Marion Lorne: Everyone’s Favorite Aunt

As we begin 2022, we are getting to know some of our favorite actresses from the golden age of television. Last week we learned more about Aunt Bee and today we look at another one of our favorite aunts: Aunt Clara on Bewitched played by the lovable Marion Lorne.

Marion Lorne: How to Call an Electrician — Aunt Clara / Ben Franklin on  Bewitched - YouTube
Photo: youtube.com

Like Frances Bavier, Lorne also had successful careers in Broadway, films, and television. She was born in 1883 in Pennsylvania, the daughter of a doctor. And also, like Bavier, Lorne attended the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York City.

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Although Lorne had her first Broadway debut in 1905, she also had a successful stage career in London. She and her husband Walter C. Hackett had their own theater, the Whitehall. He wrote the plays and she acted in them. One source I read said none of their plays lasted less than 125 nights. She and Walter married in 1911 and were together until his death in 1944. Like Bavier, she also had no children.

Shortly before her husband died, the couple returned to the United States, but it wasn’t until 1951 that she dipped her toe into the silver screen pool. She appeared in Strangers on a Train, the Alfred Hitchcock mystery.  She would appear in several other big-screen films including The Graduate.

Streaming Time Capsule: Mister Peepers - The TV Professor
With the cast of Mister Peepers Photo:thetvprofessor.com

The following year she was offered a role as Mrs. Gurney the English teacher on Mister Peepers. She would continue in the role until the show went off the air in 1955. In 1957 she appeared with Joan Caulfield in the sitcom Sally. Lorne played a widow who owns a department store. Before and after these two shows she appeared on several series including Philco Theater, Suspicion, and The DuPont Show of the Month.

In 1964, she took on the role Aunt Clara, Samantha’s aunt on Bewitched. Clara was a witch who was losing her powers due to old age, and her spells often resulted in very different outcomes than she planned. Clara was known for her doorknob collection on the show and, in real life, Lorne also had a collection of doorknobs. She appeared in 27 episodes of the show from 1964-1968. Lorne died of a heart attack in 1968 at age 84.

Aunt Clara- Marion Lorne | Favorite tv shows, Bewitching, Comedy tv shows
Clara and her doorknobs

Lorne was nominated for an Emmy for her role as Clara ten days before she died. When she won, Elizabeth Montgomery accepted the award on her behalf. Lorne had also been nominated for her Bewitched role in 1967 (beat out by Frances Bavier for The Andy Griffith Show). In addition, she was nominated for an Emmy in 1954 and 1955 for Mister Peepers (won by Vivian Vance for I Love Lucy and Audrey Meadows for The Honeymooners) and in 1958 for Sally (won by Ann B Davis for Love That Bob).

From 1958-1964 she also made 147 appearances on The Garry Moore Show. That was an amazing cast including Carol Burnett. Carol said that it was a happy, happy show. When she got her own variety show, she took everything she learned and ran her own show the same way.

The Garry Moore Show (TV Series 1958–1967) - Photo Gallery - IMDb
The Garry Moore Show cast

I think Marion was born to play Aunt Clara.  She and Paul Lynde as Uncle Arthur were two of my very favorite characters on almost any 1960s sitcom. When she discussed her career, she said that “In my long, long career, I have played everything, but comedy has always been my favorite.” Fans may have loved her delightful but zany roles, but that does not take anything away from her acting skills. Hitchcock said it was hard to compare Marion to an American actress in her younger days. He said “Miss Lorne might have been compared during her London days to Tallulah Bankhead, Helen Hayes, Katharine Cornell . . . all of them put together—and more. She was more than an actress in England; she was an institution.”

Her Bewitched costars also adored her. Bill Asher, Montgomery’s husband and show producer, said “I try to arrange it so we always have a script for her to do. She’s a big, big part of our show.” Montgomery complimented her saying, “The contribution she makes to the show is incredible. When the character of Aunt Clara came into being, she was the only one we even thought of.” The director, Paul Davis, succinctly said, “I love her.” When she passed away, her character was never played by anyone else. That’s high praise considering Gladys Kravitz, Louise Tate, and Darrin all had several people play their role during the show’s run.

A 'Bewitching' actress | Arts & Living | citizensvoice.com
Photo: citizensvoice.com

Considering the fact that she spent 63 years in show business and only 17 of them were on television, she certainly made her mark.  She was only in six television shows ever but in three of them she was a regular cast member, and she was nominated for an Emmy for each one of them.  That is a pretty impressive record. So, did Lorne have any regrets?  Just one. She said “My favorite programs are westerns, and I have never been in one.” I like to think she has starred in a few westerns during her time in Heaven.  I wish I was able to see one of her stage performances from London or the skits from Garry Moore’s show. I had a lot of fun learning a little more about Marion Lorne, one of my all-time favorite actresses from the classical age of television.

Frances Bavier

We are kicking off the new year learning about some of our favorite women from the golden age of television. Today we learn about an actress who was often described as difficult to work with personally but a consummate actress. Today let’s meet Frances Bavier, everyone’s favorite aunt.

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Born in a traditional brownstone in New York City in 1902, Frances planned on becoming a teacher and attended Columbia University. However, she felt drawn to the stage and found herself enrolled at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. Graduating in 1925, she received her first Broadway role the same year, appearing in “The Poor Nut.” Her big break came in the production of “On Borrowed Time.” Her last Broadway appearance was in 1951 with Henry Fonda in “Point of No Return.”

A Young Frances Photo: pinterest.com

Bavier would be part of the Broadway scene for a few decades before moving into films. Perhaps her best-known silver screen role was Mrs. Barley in The Day the Earth Stood Still. Bavier would continue to appear in movies throughout her career including her last performance which was in Benji in 1974.

In 1928 Frances married Russell Carpenter, a military man, and they divorced in 1933. During WWII Frances toured with the USO to entertain the troops. Frances reflected on her marriage later in life and said that he was a very charming man but did not understand her need to be an actress. She said as much as she loved him, she loved acting more.

Her first television roles were in drama series such as Ford Television Theater, Chevron Theater, and Pepsi Cola Playhouse among others in the early fifties. The mid-fifties found her in a variety of series, including Duffy’s Tavern, The Lone Ranger, Dragnet, The Ann Sothern Show, Perry Mason, and Wagon Train.

The Lone Ranger (TV Series 1949–1957) - Photo Gallery - IMDb
On The Lone Ranger Photo: imdb.com

Frances would be offered two recurring roles in sitcoms during this time. From 1954-56, she was one of the cast members of It’s a Great Life as Amy Morgan who ran a boarding house. When that show ended, she was cast on The Eve Arden Show as Nora, Eve’s mother and housekeeper.

In 1960 she happened to be cast as Henrietta Perkins in an episode of Make Room for Daddy with Danny Thomas. That particular show featured a little town called Mayberry where Danny and his boys were pulled over for speeding and met Sheriff Andy Taylor. When that episode became its own show, Henrietta Perkins transitioned to Aunt Bee.

Aunt Bee was a major character in The Andy Griffith Show, and Bavier continued with the show when it became Mayberry R.F.D. with Ken Berry as the star. Bavier was nominated and won the Emmy for her role in 1967.

Early Cast of The Andy Griffith Show 5X7 8X10 | Etsy
An early season with Ellie Walker Photo: etsy.com

Fans loved the relationship Andy and Aunt Bee had, although in real life Andy and Frances were not close. The entire staff was cautious in their approach when working with her because she was easily offended. Ron Howard, always tactful, was pressed on his relationship with her and just replied that “I just don’t think she enjoyed being around children that much.” Producer Sheldon Leonard commented, “[She] was a rather remote lady. Highly professional and a fine comedienne, fine actress with very individual character. She was rather self-contained and was not part of the general hi-jinks that centered upon Andy on the set.”

Producer Richard Linke commented that “She was very touchy and moody due to her age, and you had to be very careful how you treated her and what you said around her. I think Andy offended her a few times, but they became very close friends.”

“I think Frances thought I was a gentleman,” mused actor Jack Dodson, who played Howard Sprague on the show. “I’m not, really, not any more so than anybody else. Since I had fewer scenes to do with her, I had fewer opportunities to swear in front of her, which is why we never had any difficulties. Frances was temperamental and moody, but she kept 99 percent of that to herself. Once in a while, she would get mad at someone. She was the only person in the whole company whose feelings you had to be careful not to hurt.”

Pop culture historian Geoffrey Mark, wrote, “She was a very talented lady, but she was very difficult to work with, and nobody could really figure it out. Eve Arden had trouble with her on The Eve Arden Show. That’s the earliest I can point to where Frances was already getting to be persnickety. I can only repeat what I was told, but on The Andy Griffith Show, Howard Morris, who played Ernest T. Bass on the show and directed episodes of it, said that directing Frances was like stepping on a landmine. If you would ask her to move three inches to the right to get in the proper frame, or, ‘Could you stand up when you say that line?’, she’d blow a fuse and refuse. It was, like, ‘I’m an actress and I know what I’m doing. How dare you try to tell me when to walk and where?’ It’s like yes, you are an actress, but an actress takes direction from the director. Why in the world would you make what is already a stressful situation more stressful?”

Emmy with Don Knotts Photo: 99.9 kekb

However, Andy mentioned during a Larry King interview that Frances phoned him four months before her death and apologized to him for being difficult to work with. Perhaps being alone and reflecting on her past behavior gave her some perspective on the situation, because she told a reporter with the Times Record in Troy, NY that “I don’t have a lot of friends. I don’t see how anyone my age working as hard as I do can have a big social life. I get very annoyed with people and the older I get, the crankier I am. This work has had an effect on my personality. I’m impatient with people and oriented to action.”

In 1972, Bavier retired. She bought a home in Siler City, North Carolina. The stately house is a three-story brick home with stone accents and located at 503 West Elk St. The house was built in 1951 by a local doctor. When asked about her choice of retirement, she said that she “fell in love with North Carolina, all the pretty roads and trees.”

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It must have been a bit of a lonely life though. She was pretty much a recluse and lived with 14 house cats. She had no children, and there was no family living nearby. She promoted both Easter Seals and Christmas Seals and often wrote letters to her fans. In an interview with the San Bernardino County Sun, she talked about one of her hobbies: launching imaginary expeditions to remote corners of the world via her collection of maps. During the production of The Andy Griffith Show, Frances mentioned in an interview in the Charlotte News that when she felt lonely, she went to a supermarket and somebody would always look at her and smile and say “Why, hello, Aunt Bee.”

Aunt Bee and Clara My Hometown.mpg - YouTube
With Hope Summers in Mayberry Photo: youtube.com

Frances realized the 3700 residents of Siler City had a difficult job relating to her as well. As she put it during a local TV interview, she was “a 70-year-old lady that probably wants to be alone and they’re having a problem with trying to be friendly and show their friendliness, and at the same time not intrude. That makes it very difficult for them. Living here has been a difficult adjustment for me. I have a great deal to learn from Siler City and North Carolina. It’s an entirely different and new way of life.”

Some Credit, Please, for Aunt Bee | Classic Movie Hub Blog
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When she passed away in 1989, she left a trust fund of $100,000 to the police department in Siler City that would provide an annual bonus to all police personnel. Most of her $700,000 estate was left to the hospital foundation. She was buried in her adopted hometown, and her tombstone reads “Aunt Bee. To live in the hearts of those left behind is not to die.”

Frances mentioned in several interviews that she loved the character of Bee, but it was hard to be stereotyped in one role. She told The Charlotte News that “Once in a while I get a hankering to play a really bad woman. . . I was really vicious in a Lone Ranger episode, but so many people wrote in outraged at what I was doing, I guess it was a mistake. Sometimes it gets me down to think I’ve lost my own identity as an actress. But other times I get a lift when I realize that I’m really doing quite well.

I can’t imagine having to become another person for so much of my life and always having to be that person to so many people that you would feel like people didn’t really know you as you. The Andy Griffith Show is one of those shows that you read about where the cast truly had a special bond and formed close ties, and Frances must have felt bad that she was not part of that group even if it was her own choice to be excluded. She must have developed a love for Mayberry since she decided to find a small town similar to it where she could live out the rest of her life. Even though she says she never got over her homesickness for New York, she chose to be buried in Siler City as well. I’d like to think she finally found her own Mayberry where she could live and bond with the community as Frances instead of Bee, but it sounds like that continued to be a struggle for her.  I hope she realizes how many people loved her character and the joy she has brought to so many fans in the past six decades.

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In Tribute: Life with Elizabeth and Date with the Angels: Betty White’s Pioneer Projects

With the passing of Betty White, I wanted to provide some information about Betty’s earlier career. We hear so much about The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Golden Girls, and Hot in Cleveland, with good reason. However, White was a pioneer in the early days of television and was a great role model for women working in the field in the 1950s.

Photo: wikipedia.org

Life with Elizabeth debuted in 1952, one of the first sitcoms. It was on for three years, two of them in syndication. Like many early sitcoms, it revolved around a couple, newly married. Each episode was composed of three, independent sketches. In this same era, George Burns often talks directly to the audience but he is the only character who can do so; on White’s show, different characters broke the “fourth wall.”

White played Elizabeth and Del Moore played her husband Alvin. Jack Narz was the on-camera announcer. Dick Garton showed up as Richard on many episodes. One of my favorites, Frank De Vol, was also part of the cast as were Loie Bridge and Ray Frienborn.

Life with Elizabeth" Shutterbug Alvin/Honeymoon's Over/Sickbay (TV Episode  1953) - IMDb
Photo: youtube.com

Elizabeth was a character Betty White had created on the variety show Hollywood on Television which she co-starred on with Al Jarvis. The talk show was on the air from 1949-53. The show was on six days a week. White would sing songs on the show. Betty would sing a popular song and then she and Al would go into improvisations and a variety of sketches like Alvin and Elizabeth.

George Tibbles had been the piano player for the orchestra on Hollywood on Television. He had a lot of time to sit and watch what was happening on the stage and thought of ways to make it better. Al Jarvis left the show and was replaced by Eddie Albert. Albert quicky realized the hectic pace and long hours was nothing he wanted to do and left the show after six months. White then became the only host. Tibbles began to offer suggestions and scripts. George had liked the Elizabeth and Alvin sketches and began to write new ones, eventually making the couple a regular feature which he continued to write.

Young Betty White: See 30 pictures of the actress at the start of her long  career - Click Americana
Photo: clickamericana.com

However, Betty reminded him that the reason “it was funny is that it’s just little short skits like you would tell an anecdote, in an evening if people were over visiting, but it would never hold up for a half hour.” When she was asked how she learned comedic timing in front of a TV camera for the sitcom, she reminded the interviewer that when she and Al Jarvis did the variety show, they were on for about five hours a day, six days a week. Her timing came from that work.

Don Fedderson suggested that White and Tibbles expand the sketch into a half-hour sitcom. Don was the station manager and he had three stars he was promoting: Betty White, Liberace, and Johnny Carson. Don, George, and Betty formed Bandy Productions, each a one-third owner. The company was named for White’s dog, Bandit. She thought Bandit Productions sounded like they were stealing material, so Bandy it became.

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Fedderson purchased advertising space across America, offering the then-regional show to individual stations. He created the syndication of the show which led to a national audience. However, the show could no longer be done live, so the studio audience was out and a canned laugh track was in. Eventually it would be on 104 channels with 75 different sponsors. Betty White said that the way they did the filming caused problems. They would show the already-filmed show to the audience and get the laugh track from them watching the show. Unfortunately, the actors didn’t anticipate laughter, so the laughter at one joke would be so loud, it would cover up the next line or two of dialogue.

Most of the episodes were written by Milt Kahn and George Tibbles. Betty said George would pick her up and on the way to the studio they would ad-lib skits in the car for future shows. A beautiful harp song would precede the episode. A typical script occurred in episode 19: Elizabeth and Alvin read mystery books at night and then are frightened by every sound they hear; in the second sketch, Alvin makes a slingshot while Elizabeth tries to make him jealous by flirting with their neighbor; and in the third part, they take their car to Elmer’s Garage to have the horn fixed and Alvin is hypnotized. You can tell what the shows are about based on their title descriptions: Balance Checkbook, Late for a Party, and Piano Tuner; Ping Pong, Leaking Roof, Vacuum Cleaner Salesman; or Black Eye, Momma for Breakfast, Missing Receptionist. Betty White recalled an episode where Elizabeth decides to make lobster for Alvin. She went to buy it and only when she got home, realized that it was live. She just could not kill it, so she kept it as a pet and it became a kitchen pet which the couple never ate.

Betty White: First Lady of Television' Review - WSJ
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Elizabeth is smarter of the two newlyweds, but she’s patient with her loving, sometimes slow-witted husband, played by Del Moore. The announcer also talked to the cast. For example, when Alvin would get frustrated and say, “I shall leave you at this point Elizabeth,” the announcer would say, “Elizabeth aren’t you ashamed?” Then Betty would nod yes but with a mischievous grin, shake her head no at the audience. Betty said because things were so new and the audience was not used to any specific processes, they could throw double entendres into the scripts and if the viewers got them, it was great and if they didn’t, there was no harm offending anyone.

The show is unlike modern sitcoms in that this couple doesn’t make snide or mean-spirited remarks to one another; they love one another. But, like any marriage, life presents problems, and even simple problems can become complex. It is these situations between the couple that present Betty with an opportunity to teach her audience, especially her female audience, ways to handle marriage, patriarchal attitudes, and how to survive the fifties as a woman in America.

Tralfaz: Betty White
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In Life with Elizabeth, Elizabeth, when faced with a problem, relies less on playing dumb, and more on her ability to think things through analytically, get ahead of a situation, and simply get things done. The simple act of watching a woman really think through a situation was a feminist act in the early 1950s. Betty White also has an uncanny ability to use facial expressions to convey her female subjectivity, or that of her characters.

While the show and other shows of this era are often criticized for their gender stereotyping, things were beginning to change. After the war, many women were happy to be back home with their husband as the breadwinner again. However, many women enjoyed the chance to work and earn money and wanted to explore new opportunities.

The show was not loved by all the critics at the time either. John Crosby from The New York Herald reviewed the show in 1954. He said “newcomer who has mushroomed almost overnight into national prominence. Miss White is now the star of a filmed show called ‘Life With Elizabeth,’ which is syndicated to 87 stations and can hardly be avoided in any major city short of Chongking [sic] … Miss White plays the wholesome side of the street for all it’s worth. While I rather hesitate to come out against wholesomeness, I think there are limits and I think Miss White transgresses beyond – well, we won’t pursue that thought any further. Miss White is dimpled, fully dressed and well-upholstered. She lives with her mother, loves dogs, has a nickname of Betz, and does her own hair which looks like – well we won’t pursue that thought any further either. ‘Life With Elizabeth,’ is promulgated by Guild Films, which also conducts The Affairs of Liberace, (that outfit is certainly going to have a lot answer for in the hereafter) … ‘Life With Elizabeth’ revolves – to quote a press release ‘around the spontaneous antics of a typical young American family … They are the kind of persons one welcomes into the home as delightful neighbors.’ Well, maybe. On this one, Miss White exhibits her dimples, winks at the camera, and outwits her husband – a stupid played by Del Moore – three times on every half hour in what is almost a comic strip technique of TV comedy. As for the jokes: ‘She married an X-ray specialist.’ ‘I wonder what he sees in her.’ But it’s all, as I remarked earlier, terribly wholesome. In fact, I suspect that if I took a bite out of Miss White, I’d absorb enough Vitamin B to last all winter. And she has great warmth and charm, so much that she has been described as ‘TV darling of 2,000,00 [sic] fans on the West Coast.’ And now, if you’ll pardon me, I’m off to stare at Jane Russell and see if some of this wholesomeness will wash off.”

Betty was devastated. “I didn’t just get a bad review,” she remembers. “He didn’t like what I wore, he didn’t like my laugh, he didn’t like what I looked like, he certainly didn’t like what I did. And I cried for three solid days. I cut it out and I saved it. I still have the damn thing.”

One critic,  Mr. Vernon, liked the show better than Crosby: “It is refreshing in that the situations are all true to life and could happen in any couple’s wedded years. After seeing Lucille Ball in I Love Lucy get covered in paint, hit with pies, or using costumes for laughs, it is nice to see some realism.” Vernon also liked Del Moore. She said “he keeps his role very true to life; you may even see some of your own foibles exploited capably in experiences you may have had.

Although one reviewer stated that “the shows themselves are corny, forced and not very funny,” it’s not too surprising if the show was not a high-quality show. When I say it had a shoestring budget, I am stressing that might be a literal description: each episode was allotted $1.95, which would be less than $20 today! Betty said they had no fancy graphic department. There was an easel set up with cards on them for the camera to shoot. She said if more than one card was needed, you would often see the hand of the stage crew pulling the card from the easel. One of those stagehands who was working his way through film school was Sam Peckinpah. As a comparison, I Love Lucy got about $200 an episode.

When the show was live, you never knew what might happen. Mike Pingel  relayed a story that there was “a funny moment in Life with Elizabeth where Betty and Del Moore forgot their lines and it was live TV. Del got up and left Betty at the restaurant scene alone, and she filled her time building a little house with forks and knives. Del finally arrived back with a line and the scene continued.

Life with Elizabeth (Betty White)  DVD

In 1952 Betty was nominated and won an Emmy for the regional show. As she tells the story, “I was doing Life with Elizabeth and Zsa Zsa Gabor had a show Bachelor Haven and she was a shoe-in.. . Zsa Zsa was going to win the Emmy. They started saying ‘And now, for the Outstanding Actress,’ Zsa Zsa had her powder puff out . . her lipstick . . . and she put her napkin down and then we heard my name. I don’t think she was too happy with me.”

After 65 episodes, it was canceled because Guild Films, the series production company, thought too many episodes would make the show less profitable in its second-run syndication.

It’s hard to find the show on DVD though some copies do exist. Decades will air it as part of the Lost TV programming.

15 Rare Photos of Betty White When She Was Young - Rare Betty White Photos
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White certainly deserves to be praised for her hard work and determination in the business. According to the documentary, Pioneers of Television, “White was the first woman to produce a national television show, the first woman to star in a sitcom, the first producer to hire a female director, and the first woman to receive an Emmy nomination.” I might argue the point that It’s also hard to remember that while she was doing this pioneering work, she was all of 27 years old.

Date with the Angels (TV Series 1957–1958) - IMDb
Photo: imdb.com

After Life with Elizabeth was canceled, Betty moved on to Date with the Angels. Fedderson wanted to find a new sitcom for Betty. He got the rights to a play called “Dream Girl” by Elmer Rice about a woman who is daydreaming of a better life. The dialogue was more sophisticated and the production quality was better; could it have gotten worse? The show was on the air from May of 1957 to January of 1958.

A Date with the Angels BROWN DERBY - Betty White - YouTube
Photo: youtube.com

Again, she plays a new bride, Vickie Angel, married to Gus, an insurance salesman played by Bill Williams who had starred in The Adventures of Kit Carson. One of the best parts of this show were the great character actors cast on the show. There were a few characters who had a one to four appearances including Natalie Masters and Roy Engel as their neighbors Wilma and George Clemson, Maudie Prickett and Richard Reeves as Mr. and Mrs. Murphy, Burt Mustin as Mr. Finley and Richard Deacon as Roger Finley. Jimmy Boyd as nephew Wheeler, Russell Hicks and Isobel Elsom as Mary and Adam Henshaw, Gus’s boss and his wife; George Neise as Carl Koening, Joan Banks as Dottie, and Nancy Kulp as Dolly.

Also similar to Life with Elizabeth, George Tibbles wrote most of the scripts. The non-dream sequences were the same typical plots on other shows: they are invited to a fancy dinner party and Vickie makes a bunch of faux pas or Vickie goes with a friend for her baby appointment and a friend assumes Vickie is now pregnant. The city decides to remove the oak tree in front of the Angels’ home, so Vickie starts a petition to have the tree stay where it is.

Television Actress BETTY WHITE Glossy 8x10 Photo Date with the Angels Print  | eBay
Photo: ebay.com

There was an announcer on this show also, but this time it was played by Tom Kennedy, someone many of us would get to know in the game show world.

In this sitcom model, half the show was a dream sequence, which allowed the couple to appear in situations most couples never got in. White also sang a song on each show with the lyric “angel” in them. There was a plan for her to record an LP which was later canceled. The theme song was “Got a Date With an Angel” from 1932, a standard played by the Hal Kemp Orchestra.

Betty White posing with a 1958 Plymouth Fury - Plymouth sponsored her  series "Date with the Angels" (1957-1958) : r/OldSchoolCool
Photo: reddit.com

The sponsor, Plymouth, did not like the dream sequences. When the show did not do as well in the ratings against The Thin Man and The Schlitz Playhouse, Plymouth put a lot of pressure on the producers to replace the daydreaming with more typical at-home situations. White said without those dream scenes, the show became just one more run-of-the-mill sitcom. She also thought Williams did not have the same skills as Del Moore had. She said Williams was “a lovely man, but he simply didn’t think funny . . . I can honestly say that was the only time I have ever wanted to get out of a show.”

Photos from Betty White's Best Roles - E! Online
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And another echo from the past show?  John Crosby didn’t like this show either.  He said “Just when I felt reasonably sure that we had all the husband and wife comedies the human system could reasonably stand, ABC-TV comes along with a new one called Date with the Angels which has all the worst qualities of all the other husband and wife comedies without ‘as near as I can find out, any of the virtues.’ . . .their conversation is a series of two-line jokes and pretty bad jokes. She smiles more than any wife since the dawn of time and there is more plot in two minutes than the average couple has in a lifetime. The canned laughter . . is conspicuously misplaced.” However, there was still thirteen weeks of shows to finish in the contract. It then became The Betty White Show; they did sketches and featured guest stars including Boris Karloff, Buster Keaton, and Basil Rathbone.

Front Standard. Betty White: Collector's Set - Life With Elizabeth/Date With the Angels [4 Discs] [DVD].

If you decide to watch an episode or two, you might want to start with the Christmas special. The 1957 episode is summarized on imdb.com as “In this episode, Vickie gets an elderly neighbor to play Santa at a department store. Nancy Kulp also appears in this episode. Things are fine until he believes he’s Santa Claus and starts giving toys away to the children. A sweet, memorable episode. Another viewer mentioned that “the funniest moment arrives at the start of the episode.  The elderly character Mr. Finley, played by the perpetually aged Burt Mustin, sings the popular Christmas carol “The First Noel” with only one lyric: the single word ‘noel.’  I love this moment so much, I frequently find myself at holiday time singing “The First Noel” exactly as Mr. Finley does! I also love this episode because it not only includes veteran TV actor Burt Mustin but character actors Nancy Kulp and Richard Deacon as well.”

The Toast of the Town: The First Variety Show

We are ending our “They Were the First” blog series with the first variety show to air on TV. During the first few decades of television, variety shows were always popular. And the show that drew in viewers every week was The Ed Sullivan Show.

Ed Sullivan Show – Motor City Radio Flashbacks
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The Ed Sullivan Show debuted on CBS as The Toast of the Town on June 20, 1948. (The show was changed from The Toast of the Town to The Ed Sullivan Show in 1955.) If you watched the first episode, you would have enjoyed Martin and Lewis performing, jazz singer Monica Lewis, Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein previewing their score to South Pacific which would open on Broadway in 1949, a troupe of singing firemen, and a boxing referee who would be in charge of the Joe Louis-Jersey Joe Walcott match. The last show of the series from March 27, 1971 featured pop singer Melanie, soprano singer Joanna Simon (sister of singer Carly Simon), Danny Davis and the Nashville Brass, and multi-lingual singers Sandler and Young.

Ed Sullivan and the eye of a generation | The ed sullivan show, Old tv  shows, Tv on the radio
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It was on Sunday evenings at 9 pm ET and would continue airing Sunday evenings in the network schedule until it went off the air in 1971. Sullivan presented a vaudeville (vaudeo as some execs referred to it) type format with guests from almost every genre of entertainment: popular singers, comedians, dancers, actors, acrobatic acts, opera singers, sports and classical musicians.

Even if you never watched the show, you probably can hear Sullivan’s dead-pan introductions in your head. He was mimicked for years for his notorious monotoned voice and his bungling of introductions. Cher always complained that they were introduced as “Sonny and Chair.” When he was mad at Buddy Holly, he introduced him as something like “Buddy Hollared.”

CBS had its own symphony orchestra in the early years (as did NBC). Some of the orchestra members became part of the orchestra conducted by Ray Bloch on Toast of the Town. It was an incredible group of musicians who could play for a wide array of genres (imagine switching from The Jackson Five to Ella Fitzgerald to Itzhak Perlman to a ballet in one night). Each member was a specialist and had no trouble performing a spectrum of musical genres. In addition to the orchestra, the June Taylor Toastettes also danced on the show.

Most performers looked at an invitation from the show as their ticket to stardom. Harry Belafonte was a popular performer in the mid-fifties on the show, Elvis Presley made his first appearance on September 9, 1956, and The Beatles made the show one of their first stops when they came to America in 1964.

10 Facts About The Beatles's 'Ed Sullivan Show' Debut | Mental Floss
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While most people would not be surprised to learn Belafonte, Dinah Shore, and Irving Berlin made their debuts on the show, they might not have expected that Ed also hosted Bob Dylan, The Rolling Stones, The Doors, and Janis Joplin.

Until 1962, the show’s main sponsor was the Ford Motor Company, specifically the Lincoln-Mercury Division. Sullivan would read live ads on the air during these decades. Color came to the Ed Sullivan Show in 1965.

The show was broadcast live. Originally it came from the Maxine Elliott Theatre (CBS TV Studio 51) at Broadway and 39th St. and moved to its permanent home CBS-TV Studio 50 which eventually was renamed the Ed Sullivan Theater.

The Incredible History Of The Late Show's Ed Sullivan Theater - Recommended  Photos - CBS.com
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The show did very well attracting viewers. Until 1968, it was in the top twenty for its entire history. In 1969, it dropped to 23rd and in 1970, it hit 27th but still did pretty well, landing in the top thirty. However, the network decided that the show was attracting the wrong demographic, namely older Americans. The show was cancelled in spring of 1971, so Ed was not able to put together a final good-bye; the show just ended.

In 1990, Andrew Solt (SOFA Entertainment) purchased exclusive rights to the library of The Ed Sullivan Show from Ed’s daughter. The collection includes 1087 hours of kinescopes and videotapes. Most of the shows that have been released have been on VHS/DVD sets. However, in 2021 MeTV began airing half-hour packages of performances on, when else but, Sunday evenings.

So, you might be wondering how Ed Sullivan became the emcee of such a long-running, successful show. Alan King once said, “Ed Sullivan can’t sing, can’t dance, and can’t tell a joke, but he does it better than anyone else.”

Although his onscreen persona was not very exciting, off screen his life was just the opposite. He loved New York night life and was a world traveler. He was a bit eccentric and lived at the Delmonico Hotel.

Ed was a twin but, sadly, his brother was sickly and only lived a few months. In the 1920s, Sullivan had hosted radio programs with Broadway themes. He was able to work with Jimmy Durante, Irving Berlin, and Jack Benny, among others.

In 1926 he began dating Sylvia Weinstein; their families were opposed to a Catholic-Jewish marriage and they dated three years before wedding. The couple had a glamorous, exciting life, hobnobbing with the rich and famous.

Ed worked as a newspaper reporter, covering sports till 1931. At that time, he was asked to write a Broadway feature and The New York Daily News hired him to write a regular column about New York.

What Makes Ed Sullivan Tick? | The Saturday Evening Post
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In 1947, Sullivan emceed the Harvest Moon Ball for the Daily News which was televised. After that event, CBS offered him the variety show. Although he was known for having controversies, asking musicians to change lyrics or eliminate songs he thought were not appropriate for his show, he was respected in the industry for being color-blind to talent. Despite racism within the industry, he supported talented individuals despite their race, gender, or background. He featured many African American guests who went on to become stars on his show. He and Louis Armstrong were close friends, and Sullivan paid for the funeral of Bill Bojangles Robinson after he died penniless. Sullivan also appreciated Motown and often invited their artists on the show.

When you look at what television was like in the late forties and all the changes that the next several decades would bring, it is pretty amazing to have Meet the Press, which began in 1947 and Toast of the Town which began in 1948 to have such long lives on air. These shows not only learned to adjust to social and technical changes, they were quality shows that stood the test of time. After learning more about The Ed Sullivan Show, I am curious to learn more about the man behind the show. I hope you have enjoyed getting to know a little bit more about the early days of the classic television this month.

Mary Kay and Johnny and Company: The First Sitcoms

We are in the midst of our “They Were the First” blog series. In past weeks we’ve learned about the first crime drama and the first news show. Today we take a peek at some of the first sitcoms on the air.

She Was the First Lucy, but Where Is the Love?
Mary Kay and John Stearns Photo: gr8erdays.com

The very first sitcom I could find evidence for was Mary Kay and Johnny which debuted in 1947. This show was only on three or four seasons, but it produced 301 episodes so it was on more often than once a week. The description on imdb.com is that it’s about the “adventures and misadventures of the strait-laced bank employee Johnny Sterns and his zany wife Mary Kay.”

Real-life spouses Mary Kay Stearns and John Stearns played the married couple that the show centered on. Nydia Westman played Mary Kay’s mother and Howard Fischer played Howie. When the Stearns had a baby named Christopher, he also became their son on the show.

The show was shot live in New York and sponsored by Anacin. During the first season, Anacin tested the market to see how many people might be watching the show because TV ratings had not been collected at that time. They offered a free mirror to the first 200 viewers who submitted comments about the show; to their surprise, more than 9,000 viewers sent letters.

Believe it or not, this was the first married couple to share a bed. At some point, networks rethought this decision, because it would be a battle for years during the fifties and sixties.

So, what were some of the other earliest sitcoms? Here are a few of the other sitcoms that were on during the early years of the golden age.

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The Laytons. This short-lived show was on the air from August to October of 1948 on the Dumont network. However, it was notable in that it was the first show to feature an African American in a recurring role. I could only find detailed information for one episode which starred Vera Tatum as Ruth Layton, Amanda Randolph as Martha, and Elizabeth Brew as Ginny Layton. From what I could determine it moved to Dumont after running locally for a month.

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The Growing Paynes. From 1948-49, this show followed the “trials and tribulations” of an insurance salesman and his screwball wife.  I’m not sure why all the wives were screwballs in the forties. The show had a cast overhaul after the first couple of months. John Harvey and Judy Parish were replaced by Ed Holmes and Elaine Stritch. The sponsor was Wanamakers Department Store. This show is historically important because it was the first sitcom to work the sponsor’s business into the script. Despite the change in casting, the show was cancelled after ten months.

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The Aldrich Family. This well-known family made the leap from radio to television in 1949. The show centered around the Aldrich son Henry and his family who lived on Elm Street in Centerville.  Imdb.com lists 18 episodes but five seasons so it was on sporadically apparently like The Jack Benny Show when it began on the small screen. I’m not sure how this show survived five seasons. While Jameson House played Sam Aldrich, during the 18 episodes, there were three different women playing his wife Mary and five different actors who showed up as his son Henry.

The Life of Riley. This show also began life as a radio show. There were two versions of the show and the second version was the better known one.  In this earlier version from 1949, Riley is played by Jackie Gleason and his wife Peg is Rosemary DeCamp. Their son Riley Jr. was played by Lanny Rees and Gloria Winters took on the role of their daughter Bab. The other cast member was Jim Gillis, Riley’s friend, played by Sid Tomack. The show primarily focuses on Riley’s home life though we hear about life at the aircraft plant he works in as a riveter. His catchphrase was “What a revoltin’ development this is.”

The Life of Riley: A matter of perspective | CharlesPaolino's Blog
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The show only lasted for 26 episodes; at that time, a full season was 39. Their sponsor was Pabst Blue Ribbon Beer and part way through the year the company decided it would rather put more money into the Pabst Blue Ribbon Bouts, a boxing show.

This show also made history. It was the first sitcom to win an Emmy, beating out The Silver Theater and The Lone Ranger.

William Bendix could not accept this role because, oddly enough, he was filming a movie, The Life of Riley. He would perfect the role in the second television version which debuted in 1953.

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Mama. This show ran from 1949-1957, producing 178 episodes. Peggy Wood starred as Mama Hansen and Judson Laire played her husband Papa Hansen. A young Dick Van Patten appeared as their son Nels, Rosemary Rice was daughter Katrin, and Robin Morgan was daughter Dagmar.

The show chronicled the lives of a family who recently immigrated to San Francisco shortly after 1910. The movie starring Irene Dunne was also very popular. Many viewers fondly recalled the series as a heart-warming and tender show. Like, most of these early shows, it was shot live so there are no reruns available for this much-loved show.

It, too, made history, being the first show listed as a comedy drama which was not the new thing that we thought it was in the 1970s.

Beginning in 1950, the sitcom genre would become the king of the television schedule. That was the year one of my all-time favorite shows, The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show aired and the two popular, but disgraceful shows, Beulah and Amos ‘n Andy hit the air.

The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show | TIME
George Burns and Gracie Allen Photo: timemagazine.com

It was interesting to go back to learn about the first sitcoms which are not well-known or available for viewing. It’s television history we don’t want to lose. These were the pioneers of classic television, and it’s amazing how each series made history of its own that often would not be repeated for several decades.

Meet the Press: The First News Show

We are in the midst of our “It’s the First” blog series, and today we are talking about a show that debuted in 1947 to bring us the news: Meet the Press (although the show actually began on radio in 1945). Although we hear a lot about Gunsmoke and The Simpsons being on air for so many years, rarely do people talk about the fact that Meet the Press was one of the first television shows and is still going strong. Of course, it looks a bit different than it did when it first began.

The show, which will be celebrating its 75th anniversary next year, features interviews with national leaders about politics, economics, foreign policy and other critical global topics. Noted journalists and experts provide analysis, discussion, and reviews of the past week’s events. The show began during the second official television season. It was the first live network news show, and was the first live news show that a sitting president appeared on; in this case it was Gerald Ford.

The program has had twelve different hosts during its history beginning with Martha Rountree. The first guest was James Farley who had served as postmaster general, Democratic National Committee chairman, and campaign manager for Franklin D. Roosevelt.

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Martha Rountree and Gov. Thomas Dewey Photo: flowersforsocrates.com

Meet the Press is on the air in most markets on Sunday morning on NBC. It is also on Sirius/XM and syndicated on Westwood One, and is often replayed on C-Span.

For the first forty-five years of its airing, it was a 30-minute program but was extended to an hour in 1992. General Foods was the sponsor for the first television seasons. Rountree, the only female, hosted until 1953 when Ned Brooks took over for 12 years. Lawrence Spivak, who had hosted the radio version was the moderator until 1975. Bill Monroe stepped up to the plate next, hosting until 1984. The next seven years had a revolving door of hosts including Roger Mudd and Marvin Kalb, cohosts; Chris Wallace; and Garrick Utley.

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Tim Russert, network bureau chief in Washington DC took over in 1991 and remained with the show until his death in 2008. After his death, Tom Brokaw had a special edition of the show dedicated to Russert, leaving his chair empty on the set.

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NBC news anchor Brian Williams hosted the next regularly scheduled show following Russert’s death and Brokaw became interim host through the 2008 general elections. Following the elections, Brokaw continued the first half hour with David Gregory taking over the second half hour. Gregory became the sole host in December of 2008.

In an attempt to gain viewers, a new set and theme song were introduced in 2010. Ratings continued to decline, and in 2013 the show, which had typically been the number one Sunday news program, dropped to third place.

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In 2014, Chuck Todd, NBC’s chief White House correspondent took over the reins of the show. The show never regained its former numbers, but its Facebook ratings have skyrocketed.

Some of the most-watched episodes included Elizabeth Bentley, a courier with a Community spy ring, in 1948; Fidel Castro in 1959; and Martin Luther King Jr. in 1963.

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Every US president since JFK has appeared on the show, although most after their presidencies.

Todd, who is still running the show, shared some of his thoughts about why Meet the Press has been so influential. About the Sunday time slot, he said that “I think that the reason it has survived is because the idea of using Sunday as a day of reflection is sort of ingrained in the news business, too,” Todd said. “We continue to believe that Sunday mornings are when we’re going to sit down and try to figure out what the heck’s going on in the country.”

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Tim Russert Photo: npr.org

Todd also discussed Russert’s relevance on the show when he said, “Every moderator leaves an imprint. Tim has two giant imprints. He took Meet the Press to an hour. And he made the round table a vital and regular part of the show. Tim also made it seem less like an insider show. He realized it was at its best when explaining Washington to America but also bringing America to Washington.”

It’s hard to fault the show too much for its decline in ratings. When you consider, how many news choices there currently are, I think it is amazing that any news show has been able to remain on the air for almost 75 years.

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Chuck Todd Photo: youtube.com

The combination of Trump as president and the Covid pandemic has helped the show’s ratings a bit. In March of 2020 Dr. Anthony Fauci appeared on the show. According to Nielsen data, 4.657 million views tuned in making the show the most-watched one on that day. An additional 952,000 people watched rebroadcasts on NBC and MSNBC, the highest-rated show since January 2009.

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Dr. Anthony Fauci Photo: mediaite.com

It will be interesting to learn what celebrations are planned for 2022. If you have not checked in to see what Meet the Press is all about, take a listen this month.

Martin Kane, Private Eye: The First Crime Drama

This month we are looking at “It Was the First” in the golden age of television. We start off with the first television crime drama: Martin Kane, Private Eye.

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Martin Kane, like so many other early television shows, started life as a radio show. Sponsored by the United States Tobacco Company, it was on the radio from 1949-1952 and aired on television from 1949-1954, resulting in 75 episodes.

The show was directed and produced by Frank Burns. A variety of writers provided scripts, but Alvin Boretz and Donald Sanford wrote the most. Boretz would go on to write scripts for many shows during the sixties, seventies, and eighties. Sanford was also a prolific writer during those decades; he is best known for writing all 194 episodes of The Plainclothesman which aired the same years as Kane, 1949-1954.

Considering it was only on for five years, four different actors played the title role: William Gargan, Lloyd Nolan, Lee Tracy, and Mark Stevens. Gargan played the role till 1951 when Nolan took over. Nolan would have a long, acting career, best known for his starring role on Julia as Dr. Chegley. Tracy accepted the role in 1953 and Stevens became the star for the last year. After this show ended, Stevens went right into another crime series, Big Town which was written from the perspective of the press.  He would make appearances in movies and television through the late eighties.

Martin Kane works in New York. Originally, Kane was a sweet-talking detective who called women “doll face.” Depending on which actor was playing the detective, his personality could be smooth and suave or gruff and aggressive. Kane seemed to become tougher as the series continued. Sometimes he received full cooperation from the police; other seasons, they were more difficult to work with.

Rounding out the cast were Frank M. Thomas playing Captain Burke, King Calder was Lieutenant Gray, Nicholas Saunders portrayed Sergeant Ross, Loring Smith was Captain Evans, and Sergeant Strong was played by Michael Garrett.

The early years of television had their share of mishaps. Watching these early shows you can see botched cues, falling scenery, missed lines, and other bloopers.

It was immensely popular both on the radio and television; in its second season, it was 12th in the ratings and would go on to the top ten.

The United States Tobacco Company also sponsored the television version. Martin Kane could be seen entering his favorite tobacco shop in the middle of the show where he discussed his pipe and cigarette tobacco with store owner Happy McMann played by Walter Kinsella. The sponsor’s products were prominently on display in the shop and Kane paid $.15 a pouch for his tobacco.

Charles Paul provided the music for the show. After this show went off the air, Paul spent the rest of his career composing music for soap operas, contributing to almost 2500 different episodes through the eighties.

NBC aired the show on Thursday nights at 10 ET. It was a half-hour show for the first four seasons, switching to a 60-minute format for the final year.

The show was nominated for Best Mystery, Action, or Adventure Program in 1953, but it was beat out by Dragnet.

A 1950 comic book was based on the show; it was illustrated by Wally Wood, Joe Orlando, and Martin Rosenthal. (Wood became one of Mad’s first cartoonists, and Orlando also worked on Mad and was the VP of DC Comics and his career spanned six decades in the business.)

In his biography, Why Me, William Gargan talks about working on this show:

“Very soon in the game, I realized our stories were nothing to rave about. How much well plotted story line and genuine character development can you accomplish in a half-hour? So, I made the program a showcase for me. After all, that was what we were selling – Martin Kane. I developed a tongue-in-cheek style, a spoof of the hard-boiled detective, a way of silently saying, Don’t blame me for the lousy stories, I didn’t write them. And anyway, what’s the difference?

It was nothing staggering, my decision. It only made sense. Bogart’s movie version of Sam Spade applied the same ground rules. We gave the audience a good time, and if all the threads were not tightly tied in a half-hour, we swept them under the bed. Have fun. And the show, for whatever reason, took hold. . . . The show had charm, and its charm held together the lunacy, the feeble character development, the limited camera work.

It also had a producer I could not abide. . . . He used the show for a flesh parade. The result was we had pretty, empty-headed girls on the show. blowing lines all over the lot.

The show began to slide downhill. In desperation, I began to mug a little more, to cover up the new holes, and the script writers began to write more blatantly. You get into a terrible rut this way. Everybody works harder to undo the damage, and the result is more screeching, more overacting, overwriting, which starts to drive the viewers away and to get them back you come up with more and more desperate gimmickery.”

A new show was created in 1957 with Kane working in London, starring Gargan, but it never was popular and was cancelled after a year.

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The show might not have been the best crime detective show ever written, but it was popular, nominated for an Emmy by its peers, and set the tone for future dramas.

Columbo: The Disheveled Detective

We are winding up the blog series, “One-Named Detectives,” and I think we saved the most interesting private eye for today: Columbo.

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Columbo was on the air from 1971-2003, the longest of the five detectives we looked at in this series (Cannon, Kojak, Mannix, Matlock, and Columbo), but oddly had the fewest episodes with 68 (Cannon had 120, Kojak had 117, Matlock with 181, and Mannix had the most with 194).

Richard Levinson and William Link created Columbo (they also were the force behind Mannix). Levinson and Link met in junior high and they were a writing team until 1987 when Levinson passed away. This show was a bit different; it actually had two pilot episodes in 1968 and 1971. It originally aired from 1971-1978 in The NBC Mystery Movie series. It alternated with McMillan and Wife, McCloud and Hec Ramsey.  ABC revived the show from 1989-2003, but it was not a weekly show then either. Falk didn’t want a weekly show, so the series was scheduled for one Wednesday a month. For season two, the series was moved to Sunday nights where it continued until 1978.

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Falk with Hector Elizondo–Photo: columbophile.com

In the original concept for the show, Columbo was described as smooth-talking and cultured. The first choice for an actor to play the role was Bing Crosby who declined. When Falk showed up for his audition, he came in wrinkled clothing, aimlessly chattered, and seemed a bit scatter brained so the producers changed the character.

The show had some interesting directors. One of the directors on the show was Steven Spielberg who directed “Murder by the Book.” Falk himself directed the final episode of season one, “Blueprint for Murder.” Nicholas Colasanto who played Coach on Cheers directed two of the shows, “Etude in Black” and “Swan Song.” Patrick McGoohan directed five episodes (including three he guest starred in), as well as producing and writing two others. Falk’s friend actor Ben Gazzara directed “A Friend in Deed” and “Troubled Waters.”

On Columbo, we see the crime being committed long before we meet Lt Columbo (Peter Falk), so we know who committed the crime from the beginning. The fun of the episode is in watching Columbo investigate the crime and how he solves it. Columbo never introduces himself with his first name and no other character in the show uses it either. In season four, Colonel Rumford asks Columbo if he has a first name, and his response is “I do, but usually only my wife uses it.” Apparently, in one episode, a badge is scanned and lists his name as Frank, but William Link stated that Columbo was written without a first name.

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Columbo was a very disheveled detective who always showed up in a rumpled raincoat, smoking a cigar and appearing as if he was not quite all there. Falk used his own wardrobe for the character. The infamous raincoat was one he bought for $15 in 1967 when he got caught in a New York City rainstorm.

However, behind the façade of an inept policeman was a brilliant mind. He asked a lot of seemingly non-essential questions and paid attention to every detail. After interviewing a suspect, he always said, “Just one more thing.” Falk improvised during filming. He might ask for a pencil, search for something or throw in an unscripted line and did it to create a genuine confusion on the part of the other actor so it appeared more realistic.

This was definitely a one-man show, but there were a few characters who had recurring roles: Mike Lally played a bartender in 25 episodes, John Finnegan was Barney on 13 shows, and Bruce Kirby as Sgt George Kramer was seen nine times.

Car history: The Peugeot and the TYV show "Columbo."
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Columbo’s car is a 1959 Peugeot 403. Apparently, only 504 convertibles with two doors were made that year. When NBC cancelled the series, the car was sold. ABC had to locate a replacement when they picked the show up later. You can tell the difference because the license plate from NBC seasons was 044-APD and the plate from ABC shows was 448-DBZ.

Most of the suspects on the show were clever, wealthy people who think they have covered their tracks and have a solid alibi.

For only 68 episodes, there were a lot of famous guest stars on the show.  Some stars even portrayed two different criminals including Jack Cassidy, Robert Culp, George Hamilton, Patrick McGoohan, and William Shatner. Other guest stars showing up were Anne Baxter, Johnny Cash, Faye Dunaway, Jose Ferrer, Ruth Gordon, Lee Grant, Janet Leigh, Vera Miles, Ray Milland, Leonard Nimoy, Donald Pleasence, Dick Van Dyke, and Robert Vaughn.

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Falk with Dick Van Dyke–Photo: amazon.com

There was a variety of music written for each episode of the show. The Mystery Movie Theme was written by Henry Mancini and was used for the NBC shows. Both Quincy Jones and Mike Post also wrote versions of The Mystery Movie theme. One song uniquely belonging to Columbo was “This Old Man.” Falk can be heard humming or whistling it in various episodes after it was introduced in a 1973 show.

The show received thirteen Emmys during its run. Falk won the Emmy the first season and again in 1976. He was nominated in 1973, 1977 and 1978 but lost to Richard Thomas, James Garner and Ed Asner respectively. The series was nominated in 1972, 1973, 1976, 1977, and 1978 (winners were Elizabeth R Masterpiece Theater; The Waltons; Police Story; Upstairs, Downstairs; and The Rockford Files).

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The show was very popular and was broadcast in 44 countries. There is a statue of Columbo in his coat in Budapest, Hungary on Falk Miksa Street. The story behind it is that according to then-mayor Antal Rogan, Falk is a relative of Falk Miksa who was a Hungarian writer and politician, but I could not verify if that was true or not.  What is true is that it was put up in 2014 at a cost of $63,000.

When he is questioning witnesses, Columbo often throws in random references to his wife and or something the couple liked to do, but we never see her in the series.  However, later a show was created, Mrs. Columbo starring Kate Mulgrew. Falk’s real-life wife Shera Danese was cast in six of the Columbo episodes, always appearing as a different character.

A group of novels was adapted from the Columbo tv series by MCA written by Alfred Lawrence, Henry Clements, and Lee Hays.

Columbo has been a popular show in syndication and can currently be seen on ME TV Sunday nights. The shows run from 70-98 minutes which probably makes syndication interesting. The entire set is available on DVD for about $50.

Unfortunately, Peter Falk was diagnosed with dementia in 2007, and by 2009 he could not recognize photos of himself and did not remember playing Columbo. He passed away in 2011.

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Columbo

It’s been fun looking at these five detectives for this series.  When I put this together, I chose five private eyes I thought would make good articles. What I didn’t realize, is that four of them were all from the same era.  In fact, in 1973, Columbo was on Sunday nights followed by Mannix and both were in the top twenty and on Wednesday nights Cannon was on followed by Kojak and both were in the top ten. The following year, Sunday nights featured Kojak before Mannix which was still in the top 20 and they were on at the same time as Columbo. Cannon eventually moved to Sunday night but also spent part of the year on Wednesdays where it was also in the top twenty. Matlock debuted in the late eighties, after the other shows except Columbo had all gone off the air.

Cannon, Kojak, Mannix, Matlock, and Columbo—five very different types of detectives who had one thing in common: good writing. Check them all out and I’d love to hear which one is your favorite.

Matlock: Charming but Cantankerous

We are winding down our blog series, One-Named Detectives, and today we have Matlock on the hot seat. In the mid-1980s, Andy Griffith returned to television, starring in Matlock, a legal drama created by Dean Hargrove. The show’s concept was similar to Perry Mason which was also created by Hargrove. During its run from 1986-1995, the show was produced by a variety of companies including Intermedia Entertainment Co., The Fred Silverman Co., Dean Hargrove Productions (which was named Strathmore Productions during the first two seasons), and Viacom Productions.

The show began its life on NBC before moving to ABC from 1992-1995. In 1997, Matlock was featured on a two-part episode of Diagnosis Murder which aired on CBS. During this episode, we learned that early in his career, Dr. Sloan (Dick Van Dyke) had convinced Matlock to invest his life savings in the 8-track tape company and he lost it all. He was forced to buy cheap suits and survive on hot dogs and both things became habits that continued even after he had money again.

Ben Matlock was a folksy and well-liked, but grumpy, attorney. Ben attended Harvard Law School, followed by a few years as a public defender before opening up his own practice in Atlanta. He lives in a contemporary farmhouse and only drives Ford Crown Victorias.

Matlock was apparently based on Georgia lawyer Bobby Lee Cook who was also known for his legal skill and down-home charm. One of his most famous cases was defending former running back Bobby Hoppe. Hoppe was on the Auburn 1957 championship team and three decades later was charged for murder of a bootlegger in 1957; the case ended with a hung jury. Hoppe played for a short time with the Washington Redskins and the San Francisco 49ers. After his football career he returned to school and obtained his BS and Masters in Education. In 2010, his wife wrote that Bobby had indeed killed the bootlegger, Don Hudson.

Matlock - The Thief (1989) - Coins on Television
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Matlock, a widower, is also known for being a bit cheap despite his $100,000 standard fee, the equivalent of about $240,000 in 2021. However, he has been known to waive a fee or let a client pay in by installments. During most episodes, he finds an overlooked clue at the crime site a la Columbo.

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Matlock from Season 1 with Linda Purl and Kene Holliday Photo: episodeninja.com

The cast changed during the run of the show. In season one, his daughter Charlene (Linda Purl) is a partner before moving to Philadelphia to set up her own practice. Tyler Hudson (Kene Holliday) is his private investigator for the first three seasons. Conrad McMasters (Clarence Gilyard Jr.) takes over that job for seasons 4-7, followed by Cliff Lewis (Daniel Roebuck). Season 2 features Cassie Phillips (Kari Lizer), Ben’s file clerk. Michelle Thomas (Nancy Stafford) is an American lawyer living in London, an equal partner of Matlock’s for seasons 2-6. Ben’s daughter Leanne MacIntyre (Brynn Thayer) comes on board for seasons 7-8 as Thomas’s replacement. Finally, Julie March (Julie Sommars) is a district attorney, Matlock’s rival in court, and his good friend of Ben’s from season 3-6. Those are a lot of cast changes to keep straight!

There were also a variety of recurring characters, primarily from the police department. Don Knotts, who worked with Griffith on The Andy Griffith Show, was Les Calhoun, Ben’s next-door neighbor from seasons 3-6.

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Together Again: Knotts and Griffith Photo: pinterest.com

In addition to Knotts, other cast members of the old show who appeared on Matlock included Aneta Corsaut, Jack Dodson, Betty Lynn, and Arlene Golonka.

Daniel de Vise wrote the book Andy and Don: The Making of a Friendship and a Classic American TV Show in 2015. He relayed that “Andy harbored enormous ambitions for Matlock. He envisioned Ben Matlock as a sort of antihero, more complex than Andy Taylor, vain, uncultured, cheap, and vaguely unlikable.”

Dean Hargrove didn’t like that vision of the character. He felt the character’s darker characteristics were being exposed and wanted Griffith to “humanize” him.

However, de Vise said it was “Andy who imbued Matlock with humor. Over its nine-year run, Matlock became an increasingly whimsical series, with the formality of the early episodes giving way to a looser, warmer more Southern style.” He said Griffith knew his new show was a drama but also understood how to lighten things up just enough. As de Vise explained–“The humor was often subtle: a raised eyebrow or gentle groan when Matlock heard something he didn’t like or a drawn-out ‘Nooo,’ just like Barney Fife used to do it.”

Matlock’s theme song was written by Dick De Benedictis specifically for the show. De Benedictis had more than 90 composing credits and produced music for a variety of genres of shows. He composed music for Perry Mason, Columbo and Diagnosis Murder as well.

The show began life on Tuesdays at 8 pm EST and continued for five years until it moved to Fridays at 8 pm EST. In season one, the show was in the top 20 and up against Who’s the Boss and Growing Pains on ABC which were both in the top 10. In 1991 it dropped out of the top-rated shows and moved to Thursday nights. In 1992 it beat out several shows throughout the year in those time slots and jumped back into the top 30. It stayed in that schedule for the remainder of its run, never cracking the top 30 again and its last year faced the tough competition of Friends.

After nine years on the air, the show ended because Andy wanted to spend more time with his family.

Grandpa Simpson mentions the show on The Simpsons. In “Whacking Day,” he relates “I’m an old man. I hate everything but Matlock.”

The show’s seasons were released on DVD from 2008-2015.

Matlock has been popular in reruns, showing up at various times on TBS, Hallmark, CBS Drama, WGN, FETV, and MeTV.

Andy Griffith | Biography, TV Shows, Movies, & Facts | Britannica
Photo: brittanica.com

With 181 episodes, Matlock had a long and successful run. After playing Andy Taylor for so many years and having the show available in syndication after it went off the air, it would be tough to create a more popular character. Between the two shows, Griffith had three unsuccessful shows in The New Andy Griffith Show, Headmaster, and Salvage 1.

Andy Griffith dies at 86 | MPR News
Photo: mprnews.com

But with Matlock, Griffith was once again able to play a southern character who he made the show his own. You can’t compare the two shows, but on its own evaluation, Matlock is a well-written and well-acted show and deserves to be watched on its own merits.

Mannix: “The Old-Fashioned” Detective

We are three-quarters through our new blog series, “One-Named Detectives,” and today we are looking at a show that began in 1967 and aired until 1975, producing 194 episodes.

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Photo: blogspot.com

Created by Richard Levinson and William Link and produced by Bruce Geller, Mannix was one of the most violent television shows during the sixties. Private investigator Joe Mannix (Mike Connors) began working at Intertect which relied on computers and a large network of operatives to help them solve crimes.

CBS was planning on cancelling the show after its debut year, but somehow Lucille Ball convinced them to renew it for another season. (Desilu produced the show.) In season two, Mannix decides to leave and open his own agency. He prefers to solve crimes the old-fashioned way, with his own brain, or as he described it, “A private eye—in the classical tradition.” Peggy Fair (Gail Fisher), a widow whose policeman husband was killed in action, became his secretary. Joe was also a father figure for her son Toby. The role of Peggy was planned for Nichelle Nichols but she had to decline due to receiving her role on Star Trek.

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Photo: seasonsepisodes.watch–with Gail Fisher

The cast was rounded out by Lt Art Malcolm (Ward Wood), Sergeant Charley (Ron Nyman), and Lew Wickersham (Joseph Campanella), and police contact Tobias (Robert Reed). Every episode was filled with violent fistfights, car chases, and shoot-outs. During the course of the series, Mannix was knocked unconscious 55 times, drugged about 38 times, and shot 17 times. Connors actually broke his collar bone filming the pilot. The character of Mannix survived many of these situations because he was an expert fighter. He was said to have been a POW during the Korean war. Mannix was also a race car driver and a pilot. He sailed, skied, golfed and was an accomplished pool player. He was said to have grown up in Summer Grove where he excelled in football and basketball.

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Photo: metv.com with Robert Reed

Like Cannon, Joe Mannix relied on a car phone during his investigations. Many viewers felt the scripts were well written and the endings were not easy to predict. The plots relied more on crime-solving techniques but several tackled relevant social topics including compulsive gambling, racism, returning Vietnam War veterans issue, and professionals with physical disabilities such as deafness or blindness working to solve crimes.

The scripts were written by some of the best writers in the business. There were more than 85 writers credited with stories, one of them being Mel Tormé, yep that Mel Tormé.  Other writers were John Meredyth Lucas who wrote for fifty shows including Harry O, Kojak, Ben Casey, and Star Trek; Stephen Kandel who wrote for many shows including Hart to Hart, MacGyver, Hawaii Five-0, and Cannon; and Donn Mullally who also wrote for fifty shows including Ironside, The Virginian, Bonanza, and The Wild Wild West.

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Photo: pinterest.com

There were a lot of creative shows using visual effects in the sixties and Mannix was one of them. It employed many cutting-edge gimmicks to appeal to fans. Technical filming skills included zooms (moving in for a close-up or out to show something the viewer did not realize was in the scene), rack focuses (a rack focus is the filmmaking technique of changing the focus of the lens during a continuous shot. When a shot “racks,” it moves the focal plane from one object in the frame to another), lens flares (a lens flares adds a sense of drama and a touch of realism to a shot), Dutch angles (which produce a viewpoint of tilting one’s head to the side), both low and high angles, and cameras that could move 360 degrees during filming.

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Photo: rockauto.com

For you car afficiandos, Mannix had a lot of cool automobiles during the series. For season one, he primarily drove a 1967 Oldsmobile Toronado customized by George Barris who built the Batmobile. For season two, Barris worked on a 1968 Dodge Dart for him.

Season three found him driving another Barris car, a 1969 Dodge Dart. Seasons four through six he drove Plymouth Cudas (a 1970 for four, a 1971 for five, and a 1973 for six). For season seven, he was given a 1974 Dodge Challenger and for the final season, he drove a Chevrolet Camaro LT.

An interesting story about his season two car is that it was sold to a secretary at Paramount Studios and then disappeared for a few decades when it was located near a ranger station in California. It was restored to the Barris condition it had on the show. It was featured in Muscle Machines in December of 2009 and on the show Drive on Discovery HD Theater in 2010. The car is currently owned by C. Van Tune, former editor of Motor Trend magazine.

In addition to special cars in the shows, a lot of celebrities guest starred including Hugh Beaumont, Robert Conrad, Yvonne Craig, Sally Kellerman, Burgess Meredith, Lee Merriwether, Vera Miles, and Diana Muldaur. Some of the more unusual guest spots were filled by musicians Neil Diamond, Buffalo Springfield, and Lou Rawls; comedians Rich Little and Milton Berle; and journalists Art Buchwald, and Rona Barrett.

The theme song was composed by Lalo Schifrin.  Titled, “Mannix,” it was released as a single in 1969 with “End Game” on the B side.

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Photo: amazon.com

Connors was nominated for an Emmy four times, Fisher was nominated for four as well, and the series was nominated twice. In 1970, Connors was beat by Robert Young in Marcus Welby, in 1971 Hal Holbrook won for The Bold Ones, Peter Falk won for Columbo in 1972, and in 1973 Richard Thomas won for The Waltons. Fisher lost to Margaret Leighton for Hallmark Hall of Fame in 1971, Ellen Corby for The Waltons in 1973, and Jenny Agutter in The Snow Goose Hallmark Hall of Fame in 1972. The show lost out as best drama to Elizabeth R Masterpiece Theater in 1972 and The Waltons in 1973.

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I do remember watching and enjoying the show when I was in grade school.  I’m guessing I watched it because it was something my parents watched. I think the show has held up well and, considering it was in the midst of the sixties, is not too dated. It would definitely be fun to check out a season or two of the show to see if you can figure out just “who done it.”