We are winding up our blogs for May, and I have a confession to make. For some reason, I failed to notice that there were five Mondays in May, so when I published my blog last week, I realized that I was short one blog. While scrambling to find a topic that still fit in with the other shows we learned about this month, it occurred to me that this week’s actress appeared on The Ann Sothern Show and I Love Lucy. She was also part of the cast of December Bride and Pete and Gladys. So, today we will learn about the woman behind Hilda Crocker: Verna Felton.
Verna Felton was born in Salinas, California in 1890. Verna entered show business at the young age of nine. Her father died just before her ninth birthday. He was a doctor, but he kept no records of payments due, and there was little cash in his account. Verna had performed at a local benefit for flood victims, where she caught the attention of a road show manager. He offered Verna a job, and after the death of her father, her mother accepted the job on her behalf. Verna grew up involved in theater community.
She was called “Little Verna Felton, the Child Wonder. By age 13 she was performing with the Allen Stock Company that toured the western United States and British Columbia in Canada. By age 20, she had a play written specifically for her by Herbert Bashford called “The Defiance of Doris.”
She continued building her stage resume, acting in a variety of plays.
In 1923 Verna married Lee Millar who conducted the band in the acting troop. He was also a movie actor in the thirties and forties. Verna and Lee were married until his death in 1941. Their son Lee Carson Millar was born in 1924 and would also go on to become an actor who appeared on many of the most popular shows in the fifties and sixties.
From about 1930-1950, Verna could be heard on the radio. Her voice could be detected on a variety of shows including Red Skelton, Hattie Hirsch on Point Sublime, Dennis Day’s mother on his show, and a regular on both The Abbott and Costello Show and The Great Gildersleeve.
After transitioning from stage to radio, it was no surprise that Verna’s career in the forties and early fifties was spent on the big screen.
Television was a natural progression, and, in 1951, Verna had her first tv roles: as a nurse on Amos and Andy and as Mrs. Day on the Enzio Pinza Show. She continued her radio role as Dennis Day’s mother on his television show in 1952.
During the early fifties, you could catch her on many of the most popular shows: The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, I Love Lucy, Burns and Allen, The Bob Hope Show, The Halls of Ivy, I Married Joan, and Where’s Raymond?
Verna would become best known as Hilda Crocker. She played that character on December Bride from 1954-1959 and again on Pete and Gladys during the 1960-61 season, a total of 182 episodes. She was nominated for an Emmy for Best Supporting Actress in 1958 and 1959. In both years, she lost to Ann B. Davis for Love That Bob.
Between the two series, she made appearances on The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis, The Real McCoys, The Ann Sothern Show, Miami Undercover, and The Jack Benny Show. She also accepted roles on a handful of shows after her life as Hilda, including My Three Sons, Wagon Train, and Dennis the Menace.
Felton had voiced several animation characters for Disney including the fairy godmother in Cinderella, the Queen of Hearts in Alice in Wonderland, Aunt Sarah in Lady and the Tramp, and Winifred the Elephant in The Jungle Book.
After voicing these fun characters, it was only natural for her to find a television animation character to play, and she found the perfect one in Pearl Slaghoople, Wilma’s mother on The Flintstones. Pearl looked a lot like Wilma but not as young or slim. She originally had red hair like her daughter which later became gray. She did not care for Fred and didn’t think he was good enough for Wilma and often nagged him to do better.
In 1966 Verna passed away from a stroke. Walt Disney would die a few hours later. About 25% of the movies Verna made were for Walt. Jungle Book, the last movie she made for him would debut a year after the two stars died.
Although Verna’s television career only spanned fourteen years, she appeared in many of the era’s best shows. She did Broadway, radio, cinema, and animation as well and had a very full and successful career. It was fun getting to know Verna Felton a bit better.
In the 1950s, one of the most popular sitcoms was December Bride starring Spring Byington. For five seasons, Henry Morgan, insurance salesman, played her next-door neighbor Pete Porter.
The show was cancelled in 1959, and in 1960 Pete showed up on the air again in a spin-off show titled “Pete and Gladys. He had often referred to his wife on December Bride, but we never got to meet her in person. Cara Williams took on the role of scatterbrained, but beautiful, Gladys. Like December Bride, this show was created by Parke Levy. Harry Morgan said Parke Levy was a very kind and knowledgeable man; he was one of the pioneers of sitcoms.
Verna Felton as Hilda Crocker also moved to the new show. Frances Rafferty who had played Ruth on December Bride also shows up on Pete and Gladys, but she is Nancy on the new show. For some reason, producers think we won’t notice missing characters but on December Bride, Pete had a baby daughter named Linda. However, she does not exist in the spinoff. We also get to know Pete’s uncle played by Gale Gordon and Gladys’s best friend Alice (Barbara Stuart). Morgan said not only was Gordon a great actor, but he was a very funny man.
Pete who worked for Springer, Slocum, and Klever which sounded more like a shoddy law firm than an insurance company. He and Gladys Hooper had eloped nine years earlier. Pete told Gladys he had single-handedly capture a Japanese patrol, although it later came to light that he spent his military career as a clerk in the PX. Gladys was a housewife and kept busy as entertainment chair of the Junior Matron’s League of the Children’s Hospital and a member of the Westwood Bowling League.
While December Bride was in the top ten for four of its five years, Pete and Gladys never reached those numbers. Williams was nominated for an Emmy for Leading Actress in a Comedy although she lost to Shirley Booth from Hazel. The show only lasted two years. Whether a blessing or a curse, the show took over I Love Lucy’s spot on Monday nights and viewers probably could not help comparing the two shows. Director James V. Kern moved from Lucy to this show along with writers Bob Schiller and Bob Weiskopf.
However, for a two-year show, the number of guest stars was pretty impressive. Watching the show you can catch Jack Albertson, Morey Amsterdam, Bea Benaderet, Whitney Blake, Frank Cady, Richard Deacon, Donna Douglas, Sterling Holloway, Ron Howard, Ted Night, Nancy Kulp, Charles Lane, Howard McNear, Cesar Romero, and Reta Shaw. Morgan said that the guest stars got an exorbitant amount of money compared to the regular cast.
Morgan said Cara Williams was very talented, but she was not easy to work with. Often, they had different ideas about how a scene should go. She had a strong personality and was sometimes described as self-centered. Morgan said he admired her even though filming wasn’t always done smoothly. He recalled one time that she was demanding something and director Jack Arnold was tired of arguing, so he laid on the floor on his back, yelled, “Roll ‘em”, and when the scene sounded done, yelled “Cut.” Then he got up and left which was his way of answering her.
Not surprisingly, Morgan said he enjoyed his time on December Bride more than on Pete and Gladys, and he thought the former was the better show. However, if you take some time to watch December Bride, you might want to check out a few episodes of Pete and Gladys just to meet the woman Pete was always complaining about. Unfortunately, both were listed on Amazon, but neither one was currently available. I did see a December Bride DVD on etsy for a whopping $170. I do remember Pete and Gladys in syndication when I was younger, but I have never seen December Bride on a network schedule. YouTube does have a number of episodes for both series, but be warned, some of the December Bride episodes have been colorized.
Today we get to spend some time learning about one of the earliest sitcoms, December Bride, which aired on CBS from 1954-59. It began life as a radio show in 1952.
The show was created by Parke Levy who wrote the episodes as well and claimed to base Lily on his own mother-in-law. He owned 50% of the program; Desilu, producer, owned 25%; and CBS owned 25%. Harry Morgan said he liked Desi Arnaz very much. They cast rarely saw Lucy and saw Desi frequently but not in a negative way; he just might show up to see how things were going. (As an aside, I remember an interview with Bob Schiller, who wrote for this show along with many others, loved the name of “Parke Levy” and said it sounded like a Jewish housing development in New York.) Levy also wrote the film scripts for My Friend Irma and My Friend Irma Goes West.
One fun fact is that both Fred de Cordova and William Asher were directors for this sitcom. Both would go on to long careers; de Cordova would produce The Tonight Show and Burns and Allen, direct My Three Sons, and both produce and direct for The Jack Benny Show. Asher would go on to direct I Love Lucy and Alice and both produce and direct most of the Bewitched episodes.
Spring Byington starred as Lily Ruskin, a lively widow who was looking for the right man.
She lives with her daughter Ruth Henshaw (Frances Rafferty) and son-in-law Matt (Dean Miller) who help her in the search, as does her best friend, Hilda Crocker (Verna Felton).
Lily stays busy writing an advice column for the LA Gazette, “Tips for Housewives.”
Pete Porter (Harry Morgan) is her next-door neighbor who also shows up often. (Next week we will learn about his spin-off from this show, Pete ‘n Gladys.) Pete enjoyed watching Matt and Lily’s interactions which he viewed as positive, unlike his relationship with his mother-in-law which he viewed negatively.
A lot of guest stars showed up including Jack Albertson, Morey Amsterdam, Desi Arnaz, Edgar Bergen, Madge Blake, Barbara Eden, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Nancy Kulp, Fred MacMurray, Howard McNear, Isabel Randolph, and Mickey Rooney
The scripts seemed about what you would expect for this era. In one of the funniest shows, Lily fails to deliver plans for Matt and as a result, Desi Arnaz’s family room collapses. In another one, Lily arranges for Pete to take riding lessons because his fear of horses is standing in the way of him earning a huge commission selling insurance to a wealthy ranch owner.
The gold standard for this decade seems to be Ozzie and Harriet Nelson’s show and the writing doesn’t measure up to that but seems like a fun show to watch.
Maxwell House Coffee was their sponsor for the entire run of the show.
The show was on Monday nights after I Love Lucy and had top-ten ratings for the first four years. For season five, the network moved it to Thursdays, where it was up against Zorro and The Ed Wynn Show. Ratings declined significantly, and it was cancelled. Fans have noted that the last season’s scripts were not as well written and the show had probably run its course.
Harry Morgan discussed the show for the Academy of Television interviews. He said it was a nice show to work on; he described it as “fluffy and light” and “typical for the time.” He said he enjoyed doing the show, all the cast was wonderful, especially Spring who was an amazing actress, and he became good friends with Dean Miller and Frances Rafferty. He said that it was a well-done show and he had a lot of fun during those five years.
I watched the episode about Desi’s family room caving in. Morgan’s description was pretty accurate. The show might not present deep philosophical moments, but it was well written. One of the bright spots was Desi’s butler played by Richard Deacon. I can certainly think of worse ways to spend a few hours than watching several of these classic television episodes.
As we continue to celebrate National State Days, this week we are visiting Kansas. Our Sunflower star is Vivian Vance. Vivian was born in Cherryvale, Kansas in 1909. Her family moved to Independence when she was six. She knew she wanted to be an actress, but her mother’s strict religious beliefs prohibited her. She began sneaking out of her room at night to perform and eventually moved to Albuquerque, New Mexico where she changed her last name from Jones to Vance.Vivian married Joseph Shearer Danneck Jr. in 1928 at age 19 but they divorced in 1931.
In 1930 she was hired for her first job at the Albuquerque Little Theatre. After appearing in many other plays for the group, the local theater community paid her way to New York so she could study with Eva Le Gallienne.
In 1932, Vance began working on Broadway and was often a chorus member. In 1937 she replaced Kay Thompson in “Hooray for What!” and then began receiving supporting roles. In 1941, she joined Danny Kaye and Eve Arden in Cole Porter’s musical “Let’s Face It” for 500 performances. She would appear in 25 plays with her last being “Harvey” in 1977.
In 1933 Vance tried marriage again, wedding George Koch, but that relationship also ended in divorce in 1940. Her third marriage to Philip Ober in 1941 would also last only 8 years.
Until 1950 she was offered some small roles in big screen in several films. In 1949, she appeared in her first television series, Philco TV Playhouse.
In 1951, Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz decided to launch their sitcom I Love Lucy. Ball was hoping to cast Barbara Pepper or Bea Benarderet in the role of Ethel Mertz. Bea had already taken the role of Blanche Morton on The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show. CBS declined to hire Pepper because they said she had an addiction to alcohol. After many roles as “The Dame” in the movies, Pepper later played Doris Ziffel on Green Acres. It’s interesting that CBS allowed William Frawley to be hired for the show because he had a well-known alcohol problem at that time, but Desi gave him strict rules.
Director Marc Daniels had seen Vance perform in the “Voice of the Turtle” and suggested her for the role. She would play Ethel for 179 episodes. She was nominated for her work in 1954, 1956, and 1957, winning in 1954.
Apparently, she was a very good actress because although she and William Frawley who played her husband Fred had great comedic timing, they could not stand each other. Vivian wasn’t happy that she had to wear frumpy clothing and that Frawley was supposed to be her husband because he was 22 years older than her. He overheard a derogatory comment she made about their age difference, and they never developed any type of cordial friendship after that. However, their coworkers claimed they were professionals and treated each other with respect on the set.
When the sitcom ended, Vance continued to play Ethel on The Lucille Ball-Desi Arnaz Show. She and Frawley were offered a spin-off series, but Vance passed because she didn’t want to continue working with Frawley. Vance was interested in another show however, and Desilu, Ball and Arnaz’s production company, put together a show called Guestward Ho! for her, but the network rejected the pilot. Desilu made some changes to the show and hired Joanne Dru for the lead. ABC picked it up but cancelled it after one season.
In 1961, Vance married John Dodds, an agent, editor and publisher. They moved to Stamford, Connecticut, and Vance always felt pulled between her marriage and career. In 1974 the couple moved to California. Vivian had no children from her four marriages but was godmother to Lovin’ Spoonful band member John Sebastian.
When Ball put together a new show, The Lucy Show in 1962, she invited Vance to costar on the show. The concept featured Ball as Lucy Carmichael, a widow, raising two children in Danfield New York. Vance played her best friend Vivian Bagley, a divorced mother of one son. After a few years, Vance wanted a bit more control and a bit of controversy developed between Lucy and Vivian. Vivian left the show, but they resolved their differences and she guest starred on the show and joined Lucy on reunion shows and on her third sitcom, Here’s Lucy which ran from 1968-1974.
Vance had very few television roles after leaving Ball’s sitcom, although she did make appearances on Off to See the Wizard, Love American Style, Rhoda, and Sam.
She was best known during those years as the Maxine, the Maxwell Coffee lady starring in numerous commercials for the coffee company. She was paid $250,000 for her three-year contract.
The last time Vivian and Lucy appeared together was Ball’s special Lucy Calls the President in 1977. Not long afterward, Vance suffered a stroke which left her partly paralyzed. She died in 1979 from bone cancer.
Both Ball and Arnaz commented on her death. Desi shared that “it’s bad enough to lose one of the great artists we had the honor and the pleasure to work with, but it’s even harder to reconcile the loss of one of your best friends.”
Ball commented on Vivian’s performance as Ethel: “I find that now I usually spend my time looking at Viv. Viv was sensational. And back then, there were things I had to do—I was in the projection room for some reason—and I just couldn’t concentrate on it. But now I can. And I enjoy every move that Viv made. She was something.” Both Vance and Frawley were inducted into the Television Academy Hall of Fame in March of 2012.
Some actors have the ability to adapt to a variety of television roles and we’re grateful for them. Other stars create one that is so memorable it becomes completely entwined with part of our life. Thank you Vivian Vance for being Lucy’s best friend. While we love Lucy’s antics, you are the one the majority of us identified with and for seventy years you have been influencing comedy and making new fans.
Mister Peepers was one of the first popular sitcoms. It aired from July of 1952 until June of 1955. The show starred Wally Cox as Robinson J. Peepers. Peepers was a junior high school science teacher. A great cast surrounded him including history teacher Harvey Weskit (Tony Randall), Harvey’s wife Marge (Georgann Johnson), county nurse Nancy Remington (Patricia Benoit), English teacher Mrs. Gurney (Marion Lorne), and athletic coach Frank Whip (Jack Warden). (In the pilot, the coach was played by Walter Matthau.) Peepers developed a relationship with nurse Nancy, and her parents (Ernest Truex and Sylvia Field) also became part of the cast.
The show featured some slapstick as well but it was not the primary form of humor. In one episode, the uncoordinated Mr. Peepers was playing basketball in the gym alone and somehow got stuck in the basket. In order to fulfill the evening obligations that he promised, he brings Mrs. Gurney’s flower club into the gym so he can lecture to them about potting soil while playing chess with a rival school’s champion as promised to Mr. Gurney.
Mr. Peepers is kind. In one episode, after injuring his finger, absent-minded Mrs. Gurney tries to help by bandaging it. In addition to using half a roll of tape, Robinson informs Nancy that she bandaged the wrong finger.
Mister Peepers is a likable guy. He has some eccentric characteristics which make us like him even more. For example, he has an elaborate ritual to get his locker to open; on bring your pet to school day, he has to hide a cow; and sometimes he does things we all want to. On one episode, he comes upon a hopscotch board on the sidewalk and just like we would want to do, he plays it not realizing his girlfriend is watching him. However, Robinson has a bit of rebellion and sarcasm that keeps him from being too much of a goody-two-shoes.
Tony Randall’s character Harvey was supposed to be a small role, but the producers liked him so much he became a regular. He is best friends with Robinson but they couldn’t be more different. Harvey is a lady’s man. However, Mr. Peepers only has eyes for Nancy even though it takes her a while to realize he is interested in her. The couple ties the not in 1954, producing a huge ratings boost.
In real life, Cox was experiencing the same situation when he married Marilyn Gennaro about the same time. When Benoit became pregnant in real life, she was also pregnant on the show.
When the Peepers found out they were having a baby, American Character Dolls Co wanted to make a “Peepers Baby Doll” in 1955. Polling indicated that viewers were hoping for a girl, so it went into production. Mister Peepers was cancelled before the doll debuted, but the company sold it anyway, although they did change the name.
The show was aired live with an audience of 2500 at the New Century Theatre in New York. Preserved on 16mm kinescopes, there are currently 102 of the original 127 episodes in existence. The kinescopes are being preserved by the UCLA Film and Television Archive and a DVD set has been produced.
The Ford Motor Company needed a summer replacement on Thursday nights so Mister Peepers debuted then. NBC decided it was too much pressure to do a live show, so it was cancelled. Fans were irate. After 2000 people called to complain and 15000 letters were received, the network had second thoughts, but their schedule was full.
However, that fall, an opening occurred when Doc Corkle was cancelled after only three episodes. How bad does a show have to be to get axed after three episodes in 1952? I don’t know, but the summary of the show is that “Doc is a dentist plagued with money problems, teenage daughter problems, and a screwball stepsister Melinda.”
It says a lot about the quality of Mister Peepers that it was rated so highly and watched by so many fans because it was up against Private Secretary with Ann Sothern and The Jack Benny Show on Sunday nights. Tough competition.
Critics liked the show and it was nominated for best situation comedy for the Emmys in 1953, 1954, and 1955. Wally Cox, Tony Randall, and Marion Lorne were all nominated as well. Each of the years the show was nominated it went up against Our Miss Brooks, Burns and Allen, and I Love Lucy which won in 1953 and 1954; Make Room for Daddy won in 1955. NBC made Wally Cox postcards which they handed out to tourists on the lot.
Wally Cox was an interesting guy. He was a brilliant man who studied acting with Stella Adler. His roommate was Marlon Brando whom he had been best friends with since grade school. His mother and grandmother were writers, and his dad was in advertising. Before he was able to earn a living in acting, he taught the lindy hop for $1.50 a lesson and made cuff links and tie clasps. While doing part-time jobs, he began doing standup at clubs like The Blue Angel and Village Vanguard.
Unfortunately, a lot of people will remember him only for his appearances on Hollywood Squares and as the voice of Underdog the cartoon hero. He was also famous for a Jockey Shorts commercial when he quipped, “Outside I might look like Wally Cox but inside I feel like Tyrone Power.” He passed away much too early, dying from a heart attack at 48.
Although Wally Cox was not Mister Peepers, their humor was similar. Cox wasn’t brash but he experienced life with a quiet subtle manner and was a genuinely funny guy. In discussing his time on the show, Cox said, “Mr. Peepers put me on the map and I love him.” I’m sure like many actors who were stereotyped early in their career, it was a bit of a love/hate relationship. I’m sure you will love him too if you are able to watch some of the episodes. Retro TV aired them in the past, but I don’t see the show on its current schedule. I also found the DVDs on amazon.com. Happy viewing!
We are in the third blog of our series “The Men of November.” Born Charles Thomas Aldrich Jr. in 1906, Gale Gordon is remembered fondly for being Lucille Ball’s nemesis on several of her television sitcoms.
Both his parents were entertainers, and they traveled to England to perform when he was only one. For eight years, he lived in England. After returning to the United States for a few years, Gordon returned to London to complete his education at the Woodbridge School in Suffolk.
Gale followed in his parents’ footsteps, and his first theatrical job was as an extra in “The Dancers” in 1923. Richard Bennett (father of Constance and Joan Bennett) starred in the stage production. Gordon worked as Bennett’s dresser, and Bennett taught him all about make-up, mentored him as an actor, and helped him to develop his voice.
By 1925, Gordon traveled to Hollywood, tackling roles in stage, film, and radio. Gordon talked about his first radio performance: “They asked me to come to a Hollywood studio in 1926 and try this new thing called ‘radio.’ They didn’t pay me, of course. They just wanted to fill up some time. So, I sang, ‘It Ain’t Gonna Rain No More, No More’ and accompanied myself on the ukulele. You might say I almost killed radio before it was born. I haven’t played an instrument on the air since.”
In seven short years, Gordon became the highest-paid actor in radio in Hollywood. He was the male lead for Mary Pickford in her serial. He was on almost every popular show on the air. It wasn’t unusual for him to appear on three or more programs in a week. Gordon was the first actor to play Flash Gordon in 1935.
His radio work also provided some other benefits. While appearing on an episode of Death Valley Days in New York, he met Virginia Curley. They married in 1937.
In 1941, after playing primarily dramatic roles, Gordon became a regular on Fibber McGee and Molly. Playing Mayor LaTrivia, Gale was on the show for a dozen years. There was a brief interruption in 1942 when he left the show and enlisted in the US Coast Guard for three years. He rose to the rank of Petty Officer First Class, and his service took him around the world to many dangerous places.
One of the roles he is best known for was Principal Osgood Conklin on Our Miss Brooks. Gordon described Conklin in a TV Guide interview: “There was nothing subtle about Osgood. No nuances. Just a lot of very satisfying acid, bluster, and bellowing, with an occasional weak moment of cordiality thrown in for leavening. It was practically impossible to overplay him. Even when he was being cordial, he was like an elephant trying to waltz.”
In 1950, he could be heard as John Granby on Granby’s Green Acres which later became the sitcom Green Acres.
While trying to reign in the chaos at Madison High School as Osgood Conklin, Gale was also the refined banker, Rudolph Atterbury, on My Favorite Husband, Lucille Ball’s radio comedy. Atterbury’s wife was played by Bea Benederet.
As television gained popularity, it was inevitable that some of radio’s favorite shows would make the transition to the small screen. While it was entirely possible to play several different characters on the radio, television production didn’t offer the same flexibility. When My Favorite Husband was retooled for television as I Love Lucy, Ball planned on bringing Gordon and Benederet along with her. However, Gale was committed to Our Miss Brooks, and Bea was playing a major role on Burns and Allen on television.
Asked about those days, Gale described himself as “a quiet, reserved, pipe-smoking homebody.” He said he always had a good balance of professional and personal interests. In addition to acting, he wrote books (Nursery Rhymes for Hollywood Babies and Leaves from the Story Trees), painted, and maintained a ranch. He and Virginia bought a 150-acre property about three hours away from Hollywood. They grew carob trees. Gordon was not a rancher in name only; he raised the trees, built the house, installed the plumbing, completed carpentry and handiwork, put in a swimming pool, and built a two-story building that served as garage and studio.
In 1952, Eve Arden decided to take Our Miss Brooks to television. While Gale continued his role as Conklin on the show, he also guest starred on a couple of I Love Lucy episodes. Our Miss Brooks had a successful run for four years.
When the show ended in 1956, CBS was quick to sign Gordon on for another show. They paired him with Bob Sweeney in The Box Brothers (sometimes called The Brothers). Unfortunately, the series only lasted for 26 weeks.
In 1958, Gordon was a regular on Sally where he played department store owner Bascomb Bleacher. He also appeared with Walter Brennan on The Real McCoys.
In 1959, December Bride which aired from 1954-1959, went off the air, spinning off a new show Pete and Gladys starring Harry Morgan and Cara Williams. Morgan appeared as Pete Porter on December Bride. On the new show, Gale played Pete’s Uncle Paul.
In 1962 he was cast as Mr. Wilson on Dennis the Menace. At the same time, Lucille Ball was creating a new show, The Lucy Show. She wanted Gordon to appear as Mr. Barnsdahl, a banker. When he was not available, Lucille turned to Charles Lane. She said she loved working with Lane, but always wanted to work with Gale again, so when Dennis the Menace was cancelled, she quickly signed Gordon; Lane moved over to Bea Benederet’s new sitcom, Petticoat Junction, as the despicable Homer Bedloe. And thus Theodore J. Mooney was born.
For the next eleven years, through several different series titles, Lucy and Gale worked together. They would both retire in 1974. When describing his time on Lucy’s shows, Gale related in a Good Morning America interview in 1982 that “I always had a wonderful feeling of anticipation going to work every week, which is very, very rare. I don’t care what business you are in. But to really look forward to getting into the nitty gritty and working hard for four days—which is all the time we had to do the show—is really unique. To look forward to it for eleven years, that’s doubly unique.” He went on to praise Lucy for her work ethic: “Her attitude has never changed. Every show she ever did was always the most important show of her life. And I think that is the secret of her success.”
One surprising thing I learned was that Gordon was known for his ability to do cartwheels. He can be seen doing them on several episodes of Here’s Lucy. At the time, he was earning $25,000 an episode. Compare that to today when the stars of The Big Bang Theory received a million dollars an episode.
Gale and Virginia enjoyed twenty years of retirement. Virginia would pass away in 1995 at Red Terrace Health Center in Escondido, California. One month later, Gordon died from lung cancer at the same facility.
In 1999, Gale was inducted into the Radio Hall of Fame. Known for playing a variety of gruff, formal professionals, everyone knew that the bellow and bluster his characters spewed was great acting. In real life, Gale was one of the sweetest, kindest men around. He once said, “I am never nasty—unless I get paid for it.”
It’s hard to describe the influence Gale Gordon has had on generations of actors and the number of hours of entertainment he has provided to generations of television and radio fans. It’s always fun to listen or watch Connie Brooks trying to pull a fast one over on Osgood Conklin or Lucy Carmichael trying Mr. Mooney’s patience with her latest scatter-brained plan. Thank you Gale Gordon!
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.
As we continue looking at some of our well-known character actors, today we consider the career of Milton Frome. Frome was born in Philadelphia in 1909. He began acting in his mid-20s.
His first major movie role was in Ride ‘em Cowgirl in 1939. Frome would go on to appear in 55 movies (including The Nutty Professor, Bye Bye Birdie, and With Six You Get Eggroll), as well as five made-for-TV movies. He also had a thriving television career beginning with Chevrolet Tele-Theatre in 1950.
Appearing in 34 different shows during the fifties, he performed in a variety of genres including dramas, comedies and westerns.
During that decade you would have seen him on I Love Lucy, Lassie, The Adventures of Superman, Playhouse Theater, The Thin Man, and The Gale Storm Show. He also worked with many comic legends on television, including Milton Berle, Red Skelton, and Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis.
His career escalated in the sixties when he would accept roles in 48 programs. He showed up in dramas, including The Twilight Zone, 77 Sunset Strip, and Dr. Kildare. He also found his way into many westerns such as Bat Masterson, Death Valley Days, Gunslinger, Big Valley, Rawhide, and Wagon Train. However, he seemed to excel at comedies and during the 1950s you could have spied him in many sitcoms. He accepted parts in Bachelor Father, Pete and Gladys, The Jim Backus Show, The Dick Van Dyke Show, Mister Ed, The Joey Bishop Show, I Dream of Jeannie, My Favorite Martian, The Donna Reed Show, Gomer Pyle USMC, Bewitched, The Monkees, The Patty Duke Show, Petticoat Junction, and The Andy Griffith Show.
Frome was never offered a permanent role in a series, but he did have a recurring role in The Beverly Hillbillies, appearing eight times as Lawrence Chapman, who managed Jed Clampet’s Mammoth Studios.
His television career slowed down a bit in the 1970s and became nonexistent by 1983, but he did make appearances in shows like Ironside, Columbo, Here’s Lucy, The Streets of San Francisco, Sanford and Son, and Trapper John MD. He also appeared in two Love American Style episodes in 1971 and 1973. In the 1973 episode, “Love and the Anniversary,” he played “The Man” and his son Michael played a bellhop.
At some point, Frome married Marjorie Ann Widman, but I could not verify when they married. I also could not verify if Michael was their son, or his son from another relationship.*
Frome passed away in 1989 from congestive heart failure.
While it is now easy to analyze and detail an actor’s professional career, it was very tough to find any information about Frome’s personal life or his working relationships with other actors. It makes me sad that these hard-working actors who provided so much to our classic television-watching experiences are just not well known. Hopefully blogs like mine keep them in television viewers’ memories, and some day maybe I will have time to write a book about these unsung heroes of our pop culture history. Thanks for all you contributed to the golden age of television Milton Frome!
*In June of 2021, I heard from Jane Wallace Casey who provided some additional information for us: “I am Milton Frome’s niece. His first wife was Barbara Wallace with whom he had his son Michael.”
As we wind up our salute to fathers during Father’s Day month, we finish with Make Room for Daddy. This iconic show doesn’t get the respect that I Love Lucy did, but it is one of the first iconic family sitcoms. This sitcom had to survive cast changes, network moves, and ratings fluctuations.
The show debuted on ABC in 1953. In 1957, it moved to CBS until 1964 when it went off the air. Danny Williams (Danny Thomas), a nightclub singer and comedian, tries to balance his work life with his family life. Danny obviously loves his children but is not an overly affectionate dad and is just as likely to tell his son Rusty, “I love you, you little jerk.”
In March of 1953, Thomas singed a contract for the show and picked Desilu Studios for filming because of their three-camera method. Several of the working titles for the show were “The Children’s Hour” and “Here Comes Daddy.”
The title of
the show was from a Thomas family joke. Whenever Danny was away for work, his
children had the run of the house. They slept in the master bedroom with their
mother, even putting clothes in the dresser there, so when he came home from a
tour or a filming, he told them it was time to spread out and “make room for
Danny has three children (two in seasons 1-4 and three in seasons 5 and after): Terry (Sherry Jackson and later Penney Parker), Linda (Lelani Sorenson, then Angela Cartwright), and Rusty (Rusty Hamer). The first three seasons his wife Margaret was played by Jean Hagen. They had Terry and Rusty. Louise (Louise Beavers) was their maid. When Beavers passed away, Amanda Randolph took over the role. Terry was later played by Penney Parker. Mary Tyler Moore auditioned for the role, but Danny felt Mary’s nose did not match his as well as Parker’s.
The show was filmed live before 300 people, so there was a lot of pressure on the younger kids to know their lines. All three children continued in successful acting careers after the show. (Unfortunately, Hamer had a harder time finding good roles as an adult and committed suicide at 42. Cartwright left acting to focus on a career as a photographer. Jackson continued acting.)
Thomas’s connections, you can imagine the quality of guest stars this show was
able to feature. Some of the bigger names include Lucille Ball, Milton Berle, Sammy
Davis Jr., Jimmy Durante, Shirley Jones, and Dinah Shore. If you looked at a
Who’s Who in Comedy Sitcoms, you would find a huge percentage of them on this
shows from this era, the original sponsor was The American Tobacco Company,
advertising its brands like Lucky Strike, Pall Mall, and Tareyton.
While the theme song went through variations during the run of the show, it was always a version of “Danny Boy.”
The show was
popular and did well in the ratings but had not made the top 30 after three
years. Jean Hagen decided to leave the show.
beginning of the fourth season, the title changed to The Danny Thomas Show. Thomas and producer Sheldon Leonard were
trying to decide how to explain Hagen’s absence. Divorce was not acceptable and
filling the same role with another actress didn’t seem like a good option
either. They decided to have her die between seasons.
of the show now switched to Danny being a widower. The family moved from their
home to an apartment. Danny dated occasionally and almost got engaged to singer
before learning she didn’t like children. The ratings were declining with the
new format, so it was decided to have Danny marry again.
Mary Wickes played the role of Liz O’Neal, Danny’s press agent from 1955-1957.
At the end of the 1957 season, Rusty becomes ill, and Danny hires Kathy O’Hara (Marjorie Lord) as his nurse. Kathy was a widow with a young girl (Lelani Sorenson). Danny and the kids both fall in love with her and they become engaged in the season finale. ABC cancelled the show, but CBS* was looking for a show to take over the spot of I Love Lucy which was ending its production, so they took it over and put it on the schedule for the fall of 1957.
The first episode of the fifth season “Lose Me in Las Vegas” centered on Danny and Kathy who had married an were on their honeymoon. Angela Cartwright took over the role of Kathy’s daughter from Sorenson. Danny adopted Linda. The family moved into a larger apartment. The ratings skyrocketed, and it was the number 2 show by the end of the season.
Sherry Jackson decided to leave the show during season six, and her absence was explained by her going to a school in Paris. Jackson had a five-year contract which she honored. She and Hagen had been very close, and Jackson wanted to leave when Hagen did, but Hagen only had a three-year contract.
In season seven, Terry comes back, now played by Penney Parker. During the season she gets engaged and eventually marries Pat (Pat Harrington Jr.), a friend of Danny’s. Terry and Pat move to California and are rarely mentioned afterward.
Make Room for Daddy might have had the first spinoff of a character not in the cast. In one of the episodes from 1960, “Danny Meets Andy Griffith,” Danny is pulled over in Mayberry and is detained in the jail. Sheriff Andy Taylor is featured in the show, and The Andy Griffith Show was created.
For the final two seasons, Danny and Kathy traveled for much of the series. They toured Europe while Rusty and Linda stayed home with Danny’s manager Charlie (Sid Melton) and his wife Bunny (Pat Carroll). Thomas decided to retire from the show in 1964. The show ended on a high note, still ranking number nine.
Although the show ended in 1964, NBC brought back the main cast of Thomas, Lord, Cartwright, Hamer, Jackson, Randolph, and Hans Conried, Uncle Tonoose, to star in a two-hour reunion special, The Danny Thomas TV Family Reunion. Having a reunion show was another first accomplished by this sitcom.
In 1969, CBS
created their own reunion special, titled Make
Room for Grandaddy. It had such high ratings that CBS put it on the schedule,
but Thomas didn’t like the time slot and pulled the show.
In 1970, ABC tried again. Sherry Jackson again was Terry, but her husband now was Bill; what happened to Pat? Terry had a six-year-old son Michael (Michael Hughes) whom Terry left with Danny and Kathy (still played by Thomas and Lord) to join Bill, a soldier stationed overseas. The show only lasted one year. One of the reasons given was that Sheldon Leonard was no longer controlling the scripts and actors, and the show was moved from Wednesdays to Thursdays during the season.
The show was so popular with kids that a comic book series was developed.
As I mentioned, this show does not get the credit it deserves. While Danny tended to be short-tempered and Kathy was the voice of reason, the scripts for the entire series were well written and realistic. It had an extremely talented cast. Unlike some series, the children really carried the show. The children acted like children, not mature adults, in most ways, but they created great characters and were very funny. Rusty always had a viewpoint on any given situation. Their moments are the ones that make this show so memorable. Many of the episodes center around the kids. A typical example is “Casanova Junior ” : Rusty hasn’t asked a girl to the school dance because he has no confidence. Danny gives him some pointers and now the girls are falling all over themselves to go out with Rusty. The only problem is Rusty, he’s gone from no confidence to treating the girls badly and Danny is not happy about it.
The show ended in the top ten. It created the first sitcom spinoff of a non-cast member and the first reunion movie. I specify “non-cast” member because December Bride included Pete Porter in its cast, and he talked about his wife Gladys. Later the show Pete and Gladys was created.
Despite the challenges it faced with cast members coming and going, the change from ABC to NBC, and the characters growing up on the show with changed the dynamics of the series, the show continued to garner great ratings and was given a second life in a new series in Make Room for Grandaddy. Along with The Donna Reed Show, it was one of the trend-setting family sitcoms from the 1950s and ’60s.
*Thanks to reader Howard Ian Stern for letting me know I originally had the wrong network listed.
We wrap up
our series Just a Couple of Characters this week with Mary Wickes and Susan
Oliver. Mary and Susan are very different character actors, but you will
immediately recognize them. Let’s learn a bit more.
It’s not surprising that Mary shortened her last name to “Wickes” after being born Mary Wickenhauser in 1910 in St. Louis. Her father was a banker, and the family had plenty of money. After high school, Mary attended Washington University in St. Louis, majoring in political science, planning a career in law. One of her professors suggested she try theater, and she dipped her toe into it doing summer theater in Stockbridge, Massachusetts.
After deciding a career in acting was for her, she moved to New York. She quickly found a role in “The Farmer Takes a Wife” on Broadway in 1934. In this show, which starred Henry Fonda, Mary was Margaret Hamilton’s understudy. Mary had a chance to perform during the run and received excellent reviews.
Mary understood that comedy was the field she needed to pursue. She was lucky enough to continue getting roles on Broadway, appearing in several shows throughout the 1930s, including “Stage Door” in 1936 and “Hitch Your Wagon” in 1937. She also was cast in “The Man Who Came to Dinner” as Nurse Preen with Monty Woolley. She continued to receive encouraging reviews. When Warner Brothers decide to turn the play into a movie, both Mary and Woolley were part of the cast. Mary became known for being a bit sarcastic and witty. She was given roles in the film, Now Voyager with Bette Davis, again playing a nurse.
Mary flip flopped from Broadway to Hollywood, taking roles that interested her. She would appear in both Moonlight Bay (1951) and By the Light of the Silvery Moon (1953) with Doris Day; White Christmas (1954), and The Music Man (1962).
Mary had cornered the market in roles of smart-alecky teachers, nurses, and housekeepers in film. When she transitioned to television, she often continued in these roles. Her first two recurring roles were housekeepers named Alice on Halls of Ivy from 1954-55 and Katie on Annette in 1958. From 1956-1958, she played Liz O’Neill, Danny Thomas’s press agent on Make Room for Daddy. Throughout the 1950s she also appeared on numerous shows including Zorro.
One of my favorite episodes with Mary was the 1952 episode “The Ballet” on I Love Lucy where Wickes played Madame Lamond, a formidable ballet teacher who taught Lucy. Wickes and Lucy would remain life-long friends. After Mary’s death, Lucie Arnez talked about her relationship with their family: “For my brother and me, Mary was just like one of the family. If any of us were sick or even in bed with a cold, Mary would show up at the backdoor with a kettle of chicken soup. She could be loud and boisterous and as demanding as any of the characters she played, but she was also very loving and giving. What a lady.” Mary would appear on numerous episodes of Lucille Ball’s other shows in the 1960s and 1970s.
In the 1960s, Mary continued to show up on a variety of shows. We see her on My Three Sons, Bonanza, F-Troop, The Doris Day Show, The Donna ReedShow, and I Spy. She also had recurring roles on three shows during the decade: TheGertrude Berg Show, Dennis the Menace, and Temple Houston. In the Gertrude Berg Show, Mary was landlady, Winona Maxfield. She was hilarious on Dennis the Menace, playing Miss Cathcart, an older neighbor looking for a man. On Temple Houston, she played Ida Goff. Temple was Sam Houston’s real son who was a circuit-riding lawyer.
As Mary aged, she progressed to the cranky relative or nosy neighbor type of character. In the 1970s she was a regular on Julia, Doc, and The Jimmy Stewart Show. On Julia, she was Dr. Chegley’s wife, Melba. She went back to her role as a nurse on Doc. On the Jimmy Stewart Show, she is Mrs. Bullard. Two of my favorite episodes of her from the 1970s were her roles on Columbo and M*A*S*H. On Columbo, Mary plays a landlady of a victim who’s been murdered. She and Columbo have a priceless conversation during the show, “Suitable for Framing” in 1971. On M*A*S*H, Mary played Colonel Reese who is observing Margaret and the nurses.
In the 1980s, Mary’s schedule slowed down a bit. She did revive her role as a maid on The Love Boat in 1981. From 1989-1991, she took another regular role as housekeeper Marie Murkin on Father Dowling Mysteries.
In the 1990s, Mary was doing more voice overs. She taped five episodes of Life with Louie which aired from 1995-1997 and was Laverne in The Hunchback of Notre Dame in 1996. Unfortunately, she would not live to see them on the big screen. In 1995, she passed away after having respiratory problems. While a patient in the hospital, she fell and broke her hip. She died of complications caused by the surgery.
Mary never married or had children and as part of her legacy, she left a $2 million donation in memory of her parents to the Television, Film and Theater Arts at Washington University.
More than twenty years younger than Wickes, Susan Oliver was born in 1932 in New York City. Her real name as Charlotte Gercke. Her father was a political reporter for the New York World. Her parents divorced when she was quite young, and she grew up in boarding schools. She traveled with her father to Japan when he took a post there. She studied at the Tokyo International College, studying American pop culture. While Wickes was the wise-cracking comedic foil, Oliver was often the leading lady character with blue eyes, blonde hair and heart-shaped face.
In 1949, she
traveled to LA to see her mother who had found her niche as “astrologer to the
stars.” Susan then enrolled at Swarthmore College. After graduation, she
continued acting courses at New York City’s Neighborhood Playhouse.
Her first Broadway part came in 1957 as the daughter or a Revolutionary veteran, “Small War on Murray Hill.”
Returning to LA, she started a film career. Though she would appear in 15 big-screen movies, television is where she spent most of her time. She put in her due diligence in the 1950s and 1960s. Her first job was on The Goodyear Playhouse in 1955. She continued with a lot of drama and theater for the first few years of her career. She took roles in a variety of shows including: Father Knows Best, Suspicion, The David Niven Show, Bonanza, The Twilight Zone, The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, Wagon Train, Route 66, The Fugitive, The Andy Griffith Show, Ben Casey, Mannix, Dr. Kildare, The Man from UNCLE, I Spy, Gomer Pyle, My Three Sons, and the Wild, Wild West.
I read several times that she turned down lead roles in series to retain her independence, but I never read any specific roles she turned down. In 1966 she accepted a recurring role of Ann Howard in Peyton Place. She had signed a contract for a year, but after five months, her character was killed on the show. She made a pilot for a show titled, “Apartment in Rome” that did not sell.
Oliver never did get another show of her own, but she continued to guest on shows throughout the 1970s and 1980s, including Love American Style, Gunsmoke, The FBI, Streets of San Francisco, The Love Boat, Magnum PI, Murder She Wrote, and Simon and Simon.
One of the reasons, she didn’t want to be tied down was her interest in flying. In 1959, a Boeing 707 she was a passenger on plummeted 30,000 feet for the Atlantic Ocean before leveling out. After that scare, she decided to learn to become a pilot. In 1964, she started flying single-engine planes. Bill Lear brought her on board to become the first woman to train on his new Lear Jet. She would star in a movie about Amelia Earhart. She also later wrote about her flying experiences in an autobiography, Odyssey: A Daring Transatlantic Journey in 1983.
In the mid-1970s, she stopped accepting most acting roles and quit flying. She enrolled at the 1974 AFI Directing Workshop for Women with peers Lily Tomlin, Margot Kidder, Kathleen Nolan, and Maya Angelou. During the final season of M*A*S*H she directed an episode of the show. She would later direct an episode of Trapper John, MD.
At age 58, Oliver was diagnosed with colorectal, and eventually lung, cancer. She died in 1990.
Oliver was an
interesting actress. Apparently, she loved acting, but never wanted to be tied
down. She not only was a aviator and director but a writer. She was a practicing
Buddhist and a baseball expert as well.
Wickes and Oliver were very different women with very different interests and acting roles. They both remained single and devoted themselves to their careers. But they were both women who were always in demand for their acting ability.