Merry Christmas Eve. In honor of It’s a Wonderful Life which will be playing quite often today, this week’s blog is about Donna Reed, who played Mary in the Jimmy Stewart holiday favorite.
In 1958, most of the television shows were game shows, variety shows, or westerns. Almost all the sitcoms on the air were based on a star; we had The Danny Thomas Show, The Ann Sothern Show, The Bob Cummings Show, and The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet. It was also the year The Donna Reed Show began. The show would last eight seasons, resulting in 275 episodes.
The series was created by William Roberts. Donna and her husband Tony Owen developed and produced the show, under the name “Todon.” We had shows about single adults in The Bob Cummings Show and The Ann Sothern Show. We had families, including The Danny Thomas Show, Father Knows Best, and The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet. Roberts wanted to concentrate on the demanding roles a stay-at-home mom had to juggle. Reed agreed with him. As she noted, “We started breaking rules right and left. We had a female lead, for one thing, a strong, healthy woman. We had a story line told from a woman’s point of view that wasn’t soap opera.”
The Donna Reed Show is often evoked by critics who say television scripts are not realistic but center around unreal family expectations, but that is not the goal Reed and her husband had. Donna described the show as “realistic pictures of small-town life—with an often-humorous twist. Our plots revolve around the most important thing in America—a loving family.” The shows featured typical family problems families faced in the late 1950s: having to fire a clumsy housekeeper, quality time with your spouse, dealing with disciplinary issues, or Donna being swamped with requests to volunteer for charity drives or community theater shows. However, there were times the show delved into more controversial issues such as women’s rights or freedom of the press.
The Stone family includes Donna, Alex, Mary and Jeff. Donna (Donna Reed) is the iconic mother. She grew up on a farm (which Reed did). She became a nurse and occasionally helps Alex (Carl Betz), a pediatrician who has his office at the house. Mary (Shelly Fabares) is in her first year of high school. She studies ballet and plays the piano. During the series, she has several boyfriends. Mary left for college before the show ended, but Fabares made guest appearances. Jeff (Paul Petersen) is in grade school. He loves sports, likes to eat, and often teases his sister. In 1963 when Fabares leaves, Paul Petersen’s real sister, Patty was cast as a runaway orphan taken in by the Stone family. The Stones live in Hilldale, an All-American town.
Several other characters appear often. Dave and Midge Kelsey (Bob Crane and Ann McCrea) are good friends of Donna and Alex’s. Dave is also a doctor. Another of Alex’s colleagues who is a good friend is Dr. Boland (Jack Kelk), whom the kids call “Uncle Bo.” Smitty Smith (Darryl Richard) is Jeff’s best friend and Scotty (Jimmy Hawkins) is Mary’s boyfriend.
Photos: pinterest.com and metv.com
With Donna’s movie relationships, many guest stars appeared on the show during its run. Baseball players Don Drysdale, Leo Durocher, and Willie Mays played themselves. Musicians Harry James, Tony Martin, and Lesley Gore appeared. Buster Keaton was featured in two different shows. Esther Williams played a fashion designer. Other stars who showed up included Jack Albertson, John Astin, Dabney Coleman, Ellen Corby, Richard Deacon, Jamie Farr, Gale Gordon, Arte Johnson, Ted Knight, Harvey Korman, Cloris Leachman, Marion Ross, William Schallert, Hal Smith, Marlo Thomas, and William Windom.
In the opening credits, Reed comes down the stairs and answers the telephone which she gives to Alex. She then hands the kids their lunches and books and sends them off to school. When Alex leaves on a call, she closes the door and smiles. In 1964 when The Munsters debuted, their opening credits were a parody of Donna’s show as Lily performs the same actions.
The Donna Reed Show faced the Milton Berle show, Texaco Star Theater Wednesday nights and ratings were not great. It was renewed and moved to Thursdays the next year. I was surprised to learn that during the eight years the show was on the air it was only in the top 20 in season six and only in the top 30 in season four.
Photo: cinemacats.com (Look closely and you’ll notice this was the living room for I Dream of Jeannie as well).
Although the show never received very high ratings, Donna Reed was nominated for an Emmy every year from 1959 to 1962. (Jane Wyatt won in 1959 and 1960, Barbara Stanwyck won in 1961, and Shirley Booth won in 1962.) Donna Reed won the Golden Globe in 1963.
In 1962 Donna felt that the writers had run out of creative ideas and were recycling plots. Both Mary and Jeff were allowed to perform in this season. Fabares debuted a single, “Johnny Angel” in February which went to number one on the charts, selling more than a million copies. In October, Petersen sang “My Dad” which made it to number six. Donna decided that would be the last season, but when ABC made her a very lucrative offer for three more seasons, she and her husband agreed.
When this contract ended in 1966, Donna was ready to retire. Reed was considering a television movie reunion but when Betz passed away in 1978, she decided it was no longer an option.
Campbell Soup was the first sponsor, and later sponsors included Johnson & Johnson and The Singer Company. Whenever a scene takes place in a supermarket, Campbell’s Soup, V-8 Juice, Franco-American Spaghetti and Johnson & Johnson Baby Powder are likely to be in the shot.
Reruns of the show were seen on Nick at Nite from 1985-1994 and on TV Land from 2002 until 2004. MeTV began airing the show in September of 2011.
The cast was a close-knit one and continued their relationships after the show ended. Paul Petersen credited Donna as being the nurturing adult he needed in his life to get him through the years of being a child star. She helped him understand how the industry worked and helped him during some tough times during his life. Shelly Fabares also said Donna and Carl were amazing. Realizing how tough the industry can be for young kids, they protected Paul and herself and loved them as second parents. Donna never forgot to send Shelly a birthday gift. In 1986, before she passed away from pancreatic cancer, her final words were to make sure Shelly’s birthday gift was wrapped and delivered.
Despite the bad raps the show often received from the women’s lib organizations, Donna Reed did help advance the way women were perceived in the media. She endowed her character with strong emotions, definite opinions on issues, and independence. In her personal life, Reed expressed her views on the medical industry and the political arenas.
Paul Petersen summed up the value of the show in an interview he did in 2008. In his words, The Donna Reed Show, “depicts a better time and place. It has a sort of level of intelligence and professionalism that is sadly lacking in current entertainment products. The messages it sent out were positive and uplifting. The folks you saw were likable, the family was fun, the situations were familiar to people. It provided 22-and-a-half-minutes of moral instructions and advice on how to deal with the little dilemmas of life. Jeff and Mary and their friends had all the same problems that real kids in high school did. That’s what the show was really about, the importance of family. That’s where life’s lessons are transmitted, generation to generation. There’s a certain way in which these are transmitted, with love and affection.”
I couldn’t say it better.