We are winding up our blogs for May, and I have a confession to make. For some reason, I failed to notice that there were five Mondays in May, so when I published my blog last week, I realized that I was short one blog. While scrambling to find a topic that still fit in with the other shows we learned about this month, it occurred to me that this week’s actress appeared on The Ann Sothern Show and I Love Lucy. She was also part of the cast of December Bride and Pete and Gladys. So, today we will learn about the woman behind Hilda Crocker: Verna Felton.
Verna Felton was born in Salinas, California in 1890. Verna entered show business at the young age of nine. Her father died just before her ninth birthday. He was a doctor, but he kept no records of payments due, and there was little cash in his account. Verna had performed at a local benefit for flood victims, where she caught the attention of a road show manager. He offered Verna a job, and after the death of her father, her mother accepted the job on her behalf. Verna grew up involved in theater community.
She was called “Little Verna Felton, the Child Wonder. By age 13 she was performing with the Allen Stock Company that toured the western United States and British Columbia in Canada. By age 20, she had a play written specifically for her by Herbert Bashford called “The Defiance of Doris.”
She continued building her stage resume, acting in a variety of plays.
In 1923 Verna married Lee Millar who conducted the band in the acting troop. He was also a movie actor in the thirties and forties. Verna and Lee were married until his death in 1941. Their son Lee Carson Millar was born in 1924 and would also go on to become an actor who appeared on many of the most popular shows in the fifties and sixties.
From about 1930-1950, Verna could be heard on the radio. Her voice could be detected on a variety of shows including Red Skelton, Hattie Hirsch on Point Sublime, Dennis Day’s mother on his show, and a regular on both The Abbott and Costello Show and The Great Gildersleeve.
After transitioning from stage to radio, it was no surprise that Verna’s career in the forties and early fifties was spent on the big screen.
Television was a natural progression, and, in 1951, Verna had her first tv roles: as a nurse on Amos and Andy and as Mrs. Day on the Enzio Pinza Show. She continued her radio role as Dennis Day’s mother on his television show in 1952.
During the early fifties, you could catch her on many of the most popular shows: The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, I Love Lucy, Burns and Allen, The Bob Hope Show, The Halls of Ivy, I Married Joan, and Where’s Raymond?
Verna would become best known as Hilda Crocker. She played that character on December Bride from 1954-1959 and again on Pete and Gladys during the 1960-61 season, a total of 182 episodes. She was nominated for an Emmy for Best Supporting Actress in 1958 and 1959. In both years, she lost to Ann B. Davis for Love That Bob.
Between the two series, she made appearances on The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis, The Real McCoys, The Ann Sothern Show, Miami Undercover, and The Jack Benny Show. She also accepted roles on a handful of shows after her life as Hilda, including My Three Sons, Wagon Train, and Dennis the Menace.
Felton had voiced several animation characters for Disney including the fairy godmother in Cinderella, the Queen of Hearts in Alice in Wonderland, Aunt Sarah in Lady and the Tramp, and Winifred the Elephant in The Jungle Book.
After voicing these fun characters, it was only natural for her to find a television animation character to play, and she found the perfect one in Pearl Slaghoople, Wilma’s mother on The Flintstones. Pearl looked a lot like Wilma but not as young or slim. She originally had red hair like her daughter which later became gray. She did not care for Fred and didn’t think he was good enough for Wilma and often nagged him to do better.
In 1966 Verna passed away from a stroke. Walt Disney would die a few hours later. About 25% of the movies Verna made were for Walt. Jungle Book, the last movie she made for him would debut a year after the two stars died.
Although Verna’s television career only spanned fourteen years, she appeared in many of the era’s best shows. She did Broadway, radio, cinema, and animation as well and had a very full and successful career. It was fun getting to know Verna Felton a bit better.
We are in the third blog of our series “The Men of November.” Born Charles Thomas Aldrich Jr. in 1906, Gale Gordon is remembered fondly for being Lucille Ball’s nemesis on several of her television sitcoms.
Both his parents were entertainers, and they traveled to England to perform when he was only one. For eight years, he lived in England. After returning to the United States for a few years, Gordon returned to London to complete his education at the Woodbridge School in Suffolk.
Gale followed in his parents’ footsteps, and his first theatrical job was as an extra in “The Dancers” in 1923. Richard Bennett (father of Constance and Joan Bennett) starred in the stage production. Gordon worked as Bennett’s dresser, and Bennett taught him all about make-up, mentored him as an actor, and helped him to develop his voice.
By 1925, Gordon traveled to Hollywood, tackling roles in stage, film, and radio. Gordon talked about his first radio performance: “They asked me to come to a Hollywood studio in 1926 and try this new thing called ‘radio.’ They didn’t pay me, of course. They just wanted to fill up some time. So, I sang, ‘It Ain’t Gonna Rain No More, No More’ and accompanied myself on the ukulele. You might say I almost killed radio before it was born. I haven’t played an instrument on the air since.”
In seven short years, Gordon became the highest-paid actor in radio in Hollywood. He was the male lead for Mary Pickford in her serial. He was on almost every popular show on the air. It wasn’t unusual for him to appear on three or more programs in a week. Gordon was the first actor to play Flash Gordon in 1935.
His radio work also provided some other benefits. While appearing on an episode of Death Valley Days in New York, he met Virginia Curley. They married in 1937.
In 1941, after playing primarily dramatic roles, Gordon became a regular on Fibber McGee and Molly. Playing Mayor LaTrivia, Gale was on the show for a dozen years. There was a brief interruption in 1942 when he left the show and enlisted in the US Coast Guard for three years. He rose to the rank of Petty Officer First Class, and his service took him around the world to many dangerous places.
One of the roles he is best known for was Principal Osgood Conklin on Our Miss Brooks. Gordon described Conklin in a TV Guide interview: “There was nothing subtle about Osgood. No nuances. Just a lot of very satisfying acid, bluster, and bellowing, with an occasional weak moment of cordiality thrown in for leavening. It was practically impossible to overplay him. Even when he was being cordial, he was like an elephant trying to waltz.”
In 1950, he could be heard as John Granby on Granby’s Green Acres which later became the sitcom Green Acres.
While trying to reign in the chaos at Madison High School as Osgood Conklin, Gale was also the refined banker, Rudolph Atterbury, on My Favorite Husband, Lucille Ball’s radio comedy. Atterbury’s wife was played by Bea Benederet.
As television gained popularity, it was inevitable that some of radio’s favorite shows would make the transition to the small screen. While it was entirely possible to play several different characters on the radio, television production didn’t offer the same flexibility. When My Favorite Husband was retooled for television as I Love Lucy, Ball planned on bringing Gordon and Benederet along with her. However, Gale was committed to Our Miss Brooks, and Bea was playing a major role on Burns and Allen on television.
Asked about those days, Gale described himself as “a quiet, reserved, pipe-smoking homebody.” He said he always had a good balance of professional and personal interests. In addition to acting, he wrote books (Nursery Rhymes for Hollywood Babies and Leaves from the Story Trees), painted, and maintained a ranch. He and Virginia bought a 150-acre property about three hours away from Hollywood. They grew carob trees. Gordon was not a rancher in name only; he raised the trees, built the house, installed the plumbing, completed carpentry and handiwork, put in a swimming pool, and built a two-story building that served as garage and studio.
In 1952, Eve Arden decided to take Our Miss Brooks to television. While Gale continued his role as Conklin on the show, he also guest starred on a couple of I Love Lucy episodes. Our Miss Brooks had a successful run for four years.
When the show ended in 1956, CBS was quick to sign Gordon on for another show. They paired him with Bob Sweeney in The Box Brothers (sometimes called The Brothers). Unfortunately, the series only lasted for 26 weeks.
In 1958, Gordon was a regular on Sally where he played department store owner Bascomb Bleacher. He also appeared with Walter Brennan on The Real McCoys.
In 1959, December Bride which aired from 1954-1959, went off the air, spinning off a new show Pete and Gladys starring Harry Morgan and Cara Williams. Morgan appeared as Pete Porter on December Bride. On the new show, Gale played Pete’s Uncle Paul.
In 1962 he was cast as Mr. Wilson on Dennis the Menace. At the same time, Lucille Ball was creating a new show, The Lucy Show. She wanted Gordon to appear as Mr. Barnsdahl, a banker. When he was not available, Lucille turned to Charles Lane. She said she loved working with Lane, but always wanted to work with Gale again, so when Dennis the Menace was cancelled, she quickly signed Gordon; Lane moved over to Bea Benederet’s new sitcom, Petticoat Junction, as the despicable Homer Bedloe. And thus Theodore J. Mooney was born.
For the next eleven years, through several different series titles, Lucy and Gale worked together. They would both retire in 1974. When describing his time on Lucy’s shows, Gale related in a Good Morning America interview in 1982 that “I always had a wonderful feeling of anticipation going to work every week, which is very, very rare. I don’t care what business you are in. But to really look forward to getting into the nitty gritty and working hard for four days—which is all the time we had to do the show—is really unique. To look forward to it for eleven years, that’s doubly unique.” He went on to praise Lucy for her work ethic: “Her attitude has never changed. Every show she ever did was always the most important show of her life. And I think that is the secret of her success.”
One surprising thing I learned was that Gordon was known for his ability to do cartwheels. He can be seen doing them on several episodes of Here’s Lucy. At the time, he was earning $25,000 an episode. Compare that to today when the stars of The Big Bang Theory received a million dollars an episode.
Gale and Virginia enjoyed twenty years of retirement. Virginia would pass away in 1995 at Red Terrace Health Center in Escondido, California. One month later, Gordon died from lung cancer at the same facility.
In 1999, Gale was inducted into the Radio Hall of Fame. Known for playing a variety of gruff, formal professionals, everyone knew that the bellow and bluster his characters spewed was great acting. In real life, Gale was one of the sweetest, kindest men around. He once said, “I am never nasty—unless I get paid for it.”
It’s hard to describe the influence Gale Gordon has had on generations of actors and the number of hours of entertainment he has provided to generations of television and radio fans. It’s always fun to listen or watch Connie Brooks trying to pull a fast one over on Osgood Conklin or Lucy Carmichael trying Mr. Mooney’s patience with her latest scatter-brained plan. Thank you Gale Gordon!
My blog theme for this month is “What a Character!” I am looking at the careers of four successful and hard-working actors. With 372 acting credits, perhaps there was no more prolific character actor than the beloved Charles Lane. He perfected the grumpy sourpuss always ready and gleeful to make life more complicated for others. His bio on imdb.com captures his type perfectly as the “scrawny, scowling, beady-eyed, beak-nosed killjoy who usually could be found peering disdainfully over a pair of specs, brought out many a comic moment simply by dampening the spirit of his nemesis.”
However, despite that, we always knew there was more to him, and that his real persona was being covered up by his crotchety outward characteristics. His character Herman Bedloe on Petticoat Junction portrayed this dual-personality perfectly. Bedloe was always trying to shut down the train, but we knew he actually liked the Bradley family, and occasionally you would get a glimpse of the lonely and soft-hearted side of him.
He was born Charles Gerstle Levison in San Francisco in 1905. His family survived the 1906 earthquake. His father was an insurance executive, and Charles would follow in his footsteps for his first career.
A friend, actor Irving Pichel, convinced Lane to try his hand at acting, and Lane joined the Pasadena Playhouse in the late 1920s. His first movie was City Girl in 1930, and his last was Acting on Impulse in 1993. During those six decades he had a successful career in both television and Hollywood. In 1933, Lane became one of the founding members of the Screen Actors Guild (SAG). In that year alone he made 23 films. There was an anecdote told about Lane that it was not uncommon for him to go to a movie, see himself on screen, and be surprised because he completely forgot he had been in the film. Starting out at $35 a day, by 1947 he was earning $750 a week.
His longest-running role was husband. In 1931 he married Ruth Covell; the couple had two children and were married until her death in 2002.
Perhaps most people recognize Lane from his role of rent collector for Henry Potter in It’s a Wonderful Life. Capra signed Lane to roles in ten of his movies. Lane was a corrupt attorney in Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936), an IRS agent in You Can’t Take It with You (1938), a newsman in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), a reporter in Arsenic and Old Lace (1944), and Blink Moran in State of the Union (1948). Among his most-cherished possessions was a letter from Capra where he wrote “Well, Charlie, you’ve been my No. 1 crutch.” Other popular films he was in include The Ghost and Mr. Chicken; It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World; and The Music Man.
During World War II, Lane joined the Coast Guard. When he returned to civilian life, his television career took off. His first role was on Burns and Allen in 1951. During the 1950s, he appeared in more than 30 shows including Topper, The Thin Man, Perry Mason, and The Ann Sothern Show. He was often seen on Lucille Ball shows. He and Lucy had become friends when they both worked for RKO, and he had a great respect for Desi Arnaz’s acting ability.
During this decade he was cast on the show Dear Phoebe in 1954. Peter Lawford starred in the show as a former college professor who writes an advice column under the name Miss Phoebe Goodheart. Meanwhile, his romantic interest is Mickey Riley portrayed by Marcia Henderson, the paper’s sports writer. Lane took on the role of Mr. Fosdick, their boss.
The 1960s found him on almost every popular show of that decade. Tuning in to your favorite series, you would spy Lane on Bachelor Father, Pete and Gladys, Mister Ed, The Andy Griffith Show, The Joey Bishop Show, Get Smart, The Bing Crosby Show, The Man from UNCLE, The Donna Reed Show, Green Acres, Bewitched, and The Wild, Wild West, among many others.
Lane had recurring roles on five shows during the 1960s. On Dennis the Menace, he was the pharmacist Mr. Finch. He also could be seen on his friend’s series, The Lucy Show as Mr. Barnsdahl, a local banker. The Phyllis Diller Show had a cast that should have made it a hit and from 1966-67, Lane played Maxwell. Although many characters appeared on both The Beverly Hillbillies and Petticoat Junction, Lane had two different roles on the two series. He appeared in 24 episodes of Petticoat Junction between 1963-1968 as Homer Bedloe, a railroad executive who is always trying to find a reason to shut down the Cannonball. On the Beverly Hillbillies, he portrayed Foster Phinney.
Lane continued with both his movie and television appearances throughout the 1970s, taking roles on The Doris Day Show, The Odd Couple, Family, Rhoda, Chicoand the Man, and he continued his television appearances into the 1980s and 1990s with shows that included Mork and Mindy, St. Elsewhere, LALaw, and Dark Shadows.
The decade of the seventies would find him cast in two additional series, Karen and Soap. Karen debuted in 1975, starring Karen Valentine as Karen Angelo. Karen works for an advocate group for the common American citizen, Open America, founded by Dale Busch, who was played by Lane. On Soap, Charles took on the role of Judge Petrillo who presided over Jessica Tate’s murder trial; however, because of Jessica’s husband, the judge lost $40,000 in a bad investment.
Charles Lane was honored in 2005 when he turned 100. SAG proclaimed January 30 “Charles Lane Day,” and TV Land honored him in March for his long career. After receiving his award, he let it be known “in case anyone’s interested, I’m still available!”
Despite his being typecast in cranky roles, friends and family described him as funny, kind, and warm-hearted. Lane’s one vice was smoking. In 1990 he was rushed to the hospital when he was having problems breathing. When the doctor asked if he smoked, Lane informed him he had kicked the habit . . . 45 minutes earlier. He never smoked again and he lived another 12 years, dying peacefully in 2007.
Although it’s tough on actors to be typecast so early in their career, it’s a double-edged sword, because it also provides a lot of opportunities for roles. Lane was an enigma; while he always convinced us that he was just as mean as could be, we also knew if someone would give him a chance, he could be reformed like Scrooge; he just needed the opportunity. It always makes me smile to come across Charles Lane in a move or television episode. It’s like seeing an old friend, or perhaps the neighbor who yelled at you to get off his yard. However, if you looked closely, you would see him watching and wanting to be part of the action. As you watch your favorite older classic shows, keep an eye open for him.
As we proceed
with our Behind the Scenes series this month, today we are thinking about set
designers. Before the interior designs are done, the production team needs to
find the perfect home for our television friends.
Did you ever daydream about places you might want to live in, even if you never would actually consider leaving your home? Perhaps it’s a small rose-covered cottage in the English countryside, maybe a ski chalet in the Swiss alps, or a house on the Maine coast with green shutters and a widow’s walk. I’ve thought about all of these places, but now I have another one to consider. It’s an historic neighborhood where some of my favorite television friends lived. Today we learn a bit about the Columbia Ranch.
Warner Brothers Ranch, the former Columbia Ranch was in Burbank, CA. In
addition to dozens of television shows, it was the setting for many movies as
well such as Mr. Deeds Goes to Town,High Noon, and Lost Horizon. The neighborhood interiors were typically shot at other
In 1934, Harry Cohn, head of Columbia Pictures, purchased 40 acres in Burbank. In 1948, Columbia got into the television business under Screen Gems.
1950s, Captain Midnight, Father Knows Best, The Donna Reed Show, and Dennis
the Menace were filmed here. By the 1960s, the ranch was used continuously
for television and movies. The set was about six blocks but looked much larger
on camera shots. Shows during the 1960s included My Sister Eileen, Hazel, Our Man Higgins, The Farmer’s Daughter, Bewitched,
Gidget, I Dream of Jeannie, The
Monkees, and The Flying Nun.
In 1970, a
fire destroyed a quarter of the neighborhood, including many buildings on
Blondie Street. After rebuilding, taping continued on the set. During the next
three decades, shows included The
Partridge Family, Bridget Loves
Bernie, Apples Way, The Scarecrow and Mrs. King, and Life Goes On.
In 1971, Columbia and Warner Brothers combined their companies and merged into The Burbank Studios. The Ranch then was relegated to a back backlot.
When Columbia Pictures moved its production facilities to Culver City in 1990, Warner Brothers gained ownership of the Ranch.
It’s continued to be a busy spot for filming. The fountain in the park was the one shown in the opening credits in Friends.
Nearby is also a swimming pool used on a variety of shows, including The Partridge Family.
The most famous street in the Ranch was Blondie Street. Blondie Street was named for Blondie Bumstead because the Blondie movies of the 1940s were filmed here. Walking down Blondie Street reveals homes that we were all familiar with growing up in the sixties and seventies.
It’s a curved
residential street with twelve different houses, surrounding a large, central
park. There is also a brick church and paved sidewalks. Three of the buildings—the
Lindsay House, the Little Egbert House, and the Oliver House—were original to
the 1935 set production.
The Blondie House
This set, constructed in 1941, was the home for Major Nelson on I Dream of Jeannie, Mr. Wilson on Dennis the Menace, and the Andersons on Father Knows Best, in addition to the Blondie movies. Later it housed the operations office for the Warner Ranch. Of course, Jeannie’s house was not here, it was a Jim Beam decanter that was sold during Christmas of 1964.
The Corner Church
When thePartridge Family drives off for a show in their bus, you can often spot the
church which is just down the road from their home, across from The Stephens’
home on Bewitched. It was moved here
in 1953. When any of the series needed a church, this was the one. It can be
seen on an episode of Hazel when the
family attends church.
The Deeds Home
Originally built for Frank Capra’s movie, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town in 1936, the house is only seen briefly in the movie. The Three Stooges filmed there in the thirties and forties. In the sixties it was seen in Batman. Both Gidget and The Partridge Family used the house as the high school and Bewitched used it as a civic building. In 1989, the original house was demolished. In its place, The Chester House and the Griswold House were built. The Griswold House was built for National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation.
The Lindsay House
Constructed in 1936, this house was best
known as the Baxter home on Hazel. It
also served as the Lawrence home on Gidget.
The Higgins House
This structure was constructed for the show Our Man Higgins in 1962. It was later the home of Darrin and Samantha Stephens on Bewitched from 1964-1972. On I Dream of Jeannie, it was the home of Alfred and Amanda Bellows.
For Bewitched, the interior and backyard scenes were filmed on a sound stage. The stairs ended in a hallway, but the doors only led to small closets, not the master bedroom. A modular first floor served as a setting for all the rooms. The den doubled as the nursery. A fake wall was put up to hide the view to the kitchen. When the den was needed, brown paneling was put over the nursery walls and the window was covered with a wall near the fireplace.
If you look closely, you’ll notice the avocado and gold flowered sofa in the Stephens’ living room was the same one used by Alfred and Amanda Bellows in their living room. But the shows shared well. On one episode of Bewitched, Louise and Larry Tate are seen at their kitchen table, but the kitchen looks identical to Major Nelsons’s. Roger Healey’s bedroom eerily resembled Darrin and Samantha’s.
I guess I was too busy crying to notice that this house was also Brian Piccolo’s home in Brian’s Song.
The Partridge Family House
The house across the street from the
Stephens’ house was home to Abner and Gladys Kravitz. During the filming of Dennis the Menace, it was Mrs. Elkins’
house. It was also the home of The Partridge
Family. In 1989 it became the Thatcher home on Life Goes On.
The home was built in 1953, modeled after a Sears, Roebuck & Co. plan. The modest two-story home was a perfect fit for the Partridges with its white, picket fence. The interiors were filmed at the Ranch as well. Located next door to the Blondie House, there were shrubs between the homes that were featured several times on the Partridge Family. In an episode where Keith shoots a movie, Shirley is clipping the hedges and begins dancing for the film, not realizing her neighbor is watching her. We see the hedges again when Keith moves into the room above the garage next door and gets free rent in return for yard work.
Because they were filming the show when the infamous fire broke out, some of the structure had to be rebuilt for the remainder of the series. From season 1 to 2, Danny and Keith’s bedrooms switch back and forth a couple times, and I wonder if this is the reason.
The Oliver House
Constructed in 1935 for a movie, the Oliver house was moved to Blondie Street for the home of the Stone family in The Donna Reed Show. It was also the Mitchell home where Dennis resided with his parents.
The Little Egbert House
Technically, Little Egbert is not on Blondie Street but on its own, Little Egbert Street, basically an alley. Fortunately, the 1970 fire did not damage any of the original structure. The house was also used in Minding the Mint and as The Shaggy Dog, the hangout for Gidget and her friends.
For sentimental reasons, I would choose the Partridge Family home to live in. However, I would have to remodel the kitchen. I could live with the red breakfast table set. The avocado and gold flowered wall paper may have been very chic in its day, but even I am not that sentimental!
We wrap up
our series Just a Couple of Characters this week with Mary Wickes and Susan
Oliver. Mary and Susan are very different character actors, but you will
immediately recognize them. Let’s learn a bit more.
It’s not surprising that Mary shortened her last name to “Wickes” after being born Mary Wickenhauser in 1910 in St. Louis. Her father was a banker, and the family had plenty of money. After high school, Mary attended Washington University in St. Louis, majoring in political science, planning a career in law. One of her professors suggested she try theater, and she dipped her toe into it doing summer theater in Stockbridge, Massachusetts.
After deciding a career in acting was for her, she moved to New York. She quickly found a role in “The Farmer Takes a Wife” on Broadway in 1934. In this show, which starred Henry Fonda, Mary was Margaret Hamilton’s understudy. Mary had a chance to perform during the run and received excellent reviews.
Mary understood that comedy was the field she needed to pursue. She was lucky enough to continue getting roles on Broadway, appearing in several shows throughout the 1930s, including “Stage Door” in 1936 and “Hitch Your Wagon” in 1937. She also was cast in “The Man Who Came to Dinner” as Nurse Preen with Monty Woolley. She continued to receive encouraging reviews. When Warner Brothers decide to turn the play into a movie, both Mary and Woolley were part of the cast. Mary became known for being a bit sarcastic and witty. She was given roles in the film, Now Voyager with Bette Davis, again playing a nurse.
Mary flip flopped from Broadway to Hollywood, taking roles that interested her. She would appear in both Moonlight Bay (1951) and By the Light of the Silvery Moon (1953) with Doris Day; White Christmas (1954), and The Music Man (1962).
Mary had cornered the market in roles of smart-alecky teachers, nurses, and housekeepers in film. When she transitioned to television, she often continued in these roles. Her first two recurring roles were housekeepers named Alice on Halls of Ivy from 1954-55 and Katie on Annette in 1958. From 1956-1958, she played Liz O’Neill, Danny Thomas’s press agent on Make Room for Daddy. Throughout the 1950s she also appeared on numerous shows including Zorro.
One of my favorite episodes with Mary was the 1952 episode “The Ballet” on I Love Lucy where Wickes played Madame Lamond, a formidable ballet teacher who taught Lucy. Wickes and Lucy would remain life-long friends. After Mary’s death, Lucie Arnez talked about her relationship with their family: “For my brother and me, Mary was just like one of the family. If any of us were sick or even in bed with a cold, Mary would show up at the backdoor with a kettle of chicken soup. She could be loud and boisterous and as demanding as any of the characters she played, but she was also very loving and giving. What a lady.” Mary would appear on numerous episodes of Lucille Ball’s other shows in the 1960s and 1970s.
In the 1960s, Mary continued to show up on a variety of shows. We see her on My Three Sons, Bonanza, F-Troop, The Doris Day Show, The Donna ReedShow, and I Spy. She also had recurring roles on three shows during the decade: TheGertrude Berg Show, Dennis the Menace, and Temple Houston. In the Gertrude Berg Show, Mary was landlady, Winona Maxfield. She was hilarious on Dennis the Menace, playing Miss Cathcart, an older neighbor looking for a man. On Temple Houston, she played Ida Goff. Temple was Sam Houston’s real son who was a circuit-riding lawyer.
As Mary aged, she progressed to the cranky relative or nosy neighbor type of character. In the 1970s she was a regular on Julia, Doc, and The Jimmy Stewart Show. On Julia, she was Dr. Chegley’s wife, Melba. She went back to her role as a nurse on Doc. On the Jimmy Stewart Show, she is Mrs. Bullard. Two of my favorite episodes of her from the 1970s were her roles on Columbo and M*A*S*H. On Columbo, Mary plays a landlady of a victim who’s been murdered. She and Columbo have a priceless conversation during the show, “Suitable for Framing” in 1971. On M*A*S*H, Mary played Colonel Reese who is observing Margaret and the nurses.
In the 1980s, Mary’s schedule slowed down a bit. She did revive her role as a maid on The Love Boat in 1981. From 1989-1991, she took another regular role as housekeeper Marie Murkin on Father Dowling Mysteries.
In the 1990s, Mary was doing more voice overs. She taped five episodes of Life with Louie which aired from 1995-1997 and was Laverne in The Hunchback of Notre Dame in 1996. Unfortunately, she would not live to see them on the big screen. In 1995, she passed away after having respiratory problems. While a patient in the hospital, she fell and broke her hip. She died of complications caused by the surgery.
Mary never married or had children and as part of her legacy, she left a $2 million donation in memory of her parents to the Television, Film and Theater Arts at Washington University.
More than twenty years younger than Wickes, Susan Oliver was born in 1932 in New York City. Her real name as Charlotte Gercke. Her father was a political reporter for the New York World. Her parents divorced when she was quite young, and she grew up in boarding schools. She traveled with her father to Japan when he took a post there. She studied at the Tokyo International College, studying American pop culture. While Wickes was the wise-cracking comedic foil, Oliver was often the leading lady character with blue eyes, blonde hair and heart-shaped face.
In 1949, she
traveled to LA to see her mother who had found her niche as “astrologer to the
stars.” Susan then enrolled at Swarthmore College. After graduation, she
continued acting courses at New York City’s Neighborhood Playhouse.
Her first Broadway part came in 1957 as the daughter or a Revolutionary veteran, “Small War on Murray Hill.”
Returning to LA, she started a film career. Though she would appear in 15 big-screen movies, television is where she spent most of her time. She put in her due diligence in the 1950s and 1960s. Her first job was on The Goodyear Playhouse in 1955. She continued with a lot of drama and theater for the first few years of her career. She took roles in a variety of shows including: Father Knows Best, Suspicion, The David Niven Show, Bonanza, The Twilight Zone, The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, Wagon Train, Route 66, The Fugitive, The Andy Griffith Show, Ben Casey, Mannix, Dr. Kildare, The Man from UNCLE, I Spy, Gomer Pyle, My Three Sons, and the Wild, Wild West.
I read several times that she turned down lead roles in series to retain her independence, but I never read any specific roles she turned down. In 1966 she accepted a recurring role of Ann Howard in Peyton Place. She had signed a contract for a year, but after five months, her character was killed on the show. She made a pilot for a show titled, “Apartment in Rome” that did not sell.
Oliver never did get another show of her own, but she continued to guest on shows throughout the 1970s and 1980s, including Love American Style, Gunsmoke, The FBI, Streets of San Francisco, The Love Boat, Magnum PI, Murder She Wrote, and Simon and Simon.
One of the reasons, she didn’t want to be tied down was her interest in flying. In 1959, a Boeing 707 she was a passenger on plummeted 30,000 feet for the Atlantic Ocean before leveling out. After that scare, she decided to learn to become a pilot. In 1964, she started flying single-engine planes. Bill Lear brought her on board to become the first woman to train on his new Lear Jet. She would star in a movie about Amelia Earhart. She also later wrote about her flying experiences in an autobiography, Odyssey: A Daring Transatlantic Journey in 1983.
In the mid-1970s, she stopped accepting most acting roles and quit flying. She enrolled at the 1974 AFI Directing Workshop for Women with peers Lily Tomlin, Margot Kidder, Kathleen Nolan, and Maya Angelou. During the final season of M*A*S*H she directed an episode of the show. She would later direct an episode of Trapper John, MD.
At age 58, Oliver was diagnosed with colorectal, and eventually lung, cancer. She died in 1990.
Oliver was an
interesting actress. Apparently, she loved acting, but never wanted to be tied
down. She not only was a aviator and director but a writer. She was a practicing
Buddhist and a baseball expert as well.
Wickes and Oliver were very different women with very different interests and acting roles. They both remained single and devoted themselves to their careers. But they were both women who were always in demand for their acting ability.
My series, “Just a Couple of Characters” continues with Part 3 today. This month, we learn more about actors we recognize but may not know much about. This week Henry Jones and Olan Soule are on the hot seat.
Born in New Jersey in 1912 and raised in Pennsylvania, his grandfather was a first-generation Prussian immigrant who became a Representative. Henry went to St. Joseph’s College, a Jesuit school. He landed his first Broadway show in 1938, playing Reynaldo and a grave digger in “ Hamlet. ” Like many of the actors in the late 30s and early 40s, Henry joined the Army for World War II. He was a private. During his service, he was cast as a singing soldier, Mr. Brown, in Irving Berlin’s “This is the Army.”
When he came back to the US, he married Yvonne Sarah Bernhardt-Buerger in 1942. I think that it took longer for her to sign her name on the marriage certificate than the marriage lasted because ten months later they were divorced. Jones continued his stage roles and began a movie career. He had bit parts in 35 films, including The Bad Seed, Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?, Vertigo, and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. He won a Supporting Actor Tony in 1958 for his performance of Louis Howe in “Sunrise at Campobello.”
In 1948 he
married Judith Johnson. They had two children (one is actress Jocelyn Jones) but
divorced in 1961.
gap of television and film, he starred in seventeen tv movies as well.
Although his movie career kept him somewhat busy, it was nothing compared to his television work. Jones was credited with 205 acting appearances, meaning he had roles in 153 different television series. Jones was able to tackle a wide range of roles, being believable as a judge, a janitor, a murderer, or a minister. Jones had no illusions about becoming a romantic lead. He once said that “casting directors didn’t know what to do with me. I was never tall enough or good looking enough to play juvenile leads.”
His first television appearance was in drama series, Hands of Mystery, in 1949. His work in the 1950s was primarily in theater shows about dramas. He also appeared in the George Burns and Gracie Allen Show and Father Knows Best.
He continued his drama roles into the 1960s. He also appeared in 3 episodes of The Real McCoys and westerns including Wagon Train, The Big Valley, and Daniel Boone. He showed up on mysteries such as the Man from U.N.C.L.E. and The Name of the Game. He also found work on unique shows including Lost in Space, Route 66, and the Alfred Hitchcock Show. Hitchcock liked his work and used him five times. He also appeared in several comedies, Bewitched and That Girl. He starred in Channing in 1963-64. Jones played Fred Baker, a dean who mentors Professor Joe Howe who teaches English at Channing College while he writes his memoir about the Korean War.
During the 1970s, he continued to work on a variety of genre shows. We see him on westerns, The Virginian, Gunsmoke, and Bonanza. We see him in thrillers like The Mod Squad; McMillan and Wife; Owen Marshall, Counselor at Law; and The Six Million Dollar Man, on which he had a recurring role as Dr. Jeffrey, a scientist who built robots. However, comedies continued to be his mainstay, and he appeared in many of them including Nanny and the Professor, the Mary Tyler Moore Show, The Paul Lynde Show, The Doris Day Show, the Partridge Family, and Barney Miller.
In addition to all his guest spots, he was cast in three shows during this decade. In The Girl with Something Extra, he played Owen Metcalf in 1973. The role he was best remembered for was Judge Johnathan Dexter on Phyllis. He was Phyllis’s father-in-law from 1975-1977. As Josh Alden, he appeared on Mrs. Columbo for thirteen episodes.
Recurring roles comprised most of his television appearances in the 1980s. He continued to accept guest roles on such shows as Quincy ME, Cagney and Lacey, Magnum PI, Murder She Wrote, The Love Boat, and Mr. Belvedere. He would make regular appearances on Gun Shy, Code Name: Foxfire, Falcon Crest, and I Married Dora.
Jones continued to appear in shows in the 1990s, including Coach and Empty Nest. In 1999, he passed away after suffering from complications from an injury from a fall.
Olan Soule’s timeline
was similar to Jones. He was born in Illinois in 1909, growing up in Iowa, and
he passed away in 1994. While Jones’ grandfather arrived in America, Soule’s ancestors
included three Mayflower passengers. He began his acting career on the radio.
In 1929 he
married Norma Miller. They would be married until her death in 1992 and they
had two children.
For eleven years, he was part of the cast of the soap, “Bachelor’s Children.” His roles changed when he transitioned to television. On radio, he could play any role, but his 135-pound frame prohibited him from getting many roles he played on radio. He told the Los Angeles Times during an interview that “People can’t get over my skinny build when they meet me in person after hearing me play heroes and lovers on radio.”
certainly was not lacking in roles. Soule is credited with more than 7000 radio
episodes and commercials, 60 films, and 200 television series.
The 1950s found him appearing in many sitcoms, including George Burns and Gracie Allen, I Married Joan, I Love Lucy, December Bride, the Ann Sothern Show, and Dennis the Menace.
He would appear regularly in Dragnet from 1952-59 and in Captain Midnight from 1954-56.
He got even busier in the 1960s, working nonstop. The only show he had a recurring role on was The Andy Griffith Show where he played choir director and hotel clerk John Masters. Other comedies he appeared on included The Jack Benny Show, Pete and Gladys, Bachelor Father, Make Room for Daddy, Mister Ed, My Favorite Martian, The Addams Family, The Monkees, Petticoat Junction, and That Girl. He also took on roles in suspense shows including One Step Beyond, the Alfred Hitchcock Show, and the Twilight Zone. He also specialized in westerns, including Maverick, Stage Coach West, Have Gun Will Travel, The Rifleman, Bonanza, Gunsmoke, and The Big Valley.
He started the 1970s continuing to show up on series such as Family Affair, My Three Sons, McMillan and Wife, Cannon, Police Woman, and a recurring role on the comedy Arnie.
In the mid-1970s he began appearing on Battlestar Galactica and Project UFO. Most of his career in the decade was spent providing voiceovers for animated shows, primarily Batman.
Soule died from lung cancer at age 84.
Both Soule and Jones were prolific actors who had long and successful careers. Neither one of them were the leading men type of actors, but they could tackle a wide range of roles. Soule once said, “Because of my build and glasses, I’ve mostly played lab technicians, newscasters, and railroad clerks.” Not a bad life for someone who loves acting. If you watch Antenna or Me Tv, chances are you will see these two characters pop up quite often.
continue our series, Just A Couple of Characters, about character actors we
recognize but might not know much about. Hope Summers and Madge Blake are two
actresses you will recognize if you watched sitcoms in the 1960s or 1970s.
Born Sarah Hope Summers in 1902 in Mattoon, Illinois, Hope Summers often played the friendly, but nosy, neighbor. She’s best recognized as Clara from The Andy Griffith Show.
became interested in theater early in her life. She attended Northwestern,
majoring in speech. After graduation she stayed at the University and taught
speech and diction. She then moved to Peoria and headed the Speech Department
at Bradley University. She joined a few community theaters, putting on
one-woman shows. She also acted in a few dramatic radio shows.
She married Claude Witherell in 1927, and they were married until his death in 1967. The couple had two children.
In 1950, she transitioned to television. She appeared in an early comedy series, Hawkins Falls: A Television Novel. Like Edward Andrews, she was often cast in roles older than her actual age. She became a popular actress quickly. She continued to appear in a variety of shows throughout the 1950s including Bachelor Father, Private Secretary, Wagon Train, Dennis the Menace, and the Loretta Young Show.
1958-1960, she would appear in The
Rifleman as Hattie Denton.
In 1961, she received the role she would become most famous for, Clara, Bee’s best friend on The Andy Griffith Show. When Andy Griffith left the show in 1968, Hope continued with Mayberry RFD in her role of Clara for five episodes. Clara was a lonely spinster who lived next door to Andy and his family. She and Bee had fun sharing bits of gossip and talking about current events. Clara had a good heart and though she and Bee could get upset with each other, they truly cared about each other.
While playing the role of Clara, she continued to guest in series throughout the 1960s. She appeared on many of the hit shows of that time such as Dr. Kildare, Gunsmoke, Make Room for Daddy, Hazel, My Three Sons, The Dick Van Dyke Show, Petticoat Junction, The Phyllis Diller Show, Marcus Welby, That Girl, and Bewitched.
During the 1970s, Summers kept her career going strong, appearing in Hawaii Five-0, M*A*S*H, Little House on the Prairie, and Welcome Back Kotter.
Summers began her acting career during the second half of her life, she was
also featured in several well-known movies. In 1960, she was in Inherit the Wind, The Shakiest Gun in the West, and Rosemary’s Baby in 1968, among others.
Summers also was famous as the voice of Mrs. Butterworth in commercials.
In 1978 she was diagnosed with congestive heart failure and quit acting. She passed away from the disease in 1979.
Summers was part of the cast of The Andy
Griffith Show, Madge Blake was busy portraying Aunt Harriet on Batman.
Born Madge Cummings in 1899 in Kansas, she, like Hope Summers, became interested in acting at a young age. Her father was a Methodist minister and he refused to allow her to give it a try. Oddly enough, Madge’s maternal uncle was Milburn Stone, Doc on Gunsmoke.
Although they later divorced, Madge married James Blake and they had one child. She had a fascinating career. Both she and James worked for the government during the war. They had top secret clearance for their project working on the construction of the detonator for the atomic bomb in Utah. They also performed tests on equipment used in the Manhattan Project.
Also, like Summers, Blake turned to acting at a later age. When she was 50, she enrolled at the Pasadena Playhouse to study acting. She only had twenty years in the business, yet she managed to achieve an impressive 124 acting credits.
Blake would appear in 47 films in smaller, but impressive, roles. Some of her movies included An American in Paris, Singin’ in the Rain, Brigadoon, The TenderTrap, Bells Are Ringing, Ain’t Misbehaving, and The Solid Gold Cadillac.
Beginning her television career in 1954, she racked up an impressive amount of guest star roles and several recurring roles. She played Tillie, the president of the Jack Benny fan club on The Jack Benny Show. She played Larry Mondello’s mother on Leave It to Beaver. An interesting aside is that she was asked to play Aunt Bee on The Andy Griffith Show where she would have worked with Hope Summers. Because she was locked into the role of Mrs. Mondello, she declined. She took the role of Mrs. Barnes, Joey’s mother, on The Joey Bishop Show. On the Real McCoys, she played Flora MacMichael, Grandpa McCoy’s love interest; Nurse Phipps on Dr. Kildare; and the role she became best known for, Aunt Harriet on Batman.
The network was worried about Batman and Robin living alone together on Batman, so the role of Aunt Harriet was added. The story line was that she raised Bruce Wayne in the family mansion. Their interaction with Aunt Harriet was also a reason for the dynamic duo to appear in their non-hero roles more often.
It would seem that coming into acting later in life and then appearing in so many movies and recurring television appearances would have kept her quite busy. But in addition to these appearances, she was cast in many of the most popular shows during her twenty years on television. During that time, you can find her on dramas like Public Defender, Lassie, The Restless Gun, and the Man from U.N.C.L.E.
Of course, she was meant to play comedy and she appeared on an incredible number of sitcoms. Just to name a few, there of them: George Burns and GracieAllen Show, I Love Lucy, Private Secretary, Father Knows Best, Bachelor Father, The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, The Donna Reed Show, Make Room for Daddy, Bewitched, The Addams Family, My Favorite Martian, The Dick Van Dyke Show, Gomer Pyle, and The Doris Day Show. Pretty amazing.
I read over and over that one of her best performances was in the pilot for Dennis the Menace where she plays Dennis’s babysitter. I have not been able to watch that show, but I will definitely check that out.
In 1969, Blake passed away from a heart attack after she broke her leg. She was only 70, or we might have had a much longer list of television series for her.
Hope Summers and Madge Blake had a lot in common. They both became interested in acting at an early age, they both had major careers before acting, they both began acting in the second half of their life, they both played neighborly types–Summers, nosier, and Blake, more ditzy. They also both had respectable film careers paralleling their television ones. Their television roles may have been smaller, but they were memorable, they are definitely two characters worth watching.
Merry Christmas! I hope you are all enjoying a peaceful and happy day. We have a lot of holiday traditions in our family. When it comes to pop culture “must see” shows, we always watch Frosty, The Snowman; How the Grinch Stole Christmas; and a Charlie Brown Christmas, and the other specials are extras if we get them in. Christmas movies are different for each generation. I like White Christmas, while my oldest son never misses Elf. But when it comes to television, one episode we all agree on is “Busy Christmas” from the Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet. Our family makes an effort to watch this every year together. There is something charming about watching an episode that is more than 60 years old but still speaks to us in how we celebrate Christmas. Ozzie, after vowing not to, involuntarily agrees to so many Christmas activities that he has no time to put up lights or buy a tree.
The show first aired in December 19, 1956 . It was the 12th episode of season 5. It was written by Jay Sommers, Don Nelson, Ozzie Nelson, and Alfred Nelson. Alfred’s only writing credits were 4 Nelson episodes. Ozzie, of course, helped write almost every episode. Don Nelson, another brother, enjoyed a long writing career. He helped Ozzie write the movie Here Come the Nelsons and he went on to write for a variety of shows including Bachelor Father, the Donna Reed Show, the Mothers-in-Law, the Doris Day Show, Bridget Loves Bernie, Herbie the Love Bug, Julia, The Ghostand Mrs. Muir, Nanny and the Professor, as well as a few episodes of Ozzie and Harriet’s later show, Ozzie’s Girls and 326 episodes of The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet. Jay Sommers got credit for 146 of the Nelson episodes and went on to write for Dennis the Menace, wrote many Petticoat Junction shows, almost all the Green Acres scripts, and, surprisingly, Hello Larry which we looked at a few weeks ago.
Produced by Ozzie and Leo Pepin, the show’s set decoration was created by Jack Moore. Moore had six Academy Award nominations and won for Little Women in 1949. The costume designer was George Sedilla, and the show was filmed at the General Service Studios, 1040 N. Las Palmas, Los Angeles.
In addition to the regular cast, Phil Arnold appears as a tailor and Isabelle Randolph is Mrs. Brewster.
This episode opens with Ozzie and Harriet looking at some of their Christmas cards. Ozzie mentions he wished people took time to write in their cards. He sees one that is a perfect example of what a card should say. It has a very warm and sentimental message. When Harriet agrees it is nice and asks who sent it, Ozzie replies, “Acme Cleaners.”
Modern Christmas cards were started by the Hall brothers whose company would become Hallmark. They were post cards, but people did not have enough room to write what they wanted to tell people they didn’t see often. In the 1930s, Hallmark switched to a “book format” which is our card today. The cards increased in popularity from the mid-1930s to the 1960s. Hallmark began commissioning famous artists to design cards including Salvador Dali, Grandma Moses, and Norman Rockwell. The Nelsons would have had to use regular postage stamps, because Christmas stamps did not debut until 1962. It’s funny that the switch to these cards was made so people could write more, but Ozzie’s complaint (and one you hear often today) is that people didn’t write anything personal.
Scene 2 cuts to Ozzie trying to maneuver through a mad rush of people shopping in a department store. His arms are full of wrapped packages. He tries to ask a clerk for a Donkey Party game. Giving up, he takes cover in a seating area and ends up sitting next to Mrs. Brewster. We learn it is a week before Christmas. They are watching a busy crowd and listening over the speaker as Irving Muller is lost and they attempt to find his mother. Eventually they find her, but now Irving is gone. Ozzie reminisces about a Christmas when he and Harriet were first married. They were looking at the tree when all the sudden they heard “Silent Night” and were caught up in the beauty of the song and the carolers on Christmas Eve. Mrs. Brewster says that is perfect because they would like the Nelsons to join them for caroling this Christmas Eve. Ozzie says he’ll talk to Harriet, and if she agrees, they will. Mrs. Brewster smiles and says Harriet has already agreed to it if Ozzie was willing. Over the loudspeaker they hear little Ozzie Nelson is missing and then the message is corrected that Mrs. Nelson is looking for Mr. Nelson.
Donkey Party was a version of pin-the-tail-on-the donkey. It came with a poster and 24-30 tails. Some of the other classic toys from this year are Candy Land, Mr. Potato Head, a Slinky Dog, and a Lone Ranger guitar.
Following World War II, the nation displayed an era of peace, productivity, and prosperity and this could be seen in the nation’s department stores. At Christmas the windows were magical places where beautiful scenes were created, often with moving parts. Ozzie’s presents were wrapped because that was a service department stores provided, saving the customer time later. Here are some vintage options Ozzie might have been able to choose from.
By Scene 3, a few days have passed. Ozzie is helping Harriet hang a wreath on the wall. When Harriet asks him about the tree and putting up lights, he says it’s too early to get the tree, and he decided not to put up lights this year. He tells her he is not going to get overly busy again this year. The doorbell rings and Doc Williams enters in. Doc tells Ozzie that he has been appointed entertainment chairman of the Men’s Club for Christmas, and instead of the regular pageant, they have decided to do a shortened version of the Christmas Carol. Doc will be playing Bob Cratchet. Ozzie tells Harriet this is exactly what he was talking about. They make one of the busiest men in town chairman and how unfair that is. Doc looks confused and then starts to laugh. He assumes Ozzie is auditioning for the role of Scrooge and he gives him the role. Doc asks when the lights are going up, and when Harriet says Ozzie isn’t putting them up this year, Ozzie says yes he is, he just hasn’t gotten around to it yet.
I have a beautifully illustrated book of The Christmas Carol, and I try to find time to read it each year. I also have a Scrooge in his striped night shirt, who is about 4 feet and I love him, although most of my family find him creepy. My grandfather had a set of Dickens books and liked The Christmas Carol, and I find it inspiring that many generations have enjoyed and learned from this book.
Scene 4 finds Ozzie in his garage a day or so later trying to untangle lights. His friend Joe Randolph stops by and says the guy who always helped as Santa at the orphanage Christmas Eve party moved away. Now they realized he used his own suit. Ozzie offers his suit; however, Joe thinks his is also offering to be Santa. Joe has to hurry off before Ozzie can explain.
Ozzie would be filling in for Santa because the real Big Guy was too busy Christmas Eve delivering gifts. NORAD began tracking his movements in 1955, so the Nelsons would have been able to follow his progress around the globe.
Scene 5 is December 23. Mrs. Brewster has dropped off a song, and Doc has dropped off his part. Ozzie climbs the ladder to hang lights and has Rick practice the part of Scrooge with him. Rick, wearing a sheet like a ghost, leans out the window and plays Marley, ad-libbing the part till Ozzie tells him he must learn the part the way it’s written. David comes in the room and tells Rick to take off the sheet because it’s from David’s bed. The boys get into a conversation and walk off, leaving Ozzie wondering what is going on. Ozzie remembers he has to get the Santa suit out of the attic and goes to retrieve it. Mrs. Brewster stops by before he can get back on the ladder to bring more music and asks him to please learn the bass part, because she is short on basses. As he goes back up the ladder to put up the lights, he is called to dinner.
Scene 6 begins on Christmas Eve day. Ozzie is walking around practicing his play part and singing his bass parts. He is just leaving the house to get a tree when the phone rings. It’s Joe Randolph saying that there are so many children at the orphanage, they will have to do two parties instead of one. Then Doc stops by and says he was called to the hospital for an emergency and Ozzie will have to go pick up the costumes. David offers to drive him. They rush to pick up costumes from the tailor, then to the orphanage, and then to the play. During the play, Ozzie knocks a picture off the wall, then drops a prop and, when he picks it up, his pants rip.
Everyone is back at home for Scene 7. Ozzie is complaining that once again he was too busy. He talks about how embarrassing the play was and how he hurt his knee hopping in and out of the car. David says the audience thought what Ozzie did was part of the play and it was funny. Then David says he got a parking ticket. That is the last straw for Ozzie, but when Harriet inspects it, she realizes it is an invitation to the Policeman’s Ball. At that moment, the carolers arrive to pick up the Nelson family. They are singing “Silent Night” and the family gets quiet and listens to the song, realizing how beautiful it is and what Christmas is all about. Ozzie goes to get his coat which Harriet has put in the den. Ricky comes into the hall with a Charlie Brown tree saying that was all they had left when he got to the lot. As Ozzie opens the den door, a huge tree is revealed decorated with bulbs and tinsel with tons of presents under it. Harriet and Ricky said they did it while Dave and Ozzie were gone.
Tree decorations is one area that has changed drastically today. Rarely do you see tinsel, garland, or snow flocking. Back in the 1950s you might have seen bubble lights, or popcorn strands, and the rainbow colors of Shiny Brite ornaments.
Family with two children (4-6) opening gifts by Christmas tree
They go outside for Scene 8 to join the carolers. It begins to snow lightly. Doc mentions it’s too bad lights didn’t get put up, but then Ricky hits the light switch and he explains he and Harriet took care of those too. The group moves off singing “Deck the Halls.”
That’s the end of the 1956 episode, but in 1964, Ozzie replayed this show and added a Scene 10. It is now 1964. David is married to June Blair and they have a son Danny. Rick is married to Kris Harmon and they have a daughter Tracy. The entire Nelson family gathers around the tree. Ricky plays his guitar, sitting in front of the fireplace and decorated tree and sings “The Christmas Song.” While he sings, the camera pans around watching the rest of the family. It ends with everyone wishing the viewers a merry Christmas.
So much of our culture has changed today from 1956; however, thankfully many Christmas traditions remain. We still send and get cards, although some of them are on the computer. We still put up lights and a tree; we just tend to do it earlier, so we can enjoy it longer. We still do things for others like orphanage parties; we just don’t have actual orphanages much anymore. We also can get quiet, listening to “Silent Night” and be deeply touched by the season and what it means to us. This episode is a reminder of that for me every year, and I look forward to it.
Elinor Donahue always displays a warmth and comes across as a genuinely nice person. Her first sitcom became her most famous role. She played Betty in the iconic Father Knows Best. Although none of her later sitcoms reached the same popularity, she has had a long and full career.
She was born in April of 1937 in Tacoma, Washington. She began tap dancing at 16 months old. As a toddler, she did some acting and received a contract with Universal at the ripe old age of 5. From 1955-1961 she was married to Robert Smith. She was married her second husband, Harry Ackerman, from 1962-1991. Ackerman was a producer for shows including Leave It to Beaver, Gidget, and Bewitched. She married her third husband Louis Genevrino in 1992.
Donahue appeared in 18 movies between 1942 and 1952 including Tea for Two with Doris Day and My Blue Heaven. She made the transition to television in 1952 appearing in 8 shows in the 1950s. One of the shows I remember her in although I only saw it in reruns was one of my favorite shows, The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show. She was typically cast as the girl-next-door type. Her most famous role came in 1954 when she was cast in a new sitcom, Father Knows Best.
Father Knows Best – 1954-1960
This was one of the typical family shows of the 1950s. The Andersons lived in Springfield with three children: Betty, called Princess (Elinor Donahue), James Jr., or Bud (Billy Gray) and Kathy, usually called Kitten (Lauren Chapin). The show debuted in the fall of 1954 on CBS. The show was cancelled in 1955 and the public was furious. Letters came pouring in, so it was reinstated. NBC took over the next year until 1958 when it went back to CBS. In 1960, Robert Young decided he was done. These were warm and inviting parents, providing guidance and object lessons galore. Critics panned it later because it was not reality. We have reality shows today, and please, give me fiction. We did learn life lessons on the show – following through on promises, working for what you want, being yourself, and taking responsibility for your mistakes.
Shortly after Father Knows Best left the airwaves, Donahue accepted the role of Elly Walker in The Andy Griffith Show.
Most of us are very familiar with TheAndy Griffith Show and many of the characters who inhabit Mayberry: Widower Andy Taylor (Andy Griffith) and his son Opie (Ron Howard) live with Andy’s Aunt Bee (Frances Bavier) who takes care of them; Barney (Don Knotts) is the inept deputy but also Andy’s best friend; Helen Crump (Anita Corsaut), the school teacher and Andy’s girlfriend later in the series; Thelma Lou (Betty Lynn), Barney’s girl; Otis Campbell (Hal Smith), town drunk but nice guy; Gomer Pyle (Jim Nabors), who runs the gas station; and his cousin Goober Pyle (George Lindsey). Andy had several romances early in the show. He dated the county nurse Mary Simpson (played by several actresses), spent a limited amount of time with Daphne (Jean Carson) who had a crush on him; and in the first two seasons, he was sweet on Ellie Walker (Donahue), who ran the local drug store. Ellie cared about Andy, but she always stood up for herself and women’s rights. Andy and Ellie never had the chemistry they were hoping for but they respected each other and like each other. Elinor raved about the cast and her opportunity to be on the show. She said Andy was in charge and expected quality but was fair and a nice man. She described Ron Howard as the best child actor she ever worked with. She liked Frances Bavier and got along well with her. She had a huge respect for Don Knott’s comedic ability. She is still friends with Betty Lynn.
She appeared on a variety of shows in the mid-1960s including 77 Sunset Strip, Dr. Kildare, The Virginian, Dennis the Menace, Star Trek, and The Flying Nun. She tried her luck with one other sitcom in the 1960s.
Many Happy Returns – 1964-1965
This sitcom was also about a widower. Walter Burnley (John McGiver) ran the Complaint Department at a LA department store. The show also featured his daughter (Donahue) and a coworker Lynn Hall (Elena Verdugo). His boss (Jerome Cowan) did not want him to take in any returns, so he had to resolve complaints without making his boss mad. Apparently Burnley couldn’t solve the complaints that came in from viewers because the show was cancelled after 24 episodes.
Father Knows Best came out with two television movies in 1977: The Father Knows Best Reunion and Father Knows Best – Home for Christmas, and Elinor was in both. While still showing up in random shows during the 1970s such as The Rookies, Police Woman, and Diff’rent Strokes, Donahue found time to appear in two 70s shows on a regular basis.
The Odd Couple – 1972-1975
Neil Simon’s The Odd Couple came to Friday nights in 1970. Felix Unger (Tony Randall) and Oscar Madison (Jack Klugman), two divorced men who are complete opposites but best friends, try to live together without killing each other. The show had a great supporting cast including Donohue as Miriam Welby from 1972-1974, Felix’s girlfriend.
Mulligan’s Stew – 1977
This show from 1977 starred Elinor Donahue as Jane Mulligan. She and her husband Michael (Lawrence Pressman) are trying to raise three kids on his teacher’s salary when they suddenly add four orphaned nieces and nephews to their family. One of the kids was played by Suzanne Crough, Tracy from ThePartridge Family, one of the few shows she was in. The series only lasted for seven episodes.
The 1980s found Donahue still working regularly. She was in Barnaby Jones, Mork & Mindy, One Day ata Time, Fantasy Island, The Love Boat, Newhart, and Golden Girls. One sitcom in the 1980s captured her attention about Beans Baxter.
The New Adventures of Beans Baxter – 1987
Here is the plot for this one: Beans Baxter’s (Jonathan Ward) father who he thought was a mailman disappears one day. Teenage Bean discovers that his dad worked for a secret government agency. He is then drawn into becoming a spy for the government. The show features his adventures as he tries to find the enemy agents who are holding his father hostage while his mother played by Donahue is completely oblivious that anything strange is happening. Viewers also didn’t realize anything was happening because the show was cancelled after 17 episodes.
Entering her 60s, Elinor joined the cast of three sitcoms in the 1990s. She also made several movies including Pretty Woman in 1990 and The Princess Diaries 2 in 2004.
Get a Life – 1990-1992
Shows don’t get much weirder than this one. Comedian Chris Elliot plays a 30-year-old paperboy Chris Peterson who lives with wacky parents (Donahue and Bob Elliott, Chris’s real father). Some of the strange things that happen during the 36 episodes include eating a space alien, beheadings, and a robot paperboy. In this bizarre series, Chris actually dies in a third of the episodes. During the run of the show, he died from old age, tonsillitis, a stab wound, a gunshot wound, was strangled, got run over by a car, choked on his cereal, was crushed by a giant boulder, and actually exploded.
Eek!stravaganza – 1992-1993
Donahue plays “The Mom” in this animated show about Eek, a purple cat who always finds himself in dangerous situations. The series was on the air for five seasons.
Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman – 1993-1997
During the six years the show was on the air, Donahue reprised her role as Rebecca Quinn ten times. The show followed the ups and downs experienced by a female doctor practicing in a wild western town.
Interestingly, Donahue appeared in three different soap operas toward the end of her career: SantaBarbara, Days of Our Lives, and The Young and the Restless. Elinor also appeared on a variety of documentaries and award shows. She was in the Match Game/Hollywood Squares Hour. In 1998, she wrote her memoirs titled, In the Kitchen with Elinor Donahue. The book included about 150 of her favorite recipes. Elinor’s career has been long and she appeared in many shows and movies over the years. She hasn’t appeared in a movie or television show since 2010, although she did do some theater. In September of 2015, she appeared in one of my favorite plays, “Harvey” in North Carolina.
Donahue’s career reminds me of many of the actors we have gotten to know in this blog including William Christopher, Betty White, Ken Berry, and Shelly Fabares. These actors and actresses all appear to be very nice, talented people who have careers they should be proud of. In a day when bad decisions and selfish actions are splattered across our television screens and newspapers, perhaps one of the best compliments we can give someone is that they had a long and fulfilling career and didn’t step all over other people to achieve it.
When a rainy day shows up this summer, take a moment to watch some of Elinor’s sitcom episodes. Thank you Elinor Donahue for the entertainment and memories you gave us.
This week I was inspired by the blog “Once upon a screen . . .” to take a look at television pioneers who were born in 1917. (For some great articles on pop culture, movies, and television, check out her blog at aurorasginjoint.com.) Let’s get to know 17 of the stars who helped shape the direction of television during the golden age.
Herbert Anderson. Best known for his role as Henry Mitchell on Dennis the Menace, Anderson began his career making movies. He transitioned to television in 1953, appearing on 61 shows over the years. He appeared in episodes on such shows as Gunsmoke, Petticoat Junction, Batman, I Dream of Jeannie, Manfrom U.N.C.L.E.,My Three Sons, Bewitched, and The Waltons. One of my favorites is the first season of The Brady Bunch. The kids are sick and both parents call a doctor. The girls were used to a woman played by Marion Ross while the boys always had a man, Anderson. After weighing factors to pick one of them, the family decides to keep both doctors. He died from a heart attack in 1994.
Carl Ballantine. Ballantine began his career as a magician and inspired many famous magicians since. He began working in Las Vegas and on television as a magician. Eventually he transferred to movie roles and after appearing in McHale’s Navy on the big screen, took on the same role of Lester Gruber on the television series. He went on to appear on 33 additional tv shows including That Girl, Laverne and Shirley, Trapper John MD, and Night Court. He passed away at his home in 2009.
Earl Bellamy. Earl Bellamy directed episodes for 101 different television shows. He is best known for TheLone Ranger and The Tales of Wells Fargo. He directed 82 episodes for Bachelor Father, one of my all-time favorite sitcoms. In the 1960s he specialized in sitcoms including That Girl,The Brady Bunch, ThePartridge Family, and My Three Sons while the 1970s saw him transition to dramas including MarcusWelby MD, The FBI,Medical Center, and Eight is Enough. In 2003 he passed away from a heart attack.
Ernest Borgnine. Best known of his Oscar-winning role of Marty in 1955, Ernest enlisted in the Navy in 1935 until 1941. In 1942 he re-enlisted and served until 1945. After doing some factory work, he decided to go to school to study acting and began his career on Broadway. He was also in the movie McHale’s Navy and went on to tackle the role in the television series. He loved working with Tim Conway and in later years they did the voices for Mermaid Man and Barnacle Boy in SpongeBobSquarePants. He appeared in 47 different shows over the years, including the series Airwolf which he starred in. Borgnine appeared in the final episode of ER which he won an Emmy for. He was married five times, including a 32-day marriage to Ethel Merman. His last marriage to Tova lasted 39 years. He died of kidney failure in 2012.
Raymond Burr. Best known as Perry Mason, Burr started his career on Broadway in the 1940s and then appeared in 50 films from 1946-1957. In 1956 he auditioned for the role of Hamilton Burger, the DA in Perry Mason. He was told he could have the starring role if he lost about 60 pounds which he accomplished. He later starred in Ironside, another crime drama and appeared on a variety of other shows. Burr had many interests including raising and cross-breeding orchids; collecting wine, art, stamps and sea shells; reading; and breeding dogs. He was extremely generous, giving away much of his money over the years. He passed away from cancer in 1993.
Phyllis Diller. Known for her wild hair and clothing, Diller was one of the pioneering stand-up female comedians. She appeared in films in the 1940s, worked in radio in the 1950s, and began her stand-up career in 1955. Her first television appearance was in You Bet Your Life. She appeared in 40 shows including Batman, CHIPs, Full House, and The Drew Carey Show. She had her own show titled The Pruittsof Southampton, and in reruns The Phyllis Diller Show that ran from 1966-67. She recorded comedy albums in the 1960s, wrote several books during her career, was an accomplished pianist, performing with symphony orchestras across the US and taught herself painting which she continued throughout the 1960s and 70s. Her husband Fang was not real, but she used him in her comedy routines. She died of natural causes in 2012. My first memory of Diller was in the movie Boy Did I Dial a WrongNumber with Bob Hope which my parents took me to at the drive in.
Ross Elliott. A prolific actor on stage, film, and television, Elliott appeared in 184 different shows from sitcoms to westerns to medial dramas, all between 1951 and 1983. He passed away from cancer in 1999.
June Foray. One of the greatest voice actors ever, Foray has been active in the industry since she had her own radio show. She did off-air voices for many sitcoms including I Love Lucy, Father Knows Best, Jack Benny, Rawhide, Get Smart, Lost In Space, and Bewitched. She also appeared in more than 76 animated series. She is perhaps best known as Rocky in Rocky and Bullwinkle and as Cindy Lou Who in How the Grinch Stole Christmas and Karen and other voices in Frosty the Snowman. Foray is still alive today.
Zsa Zsa Gabor. Unlike her sister Eva who became known as Lisa Douglas on Green Acres, Zsa Zsa seemed to make a career out of playing herself. Of the 80 appearances she made in film and television, 20 of them were as herself. She was a true celebrity. Crowned Miss Hungary in 1936, she came to the US in 1941 and began her career. She was known for her extravagant lifestyle and many marriages: 9 with 7 divorces (including one to Conrad Hilton) and 1 annulment.
Sid Melton. Known to most viewers today as handyman Alf Monroe on Green Acres, Melton began as a film star and went on to appear in 71 shows including Topper, Bachelor Father, Make Room for Daddy,That Girl, Petticoat Junction, I Dream of Jeannie, and Empty Nest. He died from pneumonia in 2011.
Alice Pearce. Although her career was cut short due to illness, I included Alice Pearce because her role as Gladys Kravitz in so memorable. After spending her childhood in Europe, Pearce started on Broadway and after appearing in On the Town, she was brought to Hollywood to reprise her role in the movie version. She began specializing in comedy in the 1940s. In 1964 she turned down the role of Grandmama in The Addams Family and shortly after was offered the role of Gladys in Bewitched. She was already diagnosed with ovarian cancer when she began her role but didn’t tell anyone and was able to act for two seasons before she passed away from the disease. She received an Emmy for her work on Bewitched.
Gene Rayburn. One of the kings of game shows, Rayburn began his career as an actor, taking over for Dick Van Dyke in Bye Bye Birdie when Van Dyke began his television show. While he was on numerous game shows as a panelist or host over the years, Rayburn is best known for Match Game which first ran from 1962-69. It was revived again in 1973 and took several formats in the following years. He died from heart failure in 1999.
Isabel Sanford. Best known as Louise Jefferson, she grew up in Harlem and performed in amateur nights at the Apollo Theatre. Her Broadway debut was in 1965. After appearing as a maid in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, she was cast by Norman Lear in All in the Family which led to the series TheJeffersons. When the show ended in 1985, she appeared in a variety of other shows until 2002. She passed away from natural causes in 2004.
Sidney Sheldon. A writer and producer, Sheldon created The Patty Duke Show, I Dream of Jeannie, and Hart to Hart, writing many of the scripts for all three series. After he turned 50, he began a career writing romantic suspense novels. He died from pneumonia in 2007.
Robert Sterling. A clothing salesman before getting into acting, Sterling was best known for his role as George Kerby in Topper from 1953-55. His wife, Anne Jeffreys played his wife in the show. From 1943-49 he was married to Ann Sothern. He appeared in 36 shows between 1951 and 1986. He passed away from natural causes in 2006.
Jesse White. While White was a hard-working character actor, he is best known for his commercials as the Maytag repairman from 1967-88. After appearing in films for many years, he transitioned to television in the 1950s. His daughter Carole Ita White also became an actress best known for Laverneand Shirley. White appeared in 113 shows, never receiving a regular series.
Jane Wyman. Wyman began working at Warner Brothers at age 16, claiming to be 19. Although she was a successful film star and began in television in 1955 with her own show, Jane Wyman Presents Fireside Theater, she is probably best known for her role on Falcon’s Crest from 1981-90 and her marriage to Ronald Reagan. She died in her sleep from natural causes in 2007.
These are just a handful of television mavericks that influenced television as we know it today. I was amazed at the variety of different talents each of these stars displayed. In comparing their television appearances, it’s surprising how many of them overlap and worked on the same shows. What I found most surprising was that Ballantine, Diller, Melton, Sanford, Sterling, White and White’s daughter all appeared on Love American Style while Bellamy, Borgnine, Burr, Diller, Gabor, Rayburn, Sanford, White, and Wyman all guest starred on The Love Boat. During my research, I ran across many shows that will become future blog topics.
Another fun fact about celebrating stars born in 1917 is that this week we are traveling to Pennsylvania to celebrate my grandmother’s 100th birthday who was also born in 1917. Happy Birthday Mamie.