Mary Jane Croft: What a Character!

In October we are having fun with the “What a Character” series. Although this actress spent less than two decades on television, she had a memorable career. Today let’s learn more about Mary Jane Croft.

Mary Jane Croft - Rotten Tomatoes
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Mary Jane Croft was born in 1916 in Muncie, Indiana. She described herself as a “stage-struck 17-year-old just out of high school,” when she began working at the Muncie Civic Theatre. Moving on to the Guild Theatre Company in Cincinnati led her to radio station work at WLW.

In the thirties, she received a lot of experience and she described her work there: “from 1935-1939, I played parts with every kind of voice and accent: children, babies, old women, society belles, main street floozies—everything.” She appeared in Life with Luigi, Blondie, The Adventures of Sam Spade, The Mel Blanc Show, and Our Miss Brooks, among other shows. She was a frequent guest star on My Favorite Husband, Lucille Ball’s radio show which would become very important to her television career.

Croft had married Jack Zoller, another actor earlier in her life. The marriage did not last long but produced a son, Eric. After her divorce, she moved to Hollywood in 1939.

I Love Lucy' Star Mary Jane Croft: Lucille Ball's Frequent TV Sidekick
On the radio Photo: closerweekly.com

While Croft appeared in three big-screen films, most of her professional career was spent on television. Her first role was in Eve Arden’s show, Our Miss Brooks from 1953-1955 once it moved from radio to television. She portrayed Daisy Enright whom she had also voiced on the radio show. Daisy and Connie Brooks competed for the head English teacher position and for the attention of Mr. Boynton. During that time, she also was cast in The Lineup, The Life of Riley, I Married Joan, and Dragnet.

From 1954-1957, she was on I Love Lucy seven times. She and Lucy continued both their professional and personal relationships. In the final season of Lucy’s show, she played Betty Ramsey, a neighbor of the Ricardos and Mertzs when they moved to Connecticut.

In the mid-fifties, she showed up on A Date with Angels, The Eve Arden Show, and The Court of Last Resort.

In 1959, she married Elliott Lewis and they were married until he died in 1990. She met Lewis while appearing on Lucy’s show; he was the producer. Sadly, her son Eric was killed in action in Vietnam.

1956 TV ARTICLE~CLEO WANDA BASSET HOUND PEOPLES CHOICE MARY JANE CROFT  HOUND DOG | eBay
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From 1955-1958 she was the voice of Cleo on The People’s Choice for 99 episodes. This is another one of those quirky shows from the fifties. The premise is that Socrates Miller, known as “Sock,” joins the city council and clashes with the mayor, John Peoples. Sock then dates and marries John’s daughter Mandy. Sock has a basset hound named Cleo, and Cleo shares her thoughts with the audience about what is going on.

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Croft with Lyle Talbot and the Randolphs on Ozzie and Harriet–Photo: pinterest.com

From 1955-1966 she appeared as Clara Randolph on the Ozzie and Harriet Show for a total of 75 episodes. Joe and Clara Randolph were the Nelsons’ neighbors and good friends.

Although Croft did accept roles on Vacation Playhouse in 1966 and The Mothers-in-Law (another Arden show) in 1969, her career from 1962-1974 was with Lucille Ball. She was on The Lucy Show from 1962-1968 as Mary Jane Lewis when Lucy’s original sidekick Vivian Vance left the show. She continued that same role into Here’s Lucy from 1969-1974 for an additional 34 episodes.

Her last acting credit was a TV Movie with Lucille Ball titled Lucy Calls the President.

I Love Lucy' Star Mary Jane Croft: Lucille Ball's Frequent TV Sidekick
Croft with Lucille Ball–Photo: closerweekly.com

Croft died of natural causes in 1999.

I Love Lucy' Star Mary Jane Croft: Lucille Ball's Frequent TV Sidekick
Ball and Croft–Photo: closerweekly.com

Geoffrey Mark who wrote The Lucy Book: A Complete Guide to Her Five Decades on Television, got to spend time with Croft. He said she was “nothing like the characters she played,” in an exclusive interview with Closer Weekly. “She was intelligent, thoughtful in her speech and prettier than you would think. I found her to be very honest in that there was no nonsense about what she said. If she said it, she meant it. She was aware that she had become this icon mostly because of her association with Lucille Ball, but also because of other things that she did.”

When he asked her how she was able to assume so many character voices, she said that she thought about what the backstory of the character might be and invented a voice that would serve that character. It was something she learned when she worked in radio.

Papermoon Loves Lucy — MARY JANE CROFT
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Although Croft only appeared on 26 different shows, she had a busy and lucrative career. She is remembered for three major roles: Daisy Enright on Our Miss Brooks, Clara Randolph on Ozzie and Harriet, and Mary Jane Lewis on The Lucy Show and Here’s Lucy. And even if her television career was not long, she was in the entertainment business for her entire life after graduation. She created many memorable radio voices as well. With her numerous roles, she truly was quite a character.

Isabel Randolph, What a Character!

October is “What a Character,” blog series month, and we are taking a look at some of our favorite character actors. This blog features the wonderful Isabel Randolph.

Randolph was born in Chicago in 1889. After high school, Isabel began performing in regional theater throughout the Midwest until the mid-1930s. She married J.C. Ryan, a Chicago newspaperman, in 1917. Unfortunately, he passed away at a young age and she raised their two girls. She was the leading lady at the Princess Theater in Des Moines, Iowa. In a 2012 article, Ryan Ellett quoted Conrad Nagel as saying the Princess Theater “was recognized as one of the outstanding stock companies of the entire country, and is still referred to by some of the old timers as the best of them all.” Ralph Bellamy also spent time with the theater.

Actor Isabel Randolph Movies List, Isabel Randolph Filmography, Isabel  Randolph 10 Films
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In the thirties, Randolph decided to try out radio. She was on the air on Fibber McGee and Molly from 1935-1943. She played a variety of roles but was best known for Mrs. Abigail Uppington, a society matron. During this time, she also was in several other soap opera-type shows. When the McGees moved their show to Hollywood, Isabel went to California with them where she took a chance at motion pictures.

Isabel specialized in the “grand dame” roles which continued into her film career. Of her 110 acting credits, 69 of them were for movies on the big screen, her first being in 1939 in The Women.

In 1953, she made the foray into television. Her first role was on The Dick Tracy Show in 1951, based on the popular comic strip.

The Missing Corpse by Albert Herman, Albert Herman, J. Edward Bromberg, Isabel  Randolph, Eric Sinclair | DVD | Barnes & Noble®

In 1952, she got her second role, and her first recurring role in a sitcom, when she was offered the part of neighbor Mrs. Boone in Meet Millie. Meet Millie was about Millie Bronson (Elena Verdugo), a secretary who lives with her mother (Florence Halop) in Queens. Her boss is JR Boone (Roland Winters) and she sometimes dates his son Johnnie (Ross Ford). Family friend and poet Alfred Prinzmetal (Marvin Kaplan) often drops by. We don’t hear about this show very often but it was on for four years and produced 124 episodes. 

Randolph did a variety of work in television throughout the rest of the fifties. She did a lot of theater programs, westerns, and also comedies including Burns and Allen, The Ann Sothern Show, December Bride, and The Bob Cummings Show.

Isabel Randolph, who played Mrs.... - Masquers Club of Hollywood | Facebook
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She had another recurring role during the last season of Our Miss Brooks when she played Ruth Nestor who ran a private boarding school. John Rich was the director on the show. He loved the cast and said especially Eve Arden was a joy to work with, very nice and very funny. He described the entire cast as “adorable.”

Although she didn’t have a recurring role on Ozzie and Harriet, she was on the show five times between 1956-61. My favorite of her roles on that show was “Busy Christmas” when she played Mrs. Brewster and was heading the Christmas caroling group.

During the sixties, Isabel kept busy. She appeared on Perry Mason three times, twice on The Andy Griffith Show, The Joey Bishop Show, Ben Jarrod, Arrest and Trial, and Many Happy Returns.

Recap and React: The Dick Van Dyke Show, Season 5, Episodes 16 – 20 – The  Motion Pictures
Tom Tully and Randolph as Clara Petrie with Photo: motionpictures.com

Her last recurring role was that of Mrs. Petrie on The Dick Van Dyke Show. In last week’s blog, we looked at one of the best Dick Van Dyke episodes, “Pink Pills and Purple Parents.” When Sally considers taking one of Buddy’s pain pills for her headache, Rob relates a time when Millie gave Laura some of her relaxation pills. Laura takes her first one when Rob’s parents arrive and as she becomes more nervous, she continues to take pills. Eventually, she is a bit loopy making strange comments, forgetting to put ice cream in the sundaes, and dancing to music before passing out. Rob’s parents are sure she has a drinking problem but later find out what happened. Randolph is a gem in this episode.

Randolph passed away in 1973 of undisclosed reasons.

I Wish You a “Busy Christmas” | thewritelife61
Randolph with Ozzie Nelson–Photo: youtube.com

Sadly, like so many of our great character actors, there is not as much information about Isabel’s life. Character actors deserve to have more websites or books of their own. Isabel played the snobby rich woman in many of her roles, but I always think of her as an elegant, gracious mother type.  Thank you, Isabel, for so many decades of entertainment and memorable characters. She was a character, indeed.

Celebrating National Kansas Day with Vivian Vance

As we continue to celebrate National State Days, this week we are visiting Kansas. Our Sunflower star is Vivian Vance. Vivian was born in Cherryvale, Kansas in 1909. Her family moved to Independence when she was six. She knew she wanted to be an actress, but her mother’s strict religious beliefs prohibited her. She began sneaking out of her room at night to perform and eventually moved to Albuquerque, New Mexico where she changed her last name from Jones to Vance.Vivian married Joseph Shearer Danneck Jr. in 1928 at age 19 but they divorced in 1931.

Vivian Vance Hated One Thing About Being On 'I Love Lucy'
Photo: showbizcheatsheet.com

In 1930 she was hired for her first job at the Albuquerque Little Theatre. After appearing in many other plays for the group, the local theater community paid her way to New York so she could study with Eva Le Gallienne.

In 1932, Vance began working on Broadway and was often a chorus member. In 1937 she replaced Kay Thompson in “Hooray for What!” and then began receiving supporting roles. In 1941, she joined Danny Kaye and Eve Arden in Cole Porter’s musical “Let’s Face It” for 500 performances. She would appear in 25 plays with her last being “Harvey” in 1977.

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In 1933 Vance tried marriage again, wedding George Koch, but that relationship also ended in divorce in 1940. Her third marriage to Philip Ober in 1941 would also last only 8 years.

Until 1950 she was offered some small roles in big screen in several films. In 1949, she appeared in her first television series, Philco TV Playhouse.

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In 1951, Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz decided to launch their sitcom I Love Lucy. Ball was hoping to cast Barbara Pepper or Bea Benarderet in the role of Ethel Mertz. Bea had already taken the role of Blanche Morton on The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show. CBS declined to hire Pepper because they said she had an addiction to alcohol. After many roles as “The Dame” in the movies, Pepper later played Doris Ziffel on Green Acres. It’s interesting that CBS allowed William Frawley to be hired for the show because he had a well-known alcohol problem at that time, but Desi gave him strict rules.

Director Marc Daniels had seen Vance perform in the “Voice of the Turtle” and suggested her for the role. She would play Ethel for 179 episodes. She was nominated for her work in 1954, 1956, and 1957, winning in 1954.

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Apparently, she was a very good actress because although she and William Frawley who played her husband Fred had great comedic timing, they could not stand each other. Vivian wasn’t happy that she had to wear frumpy clothing and that Frawley was supposed to be her husband because he was 22 years older than her. He overheard a derogatory comment she made about their age difference, and they never developed any type of cordial friendship after that. However, their coworkers claimed they were professionals and treated each other with respect on the set.

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Vance with Frawley, Arnaz, and Ball–Photo: hollywoodmemorabilia.com

When the sitcom ended, Vance continued to play Ethel on The Lucille Ball-Desi Arnaz Show. She and Frawley were offered a spin-off series, but Vance passed because she didn’t want to continue working with Frawley. Vance was interested in another show however, and Desilu, Ball and Arnaz’s production company, put together a show called Guestward Ho! for her, but the network rejected the pilot. Desilu made some changes to the show and hired Joanne Dru for the lead. ABC picked it up but cancelled it after one season.

In 1961, Vance married John Dodds, an agent, editor and publisher. They moved to Stamford, Connecticut, and Vance always felt pulled between her marriage and career. In 1974 the couple moved to California. Vivian had no children from her four marriages but was godmother to Lovin’ Spoonful band member John Sebastian.

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Candy Moore, Ball, Jimmy Garrett, Ralph Hart and Vance–Photo: hitstv.com

When Ball put together a new show, The Lucy Show in 1962, she invited Vance to costar on the show. The concept featured Ball as Lucy Carmichael, a widow, raising two children in Danfield New York. Vance played her best friend Vivian Bagley, a divorced mother of one son. After a few years, Vance wanted a bit more control and a bit of controversy developed between Lucy and Vivian. Vivian left the show, but they resolved their differences and she guest starred on the show and joined Lucy on reunion shows and on her third sitcom, Here’s Lucy which ran from 1968-1974.

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Vance had very few television roles after leaving Ball’s sitcom, although she did make appearances on Off to See the Wizard, Love American Style, Rhoda, and Sam.

She was best known during those years as the Maxine, the Maxwell Coffee lady starring in numerous commercials for the coffee company. She was paid $250,000 for her three-year contract.

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The last time Vivian and Lucy appeared together was Ball’s special Lucy Calls the President in 1977. Not long afterward, Vance suffered a stroke which left her partly paralyzed. She died in 1979 from bone cancer.

Both Ball and Arnaz commented on her death. Desi shared that “it’s bad enough to lose one of the great artists we had the honor and the pleasure to work with, but it’s even harder to reconcile the loss of one of your best friends.”

Ball commented on Vivian’s performance as Ethel: “I find that now I usually spend my time looking at Viv. Viv was sensational. And back then, there were things I had to do—I was in the projection room for some reason—and I just couldn’t concentrate on it. But now I can. And I enjoy every move that Viv made. She was something.”  Both Vance and Frawley were inducted into the Television Academy Hall of Fame in March of 2012.

When Lucille Ball and Vivian Vance Said Goodbye For The Last Time
Photo: allvipp.com

Some actors have the ability to adapt to a variety of television roles and we’re grateful for them. Other stars create one that is so memorable it becomes completely entwined with part of our life. Thank you Vivian Vance for being Lucy’s best friend. While we love Lucy’s antics, you are the one the majority of us identified with and for seventy years you have been influencing comedy and making new fans.

Good Luck with Your MOUTH: Remembering Kaye Ballard

As we take time to remember some of our favorite television stars who passed away this year, Kaye Ballard definitely comes to mind.

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Apparently, no one was surprised to learn that Catherine Gloria Ballota planned on a career in entertainment. Born in Cleveland in 1925, she was performing by age 5 and was known as the class clown. At age 16 she performed in a Cleveland USO stage production of Stage Door Canteen and began perfecting impressions of stars for her comedy act.

At the young age of 18, she received a job touring with Spike Jones and His Orchestra as the featured vocalist and flute/tuba player. When that gig ended in 1945, she made her way to New York and appeared on Broadway in Three to Make Ready in 1946. While appearing in other musicals, she earned a reputation in the nightclub circuit as a comedian/singer. She traveled around the country with her act, popping up in clubs such as The Bon Soir in New York, The Hungry i in San Francisco, and Mr. Kelly’s in Chicago. One of her catch phrases was something her mother often said to her, “Good luck with your MOUTH.”

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During the 1950s and 1960s, she began appearing on variety and talk shows. You would tune in and find her with Ed Sullivan, Jack Paar, Steve Allen, Perry Como, Red Skelton, Carol Burnett, Merv Griffin, Mike Douglas and Johnny Carson. In fact, she appeared on The Tonight Show 150 times. She continued her Broadway career during these two decades as well. She made a name for herself playing Helen of Troy in The Golden Apple in 1954. This same year she recorded “Fly Me to the Moon,” a song Frank Sinatra would make famous. She also was part of the casts of Wonderful Town (1958), Carnival (1961), and Cole Porter Revisited (1965).

In 1957 Julie Andrews starred in a live telecast of Cinderella, the Rodgers and Hammerstein’s version of the fairy tale. Ballard, along with Alice Ghostley, played the wicked stepsisters. It was at this time that Hollywood brought Ballard to Los Angeles. She was one of the comic foils, playing the friend of Jane Powell’s character in The Girl Most Likely. Although she would appear in several movies during her career, television is where she was best known.

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The Girl Most Likely with Jane Powell

In 1964 she played a teacher for models on The Patty Duke Show. In 1967 she was offered one of the leads, Kaye Buell, in The Mothers-in-Law. The other lead was played by Eve Arden as Eve Hubbard. When Kaye’s son married Eve’s daughter, it caused conflict between the neighboring families, especially with their kids living in the garage. The two families had very different lifestyles. Herb Hubbard was a wealthy attorney and his wife was a champion athlete and very organized. Roger Buell was a television writer and Kaye a stay-at-home mom who is a lazy housekeeper and very unorganized. Desi Arnaz produced the show which lasted two seasons.

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With Eve Arden

The show followed The Wonderful World of Disney and preceded Bonanza but never received the ratings the network hoped for. Desi agreed to pay most of the stars $2000 per week with the intent of giving them a $250 raise the second year. Because the show was not as successful as everyone thought it would be, the network agreed to renew it on the condition that all expenses, including salaries, were frozen. With the exception of Roger Carmel, all the cast members agreed to freeze their salaries. He refused, so he was replaced with Richard Deacon. With the change in the cast, the ratings went down even further, and the show was not renewed for a third year.

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Kaye was asked if she thought the $250 raise was a joke, and Kaye said she and Eve didn’t care about the money. They wanted to keep doing the show. At the time, Arden was making $5000 a week. The show was originally written for Arden and Ann Southern but the networks felt they were too much alike, so Ballard was brought in. Kaye couldn’t get over actors receiving one or two million dollars an episode a couple decades later.

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A long-time friendship developed between Ballard and Arden during the filming of the show. Ballard fondly remembered her co-star, “Eve was a joy to work with, and we never had an unpleasant moment. . . She could read a script once and know it almost completely.”

Another long friendship was made when Kaye worked with Shelley Winters on a film in 1964. Kaye relayed that when Shelley was cast in The Poseidon Adventure, she “used my (Kaye’s) pool to practice swimming underwater because the studio wouldn’t let her rehearse until they started shooting. She was a great swimmer but ruined all my flashlights by swimming with them.”

Photo: sitcomsonline.com

The 1970s found Kaye very busy. From 1970-1972 she was a regular on The Doris Day Show, playing restaurant owner Angie Pallucci. The series took some liberties with format. The first two years had Doris moving back to her dad’s ranch to raise her kids after the death of her husband. The third season found Doris and her dad and kids living in an apartment above the Pallucci’s restaurant. In the fifth and final season, the kids, dad, and the Palluccis all disappeared and were never mentioned!

In 1971 she guest starred on her friend’s show, Here’s Lucy. In 1970 Ballard purchased Ball and Arnaz’s home after their divorce. She would live there the rest of her life. Her friend Lucy would often stop by and talked about Desi whom she never quite got over.

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Ballard won the trifecta in the seventies, appearing on Love American Style, Fantasy Island, and The Love Boat. She accepted a handful of random roles on television shows after The Doris Day Show ended. You might have seen her on Police Story or Trapper John MD.

The 1990-1991 season found Kaye trying her hand at a situation comedy one more time. The show was called What a Dummy. This show did stretch reality a bit. Ed and Polly Branningan inherit his uncle’s trunk of props which includes his dummy Buzz who has been in the trunk for 50 years. Buzz can think and talk and likes to give the family his unsolicited advice. Ballard was Mrs. Tavalony, their next-door neighbor. No surprise that it was cancelled after 24 episodes.

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In 1995, Ballard was rewarded with a Golden Palm Star on the Palm Springs Walk of Stars.

Kaye continued to take a few movies now and then, but most of her time was spent on the stage. In 2005, she went on the road in Nunsense. She also accepted roles in The Pirates of Penzance, High Spirits, Funny Girl, The Full Monty, and The Odd Couple.

In 2006, Kaye added author to her resume, publishing an autobiography, How I Lost 10 Pounds in 53 Years.

In 2015, Kaye announced her official retirement. She was interviewed by Nick Thomas that same year and talked about writing a second book. She explained to Thomas that she never married but did not have any regrets. “I was engaged four times, but couldn’t give my all to a marriage or wanted children unless I could give them my complete attention. But I’ve got to meet so many great people because of my career. Who could regret that?”

One of those great people was Mother Teresa whom she met in 1992. Kaye discussed that meeting: “I’m an Irish Catholic girl, so it was a thrill. I went to her private quarters where she was having breakfast –a piece of cheese, half an apple and some toast—and we drank Sanka together. She spoke in English, simply and quietly, and was just so modest and humble.”

Although she survived breast cancer, Kaye passed away at age 93 at her home from kidney cancer in January.

Kaye Ballard, ca. 1958
Photo: thehollywoodreporter.com

The girl from Cleveland with the MOUTH had a long, successful, and interesting career. In her own words, “I’m one of the lucky ones. People get Master’s Degrees and they say, ‘I don’t know what I wanted to do.’ I always knew what I wanted to do. Isn’t that nice?”

I have to agree; it was nice for her and even nicer for those of us she entertained.

The Teacher We All Wished We’d Had: Our Miss Brooks

We kicked off the month looking at the successful transition of Burns and Allen from radio to television.  There were many shows that couldn’t make the leap to the small screen, and several that did very well like The Jack Benny Show and I Love Lucy. Our Miss Brooks not only had a successful radio show, but when their television show debuted, the radio show kept going. Many of the cast members starred in both mediums. In addition, they made it to the big screen with a movie and a comic book.

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So, what enabled Our Miss Brooks to do what many shows could not?  Let’s look a little closer at the series and the behind-the-scenes work that kept the show on the air for four seasons, producing 130 episodes.

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Connie Brooks (Eve Arden) is an English teacher at Madison High. She and her principal, Mr. Conklin (Gale Gordon), do not always see eye to eye, but she is close to his daughter Harriet and Harriet’s boyfriend Walter (Richard Crenna) who gives Miss Brooks a ride to school. She wants to be close to Mr. Boynton (Robert Rockwell), the science teacher, but he is oblivious to her charms. She rents a room from Mrs. Davis (Jane Morgan) where she lives with Mrs. Davis’s cat, Minerva.

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We also get to know Fabian “Stretch” Snodgrass (Leonard Smith), basically a “dumb jock” who is Walter’s best friend and Daisy Enright (Mary Jane Croft), another English teacher who is Connie’s love rival for Mr. Boynton.

The show debuted July 19, 1948 on the radio. The show program was sponsored by Colgate-Palmolive-Peet for its entire run which ended in 1957. The first choice for Miss Brooks was Shirley Booth, and the show was titled “Our Miss Booth.” In Gerald Nachman’s book Raised on Radio, he states Booth concentrated too much on the disadvantages of being a school teacher to be funny. There is an audition with her from April of 1948 and while she sounds pleasant, she doesn’t have the sarcastic wit of Arden. The television show began in 1953 and was sponsored by General Foods.

 

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Our Miss Brooks was a ground-breaking show featuring a single woman (teachers were usually single, and marriage might have ended her career). She was not a scatterbrained female like Lucy or Joan in I Married Joan, and she was not a housewife like June Cleaver or Donna Reed. She was a bright, attractive working woman. Eve remembered her third-grade teacher fondly and tried to give Miss Brooks some of her qualities. Eve was known for her sassy movie roles; one of the things she appreciated about the character of Connie Brooks was that it allowed her to be a warm, fun-loving person who had a self-deprecating side.

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The show was a Desilu Production, so they shared equipment and crews with I Love Lucy, as well as a director (William Asher) at times, to save money.

The show was funny because it is based on believable characters. Connie Brooks has a great sense of humor. Many of the plots involve misunderstandings or her trying to keep Walter out of trouble with Mr. Conklin. Here are a few episode summaries.

Miss Davis unknowingly uses school funds to buy Connie a new dress. Now Connie must sell the dress to return the money. Mr. Boynton even models the dress for the kids.

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Mr. Boynton asks Connie to play the role of Mrs. Boynton. She is thrilled,  imagining what it could lead to, until she realizes he meant his mother, not his wife.

Walter is listening to his home-made radio. Storm warnings come over the air for Bombay. Miss Brooks mistakenly thinks it is for their area and takes precautions to evacuate the school and prepare for a hurricane.

Mr. Conklin is furious when his bike is taken at the grocery store, and he wants the thief punished. Miss Brooks finds out that a poor boy borrowed it for his birthday and then returned it to the store. She goes to great lengths to protect the youngster.

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Radio Mirror magazine nominated Eve Arden as the top-ranking comedienne two years in a row for her characterization of Miss Brooks. The National Education Association recognized her for her sympathetic portrayal of teachers.

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Eve Arden was nominated for an Emmy for Best Actress Starring in a Regular Series in 1954, 1955, and 1956—winning in 1954. Gale Gordon was nominated for Best Supporting Actor in 1955, and the show was nominated Best Situation Comedy in 1954 and 1955.

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Eve Arden had to fight the same battle many celebrities do when they have a hit show. She handled her fame of being known as Miss Brooks with grace and practicality. As she explained it: “I originally loved the theater. I still do. And I had always wanted to have a hit on Broadway that was created by me. You know, kind of like Judy Holliday and Born Yesterday. I griped about it a little, and someone said to me, ‘Do you realize that if you had a hit on Broadway, probably 100 or 200,000 people might have seen you in it, if you’d stayed in it long enough. And this way, you’ve been in Miss Brooks, everybody loves you, and you’ve been seen by millions.’ So, I figured I’d better shut up while I was ahead.”

 

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While the TV series never resolved the Boynton-Brooks romance, the 1956 film did. It was directed by Al Lewis, who directed many of the television episodes. In the movie, Miss Brooks is unaware that Mr. Boynton is saving money, so he can ask her to marry him. He is hoping to get a promotion to head of the department. In a subplot, Connie is having issues with a student who is failing her class. He has no friends because he is very arrogant. When she meets his wealthy father, she understands why he has no friends and she tries to help him.  Also, Mr. Conklin is running for Coordinator of Education, primarily to stop the other nominee, Superintendent Stone, who has threatened to fire Conklin. Miss Brooks decides to be Conklin’s campaign manager despite her butting heads with him most of the time. If Conklin wins, Mr. Boynton might be promoted to principal. In the end, Boynton finally proposes, only to have a chimpanzee steal away the ring.

 

Our Miss Brooks comic. (1956)

The movie was a box-office failure. After the movie, Dell Comics released a comic book titled “Our Miss Brooks.” In past decades, it sold for hundreds of dollars in mint condition. Today it can be found on ebay for under $50.

A fun fact I learned was that Eve Arden was born Eunice Quedens. When she was encouraged to take a different stage name, she looked over her cosmetic jar labels. She picked “Eve” from “Evening in Paris” and “Arden” from “Elizabeth Arden.”

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While many of the plots for Our Miss Brooks are predictable and not overly creative, it was a innovative sitcom. The scripts were well written, and the humor still works today. I could not find any channels currently broadcasting Our Miss Brooks, but it does appear on Me TV from time to time. The radio shows can be heard on Sirius Radio, channel 148. Of course, there are a variety of DVDs featuring the show. Add it to your list to understand why Eve Arden was so popular with women in the 1950s.

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The Amazing, But Much Too Short, Career of Richard Deacon

Richard Deacon, 1960s

Richard Deacon was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in 1921, but most of his adolescence was spent in Binghamton, New York. When he was only 11, he contracted polio. He took up dancing to build up his leg muscles.

Deacon’s first career choice was to become a doctor.  He was working as an orderly at the Binghamton Hospital when World War II began. He tried to join the Navy; they suggested he try the Army.  He did and joined the medical corps.

After the war, he studied medicine at Ithaca College but soon switched to acting. He studied drama for a couple of years and was the actor in residence at Bennington College.  After spending some time in New York, he headed to California to look for work.  After paying his dues as a bartender, he finally got a break and was offered a role in a film, Invaders From Mars.

When he first began his career, Helen Hayes advised him to become a character actor as opposed to a leading man.  It was great advice, and he was one of the most beloved and prolific actors during the golden age of television. During his career, he appeared in 66 movies on the big screen, guest starred on 92 different television shows, and starred in six series.

In the 1950s, he appeared in 48 television shows including Burns and Allen, The Life of Riley, Bachelor Father, and the Gale Storm Show.  He had regular roles in two sitcoms.

The Charles Farrell Show debuted in 1956. Farrell played himself as the manager of the Palm Springs Racquet Club, a resort he actually owned and operated. It was a summer replacement for I Love Lucy and only lasted 12 episodes. Richard played Sherman Hall.

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In 1957, he got another chance at being a regular in a sitcom, Date with the Angels starring Betty White. Deacon played Roger Finley.  This show lasted one year.

Richard continued his productive acting career, appearing in 43 shows in the 1960s.  He could be seen in a wide range of shows including Bonanza, The Rifleman, My Three Sons, Make Room for Daddy, Perry Mason, The Donna Reed Show, The Twilight Zone, Mr. Ed, I Dream of Jeannie, Get Smart, The Munsters, and The Addams Family. He was also appearing in a number of films during this decade. He appeared in four sitcoms on a regular basis during the ’60s.

Leave It to Beaver aired from 1957-1963. Deacon played Fred Rutherford, father of Clarence, or Lumpy, Rutherford, Wally’s friend. During the 6 seasons it was on the air, Fred was in 63 episodes.

Part way through the series, he was offered another regular role, that of Mel Cooley on The Dick Van Dyke Show.  From 1961-1966, he brightened the screen in 82 shows, putting up with his brother-in-law’s bullying and Buddy Sorrel’s belittling. Deacon had high praise for everyone connected with The Dick Van Dyke Show.

One day Morey Amsterdam was goofing around with Richard and said he didn’t think his hair had fallen out, he thought it had imploded and fallen into his brain, clouding his thinking.  Carl Reiner came running on the set and said to add that dialogue to the show.  From then on, there was an insult fest between Buddy Sorrell and Mel Cooley. When the writers were trying to come up with a comeback from Mel to Buddy, Reiner asked Deacon how he would respond to someone who continued to torment him.  Deacon replied, “Yeecchh!” and his trademark phrase was invented.

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Bud Molin, Dick Van Dyke Show film editor described Deacon as “the funniest human being on the face of the earth.” Carl Reiner said it was a joy to have him around and everyone on the show loved him.

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The Dick Van Dyke Show was one of the best shows ever written. It won the Outstanding Comedy Emmy in 1963, 1964, and 1966. After the cast of the Dick Van Dyke Show decided to end the show on its own terms, leaving the air with its quality reputation intact, Deacon was offered another sixties role.

Phyllis Diller had a fantastic cast on her show, The Pruitts of South Hampton, or The Phyllis Diller Show as it became known in syndication. This was about a formerly wealthy family who found out they owed $10,000,000 in back taxes.  They try to appear that they still have their wealth, while living in very reduced circumstances.  The cast included Louis Nye, John Astin, Reginald Gardiner, Paul Lynde, Gypsy Rose Lee, Billy De Wolfe, John McGiver, and Marty Ingels in addition to Diller and Deacon.  I don’t know how this show did not succeed, but it was taken off the air after only one year. Diller and Deacon continued to work together both on an episode of Love, American Style and in the production of Hello Dolly in the 1969-1970 season.

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Once the Diller show was canceled, Deacon was offered a role on The Mothers-In-Law starring Kaye Ballard and Eve Arden. Deacon took over the role of Roger Buell mid-way through the series. The concept was two families who didn’t necessarily get along were neighbors whose children  married so they had to find ways to get along and keep the peace.

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After the show was cancelled, he continued to stay busy with his acting career.  He also appeared in 17 episodes of Match Game and several Family Feud episodes.

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Deacon was a life-long bachelor.  He was a closeted gay man who had to keep his sexual orientation secret to keep his options open to work for companies like Disney. He was also a gourmet chef.  In the 1980s, he hosted a Canadian cooking show about microwave cooking, writing a book that sold almost two million copies. He spent a lot of his spare time working with SYNANON, an agency that helped teenage drug addicts.

On the night of August 8, 1984, he was suffered a heart attack in his Beverly Hills home. He was rushed to Cedars Sinai Hospital, where he died later that night. He was 63 years old.

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Everything I read about Richard Deacon painted him as a gracious, friendly, very funny man who was caring and kind.  He had an amazing career, with 180 acting credits within a 30-year period.  The legacy he left was a rich and full acting life. Pretty good for a guy who chose to be a character actor and was humble enough to turn down two offers to star in his own show.

Verrry Interrresting!

Occasionally, a show is so entrenched in the time and culture it debuts in, it becomes almost impossible to describe or understand away from its original setting. Dan Rowan and Dick Martin were nightclub comics who co-hosted a special called Laugh-In in 1967.  The name was a play on words based on the love-in’s and sit-in’s happening in the 1960s.  The special was so popular it was turned into a weekly series. I think of Laugh-In as Sesame Street for adults.  Both shows debuted in the late 60s and had a rapid-fire approach, continually moving on to the next segment so the viewer would not get bored. The show captured the counterculture movement and the lime green, turquoise, fuschia, deep orange, bright yellow, and paisley flowers kept our eyes moving as quickly as the jokes did. The show lasted six seasons.

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Regular cast members who went on to other careers included Ruth Buzzi, Gary Owens, Alan Sues, Arte Johnson, Henry Gibson, Lily Tomlin, Richard Dawson, Jo Anne Worley, Goldie Hawn, Judy Carne, Dave Madden, and Flip Wilson.

Numerous celebrities flocked to the show.  Movie stars that were reeled in included John Wayne, Jack Benny, Peter Lawford, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Charles Nelson Reilly, Debbie Reynolds, Rock Hudson, Jack Lemmon, Edward G. Robinson, Sally Field, Orson Welles, and Rita Hayworth.  Noted musicians included Sammy Davis Jr., Dinah Shore, Johnny Cash, Perry Como, Liberace, Bing Crosby, Cher, Rosemary Clooney, and Liza Minelli. Sports stars tackled the chore including Joe Namath, Wilt Chamberlin, Sugar Ray Robinson, and Howard Cosell.  Comedians who laughed their way on the show included Rich Little, Don Rickles, Bob Hope, Bob Newhart, Paul Lynde, and Carol Burnett. Classic tv stars who accepted starring roles were Tim Conway, Carl Reiner, Steve Allen, Jim Backus, Ernest Borgnine, Eve Arden, Andy Griffith, Desi Arnaz, and Wally Cox.

The format rarely changed from week to week.  Rowan and Martin opened each show with a dialogue; Rowan acted as the straight man, and Martin took on the gullible role. Then the regular cast, along with celebrities, danced against a psychedelic background, firing off one-liners and short gags. Comedy bits, taped segments, and sketches filled in the rest of the hour and always ended with Rowan telling Martin to “Say goodnight, Dick” and Dick replying, “Goodnight Dick.”

Some of the regular features were:

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The Cocktail Party where the cast stood around spouting politically and sexually suggestive jokes.

Letters to Laugh-In where the cast read letters.

ROWAN AND MARTIN'S LAUGH-IN,  Teresa Graves, Pamela Rodgers, 1969-1970.

It’s a Mod, Mod World where go-go dancers danced in bikinis with puns and word play phrases painted on their bodies.

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The Farkel Family about a group of red-headed, freckled family members.

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The Flying Fickel Finger of Fate Award where dubious achievements were celebrated.

Laugh-In Looks as the News was comparable to the Saturday Night Live news sketches of today.

New Talent Time showing various weird skills.

Many of the regular cast members had their own skits that were repeated during the series’ run:

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Judy Carne was always tricked into saying “Sock it to Me” which then caused her to get doused with water, fall through a trap door, or endure some other indignity. Sometimes celebrities ended up being the ones to say “Sock it to me,” the most famous being Richard Nixon when he was campaigning for president.

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Arte Johnson played Tyrone, an inappropriate senior citizen who tries to seduce geriatric Ruth Buzzi as Gladys, forcing her to eventually hit him with her purse.

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Henry Gibson came on stage holding an oversized paper flower, reciting poetry.

Lily Tomlin performed skits as Ernestine, a telephone operator or Edith Ann, a young girl sitting in a rocking chair. (Personal note:  When I was in 4th grade, I performed an Ernestine and an Edith Ann skit for our talent show.  Why a 9-year-old was watching Laugh-In and the school approved the skits, I can’t say, but I remember getting a lot of compliments.  And Lily Tomlin didn’t sue me for stealing her material!)

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Alan Sues portrayed Uncle Al, a children’s show host, who was short tempered and often in bad shape from his late partying nights.

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Flip Wilson was Geraldine.

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Jo Anne Worley would say “Bor-ing” in the midst of jokes.

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Goldie Hawn as the ditzy blonde.

The series also became known for some of its catch phrases including “Look that up in your Funk & Wagnalls,” “You bet your sweet bippie,” “Beautiful downtown Burbank,” “Is that a chicken joke?,” “Sock it to me,” “Here come de judge,” and “Verrrry Interesting.”

The show was one of the highest rated shows in the late 1960s. It was in the top 4 of the top 40 shows for its entire run. It won Emmy and Golden Globe awards. The Nielsen polling determined it was the most-watched show in seasons 1 and 2.

The show had its own magazine for a year.  Trading cards were sold with catch phrases and images from the show. Several records were produced capturing the humor of the time.  There was even a set of View-master reels made, as well as lunch boxes and other memorabilia.

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Laugh-In debuted fifty years ago, but still feels new and edgy. Because the show has not been syndicated in re-runs, it is hard for the current generation to imagine how very different this show was from anything else that appeared on television before it.  The closest show to capturing any of its essence since then is Saturday Night Live.  This was a time when everything was changing: civil rights, Vietnam, women’s lib, the hippie lifestyle, psychoactive drugs, anti-authoritarianism, freedom of speech and assembly, and environmental concerns, especially littering and pollution.

The Generation Gap was a real concept in the 1960s but this show might have come as close as anything else to bridge that gap. Families sat down together to watch the show. Many of the phrases still have a life of their own decades later even thought decades of kids have never seen the show.  Plan your own little sit-in when you check out a couple of the you-tube videos to get a flavor of what the series was like.