Make Room for Daddy: The Show That Persevered

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.

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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 daddy.”

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.

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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.)

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With Danny 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 show.

Like many 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.”

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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.

At the 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.

The emphasis 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.

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Mary Wickes in the background

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 NBC 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.

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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.

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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.

“The Danny Thomas Show” (aka “Make Room for Daddy”) Pat Carroll, Sid Melton circa 1950s Photo by Gabi Rona

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.