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

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

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

reed14

Photo: dallas.wikia.com

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

reed2

Photo: imdb.com

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

reed3

Photo: metv.com

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

reed9

Photo: pinterest.com

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

Photos: pinterest.com and metv.com

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

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

reed12

Photo: metv.com

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

reed5

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

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

reed8

Photo: metv.com

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

reed1

Photo: nytimes.com

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

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

reed13

Photo: metv.com

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

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

reed15

Photo: lapostexaminer.com

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

reed7

Photo: geocaching.com

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

I couldn’t say it better.

Mister Ed:

In the 1960s we had some crazy sitcom situations: a wife who was a witch, a genie who was found in a bottle, a dead mother who inhabited a car, and the Munsters who tried to adjust to a normal human world.  One show that was not that incredible was Mister Ed. If someone said they were writing a show about a talking horse, it should sound a bit far-fetched, but when you watched the show, it all seemed quite plausible. Let’s take a look at what made Mister Ed a fairly well-written and enjoyable series.

mred8

 

Mister Ed was developed by Arthur Lubin, a producer and director. Lubin had worked on the Francis the talking mule movies. He wanted to make a similar show for television. He was unable to gain the rights to Francis, but then he heard about children’s author Walter R. Brooks. Brooks had a series of short stories about a talking horse. His stories were published by Bantam, but since he passed away in 1958, he was never able to see the television show his work inspired.

mred1

 

The pilot was financed by George Burns and filmed at his McCadden Studio. It was titled “Wilbur Pope and Mister Ed.” Scott McKay played Wilbur Pope, Sandra White played his wife, and Mr. Ed was played by a chestnut gelding that was temperamental and difficult to work with.

 

mred5

Lubin was not able to sell the show to one of the major networks, so he financed it as a syndication sitcom. The cast was switched up a bit. Bamboo Harvester, a golden Palamino, was brought in as Ed and his voice was kept secret at the time but was Rocky Lane, an older Western star.

Allan Young came on board as the now named Wilbur Post, and Connie Hines played his wife Carol. Young was actually a blonde but in the black and white version, his hair blended into the horse’s, so Connie Hines’ hairdresser would dye Young’s hair brunette. Originally Lubin discussed naming it The Alan Young Show, but Alan did not want to do that in case it bombed. He did, however, buy into the show, which resulted in his earning a lot of money later.

Ed’s singing voice was provided by Sheldon Allman. However, the line “I am Mister Ed” at the end of the theme song was done by the song’s composer, Jay Livingston.

Jay Livingston and Ray Evans wrote the theme song. An instrumental version was used for the first seven episodes, and then lyrics were added. The lyrics are:

A horse is a horse, of course, of course.

And no one can talk to a horse, of course.

That is, of course, unless the horse is the famous Mister Ed.

Go right to the source and ask the horse.

He’ll give you the answer that you’ll endorse.

He’s always on a steady course.

Talk to Mister Ed.

People yakkity-yak a streak and waste your time of day,

But Mister Ed will never speak unless he has something to say.

A horse is a horse, of course, of course.

And this one’ll talk ’til his voice is hoarse.

You never heard of a talking horse?

Well listen to this: I am Mister Ed.

 

ed7

 

The first 26 episodes were so popular, CBS picked it up. It aired on CBS from October 1961 until February 1966. During the sixth season, CBS moved the show from the prime time schedule and broadcast it on later on Sunday afternoon. There are 143 episodes in all, and they were all filmed in black and white.

 

lark

Photo: Hooniverse.com

Lubin got Studebaker Packard Corporation to sponsor the show in syndication which it continued to sponsor once CBS picked it up. The Posts own a 1962 Lark convertible. Studebaker’s sales plummeted in the early 1960s, and production stopped in 1963. From then on, Ford provided the cars seen on the show.

Ed also had a double named Pumpkin, a quarterhorse, which was his stunt double. Later Pumpkin was featured in a pudding commercial and went on to appear in another Filmways Presentation show, Green Acres.

The Posts live in Los Angeles. Wilbur was an architect.

mred7

Photo: youtube.com

The Posts’ neighbors and friends were Roger and Kay Addison played by Larry Keating and Edna Skinner.  Keating died in the middle of the series, and Edna continued on the show. Later Wilbur’s former commanding officer, Col. Gordon Kirkwood (Leon Ames) and his wife Winnie (Florence MacMichael) moved into the Addisons’ home.

guest2

Both the Addisons and the Kirkwoods think Wilbur is a bit nuts. They often hear him talking to himself and, to cover for Ed, he gets involved in a lot of awkward situations. Wilbur is also a bit accident prone.

Wilbur’s wife resented the time Wilbur liked to spend with his horse instead of her. Her father, Mr. Higgins (Jack Albertson), thought she should leave Wilbur and considered him a “kook.”

mred9

Mr. Ed only talks to Wilbur. The only reason given for Ed refusing to talk to anyone else is that he thought Wilbur was the only person worth talking to. It worked because Ed was not treated as an unbelievable horse who could talk. He appeared as an equal character. Ed was also quite intelligent. He could read and play chess. He was able to use the phone to get information.  Bamboo Harvester really could answer the phone; he just could not have a conversation. He was also able to open the barn door. Ed would also pout at times when he didn’t get his way and threatened to run away a lot.

mred6

Photo: itschess.blogspot

In an online article, “The World of Mr. Ed-What You Didn’t Know About the Talking Horse,” written by Ed Gross on April 24, 2018, he quoted Ben Starr who wrote 42 of the episodes. He explained that the reason the show worked was because he and producer Lou Derman “really knew how to do that show because we figured out how to make it work for kids and grownups. You had to take care of the grownups, and that was our secret.”

Mister Ed featured a lot of famous guest stars including Mae West, Clint Eastwood, George Burns, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Leo Durocher, Jon Provost, Sebastian Cabot, Donna Douglas, Irene Ryan, Alan Hale Jr., Neil Hamilton, William Bendix, Sharon Tate, and Jack LaLanne.

 

ed2

Bamboo Harvester was trained by Les Hilton.  At a time when trainers could be considered somewhat cruel, Hilton was always respectful of his animals and never used force or abuse on them. Hilton had to be on the set whenever the horse was. To make Ed appear to be talking, Hilton originally used a nylon thread to open his mouth. Bamboo Harvester was quite smart though and learned to talk on cue whenever Hilton touched his hoof. A story made the rounds that Ed was made to talk by applying peanut butter to the horse’s mouth, but later Young admitted he made that up because it was more interesting than the real story.

 

ed5

Bamboo Harvester appeared to be a professional. He usually only needed one take to complete his action. Hilton had to teach him to play a variety of sports including riding a skateboard. However, when he got tired of working for the day, he just walked off the set. He received twenty pounds of hay and a gallon of sweet tea daily.

Apparently Young and the horse became close. Young had a great respect for his co-star and after the show ended, he would make trips to see Bamboo Harvester in his retirement.

ed4

 

I could not find a definite date of death for the horse. There are a lot of conflicting stories about it. Young claimed that the horse was in a stable in California where he lived on Hilton’s property. One version is that one day when Hilton was out of town, Bamboo Harvester was given a tranquilizer because he was having trouble getting up and he died hours later. Another story I read was that the horse was euthanized in 1970 in Oklahoma. He was reported to be suffering from arthritis and kidney problems.

One story I did confirm is that a horse did die in February of 1979 in Oklahoma, but it was not Bamboo Harvester, but a horse that posed for still pictures for the show which led to false reports of his being Mr Ed when he died.

Apparently, a reboot was planned for the Fox network in 2004, starring Sherman Hemsley as the voice of Mr. Ed, David Alan Basche as Wilbur, and Sherilyn Fenn as Carol. I could not find any information whether a pilot was ever filmed or not.

Another movie version was discussed in 2012 when Waterman Entertainment announced they were developing a new feature film based on the television show. Once again, I could not find any further information on the movie.

 

Mister Ed was popular during its run. A lot of collectible products were created in the 1960s including comic books and board games.

Mister Ed was not a show on my “must-watch” list, and I don’t watch a lot of the reruns. However, when I do catch one, I never feel like I wasted my time. The show worked and felt believable. Currently, it is not on either Me TV or Antenna TV, but it is available on DVD.