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.

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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.

The Teacher We All Wished We’d Had: Our Miss Brooks

We kicked off the month looking at the successful transition of Burns and Allen from radio to television.  There were many shows that couldn’t make the leap to the small screen, and several that did very well like The Jack Benny Show and I Love Lucy. Our Miss Brooks not only had a successful radio show, but when their television show debuted, the radio show kept going. Many of the cast members starred in both mediums. In addition, they made it to the big screen with a movie and a comic book.

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So, what enabled Our Miss Brooks to do what many shows could not?  Let’s look a little closer at the series and the behind-the-scenes work that kept the show on the air for four seasons, producing 130 episodes.

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Connie Brooks (Eve Arden) is an English teacher at Madison High. She and her principal, Mr. Conklin (Gale Gordon), do not always see eye to eye, but she is close to his daughter Harriet and Harriet’s boyfriend Walter (Richard Crenna) who gives Miss Brooks a ride to school. She wants to be close to Mr. Boynton (Robert Rockwell), the science teacher, but he is oblivious to her charms. She rents a room from Mrs. Davis (Jane Morgan) where she lives with Mrs. Davis’s cat, Minerva.

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We also get to know Fabian “Stretch” Snodgrass (Leonard Smith), basically a “dumb jock” who is Walter’s best friend and Daisy Enright (Mary Jane Croft), another English teacher who is Connie’s love rival for Mr. Boynton.

The show debuted July 19, 1948 on the radio. The show program was sponsored by Colgate-Palmolive-Peet for its entire run which ended in 1957. The first choice for Miss Brooks was Shirley Booth, and the show was titled “Our Miss Booth.” In Gerald Nachman’s book Raised on Radio, he states Booth concentrated too much on the disadvantages of being a school teacher to be funny. There is an audition with her from April of 1948 and while she sounds pleasant, she doesn’t have the sarcastic wit of Arden. The television show began in 1953 and was sponsored by General Foods.

 

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Our Miss Brooks was a ground-breaking show featuring a single woman (teachers were usually single, and marriage might have ended her career). She was not a scatterbrained female like Lucy or Joan in I Married Joan, and she was not a housewife like June Cleaver or Donna Reed. She was a bright, attractive working woman. Eve remembered her third-grade teacher fondly and tried to give Miss Brooks some of her qualities. Eve was known for her sassy movie roles; one of the things she appreciated about the character of Connie Brooks was that it allowed her to be a warm, fun-loving person who had a self-deprecating side.

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The show was a Desilu Production, so they shared equipment and crews with I Love Lucy, as well as a director (William Asher) at times, to save money.

The show was funny because it is based on believable characters. Connie Brooks has a great sense of humor. Many of the plots involve misunderstandings or her trying to keep Walter out of trouble with Mr. Conklin. Here are a few episode summaries.

Miss Davis unknowingly uses school funds to buy Connie a new dress. Now Connie must sell the dress to return the money. Mr. Boynton even models the dress for the kids.

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Mr. Boynton asks Connie to play the role of Mrs. Boynton. She is thrilled,  imagining what it could lead to, until she realizes he meant his mother, not his wife.

Walter is listening to his home-made radio. Storm warnings come over the air for Bombay. Miss Brooks mistakenly thinks it is for their area and takes precautions to evacuate the school and prepare for a hurricane.

Mr. Conklin is furious when his bike is taken at the grocery store, and he wants the thief punished. Miss Brooks finds out that a poor boy borrowed it for his birthday and then returned it to the store. She goes to great lengths to protect the youngster.

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Radio Mirror magazine nominated Eve Arden as the top-ranking comedienne two years in a row for her characterization of Miss Brooks. The National Education Association recognized her for her sympathetic portrayal of teachers.

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Eve Arden was nominated for an Emmy for Best Actress Starring in a Regular Series in 1954, 1955, and 1956—winning in 1954. Gale Gordon was nominated for Best Supporting Actor in 1955, and the show was nominated Best Situation Comedy in 1954 and 1955.

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Eve Arden had to fight the same battle many celebrities do when they have a hit show. She handled her fame of being known as Miss Brooks with grace and practicality. As she explained it: “I originally loved the theater. I still do. And I had always wanted to have a hit on Broadway that was created by me. You know, kind of like Judy Holliday and Born Yesterday. I griped about it a little, and someone said to me, ‘Do you realize that if you had a hit on Broadway, probably 100 or 200,000 people might have seen you in it, if you’d stayed in it long enough. And this way, you’ve been in Miss Brooks, everybody loves you, and you’ve been seen by millions.’ So, I figured I’d better shut up while I was ahead.”

 

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While the TV series never resolved the Boynton-Brooks romance, the 1956 film did. It was directed by Al Lewis, who directed many of the television episodes. In the movie, Miss Brooks is unaware that Mr. Boynton is saving money, so he can ask her to marry him. He is hoping to get a promotion to head of the department. In a subplot, Connie is having issues with a student who is failing her class. He has no friends because he is very arrogant. When she meets his wealthy father, she understands why he has no friends and she tries to help him.  Also, Mr. Conklin is running for Coordinator of Education, primarily to stop the other nominee, Superintendent Stone, who has threatened to fire Conklin. Miss Brooks decides to be Conklin’s campaign manager despite her butting heads with him most of the time. If Conklin wins, Mr. Boynton might be promoted to principal. In the end, Boynton finally proposes, only to have a chimpanzee steal away the ring.

 

Our Miss Brooks comic. (1956)

The movie was a box-office failure. After the movie, Dell Comics released a comic book titled “Our Miss Brooks.” In past decades, it sold for hundreds of dollars in mint condition. Today it can be found on ebay for under $50.

A fun fact I learned was that Eve Arden was born Eunice Quedens. When she was encouraged to take a different stage name, she looked over her cosmetic jar labels. She picked “Eve” from “Evening in Paris” and “Arden” from “Elizabeth Arden.”

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While many of the plots for Our Miss Brooks are predictable and not overly creative, it was a innovative sitcom. The scripts were well written, and the humor still works today. I could not find any channels currently broadcasting Our Miss Brooks, but it does appear on Me TV from time to time. The radio shows can be heard on Sirius Radio, channel 148. Of course, there are a variety of DVDs featuring the show. Add it to your list to understand why Eve Arden was so popular with women in the 1950s.

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America’s Favorite Family

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For the last two weeks of 2017 we are going to spend some time with the Nelson family. Ozzie, Harriet, David, and Ricky visited our home every week from 1952-1966. America watched the boys grow from young boys to adult men. Let’s see how the show developed.

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Oswald George Nelson was born in New Jersey in 1906. He attended Rutgers and graduated with a law degree, but in the 1920s he put a band together to see if he could make a living from music.  A new vocalist named Peggy Lou Snyder joined his band in 1932. Her parents were actors and she grew up on the stage. She had married a comedian Roy Sedley, but he was not funny at home; he was abusive, and she had their marriage annulled. When she joined Ozzie’s band, she changed her name to Harriet Hilliard, and she changed it again in 1935 when she married Ozzie.

 

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They did a few radio shows, eventually ending up on the Red Skelton Show. In 1944, they received their own radio show and they called it The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet. Their boys were played by actors until 1949 when Ozzie and Harriet felt they were old enough to join the cast. Later Ozzie would be criticized for putting his boys on the show and destroying their childhood, but David said his parents tried hard to give the boys a normal upbringing.

 

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In 1952, Ozzie and his brother wrote a movie called Here Come the Nelsons which was shown on the big screen.  It functioned as a pilot for a television show they began that same year.  Decades before Seinfeld, these two put together a how about nothing — and everything.  It was about their life and what was happening at home.  Unfortunately, the downside of portraying yourself on television was the pressure of trying to appear the perfect family when everyone realizes there is no such thing.   Growing up before the cameras put a lot of stress on the boys especially to always be “acting.”  David once was quoted as saying, “It’s an awfully big load to carry, to be everyone’s fantasy family.”

 

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The Nelsons lived at 822 Sycamore Rd, but the exterior shots were that of their real home at 1822 Camino Palmero St., Hollywood, LA, California.  The interior shots, built to resemble their own home, were filmed at Selzick International Studios in Culver City.

 

Hotpoint was one of their first sponsors, and viewers would have watched a young Mary Tyler Moore as Happy Hotpoint, a dancing pixie. Actors often addressed the audience directly, drawing them into their life.

 

Other characters who showed up regularly were their next-door neighbor Thorny played by Don DeFore; Don’s son said in real life he was much like Thorny.

 

Ozzie and Harriet’s friends Clara and Joe Randolph (Mary Jane Croft and Lyle Talbot) and Doc Williams (Frank Cady) were on the show regularly. Ricky’s friend Wally (Skip Young), and Jack (Jack Wagner) who worked at the malt shop also appeared regularly.  On several episodes you can see a young Barry and Stan Livingston before they were Steve Douglas’s sons.

 

The show produced 436 episodes, all written in part by Ozzie, produced by Ozzie, directed by Ozzie, and even set buildings were supervised by Ozzie who was considered a workaholic and quite different from the stammering, hesitant, and slightly absent-minded father he played on the small screen.

 

When Ricky decided he wanted a rock and roll career, it was written into the show, and his popularity is what kept the show going for a good part of the 1960s.

 

When David married June Blair, she was written into the show, and when Ricky married Kris Harmon (sister of Mark Harmon and mom of actress Tracy Harmon and the Nelson twins who had the band Nelson), she was written in as well.

A lot of the shows centered around the boys. Many of the situations were taken from real life.  When they’re younger, we see them learning life lessons; as they became teenagers, we watched them go through dating issues; and when they became adults, we followed their marriages, parenting choices, and careers.

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In 1966, the show began to be considered old-fashioned even though Ozzie tried to update the scripts. When the show was cancelled that year, it was replaced by a new show starring Adam West called Batman.

 

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Ozzie and Harriet tried television again in 1973 with Ozzie’s Girls where Ozzie and Harriet rent out the boys’ rooms to two college students, but the show failed after a year.

 

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Ozzie would go on to appear on the Mothers-In-Law, Adam-12, Night Gallery, Bridget Loves Bernie and three episodes of Love American Style. He passed away in 1975 from liver cancer.

 

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Harriet appeared in a variety of shows also including Bridget Loves Bernie, Love American Style, The Love Boat, Fantasy Island, Aloha Paradise,  and Happy Days but after Ozzie died, she became a bit of a recluse. The last show she appeared on was her granddaughter Tracy’s show, Father Dowling’s Mysteries. She died in 1994 from emphysema and congenital heart disease.

 

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Ricky had a variety of movie and television performances.  His music career continued successfully, although his drug abuse ruined his marriage and stalled his career.  He was killed in 1985 in a plane crash on his way to a performance.

 

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David appeared in quite a few movies when the show was over and got into directing and producing.  He and June divorced in 1975, and he married Yvonne O’Connor Huston. He passed away in 2011 from colon cancer.

I cannot imagine living your growing-up years under the microscope of the entire American public.  We have all experienced living near neighbors when they hear something we prefer they didn’t, or we hear something we prefer we didn’t.  This family had millions of people watching them, seeing if they lived up to their perfect image.

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It’s hard to discuss the show without discussing the repercussions it had on the Nelson clan, but the show itself was a chance to watch a family we admired and hoped to be more like when we became parents.  I have learned that you need to love characters for who they are — period.  Because, often the real humans behind them will let you down and make you sad.  It was hard for me to adjust to watching some of my favorite characters after learning disappointing things about the actors or actresses who portrayed them; often they were not such nice people.  So I made a determined effort to keep characters I love separate from any real life issues.

That said, I think Ozzie and Harriet did the best they could to raise their children under the spotlight with as much normalcy as possible.  They had to deal with real-life issues at home and then come together and play America’s favorite family.  I give them credit just for being able to do that for fourteen years.