Jay Sommers Figured Out the Formula for Good Writing

I thought it might be fun to look at some unique aspects of writing for sitcoms in this blog series. This month we’ll take a look at a variety of writing subjects.

To begin this series, I wanted to learn a bit about a classic sitcom writer, and Jay Sommers came to mind immediately. He wrote more than 400 scripts.

Sommers was born in 1917 in New York City. Before veering into comedy, he attended the City College of New York and studied the not-so-funny topic of chemistry. Apparently, he had good chemistry with his girlfriend’s father who thought he was pretty funny. The dad was an executive with Bristol Myers and the company sponsored many radio shows.

Photo: rusc.com

In 1940 his relationship with his then girlfriend’s dad led to Sommers receiving an offer to write for Milton Berle’s radio show. Jay did not keep the girl, but he kept the career. He would go on to write for a variety of radio shows including The Alan Young Show, Eddie Cantor, Spike Jones, Lum and Abner, and Red Skelton.

In 1950 he became the producer, director, and writer for a show called Granby’s Green Acres. It only ran for two months, but it would inspire him to create Green Acres for television a decade later. The show was based on a book by S.J. Perelman titled Acres and Pains. The premise of the show was that a wealthy banker wants to become a farmer, so he and his wife move to the country. The banker was played by Gale Gordon and his wife was Bea Benardaret.

Gordon and Benardaret Photo: wikiwand.com

Sommers’ first job as a writer on television was for The Peter Lind Hayes Show in 1950; the episode starred Gloria Swanson. In 1951 he wrote for the Colgate Comedy Hour, along with an episode of the Buster Keaton Show.

1953 brought him recognition for an episode of Our Miss Brooks (“Clay City Chaperone”). He became busier in 1954 writing for My Friend Irma, The Red Skelton Hour, and The Great Gildersleeve.

In the late fifties, he contributed to Blondie, Bachelor Father, and The Donna Reed Show.

Sommers really came into his own as a writer in the sixties. Along with a few screenplays, he wrote for The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, The Jim Backus Show, Dennis the Menace, The Beverly Hillbillies, and Grindl.

Sommers enjoyed the most lucrative part of his career from 1964 to 1970, working on Petticoat Junction and Green Acres. Paul Henning had created The Beverly Hillbillies and Petticoat Junction for CBS. In 1965, the network asked Henning to come up with a new sitcom and said he did not have to film a pilot or give a pitch; they trusted him to develop whatever he wanted. Sommers suggested a television version of his old radio show, Granby’s Green Acres. With Gale Gordon and Bea Benardaret already committed to other shows, the hunt began for two new stars for Green Acres.

Tom Lester, last-surviving 'Green Acres' cast member, dies at 81 - National  | Globalnews.ca
Photo: globalnews.com Cast of Green Acres

In the television show starring Eva Gabor and Eddie Albert, the banker is replaced by an attorney. Oliver Wendell Douglas and his wife Lisa leave glamorous Manhattan and move to a run-down farm in Hooterville. Lisa considers their handyman Eb their son and they bond with all the neighbors including Fred and Doris Ziffel and their pet pig Arnold, general store owner and postmaster Sam Drucker, and the folks from Petticoat Junction.

During an interview with the Television Academy, Paul Henning said his contribution was casting, and he let Jay do most of the writing and producing. The show resulted in 170 episodes and was canceled in 1971 when CBS decided to do a “rural purge” and get rid of any shows that fit that theme.

In another Television Academy interview with Richard L. Bare, who directed Green Acres, he said that he was the only director, Jay was the only producer, and that Jay and Dick Chevillat did all the writing. He said that the only other person on staff was a secretary. And, he said things worked out great. He said today there are way too many people on the set and it gets confusing. 

More Hooterville favorites Photo: sitcomsonline.com

Jay continued writing in the seventies, but he did not write a lot. His shows that decade included Hot L Baltimore, Good Times, Ball Four, Alice, and Hello Larry.

Jay passed away in 1985 in Los Angeles from a heart ailment. It was very hard to find much personal information about Jay and no photos. I do know that at some point he married Barbara and they had several children. So sad that we don’t know a lot about some of the people who contributed so much to the golden age of television.

Jay Sommers left us much too early. He came out of a chemistry background, proving you don’t have to teach someone to be funny. He wrote for some of my favorite shows including The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, The Donna Reed Show, and Bachelor Father.

Photo: findagrave.com

Sommers worked on three of the most iconic television sitcoms in the 1960s: The Beverly Hillbillies, Petticoat Junction, and Green Acres. If you have been with me for a while, you know I never really cared for The Beverly Hillbillies. I really enjoy Petticoat Junction and I think it’s well written, but I think Green Acres was one of the best-written sitcoms on television. It’s not easy to write about quirky characters without them seeming unbelievable, but Jay did it. He created characters we fell in love with and truly liked. He produced and wrote brilliant scripts week after week for more than five years. They were clever, witty, and sophisticated without being over the top. His grave marker sums it up, “WRITER.” Thank you, Jay Sommers for introducing us to the good folks in Hooterville.

December Bride “Springs Into Action”

Today we get to spend some time learning about one of the earliest sitcoms, December Bride, which aired on CBS from 1954-59. It began life as a radio show in 1952.

Cast of December Bride–Photo: tumbral.com

The show was created by Parke Levy who wrote the episodes as well and claimed to base Lily on his own mother-in-law. He owned 50% of the program; Desilu, producer, owned 25%; and CBS owned 25%. Harry Morgan said he liked Desi Arnaz very much. They cast rarely saw Lucy and saw Desi frequently but not in a negative way; he just might show up to see how things were going. (As an aside, I remember an interview with Bob Schiller, who wrote for this show along with many others, loved the name of “Parke Levy” and said it sounded like a Jewish housing development in New York.) Levy also wrote the film scripts for My Friend Irma and My Friend Irma Goes West.

Spring Byington and Frances Rafferty–Photo: vintagetvandmore.com

One fun fact is that both Fred de Cordova and William Asher were directors for this sitcom. Both would go on to long careers; de Cordova would produce The Tonight Show and Burns and Allen, direct My Three Sons, and both produce and direct for The Jack Benny Show. Asher would go on to direct I Love Lucy and Alice and both produce and direct most of the Bewitched episodes.

Spring Byington–Photo: pinterest.com

Spring Byington starred as Lily Ruskin, a lively widow who was looking for the right man.

Dean Miller and Frances Rafferty–Photo: pinterest.com

She lives with her daughter Ruth Henshaw (Frances Rafferty) and son-in-law Matt (Dean Miller) who help her in the search, as does her best friend, Hilda Crocker (Verna Felton).

Lily stays busy writing an advice column for the LA Gazette, “Tips for Housewives.”

Verna Felton–Photo: upperjacksonco

Pete Porter (Harry Morgan) is her next-door neighbor who also shows up often. (Next week we will learn about his spin-off from this show, Pete ‘n Gladys.) Pete enjoyed watching Matt and Lily’s interactions which he viewed as positive, unlike his relationship with his mother-in-law which he viewed negatively.

A lot of guest stars showed up including Jack Albertson, Morey Amsterdam, Desi Arnaz, Edgar Bergen, Madge Blake, Barbara Eden, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Nancy Kulp, Fred MacMurray, Howard McNear, Isabel Randolph, and Mickey Rooney

Harry Morgan–Photo: wikimedia.com

The scripts seemed about what you would expect for this era. In one of the funniest shows, Lily fails to deliver plans for Matt and as a result, Desi Arnaz’s family room collapses. In another one, Lily arranges for Pete to take riding lessons because his fear of horses is standing in the way of him earning a huge commission selling insurance to a wealthy ranch owner.

The gold standard for this decade seems to be Ozzie and Harriet Nelson’s show and the writing doesn’t measure up to that but seems like a fun show to watch.

Maxwell House Coffee was their sponsor for the entire run of the show.

The show was on Monday nights after I Love Lucy and had top-ten ratings for the first four years. For season five, the network moved it to Thursdays, where it was up against Zorro and The Ed Wynn Show. Ratings declined significantly, and it was cancelled. Fans have noted that the last season’s scripts were not as well written and the show had probably run its course.

Harry Morgan discussed the show for the Academy of Television interviews. He said it was a nice show to work on; he described it as “fluffy and light” and “typical for the time.” He said he enjoyed doing the show, all the cast was wonderful, especially Spring who was an amazing actress, and he became good friends with Dean Miller and Frances Rafferty. He said that it was a well-done show and he had a lot of fun during those five years.

I watched the episode about Desi’s family room caving in. Morgan’s description was pretty accurate. The show might not present deep philosophical moments, but it was well written. One of the bright spots was Desi’s butler played by Richard Deacon. I can certainly think of worse ways to spend a few hours than watching several of these classic television episodes.

Everybody’s Friend, Marie Wilson

This month our blog series is “They Call Me Wilson,” and we will be looking at actors with the last name of Wilson.  Today we begin our series with Marie Wilson, a familiar face in television in the 1950s.

See the source image
Photo: e.n. wikipedia.org

Marie was born Katherine Elizabeth Wilson in August of 1916 in California. Her nickname in high school was “Maybelle.” After her father died, the family moved to Hollywood. She graduated from high school in 1933, and by 1934, she had received her first movie credit. One source mentioned that her parents divorced when she was only seven months old and her father, Wally Wilson, passed away when she was five. She received an $11,000 trust which helped her take time to pursue a career in acting. Her stepfather, Frank White, raised her.

Photo: blogspot.com

Her first role was as a passenger in Down to Their Last Yacht, but she would go on to appear in more than fifty films. The plot of this movie was that a family loses everything in the Depression except their yacht. Several men who feel bad for their daughter decide to host a Monte Carlo night.  The group rigs the roulette wheel so that the house is the winner although she knows nothing about it.

From 1947 to 1953 she also accepted a role on radio as the scatterbrained Irma on My Friend Irma. The show was very popular with well-written scripts and accomplished acting.

Wilson with Cathy Lewis–Photo: oldtimeradiodownloads.com

During this time, she also starred in a couple of films about Irma in My Friend Irma and My Friend Irma Goes West. A duo by the name of Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis starred in the movie version of My Friend Irma.

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Not content with Irma occupying space in two big medias, My Friend Irma aired on television from 1952-1954. Irma was a secretary living with roommate and friend Jane Stacy (Cathy Lewis) in a run-down apartment owned by Mrs. O’Reilly (Gloria Gordon). Neighbor Professor Kropotkin (Sig Arno) got involved in the girls’ lives as well as Jane’s boyfriend, millionaire Richard Rhinelander III (Brooks West) whose mother was played by the amazing Margaret Dumont. After Jane moves to Panama at the end of season one, Kay Foster (Mary Shipp) became Irma’s new roommate. Her boyfriend was Joe Vance (Hal March). The new neighbor was Mr. Corday (John Carradine), an actor and just for some new plots, Irma’s seven-year-old nephew Bobby (Richard Eyer) moves into the apartment.

Photo: oldtimeradiodownloads.com

During her time on radio, she married actor Allan Nixon. Apparently, he struggled because he was a bit player while her career flourished.  He was arrested numerous times for drunk and disorderly conduct, and they divorced in 1950. Another big disappointment occurred in 1950 when she lost the role of Billie Dawn in Born Yesterday to Judy Holliday.

The following year she married Robert Fallon, another fellow actor, and they remained together until her death in 1972.

Marie’s appearances on television waned in the sixties.  She appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1960 and on Comedy Spot in 1962. Comedy Spot had a different premise.  As a summer replacement for Red Skelton, it featured unsold pilots for comedy series and reruns from comedic anthology shows.

Photo: oldtimeradioclassics.com

In 1963 she would appear on two episodes of Burke’s Law and in one episode of Empire.

In 1970 she returned to a weekly animation series on Where’s Huddles? She had the role of football wife Penny McCoy. Unfortunately, it was cancelled after only ten episodes. This show was about the lives of football families on and off the field and featured a lot of talent including Paul Lynde, Jean Vander Pyl, Allan Reed, and Mel Blanc.

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Photo: hanna-barbera.wikia.com

Her last appearance was on Love American Style as Margaret Cooperman in 1972 in “Love and the Girlish Groom.”

Wilson was recognized for each of her Irma media hits with a Walk of Fame star for radio at 6301 Hollywood Boulevard, for television at 6765 Hollywood Boulevard, and for movies at 6601 Hollywood Boulevard.

Photo: pinterest.com

Not many actresses can claim their leg is a famous sculpture but Wilson’s left leg was used to cast a 35-foot sculpture located outside the Theme Hosiery plant in Los Angeles. The leg was wearing nylons to promote them to the public in 1949.

Marie had a long and successful career but was typecast early in life and unable to shake that image.  It may have contributed her loss of the part in Born Yesterday which might have changed her career dramatically. Discussing her life in entertainment, Wilson said “Show business has been very good to me and I’m not complaining, but some day I just wish someone would offer me a different kind of role. My closest friends admit that whenever they tell someone they know me, they have to convince them that I’m really not dumb. To tell you the truth, I think people are disappointed that I’m not.”

See the source image
Photo: pinterest.com

As we’ve seen so often in this blog, it’s hard not to be grateful for a lucrative career in entertainment, but it’s tough to be locked into one type of role and never given a chance to show your depths as an actor. Thanks for being our friend, Marie.