July is the Perfect Time for Berry Picking

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Ken Berry was born in Moline, IL in 1933. After watching a group perform when he was 13, he decided he wanted to be a dancer. He loved Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly movies, especially Easter Parade, Royal Wedding, and On the Town. At 16, he traveled with the Horace Heidt Youth Opportunity Program, performing in small towns for 15 months.

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He went into the army at Fort Bragg and was in the artillery. He was then moved to an entertainment division under Leonard Nimoy. During his second year, he won the All-Army Talent competition which allowed him to appear on Ed Sullivan in 1948. Nimoy encouraged him to move to Los Angeles where he made some connections for Berry. Both 20th Century Fox and Universal offered him jobs and he accepted the Universal contract.  In 1956, he opened for Abbott and Costello for their stage act. In 1957, Berry enrolled in Falcon Studios to study acting. He worked at the Cabaret Theater, making $11 per week. The same year he won Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Show.

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In 1958, he received an opportunity to join the Billy Barnes Revue. While in the Billy Barnes Revue, Berry met Jackie Joseph, and they married in 1960. His work in the BBR led to several lucrative connections. Lucille Ball saw him and offered him a job with Desilu Studios for $50 per week. Carol Burnett also watched a performance and had him on her variety show. (In 1972, she would offer him the co-starring role with her in Once Upon a Mattress, a television movie.)

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The first Desilu show he had a regular role on was the Ann Sothern Show. On the air from 1958-1961, Ann played Katy O’Connor who worked at a New York hotel. Originally, Mr. Macauley (Ernest Truex) was her boss, but he was berated by his controlling wife (Reta Shaw). Katy’s best friend from her previous show Private Secretary, which aired from 1953-1957, was Ann Tyrrell as Vi.  In this show, her name is Olive. The format wasn’t working, so Mr. Macauley the hotel owner, was transferred to Calcutta and James Devrey (Don Porter also from Private Secretary) took over.  Ratings improved, and the show was renewed for another season. During this season, Louis Nye was introduced as a funny dentist in the hotel who dates and marries Olive, and Berry played bellboy Woody Hamilton, replacing Jack Mullaney.  Most of the episodes revolve around the staff and guests of the hotel. As in Private Secretary, there is a lingering romance between Mr. Devrey and Katy throughout the run of the show. The ratings fell drastically in 1961 after the show was moved to Thursdays, and the network cancelled it.

In 1961, Berry obtained a job with Dr. Kildare, appearing in 25 episodes as Dr. John Kapish. Richard Chamberlin starred in the series about a doctor working in an urban hospital under his mentor Dr. Leonard Gillespie (Raymond Massey). In the third season, Dr. Kildare was promoted to resident and the series centered on his patients. The show aired until 1966, but Berry left the show in 1964. This was one of the shows that paved the way for Marcus Welby, MD and the medical dramas today including ER and Gray’s Anatomy.

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He also appeared on several shows in the early 1960s: The Jim Backus Show, Hennesey, Ensign O’Toole, The Dick Van Dyke Show, Hazel, and No Time for Sergeants, among others.

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In 1965, he was offered the lead in F-Troop. The show was set during the Civil War.  Berry played Will Parmenter.  At a critical moment during the Battle of Appomattox, Will gets credit for the defeat.  He is a private and was sent to get his commanding officer’s laundry. He was sneezing continuously, but the men thought he was saying “Charge,” so they did.  They won a decisive battle, and Will was promoted for his quick decision-making skills and bravery. He was then promoted to Fort Courage.

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The cast had a crazy bunch of characters. The NCOs at the fort, Sergeant O’Rourke (Forrest Tucker) and Corporal Agarn (Larry Storch) are always scheming to raise money. The Hekawis tribe, with Chief Wild Eagle (Frank de Kova) worked on shady business deals with them. Although the officers manipulate Will, they are also protective of him. Melody Patterson plays Jane Thrift, Will’s girlfriend, who is always pressuring him to propose. The show relied on a lot of puns, slapstick, and running gags.

When F-Troop was cancelled two years later, Berry headlined the cast of Mayberry RFD as widower Sam Jones because Andy Griffith was leaving the show. Since Andy and Helen had married and moved away, Aunt Bee became Sam’s housekeeper. Sam and his son were introduced in Griffith’s final season when Sam is elected to the town council. Arlene Golonka plays Millie, Sam’s love interest. The show was rated as high as 4th and only as low as 15th, so it continued to pull in good ratings, but in 1971, the show was cancelled in the general “rural house cleaning” that the network performed getting rid of any shows such as Green Acres, Beverly Hillbillies, Petticoat Junction, etc.

During the late 1960s and 1970s, he was on 14 shows including The Danny Thomas Show, The Lucy Show, Love American Style, The Brady Bunch, and The Love Boat.

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The network developed a show Ken Berry WOW, a variety show that lasted five episodes that Berry was not wowed with. In 1973, Sherwood Schwartz wrote a pilot for a Brady Bunch spinoff called Kelly’s Kids. The concept of the show was that Berry adopts three boys, one white, one African American, and one Asian. No network showed an interest in the show.

One of the most unusual jobs he had occurred in 1976.  An album called “Ken Berry RFD,” where he sang, backed by a full orchestra, was released. He and Joseph divorced that same year. Joseph later remarried and continued to have a long and full career.  She appeared on a variety of sitcoms including Designing Women, Full House, Newhart, Love American Style, Petticoat Junction, That Girl, Hogan’s Heroes, McHale’s Navy, F-Troop, and the Andy Griffith Show. She also had a productive movie career, including Gremlins, The Cheyenne Social Club, With Six You Get Eggroll, Who’s Minding the Mint, and Little Shop of Horrors.

Taking a break from television, Ken went on the road, performing in stock shows around the country.  He also played Caesar’s Palace between Andy Griffith and Jerry Van Dyke.

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He returned to television to join the cast of Mama’s Family with Vickie Lawrence. The show derived from a skit on the Carol Burnett Show which led to a TV movie called Eunice. It featured the Harper family and their neighbors and friends. The matriarch is Thelma Harper (Lawrence) who speaks her mind freely. She is hot tempered and sarcastic, but she loves her family as she berates them. And they typically deserve a berating. They move back in with her and are happy to have her clean and cook for them as well.

For the first season and part of the second, the show was on NBC. Thelma lives with her spinster sister Fran (Rue McClanahan) who is a journalist. After Thelma’s daughter-in-law leaves her family, they move in with Thelma. Her son Vint began a relationship with Thelma’s next-door neighbor Naomi Oates (Dorothy Lyman). Her children from the Burnett sketch, Ellen (Betty White) and Eunice (Burnett), along with hubby Ed (Harvey Korman) are seen during this time.

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The show was cancelled after two years and went into syndication.  The reruns were so popular, 100 new episodes were ordered. A new set had to be constructed and some cast adjustments were made as well. Lawrence, Berry and Lyman were the only original characters on this new version. Since White and McClanahan were now starring on The Golden Girls, and Burnette and Korman chose not to return, a new character was created. Mitchel (Allan Kayser) was Eunice’s son who was always getting into trouble. Another addition was Beverly Archer who played Iola Boylen, Thelma’s neighbor and best friend.

Once Mama’s Family was cancelled the second time, Berry traveled around the country, appearing in “The Music Man”, “Gene Kelly’s Salute to Broadway”, and “I Do I Do” with Loretta Swit. He also went back to television for brief appearances on several shows including CHiPs, Fantasy Island, Gimme a Break, Small Wonder, Golden Girls, The New Batman, and Maggie Winters.

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Berry also appeared in six movies including Two for Seesaw (1962), The Lively Set (1964), Hello Down There (1969), Herbie Rides Again (1974), Guardian of the Wilderness (1976), and The Cat from Outer Space (1978).

Guardian of the Wilderness was based on the life of Galen Clark who convinced Abraham Lincoln to make Yosemite Park the first public land grant. It covers a series of unusual adventures Clark had as he battled lumber companies to save wilderness land.  One of my favorite quintessential 1960s movies was Hello Down There.  Tony Randall and Janet Leigh star.  Randall is an architect who creates an underwater home.  To prove a family could live there, he cajoles his family to moving there for the summer.  His kids are in a band so they force him to take the entire band or no one.  Charlotte Rae is their housekeeper. Berry plays a rare role for him as the bad guy.

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Early in his career, Ken appeared in a variety of commercials. From the mid-1970s to the mid-1980s, he was the spokesman for Kinney Shoes.

He appeared in two game shows, Hollywood Squares and Tattletales.  He also starred as himself on a variety of shows including Art Linkletter, Joey Bishop, Leslie Uggams, Jim Nabors, Julie Andrews, Sonny and Cher, Dean Martin, Laugh In, and Mike Douglas.

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Berry retired in 1999. Berry loves cars and was an avid motorcyclist and camper.

Although Berry was never in a hugely successful series, he had a long and full career that any actor would be proud of.  Hopefully his well-deserved retirement has been fun and full of memories.

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Not Everything is Black or White

As Black History Month comes to an end, I wanted to look at the early years of television featuring African American characters.  I don’t know if young people today realize how much culture has changed in the past fifty years.  While there are a lot of negative changes that have occurred in the movie and television industry, there have been a lot of positive changes as well.

It’s hard for young adults to realize today how different things are.  When I was growing up in the sixties, married couples on television had twin beds; you could not say “pregnant” on the air; black people and white people were not friends, and certainly did not date or marry; the “jobs wanted” ads in the newspaper were divided into jobs for men and jobs for women; and if a married woman wanted to join the armed forces, her husband or father had to sign a letter giving his approval.

Sometimes we get so caught up in how far we are from the journey’s end, we forget to appreciate how far we have traveled.  Looking at the current television schedule we see a variety of shows about capable women.  While certainly racism and gender discrimination exist, most people don’t think twice about whether a lead character is a man or a woman; is black, white, or Asian; or single or married.

Just a quick review of shows on the air reveal complex, intelligent characters who are African American.  We see this in Black-ish, This Is Us, Empire, Scandal, House of Lies, Last Man Standing, and Gray’s Anatomy, just to name a few.  This was far from the reality of early television.

We often think of that era as the golden age of television, but honestly, it was the white age of television.

In 1950, two shows debuted with main characters who were black:  Amos ‘N Andy and Beulah.  A radio transplant, Amos ‘N Andy dealt mostly with Kingfish’s schemes to gain wealth, often at the expense of his friends. Beulah also got its start on radio where she was a character in Fibber McGee and Molly.    She worked for a well-to-do middle class white couple with one son.  Both of these shows were demeaning and stereotypical.  In 1953, they were both yanked from the air due to NAACP protests.

Unfortunately, it would take almost 20 years before another show would feature a black character as a star.  In 1968, Julia debuted.  Julia, played by Diahann Carroll, was a black woman with a young son Corey (Marc Copage).  Her husband is killed in Vietnam and she moves to LA to start a new life in her nursing career.  Like Tom Corbett on The Courtship of Eddie’s Father, she is raising a son; like Doris Day she is a working mother; and like Ann Marie on That Girl, she has a fabulous wardrobe.  She is hired at Astrospace Industries, an industrial-health office where she works with Dr. Chegley (Lloyd Nolan).  Her life is normal.  She goes to work, takes care of her son, and goes on a few dates, but the concept of an African American, or a woman, starring in a show as the sole breadwinner, intelligent and fashionable, was not normal for the times.  The show was on for three seasons until 1971.

Julia was a controversial show at the time, but it scored high in the ratings and became a popular series.  I think it gets a lot of unfair criticism today.  The show gets complaints because during the time of the Watts riots, sit-ins, and so much racial unrest, it portrayed Julia living a fairly normal life.  I think people forget how groundbreaking it was to have a working woman or a black character star in a show.  I think the fact that she was able to live a “normal” life gives even more credit to not bowing to stereotypes of the late sixties. It’s like criticizing someone who is just learning to walk for not running and doing handstands.  They might be small steps, but they are steps going forward. I am one of those people who actually prefer not to see too much “real life” in sitcoms.  Honestly, I watch them to escape real life.

I also wanted to mention a few other shows that were featuring black characters in their cast during the time Julia was on the air: Hogan’s Heroes, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and Barney Miller.

Hogan’s Heroes had a diverse cast, including Ivan Dixon as Sgt. James Kinchloe, striving to stay one step ahead of the Nazis.  The Mary Tyler Moore Show included a quirky news staff including weatherman Gordy Howard played by John Amos.  Barney Miller centered around a police department made up of personnel who each had their own dysfunctions.  One of those members was Lt. Ron Harris played by Ron Glass.  Each of these shows quietly featured black characters.  The races of any of the characters could easily have been switched during an episode and the character would not change.  It was just real people living real lives and some of them happened to be white and some black. After these creative and well-written shows, I prefer to ignore the Norman Lear era of shows.  They may have their merits, but I couldn’t stand All in the Family, Sanford and Son, Maude, or Good TimesThe Jeffersons was tolerable, but I would not choose to watch it either. In the mid-1980s, television began to get more diverse.

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Don’t get me wrong.  Things are far from perfect in the world of television and movies, but we have made a lot of progress.  We have a lot of work to do, but just think how many choices Diahann Carroll would have today if she wanted to develop a television series. She could pick any career she wanted, including the military without anyone’s else’s approval; she could marry a white man and not sleep in twin beds; she could announce on the air she was pregnant—small steps but 5280 small steps turn into a mile. So, let’s devote one day to appreciate the hundreds of miles we have come before getting too caught up despairing about the hundred we still have to go.