Why Pop Culture Makes Me Grateful

With Thanksgiving quickly approaching, I have been reflecting on what I am thankful for this year.  Of course, I am most thankful for my faith, family, friends, and good health like most people.  But I have been looking deeper, exploring gifts I don’t always appreciate.

Kids today are growing up in a digital society, and social media has always been part of their lives – that will shape them and the way they learn and interact.  When I grew up in the 1960s and 1970s, our technology was television. I have been thinking about the way that shaped who I am, and I have been meditating on what I have learned from being a pop culture kid.

Here are some of the things I am thankful for that I have learned from sitcoms.

  1. Gracie Allen and Blanche Morton taught me having a best friend you can sit down and talk with over coffee is important. On Burns and Allen, every good or bad thing that occurred in their lives was shared and analyzed over a cup of quality roast coffee. Most of the time, these two women shared laughter, but your closest friends understand when it’s the time for tears as well. Having someone to navigate life with who totally gets you and never judges you (but can pull you back to reality with a loving reprimand when necessary) makes the journey much easier.

 

  1. Ann Marie taught me fashion is fun, and you can develop your own fashion sense. The last seasons of That Girl coincided with my middle grade school years when clothes were beginning to take on new importance. Before that, we basically had Sunday clothes, school clothes, and play clothes and didn’t give much thought to what was in our closet. During these years I was lucky to have a grandmother who bought me beautiful Sunday dresses and a friend who passed her clothes down to me. I remember that one of my Sunday best was a pink and white gingham skirt (with suspenders!) and a matching blazer. It came from Sak’s Fifth Avenue, and made me feel like a model when I wore it.  I didn’t understand the cost of expensive clothing, but I did know that Sak’s Fifth Avenue and Tiffany boxes were very desirable.  Thank you Lisa Spahr.  School clothes were always a dress or skirt with high knee socks until fourth grade.  That was the year that forced us to think more about our daily outfits because, for the first time, we were allowed to wear pants to school.  Not any pants, however; it had to be a pantsuit.  For Christmas that year I received a navy combination with red trim around the collar – a bit of a naval theme. Play clothes also began to change that year because our play changed.  No longer were we only running through the neighborhood; we were going to the movies, the Y, and other places where we might run into certain people – people like boys. My favorite outfit that year was a pair of ecru bell bottoms that had navy and maroon flowers splashed across them, paired with a navy blouse with a very straight collar and three buttons on the cuff.  I was convinced if I ran into Keith Partridge or Bobby Sherman in that outfit, they would notice me for sure. I also remember hot pants coming into fashion, and I had a pair of striped brown, tan, and orange ones that I wore with an orange tank with a zipper.  Be still my heart.  But my most special purchase was a black maxi coat that made me feel just like Ann Marie. Yes, she was a great fashion coach. I still love to watch the show to see what she is wearing.

 

  1. The Collins family helped me develop several interests. Dark Shadows came on not long after we arrived home from school, and we never wanted to miss it. As a neighborhood clan, we often played Dark Shadows, and all the girls wanted to be Daphne or Laura. I have not remained an avid Dark Shadows fan, but it did spark two passions for me.  No, not vampires and ghosts but mysteries and Maine. Mysteries were my favorite books to read during grade school and junior high. My first memory of the Bookmobile coming to our school was seeing several Nancy Drew books on the library carts. I checked them out, and I was hooked. I read through many series after that – The Dana Girls, Ginny Gordon, and Donna Parker – and then I moved on to reading adult authors that our local librarian had to approve for me to take out.  I especially loved Phyllis Whitney. I must have loved books more than clothing, because one year I received a pair of jeans for Christmas that I didn’t really like.  I was allowed to take them to Leitzinger’s Department Store myself to exchange them.  Exchange them I did for 8 Trixie Belden books  That was not my mother’s expectation, but I thought it was a much better deal.  Dark Shadows also gave me a fondness for Maine. I’ve only been there once, but I am looking forward to returning to New England next fall. I loved the large, old homes, the rocky beaches, and the quaint little towns. Something about that area spoke to my soul and drew me in.

 

  1. Steve Douglas provided me with sage advice and security. My dad and I had a great relationship when I was very little and later when I was an adult and a parent myself, but those years in between were a bit unpleasant at times, due to some personal demons he was dealing with. My Three Sons began the year before I was born and continued on the air until I was 12. After that, it was on television in reruns for most of my school life. In his sweater and holding a pipe, Steve Douglas became a surrogate father for me. I felt like I was a member of the Douglas family. Steve always had time to listen and had great wisdom.  He also understood kids would be kids and you had to pick your battles. He was kind and gentle. When I was dealing with a difficult issue, I would often consider what advice he might give me. When I was pregnant with our first child, a boy it turns out, I gave Dan a Steve Douglas cardigan to announce it. I think it was fitting that I ended up with three children – all boys.  Spending time with the Douglas family while growing up helped me understand what it was like to raise three boys. This show has always tugged at my heart.  On our first date, the show just happened to be on when we got back to my apartment.  Then we had three boys. Our youngest was named Seth for several reasons, one of them being that Seth Bryant had founded the town of Bryant Park where the Douglas clan lived. Somehow, I think I always knew I would have my own three sons.

 

  1. Hawkeye Pierce and BJ Hunnicutt taught me laughter is an essential part of life. During my formative tween years, especially in dealing with my father, I began to realize that life wasn’t always sunshine and rainbows. I learned that life held some highs and some lows, but most of life is lived on the bridges between the mountains and the valleys.  M*A*S*H taught me the importance of joy and laughter during these times. Humor became an important life skill which helped in making friends and getting through bumpy times.  We moved a lot between 8th and 11th grades – I was basically in five different high schools in three different cities and having a sense of humor helped me develop friends in each new place. My closest friends and my family understand that being able to laugh at ourselves and find humor in the mundane keeps life fun.  Our family conversations often sound like a M*A*S*H script. Life without humor would be very unpleasant.

 

  1. Rob Petrie, Mary Richards, and Michael Scott taught me that work would be much smoother if you accepted everyone and made the best of situations rather than dwelling on the negatives. From Rob Petrie, I learned that developing close relationships at work helped you be more creative and reduced stress. He probably also influenced me to love comedy and writing. Mary Richards taught me that for every Murray Slaughter you bonded with at work, there would be a Ted Baxter you had to put up with, and hopefully you would develop some affection for them by doing so.  Michael Scott taught me that we all have our quirks, and if we accept others, they will usually accept us.  If we wait for the perfect friend or coworker, we will be waiting a long time. The work has to get done, so stay positive. We all have professional gifts and talents, but our people skills are often what make us a success or a failure at our jobs.

 

  1. Shirley Partridge and Bentley Gregg taught me it was okay to love a show simply because you love it, without trying to reason why. There were a lot of shows on when I was growing up that I watched and thought were okay, but they didn’t capture my heart – shows like Gilligan’s Island, Hazel, or The Flying Nun.  There were also shows I thoroughly disliked for whatever reason – shows like All in The Family, Good Times, and The Beverly Hillbillies. However, some shows like The Partridge Family and Bachelor Father drew me in and became life-long love interests.  Okay, it might have something to do with the fact that I was secretly in love with Keith Partridge and Bentley Gregg.  There was just something about the series that would cause me to get up two hours early or stay up three hours later just to watch reruns when I could.  And I learned that was okay.  I don’t have to analyze why they have become important in my life; I just accept that they are.

Many people criticize sitcoms as fluffy and say that they don’t portray the reality of life.  I disagree.  Don’t get me wrong.  There are plenty of mediocre and just plain awful shows out there.  There always have been.  But there are those shows that touch our lives in some way.  We learn from them.  We laugh with them.  We develop an appreciation for people that we otherwise would never come to know. So, I am grateful for the lessons I have learned watching sitcoms.  I am also thankful for the passion I developed in sharing these shows with other people. After all, that is what this blog is all about.  And I am thankful to you for reading it and keeping these shows alive for another generation. Have a blessed Thanksgiving.

 

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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“The Ultimate Definition of Success is to Repeat It” says Jeffrey Benjamin

After reading about That Girl and what a tough time Marlo Thomas and Ted Bessell had finding new roles that did not stereotype them as Don and Ann, I thought about actors who were able to transcend that hurdle.  I could think of numerous actors and actresses who were able to have two important television roles.  Mary Tyler Moore began as Laura Petrie but Mary Richards was also a strong character.  Ron Howard grew up from Opie Taylor to Richie Cunningham.  Kristy McNichol lived out her adolescence in Family and then moved to Florida as Barbara in Empty Nest.

I started to do some research and found the following actors who had numerous television series.

Alan Alda – Of course, his iconic role was Hawkeye Pierce in M*A*S*H.  From 1972-83 he kept us laughing or crying in Korea.  Since M*A*S*H he has taken on roles in several television series including ER (1999), West Wing (2004-06), 30 Rock (2009-10), The Big C (2011-13), and The Blacklist (2013-14).

Fun Fact:  He got his start on the Phil Silvers Show in 1957.

 

Meredith Baxter – Most people remember her as Elyse Keaton in Family Ties (1982-89), but for me it was Nancy in Family (1976-80).  Other shows include Bridget Loves Bernie (1972-73), The Faculty (1996), Cold Case (2006-07), The Young and the Restless (2014), and Finding Carter (2014-15).

Fun Fact:  Her mother was Whitney Blake, Missy on Hazel.

 

Sally Field – I think most people will always think of Sally Field as the Flying Nun (1967-70).  Her first show was Gidget (1965-66). As we discussed a couple of weeks ago, she had a role in the forgettable Hey Landlord (1967) and she was The Girl with Something Extra (1973-74).  Like Alan Alda, she also had a recurring role in ER (2000-06), and her most recent show is Brothers and Sisters (2006-11).

Fun  Fact:  She won an Emmy for her appearance on ER.

 

John Forsythe – While younger people only know him as the voice of Charlie on Charlie’s Angels (1976-81) or Blake Carrington from The Colbys (1980-86) which led to Dynasty (1981-89), one of my favorite sitcoms of all is Bachelor Father which John starred as Bentley Greg from 1957-62.  Before Bachelor Father, he starred in Lights Out (1951-2), Suspense (1951-52) and Studio One (1949-55). Before Charlie’s Angels, he was in the John Forsythe Show (1965-66) and To Rome with Love (1969-71). His last show was The Powers That Be (1992-93).

Fun Fact: Along with Harry Morgan and Meredith Baxter, he was on episodes of The Love Boat.

 

Harry Morgan – Harry Morgan is the king of shows, with 12 series to his credit.  He is probably best remembered for three of them–Pete and Gladys (1960-62), Dragnet (1967), and M*A*S*H (1974-83). His first sitcom was December Bride (1954-59) which spun off Pete and Gladys.  In the 60s before Dragnet he was in Kentucky Jones (1964-65) and Dr. Kildare (1965).  The seventies saw him in Hec Ramsey (1972-74) and Gunsmoke (1970-75).  After M*A*S*H, he literally was in After M*A*S*H (1983-85), Blacke’s Magic (1986), You Can’t Take It With You (1987-88), and Third Rock From the Sun (1996-97).

Fun Fact:  He was in an episode of the Partridge Family in the first season.

 

Bob Newhart – Bob Newhart gets the award for having the most shows with his name it in.  Fans fondly remember The Bob Newhart Show set in Chicago when he played Dr. Hartley (1972-78) or Newhart where he was the inn owner Dick Loudon (1982-90).  His first show was The Bob Newhart Show (1961).  After Newhart, he tried out Bob (1992-93) and George and Leo (1997-98).  Like Alan Alda and Sally Field, he also had a recurring role on ER (2003) and most recently has had a recurring role on The Big Bang Theory (2013-15).

Fun Fact:  The 1982-90 show had the best finale ever when the show ended with Bob in bed with his wife from the 1972-78 series thinking Newhart had been a dream.

 

Ed O’Neill – If any actor should have been stereotyped after a role, Ed O’Neill seemed doomed after Al Bundy in Married. . . With Children (1987-97), yet he now has an even bigger hit in Modern Family as Jay Pritchett (2009-16).  In between he was on the Big Apple (2001), Dragnet (2003-4), a remake of Harry Morgan’s show, and John From Cincinnati (2007).  Like Alan Alda, he took on a role on The West Wing (2004-05).

Fun Fact:  He signed as an undrafted free agent with the Pittsburgh Steelers in 1969 but was cut in training camp.

 

Dick Van Dyke – Finally, we have Dick Van Dyke.  Before I researched this blog, I thought he and Bob Newhart might have the most sitcoms to their credit.  He comes in with only four starring shows overall.  Like Bob, he never wanted to stray far from his name:  We had the iconic Dick Van Dyke Show as Rob Petrie (1961-66), The New Dick Van Dyke Show (1971-74), The Dick Van Dyke Show (1988), and then Diagnosis: Murder (1993-2001). Like so many of these actors who have something in common with Alan Alda, Dick Van Dyke’s first appearance in a sitcom was also The Phil Silvers Show (1957-8).

Fun Fact:  He can trace his family line back to the Mayflower.

 

Why do some stars get locked into a role that they are never able to separate themselves from?  Think Henry Winkler as the Fonz, Lucille Ball as Lucy, or Don Knotts as Barney.  I think part of it is that we get so attached to these characters we almost want to believe they are real and the actor moving on destroys that image.

The above actors all had different situations that allowed them to move on more easily.  Alan Alda never had that hit show again.  After M*A*S*H, he took on dramatic recurring roles.  Meredith Baxter was in a  mixed genre of shows. Of her two hit shows, one was a drama, Family, and one a sitcom, Family Ties.  Dick Van Dyke had the same formula:  The first Dick Van Dyke Show, a sitcom, and Diagnosis: Murder, an action/mystery series.  John Forsythe and Harry Morgan came into show business during the golden days of television.  They were able to have extremely successful shows and characters and then start over.  Forsythe had 10 series to his credit, Morgan had 12. Sally Field, although starting out in television, was certainly better known as a movie actress.  Audiences were seeing her on the big screen as other characters so they perhaps don’t pigeon hole her into one role so much.  Ed O’Neill actually had success on two sitcoms about families.  Maybe Jay Pritchett is so successful because he shows what Al Bundy may have been like growing up in a more enlightened era where the fathers help parent and run the house.  And Bob Newhart, I think, was successful because he actually plays the same character in most of his shows, and we love that character so we keep looking for him, no matter what the show is actually titled.