Say Jell-o to Don Wilson

As we continue with our “They Call Me Wilson” series, today we learn about the career of Don Wilson.  With 33 movie credits, he only starred in seven television shows, but if you were a fan of Jack Benny or Batman, you will recognize him immediately.

Photo: oldtimeradio.com

Wilson was born in 1900 in Nebraska. Not much is known about his early life, but in one interview in 1980, he mentioned he went to high school in Boulder, CO. He played football at the University of Colorado and was an excellent golfer.

Denver was also the place he began his radio career, singing on KFEL in 1923. Wilson talked about a group he was part of, the Columbia Trio, in Denver beginning in 1925; they played on the radio and appeared in clubs when they needed a late substitute. One of their clients for commercials was for Piggly Wiggly and the store brought the three musicians to California when the company decided to open up new stores in California and renamed them the Piggly Wiggly Trio.

By the end of the decade, he was working full time at station KFI and later at KHJ both in Los Angeles. In an interview later in his life, he said he bought a Packard from Earle C. Anthony, and the Cadillac sponsor Don Lee, who owned KFI did not take it kindly and fired Wilson.

Apparently, he couldn’t decide which direction he wanted his career to go. During the early thirties, he worked as a sportscaster and covered the opening of the 1932 Summer Olympics for NBC. He also announced five Rose Bowls. He was mentored by Ted Hussey and said he was the greatest sports announcer bar none as well as a generous and knowledgeable man.

He took on Broadway roles in 1932 and 1934. He also began radio announcing for programs in the mid-thirties, first working with Benny in 1934.

Being perhaps indecisive, he also had a hard time with his love life. His first marriage was to Lucy Saufley in 1927; in 1940, he divorced Saufley and he married Peggy Kent whose father was president of 20th Century Fox. In 1942, the same month his divorce became final , he married a Polish countess, Marusia Radunska and this relationship lasted seven years. When he married his fourth wife, Lois Corbett in 1950, he finally found a lifetime partner.

He would be a member of the Jack Benny television family for 31 years, but when he was hired, although it was as a permanent cast member, he was at least the fourth announcer in two years to work on the show. Wilson said he thinks he was chosen partly because he laughed at all the right lines. He said luckily, in person, Benny was much more generous with his salary than was portrayed on the show.

When Benny made the foray into television in 1950, Wilson went along and would continue to costar on the show until it ended in 1965.

The cast of The Jack Benny Show-Photo: tvtropes.com

Although Don was listed as announcer for the Benny show, like Harry Von Zell on Burns and Allen, he was really part of the cast. His good-natured, friendly manner and booming Midwestern voice made him a pleasant person who often took the brunt of jokes by Benny, often due to his 6 foot, 300-pound physique. Wilson’s wife Lois appeared as his wife on the show for fifteen years, so it was a family affair. She also acted on other radio shows.

Benny producer Irving Fein, said Don “was a great foil for Jack. He was the hearty announcer who tried to get the commercial on the air and Jack would try to thwart him. Sometimes Don would have the Sportsmen Quartet sneak in the commercial. Don would tell Jack the Sportsmen were going to do a song. Then they would sing a chorus of a song and the final chorus would be the commercial.” The first commercial Wilson pitched on the show was for General Tires. Jell-O, part of General Foods, sponsored the show for ten years, and Lucky Strike then took over for another fifteen years.

Photo: jackbennypodcast.com

His coworkers said he rarely misspoke his lines, but when he did, they took advantage of it. In an interview on speakingofradio.com, Don told a story that during one 1950 broadcast, he relayed a bunch of information and Jack asked him when he learned all that and Don said he read it in columnist Drew Pearson’s article, but he mistakenly said Dreer Pooson. Later during the murder-mystery story, Benny approached Frank Nelson and asked, “Pardon me, are you the doorman?” Instead of the written line, Nelson asked, “Well who do you think I am, Dreer Pooson?” That line got a lot of applause and laughter.

He said Benny was a quiet listener and preferred to stay in the background reacting to other actors. However, Wilson said that “when he was eventually on, he could top everybody. . . He wasn’t a one-liner comedian . . . he was a real thoroughbred professional, start to finish.  He always demanded the very, very best that he could possibly get and if ever there was an irreplaceable man, Jack Benny would be that man.”

Wilson with Jack Benny and Dennis Day–Photo: radiospirits.info

Don discussed how the show worked. He said “Jack’s philosophy was that the bigger he could make the supporting people, the bigger the Jack Benny Show became and the bigger Jack Benny therefore became.”  Wilson said he was thoughtful and generous and would not allow anything off-color in the show, so it was fit for family watching. He said in one episode, Benny sat off to one side and the cast spoke to him, but he didn’t actually utter a line until the last few minutes of the show. He said Jack often came up with the idea for a show but then turned it over to the writers and let them do their part.

He said some of his most enjoyable shows were when he traveled with Jack performing for military audiences. Jack would try to move the brass, so the enlisted men could have front-row seats.

Wilson did announcing work for a variety of programs in the heyday of radio. He worked with Bing Crosby, Fanny Brice, and Alan Young. He also worked for Chesterfield when they sponsored a show with Glenn Miller.  When Miller went into the war, Harry James took over that spot, and Don continued working with him.

Wilson said in the early years of television, they did two live presentations, one for the east coast and one for the west coast.  In between they would tweak lines and rehearse those changes. Eventually, the show was taped, so the cast did not have to do two live performances.

Radio Guide, in addition to other award groups, awarded Don the Announcer of the Year Award for fifteen years straight.

While on Benny’s show, Don also made several appearances on other television shows in the fifties and sixties. He showed up on Screen Directors Playhouse in 1955 and on The Red Skelton Show in 1959. He was a preacher on Death Valley Days in 1959.

Photo: radiospirits.com

In the sixties, he could be seen in the Mel-O-Toons in 1960 which presented short, five-minute stories often based on fairy tales. He was also on Harrigan and Son in 1961. His last role was after Jack Benny went off the air. He was Walter Klondike, a newscaster spoof on Walter Kronkite, on Batman in 1966.

Watch Batman Season 2 Episode 18 - Dizzoner the Penguin Online Now
Photo: yidio.com

Don passed away due to a stroke in 1982.

I really enjoyed listening to several interviews with Don. He was so appreciative of his career and the people he was able to work with during his entertainment opportunities. Listening to someone who was able to get in on the beginning of radio and then do the same thing with television was very interesting and informative. I hope he realizes how much we all appreciated him.

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

Merry Christmas Eve.  In honor of It’s a Wonderful Life which will be playing quite often today, this week’s blog is about Donna Reed, who played Mary in the Jimmy Stewart holiday favorite.

In 1958, most of the television shows were game shows, variety shows, or westerns. Almost all the sitcoms on the air were based on a star; we had The Danny Thomas Show, The Ann Sothern Show, The Bob Cummings Show, and The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet. It was also the year The Donna Reed Show began. The show would last eight seasons, resulting in 275 episodes.

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Photo: dallas.wikia.com

The series was created by William Roberts. Donna and her husband Tony Owen developed and produced the show, under the name “Todon.” We had shows about single adults in The Bob Cummings Show and The Ann Sothern Show. We had families, including The Danny Thomas Show, Father Knows Best, and The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet. Roberts wanted to concentrate on the demanding roles a stay-at-home mom had to juggle. Reed agreed with him. As she noted, “We started breaking rules right and left. We had a female lead, for one thing, a strong, healthy woman. We had a story line told from a woman’s point of view that wasn’t soap opera.”

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Photo: imdb.com

The Donna Reed Show is often evoked by critics who say television scripts are not realistic but center around unreal family expectations, but that is not the goal Reed and her husband had. Donna described the show as “realistic pictures of small-town life—with an often-humorous twist. Our plots revolve around the most important thing in America—a loving family.” The shows featured typical family problems families faced in the late 1950s: having to fire a clumsy housekeeper, quality time with your spouse, dealing with disciplinary issues, or Donna being swamped with requests to volunteer for charity drives or community theater shows. However, there were times the show delved into more controversial issues such as women’s rights or freedom of the press.

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Photo: metv.com

The Stone family includes Donna, Alex, Mary and Jeff. Donna (Donna Reed) is the iconic mother. She grew up on a farm (which Reed did). She became a nurse and occasionally helps Alex (Carl Betz), a pediatrician who has his office at the house. Mary (Shelly Fabares) is in her first year of high school. She studies ballet and plays the piano. During the series, she has several boyfriends. Mary left for college before the show ended, but Fabares made guest appearances. Jeff (Paul Petersen) is in grade school. He loves sports, likes to eat, and often teases his sister. In 1963 when Fabares leaves, Paul Petersen’s real sister, Patty was cast as a runaway orphan taken in by the Stone family. The Stones live in Hilldale, an All-American town.

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Photo: pinterest.com

Several other characters appear often. Dave and Midge Kelsey (Bob Crane and Ann McCrea) are good friends of Donna and Alex’s.  Dave is also a doctor. Another of Alex’s colleagues who is a good friend is Dr. Boland (Jack Kelk), whom the kids call “Uncle Bo.” Smitty Smith (Darryl Richard) is Jeff’s best friend and Scotty (Jimmy Hawkins) is Mary’s boyfriend.

Photos: pinterest.com and metv.com

With Donna’s movie relationships, many guest stars appeared on the show during its run. Baseball players Don Drysdale, Leo Durocher, and Willie Mays played themselves. Musicians Harry James, Tony Martin, and Lesley Gore appeared. Buster Keaton was featured in two different shows. Esther Williams played a fashion designer. Other stars who showed up included Jack Albertson, John Astin, Dabney Coleman, Ellen Corby, Richard Deacon, Jamie Farr, Gale Gordon, Arte Johnson, Ted Knight, Harvey Korman, Cloris Leachman, Marion Ross, William Schallert, Hal Smith, Marlo Thomas, and William Windom.

In the opening credits, Reed comes down the stairs and answers the telephone which she gives to Alex. She then hands the kids their lunches and books and sends them off to school. When Alex leaves on a call, she closes the door and smiles. In 1964 when The Munsters debuted, their opening credits were a parody of Donna’s show as Lily performs the same actions.

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Photo: metv.com

The Donna Reed Show faced the Milton Berle show, Texaco Star Theater Wednesday nights and ratings were not great. It was renewed and moved to Thursdays the next year. I was surprised to learn that during the eight years the show was on the air it was only in the top 20 in season six and only in the top 30 in season four.

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Photo: cinemacats.com (Look closely and you’ll notice this was                                                                 the living room for I Dream of Jeannie as well).

Although the show never received very high ratings, Donna Reed was nominated for an Emmy every year from 1959 to 1962. (Jane Wyatt won in 1959 and 1960, Barbara Stanwyck won in 1961, and Shirley Booth won in 1962.) Donna Reed won the Golden Globe in 1963.

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Photo: metv.com

In 1962 Donna felt that the writers had run out of creative ideas and were recycling plots. Both Mary and Jeff were allowed to perform in this season. Fabares debuted a single, “Johnny Angel” in February which went to number one on the charts, selling more than a million copies. In October, Petersen sang “My Dad” which made it to number six. Donna decided that would be the last season, but when ABC made her a very lucrative offer for three more seasons, she and her husband agreed.

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Photo: nytimes.com

When this contract ended in 1966, Donna was ready to retire. Reed was considering a television movie reunion but when Betz passed away in 1978, she decided it was no longer an option.

Campbell Soup was the first sponsor, and later sponsors included Johnson & Johnson and The Singer Company. Whenever a scene takes place in a supermarket, Campbell’s Soup, V-8 Juice, Franco-American Spaghetti and Johnson & Johnson Baby Powder are likely to be in the shot.

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Photo: metv.com

Reruns of the show were seen on Nick at Nite from 1985-1994 and on TV Land from 2002 until 2004. MeTV began airing the show in September of 2011.

The cast was a close-knit one and continued their relationships after the show ended. Paul Petersen credited Donna as being the nurturing adult he needed in his life to get him through the years of being a child star. She helped him understand how the industry worked and helped him during some tough times during his life. Shelly Fabares also said Donna and Carl were amazing. Realizing how tough the industry can be for young kids, they protected Paul and herself and loved them as second parents. Donna never forgot to send Shelly a birthday gift.  In 1986, before she passed away from pancreatic cancer, her final words were to make sure Shelly’s birthday gift was wrapped and delivered.

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Photo: lapostexaminer.com

Despite the bad raps the show often received from the women’s lib organizations, Donna Reed did help advance the way women were perceived in the media. She endowed her character with strong emotions, definite opinions on issues, and independence. In her personal life, Reed expressed her views on the medical industry and the political arenas.

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Photo: geocaching.com

Paul Petersen summed up the value of the show in an interview he did in 2008. In his words, The Donna Reed Show, “depicts a better time and place. It has a sort of level of intelligence and professionalism that is sadly lacking in current entertainment products. The messages it sent out were positive and uplifting. The folks you saw were likable, the family was fun, the situations were familiar to people. It provided 22-and-a-half-minutes of moral instructions and advice on how to deal with the little dilemmas of life. Jeff and Mary and their friends had all the same problems that real kids in high school did. That’s what the show was really about, the importance of family. That’s where life’s lessons are transmitted, generation to generation. There’s a certain way in which these are transmitted, with love and affection.”

I couldn’t say it better.