This month we have been learning about some unique stories about television writing. I thought it would be fun to wind up the series learning a little bit more about what goes on inside the writers’ room and how you might get there.
Since watching The Dick Van Dyke Show, I have always thought how much fun it would be to be part of a writers’ group for a successful comedy. Nothing I have ever read about the cons of the writing life—late nights, severe writers’ block, procrastination, writers’ arguments–has ever made me question whether this would be an amazing job or not.
So, what exactly is a writers’ room? It’s an office where writers of a television show get together to brainstorm the stories that make it on the air. Depending on the show, you can have two to twenty people in the room. There are other people in addition to writers who pop in and out. A script coordinator, staff writer, story editor, executive story editor, producer, and supervising producer are all positions that might be sitting in on a writing session. Writers’ assistants can take notes, do research, and then there are runners who make copies, get lunch and coffee, and schedule calls.
Just like police officers, doctors, or funeral directors, writers have a lingo all their own. So, let’s take a look at a few of these expressions. A bottle episode takes place in one location and often depends more on dialogue. A Gilligan cut is just what you might guess. It goes back to the show Gilligan’s Island which often showed a contrast in action: one character says Gilligan says nothing in the world will get him to climb that tree and the next scene shows him in the tree. A face heel is where a good guy is now revealed to be a bad guy. A Frankenstein draft is one that is made up of a variety of parts—multiple writers work on the script and then it is unified. A gorilla is a joke or scene that the audience will remember long after the episode is over.
If you are interested in television writers, there is a great book by Paula Finn called Sitcom Writers Talk Shop. (It’s available on amazon.com and at most of your favorite book stores) Her dad, Herb Finn, was a television writer and, for all of you who think Ralph Kramden and Fred Flintstone seem similar, her dad Herb, wrote for both shows.
She has some great interviews in the book. If you read the book, you’ll learn a lot about the highs and lows of television writing. James L. Brooks–who wrote for Room 222, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Taxi, and The Simpsons—had some great insights.
When asked about how you know you’re in the zone, he responded that “you hear your characters talking to you, and you’re taking dictation.” When asked about how it feels to work with a partner you get paired with, he said that you know you are a good team when “you don’t have an absolute sense of who does what.” When asked what was the best way to learn the craft of comedy, he said, “That’s obvious: It’s just doing it.” My favorite answer to a question of his was when he was asked if he could have found fulfillment doing a different job, he said, “I can’t imagine having done anything else. I never had the ambition to be a writer because it seemed impossible.” He went on to say that it’s a common feeling for writers that you do it for years and years and then suddenly, “somebody asks you what you do for a living, you can say ‘a writer’ without your voice catching or rising. Because it’s just an amazing thing.”
If you are a fan of MasterClass, you know they have a lot of great learning opportunities. One of their courses about writing for television is taught by Shonda Rimes. The MasterClass staff put together five tips for succeeding in a writers’ room. I would take it a step further and say they were five tips for succeeding in life. They are:
So, if after reading this blog, you too think it would be fun to be part of the writers’ room, what is the best way to do it? Often writers start as assistants. You’re able to make contacts and see how the job is done from the inside. Of course, writing scripts and more scripts and more scripts until someone decides one of them is just what they need is another option. Many aspiring writers find agents who can try to sell the work for them.
Sharing your work with as many people as possible is always a great way to get your name out there. Writer/Producer Lee Goldberg gave this advice in a post from November 2020: “The first thing you have to do is learn your craft. Take classes, preferably taught by people who have had some success as TV writers. There’s another reason to take a TV writing course besides learning the basics of the craft. If you’re the least bit likable, you’ll make a few friends among the other classmates. This is good, because you’ll have other people you can show your work to. This is also good because somebody in the class may sell his or her first script before you do, and suddenly, you’ll have a friend in the business.”
My best piece of advice if you want to be a comedy writer is to keep a journal. I cannot tell you how many times when I was researching television writers, they said some of their best shows came from real life. And during the years of researching for my blog, I have read quotes by many family members who said they often saw their private family life on the screen. There are some things you just can’t make up. Those situations can often become the basis of a television script. There are as many different paths to becoming a writer as there are writers in the industry.
I wanted to end with a bit of inspiration that I received from James Brooks in Paula Finn’s book that he took from someone else, which is how writers work all the time. Anyway, I always struggle when trying to explain why pop culture is so important and why I choose to write about it. I often feel that I have to over-defend writing about television. His quote: “I forget who said it, but somebody terrific: The purpose of popular culture is to let people know they’re not alone.” Thanks to all of you for being not alone with me!
This month we are looking at some of our favorite sitcom stars. With roles in more than eight popular sitcoms, Jerry Van Dyke has to be in the mix.
Jerry was born in Danville, Illinois in 1931. Van Dyke started his comedy stand-up career in high school performing for local nightclubs. In 1954 he joined the US Air Force Tops in Blue, performing at military bases around the world. During this time, he also played the banjo in his shows. After his military time was up, he married Carol Jean Johnson; they would divorce in 1974.
Dick Van Dyke was his brother, and Jerry’s first television appearance was on his brother’s show where he fittingly played Rob Petrie’s brother Stacey.
In 1963 he made his movie debut with two movies: The Courtship of Eddie’s Father and Palm Springs Weekend. He was also made a member of The Judy Garland Show which was cancelled after its first season. I’m not sure if there were behind-the-scenes issues with this show or not, but it seems like it would have been more successful at that time. What I was able to read was that it went through a lot of personnel changes; had to compete with Bonanza; and that while viewers loved Judy, they did not love the format or Van Dyke.
Jerry made a few more television appearances in the early sixties on Perry Mason, The Cara Williams Show, The Andy Griffith Show, and McClintock.
In 1965, Jerry was offered the role of Dave Crabtree on My Mother the Car. The premise of the show is that Dave buys an antique car only to realize his dead mother talks to him through the radio, and no one else knows it’s happening. This show is often cited as the worst sitcom of all times, but it certainly has some strong competition. Somehow viewers suffered through 30 episodes before the show was put out of its misery. I’m not sure if it was a blessing or a curse, but Jerry turned down the role of Gilligan on Gilligan’s Island for this show. Luckily, this show didn’t seem to have too much negativity on his career, while Bob Denver was typecast to the point that he never really had much of a career once the show ended.
When the show ended, Jerry made appearances on That Girl and Vacation Playhouse before being offered another leading role. He was cast as Jerry Webster in Accidental Family. He aptly plays a nightclub comedian who was a widower with a small son Sandy. After buying a farm to raise Sandy, he hires Sue Kramer (Lois Nettleton) as governess and, of course, there is some romantic tension. This show only lasted for sixteen episodes before ending.
After showing up on Good Morning World and Gomer Pyle, USMC, Jerry was offered another lead role as Jerry Brownell, a physical education teacher, on Headmaster. This was an Andy Griffith vehicle where Andy played the principal at an elite California private school. After fourteen episodes, Jerry was back to guest appearances which he made on Love American Style, The New Dick Van Dyke Show, and The Mary Tyler Moore Show.
In 1977 he married again, this time to Shirley Ann Jones, and they were together until his death.
1979 brought him another regular role on 13 Queens Boulevard. The show was set in a New York apartment complex and explores the relationships of the residents. It just never clicked with fans and was given the boot after 9 shows.
A decade later Jerry took on the role that he is best known for: Luther Van Dam on Coach. For eight years he was the assistant coach to Craig T. Nelson’s Hayden Fox–first as college coach and then for a time in the pros. Luther was the well-meaning but bumbling friend who often made life interesting for Hayden. However, he was a great coach. Van Dyke would receive four Emmy nominations for his character on the show from 1990-1993. His losses were to Alex Rocco on The Famous Teddy Z, Jonathan Winters on Davis Rules, Michael Jeter on Evening Shade, and Michael Richards on Seinfeld.
In the late nineties he had recurring roles on two shows that I do not remember anything about: Teen Angel and You Wish. Teen Angel was a weird concept where Marty DePolo eats a six-month old hamburger, dies, and then becomes his best friend’s guardian angel. Van Dyke played Grandpa Jerry. He played another grandpa on You Wish, which had an equally weird concept. Its premise is that a single mother finds a genie who was imprisoned in a magic carpet for 2000 years. Not surprisingly, they each had fewer than ten episodes before being canned.
Jerry Van Dyke was an avid poker player and fan, and from the late 1990s to the early 2000s, he hosted tournaments for ESPN. During that time, he also accepted guest roles on several television series and a few movies. However, his career was not over.
He received two more recurring roles on popular sitcoms in the 2000s. From 2001-2005, he was Big Jimmy Hughes on Yes Dear and from 2010-2015, he was Tag Spence on The Middle.
He and his wife lived on a ranch in Hot Spring County in Arkansas where he seemed to be very happy. He passed away there from heart failure in 2018.
Most actors would have been very proud of a career mirroring Jerry Van Dyke’s, and I’m sure he was, but it would have been hard to be in your successful brother’s shadow so much of the time. Dick Van Dyke was five years older than Jerry and, with the success of The Dick Van Dyke Show, he had a career that was truly impressive. However, considering how few comedians make it in the business, Jerry had a stand-up career, a movie career, and a television career. His role of Luther Van Dam was a gem and gives us an example of what his career could have been if the luck of the dice had given him better roles.
From Fall of 1963 to Spring of 1966, you could watch My Favorite Martian on television every week; I’m sure he was your favorite Martian too.
John L. Greene created the plot and developed the characters for the show produced by Jack Chertok. The plot was that a 450-year-old extraterrestrial anthropologist, who was not small and green, collides with an air force plane. A young reporter, Tim O’Hara (Bill Bixby) is returning home after an interview at Edwards Air Force Base and sees the crash. Tim takes the Martian (Ray Walston) home and refers to him as Uncle Martin, although his real name is Exigius 12 1/2. Tim agrees to protect his identity while he repairs his spaceship.
Besides being an anthropologist, Uncle Martin is an inventor, which sometimes causes headaches for Tim. A time machine sends him and Martin to other times and brings Leonard da Vinci and Jesse James back to the present. A molecular separator allows Martin to take apart the molecules of one object and rearrange them into something else like a squirrel to a human. Another product lets Martin save memories in a pill form to relearn later.
In addition to his inventions, Martin has some unusual powers. He is telepathic and can read and influence minds; he can levitate objects with his index finger, communicate with animals, both freeze or speed up objects or people, and can raise two antennae to become invisible. Raising the antennae was done with a transistor under his collar.
Luckily Tim’s landlady, Lorelei Brown (Pamela Britton), is a bit scatterbrained. She and Uncle Martin have a bit of a romance but it never gets serious since Martin knows he must leave the planet.
The network didn’t like Chertok’s scripts, so they hired Sherwood Schwartz (later known as the creator behind Gilligan’s Island and The Brady Bunch) to doctor the plots.
The theme music was composed by George Greeley and performed by Paul Tanner, a former member of Glenn Miller’s band. Tanner used an electro-theremin which could later be heard on The Beach Boys’ hit “Good Vibrations.”
The first two seasons were filmed in black and white with the third being shot in color.
Season one found My Favorite Martian ranked tenth overall. This was a surprise to me because it was up against The World of Disney. By the end of the second season, it was down to 24th but was renewed for a third year. Ratings declined significantly in the third season; often mentioned was the redundant storylines. If kids were still watching Disney, adults might have split their viewership. In it second season, this show was on at the same time as Wagon Train and in its last season it was up against Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea.
For only being on the air three years, the show had a lot of after lives. Saturday morning cartoons were all over the place during this decade. One of the cartoons to debut in 1973 was My Favorite Martians featuring Martin; his nephew Andromeda, or Andy; Tim; Mrs. Brown; and her boyfriend Detective Brennan. The animation series relied on scripts that had been written for a potential fourth season but never used.
In 1999, the show also came to the big screen starring Christopher Lloyd as Martin and Jeff Daniels as Tim. Walston has an appearance as another Martian trapped on Earth, although a lot of the ET characteristics had changed from the original concepts.
Gold Key Comics developed a comic book series around the show and published nine issues between 1963 and 1966.
The series debuted during the time that merchandising was beginning to increase greatly. This show resulted in a board game, a magic set, a paint-by-numbers kit, a spaceship model kit, and a beanie hat.
One fun fact I learned was that the spaceship prop used in the series was bought by magician David Copperfield for $100,000 in 2018.
Although My Favorite Martian will not go down as one of the best sitcoms in the golden age of television, it was important as one of the first sci-fi television shows. Most fans cite their special effects as pretty impressive for the time.
The first two seasons were filmed at Desilu and the great Sheldon Leonard directed the pilot. It would have been interesting to see the progression of the show if he had stayed on the payroll. He seemed to have an intuition for developing realistic and likable characters. Ray Walston later regretted taking the role of Uncle Martin. He said he did it for the money but felt it typecast him for many years. However, he did say that he enjoyed working with Bixby, and they became life-long friends.
Let’s end with one of their conversations that show how this series turned comedy upside down.
Tim: I thought you could give my article on ESP a special slant.
Martin causes Tim to stand at an angle through telepathy.
If you want a special slant on early sci-fi, give this one a try, but save yourself some grief and leave season three in the box.
This month my blog theme is “Don’t Judge Me.” We’ll take a look at sitcoms featuring judges. The first show on the docket is I Married Joan. Debuting on NBC in 1952, the show starred Joan Davis and Jim Backus and was typically described as the marriage of a respected judge and his scatterbrained wife, Joan and Bradley Stevens. It ran for three seasons and produced 98 episodes.
The early shows begin in the judge’s chambers where he recalls one of his wife’s wacky adventures followed by the episode and ending with the judge summing up his tale of his wife’s mishap and its similarity to a case he was working on. It was very similar to I Love Lucy; however, this show featured more slapstick comedy by Davis. Marc Daniels directed both shows. The shows also were both filmed in Los Angeles at General Service Studios and debuted October 15 (one year apart). Time hated the show—“It might have better been left on the shelf.” Variety, on the other hand, found it filled with “comic zest and vitality.”
I Married Joan was created and produced by Joan Davis Enterprises. She was a successful businesswoman and a workaholic. Joan earned $7500 a week; in today’s equivalent, that would be about $70,000 per episode. Joan was apparently not a very easy person to work for or with. Sherwood Schwartz wrote about a third of the episodes. (He would later go on to create The Brady Bunch and Gilligan’sIsland.) He did not care for Davis and said that Joan made one of the writers stick close to her when they ran through the show because she often wanted a better joke substituted. Jesse Goldstein also wrote a third of the shows. He had written for Burns and Allen and Red Skelton.
Other actors also complained about working with Joan. Apparently, Backus detested her because she was not kind to the crew and fellow actors. Sandra Gould (who would later appear as Gladys Kravitz on Bewitched), Hal Smith, and Hope Summers (who both showed up in Mayberry as Otis the drunk and Bee’s friend Clara) confirmed Backus’ stories. There are a couple of other stories floating around that Joan once slapped a child for asking for her autograph and threw a temper tantrum at a salon, knocking over a bottle of bleach. Backus had worked with her on radio before signing on for this role, so I’m surprised he had not been aware of her work abuses before. She was described as a bit quiet and shy in her non-work life and spent her spare time fishing, golfing, watching boxing, or reading her extensive gag files.
Rounding out the cast were Dan Tobin as their friend Kerwin, Geraldine Carr as Mabel, Sheila Bromley as Janet, Sandra Gould as Mildred and Hal Smith as Charlie.
For seasons two and three, Joan’s daughter Beverly Wills played Joan’s sister on the show. I guess it was a family affair because Henny Backus, Jim’s wife, also had a role on one episode as Mrs. Bunker.
The plots were about what you would expect on a show from this time era. In one, Joan and her friend admire each other’s houses and decide to swap for a week which quickly cures them of their envy. When Joan finds a dress that her husband is hiding for a friend for his wife; she assumes it is for her and “alters” it–a lot. In one episode, Joan wonders what life would be like if she had never married. In another show, she realizes she doesn’t have enough chicken to serve when Brad brings unannounced guests home. Any of these plots could have come from Burns and Allen, The Ann Sothern Show, Our Miss Brooks, or The Life of Riley.
However, in one show, Joan crawls into an enormous commercial soup pot in order to spy on the kitchen crew to learn the recipe for a chef’s famous soup. As you would expect, all the ingredients suddenly begin to get thrown in all around her. Even reading this description, you can picture Lucille Ball in the predicament. Perhaps this is another reason the show didn’t succeed. It was just too similar to the top-rated show in the nation.
Many people remember the theme-song lyrics.
I married Joan What a girl, what a whirl, what a life. Oh I married Joan What a find, love is blind, what a wife! Giddy and gay, all day she keeps my heart laughin’ Never know where her brain has flown. To each his own Can’t deny that’s why I married Joan. I married Joan!
For the entire three seasons it was on the air, it was up against Arthur Godfrey and His Friends on CBS and news shows on ABC for seasons one and two. The show did so-so in the ratings for the first season. The second season the ratings increased to the number 3 show. Part of it might have come about from the negative publicity Arthur Godfrey got when he fired Julius LaRosa. The third season Disneyland was on ABC, and the ratings declined again. The ratings were especially low in the New York market, so the show was cancelled. HowdyDoody had just gone off the air, so reruns of the show replaced the popular kids’ show in the mornings. Jim Backus had signed a three-year contract and declined to come back; I’m not sure if that contributed to the cancellation of the show or not.
Joan Davis tried to get a few other sitcoms on the air in later years; one interesting idea was for a woman astronaut who was training for a flight to the moon. She officially retired in 1959 and passed away in 1961 after suffering a heart attack.
Jim Backus would go on to have a very successful career. He would cross paths with Sherwood Schwartz again when he accepted the role of Thurston Howell III on Gilligan’s Island. A fun aside is that when the I Married Joan sets were later re-used, Backus’ lines were found written in various places.
As I noted earlier, the theme for my blog this month is “Don’t Judge Me.” In that spirit, I am trying not to judge Joan Davis too harshly without learning more about her as a person. One thing I have learned in writing television blogs for so long is that several of my favorite characters were not my favorite people; I decided long ago that I could adore the character and abhor the actor. Fortunately, most of the actors in classic television were wonderful people.
I do remember watching this show in reruns in the late seventies and early eighties. It was not really my cup of tea, but I am not a big lover of slapstick comedy. Most of the fans that bought the DVDs (91%) gave the series 5 stars and made comments like “extremely funny,” “I couldn’t stop laughing,” and “clever writing and great comic acting.” If you are an I Love Lucy fan, you should probably give I Married Joan a try. There are worse ways to spend an evening.
This month, we begin a new series, “We Salute You” and we will look at shows about the military. Our first series is The Phil Silvers Show a/k/a You’ll Never Get Rich.
The sitcom debuted on CBS in 1955. The pilot was never aired, but the show was part of the television schedule until 1959, producing 143 episodes.
Nat Hiken created the series which ended up being nominated for Best Comedy Series every year it was on and winning that category in 1956, 1957, and 1958. In addition, Silvers won an Emmy for his performance, and Hiken won an Emmy for Best Director.
In 1955, television was transitioning from New York to California. However, Hiken insisted on filming the series in New York. The earlier seasons were filmed at Dumont and later seasons moved to CBS studios in Chelsea, Manhattan.
The show was filmed like a play in front of a live audience. The cast members had to memorize the entire script. When Mike Todd guest starred in season two, he insisted that the show be filmed more like a movie. Takes were filmed out of sequence and multiple takes were allowed because there was no audience. The crew realized that this process was faster, cheaper, and easier for the actors, so the change was put in place permanently. The show was screened for the military though, and servicemen made responses that were used to make the show more realistic.
Sergeant Ernie Bilko (Phil Silvers) is a con man. He runs a motor pool at a small US Army Camp, Fort Baxter in Roseville, Kansas. Colonel Hall (Paul Ford), who doesn’t trust Bilko, tries to stay on top of his schemes. Bilko tries to make money any way he can and is not above using the landing craft for midnight cruises, “borrowing” tanks, setting up poker games, and conniving with a local service station for spare parts for Jeep tires for his get-rich quick scams. Bilko has pulled the wool over Col Hall’s wife’s (Hope Sansberry) eyes and flatters her every chance he gets. Silvers said Bilko was so successful because “inside everyone is a con man wiggling to sneak out.”
Although his men knew he could not be truly trusted, they were usually loyal to him and while he occasionally used them in a scheme, he typically made sure they were taken care of. Some of the situations Bilko found himself in included starting a mink farm, entering his platoon in a singing contest, investing in an ailing race horse, stealing a French chef’s family recipe, buying swampland, thinking there was uranium beneath Hall’s living room, and getting a hot racing tip but not being able to get his bet in on time.
For the fourth season, the camp moved from Kansas to Camp Fremont in California. The move was explained that Bilko orchestrated the new location because he learned there was a gold deposit near the abandoned army post. The primary reason for the geographical change was so stars could guest on the show because the camp was now said to be close to Hollywood. Some of these celebrities included Dean Martin, Mickey Rooney, Bing Crosby, Dorothy McGuire, and Lucille Ball.
In addition to the stars who were said to come from Hollywood, guest stars on the show included Charlotte Rae, Fred Gwynne, Dick Van Dyke, Paul Lynde, Tom Poston, Dina Merrill, Alan Alda, Bea Arthur, and Tina Louise.
I was surprised by the large cast that was featured on this show as opposed to Gomer Pyle, Hogan’s Heroes, or McHale’s Navy. Bilko’s comrades were Corporal Barbella (Harvey Lembeck) and Corporal Henshaw (Allan Melvin).
The rest of the men included Corporal Sam Fender (Herbie Faye), Sergeant Grover (Jimmy Little), Privates Doberman (Maurice Gosfield), Zimmerman (Mickey Freeman), Kadowski (Karl Lukas), Gomez (Bernard Fein), Paparelli (Billy Sands), Mullen (Jack Healy), Fleischman (Maurice Brenner), Sugarman (Terry Carter) and Dillingham (Walter Cartier), as well as quartermaster Sergeant Pendelton (Ned Glass). Bilko even had a romantic interest in Sergeant Joan Hogan (Elisabeth Fraser).
Because the series had so many secondary cast members, it became too expensive to maintain, and that was the primary reason it was canceled. I was surprised it did not affect the ratings because there were a lot of cast members to follow from week to week.
The show started out on Tuesday nights the first season. Its competition was The Legend of Wyatt Earp and Milton Berle. The ratings at first were not good and Camel Cigarettes, the sponsor, considering withdrawing. The network moved the show so it didn’t need to compete with Berle’s second-half hour. The ratings skyrocketed. The second and third seasons, it continued on Tuesday nights but was up against Cheyenne both years and against The Big Surprise on the second season and The Eddie Fisher Show the third season. The Phil Silvers Show continued to be in the top 30 for season two but fell below those rankings in season three. Season four found the show on Friday nights up against Man with a Camera and MSquad. I would have thought that season might have the weakest competition but the show never recovered its higher ratings. However, Friday nights many people were out, not home watching television.
Another downfall with such a large cast is the personality conflicts that might occur. Apparently, Phil Silvers did not get along with Maurice Gosfield. Gosfield had trouble remembering his lines which frustrated the other actors; however, he got the most fan mail which Silvers resented. In his memoir, Silvers discussed this issue and wrote that Gosfield “thought of himself as Cary Grant playing a short, plump man.”
Phil Silvers would play the same type of con man on many sitcoms later including The Beverly Hillbillies, Gilligan’s Island, The Lucy Show, and the movie It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World.
After its cancellation, CBS sold the show to NBC which was a great move on NBC’s part. The network made a ton of money on the show’s syndication because reruns were run for decades.
DC Comics published comic books based on the show as well. From 1957-1960 there were 16 issues of a Sergeant Bilko comic book and 11 issues of a Private Doberman comic book.
In 2009, the US Postal Service issued a set of stamps honoring early television programs. This show was commemorated with an image of Sergeant Bilko.
I remember the show being on the air a lot while I was growing up, but I rarely see it now. I am going to rely on a fellow blogger to sum up the show. In a recent blog on neatorama.com from February 14, 2019, the show was described as follows:
“It is my opinion that THE PHIL SILVERS SHOW (aka YOU’LL NEVER GET RICH) remains the single most underrated sitcom in television history and that Phil Silvers remains the most underrated comedian in that medium. This is really saying something because the series has indeed received great acclaim over the years. Even so, Silvers is just not given his proper due for creating the Bilko character. But it is Phil Silvers, his facial expressions, his bugle-call barking of orders, his complete manipulation of everyone on the base, and his wild schemes to make money that never seem to get old no matter how much you watch the episodes on video. The show is a great testament to the talents of Phil Silvers. With its complex plotlines and quickfire dialogue it’s still a treat to watch Silvers’s monumental character. The most oft-said line in the series must be “but, Sarge!” as Bilko launches into another diabolical and, ultimately, flawed scheme to make money and dodge work.”
Bilko isn’t a bad guy; he’s just not trustworthy. As he himself likes to say, “All I ever wanted was an honest week’s pay for an honest day’s work.” Maybe in this politically correct world we live in, making fun of the military is a taboo. It’s too bad because all the critics loved this show. If you want to check it out for yourself, the series is on DVD, so it is available for a week-end of binge watching; you can purchase individual seasons or the complete series.
In our quest to go behind the scenes during this month of blog posts, today we learn a bit about set decoration. There are several job positions available on the set of a television show. The set decorator is responsible for buying or renting the set items, the storage of items, placement and monitoring the budgets. The assistant set decorator reports to the set decorator. They often do research before planning for the various sets. The set buyer also reports to the set decorator. They take care of purchasing or renting the individual items needed for the set. Buyers create relationships with stores and antique vendors. The lead dresser carries out tasks assigned by the set decorator. The onset dresser takes care of props, cleans items, places items in relationship to the camera lens.
Kushnick, the set decorator for The Good
Wife shares some advice for set design: do your research, create a
decorating workbook, choose an item that sets the tone of the room, carry a
tape measure with you at all times, try out different furniture placement, and consider
using unusual paint colors.
Maggie Masetti wrote an article in 2012 about chatting with Ann Shea, set decorator for The Big Bang Theory. Ann says “she is the set decorator, and so usually once I get the plans and the walls are built is when I start my work of providing the furniture and the plants and the artwork and all the cool objects, the floor coverings and the practical lights.” She has a variety of sources she uses to shop including prop houses, online shops, and retail stores. She said once the sets are developed, she continues to be busy. Sets are put up and taken down over and over and they have to be just right. Also, if a show is on for an extended time period, subtle changes are necessary just like our homes.
Ann said once she determined the set for the comic book store, she was happy, but then a producer said that it had to change every episode like a real store with inventory in and out—as viewers we don’t think about all the work that goes into sometimes more minor settings. I’m thinking about how much a set designer would have to learn to create an astrophysicist’s office/lab. A couple of her favorite items that show up on the show include the DNA sculpture, the WMAP beach ball, and the periodic table shower curtain.
One of the
things I hadn’t considered was that designers have to fill closets and drawers
in the main sets, so everything is realistic.
I thought it would be fun to consider some of the sets from shows that are a bit more unique and then look at shows that had to be more realistic. Let’s take a look at a few shows that had unusual sets: The Munsters, Gilligan’s Island, and Green Acres. Then we’ll compare some apartments of some of our favorite television characters including Mary Richards, Bob and Emily Hartley, and Frasier Crane.
Gilligan’s Island sounds like an easy set to create. Just throw a few huts up on amid trees and jungle greenery, right? However, you have to personalize each hut with basic items to give each one its own personality. There is also that fine line that is often crossed on the show about how much stuff the castaways actually have with them. I am not surprised they had an accident and were wrecked; I don’t think the storm had anything to do with it, I think it was the thousands of pounds of luggage they apparently took on board.
First, we have the Howell’s hut. Flowered red curtains frame the window. There are a number of knick-knacks setting about including Mr. Howell’s polo stick. There are twin beds with elaborate headboards, several wicker chairs, a writing desk, several tables, and a bamboo hutch. Of course, Mr. Howell installed a hidden safe for his valuables and money. A second room was built to store their luggage and clothing.
Gilligan and the Skipper share a hut with hammocks. There is a window for each of them at the front entrance. A bamboo telescope resides under one of the windows. Decorations are minimal but include a photo of the Skipper, several shells, a couple of candles, a small table and chair and a crate for Gilligan’s personal items. Gilligan and the Skipper don’t appear to have any other clothes than their uniforms.
Mary Ann and Ginger also share a hut. A heavy wooden door and one window face the front. A flower box hangs on that. Flowery curtains make it look more “girly.” Each girl has her own cot and here are two tables, one for writing and one for make-up.
I’m assuming the Professor stays in the supply hut. This hut stores supplies, food, water, items salvaged from the SS Minnow and the Professor’s crudely designed laboratory. Like the girls’ hut, it has a heavy door and window out front and includes a smaller window as well. Boxes and crates are placed here and there as is the Professor’s equipment.
The huts help define the characters who live there. In addition, we learn a lot about them by their clothing with the Howells appearing in designer clothing, Ginger in gowns, Mary Ann in informal rural outfits, the Professor in plain shirts and slacks, and Gilligan and the Skipper in their nautical attire.
From the airy, tropical setting, let’s flip to the dark and dingy interior of The Munsters. The Munsters are said to live in an average neighborhood, but their home is anything but average. Located in Universal City, the house was rumored to cost a million dollars to outfit in 1963.
Although Herman works at the local undertakers and Eddie goes to school with the other kids, when friends come over, it is definitely not one of the cookie cutter homes in the neighborhood. There are cobwebs all over the house, and the windows are covered in curtains that let very little light in.
Lily’s bedroom looks more like a setting for a horror movie than a family sitcom, but she and Herman are quite comfortable in their master bedroom.
Although it appears to have been abandoned for quite some time, this is where the family gathers nightly. The furniture is heavy, dark and very Victorian. There is little in the way of knick-knacks.
After open and sunny and then closed and dreary, let’s combine the two and look at the Douglas home on Green Acres. In New York City, Lisa and Oliver were wealthy and lived in a penthouse apartment with expensive furnishings. Their house in Hooterville is anything but exclusive.
The walls are falling down, the wallpaper is peeling off the walls, and one of their bedroom walls is open to the outside elements which makes it easy for them to climb the telephone pole when they need to make a phone call.
Although they are in a rural setting, Lisa continues to wear her designer gowns and negligees and brought all her expensive items from her apartment.
Lisa and Oliver brought all their expensive artwork and furniture with them from their New York penthouse. Somehow it does not seem out of place for the Douglases. Lisa even uses her fine china and crystal daily.
While it’s fun to see some unique designs that set the stage for some of our favorite characters, now we switch gears to analyze three apartments that had more realistic designs. Often, we watch sitcoms and somehow in the middle of a city like New York, someone has a large apartment that we all realize they could not afford. In order to be more believable, set designers must rely on what a character could afford for their home and interior items on their salary.
Let’s take a look at three apartments and see how they change as we increase the salaries the characters have. The one thing all three have in common is a great terrace with a view.
Mary Richards’ apartment on The Mary Tyler Moore Show is an iconic one. Growing up, most girls dream of having an apartment just like this one. Located in a classic Victorian home in Minneapolis, her home was affordable but cute and practical.
$130 a month for her home. Mary often complains about having enough but not any
extra money, so she needs to be a bit frugal with her funds. This is a studio
apartment so her living room and bedroom share the same space. Usually this is
not an issue, but it’s tough to have company stay with her. One night after Mary
has settled down for the night, Rhoda and her date stop by and we see Mary
quickly trying to fold her bed back into the couch, so they don’t have to sit
on her bed and realize they woke her up.
Her rooms are outfitted with great storage options. In her sunken living room, there are shelves running around part of the room where she stores books and knick-knacks. A cozy little area with a chair and table is in front of her terrace window—a fun space where she can read or have coffee with a great view.
wood-burning fireplace sets off the kitchen, making the room cozy.
She has a functional but little kitchen. A decorative shade allows Mary to open up the area between the kitchen and living room or close it off if she doesn’t want people to see a mess in the sink.
To the left of the living room is a door. When it’s open, we see Mary’s closet and we know that if you keep going, you’ll find her bathroom. I don’t recall ever seeing the bathroom during the series, however.
furniture is nice, it probably is not new, and Mary may have picked the items
up at used furniture stores or antique shops. Her larger pieces include her sofa
bed, a wicker coffee table, an armoire, and a table and chairs. Her personal
items strewn around the apartment tell us a bit about Mary. Most people
remember the large “M” that hangs on her wall. She has a Ben Shahn poster on
her wall in the first season and a Toulouse-Lautrec poster, Jane Avril, in
other years. A Laurel lamp is near the reading chair, a pop of sixties
modernism that Mary might have had in school in her room. We see her Samsonite
luggage that is good quality and probably was a present from her parents. The
pumpkin cookie jar adds a bit of color to the kitchen. These items tell us Mary
was sentimental, educated about art but could not afford the real thing, and was
an individual, learning her style now that she was living alone for the first
From Minneapolis, we travel down the interstate to Chicago where we find Bob and Emily Hartley’s apartment on The Bob Newhart Show. Bob and Emily are doing well, but we learn from their furnishings that they don’t care about things much. Bob is a psychologist but seems content to keep a small practice. Emily is a teacher and she and Bob debate about whether she should work or if she should work, so her salary is not necessary to their lifestyle.
They have a
beautiful apartment with a terrace and a view of Lake Michigan. It’s close to
the Thorndale station.
Like Mary, they have a sunken living room with the kitchen located off of it. The kitchen is bigger than Mary’s but still small. Much of the time they eat out or have something easy. Neither Bob nor Emily are gourmet cooks, but Bob grills on the terrace often.
A table between the two rooms is where they take their meals unless they are eating in front of the television. The television is on wheels and Bob can move it back and forth between the living room and the bedroom.
To the left of the living room is their large bedroom and bathroom. To the right is Bob’s den and another bathroom that does not have a tub or shower.
Like Mary, Bob and Emily enjoy art and have several pieces on their living room walls. They switch out their furniture a lot and we see three different sofas in their home: brown, white and royal blue.
My guess is
that they save a lot of their money and what they spend, they spend on travel,
books, and eating out.
hours west of Chicago, we arrive in Seattle, the home of Frasier Crane. Frasier
is also a psychologist like Bob. He is a well-known doctor and has his own
radio show, garnering him more money than Bob.
Frasier lives in Elliott Bay Towers and doesn’t have a view; he has “the” view. The backdrop for the terrace shows the Space Needle which cannot be seen in reality from these apartments. The cost for the backdrop was about $55,000 to construct. It seems very expensive for a prop, but it goes back to making sure everything about the apartment was the best Frasier could obtain.
This was a very expensive set to design. According to the book, Frasier: A Cultural History, by siblings Kate and Joseph Darowki, the architecture and set building cost $250,000 and the total overall for the furnishings and other items came in at about a million dollars. A security guard was on site during shooting.
According to Thrillist.com,
Frasier’s apartment today would cost about three million dollars. We realize
pretty quickly that Frasier is all about the good life and the image he wants
people to have of him as a successful, wealthy person.
Like the other two apartments, he has a small kitchen, but it is well equipped and stylish. Set designer Roy Christopher outdid himself by capturing Frasier’s personality in his home.
There are quite a few bedrooms in the apartment. Frasier has a large one with an expansive master bath, that features a sauna and a whirlpool. His father and Daphne both have their own bedrooms and bathrooms as well.
Frasier’s apartment is ultra-modern and is filled with expensive, high-end furniture and collectibles. His furniture is a replica, although shorter version, of Coco Chanel’s sofa. He has Eames and Wassily chairs and often throws around the designer labels he enjoys. The rooms are filled with decorative architectural details and expensive finishes. Much was made of the artwork scattered around the apartment.
The Dale Chihuly glass bowl on a table near the fireplace was made specifically for the show and reproduced for an exhibit. A Mark Rothko painting was in Frasier’s master bath. Some of the other art included a Nick Berman floating ball, a Pastoe curved sideboard, Le Corbusier lamp, a Steinway grand piano, a Rauschenberg painting in the hall, and a variety of Pre-Columbian and African art.
While Bob and
Emily didn’t care much about their furniture as long as it was comfortable; Frasier
cares dearly about every item in his apartment, except for his father’s Barcalounger
which is a reminder of the design element he does not want in his apartment. It
becomes the centerpiece of the apartment. The prop department did not think it
was “hideous” enough when they located it, so they added some dirt smudges and
duct tape to it. It’s a brilliant juxtaposition. We understand that despite the
expensive items surrounding him, Martin is quite comfortable in Frasier’s
house. His easy-going, but gruff, personality is not off-put by the sophisticated
design nor is he impressed by the expensive art. During the course of the show,
Frasier must learn to be as comfortable in his home as his father is.
It’s been fun
to view some of the spaces our television friends inhabited and take a closer
look at what helped reflect more about the characters as we take an in-depth analysis
of the items they chose to surround themselves with. Take a look around your own
space and see what it says about you to others and how it would help define you
as a sitcom character.
Lisa Douglas was one of the most interesting characters on television. She oozed elegance and glamour. Like Gracie Allen, she had the ability to be believable in her portrayal of someone who is a bit naïve. She never came across as a dumb blonde. She also was likable. Many stars would have appeared arrogant or snobby in her character. Lisa could wear a sequined designer gown to have hot dogs and beans and fit right in with any Hooterville resident. Oliver, who wanted to be a local farmer and a man of the earth, had a much harder time relating to the local folks. Since Lisa Douglas was my only connection with Eva Gabor, I thought it was time to learn more about the woman behind Hooterville’s wealthiest wife.
Eva was born
in 1919 in Budapest, Hungary. She began her career as a cabaret singer and ice
skater before migrating to the US. Her older siblings Magda and Zsa Zsa would also
end up in the United States. Eva was considered the one with the most talent;
apparently even by herself because she once said, “I was the first actress in
the family, and I am still the only actress in the family. I shouldn’t be
saying it, but it slipped out.”
Zsa Zsa was more the celebrity than the actress. She is known for saying “Dahlink” for “Darling.” She would appear in 54 different episodes on a variety of shows (often portraying herself) including Make Room for Daddy, Mister Ed, Gillgian’sIsland, F-Troop, My Three Sons, Batman, Bonanza, Laugh In, Empty Nest, and believe it or not, Tattooed Teenage Alien Fighters from Beverly Hills.
didn’t enjoy acting or wasn’t very good, because after two credits in 1937 Hungarian
films, she was not involved in the industry.
Eva’s first movie was in 1941. She would continue her movie career throughout the next couple of decades appearing in The Last Time I Saw Paris with Elizabeth Taylor in 1954, Artists and Models with Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis in 1955, My ManGodfey with June Allyson and David Niven in 1957, and Gigi with Leslie Caron and Maurice Chevalier in 1958.
make 36 appearances on shows in the fifties. Most of them were drama such as Pulitzer Prize Playhouse or Kraft Theatre. In 1953 she was given her
own talk show. I could not find much information about the show but it was a 15-minute
weekly show so she could not have talked too much. Eva was also a successful
business woman who sold clothing, wigs, and beauty products. In beauty philosophy
was simple: “All any girl needs, at any time in history, is simple velvet and
basic diamonds.” Eva also wrote a book in 1954 titled Orchids and Salami. It appears to be about her thoughts on beauty
and her ambition and goals.
She continued her television career during the sixties appearing in many shows including The Ann Sothern Show and Here’s Lucy.
In 1965 she accepted the role of Lisa Douglas in Green Acres. The show would continue until 1971, producing 170 episodes. When her lawyer husband Oliver Douglas decides to leave the rat race and buy a small farm, socialite Lisa does not want to leave New York City. However, she adjusts to life in the small town of Hooterville, charming the locals and making friends. In 1971, shows with rural themes were cancelled and Green Acres left the air.
After Green Acres, Gabor would appear in only ten shows from 1975 until 1994.
In 1995 Eva fell in a bathtub in Mexico while on vacation. She experienced complications of respiratory failure and pneumonia, and she passed away in Los Angeles shortly thereafter. Magda passed away two years later from a kidney issue. Zsa Zsa would survive until 2016 when she died of a heart attack.
Apart from Lisa Douglas, she might have been best known for her collection of husbands. She married Dr. Erich Valdemar Drimmer in 1939 and divorced him in 1942. In 1943 she married Charles Isaacs whom she divorced in 1950. From 1956-1957 she was married to Dr. John Williams. After divorcing him, she married Richard Brown in 1959. They were married for a record-lasting 13 years before they divorced and she married Frank Jameson in 1973, divorcing him in 1984. She was quoted as saying that “Marriage is too interesting an experiment to be tried only once.” She had no children in any of her marriages.
Zsa Zsa surpassed her with eleven husbands between 1937 and 2016. Her sayings
about marriage included, “I am a marvelous housekeeper. Every time I leave a
man, I keep his house.” She also said, “Getting divorced just because you don’t
love a man is almost as silly as getting married just because you do.”
could not seem to find the right guy. She was married six times. Her longest
marriage was three years! Most of them were one year. Both she and Zsa Zsa were
married to actor George Sanders.
The Gabor sisters were an interesting trio. While Eva primarily made her living as an actress, the other two seemed to be socialities and celebrities, rather than true actresses. Apparently, Zsa Zsa made life harrowing for her sisters, getting in trouble for various things including slapping a policeman. Merv Griffin, who knew them all but was involved with Eva for more than twelve years, tried to explain the appeal of the Gabors. “They were so beautiful, they were so outrageous,” he said.
There was no specific category for the Wild Wild West when it first debuted in 1965. Part western, part spy show, part thriller. Now, it might be called steampunk. Westerns had been extremely popular through the 1950s and into the 1960s, but in the mid-1960s, the spy genre was gaining ground. Creator Michael Garrison combined the two. Secret Service agents Jim West (Robert Conrad) and Artemis Gordon (Ross Martin), work for President Ulysses Grant and travel the country by luxury train, the Wanderer. Oh yeah, and they have a ton of technology to make the job more exciting. Artemis is a master of disguise. Like James Bond, they had clever gadgets on hand, beautiful women in the wings, and delusional, but brilliant, enemies to fight against.
The series debuted in 1965 and ran for four seasons, resulting in 104 episodes. Unfortunately, Garrison died a year into the show and didn’t live to see its completion. The show was filmed at CBS Studio Center. The 70-acre lot was used for Gunsmoke, Rawhide, and Gilligan’s Island as well.
The theme song was written by Richard Markowitz. The intro had an animated sequence that continued to be filled in throughout the show. This was quite unique to this program.
Conrad claimed to be the 17th actor to audition for the role of James West. Originally, Rory Calhoun was announced as the co-star. Conrad wore three-inch heels to hide that he was only 5’8”. Due to his height, the casting office was barred from hiring women over 5’6” for the show. The first few episodes used stuntmen, but Conrad felt that it slowed production down too much, so he volunteered to do his own stunts. During season three, he fell from a chandelier and hit a concrete floor, leaving him with a concussion and weeks of hospitalization for dizziness.
Ross played over 100 different characters during the run of the series. He sketched out the ideas for the characters himself and then worked with the make-up artists to get the right look. During the fourth season, Martin broke a leg when he dropped a rifle, stepped on it, and rolled his foot over it. When the shell ejected, it burned his eye. Ross also suffered from a heart attack in 1968. Several other agents “filled” in for Martin while he recuperated.
Considering the show was only on for four years, it featured a number of guest stars including Ed Asner, John Astin, Jim Backus, Ed Begley, Victor Buono, Jackie Coogan, Yvonne Craig, Sammy Davis Jr., Jack Elam, Norman Fell, Bernard Fox, Mary Frann, Beverly Garland, Alan Hale Jr., Boris Karloff, Richard Kiel, Ted Knight, Harvey Korman, Martin Landau, Sue Ane Langdon, Peter Lawford, Ida Lupino, Burgess Meredith, Agnes Moorehead, Phyllis Newman, Leslie Nielsen, Carroll O’Connor, Pat Paulsen, Suzanne Pleshette, Richard Pryor, Don Rickles, Pernell Roberts, Katherine Ross, William Schallert, Vito Scotti, Ray Walston, Jesse White, and Keenan Wynn.
The train was also a co-star of the show. The spies had two different trains. The first was used for season one when the shows were filmed in black and white. It was a Sierra Railroad No. 3 which was not built until 1891, a mere technicality I guess. The Rogers Locomotive and Machine Works built it in New Jersey. Footage was shot in Jamestown, California. This same train was the Cannonball in Petticoat Junction.
The shows filmed in color featured a train decorated with green and gold and it was full of fun gadgets. This one was built in 1875 by the Baldwin Locomotive Works in Philadelphia. It was used in many films over the years.
Both these trains are on display at the Nevada State Railroad Museum. They were only featured in exterior shots. The interiors of the trains were designed by art director Albert Heschong with set decorator Raymond Molyneaux. It reportedly cost $35,000 in 1965. To put this in perspective, the average house in 1965 cost less than $4,000! The train was as resourceful as West and Gordon. A remote control under the table could immediately lock the door. A statue turned upside down unlocked a wall safe. A telegraph set was hidden in a book on the desk. Pistols could be fired by activating a fireplace switch. The pool table had exploding balls while cue sticks could fire bullets.
Many of the guest stars were villains in the show. The most famous villain was Dr. Miguelito Loveless played by Michael Dunn. He had a recurring role, appearing on ten episodes. He always managed to escape at the end of the show. West and Artemis never did catch him, and a TV movie filmed later relays that he died in 1880 from ulcers brought on by the stress of his plans always being foiled by West and Gordon.
Like Batman, Jim West always seems to have the right gadget at his disposal when he needs it. Some of his more fun props included a sleeve gun as well as a gun concealed in his heel. He also occasionally carried a blowtorch in his heel. Passkeys were stored under his lapel. He kept a variety of fuses sewn into hems in his clothes. To descend into a pit or be hoisted up on a roof, he had a hand-held motor-driven winch. Glass cutters which often are useful were available. Wires placed in his hat had many uses. Battery-powered drills helped the boys escape metal cages. His kit bag held a large balloon. A miniature player made villains think shot guns were being fired. Of course, every smart secret service man wears a bulletproof vest and is always equipped with tear gas or smoke bombs. They even had a cigar that would produce smoke when thrown on the ground and a coin that exploded when exposed to heat.
There typically were two fights in each episode choreographed by Whitey Hughes. Following the 1968 assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, a National Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence was formed. Violence on television was listed as one of the problems, and The Wild Wild West was cited as a violent show. So, despite high ratings, the series was cancelled near the end of its fourth season as a concession to Congress over television violence.
However, the show was then released into syndication and at one time was listed on 99 different local channels, so the violence on television was not curbed by its cancellation.
Several books and comic books were created based on the show. In 1979, the two stars returned to television with a movie, The Wild Wild West Revisited. In 1980, they showed up again in More Wild Wild West. Rumors existed that the duo would do a reboot of the series, but Ross died in 1981 so it never came to fruition.
A movie was made in 1999 based on the original show, but it was not received well. Will Smith later expressed regret for his role in the film. The Golden Raspberry (Razzie) is awarded to the worst films. When the 1999 film was awarded five Razzies, Conrad accepted them on behalf of the movie to show his displeasure with the remake.
The show’s success primarily stemmed from the fact that Artemus and West trusted each other completely, and their banter and technological gadgets made the show a pleasure to watch. And did I mention, the boys loved women on and found a romance on every show. We’ll let the characters have the last word:
Artemus Gordon: “Naomi. ’My sweetness’. That’s what Naomi means in Hebrew, did you know that ?”
Naomi Buckley: “Really ? And what does Artemus mean ?”
James West: “It means ’He who wastes little time‘.”
At this time of year, we tend to watch a lot of football bowl games. Most of the attention centers on the coaches, the quarterbacks, and a handful of other star players like running backs, wide receivers, and occasionally kickers. While these positions influence the games, there is an entire team behind them which determines whether they get a win or a loss. This year I will be trying to look at some of the behind-the-scenes players in the television industry.
Today we look at three composers who often influenced shows, even though many viewers never heard of the song writers.
Frank Denny De Vol was born in West Virginia in 1911. His family moved to Canton, Ohio where he grew up. His mother owned a sewing shop, and his father was in charge of the pit orchestra at a local movie theater. He graduated from McKinley High School in 1929 and started at Miami of Ohio University but quit after six weeks. His parents were hoping he would pursue his law degree, but he was set on a career in music.
This wasn’t surprising because he had become a member of the musicians’ union at age 14. He worked for his father at the theater and played the saxophone and violin.
Once he left college, he joined Emerson Gill’s orchestra and traveled around Ohio. Later he became a musician with Horace Heidt’s band, and Horace let him try his hand at arranging. He would then travel with Alvino Rey’s band which led to a long-life friendship with the King Family.
During his career as a traveling musician he married his wife, Grayce McGinty in 1935. The couple’s 54-year-long marriage would produce two daughters.
During the 1940s, he would write arrangements for many of the country’s top performers including Tony Bennett, Nat King Cole, Vic Damone, Doris Day, Ella Fitzgerald, Dinah Shore, and Sarah Vaughn. His version of “Nature Boy” for Nat King Cole went to number 1 in 1948.
In 1943 he moved to California and started his own band. He appeared on the radio on KHJ and accompanied many stars including Jack Carson.
In the 1950s, he moved into movie composing and worked on more than 50 film scores including What Ever Happened to Baby Jane, The Glass Bottom Boat, TheDirty Dozen, and several Herbie movies. He received Academy Award nominations for his work on Pillow Talk (1959), Hush . . . Hush Sweet Charlotte (1964), CatBallou (1965), and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967).
During the 1950s, his orchestra also was frequently seen at the Hollywood Palladium as “Music of the Century.”
It seems natural that De Vol would ease into television work as well. He composed the jingle for Screen Gems’ “Dancing Sticks,” which appeared on all television series produced by Columbia Pictures.
Frank became the musical director on Edgar Bergen’s game show Do You Trust Your Wife? His orchestra was featured on a variety of musical shows including The Lux Show Starring Rosemary Clooney.
Today De Vol might be best known for his work as a composer for television series. He wrote the music for My Three Sons, Family Affair, The Brady Bunch, and TheSmith Family. My Three Sons theme song was a hit single in 1961 by Lawrence Welk, more musically complex than many sitcom themes of the time. He would continue his work for My Three Sons for all 380 episodes.
Sherwood Schwartz, the creator of The Brady Bunch, first turned to George Wyle to create the Brady theme. Wyle and Schwartz had composed the theme for Gilligan’sIsland. With Wyle already committed to The Andy Williams Show, he approached De Vol. De Vol would provide music for 117 episodes of the original show, as well as music for The Brady Girls Get Married, The Brady Brides, The Bradys, and A VeryBrady Sequel.
Frank was credited as composer for 37 movies and television series and listed as part of the music department for 87 total.
Not only was he musical composer for these shows, but you can see him acting in many of the shows he worked on as well. His first acting appearances were on Betty White’s Show, Life with Elizabeth where he played a variety of roles.
He then appeared on several television series including State Trooper, My FavoriteMartian, The Farmer’s Daughter, Gidget, Please Don’t Eat the Daisies, Bonanza, Petticoat Junction, Get Smart, That Girl, and I Dream of Jeannie (37 different shows in all).
While composing on My Three Sons, he would actually portray a bandleader on the show and a father on The Brady Bunch.
Many people will remember him as the dour-faced band leader Happy Kyne on Fernwood Tonight and America 2-Night, shows starring Martin Mull in the late 1970s.
One of my favorite roles of his was the head of the boys’ camp on the original Parent Trap.
His last acting role would be on Charles in Charge, the Scott Baio comedy from 1990.
When he was in his 80s, Frank was still active with the Big Band Academy of America. About this time, he married Helen O’Connell who had been a big band singer and actress. (His first wife passed away in 1989.)
Helen passed away in 1993, and Frank died from congestive heart failure in 1999.
Like so many of these stars of the classic television era, he was a multi-talented guy. He could sing, he could play instruments, he could compose, he could arrange, and he could act. Sadly, when he does his job right, the music is so attuned to the shows that we almost don’t realize it’s there but try listening to a show with no background noise. Thank you Frank De Vol for not becoming an attorney.
We also take a look at a song-writing team of the golden age, Jay Livingston and Ray Evans.
Livingston was born in McDonald, Pennsylvania in 1915. After studying piano with Harry Archer in Pittsburgh, he attended the University of Pennsylvania, majoring in journalism but also studying composition and orchestration.
Ray Evans was born in Salamanca, New York the same year. He also ended up at the University of Pennsylvania, receiving a degree in Economics.
Livingston organized a dance band at the University that played on campus as well as at local nightclubs and even cruise ships during their summer breaks. One of those band mates was Ray Evans. Evans and Livingston became a partnership and they wrote some of the most iconic songs from film and television.
After their graduation in 1937, the duo moved to New York City to work in Tin Pan Alley. They wrote for Broadway productions, including special material for Ole Olsen and Chic Johnson.
Livingston joined the Army when World War II began while Evans went to work for an aircraft company. When Jay came back home in 1945, he and Evans decided to try their luck in Hollywood. They received a contract from Paramount Pictures, and the team would stay with the company for a decade. Their first film was To Each His Own, starring Olivia DeHaviland, and they were nominated for an Academy Award.
During this time at Paramount, Livingston married Lynne Gordon. It must have been a happy marriage because they were married until 1991 when she passed away.
The exact same year, Evans married Wyn Ritchie. They were married until her death in 2003.
In 1947 the team began writing for Bob Hope for his personal appearances. Throughout the 1940s and 1950s, they would write many tunes that became jukebox favorites and popular songs. In Warren Craig’s book The Greatest Songwriters of Hollywood, he called them “the last of the great songwriters in Hollywood.”
The year 1948 brought them their first Oscar win for “Buttons and Bows,” from Bob Hope’s western comedy, The Paleface. The jukebox version was recorded by Dinah Shore.
In 1950, they scored their second Academy Award for “Mona Lisa,” written for the movie Captain Carey, USA but made famous by Nat King Cole.
Evans and Livingston would appear in Sunset Boulevard this same year at the New Year’s Eve party scene.
We can all smile and thing of Livingston and Evans each Christmas when we hear “Silver Bells.” The song, originally titled “Tinkle Bells” was written for The Lemon Drop Kid in 1951, also starring Bob Hope. Thankfully, they decided “tinkle” had other connotations and “Silver Bells” it became. (Some sources credits Jay’s wife Lynne with the name change.)
When their Paramount contract ended in 1955, they became free lancers and wrote both individual songs and complete scores for a variety of movies. They would receive ten additional Oscar nominations during their career.
Doris Day had a huge hit in 1956 with “Que Sera, Sera” from The Man Who KnewToo Much with Jimmy Stewart and that hit would win them a third Oscar. The song would also become Doris’s theme song for her television show in 1968.
In 1957 they began writing the music for the Tammy movies that would be a staple of that era, beginning with Tammy and the Bachelor.
Jay and Ray would return to Broadway in 1958. They were nominated for a Tony for Oh, Captain! They also wrote songs for Let It Ride in 1961, a musical comedy adaptation of Three Men On a Horse, and Sugar Babies in 1979.
Though most of their work was in the film industry, the team is probably best known for their television compositions. In 1959, they were asked by Desi Arnaz to write a song for a Western show being developed. The show, thought likely to last a year, didn’t have money for a weekly salary, but he allowed them to keep the rights to the song. Luckily for them, that show, Bonanza, made them millions, and would be on television until 1973.
In 1960 they composed the theme song for The Bugs Bunny Show, “This is it.”
In 1961, Mister Ed debuted. Livingston and Evans not only wrote the well-known song, but Livingston is the one singing the line “I am Mister Ed.”
After Lynne’s passing, Jay would marry Shirley Mitchell in 1992.
Livingston and Evans were presented with a star on the Hollywood Boulevard Walk of Fame in 1995.
In 2001, at the age of 86, Jay Livingston died from pnuemonia. Ray Evans lived until 2007 when he passed away from heart failure.
It’s fun to see a friendship and partnership span six decades and be so successful. Although they were born in the same year in the same area of the country and married the same year and their marriages would last decades until the death of a spouse, the two men were very different. In an interview with the Los Angeles Times in 1985, Evans said “I’m nuts about sports, play baseball and tennis every weekend. Jay couldn’t care less. He’s restrained and quiet. I’m more outward going. Jay is a marvelous musician. I have a tin ear. But our tastes are similar, and we both like good music and song.” The duo had 26 songs that sold more than a million records and their total record sales has exceeded 400 million dollars.
Michael Feinstein released an album in 2002 devoted to the team. He said, “they had a strong work ethic and they wrote a lot of plays that have wonderful and sophisticated songs that are quite different from movie songs.”
Like Frank De Vol, most viewers today have probably never heard of Jay Livingston and Ray Evans, although they recognize much of their work. It’s good to look behind the scenes of and dig deeper into the television industry to learn more about all the pioneers who made the era so great.
Sherwood Schwartz was born in November of 1916 in New Passic, New Jersey. ThePawnshop starring Charlie Chaplin was showing in theaters. These silent films would lead to radio and television developments that would change the course of Schwartz’s life.
After getting his undergrad degree in New York, Sherwood moved to California to attend school and get his Masters in Biology. His goal was to have a career in endocrinology doing research. Unfortunately, he was put on a waiting list because the medical schools he applied to had a quota for the number of Jewish students they would accept. It was suggested that he change his name and religion. He refused and never did get into medical school.
While waiting, he submitted jokes to Bob Hope for his radio show. He picked Hope’s show specifically because his brother Al worked for the show. (Al wanted to be a comedy writer, but his parents made him get a degree first. After passing the bar, he informed them he was off to California.) Bob Hope asked Sherwood to join his brother on staff and he accepted. He honed his comedy skills writing for four years with Bob Hope.
In 1941 he married Mildred Seidman and they had a family of four children. Sherwood also wrote for the Alan Young Show on radio.
During World War II, he wrote for the Armed Forces Radio and when the war was over, he joined the staff of The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet. Ozzie Nelson has a reputation for being a perfectionist. When Schwartz was asked about this, he gave the following example: “Oh absolutely. Absolutely true. That is the only man I know who, after his show was in reruns would take the reruns and re-edit them because he wasn’t happy with something. When it was too late to do anything with them, he still did it.”
In the 1950s, Schwartz made the move to television. He took a position with the writers on I Married Joan starring Joan Davis and Jim Backus. He described the difficulty in writing for her show. “She refused to do the show unless a writer was on the set. She wanted to be able to say I need a better line and have that provided to her right then and there. Since there were only three writers for the show, one had to be on the set while the other two continued working on upcoming scripts.” As he put it, “The stage would be quiet for a moment, 75 production people were scattered around the stage and you had to get a better line or a better blackout. That’s enormous pressure for a writer. It was a rough week (when it was his turn to be on set).”
He became the head writer on The Red Skelton Show where he also worked with his brother. He did not enjoy working with Skelton. Skelton had a reputation for treating writers badly. Schwartz received an Emmy for his work on the show. The final straw was when Sherwood was listening to an interview with Skelton. He was asked why his show was so successful, and he replied, “Every week, when I get those lousy scripts from the writers I yawn. And the voice of God tells me how to fix things.” Sherwood decided the pay was not worth the grief of working for Skelton, so he left the series.
He was then hired to retool My Favorite Martian in 1963 co-starring Bill Bixby and Ray Walston. CBS asked him to do some “reconstruction” work for the series, and he worked on seven episodes. He said the pilot was a great blueprint, but the writers were not following it as well as they should have. They were concentrating on Tim and his problems when the show needed to feature the challenges the Martian was having adapting to life on earth.
During this time, he was thinking about his own series. When he and his brother worked in the radio industry, they came up with an idea for a show called Help, about seven servants who work for a rich family. He now began to take that idea and expand it. What if he took seven people from all different walks of life–but how to get them in one place was the stumbling block.
It began to come together when he placed them on a deserted island. Later that year the pilot was shot with a movie star, a professor, a millionaire and his wife, a farm girl, a skipper, and his first mate inhabiting an island while waiting to be rescued. It was not an elite or snobby show to be sure. FCC chairman Newton Minnow is the person who called television a “vast wasteland,” and in his honor, the Skipper’s boat was christened The SS Minnow.
Viewers always loved the show, but critics not so much. Schwartz said the critics never understood “the big picture” of what the characters represented. The San Francisco Chronicle’s Terrence O’Flaherty wrote that “It is difficult for me to believe that Gilligan’sIsland was written, directed and filmed by adults.” UPI’s Rick DuBrow wrote “It is impossible that a more inept, moronic or humorless show has ever appeared on the home tube.” Ouch!
Schwartz said he was not “disheartened by the reviews . . . only a bit angry with the lack of understanding of what was being attempted.” As he continued, “these are the same men who are forever saying ‘For heaven’s sake, won’t somebody give us something other than the wife and the husband and the two children?’”
He once admitted “I honestly think I could sit down and write a show tonight that the critics would love, and I know it would be canceled within four weeks. I know what the critics love. We write and produce for people, not for critics.”
The show also gave him a new skill as a lyric writer. Along with George Wyle, he wrote the theme song for Gilligan’s Island.
Although the show was popular with viewers, executive William Paley never liked it. The show was being moved around the schedule, and in order to move Bonanza to a different time spot, he cancelled Gilligan’s Island. Gilligan’s Island was on the air for three years, but it established Schwartz’s reputation as a producer and writer.
Apparently, many people felt the show was realistic. A coast guard colonel called Sherwood and later showed him letters from people who were concerned about the castaways being stranded on the island and asking the coast guard to rescue them.
Although the show was cancelled, it never really went away. Two animated series and three TV movies would spin off the show. It has also been on air in reruns since 1967. In 1988, Sherwood wrote a book, Inside Gilligan’s Island.
With the cancellation of Gilligan’s Island, Sherwood began work on another new show. He had read an article that reported nearly one-third of American households included at least one child from a previous marriage. He decided to feature this sociological change and wrote a script about a woman with three daughters who marries a man with three sons. The networks all liked the idea but were asking for some major changes which he refused to make.
In 1968 the movie, Yours, Mine and Ours came out about a blended family and the networks now wanted the show. The series, starring Robert Reed and Florence Henderson as Mike and Carol Brady, aired on ABC from 1969 to 1974. The Brady kids were played by Maureen McCormick, Barry Williams, Eve Plumb, Susan Olsen, Christopher Knight, and Mike Lookinland. Ann B. Davis played Alice, the housekeeper.
Again, the critics dismissed the show. What surprised me was that The Brady Bunch never did as well as Gilligan’s Island in the ratings. When it debuted, I was eight, and we all looked forward to Friday night when we would plant ourselves to watch The Brady Bunch and beginning in 1970, The Partridge Family, The Odd Couple, and Love American Style.
While the critics wrote the show off as unrealistic, many of the scripts were taken from the Schwartz family’s life. His daughter said she was not thrilled to watch the show and see a story about her life as part of the plot.
Similarly to Gilligan, once again, Schwartz wrote The Brady Bunch theme song, this time with Frank DeVol.
There are a lot of rumors that Robert Reed and Sherwood did not get along. After a lot of research, I’ve determined that Reed was never happy about what he saw as an inferior role. I think he wanted to do Shakespeare-quality shows in a time when there was not a need for that type of show. He seemed to nitpick the scripts too much and was too literal. Although I’ve read some memos where I totally agree with his interpretation, you can only spend so much time dissecting everything. On one show, he walks into the kitchen where the women are cooking strawberries and his line is, “This smells like strawberry heaven.” He wasted time writing a memo about the fact that he researched what strawberries smell like cooking and determined that they had no smell. He needed to learn to pick his battles, I guess.
In another similarity to Gilligan’s Island, not only did The Brady Bunch never leave the air after it was cancelled, but it too resulted in many other versions. An animated series, The Brady Kids, appeared on Saturday morning. Several TV movies, including The Brady Girls Get Married and A Very Brady Christmas were produced in the 1980s. That movie spawned a reboot of the original tv series which didn’t last long on the air. Finally, Sherwood also produced a movie for Paramount, A Very Brady Sequel, a satire of the original television show, in 1994.
Sherwood’s son Lloyd helped produce and write the tv movies and the Paramount film. In addition, they wrote a book together, Brady, Brady, Brady: The Complete Story of The Brady Bunch as Told by the Father/Son Team Who Really Knew. The reviews of Sherwood’s book about Gilligan’s Island are mostly positive. This book had very mixed reviews. Most fans seemed to enjoy the first part of the book told by Sherwood, but the majority of readers dismissed the second part, primarily written by Lloyd, as insensitive and egotistical. Few people had any positive comments about Lloyd’s involvement.
Although Schwartz would never repeat the success he had with The Brady Bunch or Gilligan’s Island, he did create several other series.
In 1966 after Gilligan ended, he produced It’s About Time where two astronauts end up in a prehistoric era and must learn to live with the natives. This show lasted one year, and 26 episodes were written.
In 1973, Bob Denver again worked with Leonard in Dusty’s Trail. Seven travelers similar to the castaways get separated from their wagon team heading west and must work together to try to catch up to their group. Sounds rather familiar. Season one ended up with 27 episodes.
Big John, Little John aired in 1976 and was a situation comedy on Saturday mornings featuring a man who turns into a 12-year-old after drinking from the fountain of youth. Only 13 episodes were produced.
Finally, in 1981, Schwartz took the song “Harper Valley PTA” and turned it into a series with Barbara Eden and Fanny Flagg. Once again, Sherwood wrote the theme song. The show was on the air for two years and produced 30 episodes.
In 2008 he was awarded both a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and inducted into the Television Hall of Fame.
In 2011, Sherwood died peacefully in his sleep from natural causes. Although he and Reed may not have been close, the rest of his cast seem to have nothing but good things to say about him.
Florence Henderson quoted, “Sherwood was a wonderful writer and producer, but more importantly he was a wonderful husband, father, grandfather and friend. I don’t ever remember him losing his temper. Ultimately, he was a wonderful teacher in life and again, in death, he taught us how to leave with dignity and courage.”
Barry Williams who played Greg, the oldest Brady, said, “As much as Robert Reed was like a dad to me, Sherwood was like a grandpa.”
Oldest daughter Marcia played by Maureen McCormick, noted that “My mom, father and I would all go to Sherwood for advice because he always had a great answer.”
Tina Louise, Ginger from Gilligan’s Island, said he “brought laughter and comfort to millions of people. Gilligan’s Island was a family, He will be in our hearts forever.”
Bob Denver who always had wonderful things to say about him, summed up working with him on a radio interview he did with Peter Anthony from Montreal radio station CJAD 800 AM on January 6, 1994. “Sherwood, as a producer, he was one of the best writer producers. It’s amazing. That man was just amazing. We never knew there were any problems when we were shooting. He kept all the network craziness away from us. He was writing scripts literally four months in advance, so that special effects and props always got them in plenty of time . . . you just memorized your words and went down there and had a great time. It wasn’t until afterwards when I left that I realized that not everybody was in the same situation. So, every time I had a chance to work with him, I did.”
Schwartz had two unbelievably successful television series. But more than that, he knew how to use their brand and marketing to keep them going. Here we are 50 years later, and kids today still understand references to both shows. They have both been on the air continuously since they were first cancelled. Generations have watched the shows. The two theme songs, co-written by him, are two of the best-known songs from television history.
I thought Paul Lieberstein (producer of TheOffice) summed up Schwartz’s influence best. In an email to Vulture, he wrote, “There was no one who shaped my childhood more. I could easily draw you a map of Gilligan’s Island and a floor plan of the Brady Bunch house—and I’m not even sure if my own childhood home had two stories.” And speaking of that blueprint, in 2019, exactly 50 years since The Brady Bunch debuted, HGTV has bought the house used for exterior shots for The Brady Bunch and will be renovating it. Once again generations will be watching The Brady Bunch cast with HGTV and learning about the show as the brand continues.