I devoted this month to some of our favorite actresses from the golden age of television. This list would not be complete without Reta Shaw who popped up in almost every popular program during the fifties and sixties.
Shaw was born in Maine in 1912. She was born into the entertainment business; her father was an orchestra leader and her younger sister Marguerite also became an actress (I could only find one credit for her; it was a 1959 movie titled The Ballad of Louie the Louse.) After graduation, Reta attended the Leland Powers School of the Theater in Boston.
She then headed for the bright lights of Broadway and in 1947 was cast in “It Takes Two.” In 1954 she was Mabel in “The Pajama Game” and later appeared in “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes”, “Picnic”, and “Annie Get Your Gun.”
Her motion picture career overlapped with her television career. She had feature roles in several big-screen successes including Picnic; The Pajama Game; Pollyanna; The Ghost and Mr. Chicken; Escape to Witch Mountain; one of my favorites as a kid, Bachelor in Paradise with Bob Hope; and most famously, the cook in Mary Poppins, as well as a maid in Meet Me in St. Louis.
In 1952 she married William Forester, another actor. William appeared in Mister Peepers and The Pajama Game movie with his wife. He was very busy with television appearances during the early sixties. They were married a decade but divorced in 1962; the couple had a daughter.
She appeared in many of the same shows as the other actresses we learned about this month. Her first television role was on Armstrong Circle Theater. Her second role was as a regular cast member of a little-remembered show, Johnny Jupiter in 1953. It was a quirky show about a store clerk named Ernest P. Duckweather who invented an interplanetary television set and developed a friendship with a puppet named Johnny Jupiter.
From 1953-1955 she would appear with Marion Lorne on Mister Peepers as Aunt Lil. She continued receiving both movie and television roles throughout the fifties. In 1958 she received another recurring role on The Ann Sothern Show as Flora Macauley.
She began the sixties with another permanent job on The Tab Hunter Show. This show as about comic strip author Paul Morgan. His comic strip was “Bachelor at Large” and he wrote about his own amorous adventures. Shaw, as Thelma his housekeeper, had a very different view of that life than Paul’s best friend Peter did. When that show went off the air, she was given another spot on Oh! Those Bells. The Wiere brothers, well-known comedians, portrayed the Bell Brothers who worked for Henry Slocum in a Hollywood prop shop. The brothers managed to create a disaster out of the most minor matters. The show only lasted two months.
Throughout the sixties she could be seen on a variety of series; although she certainly excelled at comedy she was just as accomplished in dramas such as Wagon Train, I Spy, The Man From UNCLE, and FBI. Reta also made more than a dozen movies during this time.
However, her sitcom career flourished, and she was kept very busy during the sixties with roles on The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis, Father of the Bride, Lost in Space, The Dick Van Dyke Show, The Cara Williams Show, My Three Sons, The Farmer’s Daughter, The Lucy Show, The Patty Duke Show, The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, The Monkees, That Girl, Please Don’t Eat the Daisies, and I Dream of Jeannie. She had a recurring role on Bewitched as Aunt Hagatha/Bertha. She was featured in The Andy Griffith Show twice, but one of them is one of my all-time favorite episodes, “Convicts at Large” when she plays Big Maud Tyler who enjoys dancing with Barney.
The end of the decade brought her another recurring role as housekeeper on The Ghost and Mrs. Muir. On May 1, 2014, Madman Entertainment interviewed Kellie Flanagan who played one of the kids on the show. It must have been a fun show to work on. When she recalled her time with the cast, she said “The set was a very happy set, with parties every Friday night, and I remember that all the ladies were swooning over Mulhare and always disappointed to find out the beard had to be applied every day. His real beard was red, was the reason I remember, and they needed that salt-and-pepper thing. Hope was extremely sweet and kind to us, though I do remember there was a period where we were not supposed to bother her – I think she may have been going through a divorce – I believe she had a daughter about my age. Hope was lovely and her voice is fabulous. Reta Shaw was a delight and Charles Nelson Reilly was hilarious. The dog annoyed me!”
Shaw continued to take on roles during the early seventies and could be seen on The New Dick Van Dyke Show, Here’s Lucy, The Odd Couple, Cannon, Happy Days, and The Brian Keith Show. Her career culminated with her role on Escape to Witch Mountain in 1975.
Shaw lived another seven years and died in 1982 from emphysema.
An interesting note is that Shaw grew up in a family who practiced spiritualism and said she had been “brought up on a Ouija board.” However, I’m not sure if she believed in it as well.
Shaw certainly had a very interesting and successful career as an actress. Although she often took on the housekeeper role, she was not stereotyped into just that slot. She appeared in both television and movies and she took on dramas as well as comedy. It would have been fun to see what she would have been able to do if she had been given a series of her own.
Whenever I see Reta Shaw in an old show, I know I am in for a treat.