The Donna Reed Show: It’s All About the Mom

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.

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Photo: dallas.wikia.com

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.”

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Photo: imdb.com

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.

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Photo: metv.com

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.

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Photo: pinterest.com

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.

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Photo: metv.com

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.

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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.

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Photo: metv.com

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.

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Photo: nytimes.com

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.

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Photo: metv.com

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.

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Photo: lapostexaminer.com

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.

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Photo: geocaching.com

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.”

I couldn’t say it better.

The Show That Never Really Ended

 

The past few weeks we have been exploring the shows that were part of the Friday night schedule from 1970-1972. We end this series by getting to know The Brady Bunch.

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How It All Began

Sherwood Schwartz read a stat in LA Times that 31% of all marriages include children from a previous marriage. He put together a script for a show based on that statistic. All three networks liked it, but they all wanted significant changes, so he shelved it. In 1968, the films With Six You Get Eggroll and Yours, Mine, and Ours debuted. Schwartz’s script predated the two movies, but because the movies were so popular (Yours, Mine and Ours was the 11th top grossing movie that year), ABC decided to put Sherwood’s show on the air. At the time, the title of the show was either “Yours and Mine” or “The Bradley Brood.”

ABC gave Schwartz a 13-week commitment. John Rich was brought on to direct the pilot, the cast was hired, and sets were built at the Paramount TV Stage 5. The filming began Oct 4, 1968 and lasted 8 days.

The Brady Bunch

The show was supposed to reveal how a blended family overcomes daily problems, but by the second season, we forget that this was ever a blended family and the family deals with the same issues all siblings do.

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Realizing how popular The Brady Bunch has been for decades, it’s surprising to learn that the show was never in the top 30 during its original run. When it had the number of episodes it needed for syndication, it was canceled by the network. The series found a new life in syndication becoming an American icon. When anyone says it was a “Brady Bunch” kitchen, dress, etc., everyone instinctively knows what that means.

 

Casting the Show

Shirley Jones was offered the role of Carol Brady first. Joyce Bulifant was then given the role. I’m not sure why she did not get the role; the only information I could find was that she was surprised because she had already signed the contract and had the wardrobe. But for some reason, they tested Florence after and thought she was the better choice for Carol.

 

Both Kathleen Freeman and Monty Margetts were auditioned for Alice. When Florence Henderson got the role, Ann B Davis was hired because they wanted a comedienne that seemed a better fit for Carol.

To find the 6 Brady kids, 464 were auditioned. Sherwood felt it would be more realistic if all the boys had dark hair like Reed and the girls were blonde like Henderson. Mike Lookinland, hired to play Bobby, was really a blonde and they had to dye his hair dark brown.

Allan Melvin played Sam Franklin, Alice’s boyfriend who owns the butcher shop. He was only in eight episodes but was mentioned often.

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Tiger the dog appeared in half the episodes from season 1 but only six in season 2 and then disappeared altogether.

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During the middle of season 5, Robbie Rist was introduced as Oliver, Carol’s nephew who came to live with them while his parents traveled overseas.  It was an attempt to get the younger audience back since the youngest kids were now 11 and 12. The addition of Oliver felt forced and it wasn’t a popular change.

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Schwartz’s daughter Hope was on the series four times:  Jenny at a slumber party in season 2, episode 3; Rachel, Greg’s girlfriend in season 3, episode 18 and in season 4, episode 15; and in the series’ finale as Gretchen, a graduate in Greg’s class. Many of the script ideas came from her real life.

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Many famous guest stars who played themselves met the Bradys: Davy Jones, Desi Arnaz Jr., Don Drysdale, Don Ho, Deacon Jones, NASA astronaut Brig. Gen James McDivitt, Joe Namath. Imogene Coca starred as Aunt Jenny. In an early episode Cindy and Bobby are ill; without discussing it, the parents each call their doctor to make a house call, so two doctors arrive at the same time played by Marion Ross from Happy Days and Herbert Anderson from Dennis the Menace. It worked out because the family decided to keep both doctors.

The Theme Song

The well-known theme was written by Schwartz and Frank De Vol with the famous and often-parodied tic-tac-toe board featuring the family members.

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The Peppermint Trolley Co. recorded the theme in season 1. The Peppermint Trolley Co. was a pop band that is known for performing on The Beverly Hillbillies and Mannix. They released one album in 1968. When Christopher Knight was heard singing it on set, the producer decided to have the Brady kids sing the theme, and a new arrangement was recorded each year.

If you need a reminder, the words are:

Here’s the story of a lovely lady Who was bringing up three very lovely girls. All of them had hair of gold, like their mother, The youngest one in curls.

Here’s the story, of a man named Brady, Who was busy with three boys of his own, They were four men, living all together, Yet they were all alone.

Till the one day when the lady met this fellow And they knew it was much more than a hunch, That this group would somehow form a family. That’s the way we all became the Brady Bunch.

The Brady Bunch, the Brady Bunch That’s the way we became the Brady Bunch.

The Brady House

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The house was a mid-century modern split-level home at 11222 Dilling St., Studio City, CA. Schwartz chose it because he thought it looked like a home an architect would live in. To make it look like there was a second story, a window was placed on the A-frame. The interior was used in two Mannix episodes and one Mission: Impossible episode. It was also re-created for an X Files episode “Sunshine Days.”  In that show, Scully and several agents investigate a bizarre murder case where the main suspect has an obsession with The Brady Bunch.  The Bradys’ address was given as 4222 Clinton Way. To help with privacy when the show ended, the owners put up a fence and tried to let some of the greenery grow to block the house from the street.

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Vehicles

The vehicles were provided mainly by Chrysler. Throughout the series, Carol drove a brown Plymouth Satellite station wagon, using different models each year.

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Mike primarily drove convertibles: Pilot – a blue 1968 Dodge Polara 500 convertible, Season 1 and 2 – a blue 1969 Plymouth Fury III convertible, Season 3 – a 1971 Plymouth Barracuda convertible, Season 4 – a blue 1972 Chevy Impala convertible, and for something different Season 5 – a red 1973 Chevy Caprice Classic convertible.

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In one episode, “The Winner,” from season 2, Carol and Mike take Bobby to a local television station to compete in an ice-cream eating contest. They leave in their blue convertible but return in the brown station wagon. Whoops!

Spin Offs

This show spawned a variety of spin-offs and reunion shows including The Brady Bunch Hour (1976-77), The Brady Kids (1977), The Brady Girls Get Married (1981), The Brady Brides (1981), A Very Brady Christmas (1988), The Bradys (1990), and a big-screen movie, The Brady Bunch Movie (1995).

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Kelly’s Kids – a pilot for a spinoff was one of the episodes about the Bradys’ friend and neighbor Ken Kelly, played by Ken Berry. Ken and his wife Kathy adopt three boys, all of different racial backgrounds. One of the boys was played by Mike Lookinland’s younger brother. (Todd Lookinland went on to have a successful acting career.) The show was not picked up by the network.

The Brady Kids was a show from 1977 with 9 episodes. Eve Plumb declined the role, so Jan was played by Geri Reischl. It was scheduled sporadically and did not receive great ratings.

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The Brady Girls Get Married was supposed to be a one-night tv movie. It ended up being split up into four half-hour weekly shows with the final one being the pilot for a show called The Brady Brides. In the movie, Jan and Marcia have a double wedding. It was the only time the entire cast worked together again after the original show. Mike is still an architect while Carol is a real estate agent. Marcia is a fashion designer, Jan is an architect, Greg is a doctor, Peter is in the Air Force and Bobby and Cindy are in college. Alice has married Sam. The concept of the series is that the two married couples buy a house and live together, but the guys are very different and don’t see eye to eye about much. After ten episodes, the show was cancelled.

THE BRADY BRIDES, Susan Olsen, Mike Lookinland, Eve Plumb, Christopher Knight, Maureen McCormick, Ba

When the show ended, the kids released a few albums; however only Barry Williams and Maureen McCormick stayed involved with the music business in their future careers.

In 1983, Robert Reed, Florence Henderson, Maureen McCormick, Christopher Knight, and Cindy Olsen competed on Family Feud in a celebrity edition of the show.

Life After the Brady Bunch

The cast was close and remained friends after the series ended. Robert Reed did not always agree with Sherwood Schwartz on the details of certain episodes, but he was close with the crew, especially Florence Henderson. At his own expense, he took all the kids to London on the QEII in 1971. When he was dying in 1992, Florence called each of the kids to tell them personally.

 

Maureen McCormick battled several demons before finding herself after the series ended. She performed in Peter Pan and Grease. Maureen has appeared in many television guest spots and feature films, including Dogtown in 1997, Baby Huey’s Great East Adventure in 1999, and The Million Dollar Kid in 2000.  She has released several albums and played country singer Barbara Mandrell in a tv movie. She wrote a memoir, Here’s the Story. She also recently competed on Dancing with the Stars.

 

Eve Plumb starred in Dawn: Portrait of a Teenage Runaway to combat getting locked into an image when the show was cancelled. She has done guest spots on a variety of television shows including One Day at a Time, Murder She Wrote, and The Love Boat. She played the mom on the Fudge series in the 1990s and was in the television special Grease: Live. She has become a well-known artist, primarily painting still lifes.

 

Susan Olsen sang on The Pat Boone Show and in the Elvis movie The Trouble with Girls before becoming Cindy Brady. She studied at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, became a radio talk show host, an artist, an animal advocate, and co-wrote a book titled Love to Love You Bradys about the variety show.

 

Barry Williams starred in Pippin after the show ended. He has been a radio host and co-wrote a tell-all book Growing Up Brady: I was a Teenage Brady. He also guest starred in many shows including Murder She Wrote, Three’s Company, and Highway to Heaven. He tours with music theater and does speaking engagements.

 

Christopher Knight has been employed as a businessman for many years in the high-tech industry. During the 2000s, he appeared in several reality shows.

 

Mike Lookinland also had his share of issues to deal with after the show ended as he grew up. He attended the University of Utah and became a camera technician for two decades. Currently, he creates concrete countertops. (Photo on right courtesy of huffingtonpost.com)

 

Ann B Davis rarely acted after life on The Brady Bunch. She was very involved with her church. (See my blog “Oh Alice” dated February 5, 2018). She passed away in June of 2014.

 

Robert Reed was a trained Shakespearian actor, studying at Northwestern and at the University of London. He continued to guest star in a variety of television shows after The Brady Bunch ended. He passed away in 1992.

 

Florence Henderson continued to stay busy performing after the show. She and Shirley Jones traveled, performing together. She also wrote an autobiography titled Life is Not a Stage: From a Broadway Baby to a Lovely Lady and Beyond. She also spent much of her time raising money for charitable causes. She passed away in November of 2016. (see my blog “The Passing of a Pop-Culture Parent dated December 6, 2016.)

 

Allan Melvin continued to accumulate many acting credits after the show, primarily in animation. He passed away in 2008.

 

Conclusion

It’s amazing how popular the show has been for almost fifty years. Rarely does a show that aired for five seasons have so many spin-offs and show variations. It probably hurt the cast more than it helped because they could never overcome their strong identification as a Brady kid. The cast went on to do a variety of careers. Currently, The Brady Bunch can be seen on ME TV on Sundays for their “Brady Brunch” from 11 am to 1 pm central time.

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In July of 2012, there was a lot of talk about a new version of The Brady Bunch. A reboot was approved by CBS to be produced by Vince Vaughn. The sequel apparently revolved around Bobby as an adult. I could not find any information about the status of the project.

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While I enjoyed watching The Brady Bunch, I was a Partridge Family fan. I loved Alice though and always wanted to be Jan. I remember hoping I might have to get braces when she got them. I think it would be hard to find a show that had such an impact on so many different generations. Brady Bunch memorabilia is still being created and there are a ton of quizzes on the internet such as “Which Brady Kid Are You?”

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I hope you enjoyed getting to know a little more about these Friday night shows from the early 1970s. I am looking forward to a Friday night when I can sit back and watch a few episodes of each show for my own dream line-up.