September is What a Character month, and today we end our series with a look at the career of Herbie Faye. Faye was born in 1899 in New York City. He began working with Mildred Harris in vaudeville in 1928. Phil Silvers was one of the supporting cast members, and their friendship would prove fruitful for his future television career.
In the forties and fifties, Faye tried his luck on Broadway, appearing in a variety of shows including “Wine, Women, and Song” in 1942 and “Top Banana” in 1951.
He also began a career on the big screen in the fifties. His first film was the movie version of Top Banana in 1954. He would appear in 17 movies; in fact, his last acting credit was the movie Melvin and Howard in 1980. In between, he appeared in a variety of genres including Requiem for a Heavyweight starring Anthony Quinn, The Thrill of It All with Doris Day, and The Ghost and Mr. Chicken with Don Knotts.
In 1950, at the age of 51, Faye made his first television appearance. He appeared in two episodes of Cavalcade of Stars. You would have also seen him in Our Miss Brooks, The Goldbergs, and Hennessey in the fifties.
When Phil Silvers got his own show in 1955, he hired Faye to play Corporal Sam Fender which he did for 139 episodes between 1955 and 1959. This was a hilarious show and hasn’t lost its charm with time. In addition to the primary characters, there was a group of about a dozen secondary characters who appeared along with Faye. Eventually, the costs became too high, and the show was canceled.
Faye was extremely busy in the sixties. He must have been good at his job because he was cast in more than one show on several of the series he worked for. He was four different characters on The Danny Thomas Show, six on The Dick Van Dyke Show, five on The Joey Bishop Show, two on My Favorite Martian, two on Bewitched, three on The Andy Griffith Show, four on The Gomer Pyle Show, two on I Dream of Jeanne, two on That Girl, four on Petticoat Junction, two on Mayberry RFD, two on Jack Benny as well as 27 other shows all in the sixties. On top of all those appearances, he was part of the cast for two additional television shows: The New Phil Silvers Show from 1963 to 1964 as Waluska and as Irv on Accidental Family in 1967.
In November of 2018, KJ Ricardo spotlighted Faye in her You Tube channel show about The Dick Van Dyke Show. Herbie was Willie, the deli owner who delivered lunch to the comic writers on the show. He appeared in six of the shows. In his first appearance, Rob is trying to leave the office because he thinks Mary is in labor but every time he tries to leave, the Danish cart is in the way. On the third and fourth episode, he starts critiquing the ideas the writers have and making
comments on what works and what doesn’t. They are pretty funny.
He continued his busy career throughout the seventies when he made one-time appearances in eleven different shows including The Mary Tyler Moore Show, The Bob Newhart Show, Love American Style, Happy Days, and Barney Miller. He made multiple appearances on several other shows including Mod Squad (3), Here’s Lucy (4), The New Dick Van Dyke Show (4), The Odd Couple (6). He also had a recurring role on Doc where he played Ben Goldman from 1975-76.
Faye passed away in Las Vegas in 1980.
Herbie Faye was a very funny guy. He was just an average guy, but he had a way of focusing the viewers’ attention just on him for the brief time he appeared; he made the episodes he was in even better. I guess that is the ultimate definition of a great character actor.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
Croft died of natural causes in 1999.
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.
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.
October is “What a Character,” blog series month, and we are taking a look at some of our favorite character actors. This blog features the wonderful Isabel Randolph.
Randolph was born in Chicago in 1889. After high school, Isabel began performing in regional theater throughout the Midwest until the mid-1930s. She married J.C. Ryan, a Chicago newspaperman, in 1917. Unfortunately, he passed away at a young age and she raised their two girls. She was the leading lady at the Princess Theater in Des Moines, Iowa. In a 2012 article, Ryan Ellett quoted Conrad Nagel as saying the Princess Theater “was recognized as one of the outstanding stock companies of the entire country, and is still referred to by some of the old timers as the best of them all.” Ralph Bellamy also spent time with the theater.
In the thirties, Randolph decided to try out radio. She was on the air on Fibber McGee and Molly from 1935-1943. She played a variety of roles but was best known for Mrs. Abigail Uppington, a society matron. During this time, she also was in several other soap opera-type shows. When the McGees moved their show to Hollywood, Isabel went to California with them where she took a chance at motion pictures.
Isabel specialized in the “grand dame” roles which continued into her film career. Of her 110 acting credits, 69 of them were for movies on the big screen, her first being in 1939 in The Women.
In 1953, she made the foray into television. Her first role was on The Dick Tracy Show in 1951, based on the popular comic strip.
In 1952, she got her second role, and her first recurring role in a sitcom, when she was offered the part of neighbor Mrs. Boone in Meet Millie. Meet Millie was about Millie Bronson (Elena Verdugo), a secretary who lives with her mother (Florence Halop) in Queens. Her boss is JR Boone (Roland Winters) and she sometimes dates his son Johnnie (Ross Ford). Family friend and poet Alfred Prinzmetal (Marvin Kaplan) often drops by. We don’t hear about this show very often but it was on for four years and produced 124 episodes.
Randolph did a variety of work in television throughout the rest of the fifties. She did a lot of theater programs, westerns, and also comedies including Burns and Allen, The Ann SothernShow, December Bride, and The Bob Cummings Show.
She had another recurring role during the last season of Our Miss Brooks when she played Ruth Nestor who ran a private boarding school. John Rich was the director on the show. He loved the cast and said especially Eve Arden was a joy to work with, very nice and very funny. He described the entire cast as “adorable.”
Although she didn’t have a recurring role on Ozzie and Harriet, she was on the show five times between 1956-61. My favorite of her roles on that show was “Busy Christmas” when she played Mrs. Brewster and was heading the Christmas caroling group.
During the sixties, Isabel kept busy. She appeared on Perry Mason three times, twice on The Andy Griffith Show, The Joey Bishop Show, Ben Jarrod, Arrest and Trial, and Many Happy Returns.
Her last recurring role was that of Mrs. Petrie on The Dick Van Dyke Show. In last week’s blog, we looked at one of the best Dick Van Dyke episodes, “Pink Pills and Purple Parents.” When Sally considers taking one of Buddy’s pain pills for her headache, Rob relates a time when Millie gave Laura some of her relaxation pills. Laura takes her first one when Rob’s parents arrive and as she becomes more nervous, she continues to take pills. Eventually, she is a bit loopy making strange comments, forgetting to put ice cream in the sundaes, and dancing to music before passing out. Rob’s parents are sure she has a drinking problem but later find out what happened. Randolph is a gem in this episode.
Randolph passed away in 1973 of undisclosed reasons.
Sadly, like so many of our great character actors, there is not as much information about Isabel’s life. Character actors deserve to have more websites or books of their own. Isabel played the snobby rich woman in many of her roles, but I always think of her as an elegant, gracious mother type. Thank you, Isabel, for so many decades of entertainment and memorable characters. She was a character, indeed.
Mister Peepers was one of the first popular sitcoms. It aired from July of 1952 until June of 1955. The show starred Wally Cox as Robinson J. Peepers. Peepers was a junior high school science teacher. A great cast surrounded him including history teacher Harvey Weskit (Tony Randall), Harvey’s wife Marge (Georgann Johnson), county nurse Nancy Remington (Patricia Benoit), English teacher Mrs. Gurney (Marion Lorne), and athletic coach Frank Whip (Jack Warden). (In the pilot, the coach was played by Walter Matthau.) Peepers developed a relationship with nurse Nancy, and her parents (Ernest Truex and Sylvia Field) also became part of the cast.
The show featured some slapstick as well but it was not the primary form of humor. In one episode, the uncoordinated Mr. Peepers was playing basketball in the gym alone and somehow got stuck in the basket. In order to fulfill the evening obligations that he promised, he brings Mrs. Gurney’s flower club into the gym so he can lecture to them about potting soil while playing chess with a rival school’s champion as promised to Mr. Gurney.
Mr. Peepers is kind. In one episode, after injuring his finger, absent-minded Mrs. Gurney tries to help by bandaging it. In addition to using half a roll of tape, Robinson informs Nancy that she bandaged the wrong finger.
Mister Peepers is a likable guy. He has some eccentric characteristics which make us like him even more. For example, he has an elaborate ritual to get his locker to open; on bring your pet to school day, he has to hide a cow; and sometimes he does things we all want to. On one episode, he comes upon a hopscotch board on the sidewalk and just like we would want to do, he plays it not realizing his girlfriend is watching him. However, Robinson has a bit of rebellion and sarcasm that keeps him from being too much of a goody-two-shoes.
Tony Randall’s character Harvey was supposed to be a small role, but the producers liked him so much he became a regular. He is best friends with Robinson but they couldn’t be more different. Harvey is a lady’s man. However, Mr. Peepers only has eyes for Nancy even though it takes her a while to realize he is interested in her. The couple ties the not in 1954, producing a huge ratings boost.
In real life, Cox was experiencing the same situation when he married Marilyn Gennaro about the same time. When Benoit became pregnant in real life, she was also pregnant on the show.
When the Peepers found out they were having a baby, American Character Dolls Co wanted to make a “Peepers Baby Doll” in 1955. Polling indicated that viewers were hoping for a girl, so it went into production. Mister Peepers was cancelled before the doll debuted, but the company sold it anyway, although they did change the name.
The show was aired live with an audience of 2500 at the New Century Theatre in New York. Preserved on 16mm kinescopes, there are currently 102 of the original 127 episodes in existence. The kinescopes are being preserved by the UCLA Film and Television Archive and a DVD set has been produced.
The Ford Motor Company needed a summer replacement on Thursday nights so Mister Peepers debuted then. NBC decided it was too much pressure to do a live show, so it was cancelled. Fans were irate. After 2000 people called to complain and 15000 letters were received, the network had second thoughts, but their schedule was full.
However, that fall, an opening occurred when Doc Corkle was cancelled after only three episodes. How bad does a show have to be to get axed after three episodes in 1952? I don’t know, but the summary of the show is that “Doc is a dentist plagued with money problems, teenage daughter problems, and a screwball stepsister Melinda.”
It says a lot about the quality of Mister Peepers that it was rated so highly and watched by so many fans because it was up against Private Secretary with Ann Sothern and The Jack Benny Show on Sunday nights. Tough competition.
Critics liked the show and it was nominated for best situation comedy for the Emmys in 1953, 1954, and 1955. Wally Cox, Tony Randall, and Marion Lorne were all nominated as well. Each of the years the show was nominated it went up against Our Miss Brooks, Burns and Allen, and I Love Lucy which won in 1953 and 1954; Make Room for Daddy won in 1955. NBC made Wally Cox postcards which they handed out to tourists on the lot.
Wally Cox was an interesting guy. He was a brilliant man who studied acting with Stella Adler. His roommate was Marlon Brando whom he had been best friends with since grade school. His mother and grandmother were writers, and his dad was in advertising. Before he was able to earn a living in acting, he taught the lindy hop for $1.50 a lesson and made cuff links and tie clasps. While doing part-time jobs, he began doing standup at clubs like The Blue Angel and Village Vanguard.
Unfortunately, a lot of people will remember him only for his appearances on Hollywood Squares and as the voice of Underdog the cartoon hero. He was also famous for a Jockey Shorts commercial when he quipped, “Outside I might look like Wally Cox but inside I feel like Tyrone Power.” He passed away much too early, dying from a heart attack at 48.
Although Wally Cox was not Mister Peepers, their humor was similar. Cox wasn’t brash but he experienced life with a quiet subtle manner and was a genuinely funny guy. In discussing his time on the show, Cox said, “Mr. Peepers put me on the map and I love him.” I’m sure like many actors who were stereotyped early in their career, it was a bit of a love/hate relationship. I’m sure you will love him too if you are able to watch some of the episodes. Retro TV aired them in the past, but I don’t see the show on its current schedule. I also found the DVDs on amazon.com. Happy viewing!
We are in the third blog of our series “The Men of November.” Born Charles Thomas Aldrich Jr. in 1906, Gale Gordon is remembered fondly for being Lucille Ball’s nemesis on several of her television sitcoms.
Both his parents were entertainers, and they traveled to England to perform when he was only one. For eight years, he lived in England. After returning to the United States for a few years, Gordon returned to London to complete his education at the Woodbridge School in Suffolk.
Gale followed in his parents’ footsteps, and his first theatrical job was as an extra in “The Dancers” in 1923. Richard Bennett (father of Constance and Joan Bennett) starred in the stage production. Gordon worked as Bennett’s dresser, and Bennett taught him all about make-up, mentored him as an actor, and helped him to develop his voice.
By 1925, Gordon traveled to Hollywood, tackling roles in stage, film, and radio. Gordon talked about his first radio performance: “They asked me to come to a Hollywood studio in 1926 and try this new thing called ‘radio.’ They didn’t pay me, of course. They just wanted to fill up some time. So, I sang, ‘It Ain’t Gonna Rain No More, No More’ and accompanied myself on the ukulele. You might say I almost killed radio before it was born. I haven’t played an instrument on the air since.”
In seven short years, Gordon became the highest-paid actor in radio in Hollywood. He was the male lead for Mary Pickford in her serial. He was on almost every popular show on the air. It wasn’t unusual for him to appear on three or more programs in a week. Gordon was the first actor to play Flash Gordon in 1935.
His radio work also provided some other benefits. While appearing on an episode of Death Valley Days in New York, he met Virginia Curley. They married in 1937.
In 1941, after playing primarily dramatic roles, Gordon became a regular on Fibber McGee and Molly. Playing Mayor LaTrivia, Gale was on the show for a dozen years. There was a brief interruption in 1942 when he left the show and enlisted in the US Coast Guard for three years. He rose to the rank of Petty Officer First Class, and his service took him around the world to many dangerous places.
One of the roles he is best known for was Principal Osgood Conklin on Our Miss Brooks. Gordon described Conklin in a TV Guide interview: “There was nothing subtle about Osgood. No nuances. Just a lot of very satisfying acid, bluster, and bellowing, with an occasional weak moment of cordiality thrown in for leavening. It was practically impossible to overplay him. Even when he was being cordial, he was like an elephant trying to waltz.”
In 1950, he could be heard as John Granby on Granby’s Green Acres which later became the sitcom Green Acres.
While trying to reign in the chaos at Madison High School as Osgood Conklin, Gale was also the refined banker, Rudolph Atterbury, on My Favorite Husband, Lucille Ball’s radio comedy. Atterbury’s wife was played by Bea Benederet.
As television gained popularity, it was inevitable that some of radio’s favorite shows would make the transition to the small screen. While it was entirely possible to play several different characters on the radio, television production didn’t offer the same flexibility. When My Favorite Husband was retooled for television as I Love Lucy, Ball planned on bringing Gordon and Benederet along with her. However, Gale was committed to Our Miss Brooks, and Bea was playing a major role on Burns and Allen on television.
Asked about those days, Gale described himself as “a quiet, reserved, pipe-smoking homebody.” He said he always had a good balance of professional and personal interests. In addition to acting, he wrote books (Nursery Rhymes for Hollywood Babies and Leaves from the Story Trees), painted, and maintained a ranch. He and Virginia bought a 150-acre property about three hours away from Hollywood. They grew carob trees. Gordon was not a rancher in name only; he raised the trees, built the house, installed the plumbing, completed carpentry and handiwork, put in a swimming pool, and built a two-story building that served as garage and studio.
In 1952, Eve Arden decided to take Our Miss Brooks to television. While Gale continued his role as Conklin on the show, he also guest starred on a couple of I Love Lucy episodes. Our Miss Brooks had a successful run for four years.
When the show ended in 1956, CBS was quick to sign Gordon on for another show. They paired him with Bob Sweeney in The Box Brothers (sometimes called The Brothers). Unfortunately, the series only lasted for 26 weeks.
In 1958, Gordon was a regular on Sally where he played department store owner Bascomb Bleacher. He also appeared with Walter Brennan on The Real McCoys.
In 1959, December Bride which aired from 1954-1959, went off the air, spinning off a new show Pete and Gladys starring Harry Morgan and Cara Williams. Morgan appeared as Pete Porter on December Bride. On the new show, Gale played Pete’s Uncle Paul.
In 1962 he was cast as Mr. Wilson on Dennis the Menace. At the same time, Lucille Ball was creating a new show, The Lucy Show. She wanted Gordon to appear as Mr. Barnsdahl, a banker. When he was not available, Lucille turned to Charles Lane. She said she loved working with Lane, but always wanted to work with Gale again, so when Dennis the Menace was cancelled, she quickly signed Gordon; Lane moved over to Bea Benederet’s new sitcom, Petticoat Junction, as the despicable Homer Bedloe. And thus Theodore J. Mooney was born.
For the next eleven years, through several different series titles, Lucy and Gale worked together. They would both retire in 1974. When describing his time on Lucy’s shows, Gale related in a Good Morning America interview in 1982 that “I always had a wonderful feeling of anticipation going to work every week, which is very, very rare. I don’t care what business you are in. But to really look forward to getting into the nitty gritty and working hard for four days—which is all the time we had to do the show—is really unique. To look forward to it for eleven years, that’s doubly unique.” He went on to praise Lucy for her work ethic: “Her attitude has never changed. Every show she ever did was always the most important show of her life. And I think that is the secret of her success.”
One surprising thing I learned was that Gordon was known for his ability to do cartwheels. He can be seen doing them on several episodes of Here’s Lucy. At the time, he was earning $25,000 an episode. Compare that to today when the stars of The Big Bang Theory received a million dollars an episode.
Gale and Virginia enjoyed twenty years of retirement. Virginia would pass away in 1995 at Red Terrace Health Center in Escondido, California. One month later, Gordon died from lung cancer at the same facility.
In 1999, Gale was inducted into the Radio Hall of Fame. Known for playing a variety of gruff, formal professionals, everyone knew that the bellow and bluster his characters spewed was great acting. In real life, Gale was one of the sweetest, kindest men around. He once said, “I am never nasty—unless I get paid for it.”
It’s hard to describe the influence Gale Gordon has had on generations of actors and the number of hours of entertainment he has provided to generations of television and radio fans. It’s always fun to listen or watch Connie Brooks trying to pull a fast one over on Osgood Conklin or Lucy Carmichael trying Mr. Mooney’s patience with her latest scatter-brained plan. Thank you Gale Gordon!
Today marks the beginning of National Singles Week. So, we’re taking a closer look at two women who were single and okay with it.
In the 1950s, Ann Sothern starred in two sitcoms that were almost one and the same. From 1953-57, we watched her in Private Secretary. Susie McNamara was the assistant to Peter Sands at his theatrical agency. When it went off the air due to contract disputes, Susie moved to a New York hotel, and in 1958, she morphed into Katy O’Connor. The show ran until 1961, and Sothern brought three of her former cast members to the hotel with her with new identities.
In 1970, we met Mary Richards. Mary is an independent career woman. She’d like to meet the right guy, but till he shows up, she’d rather be alone than in an unfulfilling relationship. Like Susie and Katy, Mary’s workmates become part of her extended family.
Ann Sothern was one of the first, if not the first, single working woman to appear on a sitcom. Susie previously worked as an actress and was a WAC in World War II. Her best friend Vi (Ann Tyrrell) is the receptionist at the agency. Susie often meddled in her boss’s private affairs, especially his female relationships. She could be described as a bit ditzy, but she also ran the office and was very bright.
Sothern was praised for her acting ability. She was nominated for Emmys three years in a row, but lost to Loretta Young in 1955, Lucille Ball in 1956, and Nanette Fabray in 1957. Lucille Ball, one of her closest friends, called Ann “the best comedian in this business, bar none.”
To ensure she came across as a serious career woman, great care was taken with the set. It was a state-of-the-art office with the most up-to-date equipment. Connie Brooks, on Our Miss Brooks, was praised by teachers for her realistic portrayal of an educator. Similarly, Ann Sothern was a heroine to secretaries throughout the country. In real life, Sothern was a smart business woman. She invested her money well, owned a variety of companies and a large ranch. She produced PrivateSecretary and insisted it be preserved on film. As a result, it went into syndication where it was titled “Susie.” From 1987-1990, it aired on Nick at Nite, creating a new fan base for the show.
The show holds up well. The scripts are a bit predictable and stereotyped, but it reflected the time. Susie McNamara gave young women hope that there was more to life than getting married and raising a family, although that was still an important role for women.
When Sothern was helping to run a posh hotel, Laura Petrie was at home, running her household. She gave up her dancing career to do so, but she was much more than a wife and mom. She and her husband were co-parenting at that time, and they were friends. She and Rob entertained a lot. Laura supported Rob’s friendship with Sally Rogers, one of his co-writers on this television show. She was a career woman who was very funny and smart, albeit lonely.
Nine years later, The Mary Tyler Moore Show debuted. Laura Petrie had become Mary Richards, a single career woman making her way to Minneapolis. Mary lived alone, dated infrequently, and spent a lot of her time at work or with her new best friend who lived in the apartment above her.
While we got to know Susie at work, we just got to know Mary. We saw her at her best and her worst. We saw her joyful, depressed, frustrated, angry, and saw her uncertainty as she navigated life alone.
Mary’s coworkers became her family. Mary wasn’t ditzy, although she occasionally did a ditzy thing or two. She didn’t try to fix her boss’s problems; she had problems of her own, but she was always there for her WJM family.
Mary would have liked to find the right guy, but until he came along she was satisfied with her life the way it was. She spent her money any way she wanted. She could wear her pajamas all day on Saturday. She had a fun, modern wardrobe. Work gave her great delight, and it also could be extremely stressful.
Murray was her best friend at work. He and Mary shared a lot of life. We knew part of Murray was in love with Mary, but we also knew neither of them would ever act on any of those possible feelings since he was married.
Mary was smart and funny. She was an assistant producer for the daily news. Her office space was not as elaborate as Susie’s. There was never enough money at work or at home.
The times had allowed Mary to move to the city by herself and set up a home. However, even Mary Richards was not allowed to be a divorcé. The network vetoed the original script and converted Mary to a formerly engaged girl whose relationship fell apart. During the run of the show, her boss’s wife asked for a divorce, so the show still ended up featuring a divorced character.
The Mary Tyler Moore Show was one of the best-written shows in television history. Like M*A*S*H and The Bob Newhart Show, the ensemble of characters drove the show and they were realistic and likeable. The show received 29 Emmys, including three years in a row for Best Comedy (1975-1977). The series tackled a lot of social issues during its run, including equal pay for women, marital infidelity, ethical behavior when Mary goes to jail to protect a news source, dealing with death of a friend, and Mary’s sleeping pill addiction–real issues facing women at that time.
This was a sophisticated show. It was not predictable. Mary was nice, sometimes too nice for her own good. When everyone else called Mr. Grant Lou, Mary couldn’t bring herself to do it. We were always rooting for her. She had hopes, dreams, and ambitions, and a realistic attitude about life.
It seems like a big leap between Susie McNamara and Mary Richards, but there were a lot of smaller steps in between. Marlo Thomas’s That Girl provided another smart, funny woman who chose to give up her teaching job to pursue an acting career in New York. Ann Marie was another link in the chain that helped move women forward. While she did have a boyfriend and became engaged during the run of the show, Marlo Thomas ended the show with their marriage up in the air.
Mary’s life was more realistic than Susie’s. When the Ann Sothern Show ended, Katy and her boss (still played by Don Porter) kiss, and you know that they will end up married, and Katy will no longer be running the office.
When Mary Tyler Moore’s show ended, everyone on the WJM staff was fired except the totally incompetent Ted Baxter. We don’t know what Mary will be doing, but she has choices. Perhaps she found another news job in a new city. I like to think she found a position in management at a local corporation. Maybe she fell in love with one of the employees she was supervising. I think when she retired and turned on the television, she was watching Murphy Brown’s FYI program, celebrating the leaps women were taking in the workforce.
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 LoveLucy. 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.
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.
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.
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 Raisedon 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.
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.
The show was a Desilu Production, so they shared equipment and crews with ILove 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.”
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.
This week I’m excited to learn more about one of my favorite entertainers—Bea Benardaret. Bea had a long and successful career in radio and television, as well films. Nick-named Busy Bea, she would get credit for making more than 1000 radio and television appearances.
Born in 1906 in New York City, she was raised in San Francisco. Her first radio appearance occurred when she was 12 years old in Beggar’s Opera. While still in high school, Bea went to work for radio station KFRC where she acted, sang, wrote, produced, and announced. She went on to the Reginald Travis School of Acting.
She married Jim Bannon in 1938. Their marriage would last until 1950 and produce two children, Maggie and Jack. She later married Gene Twombly in 1958 and remained married until her death. Jack tells a story about when his mother was very pregnant with his sister. While exiting a cab, she fell and broke her pelvis. It was so traumatic that her brunette locks turned white. At that time, she began dyeing her hair the blonde color we would all recognize once she transitioned to television.
Bea’s son Jack became an actor who has 91 credits for television and movie work. He appeared on Petticoat Junction 15 times, but was best known for his role of Art Donovan on Lou Grant. He was married to Ellen Travolta and passed away in the fall of 2017.
Bea could probably win the award of most-often misspelled name. You can find her name spelled Benardaret correctly or Benederet or Benadaret. On several episodes of Burns and Allen, you can even find credits spelling her first name “Bee.”
After graduation, she entered the radio business full time. She moved to Hollywood in 1936 and found work on The Jack Benny Show and shortly after with Orson Welles’ Mercury Theater in 1937. She was featured in 36 different radio shows with her most famous roles being Gertrude Gearshift on The Jack Benny Show, Eve Goodwin on The Great Gildersleeve, Millicent Carstairs on Fibber McGee and Molly, Gloria the maid on The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, and Iris Atterbury on My Favorite Husband. She received a starring role in Granby’s Green Acres, the forerunner of the Green Acres Show.
In 1943, she became one of the primary voices of Warner Brothers Merrie Melodies and Looney Toons cartoons. She met Mel Blanc during this time and they remained friends for life.
Bea also received roles in six films including a government clerk in Notorious (1946), one of two women Gene Kelley and Frank Sinatra encounter on the subway in On the Town (1949), and Tender is the Night (1962).
Bea’s first television role was my favorite character—Blanche Morton on the George Burns and Gracie Allen Show. Bea had appeared on their radio show and when the duo transitioned into television, she made the move with them. From 1950-1958 she was Gracie’s best friend and long-suffering wife of Harry Morton. Bea credited George Burns for teaching her about comedy. Bea was awarded two Emmy nominations for her portrayal of Blanche.
Not long after she was obligated to play Blanche, Lucille Ball offered her the role of Ethel Mertz on her new show I Love Lucy. Bea had to decline, but she did make an appearance on the show in 1952. Her “husband” on My Favorite Husband and Granby’s Green Acres was Gale Gordon. He, too, was approached to play Fred Mertz; however, similarly to Bea’s situation, he had already agreed to transition from radio to television on Our Miss Brooks. He too would costar on the show and later he was able to work with Lucille Ball again on her other television shows.
In 1960 Bea accepted the role of the housekeeper on Peter Loves Mary. That same year she agreed to provide the voice for Betty Rubble when The Flintstones debuted on Friday nights. She would provide voices on The Flintstones for 112 episodes.
Paul Henning was one of the writers for Burns and Allen. He and Bea became friends in the 1940s, and in 1962 he created a show called The Beverly Hillbillies. He brought in Bea for the role of Granny, but when Bea saw Irene Ryan’s audition, she told Paul he had definitely found his Granny. He then created the role of Pearl Bodine for Bea. She would appear in 22 episodes. Donna Douglas, who played Elly May, said that “watching her timing is like watching a ballerina. She’s so effortless.”
When Henning created a spin-off in Petticoat Junction, the role of Kate Bradley was written specifically for Bea. She appeared in 179 of the episodes of the show that aired from 1963-1969. Henning’s wife’s family ran the Burris Hotel in Eldon, Missouri that catered to salesmen traveling by railroad, and those stories became the basis for Petticoat Junction. Kate, a widow, runs the hotel with help of her Uncle Joe who is often busier trying to avoid work than helping out. She has three daughters Billie Jo, Bobby Jo, and Betty Jo. (During the show’s run, there would be three Billie Jo’s, and two Bobby Jo’s but only one Betty Jo, who was portrayed by Linda Kay Henning, Paul’s daughter.)
Charley Pratt and Floyd Smoot run the Cannonball, a train that enables the Bradleys to travel to Pixley and Hooterville. Cut off from the main railroad twenty years earlier in a trestle demolition, the train caters to local residents, often stopping to move cows or let someone visit a neighbor between official stops. Sam Drucker runs the general store in Hooterville and is always the center of local society. Though it was never made too obvious, Kate and Sam had a special relationship, and we always assumed that once the girls were grown and gone, and Sam was ready for retirement, he and Bea would end up together. The old-fashioned hotel offers home cooking and a nostalgic feel. Other titles considered were Ozark Widow, Dern Tootin’, and Whistle Stop. When Steve Elliott, the crop duster, came to town, he dated Billie Jo. They made a glamorous couple, but a season or two later, he realized he truly loved Betty Jo, the youngest and the tomboy who helped in repair his plane. They married and had a daughter, Kathy Jo.
In 1967 Smiley Burnette (Charley) passed away. In 1968 Bea became ill and died that year from lung cancer and pneumonia. Bea’s second husband, Gene Twombly, passed away four days later from a heart attack. June Lockhart was brought on to the show as Dr. Janet Craig to help be a mother figure to the girls. Ratings declined in season 6 with the loss of Bea; however, the network renewed the show for another year so there would be five years of colored episodes for syndication. Ratings increased during the last year, but in 1969 when the new administration cancelled all the rural shows, Petticoat Junction received its walking papers too.
There were always rumors that there would be a reunion from the show, but that never happened, although the cast did take on both the Brady Bunch and Leave it toBeaver crews on Family Feud in 1983.
Bea was known for her laugh. By all accounts, she was a kind woman and extremely professional in all her roles. While I enjoy Petticoat Junction, I adore Gracie Allen, and am always happy to indulge myself watching Burns and Allen Show episodes. Bea holds her own on the show and makes a wonderful practical counterpart to Gracie’s illogical logic. If I had a time machine, one of the first visits I would make would be back to 1950 to enjoy a cup of coffee with Gracie and Blanche.