Mary Jane Croft: What a Character!

In October we are having fun with the “What a Character” series. Although this actress spent less than two decades on television, she had a memorable career. Today let’s learn more about Mary Jane Croft.

Mary Jane Croft - Rotten Tomatoes
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Mary Jane Croft was born in 1916 in Muncie, Indiana. She described herself as a “stage-struck 17-year-old just out of high school,” when she began working at the Muncie Civic Theatre. Moving on to the Guild Theatre Company in Cincinnati led her to radio station work at WLW.

In the thirties, she received a lot of experience and she described her work there: “from 1935-1939, I played parts with every kind of voice and accent: children, babies, old women, society belles, main street floozies—everything.” She appeared in Life with Luigi, Blondie, The Adventures of Sam Spade, The Mel Blanc Show, and Our Miss Brooks, among other shows. She was a frequent guest star on My Favorite Husband, Lucille Ball’s radio show which would become very important to her television career.

Croft had married Jack Zoller, another actor earlier in her life. The marriage did not last long but produced a son, Eric. After her divorce, she moved to Hollywood in 1939.

I Love Lucy' Star Mary Jane Croft: Lucille Ball's Frequent TV Sidekick
On the radio Photo: closerweekly.com

While Croft appeared in three big-screen films, most of her professional career was spent on television. Her first role was in Eve Arden’s show, Our Miss Brooks from 1953-1955 once it moved from radio to television. She portrayed Daisy Enright whom she had also voiced on the radio show. Daisy and Connie Brooks competed for the head English teacher position and for the attention of Mr. Boynton. During that time, she also was cast in The Lineup, The Life of Riley, I Married Joan, and Dragnet.

From 1954-1957, she was on I Love Lucy seven times. She and Lucy continued both their professional and personal relationships. In the final season of Lucy’s show, she played Betty Ramsey, a neighbor of the Ricardos and Mertzs when they moved to Connecticut.

In the mid-fifties, she showed up on A Date with Angels, The Eve Arden Show, and The Court of Last Resort.

In 1959, she married Elliott Lewis and they were married until he died in 1990. She met Lewis while appearing on Lucy’s show; he was the producer. Sadly, her son Eric was killed in action in Vietnam.

1956 TV ARTICLE~CLEO WANDA BASSET HOUND PEOPLES CHOICE MARY JANE CROFT  HOUND DOG | eBay
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From 1955-1958 she was the voice of Cleo on The People’s Choice for 99 episodes. This is another one of those quirky shows from the fifties. The premise is that Socrates Miller, known as “Sock,” joins the city council and clashes with the mayor, John Peoples. Sock then dates and marries John’s daughter Mandy. Sock has a basset hound named Cleo, and Cleo shares her thoughts with the audience about what is going on.

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Croft with Lyle Talbot and the Randolphs on Ozzie and Harriet–Photo: pinterest.com

From 1955-1966 she appeared as Clara Randolph on the Ozzie and Harriet Show for a total of 75 episodes. Joe and Clara Randolph were the Nelsons’ neighbors and good friends.

Although Croft did accept roles on Vacation Playhouse in 1966 and The Mothers-in-Law (another Arden show) in 1969, her career from 1962-1974 was with Lucille Ball. She was on The Lucy Show from 1962-1968 as Mary Jane Lewis when Lucy’s original sidekick Vivian Vance left the show. She continued that same role into Here’s Lucy from 1969-1974 for an additional 34 episodes.

Her last acting credit was a TV Movie with Lucille Ball titled Lucy Calls the President.

I Love Lucy' Star Mary Jane Croft: Lucille Ball's Frequent TV Sidekick
Croft with Lucille Ball–Photo: closerweekly.com

Croft died of natural causes in 1999.

I Love Lucy' Star Mary Jane Croft: Lucille Ball's Frequent TV Sidekick
Ball and Croft–Photo: closerweekly.com

Geoffrey Mark who wrote The Lucy Book: A Complete Guide to Her Five Decades on Television, got to spend time with Croft. He said she was “nothing like the characters she played,” in an exclusive interview with Closer Weekly. “She was intelligent, thoughtful in her speech and prettier than you would think. I found her to be very honest in that there was no nonsense about what she said. If she said it, she meant it. She was aware that she had become this icon mostly because of her association with Lucille Ball, but also because of other things that she did.”

When he asked her how she was able to assume so many character voices, she said that she thought about what the backstory of the character might be and invented a voice that would serve that character. It was something she learned when she worked in radio.

Papermoon Loves Lucy — MARY JANE CROFT
Photo: tumblr.com

Although Croft only appeared on 26 different shows, she had a busy and lucrative career. She is remembered for three major roles: Daisy Enright on Our Miss Brooks, Clara Randolph on Ozzie and Harriet, and Mary Jane Lewis on The Lucy Show and Here’s Lucy. And even if her television career was not long, she was in the entertainment business for her entire life after graduation. She created many memorable radio voices as well. With her numerous roles, she truly was quite a character.

Leon Ames: What a Character!

We are part way through our October blog series, “What a Character.” Today we look at someone we all remember from the golden days of television: Leon Ames. 

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Ames was born Harry Wycoff in Portland, Indiana and was raised on a farm. He said he changed his name because it was often misspelled which I can understand because some sources say “Wykoff,” and some say “Waycoff” in addition to “Wycoff.” Ames was his mother’s maiden name.

After graduation, he enrolled in Indiana University at Bloomington. He then served in the field artillery for WWI and later transferred to the flying corps.

After his discharge, at some point, he began working as the stage manager for the Charles K. Champlin Theatre Company. He had always wanted to be an actor and soon began acting with the group, eventually gettng the lead in a Los Angeles production of “Tomorrow and Tomorrow.” For three years he was with the Stuart Walker Stock Company in Cincinnati, Ohio. Broadway would be a big part of his early career as he debuted in 1933 in “It Pays to Sin” and went on to perform in another eleven shows.

In 1937, Ames decided to make the move to Hollywood. At that time, he met Christine Gossett, and the couple married in 1938. Leon and Christine appeared in several films together including Eighth Wife and Suez, but after having two children, Christine retired from acting to raise the children. The couple was together for the rest of Ames’ life.

Ames accumulated 158 acting credits; 125 of those were on the big screen. His debut came in 1931 in Quick Millions and his last role was as the grandfather in Peggy Sue Got Married in 1986.

Even though 5/6 of his career was spent in films, I am including him in our television character series because the 1/6 of his career in television made quite an impact. From 1951 until 1979, he would appear in 29 different shows, and five of those would be as a regular cast member.

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Life with Father cast–Photo: nostalgiacentral.com

Not surprisingly, given his depth of film work, he began his television career in a variety of drama shows such as Screen Directors Playhouse and Studio One. In 1953 he was cast as Clarence Day in Life with Father, adapted from the film. Unfortunately, the show only lasted for a limited number of episodes. I’m not sure how this show fit into the television schedule because it was on for three seasons; a few sources listed 8 episodes, imdb.com lists 10 episodes, and tvseriesfinale.com mentions 27 episodes; even then, it would mean 9/year which doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense. Fun fact, this was the first show in Hollywood to be filmed in color.

After the cancellation of Life with Father, he continued to guest in dramas, but was once again offered a recurring role in a comedy on Father of the Bride in 1950, another television show that was adapted from the big screen.

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Ames with Aneta Corsaut on The Andy Griffith Show–Photo: pinterest.com

In the sixties, he gravitated toward sitcoms, showing up in The Lucy Show, Please Don’t Eat the Daisies, The Beverly Hillbillies, and The Andy Griffith Show.

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With Alan Young on Mister Ed–Photo: pinterest.com

It was during this time, that Leon probably became best known to television fans.  From 1963-1965, he portrayed Gordon Kirkwood on Mister Ed. During the early seasons of the show Roger (Larry Keating) and Kay Addison (Edna Skinner) lived next to Wilbur Post (Alan Young) who owns Mister Ed. They become good friends with Wilber and his wife Carol (Connie Hines). Keating died in 1963 and Ames and his wife Winnie (Florence MacMichael) buy the Addison home. We also learn that Kirkwood was Wilbur’s former commanding officer when they were in the US Air Force.

In a frightening experience, in February of 1964, an intruder entered the Ames household and held Leon and Christine hostage, demanding $50,000. Ames phoned his business manager and asked him to go to the bank and then bring the money to the house. Once he got the money, the intruder left Ames tied up in the house and forced Christine to drive him in their car. Before leaving, he forced both the business manager and a guest at the home into the car trunk. Luckily, before Ames’ manager brought the money to the house, he had called police who eventually caught up with the car, surrounded it, and freed the hostages.

His next regular role was that of Dr. Roy Osborne on My Three Sons.  I enjoyed his performances on this show.  At first, Robbie thinks he is too old-fashioned to be Katie’s Ob/Gyn because he delivered her, but Robbie soon learns his caring ways and wealth of experience is invaluable.

Leon Ames — Life and Death of the Notable 'Mister Ed' Actor
Ames and Elizabeth Montgomery on Bewitched–Photo: amomama.com

The remainder of his television career was spent in a variety of genres including Bewitched, The Virginian. Apple’s Way, and Emergency, among others.

Ames was one of the founders of the Screen Actors Guild in 1933 and became president of SAG in 1957. In 1980, Ames was the recipient of the Screen Actors Guild Life Achievement Award.

In addition to his acting duties, in the sixties, Ames opened several Ford dealerships in California.

Leon died in October of 1993 after having a stroke.

DREAMS ARE WHAT LE CINEMA IS FOR...: MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS 1944
Meet Me in St. Louis Photo: pinterest

One of my favorite roles of Ames was as the father in Meet Me in St. Louis. He had that perfect gruffness for a paternalistic role but made it obvious that there was a giant teddy bear just below the surface. What a character he was.

Isabel Randolph, What a Character!

October is “What a Character,” blog series month, and we are taking a look at some of our favorite character actors. This blog features the wonderful Isabel Randolph.

Randolph was born in Chicago in 1889. After high school, Isabel began performing in regional theater throughout the Midwest until the mid-1930s. She married J.C. Ryan, a Chicago newspaperman, in 1917. Unfortunately, he passed away at a young age and she raised their two girls. She was the leading lady at the Princess Theater in Des Moines, Iowa. In a 2012 article, Ryan Ellett quoted Conrad Nagel as saying the Princess Theater “was recognized as one of the outstanding stock companies of the entire country, and is still referred to by some of the old timers as the best of them all.” Ralph Bellamy also spent time with the theater.

Actor Isabel Randolph Movies List, Isabel Randolph Filmography, Isabel  Randolph 10 Films
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In the thirties, Randolph decided to try out radio. She was on the air on Fibber McGee and Molly from 1935-1943. She played a variety of roles but was best known for Mrs. Abigail Uppington, a society matron. During this time, she also was in several other soap opera-type shows. When the McGees moved their show to Hollywood, Isabel went to California with them where she took a chance at motion pictures.

Isabel specialized in the “grand dame” roles which continued into her film career. Of her 110 acting credits, 69 of them were for movies on the big screen, her first being in 1939 in The Women.

In 1953, she made the foray into television. Her first role was on The Dick Tracy Show in 1951, based on the popular comic strip.

The Missing Corpse by Albert Herman, Albert Herman, J. Edward Bromberg, Isabel  Randolph, Eric Sinclair | DVD | Barnes & Noble®

In 1952, she got her second role, and her first recurring role in a sitcom, when she was offered the part of neighbor Mrs. Boone in Meet Millie. Meet Millie was about Millie Bronson (Elena Verdugo), a secretary who lives with her mother (Florence Halop) in Queens. Her boss is JR Boone (Roland Winters) and she sometimes dates his son Johnnie (Ross Ford). Family friend and poet Alfred Prinzmetal (Marvin Kaplan) often drops by. We don’t hear about this show very often but it was on for four years and produced 124 episodes. 

Randolph did a variety of work in television throughout the rest of the fifties. She did a lot of theater programs, westerns, and also comedies including Burns and Allen, The Ann Sothern Show, December Bride, and The Bob Cummings Show.

Isabel Randolph, who played Mrs.... - Masquers Club of Hollywood | Facebook
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She had another recurring role during the last season of Our Miss Brooks when she played Ruth Nestor who ran a private boarding school. John Rich was the director on the show. He loved the cast and said especially Eve Arden was a joy to work with, very nice and very funny. He described the entire cast as “adorable.”

Although she didn’t have a recurring role on Ozzie and Harriet, she was on the show five times between 1956-61. My favorite of her roles on that show was “Busy Christmas” when she played Mrs. Brewster and was heading the Christmas caroling group.

During the sixties, Isabel kept busy. She appeared on Perry Mason three times, twice on The Andy Griffith Show, The Joey Bishop Show, Ben Jarrod, Arrest and Trial, and Many Happy Returns.

Recap and React: The Dick Van Dyke Show, Season 5, Episodes 16 – 20 – The  Motion Pictures
Tom Tully and Randolph as Clara Petrie with Photo: motionpictures.com

Her last recurring role was that of Mrs. Petrie on The Dick Van Dyke Show. In last week’s blog, we looked at one of the best Dick Van Dyke episodes, “Pink Pills and Purple Parents.” When Sally considers taking one of Buddy’s pain pills for her headache, Rob relates a time when Millie gave Laura some of her relaxation pills. Laura takes her first one when Rob’s parents arrive and as she becomes more nervous, she continues to take pills. Eventually, she is a bit loopy making strange comments, forgetting to put ice cream in the sundaes, and dancing to music before passing out. Rob’s parents are sure she has a drinking problem but later find out what happened. Randolph is a gem in this episode.

Randolph passed away in 1973 of undisclosed reasons.

I Wish You a “Busy Christmas” | thewritelife61
Randolph with Ozzie Nelson–Photo: youtube.com

Sadly, like so many of our great character actors, there is not as much information about Isabel’s life. Character actors deserve to have more websites or books of their own. Isabel played the snobby rich woman in many of her roles, but I always think of her as an elegant, gracious mother type.  Thank you, Isabel, for so many decades of entertainment and memorable characters. She was a character, indeed.