This month’s blog series is “It’s My Show.” Today we are beginning with a show I’ve discussed a few times over the years that had the perfect cast and concept, but it was cancelled after only one season: The Phyllis Diller Show which also went by The Pruitts of Southampton.
The show was created by David Levy in 1967 and was loosely based on the book House Party by Patrick Dennis. Levy was also the creator/producer for The Addams Family which aired from 1964-1966. The shows also shared composer Vic Mizzy who wrote the themes for both series. Mizzy also wrote the catchy tune from Green Acres. The opening theme song had Phyllis Diller dancing, skipping, and singing through the mansion, and the lyrics were:
PD: Howcha do howcha do, howcha do my dear What a LOVELY surprise, nice to see you here.
RG: All the bills have been long overdue my dear.
PD: File them under I.O.U… Howcha do, howcha do, Well HELLO, it’s you! Like my beads, like my dress? Aren’t they marvy-poo? They belong to the internal revenue. And they got us eating stew.
CHORUS: The Pruitts of Southampton,
Live like the richest folk, But what the folk don’t know is that The Pruitts are flat broke!
PD: Howcha do, howcha do, howcha do, my dear
RG: We are out of champagne, and I’m stuck, my dear.
PD: Ask the butler to lend you a buck, my dear. Howcha do, howcha do, howcha do…
The Pruitts, an incredibly wealthy family, live in the Hamptons. After going through an IRS audit, the family realizes they owe so much in back taxes, $10,000,000 in fact, that they were now broke. The IRS agrees to let them continue living in their mansion because they think exposing such a wealthy family’s poverty would cause a lot of repercussions.
Phyllis Diller starred as Phyllis Pruitt. Phyllis lives with her uncle Ned (Reginald Gardiner), her brother Harvey (Paul Lynde), her daughter Stephanie (Pam Freeman), brother-in-law (John Astin), and their butler (Grady Sutton). Midseason, the show was revamped and the family brings in boarders to raise money, including Norman Krump (Marty Ingels) and Vernon Bradley (Billy De Wolfe). They should have been able to raise a bit of money with 68 bedrooms in the house. Other characters included Regina Wentworth (Gypsy Rose Lee), their nosy neighbor and Baldwin (Richard Deacon), the IRS agent. The incredible Charles Lane plays Max.
In addition, there were a lot of guest stars during that single season including Ann B Davis, Bob Hope, Arte Johnson, John McGiver, Louie Nye, Hope Summers, and Mary Wickes.
The shots of the family home were filmed at the Vanderbilt mansion, Biltmore.
The show began on Tuesday nights. At the time, The Red Skelton Hour was one of the most popular shows on television and was tough competition. When the show was revamped, it moved to Friday nights where it was up against Friday Night at the Movies and T.H.E. Cat. If you don’t remember that show, don’t feel bad, you probably remembered very few of the new series that debuted that year.
1967 was not a very profitable year for sitcoms specifically. Besides Phyllis Diller’s show, the season aired Run Buddy Run, Mr. Terrific, The Jean Arthur Show, Occasional Wife, and Pistols and Petticoats. That Girl was one of the few shows to return the following season.
Even though it was named as one of the worst sitcoms ever in several TV Guide listings, critics at the time praised the show. Phyllis Diller was nominated for a Golden Globe for Best Actress in 1967. Marlo Thomas won, but there was some great competition including Elizabeth Montgomery, Barbara Eden, and Barbara Stanwyck.
One reviewer on imdb.com titled their review “The worst thing I have ever seen in my life” and followed up with a review that said, “Just kidding, this show is amazing and hilarious and that is why I gave it a 10/10.”
When Vic Mizzy discussed the show in a Televison Academy interview, he said the director was not any good, the scripts weren’t as funny as they could have been and sometimes Phyllis didn’t know her part. He thought those were the reasons the show failed. He thought it could have been unbelievabley funny.
One day Vic got a large check from England and it turns out the show was a hit there decades after it was aired in the United States.
I watched a couple of the episodes on youtube for this blog. Phyllis Diller was in rare form. Her hair is crazy like always and slapstick was part of her performance. The laugh track was annoying, but the show was funny at times. Pam Freeman was a breath of fresh air. In one of the episodes, Phyllis and her brother-in-law were trying to finance a pizza-making machine. They had to work around the fact that Baldwin from the IRS put a pay phone in the home to keep them from making so many long-distance calls. One of the funniest scenes was when Phyllis and her brother-in-law climb up one of the phone poles to tap into the line to talk to Baldwin pretending to be other people in order to get Baldwin to approve their financing. Phyllis had to come up with a variety of different voices during the calls. You could definitely hear a bit of Green Acres influence in the background music for this show. This was a show that only could have been produced in the sixties.
One of the best parts of watching the show was seeing the old commercials. I had forgotten the one about Joy dish soap when the dinner guests could see themselves in the plates. It just reminded me it was joyful to see these old shows in their entirety.
It was a fun show to learn about with an outstanding cast and should have been much more successful than it was. Whether the failure came from the director, the scripts, or some other behind-the-scenes issue, I’m not sure. It’s worth watching an episode or two just to see the wackiness that was associated with some sixties shows, but if I have to watch ten episodes of a show, I’ll take That Girl every time.
We are in the midst of our western series, and today we turn our attention to a show that was on ABC for four years, from 1965-1969: The Big Valley. Created by A. I. Bezzerides and Louis F. Edelman and produced by Levy-Gardner-Laven (a trio of Jules V. Levy, Arthur Gardner, and Arnold Laven).
The series is set on the Barkley Ranch in the 1870s, home of the Barkleys, one of the wealthiest families in the area. The ranch is based on the 30-acre Hill Ranch which existed from 1855-1931. Lawson Hill was murdered in 1861 ad then his wife Euphemia ran it. They also had three sons and one daughter. Today the ranch is covered by Camanche Reservoir waters. The exterior shot of the house used in the show was also Tara in Gone with the Wind.
On Big Valley, Victoria Barkley (Barbara Stanwyck) runs the ranch with the help of her sons Jarrod (Richard Long), Heath (Lee Majors), and Nick (Peter Breck) and daughter Audra (Linda Evans).
Heath was her husband’s illegitimate son, but she considered him her own child. He never met his father who had never been told of his existence; Heath learned it from his mother on her deathbed.
Jarrod was an attorney and was refined and well educated. He was briefly married but his wife was killed shortly after by a bullet meant for him. Nick was the younger, hot-tempered son who helped his mother run the ranch. He was a soldier in the Union Army during the Civil War. He had a great sense of humor and was very loyal to his family.
Audra was rather bold for the times. She was a tomboy but had a soft heart and tended to children at the local orphanage.
There was another younger Barkley, Eugene (Charles Briles), who was a medical student at Berkeley. He was seen off and on through season one, then drafted into the army and never really mentioned again.
Considering that the show was only on the air four years, a lot of stars appeared. A small sample includes Jack Albertson, Lew Ayres, Anne Baxter, Milton Berle, Charles Bronson, John Carradine, Yvonne Craig, Yvonne DeCarlo, Richard Dreyfuss, Robert Goulet, Julie Harris, Ron Howard, Cloris Leachman, Gavin MacLeod, Leslie Nielsen, Regis Philbin, Lou Rawls, Pernell Roberts, Wayne Rogers, Katharine Ross, William Shatner, and Adam West.
The Big Valley was a western but with a few twists and never predictable. It was the first time a woman would have the lead in a western. The Barkleys may have been wealthy, but they were raised right. They were hardworking and fought for the underdog, making sure justice prevailed. However, it was not a cliché; no one could be trusted and nothing was exactly as it looked. Characters who appeared angelic ended up being truly evil.
Unfortunately for the show, it was coming in at the end of the western’s popularity and was never in the top 30 during its time on the air. The other new shows that began when it did included Get Smart, I Dream of Jeannie, Hogan’s Heroes, Lost in Space, F Troop, and The Wild Wild West.
However, it received good reviews, and in 1966, Stanwyck was nominated and won the Emmy for drama series. She would also be nominated in 1967 and 1968, losing to Barbara Bain from Mission Impossible both years.
The theme was composed by George Duning. In 1966, a soundtrack from the show was released in mono and stereo versions. During his career Duning would work on more than 300 movie and television scores.
Like many television shows in the fifties and sixties, Dell Comics published six comic books based on the show. For some reason, I did not see much in the way of merchandising for this show compared to other westerns or shows from the sixties.
The cast got along well. Evans and Stanwyck were exceptionally close and rehearsed at Barbara’s house every Saturday. When Arthur Gardner was interviewed on the Television Academy, he said that Stanwyck mentored the younger cast members. He said “he could not praise her enough” for the work she did.
It’s too bad the show didn’t begin earlier in the decade; it might have been able to stay on the air a bit longer. It was a unique concept with a powerful woman as the star. You can currently see it on Me TV on Saturdays as well as a few other networks.
Although the Rat Pack have all passed on, their influence still surrounds us. We can listen to Frank Sinatra’s music channel on Sirius. Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin movies still play late at night. Sammy Davis Jr. and Peter Lawford can both be seen on a variety of sitcom reruns. One member we don’t see as often is Joey Bishop. While he is not as well known as the other friends, he actually was the only one of the group who starred in his own sitcom.
Two series went by the name “The Joey Bishop Show.” One was a sitcom and aired from 1961-1965, producing 125 episodes. For most of the run, Joey played a talk show host named Joey Barnes. The other show was an actual talk show that he hosted which ran from 1967-1969 and produced 682 episodes.
This blog looks at the sitcom created by Danny Thomas and Louis F. Edelman specifically for Joey Bishop. Danny served as executive producer, and the show was filmed at Desilu Studios before a live audience. When it debuted in 1961, it was filmed in black and white. One episode was shot in color and then the second and third seasons followed suit. NBC canceled the show after season three and CBS picked it up but filmed that season in black and white again. I imagine fans of the show weren’t happy to go from color to gray tones again; it would be like visiting Oz and then being sent back to Kansas.
Like The Andy Griffith Show, the pilot was an episode of the Danny Thomas Show. Joey played Joey Mason who was an incompetent public relations staffer. Danny arrives in Los Angeles exhausted but has no place to stay and is forced to sleep at Joey’s house with his parents and his two sisters, the younger one being Stella, an aspiring actress played by Marlo Thomas.
Before airing the next fall, the pilot had some revisions. Now Joey’s last name was Barnes. His father was dropped from the cast but two family members were added: a younger brother named Larry (Warren Berlinger) and a brother-in-law Frank (Joe Flynn) who was married to Betty (Virginia Vincent), the older sister. His mother continued to be played by Madge Blake who would go on to play Aunt Harriet on Batman.
Joey continued his public relations career and supports his family. The secretary at the PR firm, Barbara (Nancy Hadley) is his girlfriend. A lot of the plots revolve around family members taking advantage of Joey’s influence which they think is significant but is really almost nonexistent.
The show didn’t do well in the ratings, so it was retooled once again. Betty, Frank, and Barbara were all dropped from the show. The series was renewed for a second season, but the show would change its format again.
From season two on, Bishop became the host of a New York City talk show. The cast from the first season disappeared altogether in this fourth reincarnation. Abby Dalton plays Joey’s wife Ellie. The couple now live in a posh apartment building and, at the end of the second season, they have a baby boy. Hilda (Mary Treen) is the Barnes’ maid and baby nurse, and she often trades insults with Joey similar to the banter Florence and George had on The Jeffersons a decade later. The Jillsons (Joe Besser and Maxine Semon) are the superintendents of the building. Like Howard’s mother on The Big Bang, Maxine is heard but not seen. Guy Marks played Freddie, Joey’s manager.
There were some rumors that Joe Flynn had been let go the prior season because he was too popular; this would mean that Bishop was so insecure that he was willing to totally revamp his show to get rid of one character. That doesn’t seem to make sense. However, Cynthia Lowry’s column in The Evening Independent from September of 1963 reported that “Actor’s feuds can be very fierce. Joe Flynn, who now plays the sarcastic Captain Binghamton in McHale’s Navy still is so annoyed with The Joey Bishop Show that he doesn’t even mention it in his list of acting credits – although he included brief appearances on Hawaiian Eye, Ozzie and Harriet, and The Eddie Fisher Show. Flynn played a sharp-tongued ne’er do well brother-in-law during the first year of the Bishop comedy, a role that was swept away with a lot of others when the series was completely revamped.”
One review for the second season by Bob Thomas, AP Movie-TV Writer in the Ocala Star-Banner from August of 1962 stated:
“About the only resemblance between last season’s Joey Bishop show and the coming season’s is the name. It’s still The Joey Bishop Show, NBC having vetoed the comedian’s suggestion to call it The New Joey Bishop Show. Bishop fans may be startled to find their hero is no longer a press agent but a late-night television comic. Furthermore, he has jettisoned his mother, bless her heart, for a curvy wife. And he has acquired a whole new bunch of pals. That Joey was able to make these changes is one the minor miracles of television. Just about everyone, Joey especially, agreed that something was wrong with last season’s shows. When a series pulls a wrongo, it is usually yanked at the first sign of spring. But the series had somehow managed to best its competition on ABC and CBS and rack up an impressive rating. So, when Joey promised a clean sweep in format for the next season, NBC went along. I found Joey in the midst of his fourth show, and absolutely happy – for him. That is, he smiled every 15 minutes. I asked what went wrong the first season. ‘I showed up,’ he replied. But on a more analytical basis, he continued: ‘We did many things wrong. We didn’t have enough time to prepare. We violated a very basic concept in comedy. When you have a clever comedian -and in modesty I think I am-you surround him with funny people. When you have a funny comedian, you surround him with clever people. I made the mistake of working with clever people,’ he said. ‘Now I am working with funny people – Guy Marks, who is a bright young comedian; Joe Besser, who can get laughs just walking on stage; and Abby Dalton from the ‘Hennessy Show, a brilliant talent.’”
Another review a few weeks later agreed: “Joey Bishop also returned to NBC – on Saturday night. This season he is more poised, more famous, and a successful established night club comedian. He also picked up a wife on the show. The first show involved one of those typical newlywed situations that television situation comedies specialize in. High point of the show, however, was an imitation by Guy Marks, who plays Joey’s manager, of a flamingo. Don’t ask how they managed to get that in, but it was very funny! —-”
Once again there was talk of feuding between the star and a cast member, this time Guy Marks, because he was receiving great reviews. Marks was around for the first 18 episodes and when he left, Corbett Monica came on board as Larry Corbett, Joey’s head writer.
The Montreal Gazette in January of 1963 featured an article by Dorothy Kilgallen that explained, “It’s no secret that the parting between Joey Bishop and Guy Marks was far from friendly, but no one revealed that they were close to the fisticuffs stage.” Some cast members sided with Marks. Other cast members claimed Joey was not egotistical and wanted everyone to succeed. I was not able to determine whose version was closer to the truth, but it is not surprising that the show didn’t last as long as it could have between constant cast changes and in-fighting on the set.
There were also some controversies regarding the writing on the show. In the book Sitcom Writers Talk Shop by Paula Finn, Irma and Austin Kalish who wrote for many great sitcoms in the sixties and seventies were interviewed. She asked the pair if they ever recycled stories for show. They responded no, and continued with this story:
“IK: We were once writing The Joey Bishop Show, and we went in to pitch shows to the story editor.
AK: We pitched five shows to him.
IK: And he said, ‘Those sound like good ideas, but you know, I have to pitch them to Joey first.’ And then our agent called and told us he got word that Joey didn’t like any of those ideas. Fine.
AK: Five weeks later–week after week after week after week after week–
IK: Our ideas came on.
AK: Our ideas were stolen. Eventually that guy, the story editor on The Joey Bishop Show, came to us for a job. Needless to say, what goes around comes around.”
Another great writer, Joel Rapp, shared another story about this series. “We had a contract for six Joey Bishop Shows and we wrote the first one, and then we went to watch the taping. And there were about three words of our script left in what they finally shot. We asked the producer what happened, and he said ‘Joey got hold of the script, and he changed everything.’ But we still got the writer credit, which was fine. So then we wrote a second script, and the same thing happened. So for the third script, we turned in thirty-six blank pages, and we were fired. And it was fine with us. We were making plenty of money and had other jobs.”
Of course, many guest stars appeared on the show as themselves being interviewed by Joey, including The Andrews Sisters, Edgar Bergen, Milton Berle, Willie Davis, Don Drysdale, Robert Goulet, Don Knotts, Jerry Lewis, Jack Paar, and Andy Williams.
Other guest stars who appeared on the show in roles other than themselves included Jack Albertson, Parley Baer, Frank Cady, Jackie Coogan, Nancy Kulp, Sue Ane Langdon, Howard McNear, Barbara Stanwyck, and Dawn Wells.
The theme song was also axed from the first season. “Sometimes I’m Happy” by Irving Caesar and Vincent Youmans was exchanged for “Joey” by Sammy Cahn and Jimmy Van Huesen.
During the third season, one episode was filmed but never shown. John F. Kennedy was a friend of the Rat Pack. On November 15, 1963 Vaughn Meader, who often impersonated the President, was filmed in an episode as the impersonator of President Kennedy. A week later the assassination in Dallas occurred, and the episode was never seen live or in syndication. Most of the sources I consulted could never determine if the episode had been archived or destroyed.
Following all the changes, the ratings had increased during season two but season three saw lower ratings once again, and NBC decided not to renew the show. At the same time, Danny Thomas decided not to return for a twelfth season in his show, so CBS picked up Joey’s show. However, the show went up against the much-loved Bonanza, and the ratings never recovered, so CBS then canceled the show after the fourth season.
Chuck Rothman, who wrote a blog about the show May 28, 2017 on blogspot.com, described it as “filled with gentle comedy. The jokes may have worn a little thin, but the stories hold up surprisingly well. Barnes is a decent guy with a sense of humor and Bishop’s relaxed and subtle style—he never appeared to work to be funny—was charming to watch.”
Another viewer on imdb wrote that “personally, I failed to see the humor of the situations in this show that centered around a dull, middle-aged man who was still living with his mother . . . who was repeatedly being fired from his job.”
Obviously, they were describing two different versions of the show, but there certainly was a difference of opinion.
If you never had a chance to watch the show, Antenna TV began airing it in 2017; the network even transferred the first season’s 35mm film to a more modern technology so it can also be aired. Currently, you can view the show on Antenna TV at 7-8 am (EST) weekdays and 3-4 am (EST) Saturdays.
I have watched a few of the shows on Antenna TV and enjoyed them. All the episodes I was able to watch were during the final three seasons, but it would be interesting to catch a couple from the first year and compare them.
We kick off this new year getting to know one of my favorite entertainers, Jack Benny. While many radio stars had a hard time transitioning to television, Jack, along with his best friend George Burns, made it look easy. Jack’s radio show started in 1932. In 1950 he decided to make the leap to tv, and his show would be on the air until 1965 when he decided it was time to quit.
The series produced 258 episodes. Jack tested the water first, appearing randomly on television before settling into a weekly schedule ten years after the first show debuted (From 1955-1960 he was on every other week). George Balzer and Sam Perrin would write for the show for the entire run, given credit for 255 episodes. Ralph Levy, who helped George and Gracie get their show underway, came on board in 1951 and left in 1962. The well-respected Fred De Cordova directed the most episodes, 75.
Jack’s first shows were filmed at Burns’ McCadden Productions studio and later at Universal Television. His opening and closing monologues were done in front of a live audience but a laugh track was inserted for consistency. Jack brought his quirky radio crew with him: Don Wilson, Eddie “Rochester” Anderson, Dennis Day, Mary Livingstone, and Mel Blanc. Benny’s wife was Sadie Marks. He met her at age 14 in 1919, and they didn’t exactly hit it off. However, in 1927 they realized they were in love and married that year. Benny asked his wife to fill in for a live comedy show to play “Mary Livingstone.” Sadie did and showed her comic persona. She began to appear regularly and later legally changed her name to Mary Livingstone.
Benny understood the radio show was so successful because listeners bonded with the characters and considered them friends. Television just added another dimension for viewers to be able to see the characters.
Jack always underplayed his character, often giving the best lines to his cast. He had great timing, knowing when to tell a joke and when to say nothing. It was often said that he did not say funny things, but he said things funny. His catchphrases, “Well” (with a long pause) and “Now, cut that out” are still part of pop culture today.
In the classic age of comedy, sponsors were the key to survival, and Jack was always able to obtain some of the most well-known companies. During his run, he was sponsored by Lucky Strike, Lever Brothers Lux, State Farm Insurance, Lipton Tea, Miles Laboratories, and most memorably, General Foods’ Jell-O. The sponsors never minded that he often made fun of them or their ads. Often, they were some of the funniest moments in the show.
The first show aired in October of 1950. Benny’s first line on that live Sunday night telecast was, “I’d give a million dollars to know what I look like!”
The show’s format didn’t vary much from week to week. Typically, it began with a monologue. The orchestra might play a song or Jack and announcer Don Wilson might have a discussion such as:
DonWilson: I don’t think you know how much it means to me to do the commercial. After all I’m not a funny man. I can’t sing or dance. I don’t lead a band. What are you paying me for?
The cast would discuss a current situation, often referring to Benny’s age or frugality, or Mary would read a letter from her mother. Dennis Day would then sing a song followed by a skit, a mini-play, or a satire of a movie. Before Carol Burnett’s incredible movie satires, Jack Benny’s writers created some humorous shows. One example was a 1952 show. It was based on Gaslight from 1944. Called “Autolight,” it starred Barbara Stanwyck.
Jack continued to feature special guest stars, was a penny pincher, refused to admit he was over 39 years old, and continued to drive his old Maxwell. Here he is with Marilyn Monroe discussing his age:
Marilyn Monroe: What about the difference in our ages?
Jack: Oh, it’s not that big a difference. You’re twenty-five and I’m thirty-nine.
Marilyn Monroe: I know, Jack. But what about twenty-five years from now when I’m fifty and you’re thirty-nine?
Jack: Gee, I never thought of that.
Jack’s view on saving money: “Any man who would walk five miles through the snow, barefoot, just to return a library book so he could save three cents – that’s my kind of guy.”
Mel Blanc not only “played” the Maxwell but portrayed a variety of characters. Once Benny made the comment, “There’s only five real people in Hollywood. Everyone else is Mel Blanc.”
Viewers today criticize the way Rochester was treated on the show, but when comparing Benny’s show to Amos ‘n Andy and other shows during the time period, a stark difference can be seen. Rochester was the first black actor to have a recurring role on a radio show. He called Jack, “Jack” or“Mr. Benny” and quite often got the best of him by outwitting him or pointing out one of his deficiencies.
typical conversation between Jack and Rochester:
Jack: What do you think of this card I wrote for Don? “To Don from Jacky, Oh golly, oh shucks. I hope that you like it, it cost forty bucks.”
Rochester: It would’ve been hard to rhyme a dollar ninety-eight.
Jack Benny: We’re a little late, so good night, folks.
The character interactions and the great skits are what made the show so popular. In Jim Bishop’s book about President John F. Kennedy, A Day in the Life of President Kennedy, he wrote that JFK was too busy to watch television, but he always made time for The Jack Benny Show.
Jack passed away in 1974. In real life, he was the opposite of the character he played, very generous and a gifted violin player.
His papers, including television archives of his series and special broadcasts and more than 296 television scripts were given to UCLA.
The Jack Benny Program can currently be seen early mornings Sunday through Thursday on Antenna TV.
Merry Christmas Eve. In honor of It’s a Wonderful Life which will be playing quite often today, this week’s blog is about Donna Reed, who played Mary in the Jimmy Stewart holiday favorite.
In 1958, most of the television shows were game shows, variety shows, or westerns. Almost all the sitcoms on the air were based on a star; we had The Danny Thomas Show, The Ann Sothern Show, The Bob Cummings Show, and The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet. It was also the year The Donna Reed Show began. The show would last eight seasons, resulting in 275 episodes.
The series was created by William Roberts. Donna and her husband Tony Owen developed and produced the show, under the name “Todon.” We had shows about single adults in The Bob Cummings Show and The Ann Sothern Show. We had families, including The Danny Thomas Show, Father Knows Best, and The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet. Roberts wanted to concentrate on the demanding roles a stay-at-home mom had to juggle. Reed agreed with him. As she noted, “We started breaking rules right and left. We had a female lead, for one thing, a strong, healthy woman. We had a story line told from a woman’s point of view that wasn’t soap opera.”
The Donna Reed Show is often evoked by critics who say television scripts are not realistic but center around unreal family expectations, but that is not the goal Reed and her husband had. Donna described the show as “realistic pictures of small-town life—with an often-humorous twist. Our plots revolve around the most important thing in America—a loving family.” The shows featured typical family problems families faced in the late 1950s: having to fire a clumsy housekeeper, quality time with your spouse, dealing with disciplinary issues, or Donna being swamped with requests to volunteer for charity drives or community theater shows. However, there were times the show delved into more controversial issues such as women’s rights or freedom of the press.
The Stone family includes Donna, Alex, Mary and Jeff. Donna (Donna Reed) is the iconic mother. She grew up on a farm (which Reed did). She became a nurse and occasionally helps Alex (Carl Betz), a pediatrician who has his office at the house. Mary (Shelly Fabares) is in her first year of high school. She studies ballet and plays the piano. During the series, she has several boyfriends. Mary left for college before the show ended, but Fabares made guest appearances. Jeff (Paul Petersen) is in grade school. He loves sports, likes to eat, and often teases his sister. In 1963 when Fabares leaves, Paul Petersen’s real sister, Patty was cast as a runaway orphan taken in by the Stone family. The Stones live in Hilldale, an All-American town.
Several other characters appear often. Dave and Midge Kelsey (Bob Crane and Ann McCrea) are good friends of Donna and Alex’s. Dave is also a doctor. Another of Alex’s colleagues who is a good friend is Dr. Boland (Jack Kelk), whom the kids call “Uncle Bo.” Smitty Smith (Darryl Richard) is Jeff’s best friend and Scotty (Jimmy Hawkins) is Mary’s boyfriend.
Photos: pinterest.com and metv.com
With Donna’s movie relationships, many guest stars appeared on the show during its run. Baseball players Don Drysdale, Leo Durocher, and Willie Mays played themselves. Musicians Harry James, Tony Martin, and Lesley Gore appeared. Buster Keaton was featured in two different shows. Esther Williams played a fashion designer. Other stars who showed up included Jack Albertson, John Astin, Dabney Coleman, Ellen Corby, Richard Deacon, Jamie Farr, Gale Gordon, Arte Johnson, Ted Knight, Harvey Korman, Cloris Leachman, Marion Ross, William Schallert, Hal Smith, Marlo Thomas, and William Windom.
In the opening credits, Reed comes down the stairs and answers the telephone which she gives to Alex. She then hands the kids their lunches and books and sends them off to school. When Alex leaves on a call, she closes the door and smiles. In 1964 when The Munsters debuted, their opening credits were a parody of Donna’s show as Lily performs the same actions.
The Donna Reed Show faced the Milton Berle show, Texaco Star Theater Wednesday nights and ratings were not great. It was renewed and moved to Thursdays the next year. I was surprised to learn that during the eight years the show was on the air it was only in the top 20 in season six and only in the top 30 in season four.
Photo: cinemacats.com (Look closely and you’ll notice this was the living room for I Dream of Jeannie as well).
Although the show never received very high ratings, Donna Reed was nominated for an Emmy every year from 1959 to 1962. (Jane Wyatt won in 1959 and 1960, Barbara Stanwyck won in 1961, and Shirley Booth won in 1962.) Donna Reed won the Golden Globe in 1963.
In 1962 Donna felt that the writers had run out of creative ideas and were recycling plots. Both Mary and Jeff were allowed to perform in this season. Fabares debuted a single, “Johnny Angel” in February which went to number one on the charts, selling more than a million copies. In October, Petersen sang “My Dad” which made it to number six. Donna decided that would be the last season, but when ABC made her a very lucrative offer for three more seasons, she and her husband agreed.
When this contract ended in 1966, Donna was ready to retire. Reed was considering a television movie reunion but when Betz passed away in 1978, she decided it was no longer an option.
Campbell Soup was the first sponsor, and later sponsors included Johnson & Johnson and The Singer Company. Whenever a scene takes place in a supermarket, Campbell’s Soup, V-8 Juice, Franco-American Spaghetti and Johnson & Johnson Baby Powder are likely to be in the shot.
Reruns of the show were seen on Nick at Nite from 1985-1994 and on TV Land from 2002 until 2004. MeTV began airing the show in September of 2011.
The cast was a close-knit one and continued their relationships after the show ended. Paul Petersen credited Donna as being the nurturing adult he needed in his life to get him through the years of being a child star. She helped him understand how the industry worked and helped him during some tough times during his life. Shelly Fabares also said Donna and Carl were amazing. Realizing how tough the industry can be for young kids, they protected Paul and herself and loved them as second parents. Donna never forgot to send Shelly a birthday gift. In 1986, before she passed away from pancreatic cancer, her final words were to make sure Shelly’s birthday gift was wrapped and delivered.
Despite the bad raps the show often received from the women’s lib organizations, Donna Reed did help advance the way women were perceived in the media. She endowed her character with strong emotions, definite opinions on issues, and independence. In her personal life, Reed expressed her views on the medical industry and the political arenas.
Paul Petersen summed up the value of the show in an interview he did in 2008. In his words, The Donna Reed Show, “depicts a better time and place. It has a sort of level of intelligence and professionalism that is sadly lacking in current entertainment products. The messages it sent out were positive and uplifting. The folks you saw were likable, the family was fun, the situations were familiar to people. It provided 22-and-a-half-minutes of moral instructions and advice on how to deal with the little dilemmas of life. Jeff and Mary and their friends had all the same problems that real kids in high school did. That’s what the show was really about, the importance of family. That’s where life’s lessons are transmitted, generation to generation. There’s a certain way in which these are transmitted, with love and affection.”