Mary Jane Croft: What a Character!

In October we are having fun with the “What a Character” series. Although this actress spent less than two decades on television, she had a memorable career. Today let’s learn more about Mary Jane Croft.

Mary Jane Croft - Rotten Tomatoes
Photo: rottentomatoes.com

Mary Jane Croft was born in 1916 in Muncie, Indiana. She described herself as a “stage-struck 17-year-old just out of high school,” when she began working at the Muncie Civic Theatre. Moving on to the Guild Theatre Company in Cincinnati led her to radio station work at WLW.

In the thirties, she received a lot of experience and she described her work there: “from 1935-1939, I played parts with every kind of voice and accent: children, babies, old women, society belles, main street floozies—everything.” She appeared in Life with Luigi, Blondie, The Adventures of Sam Spade, The Mel Blanc Show, and Our Miss Brooks, among other shows. She was a frequent guest star on My Favorite Husband, Lucille Ball’s radio show which would become very important to her television career.

Croft had married Jack Zoller, another actor earlier in her life. The marriage did not last long but produced a son, Eric. After her divorce, she moved to Hollywood in 1939.

I Love Lucy' Star Mary Jane Croft: Lucille Ball's Frequent TV Sidekick
On the radio Photo: closerweekly.com

While Croft appeared in three big-screen films, most of her professional career was spent on television. Her first role was in Eve Arden’s show, Our Miss Brooks from 1953-1955 once it moved from radio to television. She portrayed Daisy Enright whom she had also voiced on the radio show. Daisy and Connie Brooks competed for the head English teacher position and for the attention of Mr. Boynton. During that time, she also was cast in The Lineup, The Life of Riley, I Married Joan, and Dragnet.

From 1954-1957, she was on I Love Lucy seven times. She and Lucy continued both their professional and personal relationships. In the final season of Lucy’s show, she played Betty Ramsey, a neighbor of the Ricardos and Mertzs when they moved to Connecticut.

In the mid-fifties, she showed up on A Date with Angels, The Eve Arden Show, and The Court of Last Resort.

In 1959, she married Elliott Lewis and they were married until he died in 1990. She met Lewis while appearing on Lucy’s show; he was the producer. Sadly, her son Eric was killed in action in Vietnam.

1956 TV ARTICLE~CLEO WANDA BASSET HOUND PEOPLES CHOICE MARY JANE CROFT  HOUND DOG | eBay
Photo: ebay.com

From 1955-1958 she was the voice of Cleo on The People’s Choice for 99 episodes. This is another one of those quirky shows from the fifties. The premise is that Socrates Miller, known as “Sock,” joins the city council and clashes with the mayor, John Peoples. Sock then dates and marries John’s daughter Mandy. Sock has a basset hound named Cleo, and Cleo shares her thoughts with the audience about what is going on.

Pin on Classic TV
Croft with Lyle Talbot and the Randolphs on Ozzie and Harriet–Photo: pinterest.com

From 1955-1966 she appeared as Clara Randolph on the Ozzie and Harriet Show for a total of 75 episodes. Joe and Clara Randolph were the Nelsons’ neighbors and good friends.

Although Croft did accept roles on Vacation Playhouse in 1966 and The Mothers-in-Law (another Arden show) in 1969, her career from 1962-1974 was with Lucille Ball. She was on The Lucy Show from 1962-1968 as Mary Jane Lewis when Lucy’s original sidekick Vivian Vance left the show. She continued that same role into Here’s Lucy from 1969-1974 for an additional 34 episodes.

Her last acting credit was a TV Movie with Lucille Ball titled Lucy Calls the President.

I Love Lucy' Star Mary Jane Croft: Lucille Ball's Frequent TV Sidekick
Croft with Lucille Ball–Photo: closerweekly.com

Croft died of natural causes in 1999.

I Love Lucy' Star Mary Jane Croft: Lucille Ball's Frequent TV Sidekick
Ball and Croft–Photo: closerweekly.com

Geoffrey Mark who wrote The Lucy Book: A Complete Guide to Her Five Decades on Television, got to spend time with Croft. He said she was “nothing like the characters she played,” in an exclusive interview with Closer Weekly. “She was intelligent, thoughtful in her speech and prettier than you would think. I found her to be very honest in that there was no nonsense about what she said. If she said it, she meant it. She was aware that she had become this icon mostly because of her association with Lucille Ball, but also because of other things that she did.”

When he asked her how she was able to assume so many character voices, she said that she thought about what the backstory of the character might be and invented a voice that would serve that character. It was something she learned when she worked in radio.

Papermoon Loves Lucy — MARY JANE CROFT
Photo: tumblr.com

Although Croft only appeared on 26 different shows, she had a busy and lucrative career. She is remembered for three major roles: Daisy Enright on Our Miss Brooks, Clara Randolph on Ozzie and Harriet, and Mary Jane Lewis on The Lucy Show and Here’s Lucy. And even if her television career was not long, she was in the entertainment business for her entire life after graduation. She created many memorable radio voices as well. With her numerous roles, she truly was quite a character.

Celebrating National Kansas Day with Vivian Vance

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.

Vivian Vance Hated One Thing About Being On 'I Love Lucy'
Photo: showbizcheatsheet.com

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.

See the source image
Photo: pinterest.com

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.

See the source image
Photo: famouspeople.com

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.

See the source image
Photo: countryliving.com

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.

See the source image
Vance with Frawley, Arnaz, and Ball–Photo: hollywoodmemorabilia.com

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.

See the source image
Candy Moore, Ball, Jimmy Garrett, Ralph Hart and Vance–Photo: hitstv.com

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.

See the source image
Photo: pinterest.com

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.

See the source image
Photo: pinterest.com

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.

When Lucille Ball and Vivian Vance Said Goodbye For The Last Time
Photo: allvipp.com

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.