The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour: Fifty Years After Getting the Pink Slip

The late 1960s and early 1970s might have contained the most diverse television shows than any other era. In 1968, there were the rural comedies like Green Acres and The Beverly Hillbillies; there were the standard sitcoms, My Three Sons, Get Smart, That Girl, Bewitched; there were the remains of a few westerns including The High Chaparral, The Virginian, and Gunsmoke; there were crime and thrillers such as Hawaii Five-0 and Mission Impossible; there was the crime/western in The Wild, Wild West, there were gameshows on at night including Let’s Make a Deal, The Dating Game, and The Newlywed Game; there were sci-fi shows like Star Trek and The Land of the Giants; family shows like Lassie; and even Lawrence Welk.

In addition, there were a couple of shows that were a bit edgier and introduced more  provocative concepts and themes. The Mod Squad featured three teens who were helping solve crimes in lieu of jail time, and then there was the almost-impossible-to-describe Laugh In.

Photo: neatorama.com

Similar to Laugh In was The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour which also debuted in 1967 featuring Tom and Dick Smothers. It had more of a variety format to it but it had the same topical and satirical humor.

Photo: retrokimmer.com
The Who

In addition to poking fun at politics, the war, religion, and current issues, you could tune in to the Smothers Brothers for some of the best and sometimes controversial music in the industry. Performers such as Jefferson Airplane, Steppenwolf, Simon and Garfunkel, The Who, Cream, Pete Seeger, and The Doors appeared on the show.

Photo: metro.com
Jefferson Airplane

The show aired Sunday nights against Bonanza on NBC; ABC aired The Sunday Night Movie in its first season and Hee Haw in its second season.

The series had some of the best writers on television: Alan Blye, Hal Goldman, Al Gordon, Steve Martin, Lorenzo Music, Don Novello, Rob Reiner, David Steinberg, and Mason Williams. Reiner and Martin both commented on the show in an interview by Marc Freeman in the Hollywood Reporter 11-25-2017 (“The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour at 50: The Rise and Fall of a Ground-Breaking Variety Show”).  

Reiner relayed that “you had two cute boy-next-doors wearing red suits, one with the stand-up bass and the other with his guitar. They looked like the sweetest, most innocent kids. You got drawn to them, and then they hit you with the uppercut you didn’t see coming.”

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Martin elaborated “When you have the power wrapped up in innocence, it’s more palatable. They were like little boys, but you also had Dickie there to reprimand Tommy when he would make an outrageous statement. It’s like the naughty ventriloquist dummy who can get away with murder as long as the ventriloquist is there to say ‘You can’t say that.’ It’s the perfect setup for getting a message across.”

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Jack Benny

In addition to the musical acts, hundreds of celebrities appeared on the show between 1967 and 1969, including Jack Benny, Carol Burnett, George Burns, Bette Davis, Jimmy Durante, Barbara Eden, Nanette Fabray, Eva Gabor, Shirley Jones, Don Knotts, Bob Newhart, Tony Randall, Ed Sullivan, Danny Thomas and Jonathan Winters, along with so many others.

Part of the show was the brothers’ ongoing sibling rivalry about whom their parents liked best. They also began to add political satire and ribald humor. Pat Paulsen delivered mock editorials about current topics such as the draft and gun control, and in 1968 he had a mock presidential campaign.

Photo: rollingstone.com
Pat Paulsen for president

Church sermon sketches poked fun at religion. The show lampooned many of the values older Americans valued, often delivering anti-establishment and pro-drug humor. No one was given an exception, and the show lambasted the military, the police, the religious right, and the government.

Battles over content were ongoing with the network. The network pulled Pete Seeger’s performance of his anti-Vietnam War song, “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy.” They nixed Harry Belafonte’s song, “Don’t Stop the Carnival” because it had a video collage behind him of the 1968 Democratic National Convention riots.

Younger viewers were tuning in, and despite the conflicts, the show was picked up for a second season. The network insisted they receive a copy of the show at least ten days in advance for editing. In April of 1969, William Paley canceled the show without notice. Some sources contend it was canceled by CBS president Robert Wood. Some sources cite the issue with unacceptable deadlines and others mention Tom Smothers lobbying the FCC and members of Congress over corporate censorship that brought about the firing. The brothers filed a breach of contract suit against the network and after four years of litigation, a federal court ruled in their favor, awarding them $776,300.

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Here’s a typical joke from the show that was not as controversial.

Tom: You can tell who’s running the country by how much clothes people wear, see?

Dick: Do you mean that some people can afford more clothes on, and some people have . . . less on? Is that what you mean?

Tom: That’s right.

Dick: I don’t understand.

Tom: See, the ordinary people, you’d say that the ordinary people are the less-ons.

Dick: So, who’s running the country?

Tom: The morons.

The Smothers Brothers elicited humor that was as topical, influential, and critical as anyone had ever heard before on television. Fifty years later, both the network and the brothers realized everyone over-reacted. If the Smothers Brothers had tried to play by the rules a bit, they would not have lost their platform to continue to help change what they saw as a messed-up culture.

Photo: Wikipedia.com

The CBS executives felt the program created too much controversy. In their defense, politicians, especially Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon, exerted a lot of pressure on the network. Remember this was a time of three networks and ads are what produced the profits to fund shows. The network received a boatload of hate mail daily about the program and, when viewers begin talking boycotting advertisers, executives sit up a bit straighter and listen.

The Smothers Brothers Show, a less controversial series, debuted in 1975. They had two specials on NBC later and another CBS series in 1988 but never regained the influence they had in the sixties. However, the show did help pave the way for a future that permitted, and later embraced, shows with controversy beginning with All in the Family, continuing with Saturday Night Live, and recently seen on shows such hosted by Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. Although the comedy spouted on the show would seem quite tame by today’s standards, the show had an important part in the history of television and the rights of free speech.

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I have seen some DVDs out there from this show, but they are pricey. Recently I saw season two going for $190. I do see Laugh In on Decades quite often, so perhaps The Smothers Brothers might show up somewhere too, although I’m not sure this show would hold up as well as Laugh In, but the musical performances would be fun to see.

Jack Benny: Perhaps the Nicest Guy in Television

Photo: cinema.ucla.edu

We kick off this new year getting to know one of my favorite entertainers, Jack Benny. While many radio stars had a hard time transitioning to television, Jack, along with his best friend George Burns, made it look easy. Jack’s radio show started in 1932. In 1950 he decided to make the leap to tv, and his show would be on the air until 1965 when he decided it was time to quit.

The series produced 258 episodes. Jack tested the water first, appearing randomly on television before settling into a weekly schedule ten years after the first show debuted (From 1955-1960 he was on every other week). George Balzer and Sam Perrin would write for the show for the entire run, given credit for 255 episodes. Ralph Levy, who helped George and Gracie get their show underway, came on board in 1951 and left in 1962. The well-respected Fred De Cordova directed the most episodes, 75.

Photo: thisdaybenny.com 

Jack’s first shows were filmed at Burns’ McCadden Productions studio and later at Universal Television. His opening and closing monologues were done in front of a live audience but a laugh track was inserted for consistency. Jack brought his quirky radio crew with him: Don Wilson, Eddie “Rochester” Anderson, Dennis Day, Mary Livingstone, and Mel Blanc. Benny’s wife was Sadie Marks. He met her at age 14 in 1919, and they didn’t exactly hit it off. However, in 1927 they realized they were in love and married that year. Benny asked his wife to fill in for a live comedy show to play “Mary Livingstone.” Sadie did and showed her comic persona. She began to appear regularly and later legally changed her name to Mary Livingstone.

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Benny understood the radio show was so successful because listeners bonded with the characters and considered them friends. Television just added another dimension for viewers to be able to see the characters.

Jack always underplayed his character, often giving the best lines to his cast. He had great timing, knowing when to tell a joke and when to say nothing. It was often said that he did not say funny things, but he said things funny. His catchphrases, “Well” (with a long pause) and “Now, cut that out” are still part of pop culture today.

In the classic age of comedy, sponsors were the key to survival, and Jack was always able to obtain some of the most well-known companies. During his run, he was sponsored by Lucky Strike, Lever Brothers Lux, State Farm Insurance, Lipton Tea, Miles Laboratories, and most memorably, General Foods’ Jell-O. The sponsors never minded that he often made fun of them or their ads. Often, they were some of the funniest moments in the show.

The first show aired in October of 1950. Benny’s first line on that live Sunday night telecast was, “I’d give a million dollars to know what I look like!”

The show’s format didn’t vary much from week to week. Typically, it began with a monologue. The orchestra might play a song or Jack and announcer Don Wilson might have a discussion such as:

DonWilson: I don’t think you know how much it means to me to do the commercial. After all I’m not a funny man. I can’t sing or dance. I don’t lead a band. What are you paying me for?

Jack: Don, you’re hanging yourself.

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The cast would discuss a current situation, often referring to Benny’s age or frugality, or Mary would read a letter from her mother. Dennis Day would then sing a song followed by a skit, a mini-play, or a satire of a movie. Before Carol Burnett’s incredible movie satires, Jack Benny’s writers created some humorous shows. One example was a 1952 show. It was based on Gaslight from 1944. Called “Autolight,” it starred Barbara Stanwyck.

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Jack continued to feature special guest stars, was a penny pincher, refused to admit he was over 39 years old, and continued to drive his old Maxwell. Here he is with Marilyn Monroe discussing his age:

Marilyn Monroe: What about the difference in our ages?

Jack: Oh, it’s not that big a difference. You’re twenty-five and I’m thirty-nine.

Marilyn Monroe: I know, Jack. But what about twenty-five years from now when I’m fifty and you’re thirty-nine?

Jack: Gee, I never thought of that.

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Jack’s view on saving money: “Any man who would walk five miles through the snow, barefoot, just to return a library book so he could save three cents – that’s my kind of guy.”

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Mel Blanc not only “played” the Maxwell but portrayed a variety of characters. Once Benny made the comment, “There’s only five real people in Hollywood.  Everyone else is Mel Blanc.”

Viewers today criticize the way Rochester was treated on the show, but when comparing Benny’s show to Amos ‘n Andy and other shows during the time period, a stark difference can be seen. Rochester was the first black actor to have a recurring role on a radio show. He called Jack, “Jack” or“Mr. Benny” and quite often got the best of him by outwitting him or pointing out one of his deficiencies.

Here’s a typical conversation between Jack and Rochester:

Jack: What do you think of this card I wrote for Don? “To Don from Jacky, Oh golly, oh shucks. I hope that you like it, it cost forty bucks.”

Rochester: It would’ve been hard to rhyme a dollar ninety-eight.

Jack Benny: We’re a little late, so good night, folks.

Photo: americacomesalive.com

The character interactions and the great skits are what made the show so popular. In Jim Bishop’s book about President John F. Kennedy, A Day in the Life of President Kennedy, he wrote that JFK was too busy to watch television, but he always made time for The Jack Benny Show.

Photo: tvnewfrontier.blogspot.com

Jack passed away in 1974. In real life, he was the opposite of the character he played, very generous and a gifted violin player.

His papers, including television archives of his series and special broadcasts and more than 296 television scripts were given to UCLA.

The Jack Benny Program can currently be seen early mornings Sunday through Thursday on Antenna TV.

Mister Ed:

In the 1960s we had some crazy sitcom situations: a wife who was a witch, a genie who was found in a bottle, a dead mother who inhabited a car, and the Munsters who tried to adjust to a normal human world.  One show that was not that incredible was Mister Ed. If someone said they were writing a show about a talking horse, it should sound a bit far-fetched, but when you watched the show, it all seemed quite plausible. Let’s take a look at what made Mister Ed a fairly well-written and enjoyable series.

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Mister Ed was developed by Arthur Lubin, a producer and director. Lubin had worked on the Francis the talking mule movies. He wanted to make a similar show for television. He was unable to gain the rights to Francis, but then he heard about children’s author Walter R. Brooks. Brooks had a series of short stories about a talking horse. His stories were published by Bantam, but since he passed away in 1958, he was never able to see the television show his work inspired.

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The pilot was financed by George Burns and filmed at his McCadden Studio. It was titled “Wilbur Pope and Mister Ed.” Scott McKay played Wilbur Pope, Sandra White played his wife, and Mr. Ed was played by a chestnut gelding that was temperamental and difficult to work with.

 

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Lubin was not able to sell the show to one of the major networks, so he financed it as a syndication sitcom. The cast was switched up a bit. Bamboo Harvester, a golden Palamino, was brought in as Ed and his voice was kept secret at the time but was Rocky Lane, an older Western star.

Allan Young came on board as the now named Wilbur Post, and Connie Hines played his wife Carol. Young was actually a blonde but in the black and white version, his hair blended into the horse’s, so Connie Hines’ hairdresser would dye Young’s hair brunette. Originally Lubin discussed naming it The Alan Young Show, but Alan did not want to do that in case it bombed. He did, however, buy into the show, which resulted in his earning a lot of money later.

Ed’s singing voice was provided by Sheldon Allman. However, the line “I am Mister Ed” at the end of the theme song was done by the song’s composer, Jay Livingston.

Jay Livingston and Ray Evans wrote the theme song. An instrumental version was used for the first seven episodes, and then lyrics were added. The lyrics are:

A horse is a horse, of course, of course.

And no one can talk to a horse, of course.

That is, of course, unless the horse is the famous Mister Ed.

Go right to the source and ask the horse.

He’ll give you the answer that you’ll endorse.

He’s always on a steady course.

Talk to Mister Ed.

People yakkity-yak a streak and waste your time of day,

But Mister Ed will never speak unless he has something to say.

A horse is a horse, of course, of course.

And this one’ll talk ’til his voice is hoarse.

You never heard of a talking horse?

Well listen to this: I am Mister Ed.

 

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The first 26 episodes were so popular, CBS picked it up. It aired on CBS from October 1961 until February 1966. During the sixth season, CBS moved the show from the prime time schedule and broadcast it on later on Sunday afternoon. There are 143 episodes in all, and they were all filmed in black and white.

 

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Photo: Hooniverse.com

Lubin got Studebaker Packard Corporation to sponsor the show in syndication which it continued to sponsor once CBS picked it up. The Posts own a 1962 Lark convertible. Studebaker’s sales plummeted in the early 1960s, and production stopped in 1963. From then on, Ford provided the cars seen on the show.

Ed also had a double named Pumpkin, a quarterhorse, which was his stunt double. Later Pumpkin was featured in a pudding commercial and went on to appear in another Filmways Presentation show, Green Acres.

The Posts live in Los Angeles. Wilbur was an architect.

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Photo: youtube.com

The Posts’ neighbors and friends were Roger and Kay Addison played by Larry Keating and Edna Skinner.  Keating died in the middle of the series, and Edna continued on the show. Later Wilbur’s former commanding officer, Col. Gordon Kirkwood (Leon Ames) and his wife Winnie (Florence MacMichael) moved into the Addisons’ home.

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Both the Addisons and the Kirkwoods think Wilbur is a bit nuts. They often hear him talking to himself and, to cover for Ed, he gets involved in a lot of awkward situations. Wilbur is also a bit accident prone.

Wilbur’s wife resented the time Wilbur liked to spend with his horse instead of her. Her father, Mr. Higgins (Jack Albertson), thought she should leave Wilbur and considered him a “kook.”

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Mr. Ed only talks to Wilbur. The only reason given for Ed refusing to talk to anyone else is that he thought Wilbur was the only person worth talking to. It worked because Ed was not treated as an unbelievable horse who could talk. He appeared as an equal character. Ed was also quite intelligent. He could read and play chess. He was able to use the phone to get information.  Bamboo Harvester really could answer the phone; he just could not have a conversation. He was also able to open the barn door. Ed would also pout at times when he didn’t get his way and threatened to run away a lot.

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Photo: itschess.blogspot

In an online article, “The World of Mr. Ed-What You Didn’t Know About the Talking Horse,” written by Ed Gross on April 24, 2018, he quoted Ben Starr who wrote 42 of the episodes. He explained that the reason the show worked was because he and producer Lou Derman “really knew how to do that show because we figured out how to make it work for kids and grownups. You had to take care of the grownups, and that was our secret.”

Mister Ed featured a lot of famous guest stars including Mae West, Clint Eastwood, George Burns, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Leo Durocher, Jon Provost, Sebastian Cabot, Donna Douglas, Irene Ryan, Alan Hale Jr., Neil Hamilton, William Bendix, Sharon Tate, and Jack LaLanne.

 

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Bamboo Harvester was trained by Les Hilton.  At a time when trainers could be considered somewhat cruel, Hilton was always respectful of his animals and never used force or abuse on them. Hilton had to be on the set whenever the horse was. To make Ed appear to be talking, Hilton originally used a nylon thread to open his mouth. Bamboo Harvester was quite smart though and learned to talk on cue whenever Hilton touched his hoof. A story made the rounds that Ed was made to talk by applying peanut butter to the horse’s mouth, but later Young admitted he made that up because it was more interesting than the real story.

 

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Bamboo Harvester appeared to be a professional. He usually only needed one take to complete his action. Hilton had to teach him to play a variety of sports including riding a skateboard. However, when he got tired of working for the day, he just walked off the set. He received twenty pounds of hay and a gallon of sweet tea daily.

Apparently Young and the horse became close. Young had a great respect for his co-star and after the show ended, he would make trips to see Bamboo Harvester in his retirement.

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I could not find a definite date of death for the horse. There are a lot of conflicting stories about it. Young claimed that the horse was in a stable in California where he lived on Hilton’s property. One version is that one day when Hilton was out of town, Bamboo Harvester was given a tranquilizer because he was having trouble getting up and he died hours later. Another story I read was that the horse was euthanized in 1970 in Oklahoma. He was reported to be suffering from arthritis and kidney problems.

One story I did confirm is that a horse did die in February of 1979 in Oklahoma, but it was not Bamboo Harvester, but a horse that posed for still pictures for the show which led to false reports of his being Mr Ed when he died.

Apparently, a reboot was planned for the Fox network in 2004, starring Sherman Hemsley as the voice of Mr. Ed, David Alan Basche as Wilbur, and Sherilyn Fenn as Carol. I could not find any information whether a pilot was ever filmed or not.

Another movie version was discussed in 2012 when Waterman Entertainment announced they were developing a new feature film based on the television show. Once again, I could not find any further information on the movie.

 

Mister Ed was popular during its run. A lot of collectible products were created in the 1960s including comic books and board games.

Mister Ed was not a show on my “must-watch” list, and I don’t watch a lot of the reruns. However, when I do catch one, I never feel like I wasted my time. The show worked and felt believable. Currently, it is not on either Me TV or Antenna TV, but it is available on DVD.

We All Love Gracie: The Burns and Allen Show

I am excited that today is my 100th blog, and I have saved a very special show for the occasion. Today you learn everything you ever wanted to know about the George Burns and Gracie Allen Show, one of my all-time favorites.

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The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show, which premiered on 12 October 1950, was one of the first comedy series to make the successful transition from radio to television. When George and Gracie started in show business, Gracie was the “straight man,” but George figured out quickly that the audience responded to her immediately. They switched roles and they never veered from the formula again. The Burns and Allen Show was the first domestic comedy set in a real couple’s home and the first television series to depict the home life of a working show business couple.

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CBS was lucky enough to have Burns and Allen on their radio and television networks. In 1930, an NBC executive told them the public would not accept them and Gracie’s voice was too squeaky! William Paley was a huge fan of their comedy and wanted them to try this new medium. The television show was very similar to their radio show. One of the first tag lines for the show was “You’ve HEARD them on radio, now SEE them on television.”

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Ralph Levy was the first producer/director. Previously he had worked on variety shows and sports events. When he and George first met, it was not a great first impression. He thought it was the craziest concept he had ever heard for a show. George considered him a bit of a young punk. They put aside their differences and not only became close friends but greatly respected each other’s business decisions. Ralph would leave in 1953 to work for Jack Benny. When Jack did not have weekly shows, Ralph was working for both comedians, but the jobs became too much for one person.

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Ralph Levy with George and Gracie

The show was broadcast on Thursdays from October of 1950 until March of 1953. From March of 1953 until September of 1958 when it went off the air, it was on Monday nights. Originally, it was staged live and broadcast every other week. In the fall of 1952, they decided on a weekly format. Shows debuting in New York were considered better commercial successes, so the first six episodes were set in the Mansfield Theatre in New York. The West Coast would not see the show until two weeks after the East Coast did. A kinescope was filmed with a 16 mm camera. Duplicates were made, and these shows were sent on kinescopes across the country. In December of 1950, the cast was allowed to go back home to California to film the rest of the series.

In 1951, George would broadcast all over the US with the placement of coaxial cables. George realized filming the episodes would allow for syndication of the show. The show continued for eight years, producing 239 filmed episodes.

Burns and Allen started McCadden Productions. It was named for the street where George’s brother Willy, one of the writers of the show, lived on. Willy was also their manager. They employed more than 300 people and would go on to produce many shows including Mister Ed and the Bob Cummings Show. George truly valued everyone’s opinion and anyone, even the janitor, could make comments and suggestions for improvements.

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It was a grueling schedule to stick to for eight years. George and the writers met Monday morning. Gracie had wardrobe fittings and studied the newest script. They had rehearsals on Tuesdays, and Wednesdays were typically 12-hour days with filming beginning after another rehearsal. Thursday was Gracie’s only day off. The writers met Thursday as well as all day Friday. On Friday Gracie went shopping for her next show’s wardrobe. George devoted Saturday to narrowing down the script to fit the shooting time. On Sunday George and Gracie met with the director at 10 am to go over the script. Sunday afternoon and evening (as well as other scattered times during the week) Gracie studied and memorized the script.

Carnation Milk became a sponsor immediately and would stay with the show for all eight years. Carnation was like another character on the series. Actors were pitchmen for the products and commercial breaks were often part of the show. Gracie had their milk in full view in her kitchen. Their prop man who helped with this for all eight years was Nat Thurman.

George took his writers off to Palm Springs to work on the new show. The head writer was Paul Henning who would later go on to write, produce, and direct many classic sitcoms including The Beverly Hillbillies, Green Acres, and Petticoat Junction. The other writers were Sid Dorfman, Harvey Helm, Willy Burns and George. The writers were truly funny.  One day Jack Benny sent George a telegram from London.  It just read “What’s new?” George and his writers took an entire afternoon to answer it. They told Jack everything that was new including restaurant menus.

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Paul Henning

The show would often begin with George doing a monologue with his trusty cigar that would explain the beginning of the plot to the viewers. George frequently spoke to the audience during the show. In later years, he would retire to his study to watch the show on his television, therefore knowing what was going on in his absence. The rest of the cast was oblivious to the fact he could do so.

The first show had a very simple plot which was the key to many of their episodes. Gracie and Blanche want to go to the movies. The boys want to go to the fights. George makes up a complicated card game that doesn’t really make sense. He thought the nonsense rules would confuse the girls who would get mad and quit. Instead, Gracie thought the rules made perfect sense and she won the game, dragging the boys to the movies.

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The Burns lived at 312 Maple Drive in Beverly Hills and their best friends and next-door neighbors, Blanche and Harry Morton, lived at 320 Maple Dr. The sets were copied from the Burns’ actual home. A shot of their real home was used on the show for exterior scenes. George continued to live in the house even when they became quite wealthy and George was still living there when he passed away at age 100.The house still exists today. They were not arrogant people. Gracie continued to wear the same $20 engagement ring George bought for her when they had no money.

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The edge of the Burns’ swimming pool which was sometimes seen in the live episodes was an eighteen-inch tank of water which was designed to be quickly rolled on and off the stage. Lighting tricks were employed to create the illusion that the shallow tank had depth. George used the pool in his asides to the audience. One time he was supposed to have fallen in, and he showed up dry and made a comment about how quick things happen on television. Later he has to go into the pool again. He once again is seen completely dry, but this time he says nothing and he wrings a bunch of water out of his cigar.

Starting in the fall of 1955, Burns and Allen would often reappear after the end of the episode, before a curtain decorated with the names and locations of the various theaters where they headlined in their vaudeville days. They would perform one of their routines, often discussing Gracie’s relatives.

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The theme music was “Love Nest,” composed by Otto Harbach and Louis Hirsch. It was written for a musical comedy show, “Mary.” There are lyrics, but only the instrumental version was used on the Burns and Allen Show.

Bill Goodwin and Harry Von Zell

Several staff members transitioned from radio with George and Gracie. Bill Goodwin continued to play himself, providing announcing duties. When he left in the second season to host his own show, Harry Von Zell took over the announcing duties. In real-life, Harry Von Zell had written several episodes of Wagon Train in 1957. The writers incorporated it into the show by having Harry pitch George ideas for western-themed shows. That year, George dressed like a cowboy from time to time and would say things like, “Meanwhile, back at the ranch.”

Bea Benaderet and Larry Keating

Bea Benaderet also moved from radio to television. She was Blanche Morton for the run of the show, but she went through several husbands (Hal March, John Brown, Fred Clark, and Larry Keating). George was extremely creative in his interaction with the audience. Hal March did the first seven shows; John Brown took over the for the next ten months; and Fred Clark was Harry through 1953 for 74 episodes. In a program “Morton Buys Iron Deer/Gracie Thinks George Needs Glasses,” Blanche is holding a catalog ready to hit Harry who spent $200 on an iron deer. George walks on stage and stops the action. He introduces Larry Keating and tells Bea that he is her new husband. They have a small chat about each other’s work. George stops them and says if they are that nice to each other, no one will believe they are married. He gives a cue, Blanche resumes her position, and hits Harry when he re-enters the scene.

Fred Clark, Hal March and John Brown

Bea and Gracie were close friends. Blanche truly loved Gracie and was extremely loyal to her. They laughed continuously. Bea also loved Gracie in their personal lives.

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George and Gracie’s daughter Sandra and son Ronnie also appeared in the show. In later years, Ronnie would become a regular. Ronnie became very popular; he and Gracie often covered for each other with George, and Ronnie was often busy trying to get her out of a bad situation. When he joined in 1955, the show moved back to New York. Harry Morton gets a temporary job there, so the Burns family went too. This change called for new sets, including the hotel where they all were living and Rumpelmayer’s sandwich and ice cream shop.

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Ronnie Burns

In the seventh year, the cast went back to Los Angeles. Fred de Cordova, who had taken over for Ralph Levy, left after three years to direct movies. Rod Amateau was brought on for the final two years.  In many ways, the seventh season was their most creative—this is when the “magic” TV screen appeared.

While the ensemble around them was incredible, the heart of the show was Gracie. Gracie always said that her character believed she was the smart one and everyone else was a little off. There was always a touch of reality in her logic. Gracie played her that way and the audience felt protective of her.

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Gracie was a bit of a perfectionist, but no one worked harder than her. If she had to perform a task on the show, she did it. In a New York Times article, she commented, “It makes me furious to see an actor go through the motion of writing an address on a piece of paper. They scribble it off in a second and you know they couldn’t have written anything.” Whenever Allen performed a task on the show, whether it was writing a name, sewing a handkerchief, or chopping up vegetables, she meticulously performed the duty while reciting her dialogue.

Everyone around her said she never blew her lines and was in almost every scene. George described her work ethic in his book I Love Her That’s Why: “On the set she gives absolutely no trouble and makes no demands. She arrives on time, does the job, jokes with the crew, and in general behaves less like a star than any actress I know.”

During the eight years that the show was on the air, Gracie Allen never appeared in the same outfit twice, and she had three costume changes in some episodes. Gracie Allen chose her own wardrobe. Jane Vogt was the wardrobe mistress for the rest of the cast. Bertha French was the show’s hair stylist and Gene Roemer did make-up. Gracie trusted Gene so much she typically slept while he got her ready.

The writers knew there were a few rules for writing for Gracie. Cheryl Blythe and Susan Sackett sum them up in their book Say Goodnight Gracie!: “(1) She thinks she is smart. (2) Keep her reactions consistent from week to week. (3) Her logic was illogical and her illogic was logical and then her reasoning worked.” Examples of her logic are: “Shorter cars use so much more gas. With a short car, you have to travel further to go the same distance.”  When the delivery boy tells Gracie he’s in a hurry because Mrs. Vanderlip is waiting for a chicken to make sandwiches, Gracie tells him she’ll wait a long time because it took her 2 years to teach their canary to sing.  Gracie keeps her clocks unplugged to save electricity. When she wants to know the time, she plugs it in.  Or take the time she froze a bunch of water; it will save her time when she needs it because she just has to defrost it.

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George gave Gracie most of the credit. Once he commented “You see, to be a straight man you have to have a talent, you have to develop this talent, then you gotta marry her like I did.” The audience liked George because they intuitively realized he adored Gracie.

George was the calm in the middle of the storm around him. Because he always knew what was going on, he remained relaxed when everyone else was confused. And the audience loved the fact that he shared information with them, so they were in on the fun.

Allen announced her retirement on February 17, 1958—effective at the end of the current season. Burns and Allen filmed their last show June 4, 1958.  The plot of the final program was Ronnie fearing he was going to lose his girlfriend to an exchange student. The filming was an emotional experience, although nothing was said about it being Allen’s last performance in the show itself. At the wrap party, Allen took a token sip of champagne from a paper cup, hugged her friend and co-star Bea, and said “Okay, that’s it.” After a brief last look around the set, she said, “And thank you very much, everyone.”

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“She deserved a rest,” Burns said. He explained that she had been working all her life and her lines were the hardest to learn. She had to memorize every word because some lines didn’t make sense.

Although Burns and Allen was never among the top-rated series, it maintained consistently high ratings throughout its eight seasons. The show received a total of twelve Emmy nominations: four for best comedy series, six for Allen as best actress and comedienne, and two for Bea Benaderet as best supporting actress.

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Inspired writing complemented the comic performances, making Burns and Allen an all-time classic. The show holds up remarkably well. The writers purposely kept topical and political humor out of the scripts. They also made sure there were no specific references to the 1950s, so the show did not sound dated in reruns. Their words can say it much better than I ever could, so here are some examples of their creative scripts.

 

Ralph Hanley: I’m here to help you with your income taxes.

Gracie: Oh, we’re glad, we got tired of paying them all ourselves.

 

Ralph: For medical you put down a full-length mirror, $50.

Gracie: That’s right, I got it for my father, so he won’t get pneumonia.

Ralph: How’s that?

Gracie: Well, you see, before he only had a half-length mirror, so when he went outside he forgot his pants.

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George: Would you ever think that such a beautiful mink coat would come from such an unattractive little thing that looks like a weasel?

Gracie: Oh, George, you’re just fishing—you know I think you’re handsome.

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Blanche: I just got a phone call from Lucille Vanderlip and she told me Margie Bates got a beautiful diamond bracelet from her husband.

Gracie: I can’t believe it.

Blanche: Why not?

Gracie: If Lucille’s husband gave another woman a diamond bracelet, you’d think she’d be the last one to mention it.

Blanche: Er . . . Gracie . . . you misunderstood me.

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Gracie: The night before last, George came home from the office feeling terrible.

Blanche: Probably flu.

Gracie: No, he drove the car.

 

My top ten favorite shows are:

#13, March 15, 1951: The Vanderlips are having a party. Gracie was hoping they would invite the Mortons but there is no room, so she and George decide not to go so they can spend time with Blanche and Harry. Once Burns and Allen decline, the Vanderlips call the Mortons because they now have room, so the Mortons happily attend.

#17, February 12,1953: On the train home from San Francisco, Gracie thinks one of the passengers is planning on murdering his wife. She reports it and confuses the cops who believe Harry Morton has killed Blanche who is missing. Blanche actually is off on a shopping trip.

#38, August 3, 1953: Gracie is a witness to a bank heist. Johnny Velvet, the gangster behind the crime (played by one of my favorites, Sheldon Leonard), kidnaps Gracie so she cannot testify in court. After a couple hours, he takes her back because she is driving him crazy. He decides to kidnap George instead, but his men keep nabbing the wrong guy.

#40, August 17, 1953: Gracie is shopping in a department store when she trips. The store wants to settle quickly before it turns into a big lawsuit. Gracie thinks they are trying to sue her for putting a hole in the carpet. The adjustor meets her and assumes the store is in bigger trouble because she now has a head injury.

#79, April 5, 1954: Gracie, known for denting the car, explains the new ding when she tells him an elephant sat on the car. No one believes her. When the circus owner comes to the house to bring her a check for damages, George thinks it’s a prank to convince him, so he tears up the check. George finally realizes an elephant did indeed sit on the car.

#90, August 2, 1954: George and Gracie decide they want to see a movie with some friends. They are having a tough time coming up with a movie that someone in the group has not already seen. They finally find one everyone can agree on, but then someone else stops by to go with the group and they have seen it.

#118, January 3, 1955: Gracie is talking with a woman in the post office. She wants to retrieve a letter she mailed asking her husband for a divorce. She wrote it when he refused to let her mother come visit. Harry Von Zell overhears part of the discussion and assumes Gracie is divorcing George because he won’t let her mother come. He finally convinces George to invite Gracie’s mother. When George learns the actual story, he fires Harry again.

#192, June 4, 1956: George has given his coat to Harry Von Zell to use because he’s taking a date to the Stork Club. George gets locked into the steam room at the club and can’t get out till morning. He tells Gracie why he didn’t come home, but someone returns his coat from the Stork Club, so she thinks he is lying. He has to bring over everyone who had been involved in getting him out of the steam room to convince her he is telling the truth.

#213, October 29, 1956: Gracie misunderstands a conversation, thinking that the Mortons are moving to Pasadena. Gracie decides she and George will move too and tries to sell their house. As a subplot, Ronnie’s fraternity initiation requires him to say the exact opposite of what people expect to hear for a day. Having Gracie and Ronnie there all day truly confuses George.

#219, Ronnie is dating a girl he met at the store where he works. He leaves his coat at her house and her mother drops it off for him. Gracie assumes the mother is Ronnie’s girlfriend. She decides to get Ronnie fired from his job so he is no longer working with the older woman. She also mentions his seeing an older woman to his real girlfriend, not knowing who she is. Luckily, George sees this on his study television, so he is able to straighten out the mess.

If you have never seen the show, you might want to check out some of these on YouTube. There are also numerous DVD collections from their show specifically to sets of golden age classics variety packs. You can also catch their show on Antenna TV from 5-6 am every weekday, 4-5 am Saturday and Sunday mornings, as well as 9 pm Saturday night and 11 pm Sunday night.

Today, I Get to Introduce You to One of My Very Favorite People, Blanche Morton, via Bea Benadaret

This week I’m excited to learn more about one of my favorite entertainers—Bea Benardaret. Bea had a long and successful career in radio and television, as well films. Nick-named Busy Bea, she would get credit for making more than 1000 radio and television appearances.

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Born in 1906 in New York City, she was raised in San Francisco. Her first radio appearance occurred when she was 12 years old in Beggar’s Opera.  While still in high school, Bea went to work for radio station KFRC where she acted, sang, wrote, produced, and announced. She went on to the Reginald Travis School of Acting.

 

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She married Jim Bannon in 1938. Their marriage would last until 1950 and produce two children, Maggie and Jack. She later married Gene Twombly in 1958 and remained married until her death.  Jack tells a story about when his mother was very pregnant with his sister. While exiting a cab, she fell and broke her pelvis.  It was so traumatic that her brunette locks turned white. At that time, she began dyeing her hair the blonde color we would all recognize once she transitioned to television.

 

Bea’s son Jack became an actor who has 91 credits for television and movie work. He appeared on Petticoat Junction 15 times, but was best known for his role of Art Donovan on Lou Grant. He was married to Ellen Travolta and passed away in the fall of 2017.

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Bea could probably win the award of most-often misspelled name. You can find her name spelled Benardaret correctly or Benederet or Benadaret. On several episodes of Burns and Allen, you can even find credits spelling her first name “Bee.”

 

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After graduation, she entered the radio business full time. She moved to Hollywood in 1936 and found work on The Jack Benny Show and shortly after with Orson Welles’ Mercury Theater in 1937. She was featured in 36 different radio shows with her most famous roles being Gertrude Gearshift on The Jack Benny Show, Eve Goodwin on The Great Gildersleeve, Millicent Carstairs on Fibber McGee and Molly, Gloria the maid on The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, and Iris Atterbury on My Favorite Husband. She received a starring role in Granby’s Green Acres, the forerunner of the Green Acres Show.

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In 1943, she became one of the primary voices of Warner Brothers Merrie Melodies and Looney Toons cartoons. She met Mel Blanc during this time and they remained friends for life.

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Bea also received roles in six films including a government clerk in Notorious (1946), one of two women Gene Kelley and Frank Sinatra encounter on the subway in On the Town (1949), and Tender is the Night (1962).

 

Bea’s first television role was my favorite character—Blanche Morton on the George Burns and Gracie Allen Show. Bea had appeared on their radio show and when the duo transitioned into television, she made the move with them. From 1950-1958 she was Gracie’s best friend and long-suffering wife of Harry Morton. Bea credited George Burns for teaching her about comedy. Bea was awarded two Emmy nominations for her portrayal of Blanche.

Not long after she was obligated to play Blanche, Lucille Ball offered her the role of Ethel Mertz on her new show I Love Lucy. Bea had to decline, but she did make an appearance on the show in 1952. Her “husband” on My Favorite Husband and Granby’s Green Acres was Gale Gordon.  He, too, was approached to play Fred Mertz; however, similarly to Bea’s situation, he had already agreed to transition from radio to television on Our Miss Brooks. He too would costar on the show and later he was able to work with Lucille Ball again on her other television shows.

 

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In 1960 Bea accepted the role of the housekeeper on Peter Loves Mary. That same year she agreed to provide the voice for Betty Rubble when The Flintstones debuted on Friday nights. She would provide voices on The Flintstones for 112 episodes.

 

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Paul Henning was one of the writers for Burns and Allen. He and Bea became friends in the 1940s, and in 1962 he created a show called The Beverly Hillbillies. He brought in Bea for the role of Granny, but when Bea saw Irene Ryan’s audition, she told Paul he had definitely found his Granny. He then created the role of Pearl Bodine for Bea. She would appear in 22 episodes. Donna Douglas, who played Elly May, said that “watching her timing is like watching a ballerina. She’s so effortless.”

 

When Henning created a spin-off in Petticoat Junction, the role of Kate Bradley was written specifically for Bea. She appeared in 179 of the episodes of the show that aired from 1963-1969. Henning’s wife’s family ran the Burris Hotel in Eldon, Missouri that catered to salesmen traveling by railroad, and those stories became the basis for Petticoat Junction. Kate, a widow, runs the hotel with help of her Uncle Joe who is often busier trying to avoid work than helping out. She has three daughters Billie Jo, Bobby Jo, and Betty Jo. (During the show’s run, there would be three Billie Jo’s, and two Bobby Jo’s but only one Betty Jo, who was portrayed by Linda Kay Henning, Paul’s daughter.)

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Charley Pratt and Floyd Smoot run the Cannonball, a train that enables the Bradleys to travel to Pixley and Hooterville. Cut off from the main railroad twenty years earlier in a trestle demolition, the train caters to local residents, often stopping to move cows or let someone visit a neighbor between official stops. Sam Drucker runs the general store in Hooterville and is always the center of local society. Though it was never made too obvious, Kate and Sam had a special relationship, and we always assumed that once the girls were grown and gone, and Sam was ready for retirement, he and Bea would end up together. The old-fashioned hotel offers home cooking and a nostalgic feel. Other titles considered were Ozark Widow, Dern Tootin’, and Whistle Stop. When Steve Elliott, the crop duster, came to town, he dated Billie Jo. They made a glamorous couple, but a season or two later, he realized he truly loved Betty Jo, the youngest and the tomboy who helped in repair his plane. They married and had a daughter, Kathy Jo.

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In 1967 Smiley Burnette (Charley) passed away. In 1968 Bea became ill and died that year from lung cancer and pneumonia. Bea’s second husband, Gene Twombly, passed away four days later from a heart attack. June Lockhart was brought on to the show as Dr. Janet Craig to help be a mother figure to the girls. Ratings declined in season 6 with the loss of Bea; however, the network renewed the show for another year so there would be five years of colored episodes for syndication. Ratings increased during the last year, but in 1969 when the new administration cancelled all the rural shows, Petticoat Junction received its walking papers too.

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There were always rumors that there would be a reunion from the show, but that never happened, although the cast did take on both the Brady Bunch and Leave it to Beaver crews on Family Feud in 1983.

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Bea was known for her laugh. By all accounts, she was a kind woman and extremely professional in all her roles. While I enjoy Petticoat Junction, I adore Gracie Allen, and am always happy to indulge myself watching Burns and Allen Show episodes. Bea holds her own on the show and makes a wonderful practical counterpart to Gracie’s illogical logic.

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