study television, so he is able to straighten out the mess.

If you have never seen the show, you might want to check out some of these on YouTube. There are also numerous DVD collections from their show specifically to sets of golden age classics variety packs. You can also catch their show on Antenna TV from 5-6 am every weekday, 4-5 am Saturday and Sunday mornings, as well as 9 pm Saturday night and 11 pm Sunday night.

It’s The Professor and a Whole Lot of Other People: Russell Johnson and Guest Stars

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Russell Johnson was born in Pennsylvania in 1924. He had six siblings. His father died from pneumonia when Russ was only 8, and his youngest brother died the following year. He was sent to Girard College, a boarding school for fatherless boys located in Philadelphia. He struggled early in his education, being held back for a year. In high school he made the National Honor Society.

In 1943, he married Edith Cahoon. They would divorce in 1948.

During World War II, Johnson joined the Army Air Corps and received the Purple Heart after his plane was shot down in the Philippines in 1945. Johnson flew 44 combat missions in the Pacific Theater. Once the war was over, Russ used his GI Bill to enroll in the Actors’ Lab in Hollywood to study acting. While there he met Kay Cousins, and they married in 1949 and were married until her death in 1980.

 

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Johnson’s big-screen career began in 1952. He was a friend of Audie Murphy and would appear in three of his films in the early 1950s. He was in a variety of movies throughout the 1950s, mainly westerns and sci fi classics such as It Came from Outer Space.

 

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Russell began receiving roles on television in 1950. In the 1950s he would be seen on 28 different shows. In 1959 he was offered a role in a western, Black Saddle. Johnson was Marshal Gib Scott. The show was on for one season.

 

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During the 1960s, Russell’s television work increased, and he appeared on 39 series including The Twilight Zone, Route 66, Ben Casey, Laramie, 77 Sunset Strip, Outer Limits, and Big Valley. In 1964 he was offered the role of The Professor on Gilligan’s Island, replacing John Gabriel who was a teacher in the pilot. Roy Hinkley was a genius who made complex inventions from the simple materials he found on the island. As we have learned, most of the cast of Gilligan’s Island was typecast after the show was cancelled, and they had a hard time getting other roles. Johnson discussed this circumstance in a later interview: “It used to make me upset to be typecast as the Professor . . . but as the years have gone by, I’ve given in. I am the Professor, and that’s the way it is. . . Besides, the show went into syndication and parents are happy to have their children watch the reruns. No one gets hurt. There are no murders, no car crashes. Just good, plain, silly fun. It’s brought a lot of joy to people, and that’s not a bad legacy.”

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Although he had trouble at first, he did go on to appear in 45 different shows from 1970-1997, including That Girl, Marcus Welby, Cannon, McMillan and Wife, Lou Grant, Bosom Buddies, Dallas, Fame, Newhart, ALF, and Roseanne. He had a recurring role on Owen Marshall, Counselor at Law from 1971-1973.

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In 1982, Russell married for a third time. He married Connie Dane, and they were married until his death from kidney failure in 2014.

In 1993, he published his memoirs, Here on Gilligan’s Isle.

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Like so many of the tv icons in the 1960s—Barbara Eden, Adam West, Butch Patrick, David Cassidy, Maureen McCormick—Russell struggled with his alter ego, eventually accepting his role as the Professor. While being tied to one character for 50 years makes it tough to get the roles you want, it’s hard to be critical of a personality that gives such pleasure to decades of viewers and makes you a household name for half a century. Being given the chance to portray a character that America loves is a hazard of the business but is certainly better than never receiving a starring role.

You Never Know Who Might Show Up

With a show like Gilligan’s Island, you would assume it would be almost impossible to have guest stars. After all, they are on a deserted island. Except for the native people who might be living there, where would stars come from? Amazingly, Gilligan’s Island featured many guest stars over the years. Let’s look at a few of them.

Vito Scotti appeared on four different episodes playing Dr. Boris Balinkoff, mad scientist, twice, a Japanese sailor, and a Japanese soldier who does not believe World War II is over.

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Mel Blanc could be heard portraying a parrot several times and a frog.

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Hans Conried visited the island twice as Wrongway Feldman, an incompetent pilot who had crashed on the island years before.

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Kurt Russell was a modern-day Tarzan.

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Richard Kiel, a Russian agent, pretended to be a ghost to scare the castaways off the island so he could have the oil rights. When the cast turns the tables and acts like ghosts, he didn’t stick around long.

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Zsa Zsa Gabor was a rich socialite who falls in love with the Professor.

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Larry Storch is a robber hiding out on the island and pretending to be a doctor.

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John McGiver was Lord Beasley Waterford, famous butterfly collector.

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Don Rickles is con man Norbert Wiley who is hiding out on the island.  He kidnaps Mrs. Howell and later Ginger, planning on getting ransom for each castaway.  After the Professor puts him in jail, Ginger convinces them to let him out for a party.  Norbert steals jewelry and other items from the castaways and leaves the island.

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Phil Silvers crashes onto the island as Herbert Hecuba, arrogant movie producer. He orders everyone around like they’re his servants.  He is not impressed with Ginger’s acting ability, so the castaways write and perform a play to show off her talents. In the middle of the night, Hecuba takes off with their play, claiming it as his own back in the US.

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Sterling Holloway is an escapee from a prison and the owner of a pigeon. The Professor thinks he can get a message back to the States through the pigeon, but when Birdy finds out he is paroled, he sends the bird off first.

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A variety of actors played natives on the show. In all, there were 54 guest stars given credit on the show.

In addition, Bob Denver, Tina Louise, and Jim Backus all had guest starring roles playing people who were look-alikes for Gilligan, Ginger, and Mr. Howell.

I guess it’s a good lesson to always keep up appearances because you never know who might show up when you’re stranded on an island.

The Skipper and His Little Buddy: Alan Hale Jr. and Bob Denver

We continue our month-long exploration of the actors who appeared on Gilligan’s Island. Today we look at the two biggest stars: Alan Hale Jr. and Bob Denver.

Alan Hale Jr.

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Alan Hale Jr. (Alan Hale Mackahan, Jr.) was born in 1921 in Los Angeles, California.  He looked exactly like his father, Alan Hale Sr. who was a well-known movie actor acting with legends like Douglas Fairbanks and Errol Flynn. His mother, Gretchen Hartman, was also a silent film star.

Hale’s first screen role was when he was 12 in Wild Boys of the Road.

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He appeared in more movies and television series than any of the other Gilligan’s Island cast.  In all he would appear in 92 movies and 123 different tv shows.

In 1943 he married Bettina Reed Doerr. They would be married for twenty years and have four children. During World War II, Hale served in the US Coast Guard.

In the 1950s, he could be seen in many westerns as well as The Loretta Young Show and The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet. He had regular roles on two sitcoms in that decade: Biff Baker USA and Casey Jones. Biff Baker is a businessman who becomes involved in espionage.  He and his wife travel around the world, working behind the scenes to solve problems. Although it was a serious show, there was some humor in the episodes also. As Casey Jones, Hale drove his train, The Cannonball Express, around the country.

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The early 1960s was a prolific time for Alan Hale. The majority of his television credits came during this decade. You can see him in reruns of Jack Benny, The Lucy Show, Perry Mason, My Favorite Martian, and The Andy Griffith Show.

The year 1964 was a momentous one for Alan. He married Naomi and remained with her till his death. He also tackled the role he would become famous for.

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Sherwood Schwartz said he was having trouble finding the right person to play Jonas Grumby. He auditioned a lot of people, including Carroll O’Connor. One night while having dinner at a local restaurant he saw Hale dressed in a Civil War costume and decided he might be the one. Although the Skipper often became frustrated with Gilligan, they had a father and son relationship. Hale and Denver managed to pull that off. They were close friends in their personal lives as well.

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Unlike some of the cast who felt typecast after they left the show, Hale embraced the role he had played. He would later own and manage a popular restaurant in Los Angeles called “Alan Hale’s Lobster Barrel” and could be seen greeting guests as the Skipper. Both he and Jim Backus appeared on Bob Denver’s sitcom Good Guys in 1968.

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After Gilligan, Hale’s career did not slow down. Until his death he would continue to appear in a variety of series including Batman, Green Acres, The Flying Nun, The Wild, Wild West, Here’s Lucy, Marcus Welby, The Doris Day Show, Gunsmoke, McMillan and Wife, Simon and Simon, Growing Pains, The Love Boat, and Magnum PI.

In addition to acting and his restaurant business, Alan enjoyed fishing, golfing, cooking, traveling, storytelling, spending time with his family, and philanthropy. In 1990, Hale died after suffering from thymus cancer at the young age of 68.

Alan Hale had a long and prosperous career.  From all accounts, he liked acting and enjoyed life. Perhaps we should leave the last word to his costars who knew him best.

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Bob Denver said, “He was a big, lovable man who made everyone feel good. He had a great time with his life.”

Dawn Wells described him: “What a dear man . . . what a dear, dear man . . I never saw him disgruntled, having a temper tantrum or depressed. He was so jovial and so sweet and so strong. . . He was a nice man.”

 

Bob Denver

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Bob Denver was born in New York in 1935. He went to college at Loyola University in Los Angeles, majoring in political science. He worked as a mailman and a teacher before deciding to go into acting full time.  His first appearance was on Silent Service in 1957.

While Alan Hale was in more shows and movies than any of the other crew members, Bob Denver was easily in the fewest.  While he appeared in seven movies, he was only in 21 television shows, and on six of them he had regular roles.

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His sister suggested him for the part of Maynard G. Krebs on The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis. His role as Dobie Gillis’s best friend propelled him into stardom. Dobie Gillis was on the air for four years, producing 144 shows.

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In the 1960s he would appear on Dr. Kildare, The Farmer’s Daughter, The Andy Griffith Show, Make Room for Daddy, and I Dream of Jeannie. In the mid-1960s, Bob was offered the role of Gilligan on a new show, Gilligan’s Island.  In 1966 he married Maggie Ryan. They would have two children during the six years before they divorced.

Schwartz wanted to cast Jerry Van Dyke in the role who turned it down to play Dave Crabtree in My Mother the Car. Denver was perfect in the role of the inept Gilligan who caused many mishaps on the island but was the center of affection of the rest of the castaways, especially the Skipper.

The same year Gilligan was cancelled, Denver remarried. Like many sitcoms, the relationship with Jean Webber lasted three years before the couple cancelled it.

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Although Denver was given a lead role in three more sitcoms, most of his work after 1967 cashed in on his character of Gilligan. In 1968, he starred in Good Guys. He played the role of Rufus Butterworth who opens a diner with his best friend from childhood.  The show only lasted for 42 episodes. Like Gilligan’s Island, Sherwood Schwartz produced this show. In an interview in 1994 with Peter Anthony Holder on Montreal radio station CJAD 800 AM, Denver discussed Schwartz. “Oh yeah, sure. Sherwood, as a producer, he was one of the best writer producers. It’s amazing. That man was just amazing. We never knew there were any problems when we were shooting. He kept all the network craziness away from us. He was writing scripts literally four months in advance, so that special effects and props always got them in plenty of time. . . you just memorized your words and went down there and had a great time. It wasn’t until afterwards when I left that I realized that not everybody was in the same situation. So every time I had a chance to work with him I did.”

At this time, Bob was also involved with Broadway and dinner theater plays after 1970.

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In 1972 Denver tried marriage a third time. He and Carole Abrahams made it three years and produced one child before divorcing. In 1973, he took the lead on Dusty’s Trail. As Dusty, he manages to get a wagon and stage separated from the rest of the wagon train heading west, and the lost group of travelers try to catch up with the rest of their party.  This one only lasted 26 shows.

In 1975, Denver appeared in his weirdest sitcom yet, Far Out Space Nuts. Lasting only 12 episodes, Denver played a maintenance man in a space company who is accidentally launched into space with a co-worker. Apparently, television producers decided Denver looked like someone who was always lost.

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In 1979, Bob tried the marriage ride one more time. This time he would stay married to Dreama Perry until his death.  The couple would have a child, making a total of four children for him.

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Like many of the other castaways, Denver published a book of memoirs.  It was called Gilligan, Maynard, & Me.

In 2005, Denver passed away from complications following throat cancer surgery, leaving Dawn Wells and Tina Louise as the only surviving actors from the show.

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While Denver is obviously the most-recognized character from Gilligan’s Island, he also had the most difficult situation to work with in being typecast. He was never able to shake the traits that were part of Gilligan to explore other roles.  He mentioned he would have liked to be in Northern Exposure. I wonder if he would have been happier being a teacher or if he enjoyed his career.

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Next week we will discover more about our last regular member of the show, Russell Johnson.

Mary Ann vs Ginger: Dawn Wells and Tina Louise

While all the girls loved David Cassidy growing up in the 1960s and 1970s, guys had a harder choice.  They were always asked to choose between Jeannie and Samantha and Mary Ann vs. Ginger. Ginger and Mary Ann didn’t seem to have much in common.  Unfortunately, that was also true of Dawn Wells and Tina Louise. Let’s look at their careers and their time as cast members on Gilligan’s Island.

Dawn Wells

Dawn Wells was born in October of 1938 in Reno, Nevada. Her father was a real estate developer and she seemed to have a happy childhood, gardening and horseback riding. Her parents divorced when she was young, but they shared custody. She was bright, an honor roll student. She was also on the debate team and her class treasurer. She won Miss Nevada. Originally, she wanted to be a doctor or a dancer, but bad knees reduced her choices and then she took drama at Stephens College. She was bit by the acting bug and transferred to the University of Washington, earning her degree in theatre.

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After school, Dawn moved to Hollywood and began working in both theater and movies. Her first film was Palm Springs Weekend in 1963. In the early 1960s, she appeared in about 20 shows, many of them westerns.

In 1964 she was offered the role of Mary Ann Summers on Gilligan’s Island. She enjoyed her time with the show. In a September 27, 2014 LA Times article by Susan King, she said, “Bob Denver, who played the bumblingly sweet Gilligan, was a comic genius. Alan Hale Jr., who embodied the teddy bearish Skipper, was a wonderful man. I never saw him angry.” She also adored Jim Backus and Natalie Schafer. Russell Johnson wrote the foreword for one of her books. The only member of the cast she hasn’t had contact with was Tina Louise.

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In the original Gilligan’s Island theme song, Mary Ann and the Professor were not mentioned. They were referred to as “the rest” and then later the lyrics became “the Professor and Mary Ann.” Wells has mentioned in several articles that Bob Denver was the one that got the change made.

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Wells embraces her character and people respond in a positive way. People who grew up watching the show see her as friendly and unassuming. Like Barbara Eden and others who suffered from typecasting, she sees her time as Mary Ann in a positive view: “Mary Ann has been such a big part of my life, it’s really impossible to get away from it. But why would I want to? Everywhere in the world that I go, I am greeted with love. . . I created a character that meant something to some people and it has lasted.”

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However, Wells admits that most of the cast suffered from stereotyped views of their roles on the show. She worked hard to continue acting, performing in more than 66 theatrical productions, as well as countless voice-overs and commercials.

She had married Larry Rosen in 1962, but they divorced the same year her role as Mary Ann ended.

After the demise of Gilligan, she received other roles, appearing in 24 shows from 1967-2018, but in many of them she played Mary Ann, not a character like Mary Ann, but the actual Mary Ann from Gilligan’s Island.

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In 1998, she opened the Dawn Wells Film Actors Boot Camp in Idaho. She also designed a line of clothing for physically challenged people, “Wishing Wells Collections” and launched a beauty line, “Classic Beauty.” She also wrote two books, a cookbook from the show and A Guide to Life: What Would Mary Ann Do?

Dawn Wells has taken her role of Mary Ann and let it be part of her without limiting herself. She willingly accepts the character as part of herself, but she has continued to grow and expand her career. I think when Mary Ann was rescued from the island, she probably had a very similar career.

Tina Louise

Tina Louise was born in New York City in 1934. Like Wells, her parents also divorced when she was quite young. She first appeared on Broadway in “Li’l Abner” while a teenager. She was given good reviews and was offered a role in her first movie, God’s Little Acre in 1958. She then began studying with Lee Strasberg.

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During this time, she made one album, “It’s Time for Tina,” a collection of classics from composers such as George Gershwin, Jule Styne and Cole Porter.

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After making several movies, she returned to Broadway, starring with Carol Burnett in “Fade In, Fade Out.” Like Dawn Wells, Louise accepted a number of roles on television in the early 1960s, also many westerns.

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Tina left the Broadway show to take the part of Ginger Grant on Gilligan’s Island.  Surprisingly, she was not the first choice and replaced Kit Smythe who was cast in the pilot. Unlike Wells, she did not appear to enjoy her time with the show. Many articles have been written about her dissatisfaction with the fact that she thought she would be the star of the show instead of one of seven more equal cast members. The other cast members describe her as professional but unhappy. She distanced herself from the show as soon as it ended, not participating in future projects.

Also, like Wells, Tina married but divorced after five years.

Louise made quite a few movies after her time on Gilligan and continued to work in television, appearing on 27 different series including Bonanza, Love American Style, Kojak, Marcus Welby, and The Love Boat.

Again, like Dawn Wells, Tina Louise has expanded her acting career into other venues. In 2005 she got a lot of money for 80 lines of voice-over work for a gaming machine, MegaJackpots which were located in casinos across the country.

She also penned three books so far, Sunday: A Memoir in 1997 and two childrens’ books, When I Grow Up in 2007 and What Does a Bee Do? in 2009. She has also spent time volunteering in literacy projects and providing tutoring for school children.

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Louise has also discovered a love of abstract painting and has exhibited her work around New York, recently at the Patterson Museum of Art.

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Unlike Dawn Wells, Tina Louise did not embody her character of Ginger but has instead refused to be associated with the show and her role. Both actresses went on to forge new careers for themselves and became successful in various fields. It’s too bad that they are the only remaining crew members left from the show and do not get along. As you can see from comparing their lives, they do have quite a bit in common, and their acting journeys have been similar. They have said they do not dislike each other; they just never formed a deep friendship.