After learning a bit about the career of Ann Sothern last week, today we take a look at two of her shows: Private Secretary and The Ann Sothern Show. Although they were two different shows, the second almost seemed like a continuation of the first. To make things even more complicated, when the shows went into syndication, Private Secretary was renamed Susie and all the episodes of Susie would air, followed by The Ann Sothern Show and then back to Susie.
As we learned last week, Ann suffered from hepatitis for three years. With her medical bills mounting and less film work coming in, she needed to make a living, so she turned to television to revive her career.
After appearing in series of ten Maisie films earlier in her career, Ann had a solid fan base. Ann was a smart business woman and she had a 42% ownership in her new show, Private Secretary. The show debuted in 1953.
Ann portrays Susie MacNamara, a former actress and WAC WWII veteran; she is the secretary to Peter Sands (Don Porter), a talent agent. Susie often complicates life for her boss, although she means well.
One of her best friends was Violet (Ann Tyrell), their receptionist. Cagey Calhoun (Jesse White) is always trying to cause trouble for Peter as a rival talent agent.
While the scripts weren’t ground-breaking, they were well written and witty. Some shows reference one of Mr. Sands’ clients, actress Harriet Lake, which was Ann’s real name.
The show was noted for its state-of-the-art set decoration featuring IBM typewriters and Western Electric phone systems, as well as stylish furnishings.
The show was on Sunday nights on CBS and alternated weeks with highly rated Jack Benny Show. I have never seen this with any other show but Lucky Strikes, the show’s sponsor also financed The Jack Benny Show on CBS and Your Hit Parade on NBC. So, when Your Hit Parade was on hiatus for summer, Private Secretary’s reruns were shown on that network and then new shows would begin in the fall back on CBS.
The show continued to have great ratings but in 1957, even though the show was renewed for the next year, Ann got into an argument with producer Jack Chertok and she left the series which ended. I could never find definitively why they argued, but it had to do with the show’s profits.
Sothern was nominated for Best Actress Emmy for 1955, 1956 and 1957, losing to Loretta Young, Lucille Ball, and Nanette Fabray.
Instead of a sixth year of Private Secretary on CBS, The Ann Sothern Show debuted in 1958 as a weekly show. Chertok kept the rights to the title, hoping to get another actress to fill the MacNamara role. This show was created by Bob Schiller and Bob Weiskopf. Desi Arnaz would produce the show which worked out as Ann and Lucille Ball were very close friends. They appeared on each other’s shows.
In The Ann Sothern Show, Ann now plays Katy O’Connor, the assistant manager of an upscale New York hotel, The Bartley House. Her secretary is Olive Smith (Ann Tyrrell), the front desk clerk is Paul Martine (Jacques Scott), and the bell boy is Johnny Wallace (Jack Mullaney). Later Ken Berry replaced Mullaney as Woody Hamilton.
Many of the cast members from the former show appear on the new series. Although Katy has a boss she answers to, she has a lot of authority running the hotel. Katy’s first boss is Jason Macauley (Ernest Truex), a man who is dominated by his nagging wife Florence (Reta Shaw). When ratings were not great, Truex was replaced by Don Porter as James Devery. As in Private Secretary, there are some romantic currents between Katy and James. Olive’s boyfriend, a dentist, Dr. Gray, is played by Louis Nye. In season two, Jesse White showed up as Oscar Pudney an unethical newsstand owner near the hotel.
The storylines often revolved around the personal life of the staff and stories about guests staying at the hotel. The concept provided the opportunity to attract a variety of guest stars during its run. In addition to Lucille Ball, actors who appeared on the show included Jack Albertson, Frances Bavier, Constance Bennett, Eva Gabor, Joel Grey, Van Johnson, Jayne Meadows, Howard McNear, Janis Page, Cesar Romero, and Connie Stevens.
Once again Ann was nominated for an Emmy is 1959 but lost to Jane Wyatt for Father Knows Best.
Post Cereals and General Foods were sponsors for this show, and the cast would often appear in commercials at the end of the show. Ann would then sign off with “Well, goodnight everybody. Stay happy!”
For the second year, the show’s ratings were decent but not great. The show was moved to Thursday nights up against The Untouchables, a top ten show. The ratings declined, so it was cancelled.
The final episode ended in a cliffhanger. Mr. Devery finally realizes that he is in love with Katy and proposes to her. They kiss but the show ends before Katy can answer yes or no.
I remember watching the shows in syndication and I thought they were good. Ann Sothern appeared to be a likable person and a hard-working actress. Both shows were often in the top 25% of the ratings. With all the reboots that have been done, I have never heard of either of these shows as possibilities and they seem to be good options for a contemporary show.
If you want to check out the shows, Private Secretary has several DVD options. The only place I could find The Ann Sothern Show was on etsy, and the site specifically mentions that it is “not a retail set nor is this a commercial studio release.” Maybe with all the classic television networks debuting, we will see Private Secretary back on the air again soon.
This week we are winding up our series of favorite female actors with Charlotte Rae. If you remember last week we learned about June Lockhart. Charlotte was born a year after June and died a year before her, and their careers were very similar. Both were actresses for more than six decades, appeared in Broadway, movies, and television.
Rae was born in Milwaukee, WI in 1926. Her parents were Russian Jewish immigrants. Her mother Esther had been friends with Golda Meir since childhood. For her first ten years, the family lived above her father’s tire business. In 1936 they moved to a home in Shorewood. At age 16, she became an apprentice with the Port Players, a professional theater company that came to Milwaukee for the summer. After graduation, Charlotte did some radio work and did some performing with the Wauwatosa Children’s Theatre.
Although she never completed her degree, Rae attended Northwestern University. She and Cloris Leachman became friends there. She also met Agnes Nixon, Charlton Heston, Paul Lynde, and Claude Akins. In later years she would always recommend wanna-be actors get a degree first.
In 1948, she moved to New York City where she performed in theater and nightclubs. She worked at a variety of clubs including the Village Vanguard and the Blue Angel. During her early days, a radio star told her that her last name of “Lubotsky” would not work well, and she replaced it with her middle name of Rae.
In 1951 she received her first television job on Once Upon a Tune. She would appear on ten other drama theater shows during the fifties. In an interview with Milwaukee Talks in 2016 she said, “When I started out, I wanted to be a serious actor, I never thought I’d get into comedy.”
The same year, Rae married composer John Strauss. They had two sons, but in the mid seventies he came out as a bisexual. Rae was not interested in an open marriage, so the couple decided to divorce in 1976.
Charlotte also loved singing, and she released an album in 1955, Songs I Taught My Mother. Rae also loved being on the stage. In the seventies, Vanguard Records went out of business, and Rae was able to buy back the album for $5000.
She would have stage roles in “Three Wishes for Jamie” in 1952, “The Threepenny Opera” in 1954, “Li’l Abner” in 1956, and “Pickwick” in 1965 among others. Later in her career she would also appear in several off-Broadway shows.
In 1958, she got a break with a guest spot on The Phil Silvers Show which led to her getting the part of Sylvia Schnauzer, the wife of Leo Schnauzer (Al Lewis) on Car 54 Where Are You when it debuted in 1961. Her husband John did the music for the show. Apart from that role, most of the other television work she did in the sixties was in drama series.
Rae also appeared in 14 big-screen movies. Can I take a shameless plug and say that one of my favorite Charlotte Rae roles is in Hello Down There? This movie from 1969 screams IT’S THE SIXTIES from the moment it starts until it ends, but it’s a great sit-back-and-just watch movie. If nothing else, it has an amazing cast including Tony Randall, Janet Leigh, Ken Berry, Jim Backus, Merv Griffin, and Richard Dreyfuss among others.
The seventies were her busiest decade of work. She started with a recurring role on Sesame Street as Molly the Mail Lady. During the early seventies you could see her on The Partridge Family, McMillan and Wife, Love American Style, and The Paul Lynde Show. I always appreciated her character on The Partridge Family. When Danny is thinking about quitting school to get on with life, she plays his very smart and creative guidance counselor.
In 1974 Rae moved to Los Angeles. She did guest spots on All in the Family and Good Times, both Norman Lear shows. In 1975, she became a regular on Lear’s show, Hot l Baltimore. She played Mrs. Bellotti, whose son lived at the hotel. The show was a bit controversial and was cancelled after the first season.
During the remainder of the seventies, Rae kept busy working for a variety of genres. You could have seen her on The Flying Nun, Barney Miller, The Rich Little Show, All’s Fair, CPO Sharkey, Family, The Eddie Capra Mysteries, and on her friend Cloris Leachman’s show Phyllis.
In 1978 Norman Lear was working on Diff’rent Strokes about a single father who adopts two brothers whom he raises along with his daughter with help from his housekeeper. Lear signed Rae on as the housekeeper. Charlotte wanted to do the series, but as she related in a Television Academy interview, she was under contract at CBS when NBC made the offer. She had a few weeks left on her CBS option. The network offered her the role of a lady sheriff on a new western but it didn’t ring true to her, and she didn’t want to do it. While she was filming an Eddie Capra Mystery episode, she drove over to explain her predicament to Lear. He said that Bud Grant owed him a favor and he did indeed get her out of the contract.
One episode on the first season was “The Girls’ School” when Edna Garrett is asked to help out at Kim’s private school called East Lake. She does but at the end of the episode decides she’d rather be working in the Drummond home.
In an interview with the Television Academy, Rae said she thought she was going to be fired from Diff’rent Strokes. She noticed her lines getting fewer and fewer and when she was called into talk with the producer, she thought that was it. However, they proposed a spinoff show for her based on “The Girls’ School” episode called The Facts of Life. They wanted Edna to become housemother for the boarding students at the school. It was a prestigious private school now called Eastland. The writers were focusing on issues affecting high school age girls including weight gain, dieting, depression, drug and alcohol use, dating, mental illness, and other subjects that kids that age deal with. Rae said the show was about growing up, family, love, and working out problems. “I had a lot of input with issues like suicide, divorce, death. I’m really very proud.”
Charlotte was a single mother and afraid to lose her Diff’rent Strokes income on a possibility that might not pan out. The producers wrote into her contract that if the show was cancelled, she could return to Diff’rent Strokes, so she agreed.
The first season gained some fans, but ratings were so-so. For the second season, some cast changes were made and the show was moved from Fridays to Wednesdays. The show finished in the top thirty that year, and Rae became a household name. In 1982, Rae received an Emmy nomination. (She lost to Carol Kane from Taxi.) During the 1984 and 1985 seasons, Rae asked to be used less. She felt that the girls were older and would rely more on each other than a housemother for discussions about life issues.
When discussing the character of Edna, Rae explained “I want to bring in as much humanity as possible, as well as humor. I’ve tried to make her a human being with dimensions. The way they write her now is with a great deal of sensitivity and understanding. But I don’t want her to be Polly Perfect, because she must have human failings and make mistakes. She’s also a surrogate mother to the girls. I told them I wanted to be firm with the girls because I know it’s important. Parents must lay down ground rules for their children to help them grow up and to learn responsibility for their actions. They must learn to stand on their own two feet.”
Rae wanted to do more theater and she wanted to travel. When she decided to leave the series, Cloris Leachman replaced her in the role. The two-part finale of the eighth season had Edna Garrett marrying and moving to Africa with her husband to work for the Peace Corps. Her sister Beverly (Rae’s real sister’s name) comes for the wedding and then decides to stay with the girls at school. Cloris Leachman was signed on for two seasons. At the end of her time, she was willing to continue for another season, but cast members Nancy McKeon and Mindy Cohn were ready to end the show and take on new projects. It was not the end of the show, however. In 2001 a television reunion movie aired with much of the original cast. In 2007 the entire cast was invited to the TV Land Awards where they sang their old theme song.
Charlotte took on several other roles after leaving the show. During the eighties and nineties, she appeared on The Love Boat, St. Elsewhere, Murder She Wrote, Sisters, and Alex Mack among others.
She was busy until she passed away, and continued to act throughout the 2000s, including an appearance on King of Queens, and a recurring role on ER. Her last acting credit on television was in 2014’s Girl Meets World.
In 2015, Rae wrote her memoirs with her son Larry. At many of her book signings, adults came to purchase the book and told her over and over that they had been latch-key kids and saw Edna as a second mother to them. A description from Amazon sums up the book: “Charlotte Rae’s career spans more than seventy years, from the golden age of television to Shakespeare in the Park, the New York Cabaret scene of the late 1940s and 50s to her hit series, The Facts of Life and well beyond. Off stage and screen, Charlotte’s life has been one of joy and challenge, raising an autistic son, coming to terms with alcoholism, the heartache of a broken marriage, the revelation of a gay husband and the sudden challenge of facing middle-age with financial and emotional uncertainties–a crisis she ultimately turned into the determination that brought her stardom. The Facts of My Life is the first opportunity for Charlotte’s fans to explore the fascinating story of her extraordinary life: poignant and hilarious, a story of courage and triumph, one that speaks for a generation of women breaking barriers, taking on challenges, overcoming personal tragedy, and paving the way for others.”
Rae suffered from several health issues. In the early seventies, she joined Alcoholics Anonymous which was a critical part of the rest of her life. In 1982, she had a pacemaker implanted. It worked well for thirty years, but then stopped, requiring surgery for another smaller device. She also had open heart surgery to replace her mitral valve. Pancreatic cancer ran in her family, so she was screened often and when she was diagnosed with cancer, it was early so she had six months of chemotherapy and was then declared cancer free. In 2017, she was diagnosed with bone cancer. She died at her home in 2018. Todd Bridges from Diff’rent Strokes, tweeted, “You were loved by everyone on our show.”
Charlotte said she never minded fans coming up to her because she realized that in being a television actor you were in people’s homes. “It was an intimate relationship.”
She said she wanted to be remembered as someone who took people out of themselves into a different world and allowed them to laugh or cry, and that would make her happy because we need as many laughs as we can get.
Thank you, Charlotte for making us cry a little and laugh a lot.
As we continue looking at some of our favorite actresses, today we get to spend some time with Beverly Archer. Beverly was born in Oak Park, Illinois in 1948 but grew up in California.
Beverly knew she wanted to enter the acting profession and studied at both San Francisco State University and UC Santa Barbara where she majored in drama. But once she graduated, she decided acting wasn’t for her. She worked for Wells Fargo for two weeks and then accepted a job with Abbey Rents in Los Angeles where she worked for three years. She says she was lonely and not having fun, so she started taking acting classes again and working with theater groups.
Unlike a lot of actors who have to spend decades before nabbing their first series, the first two television roles Beverly received were regulars. However, Beverly paid her dues working in commercials before appearing on a series. She said they gave her confidence that she could make a living acting, so she was able to quit her job.
In 1976, she appeared on The Nancy Walker Show. She played Nancy’s daughter, Lorraine. In a recent interview with Sitcoms Online, Beverly said she ran into a guy she had done some theater with who had become an agent. He signed her and got her the audition for the show. Archer was reading the script with several other actresses but apparently, she was the only one who found the scene very funny. Nancy then read with her and the producers felt they could be family. She says she was in the right place at the right time.
Unfortunately, the show only lasted one season, but in 1977, Beverly was offered the role on We’ve Got Each Other. The plot for this show was that Stuart Hibbard (Oliver Clark) worked at home, cleaning and cooking while his wife Judy (Archer) worked in LA for photographer Damon Jerome (Tom Poston). Stuart had to deal with domestic situations and his next-door neighbor Ken (Martin Kove) while Judy dealt with work situations and secretary Donna (Renn Woods). Like her first show, this sitcom only lasted one season as sell.
In 1976 she accepted another permanent role as Mrs. Robert Bernard. She met her husband through an acting teacher. He was also an actor, doing a lot of voice-over work.
During the 1980s, she would receive offers to play recurring characters on four shows.
On Spencer, she played Miss Spier, a divorced friend of Spencer’s mother. Most episodes show Spencer, played by a very young Chad Lowe, humorously dealing with the drama of high school.
In 1985 she was on ten episodes of Washingtoon. This is a little-remembered show that aired on Showtime. The plots centered around a senator who wasn’t too bright and Archer was his secretary on the show.
In 1988, she appeared on ALF as neighbor Mrs. Byrd.
One of her best-known roles occurred on Mama’s Family. Beverly portrayed Iola Boylen from 1986-1990. In the Sitcoms Online interview, Archer talked about being on Mama’s Family. She explained that the network version was cancelled, and Joe Hamilton decided to recreate it in syndication. At that time, no one really did syndication shows. Archer says he was a pioneer in the field. Betty White and Rue McClanahan moved over to Golden Girls, so there was a gap for a new character and Archer was hired for the syndicated show. She says some of her favorite moments on the show were working with Ken Berry. She described him as the funniest person on the planet.
Beverly tried her hand at writing and received credits for scripts for Mama’s Family, Working Girl and ALF.
In addition to these regular roles, she guest starred on a variety of shows, including It Takes Two, Family Ties, The Fall Guy, and My Sister Sam.
During the decade of the nineties, Beverly was again lucky enough to gain a recurring role on five additional shows: Married . . . with Children, Aahh Real Monsters, Jumanji, The Young and the Restless, and Major Dad. On Married . . . with Children, she was a sexually repressed librarian who falls in love with Bud.
On Major Dad, she played the role of Alva Bricker, gunnery sergeant. During an interview with Jerry Buck in 1992, Archer says she used John Wayne for her role model for Alva because he was the only Marine she could remember. Describing her character on the show, Archer says “She’s the best Marine on the base. I think the driving force behind the characters is that she’s the best. But the personal stuff is fun to play. She has a wild sex life, but the crux is that she’s incredibly efficient as administrative chief of the commanding general’s office.”
After portraying so many school-marm types of characters, she was happy to have a different sort of character to work with. Beverly says Gunny has a macho-style to her femininity. She treated relationships the way men typically did. She didn’t want to be tied down to one man.
Beverly joined the cast in season two. Once again, she benefitted from the fact that several characters from the first season were let go. The show was produced by Rick Hawkins who also worked with her on Mama’s Family. Archer loved the fact that Gunny was so different from Iola on that show.
She also guest starred on nine shows, including Full House, Love and War, and Grace Under Fire throughout the 1990s.
In 1995 she was part of the fun, satire, The Brady Bunch Movie, playing a teacher who gets caught stealing.
Beverly accepted that she was typecast in many of her roles. As she described it, “Nobody’s going to let me play a normal human being, certainly not a lead. Certainly not a normal next-door neighbor. I’m there to add a character twist. That’s my living and with this mug, what do you expect?”
Beverly retired in 2002. Beverly may have retired, but she was not sitting around the house twiddling her thumbs. She opened an antique shop in the Catskills in upper New York which she ran for about eight years, spending half the year in New York and half in California. She finally moved the shop to California to eliminate the bicoastal living.
She also wanted to do a lot of traveling. Now she is sculpting with clay and getting to travel. She studied her craft in Italy. In 2008, Beverly had an exhibit at the Xiem Gallery in Pasadena, CA, entitled “2008: A Year of the Pig: A Beginner’s Journal.” The exhibit included some of her thoughts on her art:
“There was so much to learn. Despite the fact that I began with 365 pigs I never thought back then that I would be able to count on two hands the number of pieces I have made that are not critters. I cannot seem to divorce myself from them. Nor do I want to. Our relationship to other animals is quite a complex one, of course. We tend to imbue them with attributes and feelings we admire. We find our domestic companions delightful, amusing, courageous and intelligent…..all attributes we would like to see in ourselves. We even find the critters we eat to be companionable as well as useful. Perhaps I will branch out eventually. Perhaps to wild animals. We think them fascinating, noble and mysterious. And yet, we threaten them, hunt them or ignore them and fail them constantly. One can’t know for certain but I imagine that in years hence I will still be working on the animal form. There is so just much to learn.”
While I’m sad, her retirement took her out of our living rooms, she seems to have found a wonderful new career. Since writing my blog, and writing in general, has become my almost-retirement career, I understand the passion and satisfaction she is experiencing in her new art life.
When asked about the type of roles she wanted to play or would like to have if she had not retired, Beverly responded that “I loved doing comedy, and there is no greater gift than coming to work laughing every day.” I hope she is still laughing every day, and I thank her for the many days of laughter she provided for us.
I’m calling this series “The Men of November.” We are taking a look at five actors who contributed to television during the classic decades of the 1940s-1980s. I’ve decided to take them in alphabetical order so we are starting with Bert Convy.
Born in St. Louis in 1933, Convy’s family moved to Los Angeles when he was seven. His focus was athletics, not acting, in school. When he was 17, the Philadelphia Phillies gave him a contract to play in their minor league system which he did from 1951-1952. In 1951 he played for the Klamath Falls Gems (Oregon), and in 1952 he split his time with the Salina Blue Jays (Kansas) and the Miami Eagles (Oklahoma).
Once he realized baseball was not going to be his career, he joined The Cheers, who released a top ten hit called “Black Denim Trousers and Motorcycle Boots” in 1955. Convy opted to enroll at the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television, earning a BA.
Like Ken Berry, he was a performer in the Billy Barnes Revues which was popular in the fifties and sixties. In 1956, he was an usher on Art Linkletter’s popular show House Party. He appeared in several early television series throughout the late fifties, including Those Whiting Girls.
In 1959 he married Anne Anderson. They had three children and were divorced in 1991.
He showed up on the small screen a lot during the sixties, primarily in detective shows including Perry Mason in 1960. His first feature role was in the big screen drama Susan Slade starring Troy Donahue and Connie Stevens in 1961. He also spent a part of this decade on Broadway in ten different productions.
The decade of the seventies found him balancing roles in both detective (Mission Impossible, McMillan and Wife, Police Story and Charlie’s Angels among many others) and comedy shows (including Bewitched, Love American Style, and Karen). He appeared on The Partridge Family as a politician who dates Shirley. You get the distinct impression that they ended up together once the kids were out on their own. He also portrayed one of Mary’s boyfriends on The Mary Tyler Moore Show.
He received his first recurring role in 1974, playing Lt. Steve Ostrowski on The Snoop Sisters. The show starred Helen Hayes and Mildred Natwick as two sisters, one widowed and one never married, who are mystery writers that also get involved in real murders.
Two years later he starred in a short-lived variety show with the convoluted title of The Late Summer Early Fall Bert Convy Show. The title alone probably doubled the advertising budget. When I say short-lived, I mean I could only find one episode of the show which featured Don Knots.
He was offered another permanent role in 1983 on It’s Not Easy. Originally Larry Breeding was given the role and made the pilot, but he passed away after a car accident. This show only lasted for 11 episodes. The plot is that Jack and Sharon have divorced. Sharon has remarried and she and her husband Neal (Convy) have decided to live across the street from Jack so it’s easier for the kids. Jack and Neal do not like each other.
He appeared in a few series during the eighties including Aloha Paradise, Fantasy Island, Murder She Wrote, Hotel, The Love Boat and The People Next Door.
While he would make ten big screen and fifteen made-for-television movies, two of them involved his buddy Burt Reynolds. Convy appeared in Semi-Tough in 1977 and Cannonball Run in 1981. The two friends developed a production company, Burt and Bert Productions.
Convy was probably best known for his game show work. He was a panelist during the sixties and seventies on a variety of shows including What’s My Line, To Tell the Truth, Match Game, and Password. He hosted Tattletales, Super Password and Win, Lose or Draw. His emceeing of Tattletales resulted in an Emmy for Best Game Show Host in 1977.
In April of 1990, Convy collapsed and was diagnosed with cancer. The brain tumor was inoperable, forcing his retirement. His last credit was as himself on It’s Garry Shandling’s Show in 1990. He married his second wife Catherine Hills during the winter of 1991, and he passed away in July of 1991.
Sadly, Convy was never offered that perfect role that made him an icon, but he certainly had a full career. He had a lot of talents: acting, singing, and the personality to host game shows. I think it was his smile that always made him a favorite with me.
Elinor Donahue always displays a warmth and comes across as a genuinely nice person. Her first sitcom became her most famous role. She played Betty in the iconic Father Knows Best. Although none of her later sitcoms reached the same popularity, she has had a long and full career.
She was born in April of 1937 in Tacoma, Washington. She began tap dancing at 16 months old. As a toddler, she did some acting and received a contract with Universal at the ripe old age of 5. From 1955-1961 she was married to Robert Smith. She was married her second husband, Harry Ackerman, from 1962-1991. Ackerman was a producer for shows including Leave It to Beaver, Gidget, and Bewitched. She married her third husband Louis Genevrino in 1992.
Donahue appeared in 18 movies between 1942 and 1952 including Tea for Two with Doris Day and My Blue Heaven. She made the transition to television in 1952 appearing in 8 shows in the 1950s. One of the shows I remember her in although I only saw it in reruns was one of my favorite shows, The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show. She was typically cast as the girl-next-door type. Her most famous role came in 1954 when she was cast in a new sitcom, Father Knows Best.
Father Knows Best – 1954-1960
This was one of the typical family shows of the 1950s. The Andersons lived in Springfield with three children: Betty, called Princess (Elinor Donahue), James Jr., or Bud (Billy Gray) and Kathy, usually called Kitten (Lauren Chapin). The show debuted in the fall of 1954 on CBS. The show was cancelled in 1955 and the public was furious. Letters came pouring in, so it was reinstated. NBC took over the next year until 1958 when it went back to CBS. In 1960, Robert Young decided he was done. These were warm and inviting parents, providing guidance and object lessons galore. Critics panned it later because it was not reality. We have reality shows today, and please, give me fiction. We did learn life lessons on the show – following through on promises, working for what you want, being yourself, and taking responsibility for your mistakes.
Shortly after Father Knows Best left the airwaves, Donahue accepted the role of Elly Walker in The Andy Griffith Show.
Most of us are very familiar with TheAndy Griffith Show and many of the characters who inhabit Mayberry: Widower Andy Taylor (Andy Griffith) and his son Opie (Ron Howard) live with Andy’s Aunt Bee (Frances Bavier) who takes care of them; Barney (Don Knotts) is the inept deputy but also Andy’s best friend; Helen Crump (Anita Corsaut), the school teacher and Andy’s girlfriend later in the series; Thelma Lou (Betty Lynn), Barney’s girl; Otis Campbell (Hal Smith), town drunk but nice guy; Gomer Pyle (Jim Nabors), who runs the gas station; and his cousin Goober Pyle (George Lindsey). Andy had several romances early in the show. He dated the county nurse Mary Simpson (played by several actresses), spent a limited amount of time with Daphne (Jean Carson) who had a crush on him; and in the first two seasons, he was sweet on Ellie Walker (Donahue), who ran the local drug store. Ellie cared about Andy, but she always stood up for herself and women’s rights. Andy and Ellie never had the chemistry they were hoping for but they respected each other and like each other. Elinor raved about the cast and her opportunity to be on the show. She said Andy was in charge and expected quality but was fair and a nice man. She described Ron Howard as the best child actor she ever worked with. She liked Frances Bavier and got along well with her. She had a huge respect for Don Knott’s comedic ability. She is still friends with Betty Lynn.
She appeared on a variety of shows in the mid-1960s including 77 Sunset Strip, Dr. Kildare, The Virginian, Dennis the Menace, Star Trek, and The Flying Nun. She tried her luck with one other sitcom in the 1960s.
Many Happy Returns – 1964-1965
This sitcom was also about a widower. Walter Burnley (John McGiver) ran the Complaint Department at a LA department store. The show also featured his daughter (Donahue) and a coworker Lynn Hall (Elena Verdugo). His boss (Jerome Cowan) did not want him to take in any returns, so he had to resolve complaints without making his boss mad. Apparently Burnley couldn’t solve the complaints that came in from viewers because the show was cancelled after 24 episodes.
Father Knows Best came out with two television movies in 1977: The Father Knows Best Reunion and Father Knows Best – Home for Christmas, and Elinor was in both. While still showing up in random shows during the 1970s such as The Rookies, Police Woman, and Diff’rent Strokes, Donahue found time to appear in two 70s shows on a regular basis.
The Odd Couple – 1972-1975
Neil Simon’s The Odd Couple came to Friday nights in 1970. Felix Unger (Tony Randall) and Oscar Madison (Jack Klugman), two divorced men who are complete opposites but best friends, try to live together without killing each other. The show had a great supporting cast including Donohue as Miriam Welby from 1972-1974, Felix’s girlfriend.
Mulligan’s Stew – 1977
This show from 1977 starred Elinor Donahue as Jane Mulligan. She and her husband Michael (Lawrence Pressman) are trying to raise three kids on his teacher’s salary when they suddenly add four orphaned nieces and nephews to their family. One of the kids was played by Suzanne Crough, Tracy from ThePartridge Family, one of the few shows she was in. The series only lasted for seven episodes.
The 1980s found Donahue still working regularly. She was in Barnaby Jones, Mork & Mindy, One Day ata Time, Fantasy Island, The Love Boat, Newhart, and Golden Girls. One sitcom in the 1980s captured her attention about Beans Baxter.
The New Adventures of Beans Baxter – 1987
Here is the plot for this one: Beans Baxter’s (Jonathan Ward) father who he thought was a mailman disappears one day. Teenage Bean discovers that his dad worked for a secret government agency. He is then drawn into becoming a spy for the government. The show features his adventures as he tries to find the enemy agents who are holding his father hostage while his mother played by Donahue is completely oblivious that anything strange is happening. Viewers also didn’t realize anything was happening because the show was cancelled after 17 episodes.
Entering her 60s, Elinor joined the cast of three sitcoms in the 1990s. She also made several movies including Pretty Woman in 1990 and The Princess Diaries 2 in 2004.
Get a Life – 1990-1992
Shows don’t get much weirder than this one. Comedian Chris Elliot plays a 30-year-old paperboy Chris Peterson who lives with wacky parents (Donahue and Bob Elliott, Chris’s real father). Some of the strange things that happen during the 36 episodes include eating a space alien, beheadings, and a robot paperboy. In this bizarre series, Chris actually dies in a third of the episodes. During the run of the show, he died from old age, tonsillitis, a stab wound, a gunshot wound, was strangled, got run over by a car, choked on his cereal, was crushed by a giant boulder, and actually exploded.
Eek!stravaganza – 1992-1993
Donahue plays “The Mom” in this animated show about Eek, a purple cat who always finds himself in dangerous situations. The series was on the air for five seasons.
Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman – 1993-1997
During the six years the show was on the air, Donahue reprised her role as Rebecca Quinn ten times. The show followed the ups and downs experienced by a female doctor practicing in a wild western town.
Interestingly, Donahue appeared in three different soap operas toward the end of her career: SantaBarbara, Days of Our Lives, and The Young and the Restless. Elinor also appeared on a variety of documentaries and award shows. She was in the Match Game/Hollywood Squares Hour. In 1998, she wrote her memoirs titled, In the Kitchen with Elinor Donahue. The book included about 150 of her favorite recipes. Elinor’s career has been long and she appeared in many shows and movies over the years. She hasn’t appeared in a movie or television show since 2010, although she did do some theater. In September of 2015, she appeared in one of my favorite plays, “Harvey” in North Carolina.
Donahue’s career reminds me of many of the actors we have gotten to know in this blog including William Christopher, Betty White, Ken Berry, and Shelly Fabares. These actors and actresses all appear to be very nice, talented people who have careers they should be proud of. In a day when bad decisions and selfish actions are splattered across our television screens and newspapers, perhaps one of the best compliments we can give someone is that they had a long and fulfilling career and didn’t step all over other people to achieve it.
When a rainy day shows up this summer, take a moment to watch some of Elinor’s sitcom episodes. Thank you Elinor Donahue for the entertainment and memories you gave us.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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 GreenAcres, BeverlyHillbillies, PetticoatJunction, 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.
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’sKids. 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’sHeroes, 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.
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.
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 aBreak, SmallWonder, Golden Girls, The New Batman, and Maggie Winters.
Berry also appeared in six movies including Two for Seesaw (1962), The Lively Set (1964), Hello DownThere (1969), Herbie Rides Again (1974), Guardian of the Wilderness (1976), and TheCat 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.
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.
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.